Standout Reads 2016

Late again… But you were probably needing some books to read this summer. In case you’re bored, here’s the best of what I read last year:

Fiction

The Sport of Kings, CE Morgan. Ha. After the exquisite gem of Morgan’s first novel, what did her readers expect? It’s always difficult to come out with the career-defining second book. Will it meet expectations? Be too ambitious and fail? Be more of the same and therefore be boring? Ha, again. Morgan goes for it and writes an old-fashioned but updated Great American Novel that draws from but transcends Faulkner and the rest. Ballsy. She pulls it off and then some.

Power, Linda Hogan. A native American girls and the woman she adores come of age through terrible tradeoffs? What is power? Authenticity? Extinction? What IS an endangered species?

Any Deadly Thing, Roy Kesey. Stories. I’ve said before this guy should be the literary toast of the country. Make it so.

The Door, Magda Szabo. Atmospheric, oblique narration, post-War Eastern Europe. What’s not to brood over here?

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen. One view of the other side of the Vietnam war.

Wolfhound Century; Truth and Fear; and Radiant State. Trilogy by Peter Higgins. Intriguing and beautifully written triller/fantasy/alt-history/steam-punk mashup based on Soviet Russia.

The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra. The guy who brought you A Constellation of Vital Phenomena returns with this more authentic-feeling story collection exploring different dimensions of post-Soviet society.

Fives and Twenty-fives, Michael Pitre. The strongest of the Iraq or Afghanistan war novels I’ve read so far.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton. If it weren’t for the horses and the dresses, she could have been writing about us, right now, today.

A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay. Tremblay is a pretty exciting writing to come along lately and bust up some genres.

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Paul Tremblay. See above, though while A Head Full of Ghosts is more meant to be horror, only is it, Disappearance is more literary, or is it horror?

The Night Guest, Fiona MacFarlane. Eventually we will all be trapped in webs spun by our night guests, and we will invite those guests in to spin those webs. How this happens to the elderly character in this novel is a tale told with beauty and wisdom by this younger writer.

Eleven Hours, Pamela Erens. What could be more dilated, more engrossing, more internally focused than the last few hours in which we are creating and bringing forth an entire life? Talk about poetics…

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. This is so often mentioned that I might have skipped it, but I can’t stop thinking about it a year later, so here it is.

 

Nonfiction

Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone, Scott Shane. Everyone should read this, or you should, if you want to understand the drone program and what’s behind today’s headlines. Also how we got to be a country that executes citizens without trial.

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Michael Snyder. This is a Big Think about the Holocaust that many may not be ready for. That is, a lot of what you learned in school is not true, or not true exactly. Most of the Jews were not killed in Germany, and were not killed by Germans. The Holocaust mostly took place in Eastern Europe or in the Ukraine, in what Snyder calls the “homeland” of European Jews, given that they’d been living there in many cases for over 2000 years. Most of the murders happened by bullet, not gas, which was a last resort at the very end of the war. This is not to excuse any of it, but to look at the conditions under which this was allowed and encouraged to occur, and the failure of the states leading to the collapse of the political rights they’d backed that then allowed such chaos and hatred to flourish where for a time in many cases there had been some form of balance, however uneasy. The upshot: it is statehood and citizenship that protects minorities. Where Jews maintained citizenship, such as in Denmark or Sweden, they were not surrendered (refugees, lacking documentation, were). When Austria and other East European countries lost independent statehood, they had no power to protect the Jews. In Poland, the Ukraine, and the other Soviet republics where statehood had long been disputed, Jews and other ethnic groups simply went under the wheel. It was Hitler’s long-term goal to remove everyone, including all the Slavs. In fact, he was less interested in the Jews than in killing off the Slavs. The original plan had been to liquidate the Slavs while sending the Jews to Siberia. It was only when the Slavs began killing the Jews on their own that Hitler & Co seized the opportunity, Snyder argues. But these are tech-weenies. The target was the black earth of the Ukraine, and Germany’s control of it and resettlement there.

I’m simplifying a good deal.

 

 

 

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Standout Reads 2015

Finally! Just squeaking by before the end of the first quarter… here’s my list of the best books I came across LAST year. As always, this list has nothing to do with release dates. Honestly, I was a little disappointed with what I read in 2015. I pulled in a couple from 2014, because there were SO MANY I loved from that year I couldn’t fit them all in. The good news is that 2016 is already looking great.

I’ll start with my top pick; after that, totally random order.

FICTION


A
Little Life, Hanya Yanigahara. I won’t say I enjoyed it, but it was the most thought-a little lifeprovoking, chewy novel I read all year. I’m still thinking about it. I’ll think about it forever I bet. Like those great books we read in high school. One of which was…

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy. I read this twice and it bummed m
e out totally both times while feeling absolutely true. I swore I’d never read it again, but after reading A Little Life, I felt I had to revisit it. Yanagihara never says anywhere that she was writing judein counterpoint to Hardy, and neither do any of the reviewers I read, but it seems obvious to me.

The Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante. There are four. Read them in order, starting with My Brilliant Friend. Weep because they are so good, so right, so rightly done, and how did she do it?

Nora Webster, Colm Toibin. Another novel looking at a woman in a small impoverished community, in a country where women’s lives are tightly controlled by said community and by Catholicism, and where poverty is also strictly enforced by social mores. Yet, the narrative is handled very differently. Beautiful book.

Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Perhaps not as polished as some of Haruf’s other books, but it was his last, and I figure he ran out of time. Much to think about here, and to be moved by, as is usual with Haruf. With this story, I found myself considering how wrapped uwatsonp with their own lives adults become, how insensitive to the needs of their children and parents, how insensate to the fact that their children and parents HAVE interior lives.

Let Him Go, Larry Watson. If you’re missing Kent Haruf, go read Watson.


The Blazing World
, Siri Hutsvedt. Can never go wrong with Hutsvedt. She blazingworldshould win everything. An outsized, unfashionable, and rather shrill woman, gifted as an artist, but overshadowed by her art-critic husband, may have gone a little crazy by the way she’s been marginalized, and by
the way her work has been stolen (at first with her blessing as part of her performance art, as part of her POINT about the way women artists are not taken seriously, but later, actually stolen), but then again maybe not, as her final work unequivocally shows her genius.

dark room


The Dark Room
, Rachel Seiffert. Three ways of looking at the Holocaust from the POVs of ordinary Germans, including leading up to it, during the war, and from long after. The middle novella was made into the Canadian movie Lore, also worth watching.

Day of the Oprichnik, Victor Sorokin. A Russian writer has recently made a list: the 10 best books for understanding contemporary Russia. This little oprichnikhorror of a novel, though set in the not-so-distant future, should have been on it.

Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner. First novels have become so workshopped and polished these days. Here is one that may have serious flaws but that also pays off big. This novel takes huge risks. It’s vivid and daring—well worth the read.

gardenSomeone Else’s Garden, Dipika Rai. Stands out among Indian novels for its emphasis on lower-caste women. Beautifully written.

Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum. I didn’t actually rate this novel very highly on Goodreads, but it still stands out for certain reasons. The question of mental health vs. personality disorders for one thing. What the hell was WRONG with that woman?

Girl girlwarat War, by Sara Novic. Another very interesting first novel. This book came under fire for getting some of the details wrong about what may have happened in Zagreb, but I maintain it stays true to what a 10-year-old girl may have remembered. The war in the title stands for a lot of different struggles, both external and internal. Perhaps the ending was a bit too clean, but the book stays with me, and that’s what I look for.

einsteinEinstein’s Beach House, Jacob Appel. It’s hard for a short story collection to make this list, because often some stories really rock and others seem just blah, but this collection shone all the way through. Appel is one of those writers who has published hundreds of stories and won dozens of prizes but only recently has begun seeing his books published. I hope he soon gets the broader recognition he deserves.

NONFICTION

Men We Reaped, Jessmyn Ward. A grief memoir, as Ward gives us the backstory of the young men she grew up with, including a brother, who died violently in her neighborhood, sometimes as a result of their own misdeeds, or just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Structural poverty is the main culprit.

Madam Secretary, Madeleine Albright. No matter what quote you think you’ve heard and why you believe you hate her, you should still read this book. You should read all the books by the secretaries of state. It’s no easy job, and maybe you’ll find out about the deals and the trades and why it’s impossible not zealotto do some harm in this role, and maybe you’ll stop armchair quarterbacking.

Zealot, Reza Aslan. Makes a good case that Jesus was crusader who wanted all non-
Jews out of Israel. That is, he may have been the Jewish equivalent of a jihadist.

The Beast in the Garden, David Baron. How mountain lions changed their ways and came to threaten suburban beastcommunities. Reads like a thriller.

Worlds of Arthur, Guy Halsall. While it’s extremely unlikely that there was ever a King Arthur, here’s a great window into the era in which he would have lived, if he had. (And there are a few assumptions Halsall dismisses out of hand that I’m not sure he should, so maybe there’s a teeny bit of hope, still, though not for a King.)

arthurPOETRY

Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey. What I admire about Trethewey is the precise way she combines the narrative and the lyric… a good chunk of this collection looks at a company of black soldiers who held an island off Louisiana for the North during the Civil War. Trethewey was recently the U.S. Poet Laureate.

Nox, Anne Carson. Designed like a scrapbook, the  book” emphasizes the hopeless nature of trying to reassemble our memory of a person who has committed suicide.

Hard Love Province, Marilyn Chin. This collection is also chasing something ephemeral, a “beautiful boyfriend” who has died.

Many Parishes, Adrian Koesters. One of the best collections I’ve read in years, this debut approaches childhood abuse, sequesterdom (is that a word?), deep religious inquiry, and spiritual emergence with fortitude and tenderness.

JOURNALS

Once in a while I come across journals that I actually read from cover to cover, so I go ahead and recommend them (on top of other journals I’ve mentioned in past years, and my standards, such as Beloit Poetry Journal, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, and that lot):

bosque

Spillway

Tar River Poetry

Iron Horse Literary Review

Ploughshares Solos Omnibus 3