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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The 10 best books (I read) in 2016



Looking back, I read a lot of classics in 2016, as I usually do, but this year the classics tended to skew toward 18th- and 19th-century English novels. Why is that? I think because free copies are so readily available via iBooks and Kindle. (Most 20th-century literature is still protected by copyright, and most world literature is in translation, which is also copyright protected.) So English literature dominates this year’s 10-best list (as it has dominated much of my life), but there were some fine contemporary (or near-contemporary) novels as well. This list doesn’t touch on the many short stories I have enjoyed reading this year (some in the 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories anthology), and let’s just gloss over this year’s disappointments – as there were a # of novels that came with significant hype (Ferrante, A Man Called Ove, to name two) or that began w/ great promise (Marias, Klaus Mann, or you fill in the “challenging” European author) but proved unreadable (by me). So here they are for what it’s worth, the 10 Best Books (I read) in 2016, 5 each, classics and contemporaries:

Classics

Bleak House
Maybe not Dickens’s most nearly perfect novel (Great Ex?) nor his most personal (DC?) but probably his best incorporation of great plot, complex characters, and social commentary.

The Great Gatsby
Fitzgerald is completely different from Dickens, but this more than any other has a perfectly constructed plot, “round” characters, and beautiful writing throughout.

Jude the Obscure
Hardy’s darkest work, which is saying something. Sad throughout, with a harrowing conclusion.

The Late George Apley, by John P. Marquand
Sadness seems to be a theme this year. This novel from the 1930s isn’t read much today, but it stands up well after nearly a century – cool, dispassionate anatomy of a life of missed opportunities. Part of the beauty comes from our awareness of how much the narrator misses about Apley as he tries to burnish Apley’s sorrowful life.

Pride and Prejudice
Austen’s novel remains the pinnacle of achievement among the novels of manners and social romances. Every word is so well chosen, peach ersonality is so vivid, every bit of dialogue is so smart.

Honorable mentions: The Warden and Barchester Towers, by Trollope, and, from the 1950s, Owls Do Cry, by Janet Frame

Contemporaries

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson
Yet another novel about Britain and World War II? Yes, but this one rivals Atonement as one of the best on this well-trodden ground. A portrait of a whole family, over the span of a century – and much more readable than its companion volume (Life After Life).

A Manual for Cleaning Women, stories by Lucia Berlin
A posthumous publication of a lifetime’s collection of stories by an author whose life (and art) often touched on despair. Not many stories take up these themes with such confidence and courage.

My Struggle, Volume 5, by Karl Ove Nausgaard
His struggle continues, as he goes to college, studies writing, takes some hard knocks, begins at last to find succeess in writing and in relationships, and then embarks down various passages of self-destruction.

Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish
An incredibly powerful, tragic novel about two social outsiders – a combat veteran suffering PTSD and a Chinese immigrant without documentation – who try to make a life togther against great odds.

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, by Patrick Modiano
More works from this French Nobel winner appear (in English) seemingly every month. All of his novels are short, and all treat overlapping themes and motifs – largely, life in Occupied Paris and in contemporary Paris in the shadow of French collaboration. You could begin reading his work almost anywhere, but this one (from 2014) is a good place to start. Also read this year: a collection of his first 3 novels (the Occupation Trilogy) and a collection of 3 of his novels from the 1990s (Suspended Sentences).










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