Best Reads of 2016
Winter is coming! Actually it's already here, and there is really no better time to curl up by the fire and plow through some great books. Not all of these books were released this year but they have all been incredibly well received, with a winner of the Man Booker Prize, a National Book Award for Nonfiction, and two National Book Award Finalists among them. It's a good mix of fiction and non-fiction, comedy and drama, historical and present-day. If you're inclined to read these books, please purchase via my links below (yay, Amazon affiliate income). Get reading!
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
“...things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”
This was the most engrossing piece of fiction I read all year. 720 pages deep, it's no quick read, but the depth and complexity of Yanagihara's characters is simply breathtaking. It's a heavy novel, filled with abuse, suffering, and pain, and without any real sense of redemption. However, the glimmers of beauty and sustenance seen in the friendships throughout the novel provide a compelling reminder that the company we choose is perhaps our best hope for salvation.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
“Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I'd have been better off. I wouldn't have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn't have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it. Plus, I'm left-handed.”
If A Little Life was the most engrossing fiction of the year, The Sellout was easily the most entertaining. The entire novel is written with the humor of stand-up comedy, yet dives into the meaty topic of race in America. In a brilliant, outrageous, and uncomfortable satire, Beatty runs through the gamut of black American culture and stereotypes, and the lasting imprint of slavery on our society. In Trump's post-truth America, the timing of this novel could not be more perfect.
The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen
"...the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love."
My infatuation with the Nordic way of life is no secret. I have long marveled over their superior quality of life without any sacrifice to economic prosperity. Partanen breaks down the Nordic approach to education, parenting, healthcare, and employment with incredible dexterity. As she enumerates all the benefits of her Finnish taxes, including comprehensive healthcare, a full year of partially paid disability leave, nearly a full year of paid parental leave for each child, affordable high-quality day care, one of the world’s best K-12 education systems, free college and free graduate school, it leaves no wonder that many Americans are left grappling with anxiety in our increasingly inequitable society.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
“Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.”
This is by far one of my favorite novels exploring the topic of marriage. It begins as an ordinary telling of a successful, happy couple, then suddenly shifts into a question of perspective, forcing the reader to examine all the unspoken truths that can exist between two people. Groff's writing is lyrical and poetic as she seamlessly unspools the complex inner workings of the nature of marriage itself.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
“The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life—to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be.”
I will admit that I was initially hesitant to read this book. The concept of mortality has never exactly frightened me, but the thought of morbidity in old age absolutely terrifies me. Gawande makes the powerful argument that modern medicine has it wrong with it's approach to geriatric care. Doctors can be so singularly focused on a cure that they lose sight of the fact that many chronic diseases are in fact incurable. Like all good stories, the way in which we end our lives is particularly meaningful. Rather than subjecting the elderly to painful and risky treatments and surgeries, the ethical question can be raised as to whether improving the quality of remaining years of life should be of higher importance. This book gave me optimism and a much more clear set of principles with which I hope to age.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
“Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”
This memoir is a mesmerizing portrait of the artists and bohemians that enriched the culture of New York City in the late 60's and early 70's. The icing on the cake is that the two central characters go on to become some of the most iconic cultural icons of our time. Patti Smith is best known for her poetry and songwriting. Her gift with the written word is evidenced throughout with her beautiful, warm, and rich writing.
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
“What his uncle does not understand is that in walking backwards, his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving. He is objecting. Because when everything cherished by you in life has been taken away, what else is there to do but object?”
The imagery of The High Mountains of Portugal is simply spellbinding. Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, once again manages to create a mystical, almost fable-like world in which the lines of reality are blurred. The narrative spans across three distinct time periods, with three interlocking tales that all lead to the countryside of Portugal. It is ultimately a tale of a moral and spiritual search, with a deeply satisfying, elegant ending.