As I mentioned in my Favorite Books of 2016 post, 2016 was a fantastic year in reading for me. Honestly, I can’t remember a better year since maybe 2012. The better part of my reading year was filled with four- and five-star books, and not simply because I was being generous. At the same time, several books I expected to love didn’t make the cut. You can see everything I read this year here, but I wanted to cover a few highlights of my reading year that aren’t just about favorites:
The book I finished too late to consider for year-end favorites was The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. This fictional account of Truman Capote and his New York society “swans” was a delightful surprise. If you enjoyed this one, I highly recommend The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne, a fictionalized account of the story of Ann Woodward, the socialite accused of murdering her husband.
The best debut author I read was hands-down Imbolo Mbue. Behold the Dreamers, a novel about a Cameroonian family employed by a Titan of Wall Street just before the 2008 crash, is so powerful that feels like it was written by someone who has already churned out award-winning work. Unlike a lot of novels that deal with contemporary events, I can see this one becoming a book that remains relevant because Mbue seamlessly manages to integrate a timeless story about wanting a better life with current events, events that never overshadow the more intimate drama of a husband and wife’s struggles to get ahead. It got some good attention, but I don’t think it got nearly enough. I look forward to reading her next book. She will most definitely be a writer to watch.
Another book I thought deserved more attention was The Unseen World by Liz Moore. Ada Sibelius’s father, the only parent she has ever known, is beginning to lose his mind. In the midst of this crisis, she learns a family secret that sends her on a mission to learn the truth about her father. Moore never lets Ada’s story veer into melodrama, nor does she turn the eccentric Ada into a silly caricature of quirkiness. Moore is a quiet writer, developing deep, original characters without sacrificing plot. I also recommend her novel Heft.
A book from my TBR pile that made quite an impression on me was Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. I bought it used five or six years ago after browsing through the (virtual) bargain bins on Better World Books, and then I promptly stuck it on the shelf and forgot about it, probably in favor of something new and shiny everyone was discussing. This is another debut novel, although Lawson, a Canadian, was 56 when it was published (hope for us all). It tells the story of the four Morrison children, whose parents are tragically killed in a car accident at the beginning of the book. The novel has an unreliable narrator in Kate Morrison, who has very definite ideas about how the family tragedy has shaped everything in their lives. This novel is an interesting and often quietly humorous look at how family roles and myths can lock us into patterns that may actually have nothing at all to do with what really happened.
I re-read three books this year, M Train by Patti Smith, You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon, and Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips. I loved every single one of these books the first time around, and I’m happy to say they remained five-star reads. Re-reading M Train was like visiting a favorite friend, and I suspect it’s a book I could re-read every year without tiring of it. In 2017 I am planning to re-read Just Kids (more on that in a forthcoming “Looking Forward” post), but I may make room for both. I originally read You Remind Me of Me in 2005, on two long plane trips to and from Las Vegas. Like Kent Haruf or Bonnie Nadzam, Chaon is one of those writers who beautifully crafts the small stories of people in the so-called flyover states. Machine Dreams was Phillips’s (probably best known for her novel Lark & Termite) debut novel, and it covers the years from WWII through Vietnam, giving us the changing face of a nation and times through the stories of family of four in small-town West Virginia.
Thirty-six of the fifty-five books I’ve read this year were by new-to-me authors. Of those books, the best surprises were All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt, and A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. All My Puny Sorrows sounded like a book I would love from the get-go (because who doesn’t love books about suicide, really?), but the humor was completely unexpected. The latter two were both definitely outside my wheelhouse and were books I picked up because they were generating so much buzz with readers I trust. Mr. Splitfoot is absolutely grounded and magical at the same time, and Hunt never gives over to too much weirdness or too much explanation. A Head Full of Ghosts is supremely clever, even for those of us who aren’t horror fans, with fully realized characters and an overall interesting take on family narratives. Oh, and also an honorable mention for Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which didn’t surprise me so much but did delight me to no end.
Thirty-one of the fifty-five books I read were by women, but only a lousy seven were by non-white authors, which is an issue I realized late in the year. To tell the truth, it makes me squeamish to count such things, though, because it makes me feel like I am patting myself on the back and congratulating myself on what a good little white person I am. That said, I realize I need to be more aware. The main thing I plan to do in 2017 is purchase books by non-white authors, so I can vote with my dollar and tell publishers what kind of books I want to see them publish. Except for books by favorite authors, when it comes to white authors I’ll probably start using the library more frequently. As much as I’d love to BUY ALL THE BOOKS, I have too many unread books right now to justify buying more unless the purchase makes a meaningful statement in some way. Given the recently announced Simon & Schuster decision to give a book contract to a white supremacist, I think voting with our wallets is more important than ever.
Only four of the books I read got two-star ratings: Siracusa by Delia Ephron, The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, and Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. Siracusa and The Kind Worth Killing were on a lot of people’s favorites lists, but for me they both fell flat. The characters in both novels were unlikable and two-dimensional, and their motives were dumb. Still, I have to give credit where it’s due: The Kind Worth Killing had a very tightly plotted pace that kept me turning pages almost against my will. We Are Not Ourselves started out strong but quickly became a drag, as it has one of the most insufferable protagonists…and it started to get sloppy. At one point late in the novel, a main character suddenly has a sister, even though early in the novel it’s explained that he only has a brother. And Empire of the Summer Moon, a non-fiction account of the Comanche in Texas that won the Pulitzer, was shocking because it’s written from a very solid, Western, Christian, thank-goodness-the-whites-came point of view. I stopped at page 61, but up to that point the pages are flagged and underlined and marked with my notes exhorting my disbelief. Check out this little nugget: “This the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains happened as though in a time warp–as though the former were looking back thousands of years at premoral, pre-christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves.” Because morality did not exist until Christians, y’all.
My other biggest disappointments were This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell and the third novel in the Elena Ferrante trilogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. This Must Be the Place barely escaped getting a two-star rating from me because it also had an implausible situation at its core and dull characters. I loved The Hand That First Held Mine so much, I had been looking forward to this one since it was announced. And with the Ferrante, I’m not sure what happened. My Brilliant Friend was breathtaking, but the longer the story went on in the third novel, the more it felt like listening to a friend who has a creep of a partner who makes her miserable but whom she refuses to leave. However, the books are interesting from a sociological standpoint, and Ferrante is very good at putting a reader right in the moment without succumbing to melodrama.
In other sort of bookish news, I finally finished The Gilmore Girls, including A Year in the Life. I’m not going to give away any hints about the ending, but I will say I found it kind of disappointing. Seasons 2-4 remain my favorite, and ultimately my favorite character will always be Emily.
I’ll be back soon with a look forward at all the bookish plans I have for 2017. Happy New Year to you all!