In 2016, my friend D and I sent each other monthly recaps of what we read and how we liked each book. It was so much fun… all credit goes to D for suggesting the idea and reminding me when it was time to send my (always late) email. I read 113 books last year: 27 cookbooks, 10 nonfiction titles, 14 short story collections and the rest novels. I think the discipline of looking back at each month helped me to be a better reader, a bold statement from a lifelong bibliophile. It wasn’t that I was racing to finish books so I could count them; more that I would push myself to read thoughtfully so I could write a good synopsis at the end. (Did I just justify book reports…?) So many books D read that I never would have looked for or considered went immediately into my to-read queue after reading her thoughts. She taught me about The Nix, my second favorite book of the year and best novel I’ve read in some time, and Miroslav Penkov, prompting me to pick up Stork Mountain. She gave me a reading copy of Mothering Sunday to devour on a warm summer afternoon; I remember lying on the balcony with my dog marveling at the intense emotion of this tiny novel.
It was a good year of reading, so narrowing down a favorites list to just ten books took some time, as I agonized over some of the books that didn’t make the cut. Anyone interested can see my full year of reading on Goodreads. Below are my ten favorite books of the year. These are the ones that pulled me in, held my attention, and they are the ones I am still thinking of months later. I read Hold Still last January, never expecting it would be the best of my reading year; I just couldn’t put another book ahead of it. (It’s fun to be surprised by your own reactions!) Many others also made my Summer Reading 2016 post, which you can read here. The first three books are my top three, but the rest are in no particular order.
Hold Still by Sally Mann.
Yes, this is that Sally Mann. Here is my synopsis from last January, which captures exactly how I still feel:
“As a wide-eyed college senior, I discovered Sally Mann’s photography at the Bowdoin Museum of Art. I was told to be shocked by her work, but I thought they were some of the most beautiful images I had ever seen. I have been a fan since then. When I found this book, I expected it to be mostly a rehashing of her work as a photographer, and I was interested to read that– but what I actually got was so much more. This is one the best books I’ve ever read. Her control of language is almost as crisp as her control of still images, and we are treated to a dizzying number of photographs from Sally and her friends and relatives. Her family history is complicated, sometimes ugly, and full of passionate, driven, inventive men and women. There is discussion of art, of course, but also history, sociology, race relations, literature, mortality and love. I can not recommend this fervently enough.”
The Nix by Nathan Hill
My favorite novel of the year takes us between present day and 1968 Chicago, and yes, it is political, but it is so much more. Samuel, abandoned as a boy by his mother, is a writer/professor seeking reconciliation, but also a way to tell her story. Hill deftly introduces strange new characters to round out Samuel’s story: schoolmates with dark intentions, scheming students, long-lost love interests, radical hippies, and more. The book is witty, sometimes humorous, often painful, and a sharp commentary on perception vs. reality in regarding people, history, and events. My best praise: I did not want the story to end. I want to check on Samuel, see how he’s doing now. Yes, it is long and winding, but The Nix is a great, great read.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
So much hope! My lasting impression of Dreamers is a sense of hope and wonder, a sense that determination can pay off, and also that what you think you want may not be what you actually want. The story of a Cameroonian man in New York City trying to get citizenship and make a life for his family doesn’t rest on the tired stereotypes of life as a struggling immigrant, and feels so true and frank. It is not an easy story, and not always a happy one, but this novel is compelling and I loved it.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
There’s no way around it– this one is weird. There are two storylines, one of which is a pregnant teenager walking for days with her mute aunt toward an unknown destination. The other is that aunt, as an orphaned child, forced to lead seances to bring money into her dysfunctional group home. If you’re still with me, let me say now that the intrigue of this novel is that Hunt gets the willing reader right on board with her, invested in the story so quickly that you must keep turning pages to see how it all plays out, where are they going, what will happen, who is Mr. Splitfoot?
Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
An epic novel set in Indonesia following Dewi Ayu and her four daughters. With nods to historical events, a heavy influence of magic realism and mysticism, and outright bawdy humor, I found this captivating and almost cinematic.
What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
This collection of short stories is unlike any I have ever read. Oyeyemi has such a distinct and unique voice, and she creates entire worlds for her readers; the settings are as detailed as the characters, a rare and impressive feat. This is a hard thing to describe… but I feel like her books are in three dimensions, where so many others are flat on the page. She employs drama, sadness, beauty and whimsy masterfully.
Miss Jane by Brad Watson
My Goodreads synopsis: “The main character, Miss Jane, was gracious, curious, adventurous, compassionate and loving. I would have read 1000 pages about her. She offered a not-entirely-subtle lesson that difference does not have to be hardship, solitude does not have to be sadness. Her father and the doctor were excellent characters. And there were peacocks.”
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
I wrote about this one at length in my Summer Reading post. I am still thinking about the main characters, tough-with-a-heart-of-gold Ryan and his damaged father, especially. At the time of reading I compared McInerney to Tana French and Kate Atkinson, and while I meant those comparisons as compliments, I would have to say honestly that Heresies eclipses the most recent offerings from both. Grab a copy if you haven’t already.
The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock
Dark and stormy, raunchy and rough, Pollock’s novel is best described as a romp. For fans of Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, William Gay, Larry Brown… and yet I imagine Mr. Pollock elbowing them out of the way to make space of his own. As he should. I was about 45 pages into this one when I decided to recommend it to my Dad, who loves McCarthy and enjoys the wit of Stephen King. As I read on, through heists and drunken mistakes and friendly prostitutes, I wondered if my recommendation was premature… but I stand by it. Yes, it’s raucous, but it is storytelling like I haven’t seen before and I like it.
Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov
A beautiful, thoughtful novel about a young man returning from the United States to Bulgaria to find his grandfather and inquire about a tract of land. Along the way there is soul searching, shy love, family drama to reconcile, and a mystical story of the local storks and the dancers who celebrate their presence. I don’t know how to properly do justice to the emotion Penkov brings out of these pages.
It’s so rewarding to look back on the year and remember where I was when I read some of these books– at the kitchen table at work for much of Hold Still, on the porch at camp for The Nix, in the airport at midnight with Beauty is a Wound– and how they made me feel both then and now. If this list, like the monthly recaps I do with D, encourages one person to pick up a book they might not have read otherwise… well, that will just be a cherry on top. I am excited to see what 2017 will bring. I have high hopes for Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill; Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; Difficult Women by Roxane Gay; The Idiot by Elif Batuman; Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami; The World to Come by Jim Shepard; and so many more.
What was your favorite book of 2016? What are you looking forward to reading this year?
Here is the remainder of the longlist I whittled down to choose my top ten:
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Tender by Belinda McKeon
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift