Thursday, December 29, 2016

Books of 2016

My favorite books published in 2016:

1.  News of the World.  Paulette Jiles's short and beautiful Western was deeply moving and it is one of those rare books of which I can honestly say that every single sentence is a gem.  Absolutely the novel of the year for me.

2.  Mothering Sunday.  Graham Swift wrote this elegant and stunning 192 page novel.  Its shortness emphasizes just how masterful it is because in just a few pages Swift creates an entire world and gives us big themes like class, the power of storytelling, and loss, all delivered in prose that is erotic, economical, and powerful.

3.  Raymie Nightingale.  Kate DiCamillo wrote one of my all-time favorite books, Because of Winn Dixie, but this one is almost as good.  A look at the definitions of friendship, family (chosen and blood), and the desire to be a good person.  I absolutely loved it.

4.  Miss Jane.  Full disclosure here:  the author, Brad Watson, was one of my mentors when I was studying for my MFA.  But that doesn't change the fact that this is absolutely one of the best novels of the year.  Watson creates one of the most memorable characters I've ever read and looks at the many different kinds of love there are in the world.  This novel is a masterpiece and I wish everyone would read it.

5.  The Wonder.  Emma Donoghue completely immerses us in a specific place (rural Ireland) and time (the mid-1800s) with two compelling and complex lead characters in this novel about a young girl who refuses to eat and may or may not be a saint.  It's a fascinating look at belief, religion, fanaticism, class, and much more in one of the best novels of the year.  I was disappointed by the ending, which didn't feel quite right to me, but this was probably the book that was the biggest page-turner of the year for me.

6.  The Shepherd's Life-James Rebanks.  This nonfiction look at a sheep-farmer's life in Northern England is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read, with stunning sense of place.  It's a lament for a dying way of life and for all ways of life that have gone.  Highly recommended for anyone who loves to read about nature, land, tradition.

7.  Some Writer! Melissa Sweet uses drawings, text, and much more to give us the story of E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and other books.  It's a magical look at one of the all-time best and most fascinating writers.

8.  Upstream.  This collection of essays by Mary Oliver was the perfect balm for me in the days following the horrifying results of the election.  Meditations on nature and the fact that everything that is is holy.

9. My Father the Pornographer.  Chris Offutt is at his best in this moving look at the relationships between fathers and sons and the nature of being creative.

10.  Maxgate.  This novel by Damien Wilkins came out overseas in 2013 but was only released in America this year.  I'm obsessed with Thomas Hardy so naturally I was drawn to this novel about his deathbed days at his beloved manor, Maxgate, from the point of view of one of his servants.  It's a mesmerizing book for anyone who loves Hardy and is especially smart by telling the story through the eyes of a working class woman, Hardy's favorite subjects.

11.  My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Elizabeth Strout is one of my favorite writers and while this is my least favorite of her books (besides The Burgess Boys, which didn't land right for me) it is still a remarkable novel and I've been haunted by it ever since reading it, especially the scene where the young Lucy is trapped in a truck with a snake.  Prose that completely creates a mood.

12.  Spill Simmer Falter Wither-Sara Baume.  The tale of an old man and his dog on the run in Ireland is another one that has really stuck with me although the ending fell a little flat for me.  But the voice is remarkable.

The books listed above were all published in 2016 but I read many other books this year that have been around for awhile (or were published this year but just didn't make my favorites list for one reason or another).  Here's a list of all the books I read this year.  It's not a massive list as I'm a slow reader who savors every word and this of course doesn't include the dozens of manuscripts and student papers I read this year.

Grace Notes, Lamb, and The Anatomy School, all by Bernard MacLaverty, one of my favorite novelists who also wrote Cal, which I read several years ago.  After loving Cal so much I wanted to read as much of his work as I could and this year read three of his novels, with Grace Notes being my favorite of the bunch.  MacLaverty is a master at putting the reader completely in the world he's created and populated with some of the most memorable and likable characters I've ever encountered, all living in Ireland and Scotland during the Troubles.

The Light Between Oceans-M.L. Stedman.  This novel is a bit more blatantly romantic than books I usually read but the author has said that it was inspired by Thomas Hardy, so I had to read it.  The plot is definitely Hardy-worthy, if a bit too melodramatic for my taste.  But it's a beautiful book and made an even more beautiful movie starring Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender.

Train Dreams-Denis Johnson.  One of the best books I've ever read.

On Elizabeth Strout-Colm Toibin

Hide-Matthew Griffin

The War That Saved My Life-Kimberly Brusker Bradley.  I absolutely loved this book; further proof that YA fiction is some of the best writing around.

The Return of the Native-Thomas Hardy.  I read this while touring Hardy Country during my honeymoon so it holds an extra special place in my heart.

The Loney-Andrew Michael Hurley.  This book was a sensation in England and I read it while over there this spring.  Nothing like a well-written horror story.  And while the plot ultimately fizzled out for me I still think about the mesmerizing prose and the landscape created by the author.

H is for Hawk.  Helen MacDonald's look at grief and hawk-rearing is a must-read for any serious lover of literature.  A masterpiece.

Nathan Coulter-Wendell Berry

Hillbillyland-J.W. Williamson

Fanny Says-Nikole Brown.  A wonderful collection of poetry.

Before the Fall-Noah Hawley created one of my all-time favorite television series, "Fargo", so I had high hopes for this novel.  It's an enjoyable page-turner but ultimately became a bit too unbelievable and hokey for me to absolutely love it.

The Call of the Wild-Jack London

A Spool of Blue Thread-Anne Tyler.  Definitely in the top three best books I read this year.  Tyler's best work, I think.  I'll never forget it.

A Monster Calls-Patrick Ness.  A beautiful book about grief.

A Room With a View-E.M. Forster's masterful novel about being a traveller instead of being a tourist and the way travel can change us for the better.

The Past-Tessa Hadley-I've just started this and am absolutely loving it so far but am not far enough in to give a good review.