When I first began to try to untangle my reading for the year, with the idea of compiling my own first-ever "Ten Best" list, I despaired: it seemed impossible to unknot the huge pile I'd read that seemed like too many clothes sent tumbling through the dryer, especially as, more than ever this year, I revisited books going very far into my past and read more essays, poems, short stories and plays than I have for years. I also dropped reading more books than usual (though not many). And I recognize a year as an arbitrary unit: The ten best books of this particular twelve months may not be particularly great in the grand scheme of things, though many, I believe are.
(In my next post, I tackle the "ten best rereads" of 2016.)
This list includes many books newly published but also older books that were new to me.
My "Ten Best Books of 2016:"
1. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace: Remarkably, I had never read or seen a movie or mini-series version of this novel. I tried twice in high school to read it, drawn by the allure of "the greatest novel ever," but soon became so confused by who was who that I dropped it. This August, I began again, primarily because the Trollope list reading group was doing it, and with the idea in mind I would listen to most of it on CD in my car as I travelled back and forth from work. I read the first quarter of the novel at the beach and then did listen to the rest on tape--and watched the Andrew Davies miniseries, which I thought was quite good. I found the novel excellent: this time the names didn't throw me at all, and I had become, over many decades, a much different reader. I recognized almost immediately that it's not a book you plow through for plot, as I was trying to do at 16 and 17, but a book you read slowly and savor for its many detours, vignettes and details: for example, Sophia and Natasha gathering where the nurse slept on a pallet thrown on a clothes chest in a hallway alcove of the Rostov's mansion or the detailed description of a hunt, complete with the fevered competitive psychology driving the characters. I also enjoyed very much Tolstoy's ironic take-down of warfare and the "great man" theory of history. Some of his theory of history did drag and his idealized Victorian praise of Natasha for turning into a fat, adoring breeding cow at the end gave me a new appreciation for the so-called evil Helene.
2. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping: People, including my friend Elaine Pigeon, kept recommending it to me. I put it off, fearful that a book published circa 1980 would read as dated without yet having the compensatory charm of a period piece. Finally, early this year, I took it on, and was delighted: it is a marvelous book that challenges in a whimsical way all our notions of what good homemaking is--and the writing was superb. I still feel cold, but enchanted, thinking of the some of icy--or icicly--scenes that sparkle so sharply, with such piercing splinters, an apt metaphor for the book itself in its merging of beauty and pain. On a lighter note, I now have trouble arguing that it's not a good idea to buy your nieces sparkly school shoes even in they do fall apart halfway through the school year. This book, in so many ways a fairytale, was a joy, even if it does promulgate the myth that people can go their own way alone without the torture of searing loneliness.
3. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice: I don't read much science fiction but after a failed attempt to read a somewhat cloying (anything cloying is almost always fatal for me) Octavia Butler 1980s sci-fi novel, I decided to see what else might be out there by women, especially of a more recent vintage. I found 2013's Ancillary Justice, advertised as the only novel ever to win the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. I took the bait, and while I am not much of a science fiction reader (though I greatly enjoyed the genre as a young teen), I found this an excellent book, both humane and, mercifully, astringent. The main character, Esk One, is what is left--the splinter left--of a spaceship, who is seeking justice against the person who destroyed the rest of her (or it). Esk doesn't fully understand gender, so tends to refer to all characters she meets and herself as she, and a big part of the delight of this book is that gender doesn't matter to Esk and hence not to us. The book starts in media res, so it takes awhile to grasp what is going on or the full extent of desolation, loss, oppression and ultimately deep humanity (ironically) of this android-like remnant of a vast machine. It's a book that has stuck with me, gotten under my skin.
4. Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter: I read more biographies than usual this year, including, to name a few off the top of my head, of Kierkegaard, Martin Luther, Elizabeth Bishop, and Betty MacDonald (author of The Egg and I) and found them widely varying in quality from terrible to too dry to too self indulgent to too pedestrian, but the Carter bio was a marvel, "just right" in every way. I hadn't known much of anything about Carter (despite her MSS being the subject of a special exhibit at the British Library when I was there in 2015) and somewhat dreaded reading this book when it fell across my lap. But the writing was superb and intelligent and provided the context of Carter's times while never bogging down in too much detail or talking down to the reader, and with ample focus on Carter's work. Gordon mercifully kept himself out of the story and painted a sympathetic but honest portrait of a woman whose opportunities came from the social democracy of post-war Britain, chiefly including the chance at a free university education. Carter's heart always stayed with the working classes. I fell in love with Carter, flaws and all, not the least because she developed, mellowed and grew as her life went on--and because she cared deeply about writing, people without privilege, and feminism. (Gordon likens her to Woolf in that sense.) I have since read two of Carter's stories in her anthology The Bloody Chamber, both of which exuberantly optimistic, woman-centered retellings of classic fairy tales, and I just have purchased two of her novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children: I hope I like them!
5. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf: An essay on Woolf's activism during the Spanish Civil War and the influence on her of her Quaker aunt, found in an anthology, Quakers in Literature, in which I also have an essay, piqued my long-dormant interest in Woolf. I started on Lee as part of on-line group read--actually, it turned out in the end to be just my friend Ellen Moody and me-- and found it a superb biography that has me thirsting to read or reread all of Woolf--I am more impressed than ever with Woolf as a feminist, pacifist and a writer grappling with the problem of what standard narrative leaves out, especially of woman's experience, be it in biography, memoir or novel. Woolf approached novels less with a story to tell (though she had that) than a problem to solve: how to write of the many moments of silence or "non-being" in a woman's life, how to write like a painter, how to capture the many selves that comprise one person. Like Gordon's, this bio is intelligent and places Woolf in the context of her times. Really a superior read.
6. Tim Parks, A Literary Tour of Italy: Coincidentally, I read this collection of essays about the same time I had to teach a class on Dante's inferno: Parks on Dante is excellent. I didn't know much about Italian literature before this book but now know, if not a great deal, far more. Parks covers a wide range of figures from Boccaccio to Mussolini, including some visual artists, and offered me the first definition of fascist art that actually made sense. Parks is insightful, intelligent and has read widely in Italian literature: he does focus, however, almost exclusively on men.
7. Adam Zagajewski, Slight Exaggeration: Zagajewski is a Polish poet, and at first I had a hard time entering into these essays, which are in fact one long essay/memoir, fluid rather than divided into units, more like a Chinese than an American meal. All the ingredients are tossed together and flavor each other, and gradually create a whole. Zagajewski deals with art, loss, history, the profound sense of displacement he experienced as part of a Polish family sent shortly before his birth to colonize a section of Germany annexed for Poland by the Soviets. I found this book growing on me more and more as I read it, and found myself underlining statement after statement. Zagajewski is an unashamed intellectual, and if he name drops a bit much, that's OK: this book is filled with acute, intelligent and felt observations. I have read so many books this year largely filled with cliches or mostly (in reality) empty of ideas, that this rare, dense, rich work made a deeply satisfying dinner.
8. Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy: I am not Roman Catholic, and as a reviewer, I read many religion books. This one, which I didn't review, stood out from the year's (at best) mediocre collection. Francis is the antidote to Trump and a shining light in this world, a pure beacon of love, humility and mercy. His goodness shines out in this book, filled with selections from Francis's homilies and gentle, never judgmental dialogues with atheists and persons of other faiths. My heart was deeply moved by Francis's sincerity, love, and lack of ego. If more Christians behaved like this pope, the world would be transformed--and a Trump would never be elected president.
9. Charlotte Smith, The Old Manor House: I read this precursor to Jane Austen out loud to Roger this spring and summer during car trips. What a delightful book, filled with edge-of-the-seat plot turns and condemnations of war (when will war satires ever begin to end wars) as well as satire of the social cruelties built into hierarchies. The gentle Monimia, oppressed by her evil aunt, and even kept locked at night in a tower, is a prototype for Fanny Price in Austen's Mansfield Park. She and Orlando fall in love, he gets sent to fight in the American Revolution and following that many adventures, both comic, tragic and, most of all, surprising, occur before matters sort themselves out. The nature writing is lovely, the plot very lively and unlike Austen, Smith's scope is broad, sweeping in warfare in America, servants and criminals into the fold.
10. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: This mid-twentieth book is Bachelard's extended meditation on spaces in houses, how they function as archetypes, and the effects they have on us. It's an odd book to read 50-some years after its publication, written at the very end of life by a man born the same year (1882) as Virginia Woolf and filled with the obsessive mid-century fixation with Freud and phenomenology. It reads as a bit quaint, as we are no longer so Freud-fixated, and is quaint as well because Bachelard's world--such as going down into the basement with a candle as a child--is no longer our own. All the same, many of the archetypes resonate, it's a compelling book (is there a reason Mr. Woodhouse is so fascinated with curio cases of objects?) and I began to understand why I fell in love with the Little House series as a child. The house archetype is powerful, and I am surprised is not more written about.
Runners up: Gilles Deleuzes' Desert Islands and other Essays may have displaced The Poetics of Space, except that I jumped into the Deleuze here and there, reading what interested me rather than the whole set of essays. But what I read I enjoyed and thought about. I read Elena Ferrante's Days of Abandonment, about a woman with two school age children whose husband leaves her for a younger lover. It's a powerful book that stuck with me, unflinching, with the all-important astringency, never cloying, but somehow, I felt an emptiness at the center of it I couldn't shake. I think maybe it was the wrong book for me to start with, and I would better enjoy her more overtly "political" novels that deal with working class life. I am encouraged to read more of her. On a completely different note, because it's a completely different kind of book in temperament, I enjoyed Rebecca Smith's The Jane Austen Writer's Club, a book that derives writing advice and inspiration from Jane Austen's novels and letters. It was a sheer pleasure simply to read the many passages from Austen she quotes and to discover how much solid advice on good writing you can glean from Austen, supporting the idea that she carefully studied her craft. Finally, an anthology of short stories came out this year edited by Ross E. Lockhart, called The Eternal Frankenstein, all riffing one way or another off of the original novel. The quality of the writing (often by academics) is high and many of the stories quite interesting.