By Carole Reedy
December. A time to reflect on the year’s end and anticipate the days ahead. One of my favorite mind games is to review books I’ve read this year and investigate 2016’s fresh arrivals. As Julian Barnes reminds us, the pleasure is in the anticipation.
Here are my top ten picks from the 60 or so books I’ve read this year. Following the list are the preferences of THE EYE staff, who are naturally avid readers. Presented not necessarily in order of preference, though numbers one and two are indeed my favorites of the year…
1–The four books that make up the Neapolitan Series by Elena Ferrante. The author claims this is really just one long novel, divided into four selections: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. Ferrante masterfully creates the world of two eight-year-old girls in Naples and follows them through adolescence and adulthood until they reach their 60s. The book received well-deserved accolades from the critics, and the author received a lot of press partly inspired (ironically) by her refusal to participate in publicity for her books, which she says should stand on the merit of the writing, not on clever advertising and promotion. Ferrante is a recluse, in the style of J.D. Salinger, who gives no live interviews or appearances and does not participate in book tours. In fact, Elena Ferrante is not even her given name.
2–The five novels that make up the Patrick Melrose series, also intended as one long book, deserve a tie for first place on my list. Wealthy and well-bred British citizen Edward St. Aubyn has written his autobiography in novel form. If you didn’t know that this is his story, you might think the book too far-fetched to be true. Suffering from a sexually abusive father, a mother who substitutes caring for others in place of her son, a wife who sexually abandons him in favor of motherhood, and a period of severe drug addiction (it’s amazing he’s even alive), St. Aubyn’s elegant and very British style is what makes this a fine piece of literature. The five books are: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last. Mother’s Milk was on the Man Booker Prize short list in 2006. (Coincidentally, St. Aubyn also published a satire on book prizes, Lost for Words, in 2014, which he thinks will assure that he never wins one of the awards in the future.)
3–The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2013. Never did I think a novel that takes place in North Korea would mesmerize me as this one did. The characters are solid and fascinating, as is the tragic story of North Korea.
4–Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. Clement has written a novel based on the true stories of the women and their daughters who reside in a mountain pueblo outside of Acapulco. Abandoned by their husbands, who travel North to work in the US, the mothers struggle to protect the young girls, who are the victims of kidnapping by narcos. Brilliantly crafted, the book is told from the point of view of Ladydi, one of the girls of the village. Clement, current President of PEN International, has created this world as a result of her usual impeccable research. A book well worth reading, for Mexican residents and visitors alike.
5–Black Girl White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates. Reading Oates can be a full-time job. She’s written more than 50 novels, in addition to short stories, novellas, essays, plays, and books for children. I have read 20+ of her novels, and this one, from 2006, caught my attention this year. In Oates’ usual mysterious way of taking you to the soul of her characters, here she tells the story of roommates (one black, one white), but the novel reveals as much about their families, especially the fathers, as it does of the two girls.
6–The Anatomy Lesson by Philip Roth. Every year I read several novels by Philip Roth, who now in his 82nd year claims he won’t write another. This autobiographical novel was written in 1983 and is the third to feature Nathan Zuckerman as the main character, who here is stricken with undiagnosable pain in middle age. Not well-received by critics, it nonetheless was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2015 I also read Operation Shylock and The Facts, both worthy of your time. As always, they’ll make you laugh.
7—The Flaneur by Edmund White. US citizen White lived in Paris for several years, and here he takes us for a walk through the streets of Paris, which ooze fascinating history. White is an incredible font of history, art, literature, and gossip about this well-loved city, all shared elegantly. Since reading this book, a friend and I often “flaneur” through the neighborhood of Mexico City in the style of White (see November’s issue of The Eye for a full account of these meanderings). I especially enjoyed the section about the monarchy waiting in the shadows, at the ready to make their grand reappearance.
8–Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomelin. This book received kudos from every member of our book club. A totally likeable man, Pepys, through the eyes of Tomelin, gives us a glimpse of the period before and after the restoration in 17th century England that, like himself, is unequalled.
9–Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson. This collection of short stories and essays never before published is just a joy. Most of us remember Jackson for her short story The Lottery (published in 1948), which I read more than 50 years ago in high school freshman English class. It has stayed with me to this date. The stories and essays of her family life in New York and New England are funny and poignant. Jackson mastered the art of the story and essay in her productive yet short life, dying in 1965 at age 48 of a heart attack while sleeping. This is the kind of book you want to own and keep by your bedside to pick up for a quick enjoyable read from time to time. The selections are quite short and snappy. For a lover of the grand tome, such as I, it’s a refreshing change of pace…and each story put a smile on my face.
10–Purity by Jonathan Franzen. I haven’t finished it yet, but for me Franzen’s latest is exactly what a novel should be: well developed characters, a plot with substories, historical context, and deep description of it all. Franzen is our Dickens, Balzac, Hugo, and Roth all wrapped into one fine 21st century novelist.
Recommendations from The Eye staff
Living to Tell the Tale (Vivir para contarla) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is Julie Etra’s favorite because “it is beautifully written, evocative, and sensual.”
The Infatuations by Javier Marias tops Jan Chaiken’s list (with grand hurrahs coming from me, Marias being one of my favorite writers). Jan says: “The reader is well advised to have three books at hand–the English translation, the original Spanish, and a novella by Balzac called Colonel Chabert. The original Spanish will help you understand some of Marias’ wonderful wordplay, which cannot really be reproduced in translation. The novella by Balzac enters halfway through the novel, and the organization of its story as told by Marias’ character is even better than that of Balzac. The theme of this story-within-a-story is of a soldier, long presumed dead, who returns alive, and the effects on his widow—now remarried—and his wealth, which others have inherited. Ouch!”
Courtney Family Adventures by Wilbur Smith. Since June, Erin Vig has been reading this saga, in six books, which follows four generations of a South African family from the early 18th century to the late 20th. Though a fictional series, the novels are based on factual events. She says “The series is not what I consider light reading, but it is extremely enjoyable and enlightening.”
Bringing Home Bubbie by Debra Gordon Zaslow. Veteran EYE writer Marcia Chaiken shares with us this review, written for Amazon: “Ms. Zaslow has surpassed herself in this autobiographical, starkly beautiful portrait of five generations of women.She honestly describes her struggles with the pain and joy of providing comfort for her 103-year-old grandmother during her final months, while still dealing with the contemporary challenges faced by millions of women: two-career marriages, teen angst, difficult relatives, and the nitty gritty of trying to keep a family in balance. I highly recommend this book for all women who have ever been a mother or a daughter and all men who want to understand them.”
Two favorites from Brooke Gazer: Gods, Gachupines, and Gringos, A People’s History of Mexico by Richard Grabman. “This book takes a unique look at Mexican history and how it has affected the current culture. I have read a few books about Mexican history, but this one included a lot of amusing anecdotes that you are not likely to find elsewhere, which really ties the past with the present.” The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. “A novel told from a dog’s point of view. Some of the observations and assumptions are priceless.”
The Eye contributor Renee Biernacki listed Looking for Alaska by John Green as her favorite book this year. “John Green masterfully and philosophically delves into the labyrinth of forgiving. The characters are as audacious as they are intelligent. The book is a roller coaster of humor, suspense and sorrow. Don’t make any plans because this book is difficult to put down and a great read from beginning to end.”
Last, but not least, two novels recommended by the editor, creator, and backbone of THE EYE. Thanks, Jane Bauer!
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. “This is a novel about the power of storytelling. The characters jump to life with Krauss’ easy and poignant prose. I fell in love with all of them.” Fallen by Kara Stanley. “This poignantly written non-fiction story is about a woman dealing with the aftermath of a work accident that left her husband in a wheelchair and how his connection to music helped his recovery.”
And one more, a recommendation from my personal editor from Chicago, Heidi Hough, whose careful eye corrects my careless scribbling: 2013 Man Booker Award winner The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. “Set in 1866, when gold fever (and all its permutations, both good and nasty) struck New Zealand, the book’s characters are as diverse as the night sky as they follow their dreams, encounter success and failure, and form intriguing liaisons against the backdrop of NZ’s wild west coast. In a gold rush town called Hokitika, much mischief is afoot. I walked the town for a week in 2015, Catton’s locations out my camper door, but you don’t have to be there to be taken on a read of a lifetime.”
Thanks to all who contributed to this final article of the year. Wishing you another satisfying 365 days of books and reading in 2016. See you right back here in January!