Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Favorite Reads, 2016

For some time, I’ve been averaging a little more than one book a week, but this year I finished just an even forty. There are a couple of reasons for this. One: I read several longer books, and slogged through some other books that seemed to take a long time because I hated them (they will remain unnamed). And two: I did some of the writing I was procrastinating about in 2015, when I read seventy books. I think this is a respectable reason.   

I’ve chosen twelve books as my favorite reads of the year, and two honorable mentions. So fourteen, total, to recommend. Eleven are novels and three are collections of short stories. As always, these aren’t necessarily 2016 releases, but merely books I read during the calendar year. And without further accounting, here they are:
If I had to choose a "reading event" of 2016, it would have to be the Elena Ferrante novels. As many, many readers before me have already discovered, the story of the friendship between Lila and Elena is dizzyingly addictive, a feast of sights, sounds and drama. Ferrante's portrait of 1950s-to-present-day Naples is one for the ages. It's not often you read something you feel is a major work of the century but in my opinion, these novels will stay and stay and stay. All four were good but I particularly loved #2:
The Story of a New Name (2013) by Elena Ferrante
and #4:
The Story of the Lost Child (2015) by Elena Ferrante
Another big reading/writing event of my year would be meeting the acclaimed writer Richard Bausch, and being fortunate enough to participate in his writing workshop. But before that happened, I had already read this story collection and was as impressed with it as I was with the one that made my favorite list in 2015.
Something is Out There (2010) by Richard Bausch

Quietly and resolutely, with careful attention to people and their foibles, Bausch has a way of getting to what he says should be the genesis of every story--what the trouble is. Relationships and regret, longings and mistakes: his characters are our neighbors and friends, our family. And through all the trouble, always a glimmer of hope. Beautiful writing.
 All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr
I challenge you to find someone who read this Pulitzer-Prize-winning best-seller and wasn't completely enraptured by it. Because I can't. And enraptured I was. This story of a blind French girl and a German boy during World War II has absolutely everything you could ever want in a novel. Beautiful writing, amazing scope, unforgettable characters. A stunning achievement, truly.
The Remnants (2016) by Robert Hill
A quote: Wandering is as much rootedness as aimlessness as ambition. Had the screech in the night not drawn dweller out of his dark cave, nor hunger, nor a tingle in his loins that pointed the way to something he couldn’t quite put his opposable thumb on, he’d have grown restless on his haunches no matter what and been out of that rock hold just because out was not in. It’s the need for a single moment to shift in shape if only slightly from now to then, here to there, this to that…that compels the every twitch, blink, sniff, step and reach.
 Here's my review for The Rumpus of this difficult-to-describe, utterly unique novel.
The Door (1987) by Magda Szabó
The narrator of this novel is a writer whose work, along with that of her writer husband, has been banned by the Hungarian government. But the ban has been recently lifted; they sequester themselves in a village to write. The wife sets out to find a housekeeper, and her relationship over many years with the older woman she hires is the focus of the novel. It's a flawed, complicated union, one that put me in mind of Ferrante's Lila and Elena, in the many ways these two women are inextricably joined. The novel was recently brought to a U.S. audience with a 2015 edition courtesy of New York Review of Books Classics.
The Keepers of the House (1964) by Shirley Ann Grau
This modern classic focuses on the Howland family, denizens of the American south, and keepers of their sprawling estate and many secrets. A novel of haunting imagery and poetic flashes, it reads at times like the best suspense novel. A classic that well deserves its continuing audience.
Thirteen Ways of Looking (2016) by Colum McCann
This collection is comprised of three stories and the title novella, the story of an elderly judge's final day and the converging forces that conspire to end him. In "Sh'khol," a mother keens and searches for her special needs son, who has disappeared after a swim off the coast of their home in Ireland. McCann's characters weather the forces of fate, while clinging to what hope remains.
 The Cove (2012) by Ron Rash
It's hard not to think of Carson McCullers when a mute flautist enters center stage in Rash's novel set in 1950s North Carolina. Rash writes with the same spare intensity, the same attention to the quiet, everyday moments that define life. Laurel and her brother live alone out by a murky cove. She is believed to be a witch; he has lost a limb in the war. When the mute enters their lonely existence, their world spins apart. I suppose it isn't a perfect novel but because of the sheer force of it, I didn't care.
The Beauty of Ordinary Things (2013) by Harriet Scott Chessman
This novel slowly reveals the connection between Benny, a soldier recently returned from Vietnam and Sister Clare, who is also adjusting to a new normal as she becomes accustomed to cloistered life. This slender book packs so much humanity, spirit and grace into its pages, with writing you'll want to savor and illuminating moments that leave an indelible impression. A lovely read.
Fourth of July Creek (2014) by Smith Henderson
Pete Snow lives in an impoverished area of rural Montana, trying to make a difference to dysfunctional families in his role as a social worker. Trouble is, his own family is falling apart too. I raced through the first 2/3 of this book on a long flight, entirely transported by the often-dark world and the characters Henderson depicts. Abuses and neglect, bad decisions and lack of self-control; at times the story felt like a tanker headed to an iceberg. And although the final sections of the book tied up in ways that disappointed me, it couldn't diminish the punch of the rest.
Alberto's Lost Birthday (2016) by Diana Rosie
Alberto has no memories prior to his arrival at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. When his young grandson discovers that Alberto doesn’t know the date of his birthday, the two set out on a journey to find it. This was my third read of this wonderful story, because Diana is an acquaintance from the former authonomy.com, where we met while trying to get our novels published. I was thrilled to discover hers, finally, in a bookshop at the Barcelona airport when I passed through this summer. I wrote about it here.

100 Years of the Best American Short Stories (2015), Lorrie Moore, editor

One of my longer reads of the year and because it's a sundry collection of stories, difficult to choose as an overall favorite. There were stories that knocked my socks off and several I had a hard time getting through. I suppose with any edited collection, there will be disagreement about the choices. Many of the stories here are stellar, though, and well worth the hardcover price.
Outline (2015) by Rachel Cusk

A book I can't stop thinking about, unlike any novel I've ever read. Readers will love it or hate it but like me, I think you'll be unable to shake it. A novel for writers that feels at time like a puzzle, at others like a tease. Wholly intriguing.
 As always, I'd love to hear your favorites of the year because what's a To-Be-Read pile, if it isn't completely unachievable? Happy reading in the new year!
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka