Some of the personal reading I did included books that happened to shed light on our current moment, but they turned out to be older and therefore not beholden to it. Collections of essays by Hannah Arendt and James Baldwin, John Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America.” Barry’s book, about the 1918 flu pandemic, was maybe as newsy as it got.
SEHGAL Novels are news, style is news. (Sometimes even more so than the surfeit of unutterably dull Trump books, each more repetitive than the last.) I have never read anything quite like the brilliantly pessimistic fiction of the Croatian writer Dasa Drndic; her treatment of historical amnesia, of political despair and shame, felt blazingly new. When it comes to watching writers metabolize “this moment,” I was impressed by Megha Majumdar’s novel “A Burning,” on rising extremism in India. I was also moved by novelists grappling with how to write most effectively about climate change — Emily Raboteau, Lydia Millet, Amitav Ghosh and Jenny Offill come to mind.
What were some of the books published this year that you didn’t review but admired?
SEHGAL I had my head turned a thousand times. Brian Dillon’s stylish celebration of close reading, “Suppose a Sentence,” has taken up permanent residence on my night stand. I keep loaning out copies of Deesha Philyaw’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” and having to order replacements. As an obsessive rereader, I feel like Vivian Gornick wrote “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader” with only me in mind. Namwali Serpell’s “Stranger Faces” is breathtakingly smart and original. Garth Greenwell’s “Cleanness” contains some of the most sublime writing on desire I’ve read in years. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s monograph “Fly in League With the Night” featured my favorite character of the year: the inscrutable woman with the cropped hair and abundant secrets from the painting “No Such Luxury.” I’ll never tire of looking at her.
GARNER Kevin Young’s anthology “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song” is a must. I miss Christopher Hitchens (his memoir, “Hitch-22,” is a near-perfect audiobook) and thus pounced on Martin Amis’s new novel, “Inside Story,” which I liked very much. Two other books I admired, out of Appalachia: Christa Parravani’s memoir “Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood” and Emma Copley Eisenberg’s “The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia.”
SZALAI I thought Kim Ghattas’s “Black Wave” was fascinating and so elegantly done — a readable history of Saudi Arabia and Iran over the last few decades that also carefully elucidates the regional politics of the Middle East. Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland” was terrific, a fitting capstone to his quartet about American conservatism. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s “The Undocumented Americans” explores the most difficult and least talked about parts of people’s lives, including her own. I inhaled Danez Smith’s “Homie” after Parul, in her review, recounted her desire for new adjectives to describe the startling originality of what she’d just read.
Did anyone in particular disappoint you?
SZALAI I don’t really want to call out anyone for special opprobrium in a year that’s undoubtedly been tough for everyone — but I’ll make an exception for John Bolton, whose highly anticipated book managed to be maddening, boring, damning, self-serving and evasive, all at once.
GARNER Here I will prove, once again, that I am not nearly as good a person as Jennifer is. “Disappoint” is the wrong word, but two of our best young novelists — Catherine Lacey and Ottessa Moshfegh — delivered new books this year that were knuckle balls, books with which some readers (this one, at any rate) found it hard to connect. You sense them tentatively moving into new territories, expanding their visions, and I look forward to whatever each does next. I finally closely read a Colum McCann novel, “Apeirogon,” this year, and could not believe how much it was not for me.