Best of 2016!

I’m doing something a little different. All the BEST BOOKS OF 2016 lists I’ve seen everywhere list all the same books. We all know about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. We know about Commonwealth (see my review here).  Enough already. Tell me something I don’t know.

SO, I’m going to let you know about some great books I’ve read in 2016 that maybe you haven’t heard of ad nauseam:

Damnificados – JJ Amarowo Wilson – published 2016

damnificados

600+ vagrants, addicts, damnificados take up residence in an abandoned, crumbling 60-story tower. Nacho is their reluctant leader, a damnificado since birth.

The residents of this make-shift society set up a bakery, a hair salon, a school for various ages on different floors, a repair shop.
 They rig electricity and water. They form their own community, and everyone pitches in, until members of the Torres family claim ownership of the building, and thus begins the struggle for squatters’ rights and their continued existence. This book incorporates magical realism, folktales, and social science into a compelling story.

Us Conductors – Sean Michaels – published 2014
conductors2

So, not published in 2016, but still one of the best books I read in 2016. This is a fictionalized account of the life of Lev Termen, known in America as Leon Theremin, inventor of the eponymous “invisible instrument.” The novel follows Leon’s beginnings in Russia as an engineer, his subsequent world-tour in America promoting his instrument and other feats of physics, and his re-capture and imprisonment by the KGB. There are enticing descriptions of prohibition-era New York City and speakeasies, and thread throughout the story is Leon’s unrequited love for Clara Rockmore, his star pupil. This book is concise, well-researched, and spell-binding.


 

Sweetland – Michael Crummey – published 2014

sweetland

Not only is Sweetland one of the best books I read in 2016, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

 At the beginning, this book reminded me so strongly of The Shipping News that I was beginning to think that Crummey just ripped it off hoping no one would notice. That feeling soon faded after delving into the lives of the residents of Sweetland. The characters here! Everyone has a backstory, and they’re all interwoven so expertly that I felt like they were my own family. I haven’t savored writing like this in a long time. There are aching descriptions of the cold, the unpredictable weather, the scenery of Newfoundland, the daily backbreaking chores that need to be done to survive. I hate to use the cliché “atmospheric,” but that is what you get with Sweetland. I felt the cold, the pain, the injuries, the starvation, the overwhelming silence. The relationships of the residents of Sweetland run deep, and there are skeletons in the closet that should not be revealed.

I don’t want to get into the plot , because it’s best if you don’t know much going in. This is the story of a man battling his past and the brutality of nature. A beautiful treasure of a book. Haunting and sad.

 

A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay – published 2015

head_full_of_ghosts
At first glance, this seems like a traditional demonic possession story, but told in 2 different narratives. Both narratives are voiced by Merry (Meredith), the younger sister of the possessed Marjorie. The first narrative is an adult Merry posting on her blog incognito as “Karen”, analyzing the reality show that was on TV years ago that documented Marjorie’s possession. The analysis and horror-genre knowledge here is
fascinating and spot-on.
The second narrative is Merry telling her story to a journalist about what happened to her as a child. Her older sister Marjorie claimed she was possessed by the devil, and a TV crew lived in their house to film a reality show about the family.
It’s a gripping story from the very beginning, then things take a drastic turn, and you don’t know who or what to believe. The ending is a killer.

Pym – May Johnson – published 2011

pym

Pym is inspired by the open-ended story of Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. This story is a jaunty Antarctic adventure full of social satire, absurdism, and hilarity.

The protagonist, Chris Jaynes, is a bitter African-American literature professor who was recently denied tenure. In a fit of insanity, he becomes obsessed with the tale of Arthur Gordon Pym as outlined in Poe’s novel, and discovers an unpublished manuscript that suggests Poe’s novel of hidden islands and Antarctic monsters may be based in fact. He assembles a motley crew of fame-seekers and a snack-cake addict, and heads to the South Pole, where things just get even weirder. This book quite literally made me laugh out loud more than once. It’s an imaginative tale with the intelligence to back it up. I recommend this for anyone who enjoys Christopher Moore or Tom Robbins.

Also, since I don’t want to repeat myself, see previous blog posts about these amazing 2016 reads:

Spill Simmer Falter Whither

When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man

The Lightkeepers 

The North Water

A Gentleman in Moscow

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

I’ve never read Ann Patchett before. Actually, I lie. I tried to read Bel Canto and didn’t finish it. I think now I know why. Given the five-star reviews I see everywhere and the deluge of praise on all my social media apps, my review here won’t be popular.

Commonwealth commonwealthhad an interesting premise: guy crashes an acquaintance’s christening party, flirts with the acquaintance’s wife, and begins an affair with her. Divorce is inevitable, families are ripped apart. As a reader, you think: here it comes! But really, not so much. The two families kinda, sorta work it out, the kids spend time with both families, everything seems to settle down. Yawn.

The story, surprisingly, wasn’t boring. This ability of the reader to stay focused and not indulge in mind-wandering or paragraph-skimming is undoubtedly due to Patchett’s skill. In the hands of a lesser writer I would have bailed on the book about 1/3 of the way in, but Patchett manages to make the story interesting, perhaps because the reader is led to believe that more story is coming. The thing is though, it never shows up.

There were so many characters: the four divorced parents, all their children (were there six of them?), the spouses of subsequent marriages, and then, later, the kids from those other spouses. I honestly needed a kinship chart. I could barely remember which kid went with which parent.

I did appreciate the themes explored here: divorce, and its effect on the kids once they were adults; the sadness of aging, ailing parents; the nagging lack of self-respect if your career peters out. The main protagonist, Franny, was sympathetic, and I could relate to her.

This depth of human empathy, however, does not make up for the lack of story. There’s a tragedy, but it doesn’t have the impact I’d hoped for. The tragedy is told in retrospect, which moves the reader a step away from feeling anything. This event could have been powerful; this unexpected moment could have made me invested in these characters. Instead, all I think is, “Oh, so that’s what happened. Okay.”

There is no Big Reveal, no Huge Family Argument, no Gasp of Denouement. It just peters out with a shrug of “yep, that’s my family.” Eh.

I’m not giving up on Ann Patchett, though. I’m having another go at Bel Canto. She is such a great novelist that I know there’s another book out there of hers that I’ll love.

Twenty Tomes to Tackle!

I’m currently reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I have had on my to-read shelf for an eternity. I’ve always meant to read it, but I haven’t yet because I’ve been so intimidated. It’s about 800 pages long. Whenever I choose another book to read, I just look at it askance, hoping it won’t notice that it’s being passed over yet again for a book with a more manageable page length. It’s a kind of book-indenture. If I start it, I feel I must forsake so many other books for such a long time, that I would just rather absorb the guilt of not reading it than make that kind of commitment. But no longer! I’m making 2017 The Year of the Tome!

If you too can overcome your anxiety of the doorstop-book and are willing to risk a sprained wrist, here are 19 other long books to entice you:

edgar_sawtelle-cvr

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Why I want to read it:  I heard about it ad nauseam on Oprah. And it’s supposed to be worth the effort.

Page length: 566

 

pilcrowPilcrow by Adam Mars Jones

Why I want to read it:  It’s about a severely disabled, gay boy growing up in 1950s England. It looks cerebral and magical and introspective, which is right up my alley.

Page length: 525

 

soldier

 

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

Why I want to read it: Looks like a whopper of an adventure story.

Page length: 792

 

drownedWe, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen

Why I want to read it: I’ve read half of it, and for some reason I put it down, even though I was enjoying it. It’s full of magical realism and the sea. And that cover!

Page length: 688

 

war War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Why I want to read it: Doesn’t everyone? Not to mention, I have a soft spot for Russian literature. I can’t believe I haven’t read this already.

Page length: 1273

 

 

seveneves_book_coverSeveneves by Neal Stephenson  

Why I want to read it: Dystopian sci-fi saga. ‘Nuff said.

Page length: 867

 

 

reamde

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Why I want to read it: From reviews I’ve read, seems like a ’round-the-world thriller that leaves readers out of breath with their hair mussed. Fast pacing WITH character development, which is hard to achieve.

Page length: 1044

 

thecorrectionscvr

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Why I want to read it: Because I haven’t read any Franzen yet (for shame). Supposed to be a cornucopia of dysfunctional characters.

Page length: 568

 

infinitejestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Why I want to read it: I’m not sure I do? But somehow, I just can’t let go of the idea of reading this. I’m supposed to want to read this . . . but will that carry me through a billion pages?

Page length: 1079

 

wind-up_bird_chronicleThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Why I want to read it: Supposed to be Murakami’s best. Every time I bring up the fact that I’ve only read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I hear, “But you haven’t read Wind-Up Bird?!”

Page length: 607

 

tipperary

Tipperary by Frank Delaney

Why I want to read it: Because it’s about IRELAND.

Page length: 448

 

 

thebigwhyThe Big Why by Michael Winter

Why I want to read it: To be candid, because it’s set in Newfoundland and the cover resembles We, The Drowned (go ahead – scroll up and see what I mean). Any book with an ocean on the cover immediately piques my interest.

Page length: 384

 

theowlkillers

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

Why I want to read it: It’s a medieval mystery that centers around a beguinage, a group of women outcasts who challenge societal norms and the patriarchy of the church. What’s not to like?

Page length: 511

 

theunconsoled The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

Why I want to read it: It’s Ishiguro. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go were engrossing and beautiful. I love him. 500+ pages of Ishiguro sounds like a dream.

Page length: 535

 

signalSignal & Noise by John Griesemer

Why I want to read it: You got me – ocean and ship on the cover. It’s about the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable with the background of romantic character drama.

Page length: 640

 

Theinterestings Interestings by Meg Wolitzer 

Why I want to read it: It follows the transformation of six friendships from optimistic adolescence through jaded middle age.

Page length: 468

 

 

thequickThe Quick by Lauren Owen 

Why I want to read it: Victorian Gothic historical fiction with a huge twist right at the beginning that no reviewers will even discuss for fear of spoilers.

Page length: 523

 

lifemaskLife Mask by Emma Donoghue

Why I want to read it: Because I loved Slammerkin.

Page length: 672

 

 

lostfleet

The Lost Fleet by Barry Clifford

Why I want to read it: Because it’s about 17th century piracy, shipwrecks, and underwater archaeology, all things that I find fascinating.

Page length: 304 pages (so, not a tome, but the book is large)

 

distant-hoursThe Distant Hours by Kate Morton

Why I want to read it: It’s Kate Morton. Her books are enchanting historical fiction that I never want to end, and I loved The House at Riverton

Page length: 562

 

 

Wish me luck! It should only take about 5 years to get through all of these.