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
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
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
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
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 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 North Water
A Gentleman in Moscow