Thursday, December 29, 2016

Best reads of 2016

I'm not entirely sure why it is, but it seems that the best of the books I read in 2015 were more satisfying than the ones I read in 2016.  My honorable mention list below includes several "stretch" books that would not have made the list when stacked up against the books from 2015.  There were quite a few books that have a devoted readership that left me completely unimpressed and, more often than not, bored (Han Kang's The Vegetarian, Graham Swift's Ever After, Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival) and in the case of Philip Roth Sabbath's Theatre I'm quite sorry I stuck with the book, since it was such a sordid, unpleasant experience reading it, and the first quarter quite adequately conveys what the whole book is like.

However, I did have a very late entry onto the list - Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, which is mostly a memoir with a few parables or tall tales sprinkled in.  It's quite interesting, and I am sorry I hadn't read it sooner.  I actually got only a few pages into Vanity Fair this year and expect to wrap it up on my way to and especially from TRB, so there's a reasonable chance it will make the 2017 list.

In any event, the top 5 books from 2016 were:
Albert Cossery - The Jokers
Primo Levi - The Periodic Table
Edna O'Brien - Night
Alice Munro - The Moons of Jupiter
Jonathan Lethem - Chronic City

The best book reread was Tess Slessinger's The Unpossessed

Honorable mention

Patricia Highsmith - The Price of Salt
Danilo Kis - A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch
Carol Shields - Unless
Lawrence Hill - The Book of Negroes 
Charles Johnson - Oxherding Tale
Harper Lee - To Kill A Mockingbird
William Faulkner - Intruder in the Dust 
Willa Cather - My Antonia
Samuel Butler - The Way of All Flesh
And there is a tie in the battle of the Steves:
Steve Zipp - Yellowknife
Steve Earle - I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

I had anticipated Madison Smartt Bell's Waiting for the End of the World would be the best reread of the year, displacing The Unpossessed, but I'd say the opposite happened.  I actually found the set pieces in The Unpossessed, especially the party where Prof. Bruno Leonard completely unravels, to be of considerable more interest than it was on the first read, at least in part because I became aware of the parallels to Dostoevsky's Demons.  Waiting for the End of the World was still quite a compelling read, but I just couldn't react as positively this time around when reading about a group of misfit revolutionaries who want to set off an atomic bomb in Manhattan.  After 9/11, that stuff just isn't funny any more.  The denouement is also a bit unsatisfying.  In a very strange way, I am reminded of a short piece I wrote for middle school where one of the main character's defining characteristics is unpredictability.  In the piece, the characters have found this magic ring, which was the point of their quest.  As they are leaving, he tosses it into a volcano!  (I must have read Tolkien by this point.)  While there are people in real life who are this contrary and contradictory, I find in general they don't make very good characters, since they violate so much of the reader's trust.

Bit of a disappointment really:
George Bowering Burning Water
Stanislaw Lem Solaris
Stanislaw Lem Memoirs Found in a Bathtub
Isak Dinesen Out of Africa

Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater was a severe disappointment on many levels.

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