At the end of each year, I share a list of books I’ve enjoyed that year. (The ones I wouldn’t recommend don’t make it to the list). So here’s my year in books. I hope you will find some good reads here – and that you’ll share your recommendations with me.
A Thin Bright Line by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
The backstory for this excellent novel, revealed in a foreword and an epilogue, is as fascinating as the novel itself, which is saying a lot. Author Lucy Jane Bledsoe was named after her beloved aunt, Lucybelle Bledsoe, a science writer who died in a fire when she was in her 40s and the author was only 9. Lucy grew up to be a science writer herself, and a lesbian – and began to realize that her secretive aunt must have been a lesbian too. But Lucy’s family could tell her very little about her aunt’s adult life, which took place in distant cities. So the author spent years researching everything she could find about Lucybelle – no easy task when the subject lived a closeted life during the oppressive McCarthy era, and worked on a top-secret government project that involved drilling ice cores in the polar regions to uncover eons of the earth’s climate history. What Bledsoe could not learn from research and interviews, she imagined. The result is a rich, textured story about a woman who lived against the grain, demanded a life of the mind and the freedom to love in an era where both were denied her, and paid in many ways for the silences she was forced to hold. All that, and a cameo by Lorraine Hansberry. Highly recommended.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
In the 1950s, a young white woman named Boy escapes a life of poverty and abuse with her rat-catcher father in New York by running away to a town in Massachusetts where most of the residents are artisans. She marries a jeweler named Arturo, who from a previous marriage has an unsettlingly perfect daughter named Snow. Only when Boy gives birth to a daughter does she learn the secret of Arturo and his aristocratic family: they’re African American and have been passing. But Boy’s new daughter cannot pass; she is dark-skinned. While the novel mixes the fable of Snow White with issues of race, the real star of the book is its style: at once dark and light, realistic and fabulist, redemptive and harrowing.
Casualties by Elizabeth Marro
A troubled son who joins the Marines and returns from Iraq physically whole but psychologically ravaged. A loving mother who works for a military defense contractor and climbs to the top of the executive ladder at the cost of too much compromise. A moment in which everything goes terribly, irretrievable wrong. These are the ingredients of a novel that takes us on a gripping journey of grief, guilt and intimacy as Ruth Nolan careens across the country, chasing the faint glow of redemption after her son’s suicide.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
This was the perfect kind of novel for me to read during those raw days shortly after the election. Smooth and well written, it’s the story of two families who get blended as the result of an affair, and the fluctuating relationships of the six half-siblings throughout their lives. Important things happen in the novel, and the stakes are high: life and death, redemption and betrayal, exile and reconciliation. But this is not one of those novels beats you up. The book is written with such heart, and such a sense of connection and commonality, that you end up wanting to live in a world of Ann Patchett’s creation.
Dietland by Sarai Walker
Dietland begins like an ugly duckling fable about Plum, a fat woman who dreams of liberating her true thin self, and who makes a living ghostwriting Dear Amy-type responses to self-hating teenaged girls. Then the author tosses in a flaming match in the form of a young woman in brightly colored tights and combat boots who seems to be following Plum, and the book catches fire. A worldwide network of feminist vigilantes! Equating rape culture with terrorism! A house full of radical feminists and secrets! Dietland is a fierce and witty novel unlike anything out there.
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
A short story collection by the author of the wonderful novel The Orphan Master’s Son. The stories are as varied and excellent as you would expect, considering the literary prizes this collection has won. My favorite is the story about the former prison warden, still living in his long-time home but forever exiled from his vanished homeland of East Germany.
The Girl who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow
With her white Danish mother and African American father, brown-skinned, blue-eyed Rachel Morse doesn’t fit anywhere in 1980s America. When her mother and two siblings fall from the roof of their Chicago apartment building and die—leaving everyone to wonder whether they were pushed or whether the mother gripped her children and jumped—11-year-old Rachel is truly alone in the world. She goes to live with her grandmother in an African American neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. And there she discovers that she is neither black enough nor white enough to find a community. This lovely novel about race and identity won the prestigious Bellwether prize.
Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson
Weird and compelling story about a young woman from a twisted family who finally escapes by going away to college. Or so she thinks.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
A classic Shirley Jackson tale about a young woman who accepts an invitation from an unknown professor to step out of her oppressive life for a few days to live with other strangers in a haunted house. This is a truly frightening book – I found I couldn’t read it in bed – both for what happens inside that strange house and within the characters’ minds, and for what it reveals about the haunted lives of women at midcentury. And the writing is extraordinary.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The novel begins in Ghana with two. One marries a high-ranking white Englishman, and one is sold into slavery and shipped to America. Through the bitter slave-catching wars in Ghana and the bloody legacy of colonialism, through the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery, Homegoing follows generation after generation of these two sisters’ families into the present day, revealing in each chapter the brutal stain of slavery on both sides of the ocean. The book deserves all the praise it has received.
In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson
Still devastated by the sudden death of her husband in a mysterious accident 18 months ago, Lia Carrer leaves the U.S. and returns to the Languedoc region of southwestern France. Her family has roots in the region, and she has close friends there. What’s more, she is a scholar of the ancient religious group called the Cathars, who believed in reincarnation and flourished in the region until they were massacred into extinction by the Catholic Church in the early 13th century. She begins to realize that three men who have become important to her – a priest who’s an old friend, a photographer and a wine maker – are in her life for a reason. And that reason shatters everything she thinks she knows about history, time, and death itself, including the death of her husband. In Another Life is an amalgam of genres: mystery, romance and historical fiction, and the writing is gorgeous.
The Longest Night by Andria Williams
Nat, a spirited young woman from California, finds herself facing the winter of 1959 in the small Idaho town where her Army husband has been stationed. Nat is proud of Paul’s job working on the Army’s nuclear reactor and eager to be his helpmate. But as his quietness grows into secrecy, so does her feeling of being trapped and isolated in a town where she knows no one yet is judged by everyone. Paul has more urgent worries: something is dreadfully wrong with the nuclear reactor – and his superiors are doing everything they can to cover it up. Based on the true history of a fatal nuclear accident, the novel brings to life a set of vivid characters, and the mood of America on the cusp of the nuclear age.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
In 1880s New Zealand, during the frenzy of the gold rush years, 12 men and 2 women become wrapped up in a mystery that will change all of their lives. The mystery involves a fortune in gold, murder, suicide, trickery, drugs, alcohol, friendship, betrayal, true love and, somehow, the Zodiac. This novel won all kinds of accolades, including the Man Booker Prize. I read it on vacation and had trouble putting it down.
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
In the 1500s, an enslaved Moroccan man accompanies his Spanish master, a conquistador, and other Spaniards on an expedition to the Gulf Coast of “La Florida” in search of gold. What they find in their trek through Florida to Mexico is illness, tribulation, and native peoples and cultures that resist the invaders mightily, until ultimately only four members of the expedition survive: the Moroccan, or Moor, and three upper-class Spaniards. The Spaniards consider “Estabanico,” as they call him (his real first name is Mustafa) less than human because he is dark-skinned and a Muslim. Readers will recognize that he is more educated, cultured and intrepid than any of the conquerors. Based on real historical events, The Moor’s Account is a stunning view of history, slavery, and the power of language to erase or uplift.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
By this point you’ve probably read many reviews of this novel. Several critics have observed that readers either love or hate this book, and a number of friends with excellent literary taste have placed this novel among the best they’ve ever read. I fell somewhere in the middle. While I appreciated the writing and its close-up focus on the friendship between two girls in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Naples, I did not particularly enjoy the reading experience and feel no compulsion to read the rest of the series.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Deceptively plain book about a woman looking back on her life, particularly nine weeks she spent in the hospital as a young mother, and the inescapable impact of the horrifying poverty and abuse she suffered in her childhood. The simple sentences pack an emotional wallop.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
A brief, lively and beautifully textured tale of a 71-year-old man, veteran of many wars and father of grown daughters, who takes on the challenging job of bringing a 10-year-old girl from Wichita to San Antonio in the time shortly after the Civil War. The girl was kidnapped from her white family when she was 6 by the Kiowa Indians, and by now believes she is Kiowa, having forgotten both English and the ways of white people. The man makes his living reading news of the world to audiences along the route who can’t read or have no access to newspapers. How these two make common cause and survive the long journey in a horse-pulled wagon, crossing unbroken land beset by white bandits and Indian raiders, makes for a diverting read. I am in awe of the rigorous historical research that must lie behind a story so lightly told.
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Samuel Anderson’s mother left him when he was 11 years old. He never sees or hears from her again until he is in his 30s, a failed writer and unhappy professor of literature, and she becomes an instant media sensation by throwing gravel at a Trump-like presidential candidate. Turns out Samuel’s mother, Faye, was not the Iowa farm girl and suburban wife he had always known – or at least, not only that. She had gone to college in Chicago in 1968, and had a police record as a radical anti-war activist. In an act of vengeance and desperation, Samuel agrees to write a vicious tell-all book about this woman he barely knows, and in the process learns who she is and who he himself is. The narrative swirls around in different time periods, from the point of view of various characters, mixing Norwegian folk tales with 60’s politics with Internet gaming with childhood heartaches until you think the author can’t possibly know where he’s heading. But he does. It’s a complex story of three-dimensional characters, told with verve, humor and sharpness.
Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai
Marty Wu lives in New York and has a job she hates, selling ads for a magazine she’ll never read, working for a boss who used to be her boyfriend and sometimes behaves like he still is. Despite all the self-help books Marty reads, bad things happen to her, and many are her own fault. She’s clumsy, earnest, immature and hilarious. When she loses her job and alienates her best friend in an escalating series of all-too-preventable stumbles, she flees to Taiwan with her mother. There Marty soaks in the support of her extended family and uncovers family secrets that force her to take a fresh look at her mother and herself. Not a Self-Help Book treats serious issues with humor and humanity. It introduces us to a heroine for a new era, a wacky, wistful, hyped-up version of our own inner anxieties. (Published by Shade Mountain Press, my own publisher.)
Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford
An enjoyable novel set in 1920s London, during the inter-war era of women’s suffrage and the dawn of radio. The book is about a group of women who work at the young BBC, one of the only places in England that hires women for more than secretarial jobs. A central character, Hilda Matheson, is a lesbian – and a real person, which I didn’t realize until I finished the book. But the novel is peppered with historical figures I did recognize, including Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, among many others. The novel touches on all the larger dynamics that shape individuals’ lives: gender, class, the shadow of war, the role of government, and the power of corporations. The writing was a little too broad for my tastes, but other than that I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Moody, smart novel about a young woman who, with her husband, comes to live in the ramshackle Vermont house of the writer Shirley Jackson and her husband. Both husbands teach at nearby Bennington College. The women grow close; in fact, young Rose becomes obsessed with Shirley Jackson and a local mystery about a missing girl that is eerily reminiscent of some of Jackson’s work. A good read about friendship, marriage, secrets, and the “devil’s work” of writing fiction.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The unnamed narrator worked as an interrogator for the brutal secret police of South Vietnam, but in reality he was an undercover agent of North Vietnam and a Communist sympathizer. We follow him through the chaotic end of the Vietnam war and his years as an immigrant in America, where he still follows the orders of the brutal General, while secretly carrying out the instructions of the equally vicious North Vietnamese government. His two worlds collide when he is asked to serve as an advisor to a white director’s film about the Vietnam war, and we learn what it really means to have two lives and two stories to tell. This is one of the best books I read in 2016.
To the End of the Land by David Grossman
Ora, a vibrant Israeli woman, feels she can finally exhale when her younger son safely completes his Army service. She and Ofer have planned to take a long hike together to celebrate; instead, he re-enlists. So she decides to take the hike without him and without a phone or any way to be reached, believing even though she knows it’s ridiculous that if the Army can’t find her to notify her of Ofer’s death, he cannot die. She brings along with her – indeed, pretty much kidnaps – Ofer’s biological father, Avram, who has never seen or spoken about his son. Throughout the days of walking, she tries to recreate Ofer for him through stories. The novel illuminates captivating details of Ora’s family life and of daily life in Israel for both Jews and Palestinians. But the book is really about war without end, and the death-drenched culture it has created.
The Trespasser by Tana French
I rarely read crime fiction, and when I do, it’s almost always something written by Tana French. She writes about the detectives of the Dublin murder squad, in this instance about the lone woman on the squad, Antoinette Conway. She and her partner are assigned to investigate a murder that at first appears to be a routine boyfriend-kills-girlfriend – they see far too many of these “domestics” – but turns out to be shockingly different. French is a gorgeous writer, and while her novels have dynamic plots and growing suspense, the most pleasure for readers comes from her psychologically acute character studies, plus the insider’s look at how police work is done.
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
This powerful novel takes place in a near-future America that is familiar except for one thing: four states, known as the Hard Four, still practice slavery. And that skews everything else in the world, from the fact that most countries will not trade with the U.S. to what happened with a certain novel about a mockingbird. Most importantly, of course, it changes life for all African American people, in the Hard Four states and elsewhere, including the narrator of the novel, known (sometimes) as Victor. He is a former “peeb” himself – a person bound to labor – and now is equally enslaved, by means of a chip embedded in his body, to a federal agency that uses him as a highly skilled marshal to track down escaped peebs and return them to their bondage. When Victor is assigned an unusual case, everything begins to unravel, including his sense of self. The book is packed with chilling details, such as the codifications of blackness that Victor has memorized, and this song, which a giant corporation forces its slaves to sing every morning on the way to work: “These strong hands belong to you, hands and back and spirit too” – and then they must shout out thank yous to the corporation that owns them. As an alternate history of the U.S. and an indictment of the racism that blights every aspect of American life, this novel succeeds all too well.
The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky
The main character of this novel is Dina, an Australian doctor living with her Israeli husband and their young son in the city of Haifa. It is 2001, and the whole country is one quivering tripwire because of the Intifada and the moment-by-moment terror of violence flaring up from the Palestinian resistance, the Israeli army, or more likely both. But Dina has other worries on top of concerns about her patients and the fear that any public gathering could be a target for a bomb. She is haunted – literally – by her late mother, who survived the Holocaust, and by her mother’s memories and acid-etched stories of those who didn’t survive. The novel ratchets up the tension page by page as we watch Dina’s life spiral out of control while she tries to find a home for herself in a country so intent on fighting for its life that it has neglected its soul. I particularly appreciated the fine depiction of smaller characters, from passengers on the bus to patients in Dina’s waiting room to a shoemaker who repairs more than leather.
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
A satisfying, old-fashioned novel that tells a multi-layered story about the wife of a famous writer, as she ponders marriage (the heterosexual kind), the egotism of men, the mystery of children, the anxieties of artistic success, and the limitations placed on women of all eras lest they grow too powerful. Such smart, assured writing, with a few surprises tucked in here and there.
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
An interesting and enjoyable account of Gloria Steinem’s life and travels, from experiences with her itinerant, penniless parents, to the months she spent in rural India, to her burgeoning career as a writer, civil rights activist and eventually the years she spent as a feminist leader. I was familiar with some of the incidents she describes, but her behind-the-scenes view is extraordinary. I was surprised and moved to read where, and with whom, Steinem plans to be buried. Luckily at 82, she is still going strong.
Negroland by Margo Jefferson
Loved, loved, loved this memoir about a woman’s coming of age as a member of the elite upper-class African American community of Chicago’s South Side. The demands on Jefferson and her family were immense: to be better than everyone else, black or white. Born in 1947, Jefferson’s youth and young adulthood incorporated the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement, among others – tumultuous change that took place between the huge grinding stones of race and class. The book is written with wit, erudition and an appealingly arch tone. Jefferson’s story resonated particularly with me because I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and recognized some of the locations and institutions she mentioned; for example, Jefferson attended the same school as my mother – the Lab School, one of only two private schools in the city that were racially integrated.
The Residence: Inside the Private World of The White House by Kate Andersen Brower
Fascinating behind-the-scenes look at daily lives and professional demands on the permanent staff of the White House residence – the butlers, ushers, cooks, florists, carpenters, housekeepers, etc. who interact intimately with each First Family and keep the private(ish) side of the Executive Mansion running.
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
The highly lauded story of an unpromising racehorse who turned out to win more matches than anyone dreamed possible and became a hero and cultural icon during the Depression era. Laura Hillenbrand is outstanding at turning stories that have little inherent interest (to me) into gripping, highly textured narratives.
Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild
The Spanish Civil War was a battle between fascists and democrats, between a secular government and one dominated by the Catholic Church, between left and right. It would, in fact, turn out to be a prequel to WWII – and a lost opportunity to stop Hitler and Mussolini before they waged war on the world. This book takes a deep look into the lives of Americans who fought in the war and the leftist activists and artists who wrote, raised funds, organized supplies, established hospitals, published newspapers, and agitated on behalf of the Republican (secular) side. Hochschild reveals the shocking and illegal support that Texaco, an American oil company whose CEO admired Hitler, gave to Franco and his fascists.
The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
A 30-something British couple leaves high-stress London and moves to rural Denmark so the husband can work for Lego. The wife, a journalist, decides to spend the year investigating what makes the Danish appear in survey after survey as “the happiest people on earth.” Among her many discoveries is the fact that anyone who works more than 8 hours a day is considered not a workplace hero but a slacker who can’t complete their work on time. I learned a good deal about Danish culture and daily life, and enjoyed the level of humor and snark the author brought to the narrative.
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
In this incisive, insightful narrative, Anderson makes an irrefutable case that white people have risen up to block progress toward racial justice at every opportunity, using whatever legislative and policy tools were at hand and not infrequently the torch, the rope and the gun as well. From the post-Civil War years to the era she calls “How to Unelect a Black President,” Anderson reveals a different slant on the story of America that was evident the entire time if we had only cared to look. And fellow white people, we are not the heroes of this story. The book is short, readable, well resourced, and essential reading, especially for white people.
What books would you recommend to curl up with on a winter night? Which books astonished, delighted or obsessed you this year? What are you looking forward to reading in 2017? Do tell.