Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Best Books I Read in 2016

This year I ended up reading 76 books, which I feel is a decently respectable total. It's not nearly as high as 2015, when I read 99 books, but is pretty much on track for what I consider a "regular" reading year: 2011's tally was also 76, 2012's was 74, 2013's was 79, and 2014's was 87, so for now it seems that 2015 was a weird outlier and I will probably read 70 or so books this year.

We'll find out as the year progresses whether or not that's true, because for 2017 I'm going to do something new with my reading tally: I'm going to write a blog about every book that I read, as I finish them. No monthly tallies and no yearly tallies. Instead, I'm going to read and immediately write, counting as I go, and see if this is another 70+ year.

Before I finish the first book of the new year, though, even though it was mostly read in the old year, here are the best books I read this year:

LaFeyette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

What I said in February: Sarah Vowell takes us on a trip back to a time when the US begged for France's help, when Freedom Fries did not exist, and when the patriots of the Revolutionary War welcomed the aid of a French general who was below the current legal drinking age. Following Lafeyette's journey through the US both during the war and later, when he came back to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the victory and spent a year being celebrated by everyone in the US, Vowell gives an amusing picture of the way the war is remembered today contrasted with the way it actually was. This was an entertaining, informative read.

This was the best book I read all month, because Vowell is adept at combining the past with current events in a way that lets the reader see exactly how one flowed into the other without the sense that you are reading a textbook. She also has a very dry sense of humor, and I appreciate being educated about the Revolutionary War through the lens of her getting the reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg to break character or a description of how hard it is to find a monument that now stands in the corner of someone's front yard. Her books present American history in a way that entertains Americans.

Why I list it here: Like I said then, Vowell makes American history entertaining for Americans. I talk to a lot of people who are murky on how we got to where we are as a country, so I think any exposure to US history is a good thing, even if it's only bits and pieces mixed in with trivia. Also, I just liked reading this.

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

What I said in May: Was creepy and disturbing, and a very good read.

Merry is eight years old, and her family is in trouble. Her father was laid off after two decades working a factory job, and is slowly becoming devoutly, obsessively religious as her skeptic mother tries to support the family of four on a bank teller's salary. Meanwhile, Merry's sister, Marjorie, starts to exhibit strange behavior: hearing voices, telling stories, acting out, and then spiraling into bizarre physical behavior. When medical treatment can't help her, Marjorie's father and his priest reach a disturbing conclusion: Marjorie is possessed, and must be exorcised. As bad as that sounds, there's a possible opportunity for the family to pull themselves out of their disastrous financial situation while still helping Marjorie. Fifteen years later, Rachel, a bestselling author, is interviewing Merry. Rachel wants to write a book about "The Possessed", the six episode reality show that Merry's family starred in. She wants to explore what happened to Marjorie, what happened to the family, and how Merry ended up as the only survivor.

I really liked that this book was unclear about a lot of things, even whether or not the ending really happened the way Merry remembers it. Tremblay uses his unreliable narrator, Merry, in the best possible way, leaving the reader with an unsettling story of a family in some sort of crisis, but maybe not the kind that it seems like they're in.

Why I list it here: Months later, some of the images and scenes from this book still linger with me. It would be really easy to just discount this as a horror novel, but it was so much more than just a genre novel. As a person who consumes a good bit of reality television on a weekly basis, this book also gives a little bit of a nudge to think a little more deeply about the real people behind those shows, and the things that may drive them to be on them.

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

What I said in June: Columbine is so iconic to Americans that we don't even call it "the Columbine high school shooting" or something like that. It has its own shorthand where we say the name of the town and the school shooting is the first thing people think of. It's the first school shooting that I remember getting major, around the clock media coverage. It's been exhaustively picked apart and analyzed in books, magazines, documentaries, and internet conspiracy theories, but in "A Mother's Reckoning" Sue Klebold reminds us that there's a side we haven't ever really heard: the families of the shooters. Who was Dylan Klebold? How did he grow up? Were there warning signs his parents missed, or did they see them and interpret them incorrectly? What's it like to receive a call at work that tells you your son murdered his classmates? How do you mourn him and mourn his victims at the same time? What happens to the rest of your life?

I found this compulsively readable. Sue Klebold comes across as honest and genuine, and shares her grief, anger, confusion, and what's she's learned as she struggles to carry on. She also points out that Columbine isn't just a story of murder and rage, but also a story about two boys who committed suicide. Could recognizing Dylan's suicidal depression have prevented what happened? Klebold doesn't make excuses, but she does point out as best she can the places where she could have done better.

I think it was very brave of her to come forward and finally tell her story this honestly and openly, because she lives a life that the rest of us can barely imagine: she's the mother of a mass murderer who has been savaged in the press and the courts of public opinion as a horrible parent who allowed this to happen, and she says over and over through the book that she would think the same thing about a mother if she saw this story on the news. There are some things she can't talk about, because of the many lawsuits that have been leveled against her family by those of the victims, but she also shares things that I never knew, like that she spent over a month after the shootings writing apology letters to each family, or that she is now a cancer survivor, or that she works for organizations promoting mental health and suicide awareness.

I don't know if I can say I enjoyed this book, but I did find it inspiring and sympathetic.

Why I list it here: Everything I said in June still stands. This book was raw and real and powerful, and tells a story we think we already know in a way that we've never heard before. Sue Klebold could have lived the rest of her life as a hermit, shunned and silent, but she chose to speak. She doesn't ask for pity, only for understanding, and wants to help others. Her story deserves to be heard.

Hide by Matthew Griffin

What I said in July: A touching, sad love story. Wendell and Frank have lived together outside of town for decades, cut off from their families and not having any friends. They don't leave the house together, keep separate mailing addresses, and never reveal to anyone in their tiny southern town that the two of them are lovers. That all changes when Frank suffers a stroke in the garden, and his recovery and deterioration forces them to confront all of the things they gave up to be together in a time when doing so was illegal.

I don't think this was annoyingly sad in the way I was complaining about above, though, because the sadness here is more from the oppression of society. The characters in the book were able to build a life despite that, but they could have been so much more happy if the world wasn't such a terrible place to people who are different.

Why I list it here: I cried. Actual tears. This book broke my heart. It was sad and real and touching and I cried while I was reading it.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What I said in August: Arthur Leander is a famous actor orbited by a collection of friends, family, and strangers. Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress, is onstage with Arthur the night he dies of a heart attack during "King Lear", and it's also the night that the rapidly lethal Georgia Flu breaks out in Toronto. Within days, civilization as we know it collapses, and fifteen years later Kirsten wanders the ruins of the country with the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of musicians and actors. They move from town to town until they meet the Prophet, a man who may destroy them. In a world of survivors, what else is important besides continuing to survive? What's worth fighting for? And how is Arthur still guiding Kirsten, long after his death and the death of modern civilization entirely?

This was definitely worth reading and worth thinking about. Weeks later, I can still see some of the scenes in my mind.

Why I list it here: This book has received a lot of praise, and I've seen it on a lot of "best of" lists. It deserves to be there, because it's a good book.

Beyond the Grass Ocean by Ron Horsley

What I said in September: It's a children's book, but engaging and moving enough for adults as well.

Nary, a young girl in the fishing village of Rains Perish, lives alongside the great Grass Ocean, a wide sea of grass so deep that ships sail on it and unknown creatures live in its dark depths. When Nary was younger, her mother got very sick, and then went away, forever away, and now Nary wants to know where forever away is, and why the people who go there never come back. When no one can answer her question, she and her friends set off across the Grass Ocean, searching for the Twined Cities and the twins, Somnol and Mortol, who run the world.

In some ways, this is a typical coming of age novel, but it's also filled with magical, lingering imagery. It made me think a lot about grief, loss, and coping, but also it was just an interesting read. The illustrations are well done, too.

I'm glad I read this. It's the only book out of the four I read this month that I'm going to keep.

Why I list it here: It was beautiful and magical and deserves a wider audience. And yes, it's a little expensive, but I'm told that's because of the cost of self-publishing it.

That seems to be it for the year. This isn't to say that everything else I read this year was terrible or anything (except in January; most of what I read in January was garbage), but these are the books that stick out at the end of the year as things I'm glad I read.

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