You might be surprised to hear that I received ‘only’ eight books for Christmas. (And a very fetching owl bookmark.) Here they are:
As I did last year, I’ve come up with my top 15 fiction books of the year (the three translated works first appeared in English in 2016) and even attempted to rank them. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Without further ado, let the countdown begin!
- Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa: A hard-hitting novel with an unforgettably resonant title, this is set at the 1999 Seattle WTO protest: Yapa explores the motivations and backstories of activists, police officers, and delegates as the day deteriorates into violence. This fine debut is about cultivating the natural compassion in your heart even while under the threat of the fist.
- The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson: Beyond the barest biographical facts, Dawson has imagined the plot based on Patricia Highsmith’s own preoccupations: fear of a stalker, irksome poison-pen letters, imagining what it would be like to commit murder … and snails. You’re never quite sure as you’re reading what is actually happening in the world of the novel and what only occurs in Highsmith’s imagination, making this one of the most gripping, compulsive books I encountered this year.
- Nutshell by Ian McEwan: Within the first few pages, I was captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.
- The Longest Night by Andria Williams: This absorbing work of historical fiction combines a remote setting, the threat of nuclear fallout, and a marriage strained to the breaking point in a convincing early 1960s atmosphere. A great debut and an author I’d like to hear more from.
- Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin: Each of us is said to occupy 40 rooms in our lives; this novel in 40 vignettes, one per room, tells the life story of a Russian immigrant to America who dreams of becoming a poet but ends up a suburban housewife and mother of six. I feel this book will resonate with women of every age, prompting them to question the path they’ve taken, the passions they’ve left unexplored, and whether it’s too late to change.
- Irmina by Barbara Yelin: After her grandmother’s death Yelin, a Munich-based artist, found a box of diaries and letters that told the story of a budding love affair that was not to be and charted a young woman’s gradual capitulation to Nazi ideology. For the out-of-the-ordinary window onto Third Reich history and the excellent illustrations, I highly recommend this to graphic novel lovers and newbies alike.
- The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: In the 1850s a nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax? Donoghue writes convincing and vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature to technology and setting up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition.
- The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson: The kernel of the novel is a true story: for two summers in the late 1880s, Chekhov (known here as Anton Pavlovich) stayed at the Lintvaryovs’ guest house in Luka, Ukraine; one strand of the narration is a journal kept during those years by the family’s eldest daughter, who’s dying of a brain tumor. An elegantly plotted story about writing, translation, illness, and making the most of life.
- Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić: This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery. The lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war.
- Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell: Rindell brings the late 1950s, specifically the bustling, cutthroat New York City publishing world, to life through the connections between three young people who collide over a debated manuscript. It’s an expert evocation of Beat culture and post-war paranoia over communism and homosexuality.
- Golden Hill by Francis Spufford: The novel opens suddenly as twenty-four-year-old Richard Smith arrives from London with a promissory note for £1000; before he can finally get his money, he’ll fall in and out of love, fight a duel, and be arrested twice – all within the space of two months. Bawdy, witty, vivid historical fiction; simply brilliant.
- Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Five university friends strive to make their lives count against the indifferent backdrop of recession-era New York City. You’ll see yourself in one or more of the characters, and the rest you’ll greet as if they were your own friends and makeshift family.
- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent was a real-life legend from the latter half of the seventeenth century, but Perry’s second novel has fear of the sea creature re-infecting Aldwinter, her invented Essex village, in the 1890s. This exquisite work of historical fiction explores the gaps – narrower than one might think – between science and superstition and between friendship and romantic love.
- The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler: Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel’s life changes for good when in 1937 his mother sends him away from his quiet lakeside village to work for her old friend Otto Trsnyek, a Vienna tobacconist. This novel is so many things: a coming-of-age story, a bittersweet romance, an out-of-the-ordinary World War II/Holocaust precursor, and a perennially relevant reminder of the importance of finding the inner courage to stand up to oppressive systems.
- Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: The restaurant where twenty-two-year-old Tess works is a claustrophobic world unto itself, like a theatre set where the food is high art and the staff interactions are pure drama. Everything about this novel is utterly assured: the narration, the characterization, the prose style, the plot, the timing; it captures the intensity and idealism of youth yet injects a hint of nostalgia.
& A poetry selection:
Still the Animals Enter by Jane Hilberry: A rich, strange, gently erotic collection featuring diverse styles and blurring the lines between child and adult, human and animal, life and death through the language of metamorphosis. The message is that we are part of a shared life beyond the individual family or even the human species; we are all connected.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors?
I’ll be back tomorrow with the best nonfiction books I read this year.
Novels about Patricia Highsmith and a prison production of The Tempest; a true-life account of opening a secondhand bookstore; a faux memoir setting ancestors’ memories in the context of twentieth-century history; and an exposé of the happiness movement in America: these five very different books are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
The Crime Writer
By Jill Dawson
Patricia Highsmith hated the term “crime writer”; she preferred to speak of her work as “suspense novels,” animated by the threat of danger. Dawson’s terrific pastiche is set in the early 1960s, when the nomadic Highsmith was living in a remote cottage in Suffolk, England. Beyond the barest biographical facts, though, Dawson has imagined the plot based on Highsmith’s own preoccupations: fear of a stalker, irksome poison-pen letters, imagining what it would be like to commit murder … and snails. In a combination of third- and first-person narration, she shows “Pat” succumbing to alcoholism and paranoia as she carries on affairs with Sam, a married woman, and Ginny, a young journalist who’s obsessed with her. You’re never quite sure as you’re reading what is actually happening in the world of the novel and what only occurs in Highsmith’s imagination; I’m sure that’s deliberate. This counts as one of the most gripping, compulsive books I’ve encountered this year.
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap
By Wendy Welch
Everyone told Wendy Welch and her husband that they were crazy when they decided to open a used bookstore in a small Appalachian Coalfields town in the middle of a recession. They lived above the shop and initially stocked it with their own library plus books picked up cheap at yard sales – though Welch later learned to be much more choosy about what they added to their inventory and to tailor their selections to the tastes of country readers. Essentially, they were making it all up as they went along, but eight years later they’re still a community fixture in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. (I’d love to visit someday.) For the most part that’s because they branched out to fill other roles: hosting cultural events, murder mystery evenings, a writing group, a crafting circle, and regular Quaker meetings. I appreciated the details about the nitty-gritty of running a bookstore (like a chapter on pricing) more than the customer interactions. A warm and fuzzy book-lover’s delight.
Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold
By Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood looks more like a good witch every year, and here she works her magic on The Tempest to produce the most satisfying volume of the Hogarth Shakespeare series yet. There’s a really clever play-within-the-play-within-the-play thing going on, and themes of imprisonment and performance resonate in multiple ways. It’s fun to see the disgraced Felix’s second act as a director of inmate plays at Fletcher Correctional – “I don’t care why you’re in here or what they say you’ve done: for this course the past is prologue.” Part V gets a little tedious/didactic as the cast hash out the characters’ afterlives, and at times (mainly the raps) you’re painfully aware that this is an old white lady trying to approximate how seasoned criminals might speak, but in general I thoroughly enjoyed this. Even though you see behind the scenes (e.g. my favorite chapter was about Felix wandering the streets of Toronto to buy props and costumes), you still get caught up in the magic. (See also Carolyn’s wonderful review at Rosemary and Reading Glasses.)
The Pursuit of Happiness: Why are we driving ourselves crazy and how can we stop?
By Ruth Whippman
I call this niche genre anti-self-help. (Two other great examples are Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich and Promise Land by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro.) Whippman has a particularly interesting perspective as a British Jew who moved to California for her husband’s work. With sharp humor and natural British cynicism, she investigates various manifestations of the American obsession with happiness, including the cult-like Landmark Forum, Zappos shoes HQ, Facebook’s encouragement of shallow social interaction, and the positive psychology movement. I especially liked her visit to Mormons in Salt Lake City (the nation’s happiest group, it seems, but also the most highly medicated against depression), but the funniest chapter is on happiness-focused parenting. The basic message is that the happiness movement went wrong by making it a matter of personal responsibility, of mental and spiritual triumph over circumstances. It gives no easy answers, but it’s a very enjoyable book.
By Michael Chabon
Chabon’s seventh novel was inspired by his maternal grandfather’s deathbed confessions in 1989—or was it? A tongue-in-cheek author’s note refers to this as a “memoir,” and it’s narrated by “Mike Chabon,” but he and “Grandfather” (never named) are characters here in the same way that Jonathan Safran Foer and his ancestors are in Everything Is Illuminated. Space travel and explosives are Grandfather’s lifelong obsessions, but the chronology moves back and forth seemingly haphazardly, as if we are hearing this story exactly as it emerged. Chabon offers a rich meditation on how Jewishness and family secrets influence the creation of identity. With a seam of dark humor that brings to mind Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man…, Moonglow inventively fuses family history and fiction but leaves cracks for happiness and meaning to shine through. (See my full review on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.)