By Carole Reedy
Instead of making a Christmas list for Santa, every year I review the books I’ve read and make a list of my favorites. Revisiting each book provokes a memory of the particular time I was reading it–in the Buenos Aires apartment adjacent to the Recoleta Cemetery where Evita’s remains finally rest in peace, in the cozy bed and breakfast in La Havana across from the Museo de la Revolución, or on a lazy afternoon on my small, peaceful, yet vibrant with street-vendor noise, terrace in Mexico City.
Reading and remembering bring joy as well as order, meaning, and understanding to our often-turbulent lives.
Not all the books on my list were written during 2016, and in fact my favorite of the year was written more than ten years ago. Like all avid readers, I have my favorite authors, and those of you who read these columns faithfully will recognize them among the new books and authors. There is one autobiography among these fiction gems.
You Shall Know My Velocity by Dave Eggers
Be sure to read the more recent of the two versions that were published in 2002 and 2003. The addition of one chapter in the second version changes the whole perception of the plot and characters. This year I also read Zeitoun by Eggers, an excellent nonfiction account of a Muslim family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, their story as tragic as the hurricane itself.
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
With this short novel, Barnes has returned to his terse yet descriptive style in a biography-disguised-as-fiction book about Shostakovich and his music suffering under the reign of Stalin. Barnes’ last two books left me cold, but this one was impossible to leave.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
Clever, descriptive, and compelling, O’Farrell uses the device of interchanging timelines and characters throughout the novel, and it doesn’t feel manipulative at all. A favorite of many friends this season.
The Sacrifice by Joyce Carol Oates
Unfortunately, in this lifetime I’ll never be able to read all of Oates’ novels. The real mystery is how she finds the time to write them. This one takes us back to her first novels of the 1970s that challenge racism and exploitation of women and children. The characters are vividly portrayed and the plot provokes anger and frustration. I highly recommend also Oates’ Big Mouth, Ugly Girl, especially to adolescents.
No Way Home by Carlos Acosta
I strayed from my normal fiction habit to read this autobiography of the famous ballet dancer from Cuba. I was inspired by a planned visit to the island, and the book prepared me for the wonder of Cuba and its unequalled ballet company and commitment.
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Like Barnes, McEwan with this short novel returns to his whimsical, ironic, fantastical self. The story, told from the point of view of a fetus about to be born, is delightfully reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and is pure joy to read.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McIntyre
Winner of two big literary prizes this year, McIntyre takes the reader into the bowels of Cork, Ireland, with a clever style and skillful character dialogue and description that justifies the praise she’s been receiving.
The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver
Set in a scary future, the story takes place from 2020 to 2049 in this latest novel. Main character Will holds the novel and family together over 20 turbulent years.
The Island by Victoria Hislop
Although a novel about a leper colony doesn’t sound like a people pleaser, Hislop’s talent for historical detail combined with a good story gives readers just what they want in a novel. The small leper colony off Crete allows Hislop the opportunity to tell us about the time in that area around World War 2.
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge by Strout has been a favorite novel among women over the past several years. This one, completely different, is just as compelling in its character development and provides a twist at the end that changes perception and thus the lives of the characters.
These are some of the books that, upon completion, I insist my reading buddies drop whatever they’re reading to start. It’s all about the writing. Although some have compelling plots, it’s not the reason they appear among my favorites. These are books that dare to bring a new perspective to existing tenets, that ask the reader to view hum-drum daily routine in a way never seen before, and that evoke an unsettling feeling of one’s own humanity. These are not comfortable books. I’ve been accused of reading depressing novels, but I prefer to think of them as books that lay all emotion on the table and address head-on that which we would prefer to ignore.
Onward and upward to 2017!