The best books we read in 2016

Janes

Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

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I’ll be honest: I expected to hate Sons and Lovers. I wanted to finally read D.H. Lawrence for the first time, but a 19th century novel about a young man who is emotionally stunted by his overbearing mother sounded far too pseudo-Freudian for my taste. But I was surprised to find that within the first fifty pages, all of the characters were meticulously drawn at a nearly Jamesian level of psychological nuance, and that the “overbearing mother” was the most sympathetic and fascinating character of the piece. Sons and Lovers is, ostensibly, the story of a young man’s coming-of-age, but really, it’s a story about the fallibility of family bonds, in which they are as fragile yet sticky as strands in a spider web.

Acquired: at a flea market in Iceland, where Sons and Lovers was the only Lawrence novel they had.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

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Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential ode to teenage angst, a cathartic polemic against “phoniness,” and therefore easy to love when you’re in high school. So I was curious to see whether it would hold up after many years of growth, maturation, and getting sick of wealthy white guys whining about their oh-so-difficult lives. But this classic novel ages gracefully, although its pleasures are distinctly different as an adult. While Holden is still an indelible character, and his complaints about the banality of human hypocrisy are often insightful, one of the book’s greatest assets is its self-awareness. No one does more posturing than Holden Caulfield, and the implied author’s affectionate contempt for the character can be felt on every page.

Acquired: from my boyfriend’s bookshelf. He was, somehow, never required to read it in high school, and so hasn’t felt motivated to read it since.

Letters Home by Sylvia Plath

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Too often a writer who commits suicide acquires a morbid type of mystique, in which all of her work and, by extension, all of her life, is read as a lead-up to the moment she decided to take her own life. (Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace are probably the best modern examples of this phenomenon.) But Letters Home, a collection of letters from Plath to her family members from 1950 to 1963 (from her college years up to her death), is a welcome reminder that she was a real, rounded person, who was as often filled with happiness and love as she was with despair and rage. While all of the correspondence is worth reading for diehard Plath fans, I would especially recommend the early letters while she was attending university at Smith, which are filled with the kind of dry wit and youthful optimism that is little associated with her. Letters Home is a look at the development of a great writer, as well as a demonstration of the faculty with language she displayed in every word she ever wrote, but also serves as a reminder that she’s a person, not a martyr.

“Dear Mother,

I think I shall start a new scrapbook about myself, what with all my little attempts at writing being blown up rather out of proportion. Imagine, one awestruck girl greeted me yesterday with, ‘I hear you’re writing a novel. I think that’s just wonderful!’ Whereupon I felt like telling her I was my twin sister and never wrote a damn thing in my life. I’ve got to get to work if I’m to live up to my ‘reputation.’” – March 1, 1951

Acquired: in a vintage book barn in Niantic, Connecticut, where I also found a first US edition of The Plumed Serpent and a second-edition To Kill a Mockingbird. My copy of Letters Home is also a first edition.

The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

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All of the writers at Adversion had mixed-to-negative feelings about the alien invasion drama Arrival (except Nerdy Spice, who fell asleep in the second act [Nerdy Spice: I thought the first thirty minutes were quite good! Just not good enough to stay awake.]), but the Ted Chiang novella that inspired the film is far superior. Like the film, the novella portrays the oft-imagined “first contact” with sensitivity and subtlety, but the “twist” at the end is explored in much more depth, grounded in a fascinating solution to the dichotomy between free will and determinism that was lost in translation. And while Arrival was hailed as a surprisingly successful movie about language and linguistics, a written medium allowed the novella to literally display the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on the page through formal experimentation. Story of Your Life is not only great science fiction, but transcends genre clichés to become a great piece of fiction.

Acquired: on Google, in a PDF. They can’t all have great stories.

Nerdy Spice

Note: I don’t remember where I acquired most of these, but it’s fair to assume that most of them came from two of the best indie bookstores in the world: Three Lives and McNally Jackson.

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

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What is there to say about Hilary Mantel that has not been said? She won the Booker Prize for this original portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. She writes like no historical novelist I’ve ever read, a dreamy but precise prose that effortlessly dips in and out of Cromwell’s perception, and brings to life even the most minor characters in Henry VIII’s history. This was the first book I read this year; it took many weeks, as I got used to its difficult style, and every one of those hours of effort was worth it.

See also — Hilary Mantel’s Characters

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

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I have spilled much ink on this delightful book, which centers on Aaliyah Saleh, an irascible superannuated loner who spends each year translating one book for her own personal pleasure. She lives in Lebanon, where her choice to leave her useless husband was radical indeed. It’s obviously always great to find a book about a woman who doesn’t want to fall in love or relate to the world through her family, but through her mind. But Aaliyah isn’t just not-like-other-female-characters; she’s a funny, cranky, erudite, feminist narrator and I absolutely love her.

See also – When Men Write Women: Success Stories

At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill

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If James Joyce had been gay, he might have written like Jamie O’Neill, whose novel At Swim, Two Boys won a Lambda award for its portrayal of two young boys, a Socialist activist and an innocent country boy, who fall in love. Written in stream-of-consciousness from the perspective of multiple characters–not only the two boys but also a foolish striving father, a patriotic socialite, and an older man suffering deeply from the loss of his male lover–the book is a fiercely beautiful portrait of Ireland, from its oppressive Catholicism to its stirring struggle for independence and preservation of its heritage.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

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Usually we write about novels here, and this book is unfortunately all too true, but I read it with my heart clenched painfully, sometimes having to put it down because it was too damn sad. The thesis is essentially that the prison system, and sentencing laws, have been used to create a superficially race-neutral caste system that in fact replicates the white supremacy enforced by Jim Crow. The Supreme Court has refused to intervene to protect the most fundamental rights of people who are suspected criminals, even before there is evidence to suspect them of anything; elected officials, both Democrat and Republican (Bill Clinton is, unfortunately, one of the worst offenders) who wanted to appear “tough on crime” have sold young drug offenders down the river (I use this phrase quite consciously) for political capital; and the Republican party has consciously stoked racial resentment in order to gain support for its harsh policies. It’s a lucid, rousing portrait of a racial caste system that’s sat under many of our noses (myself included, I am sorry to say) without our realizing it.

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

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My year of reading started with the historical Wolf Hall and ends with the future-dystopic The Country of Ice Cream Star, which I just finished this week. The premise of the book is a classic: children roam the United States in warring tribes that mimic and distort the cultures of their heritage, while everyone over 20 is inevitably killed by a mysterious disease called “posies.” But the language marks the book as immediately different–the children have taken English and made it their own, a sort of patois, and the entire book is narrated by its main character, Ice Cream Star, in that patois. What really made the novel unique to me, though, is Ice Cream herself. She assumes the leadership of her tribe of Sengles (I still haven’t figured out what that means), and, like them, she is bold, brash, and unafraid to fight and lie. She has powerful desires, both sexual and emotional, and a sharp sense of humor. But she is also naturally compassionate and–as it turns out, when she faces wrenching choices between doing what is right and attempting to save her life or her family’s–highly ethical, and against murder. Leading a warring tribe is agonizing to her, but thrilling to read. She’s the kind of “strong female character,” with a rich inner life and a highly developed moral center, that could rescue the much-maligned term to its proper place.

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