Posts from December 2016
December 27th, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Nonfiction!
We come to the end of our bookish 2016 chimes-ringing with the admittedly vague category of general nonfiction, which can extend to all kinds of reportage and memoir and often, I’ve found, connotes a particular kind of narrative fire, a particular urgency. These works tend to be telling new stories, bearing dispatches from the frontiers of events that are unfolding right before the author’s eyes, and they tend to be more meditation than summation. But no matter how I might define the exact parameters of the category, these books were far and away the best examples of it:
10. The Way to the Spring by Ben Ehrenreich (Penguin Press) – Ehrenreich’s concentration on one West Bank village and one family in that village serves as the blade by which he slices open the whole broader question of the Israel-Palestine question, and as old a narrative tactic as that is, it works: the book is depressingly gripping from start to finish. You can read my full review here.
9. Against Democracy by Jason Brennan (Princeton University Press) – Brennan’s book was long in preparation and appeared in August, but even so, it’s brutally topical. His central contention is that most of the things citizens of democracies tend to think about democracy as a means of government – that it’s fairer than any other system, that it’s more representative than any other system, etc. – are demonstrably wrong, mainly due to the abundance of what came to be known during the 2016 US presidential race as “low-information voters.” These voters – through a jaw-dropping combination of stubbornness, irrationality, and simple stupidity – demonstrated on Election Day 2016 that Brennan’s is completely, incontestably right on all points made in this now-more-important-than-ever book.
8. The Gene by Siddhartha Mukerjee (Scribner) – The many, many readers who found themselves swept up in Siddhartha Mukerjee’s smart, attentive storytelling in his book The Emperor of All Maladies will find the same combination of scientific knowledge and personal insight on display in his latest book, The Gene, which not only details the amazing story of mankind’s study of its own biological blueprints but also asks plenty of questions about the future of the science. You can read my full review here.
7. In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury) – This book – in which novelist and essayist Jenny Diski chronicles not only the highlights of her life but also the process of its ending (due to the lung cancer she assiduously courted in a lifetime of chain-smoking) – was in many ways inevitable; long before Diski made a career out of transmuting her life into writing, she’d made a habit of it. And the resulting narrative is heartbreakingly sad and bittersweet. You can read my full review here.
6. The Last of the Light by Peter Davidson (Reaktion) – This slim book was an endless revelation to me. It’s a study of the many roles played in human art and society over the centuries by twilight, that strange, pessimistic stretch of time that’s no longer day but not yet quite night. It’s an easy subject about which to be trite or boring, and virtually every other book or essay I’ve read on the subject has been either trite or boring, but Peter Davidson’s book eye-opening and wonderful, as lovely and gentle and strange as the daily phenomenon it describes.
5. City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence (Picador) – Human rights researcher Ben Rawlence spent the better part of four years visiting and living in the sprawling Kenyan refugee city of Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, and the stories he tells in this arresting book are like nothing else I read this year, delving into the lives of the men and women (and, most miserably, the children) who live in a place that isn’t and can never be their home, on the sufferance of strangers, in the middle of a desert, seemingly in perpetuity. Rawlence is a clear, merciless narrator of the many injustices folded into Dadaab’s very existence, and the book is brilliant.
4. Children of Paradise by Laura Secor (Riverhead Books) – Laura Secor’s searing, emotionally vibrant book is a portrait of contemporary Iran, the weird, contradictory madhouse-nation that sprang out of the 1979 Khomeini revolution in which a wave of murderous religious zealots took over a modern society and began an ongoing experiment in transforming it into a working theocracy. Secor is scrupulously fair to all sides of the resulting society, and she’s especially effective in her portraits of the multifaceted ongoing resistance to that theocracy. The long aftermath of the Iranian Revolution has been waiting for a book like this one.
3. Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum (Belknap Press) – It’s always an unsettling and amazing feeling to read the history of a series of events you watched unfold in real time in your own life, and that’s a part of what makes Matthew Kirschenbaum’s history of relatively short lifetime of word processing so fascinating: if you’re online right now, the chances are very good that you’ve experienced many of the changes detailed in this book personally, and Kirschenbaum writes it all with an infectious flair, which is also true of Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human (WW Norton), a book that tries to assess the changes we’ve all needed to make to our lives, our legal rights, and even our personhood as a result of all that online writing and writing and writing. If Track Changes is the best history of word processing I’ve ever read, The Four-Dimensional Human is the best study of how the Internet itself is changing its users. And likewise this year I read the best popular study of cyberspace yet written, Cyberspace in Peace and War by Matthew Libicki (Naval Institute Press), a massive, comprehensive examination of this whole new realm humans have invented in which they can do business, create relationships, and make war. These three books combine to make absolutely essential 21st century reading.
2. The Field Guide to Lies by Daniel Levitin (Dutton) – In many ways, this great book by Daniel Levitin is the user’s manual to the previous three; it’s a guidebook, a demystifying road-map through the sprawling, infinite wilderness of masterless information that now bombards every person with access to a cellphone. Levitin breaks down not only that mass of information but the ways of thinking that are required to approach it in the first place. Absolutely riveting reading.
1. The New Trail of Tears by Naomi Schaefer Riley (Encounter Books) – The best nonfiction book of 2016 was this bleak, unrelenting expose of the current state of the American Indian reservation system, a horrific, hopeless open-air penal system for the innocent, a gulag that combines the systematic injustices of Ben Ehrenreich’s book and Ben Rawlence’s book and then situates them squarely in America, where most Americans firmly believe they’d be impossible. No nonfiction book this year rivaled Riley’s work for its power and urgency.
December 26th, 2016
Worst Books of 2016 – Nonfiction!
There was a very annoying strain of worried hand-wringing running through a great deal of the year’s general nonfiction, with a great many authors who ought to know better (and a number who do and were only lying for a paycheck) mounting their platforms to call X, Y, or Z staple of modern life a sure sign of the deterioration of the human species and a harbinger of the End Times. The irony of this tendency was only bitterly underscored by the fact that while all of these authors were publishing their worry wart tracts and embarking on their book tours, the real world they so studiously ignore was easily outdoing them; income inequality grew wider than at any point in modern history, rabid xenophobia took hold everywhere, and for the second time in a century, a powerful industrial Western nation was taken over by Nazis. All of which makes fretting about gluten look even sillier than usual. Such fretting didn’t define all the worst books of 2016, but it had a quorum:
10. The Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax (Public Affairs) – This hymnbook for hipsters hauls in just enough faux-research to shore up its contention that “real” – i.e. ostentatiously anachronistic – objects are making a comeback as more and more Williamsburg mustache-waxers come to find the digital life unfulfilling. Virtually none of the book’s exposition is reliable, and its underlying rejection of modernity is as insulting as it is disingenuous.
9. Thank You For Being Late by Thomas Friedman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – The idiotic Chicken Little theme of so many of the books on the list this time around is on full display in this pile of crap by bestselling bottler of nonfiction bilge-water Thomas Friedman; for page after breathless page, he goes on about how fast-paced and hectic things are these days, and his wandering contentions aren’t only so much unimaginative arm-flailing but also frequently and startlingly stupid (contentions that the carriage-horses of Victorian times would have been the first to object to the combustion engine, for instance). As a “manifesto” for mindfulness, I’d like to say it’s singularly mindless – except it’s got plenty of company.
8. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaky & Larry Rosen (MIT Press) – The opening note of this scatterbrained screed has at least the potential for some worth: that distraction and multi-tasking go hand-in-hand and lead not only to inefficiency but also unhappiness. But the authors bury that opening note under whole symphonies of preposterous hand-wringing about how the smart-screen devices currently in possession of 6.5 billion of the world’s 7 billion humans are making those humans dumber, lazier, and less happy, when all three of those things are demonstrably the direct opposite of what those smart-screen devices are actually doing. If you’re worried about having too many things chattering for your attention, waste no time in dropping this book from the list.
7. When We Are No More by Abby Smith Rumsey (Bloomsbury) – The bulk of this book is a largely unobjectionable quick run-through of some of the roles memory has played in human history, and the ways humans have invented to aid memory and sometimes substitute for it. But like so many other books on this list, this one advances its points much further, worrying about how our present-day records and ephemera may or may not be preserved for future ages. The book isn’t long, but thanks to preemptive silliness like this, it sure as Hell feels long.
6. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data by Michael Patrick Lynch (Liveright) – Although it’s a very crowded field, this book may be the single most shrill and quavery Chicken Little screed to appear this year. Lynch spends dozens and dozens of pages loudly worrying that our ability to Google things is killing our ability to think about things, that our ability to store data electronically is killing our ability to remember things, and that always-on smart-screen technology is killing our ability to live without always-on smart-screen technology … and while he’s at it, he covers the whole thing in a woolly carpet of cod-philosophizing, all of it pulling the tired rhetorical trick of taking the small percentage of worst-case scenario tech-abusers and inflating them into the status quo of the whole world in order to say that world is in big trouble. It’s all bunkum, of course, and like many other books on this list, The Internet of Us is really designed to frighten elderly Luddites by painting the single most glorious age of the mind as a Dark Age reaching out to impoverish their grandkids.
5. Against Everything by Mark Greif (Pantheon) – Greif’s status as co-founder of the insufferable literary journal n + 1 goes a long way toward guaranteeing him a place on any list like this one, but I went into Against Everything conscientiously working against that prejudice, especially since I’m a big fan of contrarian prose when it’s done well. But on page after page, Greif nailed his own coffin shut as just the kind of pretentious blockhead that seems to be an indigenous n + 1 sub-species. The book’s anile, on-deadline grumping is repetitive and totally unconvincing; as a “manifesto,” these collective essays represent with dismal accuracy what a comfortable middle-class bourgeois thinks informed contrarianism sounds like.
4. Undeniable by Douglas Axe (HarperOne) – The heart of this wretched, lying book is Axe’s contention that not only is the universe and everything in it self-evidently designed (by the Christian God, naturally) but also that we all intuitively know this and have to be manipulated into believing otherwise. Part of Axe’s sales pitch rests on the fact that he was trained in science many years ago before becoming a religious zealot, but that original training only underscores the duplicity of the book; it allows the reader to see with ease the cynical ways Axe twists and cherry-picks the fake science in his book. But if anything, the insisted implication that all of those readers somehow psychically know the truth of Axe’s religious claims, deep in their innocent child’s heart, is even more insulting than the trickery. You can read my full review here.
3. The American Miracle by Michael Medved (Crown Forum) – For dozens of pages, when you first start reading Michael Medved’s stupendously moronic new book, you’re absolutely certain he’s got to have some alternate, ironical scheme, some double agenda. It just doesn’t seem possible that any author could literally mean that the United States of America as a political entity was helped into being by the Christian God through a series of very specific miracles – snow during a certain battle, strong winds during another, the Louisiana Purchase, for Pete’s sake. But no, that’s exactly what Medved is claiming in this book: that his God was loading the dice in favor of the creation of his home country. Never mind that this would make his God complicit in millions of murders, hundreds of thousands of slave abductions, and dozens of separate campaigns of genocide; never mind that this is supposed to be the same God worshiped by the British were fighting to prevent the “American Miracle”; never mind that if God wanted the United States to exist, He could have taken a more direct route than mucking around with weather forecasts … in fact, never mind any hint of rationality.
2. First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His – and the Nation’s – Prosperity by Edward Lengel (Da Capo Press) – The figure of George Washington has always attracted crackpot quasi-historical pulpit sermons – that he was a wise father to the nation, that he was a political visionary, that he was a military genius, etc. But even given that tendency, this new book by Edward Lengel is horrifically incredible: a study of Washington’s finances that’s overwhelmingly adulatory, a study, for that matter, that isn’t all but entirely about slavery, is an abomination even laid against the hyper-praise this figure has always garnered. Washington built 90% of his prosperity on the buying, selling, bartering, and leveraging of human beings. So what’s next? Hitler’s Interfaith Outreach? – maybe with half a dozen Index entries on “Jews, contentious relations with”?
1. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton (Thomas Nelson) – On levels that feel both intellectual and somehow personal, this book by Larry Alex Taunton is by a wide margin the worst nonfiction book of 2016. In its deceitful, self-serving pages, Taunton wheedles and implies and hints and winks that the renowned atheist Hitchens was reconsidering his stance against Christianity at the end of his life. Loathsome of Taunton, who claims to have been the man’s friend. Simply and purely loathsome. You can read my full review here.
December 25th, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Fiction!
The very factors that are usually the banes of my existence as a reader of fiction – stylistic eccentricities and rhetorical showing off – turn up quite often on this particular list actually helping the books featuring them, which just underscores the ideological fluidity of fiction that I, like any sensible person, find so off-putting and yet so enticing about the genre! I read a larger-than-usual percentage of novels in 2016, and although a larger-than-usual percentage of those turned out to be enraging failures, the good ones were really good. Here are the best:
10. Underground Airlines by Ben Winters (Mulholland Books) – This amazing alternate-history novel tells the story of a good man tasked with the disgusting job of hunting a fugitive slave – in modern-day America. Winters masterfully imagines an America in which the Civil War was never fought and a bitter, stubborn core of slave states still exists. It’s an illuminating performance.
9. Moggerhanger by Alan Sillitoe (Seven Stories Press) – This novel, the third installment in a trilogy I haven’t read by an author who’s long dead, shouldn’t have had a chance of making this list, even if Sillitoe did write The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. The first two books in this sequence, A Start in Life and Life Goes On, weren’t published in the US, but I read Moggerhanger with absolute delight – the book easily works as a stand-alone comic masterpiece road-trip novel.
8. High Dive by Jonathan Lee (Knopf) – Lee’s bowstring-tense novel about the four weeks leading up to the assassination attempt in 1984 on Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in Brighton is as gripping as a thriller. He takes his readers inside the lives of a small cast of characters and then steadily, skillfully ratchets up the tension as the day of the bombing draws slowly closer. And the final 40 pages or so have stuck with me long after I finished the book.
7. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – There’s a great deal about this big novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, his first in over a decade, that’s easy to mock, and my first time reading it, I mocked those things plenty. The main male character is just enough of a self-absorbed shmendrik to do stand-in duty for Foer himself, and the cataclysmic event at one of the book’s climaxes is rather negligently handled. But there’s a glass-sharp beauty to a great deal of the prose here, and an insight into the nature of his characters’ unhappiness (Stuart Kelley reviewing the book in the TLS called Foer “a pathologist of perished emotions”) that’s plenty brilliant enough to make up for even such major shortcomings.
6. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (Harper) – Likewise this latest novel from Michael Chabon: it too should have done nothing but irritate me, since the author explicitly maps his own autobiography onto the book’s framework of a dying grandfather telling his auditor a long string of tales about the past. And I was able to hold onto that irritation for about twenty-five pages or so – then the stories themselves swept away my objections and left me just eagerly reading. Even more than Telegraph Avenue, this book cemented my estimation of Chabon as very likely the best novelist of his generation.
5. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Hogarth) – This story about a naive young drama student who forms a strange and powerful relationship with an older, famous actor in 1990s London surges and ripples with experimentation in imagery and narration – just the kinds of surges and ripples that usually get my hackles up, because they usually signal an author trying to cover up weaknesses rather than display strengths. But in this case, as in all the other such cases on the list this year, the opposite is true: in these pages, McBride’s stylistic innovations are matched by the sheer gifted power of her storytelling.
4. Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor (Viking) – In the most astonishingly accomplished literary debut I’ve read in many years, Stephen O’Connor takes the familiar, sordid story of Thomas Jefferson and the slave woman Sally Hemings and fractures it into dozens and hundreds of stories, dozens of shards of impression and perspective, scattered across time from Jefferson’s own era to the present day. The one thing all those shards of narrative have in common is an unflagging but hard-eyed sympathy for the human flaws of tall the characters – that and an eerie readability. I can’t recommend the book strongly enough.
3. Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (Little, Brown) – Haslett’s earlier books impressed me in their own way, but nothing in them prepared me for the brutal brilliance of this masterpiece, the multifaceted story of a tightly-knit family with a nuclear core of tragedy at its heart. All the author’s gifts are assembled here, especially his deft hand at character-shaping, but they’re keyed to such a new level of strength and persuasiveness that the novel is downright haunting.
2. Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh (Ecco) – As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m always immediately suspicious of topicality in novels, so I approached Haigh’s big novel warily, since it has natural gas and fracking at the heart of its main plot lines. But much like in Haslett’s case, in this book Haigh’s natural gifts – particularly in this case her ear for dialogue and her sense of scene-pacing – are racing along at such a high level that my reserve was conquered almost immediately. Haigh fills her book with a wide array of precisely-drawn characters in her signature little Pennsylvania town as it confronts all the complications of this rapacious new style of extracting natural gas from the ground – to the point where I didn’t mind at all how topical it all is.
1. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown) – Emma Donoghue’s uncanny ability to create wide-scope drama in the smallest of settings won’t come as any surprise to the millions of people who discovered this author through her bestseller Room, and that ability is once again the key ingredient in her newest book, the best novel of 2016, The Wonder, in which an English nurse is called to the bedside of an 11-year-old girl in an Irish village in order to investigate the growing tale that the girl has survived for months without food, living purely on the grace of God. Much of the drama is consequently focused very tightly on the world of that girl, but the world of her adult caretakers proves if anything even more narrow, and the novel leads reads calmly and terrifyingly to an incredibly touching final act. I myself have no doubt that Emma Donoghue can top even this novel, but I can’t for the life of me imagine how.
December 24th, 2016
Worst Books of 2016 – Fiction!
When surveying the damages in summing up fiction in 2016, the old saying “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” comes to mind, a saying tartly corrected by Wilson Follett in his epically mandarin book Modern American Usage, since as he points out, nothing could be easier than having your cake and eating it too – the more useful formulation is to eat your cake and have it too. Either way, there’s a certain lazy petulance being attacked, a certain ideological eye-crossing that’s being deplored, and that kind of cross-purpose fumbling runs through most of the worst novels of the year. These were the chief offenders:
10. Jerusalem by Alan Moore (Liveright) – Our first pick is the biggest, most monstrous example of eye-crossing on the list this year: comic book writer Alan Moore’s unreadable 1300-page sterile hybrid of autobiography (the thing mostly takes place in the seedy back-alleys of his native Northampton) and high fantasy (there are angels). In his attempt to blend these two things – really, in his attempt to defy the odds and write an autobiography that’s actually interesting – Moore epically fails to do either one well. Instead, readers who might have paid for this brick out of loyalty to Moore’s undeniable excellent comic book writing are rewarded with endless maundering and rhetorical “experiments” that are as boring as they are predictable.
9. Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte (Morrow) – Likewise in his debut novel Tony Tulathimutte – who’s been compared to everybody from F. Scott Fitzgerald to George Frickin’ Eliot by book-critics who really ought to switch to decaff – tries to do two things but tries both with the same underlying cynical contempt for the very process of written prose, thus guaranteeing double failure. On one level, the book is a broad-scale tour d’horizon of group of so-called Millennials in San Francisco, and on another, it’s a send-up of that group, a satirical commentary on their days and ways. But the tour d’horizon fails because Tulathimutte doesn’t know how to write scenes, characters, dialogue, or internal states, and the satirical commentary fails because Tulathimutte clearly thinks Millennials are the only worthwhile human beings currently living on the planet. It’s not a debut novel that augurs well for a career in any sane world, so I predict National Book Awards, Pulitzers, and a Nobel in short order.
8. The Nutshell by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese) – The central gimmick of McEwan’s latest novella, having the whole story told from the point of “view” of a baby in the womb of one of the main characters, is intriguing but would only work if the author of the gimmick really invested time and creativity in carrying it off. Instead, as with so many authors on our list this year, McEwan tries to eat his cake and have it too: he plops his gimmick on the table and then ignores it, writing the whole thing from the viewpoint of a dyspeptic author in his late 60s. And if you pose your book to be narrated by a baby in the womb and then narrate it in your own late-60s adult-male voice, your book will not only fail but stink – Q.E.D.
7. End of Watch by Stephen King (Scribner) – This is the concluding volume in King’s “Bill Hodges” trilogy, and although the previous two books have displayed to full, demoralizing effect the central, stunning fact of King’s writing career – that he still doesn’t have more than a single speck of anything resembling talent – they at least on the surface seemed to be striving for something relatively new in this rotten author’s repertoire: a tightly-controlled and relatively modest trilogy complete with an opening act, a complicating middle, and, presumably, a payoff ending. But no: in End of Watch, the concluding 100 pages of which honestly feel like they weren’t even thought about, much less revised before publication, any trust the reader might have placed in the internal dynamics of the trilogy is casually, contemptuously betrayed in ways that might be familiar to King fans but are no less revolting for that.
6. Improbable Fortunes by Jeffrey Price (Archer) – Price’s novel, set in a dilapidated Colorado mining town and half-heartedly wheeling in a murder plot, is distinguished in its pass-me-the-bourbon rhetorical hijinks only by a handful of things, and all of them are bad. The foremost of these, unmissable by even the most sympathetic reader, is how bad the prose is even on a mechanical level: subjects don’t line up with predicates, tenses wander in ways the author clearly didn’t intend, pronouns go a-begging for antecedents, etc. But the book is also marred by the fact that Price obviously had no real concerns about what to do with the thing after he’d dreamed up his wacky premise. The sum of these and all the other failings of the book summons a bane from Worst Fiction lists of years past, the specter of authorial entitlement, which is infuriating enough coming from somebody like Salman Rushdie but becomes rich indeed coming from the screenwriter of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
5. Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf) – There’s an accidental but murderously strong aura of topicality around this book, since its two plots center around a New York real estate millionaire and the Eastern European slave trade, which has present-moment resonance because the next President of the United States is a New York real estate millionaire who purchased his Eastern European third wife for fair market value back in 2005. But as with many other books on this list, Burning Down the House fails completely because its author tries to eat her cake and have it too: she attempts both to humanize and satirize the world of the New York super-callow and super-rich but a combination of technical incompetence and nonstop punch-pulling causes the whole ungainly mess to fall flat.
4. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House) – As with McEwan, so too with Curtis Sittenfeld: it’s always extra tough when an author I really like shows up on this particular list – but when you think about it, they’re more likely than their less-experienced colleagues to write a real stinkeroo, and that’s exactly what Sittenfeld does here, with this attempt at a high-spirited modern-day take on Pride and Prejudice that fails in every way, even on the sentence-by-sentence level where this author usually never disappoints. It isn’t just that this is a tone-deaf and desperately dumb pastiche-response to Jane Austen – that’s common enough to be unsurprising. No, the worst part of Eligible is that it’s a tone-deaf and desperately dumb contemporary novel in its own right.
3. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (Spiegel & Grau?) – The main peril represented to any author having a breakout hit as huge as Martel’s The Life of Pi is self-evident: lightning, both in terms of sales and in terms of inspiration, hardly ever strikes the same author twice. The Life of Pi was a middling-effective confection of pop-spirituality and workmanlike prose, but it found a large and vocally supportive readership. Martel’s latest book, The High Mountains of Portugal, is an entirely ineffective confection of pop-spirituality and workmanlike prose that deserves no readership at all; it’s the story of three generations of men finding, seeking, or accidentally rediscovering a quasi-mystical Mcguffin, and its plot and characters are as flat and pandering as its philosophical underpinnings, as free of lightning-strikes as a boring modern novel could be.
2. The Boy Who Never Was by Sjon (translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb)(FSG) – Of all the time-wasting failed hybrids on our list this time around, this novella by “Sjon” is by a wide margin the most angering and insulting. On one hand it’s the story of a young man joylessly turning tricks for self-loathing older men in 1918 Reykjavik, an entirely vacant figure without a brain, a heart, or a soul. And on the other hand, the author’s last-second revelation is supposed to turn the whole mess into some kind of testimony about the age of the AIDS epidemic, despite the fact that the central character is essentially a heterosexual barnyard animal who turns gay tricks because those are the paying customers. There’s not a well-considered single paragraph anywhere in this travesty; if this is the state gay fiction has come to, it needs to have a long, unblinking look in the mirror.
1. Just Us Girls
December 23rd, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Biography!
Much to my delight, 2016 was another furiously busy year for biographies – and mostly a very good one, with strong entries appearing several times in every month. Biography is my own favorite type of book to read, and there were some months when I read so many good ones I could temporarily dream of reading nothing else (although if such a job were to present itself – say, the biography editor of some big academic press – I know I’d turn it down; there are too many treasures scattered everywhere across the literary landscape to justify provincial reading)(but still, it’s a nice little dream). This made for an excellent reading year, but it also made the process of narrowing things down to this list extra difficult. Nevertheless! Here are the best 10 biographies of the year:
10. Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James Harris (Cambridge University Press) – We begin with a biography that likely isn’t for the novice, a deeply abstruse examination of David Hume’s personal identity as illuminated in his writing. James Harris does a fantastic job of keeping the whole endeavor mentally thrilling, although I’d imagine many readers would appreciate the book more if they read a full-dress biography first.
9. Orson Welles Vol. 3: One-Man Band by Simon Callow (Viking) – This third, penultimate volume in Simon Callow’s monumental biography of Orson Welles covers the years from 1967 to 1964, during which Welles was a loudly disapproving expat who abandoned the standard studio system and made some of his greatest movies on his own hook. As usual in this multi-volume masterpiece, Callow brings his own priceless trove of theatre experience to the task of trying to explain the ways of Welles to lesser mortals.
8. Frederick the Great by Tim Blanning (Random House) – I went into this volume skeptical that it could even begin to compete with Robert Asprey’s life of the great King of Prussia, which came out thirty years ago. But Tim Blanning does a nimble, smartly readable job – not a better book than Asprey’s but a worthy other book on the same subject. You can read my full review here
7. Frederick Barbarossa by John Freed (Yale University Press) – This sprawling life of the magnetic 12th century German emperor is not only stuffed to the rafters with crisp, judiciously-chosen learning but also charged with a kind of arch, humorous creativity that makes the whole thing an improbably light read. You can read my full review here
6. Bush by Jean Edward Smith (Simon & Schuster) – Speaking of improbable! As great as my admiration for biographer Jean Edward Smith has always been, I was certain that this book, an account of the life and presidency of a Chief Executive whose term in office was not only incredibly divisive but also incredibly recent, would be skewed and lopsided and much more illuminating of Smith than the subject. But the book was a revelation of objectivity and insight.
5. The Idealist by Justin Peters (Scribner) – This book about hacker and Internet-era thinker Aaron Swartz, who killed himself in 2013, likewise bristles with insights, although they’re much harder to read in this case, since the whole subject of Swartz is maddeningly frustrating both for the elements it includes and the elements it will never include. This is the first essential book on Swartz, and it may also be the last word. You can read my full review here.
4. Henry IV by Christopher Given-Wilson (Yale University Press) – Historian Chris Given-Wilson faced a nearly impossible task in pulling the life story of this pivotal monarch out of the background where it’s always been relegated by the more famous story of his son, who was immortalized by Shakespeare. I was amazed and pleased by how smoothly Given-Wilson managed to succeed. You can read my full review here
3. John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub – Recent years have seen a small boom in very good popular biographies of John Quincy Adams, and that trend continues with this excellent, appropriately acerbic political life of the country’s sixth president and most conscientious Congressman. You can read my full review here
2. Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey (Sarah Critchton Books) – Not in a million years would I have imagined that any author could make an epic, enthralling book out of the life story of a brittle, mantid social climber like Helen Gurley Brown, but Gerri Hirshey somehow does it, giving the irrepressible author of Sex and the Single Girl the kind of chatty, tough, knowing biography she herself would have loved to think she merited.
1. The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter (Simon & Schuster) – If Helen Gurley Brown was an unlikely subject for a toweringly good biography, how much more so Julia Ward Howe, the brilliant but icy poet, suffragette, and abolitionist who gave to the world the bloodthirsty lyrics to “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? And yet Elaine Showalter approaches the woman’s life and times with an almost novelistic gusto in this, the best biography of 2016. You can read my full review here.
December 22nd, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – History!
The field of history-writing displayed its usual dazzling variety in 2016, with commercial titles ranging from 120-page large-type bestsellers containing not one single actual fact to 120-page monographs containing not one readable sentence – and the whole spectrum in between. But as great as that variety was, there were some common strands running through a great deal of it, and one of those was a very well-done turning to the Braudel-style “Big Picture,” books that worked on broad canvases and took invigoratingly fresh looks at old, established subjects. Several such books are on the list this time around of the best history books of the year:
10. Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh (Knopf) – In lively, fast-moving prose, Whitmarsh tells a broad-strokes version of a story often curiously overlooked: the long history of atheism, particularly in classical times. For as long as humanity has believed in gods, a certain percentage of humans have called the whole thing so much nonsense, and this book gives readers a very engaging new version of their story. You can read my full review here
9. Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 by David Cesarani (St. Martin’s) – Considering the sheer number of books published every year about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, it’s astonishing that David Cesarani’s big book, very handsomely produced by St. Martin’s, should feel so new. Like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands from six years ago, Final Solution takes a subject a subject so well-known as to be a self-contained orthodoxy and examines all its assumptions from a fresh stance of objectivity. The result is amazingly thought-provoking; no Holocaust library is complete without this book.
8. Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell (Pantheon) – At first glance, the central gimmick of this book – Tom Bissell traveling to the various places traditionally held to be the final resting places of the Apostles and then cleverly relating the tourist-style lore of such places – seems disappointingly shallow, a kind of Stations of the Cross version of Bill Bryson. But Bissell doesn’t disappoint: he digs into his subject and delivers a rich cross-section of early Christianity. You can read my full review here
7. Strange Gods by Susan Jacoby (Pantheon) – This book, too, could easily have been trite in the hands of a different writer – but Susan Jacoby is so reliably superb as a writer and historical thinker that I went into this book expecting great heaps of fascinating stuff, and that’s exactly what I got: a thoroughly rigorous and, you should pardon the term, spirited study of the personal and social mechanisms involved when a person (including a great many famous people) decides to switch from believing in the existence of one imaginary being to believing in a different one. You can read my full review here
6. East West Street by Philippe Sands (Knopf) – The heart of this extraordinary book is the author’s painstaking detective work into the lives of the two men who created and elaborated on the concepts of both “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” – two men who, it turns out, were both law students at Lviv University in the early decades of the 20th century. But Philippe Sands both broadens and deepens that inquiry by mixing in disarming amounts of his own family history, and the book that results is one of the most invigorating ideological excavations since Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost.
5. Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson (Pantheon) – The full, frustrating horror of the Attica uprising, which involved over at thousand inmates and eventually provoked a violent military response, is laid out in these pages in scrupulous detail, and Heather Ann Thompson charges the details with real page-turning pathos – and in the process sheds new light on almost every stage of the event.
4. Brothers at Arms by Larrie Ferreiro (Penguin Random House) – This amazing book is only partly about the subject most readers would think about when they think about the American Revolution; as Ferreiro’s clear, vivid prose rolls on and on, the typical account of the Revolution shrinks and shrinks, until it’s just one pocket conflict in a sprawling hemispheric war between the British Empire and its enemies. Absolutely eye-opening. You can read my full review here
3. The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwath (FSG) – As with so many books on this list this year, Robert Gerwath’s study of the First World War and its sprawling, complicated aftermath is very briskly paradigm-resetting. Gerwath presents a far broader canvas of the Great War and the cataclysmic thunderclap of violence it unleashed than any comprehensive account to appear in years. You can read my full review here
2. How to Survive a Plague by David France (Knopf) – The underlying contrast of this great, heartbreaking book – that David France could use such lively, gorgeous prose to describe such an ugly, depressing catastrophe – is just one of the many fruitful contrasts France puts to use in crafting the definitive narrative of the AIDS epidemic. He turns a clear, unsparing light on the many different personalities involved in the fight to understand and fight both the disease and the public’s perception of its victims. His book and Blood in the Water are two superb examples of contemporary-events historical writing at its finest.
1. The Slave’s Cause by Manisha Sinha (Yale University Press) – The paradigm-shifting in Manisha Sinha’s monumental book, 2016’s best work of history, happens along lines of agency: the long history of the abolitionist cause in North America is broadened to include the intellectual ardor, the idealogical cold anger, and the life-endangering heroism of the many Africans, slaves and former slaves, who fought for the cause right alongside the better-known white leaders of the movement. You can read my full review here
December 21st, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Guilty Pleasures!
The “pleasures” part of Guilty Pleasures is self-evidently easy to define, but the “guilty” part is much trickier, since books find so many different ways to be worthwhile. Even so, there are some reading experiences that are clearly more self-indulgent than others, some books that are more likely to be found in the junk food aisle of the book-market than the wheats & grains aisle. I read a great number of these gaudy thing every year and love them dearly, and these were the best of them from 2016:
10. Star Wars Propaganda by Pablo Hidalgo (Harper Design) – This oversized slipcased picture book is a kind of brightly-burning singularity of geekhood: it’s a collection of propaganda posters from all the various political regimes in the fictional landscape of the Star Wars universe. We get recruitment posters and morale-boosters from the Old Republic, the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, and more: we get the back-stories of the posters, the biographies of the poster artists (not the Palo Alto freelancers using Painter X3, mind you – no, the biographies of the fictional artists living and working in that galaxy far, far away), and accounts of the works’ reception. In other words, it represents hours and hours of perfectly worthless pure enjoyment.
9. New York Times Book of the Dead by William McDonald (editor) – This big, beautifully-designed book is a collection of the obituaries of famous people, all of which ran in the pages of the New York Times over the course of the last century, and it, too, represents a sinkhole of time that might otherwise have been spent reading the latest fat biography of Karl Marx. But there’s an undeniable guilty pleasure in reading these often tart and always eloquent parting shots at the great and the mighty.
8. Inside Venice by Toto Bergamo Rossi (Rizzoli) – For page after page of this sumptuous book, readers are taken behind Venetian doors that are usually closed and encouraged to gawk with abandon. Well more than half these stellar dwellings are vanity projects undertaken by the super-rich; poking around the tasteful furnishings in these photos will teach you nothing about the history or culture of Venice, nor will it teach you anything about the lives of the people behind the furnishings. But the gawking itself sure is fun. You can read my full review here
7. Fifty English Steeples by Julian Flannery (Thames and Hudson) – Some of the books on this list earn their “guilty” status at least in part by their expensive opulence, and this huge, heavy Thames and Hudson production is certainly one of them: fifty classic English church steeples, all laid out in architectural detail on heavy paper, for $85. Julian Flannery makes this abstruse subject matter as accessible as it’s ever likely to be, but the book is nevertheless a fairly wicked indulgence. You can read my full review here
6. Ice Station Nautilus by Rick Campbell (St. Martin’s) – Techno-thrillers are almost by definition guilty pleasures: the one-dimensional characters! The extremely specific tech! The endless brand name mentions! The guilt here comes from the fact that virtually any reading you could be doing instead would be better reading, and yet some of these authors work hard for their paychecks. Case in point is this crackerjack story of two cutting-edge submarines, one Russian and one American, locked in a tense struggled far below the polar ice cap. You can read my full review here
5. Skitter by Ezekiel Boone (Atria) – The second volume in Ezekiel Boone’s “Hatching” series earns its guilty pleasure status the old-fashioned way: with endless hordes of evil, carnivorous spiders. The story here continues from The Hatching, in which an old, long-vanished species of awful arachnids returns to the modern world to wreak havoc and consume humans, and with every page of it you read, you can feel your IQ eroding just a bit more – and yet you keep reading, which is surely a hallmark of guilty pleasure.
4. The Fireman by Joe Hill (William Morrow) – Likewise this slick, stickily readable thriller about a plague sweeping through the ranks of mankind; this time the plague isn’t killer spiders but rather spontaneous combustion, but the writing – full of boring one-note characters and clogged with every cliché imaginable – guarantees that regardless of the threat, the aforementioned brain-erosion will commence virtually from the first page. You can read my full review here
3. MEG: Nightstalkers by Steve Alten (Tor) – If there’s a book-series that all but defines the guilty pleasure in all its sickly, glorious contradictions, it’s the “Meg” novels of Steve Alten, all starring Carcharadon megalodon, the super-sized giant killer sharks that terrorized Earth’s oceans 20 million years ago. In the world of these atrocious, wonderful novels, the megalodon lives and eats people in the present day, and this latest volume in the series continues the confrontation into the next generation of both sharks and shark-fighters. It’s sheer, finny lunacy, the foremost must-not-read on our list.
2. Show & Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes by Ken Bloom (Oxford University Press) – “Broadway anecdotes” is such a calm and even way of talking about the particular kind of hysterical collegial bitching of which only members of the acting profession are capable – there are plenty more accurate titles this fantastic gossip-fest by Ken Bloom could have had, but none of them would have been family-friendly. One after another beloved, legendary name in the entertainment industry walks into the spotlight in these page just long enough to dish the dirt on everybody else – before yielding the stage to somebody who’ll dish the dirt on them in turn. It’s all beneath you, but you’ll keep on reading gleefully just the same.
1 Sharks (The Collector’s Edition) by Michael Muller (Taschen) – This, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures in 2016, is a display-sized collection of the stunning nature photography of Michael Muller, and if you were to stick to the ordinary $70 hardcover put out by Taschen, you’d be comfortably in the range of the guilty pleasure. But in order to really earn this #1 status, Taschen also produced a deluxe version of the book, complete with an alternate cover designed to simulate the view from inside a shark observation cage – a great white shark flashes its rows of teeth just behind a grillwork of metal slats. The price for this deluxe edition? $1750. Now that’s a guilty pleasure.
December 20th, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Nature!
Nature made headlines in 2016 for predictably awful reasons. A gorilla was shot dead because careless human parents let their child wander into his jail cell; the year was once again the hottest on record; an American political administration came to power openly intent on raping the planet; even such tourist-friendly creatures as giraffes were revealed to be on the slide to extinction, etc. But at least one positive note could be found in the world of letters, where plenty of first-rate books were written on science and nature topics. Here are the best of them:
10. The Book of Frogs by Tim Halliday (University of Chicago) – The oversized dimensions of this book are a fitting tribute to the full wonder and glory of its goggle-eyed subjects! All the world’s frogs, from all their various environments, brandishing all the weird adaptations they’ve developed to survive, and each with a glimpse of how big they are in real life … a feast for frog-ophiles! You can read my full review here
9. America’s Snake by Ted Levin (University of Chicago) – Of course, not all reptiles are created equal! Ted Levin’s passionate, eloquent book is a prolonged love letter to the American timber rattler, a horn-faced engine of venom that Levin nevertheless finds not only beautiful but inspiring. And regardless of how many times you yourself may have been bitten by this allegedly peaceful creature, you’ll certainly find the book’s prose beautiful and inspiring. You can read my full review here
8. The Wood for the Trees by Richard Fortey (Knopf) – This book too is a love letter, in this case Fortey’s love letter to the four acres of woodland he owns in Oxfordshire, seen and finely examined month-by-month during the course of a year. He studies the plants and animals of his little domain and seamlessly fills his readers in on the history every root and branch and creeping thing, and it’s all so charmingly done that you’ll finish it wanting to go out poking around in woodland yourself.
7. Tracking Gobi Grizzlies by Douglas Chadwick (Patagonia) – It’s true with many genres, but it seems particularly true with nature books: the oddest, most unlikely subjects can inspire great books. In this beautifully-produced thing full of photos, wildlife biologist Chadwick travels to a remote corner of the Gobi Desert to track, study, and eulogize the isolated species of grizzly bear that lives there – about four dozen individuals on the precipice of extinction, and yet Chadwick somehow imbues his book with optimism.
6. Man’s best friend is the subject of dozens of books every year – all kinds of books coming at this most familiar of subjects from all kinds of angles – but it’s only infrequently that a year boasts so many first-rate results. In Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz (Scribner), the inner world of the dog’s stunning array of senses is imagined about as well as a human could imagine it; in Shannon Kopp’s incredibly moving Pound for Pound (William Morrow), the horrifying world of dog shelters forms the backdrop for a gripping story of the bond that develops between one woman and one special dog (you can read my full review here); in Dawn of the Dog by Janice Koller-Matznick, a thought-provoking theory about where the domesticated dog ultimately comes from is laid out in clear, evocative prose (you can read my full review here); and in Pit Bull by Bronwyn Dickey (Knopf), one of the most unjustly vilified breeds of domestic dogs is given a spirited and thrillingly emotional defense. It’s rare for any year to bring me even one dog book that’s a must-have for my permanent bookshelf on my single favorite subject in the world – so I was overjoyed that 2016 brought me four.
5. Ice Bear by Michael Engelhard (University of Washington Press) – It’s something of a pattern on this particular list this year: we swing from adorable, worthy animals to hate-filled engines of death and destruction, all the while somehow praising excellent books. In this case we’re not talking about the murderous timber rattler but rather the murderous polar bear, the one-ton arctic monster with the mind of a chess master and paws that come equipped with flensing knives. And yet Engelhard likewise does a fantastic job of not only fleshing out the history and folklore of the polar bear but also in creating a fairly sympathetic picture of the animal along the way.
4. What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe (FSG), Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith (FSG) – Thanks to ongoing and groundbreaking research being conducted in many places all over the world, the topic of animal cognition has never been better served by the publishing industry, and 2016 saw two excellent examples, Jonathan Balcombe’s high-spirited attempt to understand the strange world of fish, and Peter Godfrey-Smith’s more wide-ranging investigation into the truly alien mental world of the octopus. Both books were full of fascinating science, and both left deep impressions long after I’d finished them.
3. Coyote America by Dan Flores (Basic Books) – We return to canines with this lyrical and gripping look into the world of Canis latrans, the coyote. Flores does the same kind of excellent job that Engelhard does, giving his readers not only the natural history and current conservationist issues but also the rich folklore behind these most adaptable of all wild canines. It was yet another dog-related book that made its way to my permanent shelves. You can read my full review here
2. Eruption by Steve Olson (WW Norton) – The list swerves from the natural world and its various inhabitants to a natural disaster, one of the greatest and most dramatic in American history: the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Steve Olson writes a fully-detailed account of the whole thing, prelude, cataclysm, and aftermath, and he invests the story not only with a great cast of characters but also with page-turning sense of dramatic tension – not the easiest thing to do when all your readers know how your story turns out. You can read my full review here
1. Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos by Loren Eiseley (Library of America) – Every so often, the Library of America turns from immortalizing the wan posturings of John Updike or the random brain-dribbles of Kurt Vonnegut and makes an absolutely inspired editorial decision, and this two-volume set collecting the writings of the great naturalist Loren Eiseley, including his masterpiece The Immense Journey, is one of those decisions. Eiseley’s every prose work warrants re-reading and cherishing, and as icing on the cake, the people at Library of America made the boxed set a thing of beauty. The combination guaranteed that this set would never have any real competition as the year’s best nature book.
December 19th, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Historical Fiction!
The sub-genre of historical fiction was jumpingly energetic in 2016, full of authors taking chances with standard narrative frameworks and voices, profitably complicating standard reader sympathies, and importing varying doses of fantasy to blur and quicken the factual underpinnings (this was the year that saw, for instance, the story of doomed Lady Jane Grey turned into a fantasy-infused YA romp). Once upon a time, this kind of genre-bending inventiveness might have offended the sensibilities of purists (myself included) who for years had judged historical fiction by its fidelity to historical fact. But it’s tough to stay irritated with stylistic innovations that can give rise to books like Mason & Dixon or Wolf Hall, and the unpredictability of it all is enticing too. Hence the occasional oddball on my list of the ten best historical novels of the year:
10. The Death of Shakespeare, As It Was Accomplished in 1616 & The Causes Thereof by Jon Benson (Nedward LLC) – Benson’s whopping big debut novel is very firmly in the anti-Stratfordian camp of those who maintain William Shakespeare’s famous plays were written by somebody else. In this case the candidate is the Earl of Oxford, and with more verve and sheer detail than has ever been crammed into a novel on the subject before, Benson, you’ll pardon the term, dramatizes just how and why the world’s most famous imposture was pulled off. The author also published a nonfiction companion to his magnum opus, and it’s mighty enjoyable too – but this one’s got more derring-do!
9. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton (Catapult) – The Margaret in question here is the inimitable Margaret Cavendish, the Restoration-era publishing and public intellectual phenomenon who confounded her own contemporaries and has largely confounded the analysis of later ages. Danielle Dutton’s novel bristles with exactly the right kind of manic, quasi-uncontrolled multi-faceted energy that typified Margaret Cavendish herself, and it’s sharp characterizations are uniformly excellent.
8. Toru: Wayfarer Returns by Stephanie Sorenson (Palantir) – The element of narrative inventiveness that runs through the first two books on this list is in full gallop in this third one! Stephanie Sorenson’s impressive debut, the first in her “Sakura Steam” series, is set in 1852 Japan in the Tokugawa Shogunate, but an alternate version of history full of the usual “steampunk” trappings of clunky, precocious technology – which would be entertaining enough, but Sorenson wisely resists resting on her peppy premise; in addition, he gives her readers two main characters of very appealing complexity and likability.
7. All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley (Ecco) – Another incredibly impressive debut novel here, this one a rollicking story of Daniel Boone as narrated by Boone himself – and as written with infectious bounce and joy by Hawley, who understands the internal logic of the tall tale with pitch-perfect nuance and thereby gives her Daniel Boone an utterly memorable voice.
6. Barkskins by Annie Proulx (Scribner) – We go from debut novelists to an old pro with this enormous story about multiple generations of New World logging families, a strange and richly-detailed saga around which Annie Proulx wraps the omnipresent aura of ecological devastation very lightly, so that the overt environmental notes you expect when reading hundreds of pages about people who think the Earth’s natural resources are infinite don’t actually get sounded until almost at the book’s coda. Instead, Proulx unfolds a terrific tapestry of personalities unlike anything she’s written before. I read this at a gallop my first time through and then much more slowly my second time through, and it thoroughly impressed me both times.
5. Then Arthur Fought by Howard M. Wiseman – The main narrative twist in this crackerjack novel (another debut) will be familiar to readers of Evan Connell’s Deus Lo Volt!: Wiseman takes the outward form of a medieval chronicle and maps it onto a story of King Arthur that’s rooted firmly in historical fact. The result is like no work of Arthurian fiction ever written, a kind of mytho-history as much as it is straightforward historical fiction; like Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake from last year, it’s a genuinely exciting variation on “counter-factual” alternate narrative, a straight-faced but incredibly readable historical reconstruction of an Arthur who never in fact existed – but one you’ll end up wishing really had existed, thanks to Wiseman’s understated artistry.
4. Jane the Quene by Janet Wertman – This first volume in the Janet Wertman’s “Seymour Saga” is likewise a debut novel, this one centering on the smart, unassuming young woman who would become the third wife of Henry VIII and the mother of his only legitimate male heir. With only a few exceptions, historical novelists have never quite known what to do with Jane Seymour, but in this first book, in a series of gentle and well-realized scenes, Wertman proceeds from the somewhat daring understanding that both Jane and Henry were human beings as much as they were dynastic players or playthings. All the usual ferocious Tudor politics rage around the contours of her story, but at its heart is a well-done and at times quite touching tale of a friendship taking shape.
3. The Great War Won: A Power of Recognized Superiority by James Emerson Lloyd (Dreadnought Press) – This tremendously impressive book is the final volume in the author’s epic trilogy narrating the First World War from the perspectives of a sprawling cast of characters both real and imagined, all of it told with a storytelling authority that’s curiously strengthened rather than undercut but the book’s own subtle counter-factual threads. The whole trilogy is a magnificent achievement in historical fiction, and this concluding volume is the strongest of the three.
2. The Kid by Ron Hansen (Scribner) – You know a figure from Old West history is extra-tricky for fictionalizing when that figure defeats even the efforts of the great Larry McMurtry, and yet McMurtry’s 1988 novel Anything for Billy could more accurately have been titled Anybody But Billy for the way it brought every other character to life except its main one, that most unlikely of all American folk heroes, Billy the Kid. Amazingly, where McMurtry and everybody else has failed, Ron Hansen, author of the superb The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, completely succeeds and makes his success look effortless.
1. The Ornatrix by Kate Howard (The Overlook Press) – We finish with yet another incredibly impressive debut, Kate Howard’s story of a young woman named Flavia who’s banished to a convent in part because she has a vivid birthmark covering half her face, a birthmark resembling a bird in flight. At the convent she becomes the “ornatrix,” the beauty-technician, of an imperious woman nicknamed La Perfetta, who turns out to be a refugee from the loud and dangerous world of Renaissance Italy that lies just outside the convent’s walls. The sheer skill with which Howard etches the personalities of her two main characters would be a marvel even in an author’s tenth novel – in a debut it impresses all the more.
December 18th, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – SFF!
It’s depressing but true: 2016 had something of a phoned-in feel when it came to genre fiction – enough to make a die-hard genre reader to look wistfully at some earlier years. With SFF – the combined genre guaranteed to cheese off purists of either sci-fi or fantasy (but employed here because sci-fi and fantasy are in fact the same thing, the one dressed in a soiled black concert T-shirt and the other cosplaying in elf ears) – this was certainly the case in 2016: uninspiring fare as far as the eye could see. But as always, there were exceptions that made all the hunting and the disappointment worth the effort:
10. The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville (Del Rey) – This slim novel – the story of two unlikely allies thrown together in a fantasy-slipstream version of a 1950s Paris in which the Nazis and the Resistance are still fighting things out – has the feel almost from the first page of being a second-tier Mieville novel, and sure enough, its execution is looser and more scattershot than in this author’s great books. But second-tier China Mieville is still better than the first-tier efforts of most SFF writers – certainly good enough to make this list.
9. The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley (Tor) – This big, satisfying volume was the conclusion to Brian Staveley’s “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” trilogy, in which this smart, challenging author brings together the story he’s laid out about the inhabitants of a fantasy realm – and in particular three very dissimilar siblings – facing the desperate attempts of a creepy elder race to rid the world of lesser peoples. By the middle of the second volume, I had a pretty good idea of where Staveley would take this series … but I kept avidly reading right up to the end.
8. Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (NAL) – Kay’s sprawling novel, lovingly working several very intriguing fantasy-world variations on Renaissance-era Europe, is at first glance an oddly disjointed thing, a collection of character-lives without any real cohering plot other than the background of the novel’s history, in which a fantasy-variation of the Ottoman Turks are poised to conquer everything in their path. Living their lives in the shadow of this threat is a handful of well-realized characters who have varying degrees of connection to it – which means the whole thing shouldn’t really work as a dramatic story, and yet it very much does. I credit rock-solid storytelling.
7. The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan (Ace) – The latest novel from Anthony Ryan is a typically broad-scale and pleasingly ambitious thing, in this case a dwindling resources novel: in his new fantasy-world, harvested and treated drake-blood can impart fantastic powers to the select few humans who can handle it, but the drakes are failing – and the world whose finance and industry are built on their blood is now scrambling to find a rumored new kind of drake to take their place. Ryan takes this fairly standard stuff and works it up into a first-rate adventure starring a trio of very well-drawn characters reluctantly facing the greatest adventure of their lives.
6. Arabella of Mars by David Levine (Tor) – In his debut novel, David Levine invents an alternate Regency era London that has developed its own daffy-but-effective technology and managed to create a colony on Mars, which is home to our delightful young heroine, Arabella Ashby, who’s a genuine alien when her mother sends her back to Earth and who must figure out a way against all odds to return to Mars in order to save her family. It’s a completely captivating mix of whimsy and wonder that should have revolted me and instead kept me spellbound.
5. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (Del Rey) – Another superb debut novel, this time Sylvain Neuvel’s story of young Rose Franklin, who discovers the existence of a huge, enigmatic metal hand buried in the US badlands and devotes her life to unraveling the riddle of what this thing is and where it came from. There was an indeterminacy about the novel that I didn’t always feel was completely under the author’s control, but the frequent stretches of first-rate narrative more than compensated – and I loved how assuredly the author conveyed the premise’s underlying strangeness.
4. A Gathering of Shadows by Victoria Schwab (Tor) – I doubt that anybody who read A Darker Shade of Magic, the terrific first book in this series by Victoria Schwab, wasn’t eager for the sequel; this story, about four very different alternate versions of London and one of the few remaining individuals possessing the power to travel between them at will. That Traveler, a dreamy young man named Kell, comes from “Red” London, and in this latest book both he and his adoptive family and friends must confront, among other things, the threat of the worst alternate London of them all. And while it’s true that something of the first-in-a-series elan of A Darker Shade of Magic is missing from this sequel, this is still one fine, captivating adventure.
3. The Lyre Thief by Jennifer Fallon (Tor) – Jennifer Fallon’s latest book is the seventh installment in her “Hythrun Chronicles,” which would ordinarily be very nearly sufficient in its own right to disbar a book from appearing on one of these lists. But it had been some time since I read any of the earlier books set in this particular fantasy world, and that gave me the distance I needed to see what a fresh, fast-paced job Fallon does at making each of these books stand-alone accessible to newcomers. This is the story of a clever, headstrong young princess seeking to thwart the machinery of her own royal marriage, and it’s also the story of a daring thief and a desperate prince, and Fallon invests it all with such infectious humor that I feel certain I’d have enjoyed it just as much if I’d never read any of the earlier books.
2. The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks (Orbit) – This fourth book in Brent Weeks’ “Lightbringer” series isn’t quite the stand-alone success of The Lyre Thief – if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series, this doorstop will be nearly unintelligible to you – but read as a big chapter in that larger story, this is a tremendously good outing, fleshing out a great deal more of the world Weeks has created, in which light is magic, and fleshing out as well his central cast of characters, particularly his best creation, the obnoxious-yet-indispensable Kip. And the author’s extended action-sequences are, as always, ingeniously thrilling.
1. Night of the Animals by Bill Broun (Ecco) – Just as we began this list with a startlingly surreal, original stand-alone novel, so too do we end it, with Bill Broun’s amazing debut novel Night of the Animals, the best SFF novel of 2016. One one of its many levels, it’s the story of a half-sane derelict named Cuthbert Handley, who’s on a mission to free all the animals caged in his dystopian London’s zoos and thereby, maybe, hasten the advent of the Lord of Animals, but the book has many other simultaneously-unfolding layers of mania and epiphany, all of it told in prose that glows with confidence.