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Best books of 2017: 'Lincoln in the Bardo,' 'Killers of the Flower Moon' and more

Drum roll, please: We’ve gone back over the year’s book reviews to find the titles that Newsday reviewers liked best. What follows are 10 books — five nonfiction, five fiction — that entertained, educated, surprised, moved or astonished us in 2017. Special bonus: Any of them would make a great holiday gift.
 

'Improvement,' by Joan Silber

Some books make evangelists of critics, and Silber's
Photo Credit: Counterpoint

Some books make evangelists of critics, and Silber’s eighth book is one of them. Written with minimalist mastery and maximum feeling, the novel circles a number of characters linked — sometimes closely, sometimes not — to Reyna, a tattooed single mom in New York. What do we want out of life? How do we hold on to love? How do we get over it? Silber, a writer’s writer who deserves a wider audience, explores big questions with subtlety, humor and compassion. “’Improvement’ is an everyday masterpiece,” writes reviewer Tom Beer. (Counterpoint, $26)

'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,' by Arundhati Roy

This dense, vibrant novel -- overflowing with characters,
Photo Credit: Knopf

This dense, vibrant novel — overflowing with characters, subplots and references to Indian history, politics, culture — is the first fiction from Booker Prize-winner Roy (“The God of Small Things”) in two decades. Chief among its glories are Roy’s two protagonists: intersex outcast Anjum, who has taken up residence in an Old Delhi graveyard, and Musa, an unorthodox woman entangled by a lover in the Kashmiri struggle for independence. Reviewer Tom Beer calls it “an exhilarating read, one that reminds you what great fiction can accomplish.” (Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95)

'Manhattan Beach,' by Jennifer Egan

No one expected a historical novel from the
Photo Credit: Scribner

No one expected a historical novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” known for her literary adventurousness. But this richly imagined tale of a young woman working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard during World War II is so expertly plotted and so evocatively written that all but the crustiest of critics will fall under its sway. Along with Anna Kerrigan’s apprenticeship as the yard’s first female diver, Egan plumbs the mystery of what happened to Anna’s father, the gofer to a corrupt union boss, who disappeared years earlier. In her review, Katherine A. Powers dubs it “one of the standouts of the year.” (Scribner, $28)

'Lincoln in the Bardo,' by George Saunders

Known for crazy brilliant story collections such as
Photo Credit: Random House

Known for crazy brilliant story collections such as “Tenth of December,” Saunders came out of the gate this year with a first novel that wowed critics and took home the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Set in a Washington, D.C., cemetery during the Civil War, it is constructed something like a play, with a collage of quotations and fictional dialogue from a chorus of ghosts who observe Abraham Lincoln pay a nighttime visit to his son, dead from typhoid fever at age 11. “Historical fiction will never be the same,” writes reviewer Marion Winik. (Random House, $28.95)

'Sing, Unburied, Sing,' by Jesmyn Ward

In her National Book Award-winning third novel, Ward
Photo Credit: Scribner

In her National Book Award-winning third novel, Ward returns to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, setting for “Salvage the Bones” (which won the author her first National Book Award). This road-trip story is narrated alternately by 13-year-old JoJo and his melancholy drug-addicted mother as they drive north to greet JoJo’s white father when he is released from the state penitentiary. A ghostly third narrator, embodying the region’s tragic history, haunts the family. Reviewer Tom Beer praises the novel’s characters, “drawn by Ward with sympathy and insight.” (Scribner, $26)

'Grant,' by Ron Chernow

Long caricatured as drunk and scandal-plagued, Ulysses S.
Photo Credit: Penguin Press

Long caricatured as drunk and scandal-plagued, Ulysses S. Grant — Civil War general and 18th U.S. president — was due for reassessment. He finds a clear-eyed but sympathetic champion in Chernow, known for his biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. Chernow chronicles Grant’s roller-coaster career and highlights his commitment to rights for blacks. The book, writes reviewer Matthew Price, “convincingly restores Grant to the pantheon of great Americans.” (Penguin Press, $40)

'The Future Is History,' by Masha Gessen

Few nonfiction books this year were more timely
Photo Credit: Riverhead

Few nonfiction books this year were more timely than Gessen’s exploration, as the subtitle puts it, of “How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.” A Russian-born journalist now living in the United States and the author of a biography of Vladimir Putin, Gessen explores the decline of free society in her homeland in the 26 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the resistance of ordinary Russians to Putin’s stranglehold. Reviewer Mary Ann Gwinn calls the National Book Award-winning title “a plunge into the deep end of a very cold pool.” (Riverhead, $28)

'Killers of the Flower Moon,' by David Grann

Who was responsible for the murder spree that
Photo Credit: Doubleday

Who was responsible for the murder spree that killed dozens of men and women of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma during the 1920s? Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of “The Lost City of Z” digs deep into this disturbing, little-known story of oil, money, racism and corruption — one that caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling FBI but was only partially solved. In his review, Matthew Price writes that “Grann’s reporting and archival sleuthing ballast a powerful account.” (Doubleday, $28.95)

'Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,' by Roxane Gay

Essayist, fiction writer, critic, TED talker and Twitter
Photo Credit: Harper

Essayist, fiction writer, critic, TED talker and Twitter gadfly, Gay provokes and enlightens in any format. Here she offers an honest accounting of her body — the body of a 6-foot-3 black woman who, in her 20s, came to weigh 577 pounds. At age 12, Gay was raped by a group of boys — one of them a friend — and she ate her way to a large, “safer” body as a way of handling the shame. Gay makes of this deeply personal story a meditation on black bodies in public space. “Searing, smart, readable and sometimes unbearable,” writes reviewer Karen R. Long. (Harper, $25.99)

'An Odyssey,' by Daniel Mendelsohn

It doesn't seem like a good idea for
Photo Credit: Alfred A. Knopf

It doesn’t seem like a good idea for a college professor to invite his elderly dad to audit a class. But out of that potentially cringeworthy experience — and there is cringing — comes this elegant and heartfelt memoir. Mendelsohn, author of “The Elusive Embrace” and “The Lost,” teaches classics at Bard, and 81-year-old Jay Mendelsohn drove from Old Bethpage to join the weekly discussion of Homer’s great epic — a book, like this one, that has much to say about fathers, sons and inheritances. Reviewer Dan Cryer calls it “by turns cerebral, lively and poignant.” (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95)

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