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.