The MaddAddam Trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam), by Margaret Atwood (2003-2013)

“Speculations about what the world would be like after human control of it ended had been — long ago, briefly — a queasy form of popular entertainment.” Queasy, yes, but exhilarating too. The human beings and humanoids of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy lose control of the natural world, then of themselves, in a bloody wonderland of mutant raccoons, endangered-species luxury couture, and ethereal beings with genitalia that turns blue at times of sexual arousal. But Atwood herself never loses control. The trilogy is the rare work of literature in which dread and joy exist in equal — and extreme — measure. —Nathaniel Rich

DISSENT: The Blind Assassin (September 2, 2000)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra (May 7, 2013)

This extraordinary debut novel set in war-torn Chechnya is a feat of empathetic imagination. It makes a compelling case for what literature — and so-called cultural appropriation — can do to transcend our personal experience and reduce the blind spots in our lives. Tolstoyan in its ambition, breadth, and deep humanity, Marra’s portrait of a nation devastated by war — and of a terrified man who risks his life to save a young girl — is harrowing and heartrending, but also brightened by humor and transcendent hopefulness. Taking its title from a medical dictionary’s definition of life, the novel is a constellation of six interwoven points of view — all vital and phenomenally moving. —Heller McAlpin                                      

Taipei, by Tao Lin (June 4, 2013)

Lin came to fame as a blogger and poet with a notoriously blank style. His was the language of the digital native, and when he started writing novels, his detractors saw his attempts to turn the vernacular of the internet into literature as a sort of fraud. With Taipei, his fifth work of fiction, his style evolved into something undeniably sophisticated and often beautiful; he translated the consciousness of a life lived largely online into a new way of describing the world IRL, as mediated by an almost relentless (and relentlessly quantified) intake of pills and powders. One of the book’s central repeated images is a crucial image for our times: the narrator lying on his back and dropping his phone on his own face. —Christian Lorentzen                                      

Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward (September 17, 2013)

Yes, I rate Jesmyn Ward’s 2013 memoir above her two novels, Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing, that won National Book Awards. It’s that good, that important. Well into its third century, the United States has yet to reckon with the death rate of young African-American men, an epidemic hiding in plain sight. Ward, who lost five family members and friends in a four-year span, harnesses her incandescent prose to make a deeply personal story universal. Part of the book’s genius is its nonlinear structure; her peripatetic journey amplifies the doggedness of grief and rage. —Laura Lippman                                      

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma (April 7, 2014)

Shortly after the Mishra family emigrates from Delhi to Queens, their older son dives into a swimming pool and becomes brain dead. The narrator is a young child when the accident occurs, and must navigate the embarrassments of being a recent immigrant as well as the grief that deforms his family. Sharma possesses a rare understanding of psychology and an unsentimental, bleakly comic sensibility. (“You’re sad?” the father says. “I want to hang myself every day.”) Every detail has been burnished and floats precipitously over depths of feeling, while the plot zooms ahead. The point is not to wring meaning out of suffering — Sharma never does — but to bear witness to it. —Christine Smallwood                                      

How to Be Both, by Ali Smith (August 28, 2014)

Scottish writer Ali Smith’s furious yet-to-be-completed seasonal quartet may turn out to be her crowning achievement, but its predecessor, How to Be Both, stands out for its ingeniousness and heart. There’s more than meets the eye in this structurally innovative, two-part novel that encompasses a mother-daughter relationship truncated by unexpected death, a gender-bending Renaissance artist, and a moving exploration of time, mortality, and the consolations of unconventional love, friendship, and art. Smith’s literary double-take models how to be both complex and inviting, linguistically playful and dead serious, mournful and joyous, brainy and tender. —Heller McAlpin                                      

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James (October 2, 2014)

A Brief History is a sweltering chorus of voices, all constellating around the Jamaican musician Bob Marley and an attempt to assassinate him in 1976. James is a brilliant ventriloquist, whether speaking through an angry young woman, a feckless gangster, or a jaded American spy. Like Père Goriot and Our Mutual Friend, this is one of the great city novels, even if not all of it is set in Kingston. It makes the city rise in the reader’s imagination like a leviathan conjured out of talent, desperation, desire, grief, and an unstoppable life force. —Laura Miller                                      

Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish (November 11, 2014)

America’s brutal wars and the inhumanity of its immigration policies come together in this novel, but its real achievement is a transformative vision of New York City. Seen through the eyes of an immigrant from Western China and a traumatized American veteran, the city, especially Queens, comes to seem less the glistening metropolis of the Bloomberg imaginary than a brick-and-mortar wasteland constantly encroached by dust and weeds but possessed of its own strange beauty. It’s a beauty these two still perceive in the face of poverty, hunger, violence, and fear of incarceration because theirs is also a love story. And that may be the most radical thing about Lish’s magnificent novel. —Christian Lorentzen                                      

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (April 7, 2015)

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s recent first novel comes after a career as a leading scholar of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian culture. It is part thriller, part the “Empire Writing Back,” part revenge tragedy, part screed against Apocalypse Now, and the best novel about the Vietnamese diaspora. The form — a series of confessions forced on the narrator by his shadowy prison warden — turns his stories from self-revelation to more complex utterances, adding a level of second-guessing for readers. An exquisite examination of the psyche under duress. —Tom Lutz                                      

The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander (April 21, 2015)

After her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, dies unexpectedly just days after turning 50, poet and essayist Alexander writes, “Now, I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving it, and I saw the body with the soul gone.” In this exquisite account of marriage and widowhood, written with the magical simplicity of a fairy tale, Alexander meditates on her husband’s life as a refugee, an immigrant, an artist, an African man, a father, a son, a husband. —Kate Tuttle                                      

The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (2015-2017)

Jemisin, the first black writer to win sci-fi’s prestigious Hugo Award for best novel, made history again last month, becoming the first author ever to win the prize for each book in a trilogy. Her Broken Earth series, about a warring mother and daughter who each possess the power to incite, or quell, a world-destroying earthquake, is about institutional racism, climate change, and the terrible things the powerful will do to stay powerful. If that sounds a little too close to home, take heart: You’ve never been anywhere quite like the Stillness, a continent scattered with floating crystal obelisks and people who eat stone. Beautifully written, with epic magical battles and earthquakes, these books are literally groundbreaking. —Lila Shapiro                                      

What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell (January 19, 2016)

One of the most exquisite prose performances of the past decade, Greenwell’s first novel partakes in autofiction and the novel of trauma, and his writing about sex eschews the transgressive in favor of an elegiac mode. An American teacher of high school English in Sofia, Bulgaria, narrates a passionate affair with a young man he met in a public toilet. A phone call informs him that, back in Kentucky, his estranged father is dying, prompting a dreamlike series of memories that return him to the awakening of his sexuality in the homophobic heartland. Greenwell is a poet, and his sinuous sentences seem to come from another time. Since it can’t be the past, it must be the future. —Christian Lorentzen                                      

Collected Essays & Memoirs (Library of America edition), by Albert Murray (October 18, 2016)

Murray — renaissance man, blues philosopher, resolute non-victim — was almost criminally overlooked in the previous century. Perhaps this was because he was constitutionally incapable of suffering fools of any complexion and insisted on pointing out the most elemental truths: “The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people,” Murray notes in his masterpiece, The Omni-Americans. We are in desperate need of such lucidity. If the arc of the intellectual universe also bends towards justice, then the Library of America’s canonization will resituate Murray alongside contemporaries James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. —Thomas Chatterton Williams

The Needle’s Eye, by Fanny Howe (November 1, 2016)

Fanny Howe is a poet, a novelist, a memoirist, and one of America’s deepest, most whimsical and emotionally grounded writers. Here she takes the energy of a song like Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” (“There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy …”) and guides us into a meditation on youth and its proclivity to wander and find itself. Moving on that tack, she animates the story of the Boston bombers, two Kyrgyz-Americans whose fraught road to self-knowledge took a turn that killed three people and seriously maimed more than a dozen. It’s a tiny masterpiece, this book, and a gloriously weird read. —Eileen Myles                                      

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag (February 7, 2017)

Written with an economy of means — on just over 100 pages — that puts most nation-spanning epics to shame, Ghachar Ghochar conjures a South Indian family transformed by money in a narrative voice at once inimitable, funny, and filled with dread. The level of effortless glancing detail with which it draws minor characters — like a waiter in a Bangalore coffee house who acts as everyone’s therapist — is extraordinary. That it is one of the few novels translated (beautifully) from Kannada, a language spoken by millions and with its own literary tradition, to be published in the United States says a lot about our literary world’s myopia when it comes to the Indian novel. —Nikil Saval

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (February 28, 2017)

No crossover novel has proven the vitality of YA fiction as an art form more than Angie Thomas’s debut about one teenage girl’s entry into the Black Lives Matter movement. Taking its name from a Tupac Shakur acronym about the ills of systemic racism, The Hate U Give, or, THUG, explores the consequences of police violence against young men of color with more nuance, charm, and levity than you might imagine possible. THUG doesn’t offer easy answers, nor does it portray any of its diverse cast in binary terms, and the fact that it’s been banned in areas of the U.S. just shows how much it has hit a nerve. —Maris Kreizman

All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg (March 7, 2017)

One of the toughest bars to clear in fiction is the novel of connected stories, beautiful parts that add up to a gorgeous whole — and Jami Attenberg soared over it with her sixth book. The protagonist, Andrea, is a person who happens to be a woman who happens to be single who happens to live in Brooklyn. “Why is being single the only thing people think of when they think of me?” Andrea asks her therapist, who instructs her to list the other things she is. “In my head I think: I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh. To my therapist I say, ‘I’m a brunette.’” It’s the kind of novel I keep handy, like a pocket flask, taking little nips to get me through the day. —Laura Lippman

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, by Thi Bui (March 7, 2017)

“How much of ME is my own and how much is stamped into my blood and bone, predestined?” Posed at the end of Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, this is the persistent, yearning question underlying this quietly heartbreaking book. Thi Bui chronicles her family’s journey from Vietnam to America, as well as her own transformation from daughter to mother. Stunningly self-assured, this is epic, intimate history rendered in understated words and images. —Kate Tuttle

Tell Me How it Ends, by Valeria Luiselli (March 13, 2017)

This extraordinary little book is a powerful glimpse of how we extract stories in exchange for safety and belonging in America today. As a volunteer interpreter for migrant children fleeing poverty and violence, Luiselli describes 6- and 7-year-olds asked to perform and interpret their pain for an immigration system that sees a hard border—a border where, for most of Luiselli’s clients, the troubles have just begun. Cycling between her own life in the U.S. as a semi-documented American and mother, the lives of children she helps, and the questionnaire, Luiselli has woven an essential moral text for an age of migration. —John Freeman

Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood (May 2, 2017)

This poet’s memoir is the story of Lockwood’s adult return home when her husband temporarily loses his sight and the couple can no longer pay the rent. They are hipsters exiled to the heartland. Lockwood’s father is a clergyman and a conservative, but the resemblance to his bohemian poet daughter is unmistakable. The family dog is named Whimsy. Priestdaddy is the funniest book yet written about millennial–boomer culture clash. It is also moving in its accounts of Lockwood’s loss of faith, her teenage suicide attempt, and the pain that came with giving up her first love — singing — and then rediscovering herself as a writer. —Christian Lorentzen                                      

Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas (January 16, 2018)

This book follows a handful of female narrators in the Northwest in a future only slightly pushed from now (except for one, a polar explorer who is the biographical subject of one of the narrators) and, in prose that tingles with life and perversity and research and attitude and authenticity, brings them all to life. It’s political speculative fiction in an America where women have lost rights over their bodies and go to Canada to get abortions, crossing what’s come to be known as “the Pink Wall.” It’s brilliant stuff, and the woods surrounding the witchy herbalist character are both glittering and informed. To read this is to feel Leni Zumas knows everything. —Eileen Myles

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson (January 16, 2018)

Once upon a time a hard-living man, Johnson didn’t survive to see the publication of his final collection of stories, but it’s the near equal and spiritual cousin of his immortal Jesus’ Son. These stories flash through unforgettable images (notably a woman leaning in to kiss an amputee veteran’s stump) of men and women wounded by their own wildness. The beauty in Johnson’s stories is the beauty of the broken wing. Elvis and 9/11, junk and jail, hangovers and halfway houses — Johnson was a searcher in a lowlife America that’s largely vanished from our literature. —Christian Lorentzen                                      

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday (February 6, 2018)

On one hand, it would be unfair to consider Asymmetry only through the lens of Philip Roth. Lisa Halliday’s debut novel is bracing and brilliant entirely on its own terms, engrossing as a coming-of-age story and astute in exploring the project of fiction. On the other hand, not to consider it also through the lens of Philip Roth — who was once involved with Halliday and maps readily onto the novel’s Ezra Blazer — is to ignore a clue to what makes Asymmetry so exhilarating. Halliday considers the 20th-century canon from an intimate vantage: She sees not some abstract patriarchy but the patriarchs themselves, with their bypass scars and their tired pick-up lines. She demonstrates that power is never as simple as the familiar binaries of “privilege” might lead you to believe, at least not when it comes to art. —Molly Fischer