What I Read in 2016: Reviews + Recommendations
Apparently, I'm a glutton for punishment. And enlightenment. That's the other part.
As I wrote this, I realized for instance just how many (greatly enjoyable, heartbreaking, masterfully written etc. etc. etc.) books I read this year that are set during WWII. I read The Handmaid's Tale during a Trump presidential run. Infinite Jest (all nine pounds of it) slid off my lap on my long subway commutes. It was a hard year and a year of hard reading: fitting.
I wouldn't trade it. This year, I discovered a new novel to sit among my 2-3 all time favorites, new authors to join the ranks of Woolf and Fitzgerald in my heart and intellect, and hundreds of characters to fill my imagination.
In no particular order, then, reviews and recommendations. I hope they inspire your own reading list in 2017:
My Life in Middlemarch // Rebecca Mead
An extremely pleasant account of the author's exploration of how George Eliot's book impacts her own life over the course of decades. Written with clear love and affection for the novel and its author, and blending personal anecdotes with historical and literary fact, it is a testament to the power of passion for authors.
Read it if: you're in love with England or its 19th century women authors.
Quote: “What's your favorite book?' is a question that is usually only asked by children and banking identity-verification services--and favorite isn't, anyway, the right word to describe the relationship a reader has with a particularly cherished book. Most serious readers can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one that Middlemarch has in mine.”
NW // Zadie Smith
I only got into Zadie Smith in the last two years (thanks to my boyfriend dragging me kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and the post-1950s 20th one). This is the second of hers I've read, and while I didn't enjoy it quite as much as White Teeth, I appreciated its honest look into London's racial and class-based social systems.
Read it if: you like Zadie and a bit of a challenge.
Quote: “Not everyone wants this conventional little life you’re rowing your boat toward. I like my river of fire. And when it’s time for me to go I fully intend to roll off my one-person dinghy into the flames and be consumed. I'm not afraid.”
Gilead // Marilynne Robinson
Where do I begin? This book was my favorite of the year, and I have the feeling it will become the guiding book of my early thirties. The prose is beautiful and gentle, the story consistently humanity-affirming and heartbreaking. It is a book of small moments and big questions. I cried for at least a half hour upon finishing it: it's one of those.
Read it if: you're a human trying to grasp at your place in the universe.
Quote: “There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?”
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay // Michael Chabon
This was incredibly fun. I am a well-documented connoisseur of all literature WWII, but this one was special given its American setting and Chabon's elastic voice. I also appreciated the book as a love letter to our ever-evolving friendship between cousins, one of the more unique relationships we have in our lives.
Read it if: the idea of adventure and romance and comic books on a grand scale appeals to you.
Quote: “The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.”
Life After Life // Kate Atkinson
In spite of being my "downshift after finishing Infinite Jest" read, this was an unexpectedly affecting read. The book follows a young woman named Ursula through the many possible versions of her life and death across 6 possible decades (one scenario, for instance, has her dying in the Battle of Berlin; another in the Blitz). The structure is perhaps the most artful I've encountered this year, and maybe ever.
Read it if: you're not terribly literal and you like to think about stuff like alternate universes.
Quote: “No point in thinking, you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.”
The Witches of Eastwick // John Updike
My first Updike! I have a master's in women's studies, so really, how was I NOT going to love this one? Centered on three witch-friends in a small New England town and their experience with the enigmatic trickster-man who purchases a mansion in the vicinity. Extremely funny (maybe wickedly so) and feminist to the utmost -- I'll say it.
Read it if: you enjoy some wry humor and hot tubs.
Quote: “Some people find fall depressing, others hate spring. I've always been a spring person myself. All that growth, you can feel Nature groaning, the old bitch; she doesn't want to do it, not again, no, anything but that, but she has to. It's a fucking torture rack, all that budding and pushing, the sap up the tree trunks, the weeds and the insects getting set to fight it out once again, the seeds trying to remember how the hell the DNA is supposed to go, all that competition for a little bit of nitrogen; Christ, it's cruel.”
City of Thieves // David Benioff
I know, another WWII-centered tale, this one set in Leningrad. Many stories of the war revolve around a missed opportunity or chance encounter that puts the subject at risk, or sends them on a mission -- the collective idea here being that it's impossible to predict the plot of one's life in a conflict of this magnitude. This one is no different, as two young men are thrown into a quest for eggs that takes them behind enemy lines.
Read it if: you have a 6-hour flight coming up.
Quote: “This is good, life must continue, we are fighting barbarians, but we must remain human.”
Every Man Dies Alone // Hans Fallada
This was a difficult read emotionally, for many different reasons. One of them being that I read and finished it during the height of the election. It was frightening then, and even more so now that Orange Turdface is coming to real power. This book is about a married couple in Berlin during the height of Nazi power, and the choice they make to resist in their own small way. While the style is journalistic in nature, it is still a powerful and intimate study of character and relationships. It forced me to confront the ways in which I myself would or wouldn't be willing to defend truth in the face of hate.
Read it if: you have the stomach for it under President Trump -- it's an important read on resistance and free speech.
Quote: “Not that she's a political animal, she's just an ordinary woman, but as a woman she's of the view that you don't bring children into the world to have them shot.”
The Fortress of Solitude // Jonathan Lethem
A rollicking, pop-culture-filled trip primarily through Brooklyn As It Used To Be in the 1970s; a story of two male friends and their lives over the decades. Any book that references the Beatles and Star Wars on the same page has my whole-hearted endorsement.
Read it if: you enjoy a good Bildungsroman as much as the next guy, and/or you are a fan of 60s and 70s music.
Quote: 'You don't get it. That's just a superficial coincidence. The Beatle thing is an archetype, it's like the basic human formation. Everything naturally forms into a Beatles, people can't help it.'
'Say the types again.'
'Responsible-parent genius-parent genius-child clown-child.'
'Okay, do Star Wars.'
'Luke Paul, Han Solo John, Chewbacca George, the robots Ringo.'
'Uh, Johnny Carson Paul, the guest John, Ed McMahon Ringo, whatisname George.'
Thirteen Ways of Looking // Colum McCann
Alongside Marilynne Robinson, Colum McCann is my major author discovery of the year. Short stories aren't normally my bag, but what can I say: my boyfriend knows me better than I do sometimes. I came home from a trip to this wrapped on my desk, and I absolutely devoured it. McCann is inventive with him images and words, and tender toward his well-drawn characters. I greatly enjoyed this collection and can't wait to read more from him.
Read it if: a non-committal introduction to a new master author sounds great and/or you were raised Catholic.
Quote: “She could feel the coolness, a whole childhood of it, falling through her. Rain on the coral beach in Galway. White tennis balls on the broken court. Her brother at his shortwave radio. A nest of wires and voices. Her father's cattle huddled on a laneway. The broken church bell. A grass verge of green in the laneway. High windows. Too tall for the school chairs. The milk came in small silver cans. She would not cry or whimper. She had always refused him that.”
The Handmaid's Tale // Margaret Atwood
How I got this far without reading (or perhaps 'confronting' is a better word) this one is beyond me. In a dystopian-but-not-unimaginable future, women are drafted into different castes based on their reproductive status and potential, nightmarishly subjugated and assigned to men. The book traces the rebellion of one such woman, a 'handmaid' forced into religiously sanctioned reproductive servitude. There is no way to read this as a woman without a slight panic, a recognition of everything that hangs in the balance for us still, just beneath the surface. Important, therefore. So important.
Read it if: you are a woman or a friend of women.
Quote: “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
H is for Hawk // Helen Macdonald
I had the pleasure of starting this memoir in the Catskills, which definitely enriched my experience of it. This is the account of how the author's youthful obsession with falconry turns into her balm for her adult grief at the loss of her father. Between the nature and the mourning, I closed this book feeling more grounded and more at one with everything that is (the beer and the creek may also have played a part).
Read it if: you're into the woods, or wonder why other people are.
Quote: “Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.”
So We Read On // Maureen Corrigan
Like My Life In Middlemarch, an exploration of a book's power to enter the fabric of our lives and alter the way we see the world. Along with Steinbeck's East of Eden and, now, Robinson's Gilead, Gatsby is one of the books I keep in my soul. I first read it as a freshman in high school: I've read it every year since, written undergraduate and graduate papers on it, and even a poem. Reading an account of someone else's journey in loving it strengthens my own affection for it, and knowledge of it.
Read it if: you haven't read Gatsby in forever, or you haven't read it in a couple months.
Quote: “Social class. Class remains our national awkward topic, usually mumbled over in academic diversity workshops; indeed, most people don't know how to talk about class without automatically coupling it with race. That's because we Americans are loath to recognize that the sky's-the-limit potential we take as our birthright comes at a price far beyond what many Americans--of any race--can afford to pay.”
In Other Words // Jhumpa Lahiri
As someone who speaks Just Enough German, and Just Enough Italian, and Just Enough Spanish, I'm always truly impressed with people who are fluent in something other than their native tongue (shout out to all my friends from St Andrews). Lahiri's memoir of moving her writing life to Italian (and her family to Italy) appealed to the Europhile in me, and the uncertain author in me too.
Read it if: you're interested in language and how writers write.
Quote: “Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”
Aimless Love // Billy Collins
Oh, Billy Collins. These poems are the best, and so are you.
Read it if: you appreciate beauty and good humor.
Quote: “But my heart is always propped up in a field on its tripod, ready for the next arrow.”
Fates and Furies // Lauren Groff
Believe the hype, guys. This is the real deal and so is Lauren Groff. If you haven't read it yet, you should probably cancel whatever plans you have for New Year's Eve and go beg, borrow, or steal yourself a copy instead. This book does something few dare to: tell the truth about what truths and lies we share and keep during the course of our longest relationships with family, friends, and primarily, partners. This one goes into the heart of that darkness and truth, with a level of craft rarely seen. Brava, brava, brava: bravely done.
Read it if: you're not currently writing a novel about relationships in New York City (my one mistake here, personally...)
Quote: “Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.”
Infinite Jest // David Foster Wallace
The big kahuna of the year (and my reading life this far). The further away I get from having finished it, the more I appreciate it. Not that I didn't appreciate it while I was reading it, but like everything great and complex, it takes a while to digest -- I had a similar sensation after The Brothers Karamazov, for one. In turns hilarious, heartfelt, pessimistic and deeply optimistic, this is a book that is worth the time and effort it takes to read. It will be on my mind, I'm certain, in fits and starts until I attempt it again in a decade or two.
Read it if: you've read other Big Books, and preferably some DFW, in the past and you're ready to stretch your brain a bit further still.
Quote: “And Lo, for the Earth was empty of Form, and void. And Darkness was all over the Face of the Deep. And We said: 'Look at that fucker Dance.”