01 January 2017

Best Books of 2016

Uh-oh. I think that ship has sailed.

What a wondrous year of books we’ve had! I think I’ve finally reached some kind of reading equilibrium, which is a relief after my nadir of reading in 2015.  I’m back to an average of a little over one book per week, which I think is a rate I’ll be able to sustain.

One of the upsides of reading fewer books on average is being more particular about what I do finish. I’ve been paying attention to things like diversity and books in translation for several years, but this is the first year where they’ve been a pretty good percentage of my overall reading. Here are my stats for 2016, followed by my favorite books that I’ve read this year, some of which won’t be published until 2017.  Percentages add up to more than 100% percent because books can fall into multiple categories.

Total books completed: 64
Books by men: 27 (42%)
Books by women: 37 (58%)
Books by non-binary gender: one (that I know of)

Fiction: 55 (86%)
Nonfiction: 9 (14%)

Short Stories: 3 (5%)
Fan fiction (novel length): 4 (6%)
For YA or middle grade: 7 (11%)
In translation: 6 (9%)
Re-reads: 8 (13%)
Diversify-Your-Life: 19 (30%)
(by which I mean books written by and/or featuring main characters of color, or on the LGBTQ spectrum, or otherwise featuring characters with under-representation in literature)

The best book by far that I read this year was Homegoing.  It’s one of the few books that I have written a full length review of here in recent times. The writing is good, but the structure and craft here are among the best I’ve ever seen. The fact that this is Yaa Gyasi’s first novel is astonishing.  

The others, in chronological order of when I read them, are:

Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. This novel in verse begins with the death of a wife and mother, told through the eyes of her surviving husband, her two sons, and, unexpectedly, a Crow. Crow, one part trickster god, one part guardian, and wholly unpredictable, descends upon this fractured family to watch over them in their grief and guide them back to the land of the living. Some of Porter’s phrases and descriptions startled me with their clarity and undid me with their simple and unexpected poignancy.

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock. I didn’t think I needed another book about cancer, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Alice and Oliver are the perfect young New York couple with a newborn baby…until Alice collapses over Thanksgiving dinner. This is the saga of their lives, in all of their messy, devastating glory, as they do battle with cancer, treatments, and the byzantine bylaws of health insurance in our country.  The writing is fresh, unexpected, and so unflinchingly honest that I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was based on the author’s own experiences. This book broke my heart on several levels, but there is so much humanity at its core that I fell in love with it, too.  

The Sport of Kings by C E Morgan. Geography of place combines with the ongoing legacy of slavery and racism to create a powerful, sweeping saga. Thoroughbred racing and breeding have irrevocably shaped the lives of the Forge clan, scions of Lexington, KY, but they have had an even greater impact on the lives of Allmon Shaughnessy and Rueben Bedford Walker III, two of the Forges’ employees. They all pin their hopes on Hellsmouth, the filly destined for greatness, but at what cost? Morgan’s ambitious novel is great in its reach, and the sheer lyricism of her prose will have you underlining text on every page. This book is magnificent, and while it is not perfect, it comes pretty close to achieving the status of a Great American Novel.

Mischling by Affinity Konar. It’s difficult to imagine a more horrific subject for a novel than the sadistic experiments Dr.Mengele performed on twins in Auschwitz, but debut author Konar manages to craft something magnificent from such dark origins. Pearl and Stasha tell their stories in alternating chapters, each twin doing her utmost to protect her sister in the camp, their shared history almostenough to create their belief in a shared future on the other side. Konar’s language is so fresh and inventive, even occasionally playful, that it creates a powerful and shocking juxtaposition against the narrative. This author is going places, and after reading this book, I will want to be along for the ride. Every. Single. Time.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  This was an audio book that I purchased for the specific purpose of driving home from Portland, ME one weekend.  It was the perfect length.  I figured that I would like this book and find it both moving and anger-inducing, and I was spot-on about that.  But what I wasn’t expecting about this book was the sheer lyricism of the prose.  Really beautifully written. The author reads it himself. I highly recommend this one.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.  This is a quiet novel, especially compared to Bel Canto or State of Wonder.  It opens on a fateful day in LA -- a community comes together for a christening, but their lives are forever changed when the husband of one family falls in love with the wife of another. We see the parents and the children across the years and the consequences and emotional fallout wrought by that first infidelity.  Very good.  Patchett often sneaks up on the reader with her writing and insights.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  It would take a major literary player like Colson Whitehead to reinterpret the Underground Railroad in such a literal way and get away with it.  This latest Oprah honoree takes a staple of the slave narrative and creates metafiction with it. Following the lives of Cora and Caesar, two runaway slaves whose stories constantly intertwine, Whitehead never shies away from the terrible realities of slavery while creating a story that is at once hopeful and honest. Elegant and readable, this is a rare novel that has garnered as much literary acclaim as it has reader enthusiasm.

You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris. This slender tome began as a social media viral sensation. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, one husband and father wrote an open letter to the authors of those attacks, stating time and again that they would not have his hate, despite the fact that he lost his wife and the mother of their infant son. This memoir closely follows the hours after the attack, chronicling his thoughts and emotions for the next several days through the funeral for his wife. Though brief, this is a powerful meditation on grief and resilience and the importance of building a legacy of forgiveness for his son.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  Gosh, I don’t have a blurb or review for this one yet, which is terrible because it’s really, really good.  This is the first book on my Best Of 2016 list that actually won’t be published until this year. March, to be exact. Hamid is a terrific writer who takes on topical subjects in his novels.  This one is a curious look at refugees, following Nadia and Saeed from an unnamed Middle Eastern country through a series of waysides until they settle again, more or less permanently, in a place not far from what is now San Francisco. This novel explores civil unrest and societal change, and it presents the way refugees move from one location to another with magical realism, but the overall effect and statement is an all-too-real realism. 

American War by Omar El Akkad. Alas, the same applies here.  I’ve nothing prepared for this one, either, and it will be published in April of this year. Debut novel that explores a post apocalyptic setting in 21st century America where certain Southern states have seceded over the use of gasoline. A young girl whose family is scattered and destroyed in a refugee camp becomes a trained assassin for a rebel resistance movement. Decades later, her nephew (through whom the story is told in retrospect) only begins to understand his aunt’s legacy and his family’s burden of history.
Moonglow by Michael Chabon. Chabon’s latest novel drapes loosely over a non-fiction structural conceit in a very meta way – where the narrator is a character named Michael Chabon who sits at his grandfather’s deathbed and records all of his stories. Spanning most of the 20th century, and bookended with world wars and rocketry,  this novel’s warm, rueful tone, its flirtation with the allure of science fiction, and its ultimate themes of conflict, love, madness, and loss across generations all combine to showcase Chabon at the top of his form.  Top that off with the prose, which is as luminous as this title might suggest, and you’ve got one helluva read.