Joe O’Connell’s Top Reads of 2017
These three novels and one memoir are all memorable for the ways they plumb the depths and mysteries of memory
Reviewed by Joe O'Connell, Fri., Dec. 29, 2017
Memories are "no more solid than dreams," Dan Chaon writes in his novel Ill Will (Ballantine), my favorite book of 2017. I sent Chaon a gushy fan email years ago after reading his short story "Big Me," which links together three worlds inhabited by one troubled and very unreliable character. Ill Will follows the same path with its tale of a family murder muddled by a satanic hysteria bubbling in the late Eighties. Who is the bad guy? What is the truth? Chaon doesn't so much write a novel as piece together a beautiful collage.
Another favorite is Fresh Complaint (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the first-ever story collection from Pulitzer-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides. The American dream, its allure and its grinding failures, slithers through the book like a tendril choking its aging yet vaguely hopeful characters. In the story "Great Experiment," a poet turned publishing-house worker rationalizes embezzlement. In Houston-set "Find the Bad Guy," an estranged husband lurks outside his family home trying to figure out why everything fell apart. In my favorite story, "Complainers," a longtime much-younger friend rescues a woman disappearing into dementia.
My favorite Texas book of the year is Carolyn Osborn's memoir Durations (Wings Press). She writes of a Tennessee childhood cut short when her mother is institutionalized after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. World War II then necessitated frequent moves for her soldier father. Osborn landed in Gatesville with a new Texas life and a powerful, loving stepmother, but a longing remained. The experience tied her to the Texas land and its people and proved a source for her long, successful career as a fiction writer.
In Jeff Abbott's Austin-set thriller Blame (Grand Central Publishing), a woman suffers amnesia after a car crash that kills her friend. In the taut novel, her search for the truth reveals she is not without blame.