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Beth’s Best Reads of 2016


I love this book.

I love this book.

 

“It’s the most wonderful tiiiiiiiiime of the yeeeeear….” That’s right, fellow book nerds. It’s the end of the year, which always finds me looking back fondly at all the new characters I met, stories I read, history I learned, and authors I discovered, all thanks to books. Books!

You may have noticed (though I’d be surprised!) that I did not do a post for 2015, and that’s because I was off having my second child (much of my reading around that time consisted of results found by googling “baby ate goose poop“, “toddler hates new baby – normal?” and the like). Fortunately, as we all adjusted to our new family little by little, I found myself able to pick books back up again, and have actually enjoyed some fantastic reads over the past year. Not as many as I’d hoped, but it’s a start.

I also found that my new, busier life with littles underfoot has changed my reading habits. Most notably, while I used to be willing to give a book a generous benefit of the doubt and a long, long time to get good, I am now fairly ruthless. Time is money people, chop chop, hook me quickly or you’re gone. So you can be assured that these books, my best reads of 2016, are good.

Per my usual, these are not all new books, not all one genre, not all one anything. It is my list of the best books I read in 2016, of the books I felt like reading at the time, in no particular order. How’s that for arbitrary?

Enjoy.

1. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is a name that will appear in any recommended reading lists from me –  Adichie has quickly become one of my favorite authors since I read Americanah, and also discovered her Tedx talk “We Should All be Feminists”. She writes (and speaks) with a clarity and warmth that is so inviting, even in handling the most painful or complicated subject matter. Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, tells the story of a young Nigerian girl named Kambili trying to reconcile her adoration and admiration of her father, a powerful, rigid and devoted man, with her love of and attraction to the freedom she witnesses at the house of her cousins. Themes of gender, sexuality, religion and family are all at play within the book and within Kambili herself as she struggles to discover what is really her – how she really feels, what she really believes – and what is simply indoctrination, absorption, and blind acceptance. It’s a solid, fast-paced story with plenty of room for introspection.

2. Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
I read this book in two sittings. Highly engrossing, fast-paced story of 5 teenagers brought together in an unlikely way and an unlikely place due to past trauma, and the mysterious events that follow. I found it so magical that I don’t want to give away much about the plot, but it is set in a boarding school specializing in helping traumatized and emotionally fragile teenagers. Parts of the story filled me with such a sense of longing for the impossible, to be able to conjure what is gone, that I paused several times while reading to just sit with it. This is the second Meg Wolitzer book I’ve read, and I’ll look for more now. She has a way of creating marvelously endearing characters.

3. Rad American Women A-Z  by Kate Schatz
BUY THIS BOOK! Buy it for yourself, and for every child and most of your adults in your life. I love it so much. The seriously excellent illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl would be reason enough to want to own it, but there are also some great learnings in here. It is, as the title says, an A-Z of 26 fantastic and remarkable American women and a bit about them, as a means to illustrate the alphabet. Using clear, simple language for kids to understand, the book makes its way from iconic feminist and political activist Angela Davis all the way to unforgettable author Zora Neale Hurston, with stops along the way for all manner of brave, brilliant and inventive women, some of whom I had never even heard of previously. It’s an important and gorgeous book. And it was publicly recommended by Kathleen Hanna, which should turn your little inner punk-rock heart to happy goo. Is three too little? Because I really think my son needs this for Christmas. If not this year, then next for sure. I hope they make a Canadian one.

4. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
And speaking of Zora Neale Hurston, I finally got it together and read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I loved this book. Took a while to get into the rhythm of the dialogue/dialect but then it was such an excellent read. It begins with the painful return of Janie Crawford, a woman whose third marriage has recently ended, to her Florida home, amid gossip and speculation from her nosy neighbors. The novel’s story unfolds through Janie telling her friend the events that led to the dissolution of her marriage and her previous reality, and her eventual return home. The descriptions really made me want to see Lake Okeechobee — in clear weather.

5. Bear by Marian Engel
To get it out of the way – yes, it’s the one that has the sex scenes between a woman and a bear. In fact, I received it last Christmas, mostly as a joke, because of that bit. And I found that beyond the um…ursine passions…it’s actually quite a lovely and enjoyable book. Lou is a quiet and unassuming librarian who accepts a posting on a remote Canadian island to comb through the estate of a former inhabitant, a colonel whose collection reveals much. To quote my husband, “the language was better than the story”. And that’s definitely true. I loved the beauty of the words in this book. It was gorgeous to read and very evocative. Also, very Canadian in its lush wilderness descriptions. You can practically smell the rotting, mushroomy stumps and rain-drenched ferns. I didn’t feel overly attached to Lou or her outcome, but the whole thing had a sort of dreamy, magical realism meets PNW-pastoral thing that was nice. And yes, a first – don’t think I’d ever read a sex scene involving a bear before!

6. Small Wars by Sadie Jones
This was not as easy to immerse myself in as other Sadie Jones books I have read, but I felt compelled to keep at it, and am glad I did. It was as expertly shaped and beautifully written as her other books, and there’s no doubt she is a skilled storyteller.  There was more focus on the engagements of war and politics of the military, and less about character development for part of it which didn’t hold my personal interest as well, but by the end I found myself deeply attached to the story and its players. Took me until about halfway through to really be engaged, but then I didn’t want to put it down. In the end, I would recommend it.

7. The Children of Men by P.D. James
This was actually the first book I read in 2016. Beautifully written and spare, with a carefully crafted tone that walks the line between cynicism and hope, drive and defeat. Such a brilliant concept for a story – if you don’t know, all women across the globe have stopped conceiving babies – and a different departure for a dystopian novel. I found it more difficult to connect emotionally to the story in the book than I did with the movie version, I think because Theodore is so largely unlikable and loathsome on paper. They really toned that down for ol’ Clive Owen. Also, the gruesome, despair-fueled madness of the women with their little dogs and little dolls was just horrifying in print. Very effective, and hard to read. All in all The Children of Men is definitely a really good book, but I think for me this might be one of the very few cases where I thought the film worked better than the book. Maybe I just don’t like to cringe.

8. Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
This is an unusual choice for me, a bit more so-called “chick lit” than my usual fare. I really, really enjoyed this book, though. Funny timing – I took this book with me to have in the hospital, for the birth of our baby, who we named Louisa. I began reading this the very next day, to find a protagonist named Louisa. The Louisa of the story is Louisa Clark, a young woman, quite desperate for money, who accepts a position attending to the needs of Will Traynor, a profoundly physically disabled man, confined to a wheelchair since an extreme sport accident. There are plenty of cliché tropes here – Will is moody, unfriendly and gruff to Louisa’s wide-eyed, well-meaning optimism. Maybe it was just a glorified, better-written romance novel, but it was unpredictable and refreshing and very moving.

9. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
Talk about fast reads! This one by the author of Gone Girl was just as much a page-turner as her more famous title. Our protagonist is Libby Day, a woman whose immediate family were murdered when she was just seven years old. The only other surviving family member was her older brother Ben, who has been in prison ever since, largely due to Libby’s testimony. The novel is aptly named, and made me feel unsettled several times throughout the story with how dark and ugly it was. In some ways it reminded me of a trashier, invented version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but with some weird teenage Satanism thrown in. It was very entertaining and decently written, but pretty forgettable and probably not something I would highly recommend unless you are on an airplane or in a hospital waiting room. But if I’m honest, I had to include it just for how much I got into it and how quickly I read it.

10. North of Normal by Cea Sunrise Person
This is the true story of a little girl growing up in a counter-culture family who left California in the 1960s to live off grid and make a go of it in the Canadian wilderness. Unfortunately, the bulk of the story doesn’t resemble Little House in the Big Woods so much as Go Ask Alice. Reading this book, which was a fascinating and fast read, mostly made me feel self righteous and angry at the author’s parents, as well as morally superior. But when I managed to step out of that for a moment, it also made me stop and think about how many different kinds of families there are, and how many different kinds of childhoods, and how the same people could be capable of providing such a fantastic and wonderful childhood in some regards and such a terrible and broken childhood at the same time. Definitely worth reading.

11. Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
A fictionalized account of the real Eugenics Sterilization Program which in North Carolina alone resulted in the sterilization of over 7000 of its people, most or many of whom were unaware they were being sterilized, from 1929 to 1975. Social work programs had a tremendous amount of power in rural and poor and black communities. As a result, anyone deemed to be threats to themselves, or with a low enough IQ (and for even less acceptable reasons) could be sterilized without their consent. The novel focuses on two sisters growing up in rural farm land, and a social worker who becomes involved in their lives, and the story alternates between the two perspectives chapter to chapter. Very sad but an excellent read.

12. The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque
I’ve never been much for fiction about war. I think in part, selfishly, because I use reading as an escape from the unimaginable horrors of some aspects of the world, war included. And there have been so many books and movies about the atrocity of being immersed in a war zone, particularly about being on the front lines. Full disclosure: I have never read All Quiet on the Western Front. Some of our English classes in high school had that on the curriculum, my classes did not happen to choose that book. I have heard it is excellent, and having now read this book, its sequel, I will definitely find it and read it.

The Road Back begins in war and very quickly moves into peace, which sounds comforting and safe, but quickly proves bewildering, angering and surreal instead. Ernst and his friends have been freed from the front, luckier than the dead and the horribly disfigured, but still badly, badly scarred as evidenced by their struggles trying to reintegrate into society. Remarque did such a perfect job subtly Illustrating the absolute ludicrous hypocrisy in our society when it comes to killing. These young men, lauded as heroes and commanded to kill, then celebrated for it for years on end, find themselves chastised for foul language or too much drinking when attempting to become part of the world once more. Gainful employment, romance and partnership, education, family, the transition from childhood to adulthood, and trying to find one’s place in the world are all themes explored. And from the perspective of those who really came of age surrounded by death and fear, forced to grow up prematurely and immediately, and are now expected to seamlessly toe the line and revert to being pleasant and compliant young men, it makes for an obvious and painful juxtaposition. The book was blunt-force horrifying in some passages, but also quite expert and delicate in the writing. One of the better, more thoughtful and thought-provoking books I have read in a long time.

13. Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill
This is three for three for me from Heather O’Neill. Much like O’Neill’s debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, and her subsequent The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, this short story collection from the Montreal author is a beautiful way to spend some time. All of her storyscapes are inhabited by such dynamic and appealing characters, as well as a nearly-constant sense of whimsy and wonder. In the hands of another writer, I think that could almost me exhausting or cloying, the way even the best dessert tastes too sweet after a while. O’Neill’s writing, however, balances the dark and shabby with the miraculous and optimistic just perfectly. Darker still, and sadder, is the tightrope-walk she manages between innocence and experience. As a reader I do find myself occasionally uncomfortable while immersed in O’Neill’s words, because there is a sense that the monster in the closet is not only very much real, but also just barely out of sightline, and if you turn your head at just the right (wrong) moment, you’re going to catch a glimpse. Her short stories are no exception.

grasshopper-jungle-smith14. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
Oh, I enjoyed this one so much. It’s definitely one of the most fun books I’ve read in a long time. It’s a bildungsroman coming of age story meets weird comedy meets small town boredom, meets science fiction. Basically, the world is taken over by enormous ravenous insects, and it is up to one teenage boy, who happens to be in love with his two best friends, to fight back. It reminded me of The Goonies.

15. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
Could this be my favorite read of the year? It is the story of a remarkable and enterprising woman through two very distinct phases of her life. In that regard I feel like it would have been more successful for me in two volumes, similar to the way Roald Dahl’s adult autobiography was split into his childhood and adulthood (Boy, and Going Solo). The first part of the book is dedicated to the protagonist’s time in Japanese occupied Malaya in the Second World War, being shuffled from Japanese guard to Japanese guard, with no prison camp even to call home, and no one in charge to take responsibility for her and the party of women and children with which she travels. As part of her harrowing experience during this time, she meets an Australian man who does something gallant and nearly heroic to better her lot, and she develops feelings for him immediately, but soon believes him dead. After the war, she learns he is alive and the second part of the book tells the story of her learning to live on a cattle station with him in the Australian outback. Parts of the book were tough to adjust to, and I think it took me a full two thirds of the story to stop flinching at the constant casually racist language and letting it jar me out of the story. Even though that was no doubt very much the vernacular of the times, I wish it could have been toned down just a little. Regardless, it was a very interesting if fictional snapshot of two times and places from which I am entirely removed, and Nevil Shute is an excellent storyteller. I would recommend it.

16. Secret Daughter by Shilpa Somaya Gowda
I read this when I was in a bit of a book rut/slump. Secret Daughter was an engaging story, with believable characters and detailed setting. The writing was sound, and most importantly for kickstarting a reading binge, it was a fast-paced and very easy read. The story did feel a bit like a made-for-tv movie or Hallmark card, where you can tell the sentiment behind it is real, but it is still a lot like every other one that came before, and you know pretty much exactly where it is going. I really like stories about culture clash and identity and belonging, so this appealed to me a lot in that sense. It is an ensemble cast book with the story revolving around Asha, a California girl who was adopted from an Indian orphanage at 1 year old, and how her birth and adoption affect her and those she has been closest to. It was not a literary masterpiece perhaps, but it was a satisfying read.

17. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
This is an unusual book. Made up of snapshots, moments, observations, smaller than vignettes, all carefully painting the outline of a relationship, a marriage, early parenthood. And if you squint you can see that it very clearly paints the whole picture, and all you need to know. While saying more than many books manage to, and using many fewer words, Dept. of Speculation is absolutely gutting. For those who feel a sense of somewhere else, who suffer from occasional fits of restlessness, of ennui and dissatisfaction, of the unbearable weariness of repetition, reading this book is almost physically painful at times. Its pages are full of longing, and aching and seething, and I feel like it is going to haunt me. It is a fantastically effective book. Highly recommended.

18. Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
I’ve read three of Chris Cleave’s four novels now. I really admire his writing. He manages to find a skillful balance between an engaging, fast-paced read and meaningful, complex, narrative and character relationships. Everyone Brave is Forgiven (a title I love) splits its time between London and Malta, and between main characters Mary, a young, idealistic woman from privilege, her best friend Hilda, her student Zachary, her fiancé Tom, and his best friend Alistair. The novel propels each of them through the horrors of war, from varying degrees of innocence and carefree frivolity to a place of uncertainty, exhaustion and somberness, but ultimately, hope. It navigated bleak and bitter subject matter enough to do it credit but not so much as to become mired in melancholy or ugliness.

19. Her: A Memoir by Christa Parravani
This is a very thoughtfully-written memoir by the surviving identical twin of a woman who spiraled into terrible depression and anxiety after being the victim of a violent sexual assault, and eventually died. There is a lot of joy and redemption in the book, but much of it is so saturated in grief that it feels flattening. It doesn’t take away from its value as a book, but it does definitely read in parts as a therapeutic attempt at catharsis. The most exciting and intriguing part for me was a really fascinating passage that consists only of the dialogue between the surviving twin/author and a reported psychic, which left my mind whirling, and instilled a bizarre sense of hope. It really Is a tremendously painful read, all told. Recommended, I guess? It’s a good book. But ow. I wanted to hug the author when I finished.

on-immunity-inoculation-biss20. On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss
Having small children in 2016 is interesting. Attitudes toward and conflict around vaccinations have morphed over the last decade or so as proponents of organic, “all natural” products have become fearful and skeptical of the safety and efficacy of modern vaccines, from the flu shot and beyond. With convenience and modern technology moving at a rapid clip, and climate change an ever larger-looming specter, there are those who have taken rejection of industrial interference to such an extreme that vaccination rates have fallen too low in parts of North America for herd immunity to be effective. Vocal parties in both the pro-vax and anti-vax camp attack each other, ostensibly for endangering children. In her thoughtful, accessible book, Biss explores this new fear – not only of the government and the establishment, but of the very environment around us, and how that fear lives to varying degrees in all of us. She also deftly and humorously acknowledges how as a person responsible for safekeeping the most vulnerable and beautiful child that the world has ever seen, every new parent finds that fear magnified beyond belief, particularly in the middle of the night, and how for better or worse, we are all connected to one another. I put this book down several times during my reading to make note of passages or phrases. One of my favorite bits was: “Though toxicologists tend to disagree with this, many people regard natural chemicals as inherently less harmful than man-made chemicals. We seem to believe, against all evidence, that nature is entirely benevolent”.

 

If you can’t get enough of other people’s book recommendations, here are some lists of the best books that came out in 2016, from the fine folks at Publishers Weekly, and The Washington Post, and the BBC. There is also the NPR Book Concierge, and then over at Digg, they claim to have “rounded up all the Top 10 lists we could find, smashed ’em together, and spit out overall Top 10 lists“, which sounds violent, intriguing and useful. Check out Digg’s resulting top 10 books of 2016 list.

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