I know I’m late to the party on top picks of 2016. I got distracted by a disruption in the Force. Taking inspiration from three wishes, three pointers (by the Tarheels), and meat and three’s, here are the three novels I loved most in 2016 (followed by three novels I’m reading right now)….
News of the World, by Paulette Jiles (National Book Award finalist, 2016)
This was a late-breaking read for me in 2016, and perhaps it’s at the top of the list in part because it’s fresher in my mind than some of the others. No matter. It’s not long, it’s not flashy, it’s kind-of a Western. This is not a book I thought would enchant me. But the hope, love and generosity of spirit that emanate from this story are unforgettable. I first wrote about it at Styleblueprint in December:
Set in 1880s Reconstruction-era Texas, News of the World tells the story of Captain Kidd, a man who travels the length of Texas on horseback delivering the news to rapt audiences who don’t have regular access to a newspaper. His wife has passed away, his daughters have married and moved east, and Captain Kidd is an old man living in a dangerous world. Texas – semi-lawless – holds threats for whites, blacks, and Indians alike. Kidd agrees to transport a young white girl recently rescued from the Kiowa but soon realizes he’s taken on more than he’d bargained for. Johanna speaks no English and keeps trying to escape back into the hands of her captors. Kidd is honor-bound to return her to her distant and forgotten relatives, but over time, he comes to question his mission. The fierce and gentle love that grows between them during their frightening journey is the great, surprising beauty of this 200-page novel. Paulette Jiles – a poet as well as a novelist – makes every word count.
The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma (Man Booker Prize finalist, 2015) (Bonus: in paperback now)
The Fishermen is one of those novels that utterly transports you to another time and place (in this case, 1990s Nigeria) in a way that no other medium would, not exactly. The author brings his imagination to bear – and you have to bring yours. It’s not a hard read, but it’s not like picking up a novel by your favorite American author either. The Fishermen is the parable-like story of four brothers who disobey their parents’ wishes and secretly fish in a cursed river. The village madman threatens them with a horrible prophecy – that one of the brothers will kill the oldest – and the rest of the novel follows the dreadful unwinding of the family. One of the things that makes this book bearable is the incredible imagery and language, both familiar and strange (“Spiders are beasts of grief … ” “Hatred is a leech … ” “I, Benjamin, was a moth: The fragile thing with wings, who basks in light, but who soon loses its wings and falls to the ground.”) In the end, The Fisherman offers more than simply grief and anguish, as I believe great literature does. (Modified from Styleblueprint post, Fall 2016)
The Past, by Tessa Hadley (2015) (Bonus: in paperback now)
The Past is a rich and gorgeous variation on the “English countryside vacation” or “pastoral idyll” novel. Four adult siblings (with assorted children and one non-family member) convene at the family cottage they inherited from their long-dead parents. Over the course of a three week vacation, the grown-up siblings must decide whether to sell or keep the home, now in a state of disrepair. The younger children play disturbing games; the adolescents find love, or something; and the adults try to figure things out, past and present. A deserted cottage deeper in the woods holds a powerful sway. This novel is not as creepy as I’m making it sound, but it is a tiny bit creepy. From The Guardian: “In her patient, unobtrusive, almost self-effacing way, Tessa Hadley has become one of this country’s great contemporary novelists. She is equipped with an armoury of techniques and skills that may yet secure her a position as the greatest of them. Consider all the things she can do. She writes brilliantly about families and their capacity for splintering. She is a remarkable and sensuous noticer of the natural world. She handles the passing of time with a magician’s finesse. She is possessed of a psychological subtlety reminiscent of Henry James, and an ironic beadiness worthy of Jane Austen. To cap it all, she is dryly, deftly humorous. Is that enough to be going on with? These talents are on formidable display in her latest novel, The Past.” Retweet! The Brits always say everything better.
Three Books I’m Reading Right Now:
Swing Time, by Zadie Smith (2016) (This week, named a National Book Critics’ Circle finalist)
“Two brown girls from North London council estates want to be dancers. In the same dance class, the same shade of nut-brown, they are “two iron filings drawn to a magnet,” friends before they speak. One, Tracey, is a natural dancer: intuitive, genius, even. The other, the narrator of Swing Time, is talented in another direction: She is an observer, a wallflower given structure by stronger, surer women around her. Unnamed, unsure, neither black nor white, the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity.
…With Swing Time, Zadie Smith identifies the impossible contradiction all adults are asked to maintain – be true to yourself, and still contain multitudes; be proud of your heritage, but don’t be defined by it. She frays the cords that keep us tied to our ideas of who we are, to our careful self-mythologies. Some writers name, organize, and contain; Smith lets contradictions bloom, in all their frightening, uneasy splendor.
Transit, by Rachel Cusk (2017)
Transit is the second in an anticipated trilogy by Rachel Cusk that began with Outline, one of the New York Times’ Ten Best Books of 2015 (a pretty strong start I think we could all agree). My favorite book critic, Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal, didn’t care for Transit. What? I’m about halfway through and loving it. I’ll for sure report further soon.
From the Publisher’s summary:
In the wake of her family’s collapse, a writer and her two young sons move to London. The process of this upheaval is the catalyst for a number of transitions – personal, moral, artistic, and practical – as she endeavors to construct a new reality for herself and her children. In the city, she is made to confront aspects of living that she has, until now, avoided, and to consider questions of vulnerability and power, death and renewal, in what becomes her struggle to reattach herself to, and believe in, life.
Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, by Katherine Rooney (2017)
This novel seems like a walk in the park.
“A poet and writer of clever, innovative ad copy, Margaret Fishback was admired in her time – the pre-Mad Men era – but is mostly forgotten now. Rooney (O, Democracy!, 2014, etc.) has written a lively, fictionalized version of Fishback’s story, drawing on real milestones but imagining her subject’s inner life.” (Kirkus Review)
“This is a novel about an 85 year-old woman who wends her way to a party. I may have lost you already, but Kathleen Rooney and her delightful Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk will not….
There are beloved works in the canon of great literature featuring famous walkers (James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway immediately come to mind). One of the joys in reading them is the motley cast of characters our heroes and heroines encounter along the way, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is no exception. Whether it’s a bartender, a bodega employee, or a group of thugs, Lillian confronts them with the same infectious curiosity, compassion, and pluck. It’s a testament to Rooney’s writing chops that you’ll want to walk with Lillian as she ponders, all the while paying homage to New York in its gritty glory.” (Amazon Best Books of January 2017)
“There is a little of Lillian Boxfish in all of us. And if there isn’t, there ought to be.” (Julia Claiborne Johnson, author of Be Frank With Me)
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Please check out this post at Styleblueprint for other books that have been on my radar lately as exceptionally delicious reads. Especially – Margaret the First!! I’ve already raved about Imagine Me Gone and A Gentleman in Moscow. What else should I be reading?