A Year In Books
I read around two dozen books during 2016 – only about 40% of my Goodreads challenge to read 52 titles. Mostly I read during the early parts of the year, before my eyeballs became fully consumed with depressing online political news. After July I started a lot of books that I lacked the attention span to finish, acclaimed titles about interesting characters doing interesting things, like Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes The Sun and Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and Seung-u Lee’s The Private Life of Plants. (Nothing against those books, mind you! That’s all on me.)
This morning I started Lee Clay Johnson’s acerbic Appalachian novel Nitro Mountain and so far I love every single sentence that he’s written. (I may update the Top 10 list accordingly if I finish before Saturday.) I have C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings on deck.
But I started the year with Rashod Ollison’s Soul Serenade, a gay memoir that stubbornly refused to engage with its own framework. The more I wanted to like it, the more it annoyed me. Infinitely better is Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door, a gay memoir that’s incredibly moving, and which also places the author as a supporting character in his own story. The one other memoir I read was from 1907: Arthur Gosse’s total snoozefest Father and Son, which was published anonymously because Gosse actually criticized his father, an approach that memoirs were generally too polite to do back then.
I didn’t read much non-fiction at all, besides Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind (2012), which I read for work. Speaking of work, I sold lots of copies of the new translation of Monsieur de Bougrelon, a delightfully grimy 1897 novella by Jean Lorrain about a decaying dandy carousing on the streets of Amsterdam.
This was a big year for gay novels, specifically for gay novels that aren’t very long. My favorite was probably Saleem Haddad’s Guapa, about an underground gay club in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. I also recently finished Sjón’s Moonstone: The Boy That Never Was, a brief and wonderful story about a young hustler living through a volcanic eruption and a flu epidemic in 1918 Iceland.
Towards the end of 2015 I read an advance copy of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You, which came out to much acclaim back in January. Since then, the novel has received mountains of praise so steep that I don’t know that I can add anything that hasn’t been said already. (Actually that’s not true – for what I’m assuming are spoiler-related reasons, I haven’t read a single review that engages with the book’s final, most interesting section. Drop me a line if you want to talk about it. Seriously.)
Back in February, Greenwell read at the Harvard Bookstore along with Idra Novey, whose novel Ways To Disappear is a real revelation. It’s a fast-moving, clever book about a weirdo Brazilian novelist and her bedraggled American translator.
I quite enjoyed Suzanne Rindell’s Three Martini Lunch, about women in New York’s publishing industry during the Mad Men era. Unfortunately, it still pales in comparison to The Other Typist, Rindell’s previous novel about ambitious career women in olden times.
On the teen front, I loved loved loved loved loved Jane Steele, Lindsay Faye’s update of Jane Eyre (in which Jane happens to be a mass murderer.) I thought it would be silly and in-jokey but it’s actually brilliant. I also read Pat Schmatz’s Lizard Radio, a queer sci-fi novel from last year that’s pretty good but probably not essential reading unless you’re looking specifically for queer teen sci-fi.
Some old mysteries that I picked up: Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s dizzy I Was Jack Mortimer is a thrilling noir set (and written) in 1930s Vienna. I also read Murder Yet To Come, an infuriatingly stupid novel from the inventor of the Myers-Briggs personality test. I read The Girl on the Train and I liked it, so there.
I also read some new (or newly translated) crime novels. Lawrence Osborne’s Hunters In The Dark is a brisk noir about Cambodia. I wasn’t particularly fond of Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun, since the narrator was wishy-washy and repetitive in a way that suggested both Holden Caulfield and Mojo Jojo. The Black Notebook by French Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano isn’t exactly a mystery, but its dreamy ramble through the shady avenues of 1960s Paris brims with shady characters and international intrigue.
Speaking of the Nobel Prize, I read two oddballs: The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovannini Guareschi and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mishima: A Vision of the Void. Looking for something new to read, I scanned the longlist of Nobel Prize nominees from 1965 and randomly checked out whatever I could from the few authors that were available at the local library.
Finally, I read the Dorry nominees for Novel of the Year, awarded to someone from Rhode Island or a border town. The award ultimately went to Dawn Tripp’s Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe. I liked it when I read it in July and think it gets better with time. (I sincerely apologize to whichever library patron opened the book and found it full of beach sand, though.) Also notable was Hilary Salk’s Eavesdropping in Oberammergau, a fascinating Holocaust novel whose unique plot essentially made up for the author’s rather old-fashioned writing style.
Some 2015 titles were also up for the award – Rachael L. McIntosh’s paranoid political caper Security Through Absurdity: The Big Show takes place at the 2012 Republican National Convention, and it was completely by chance that I read it during this year’s RNC. Finally, I also enjoyed Darkness The Color of Snow, from my old college writing professor Thomas Cobb.
My 2016 Top 10
(which is to say, books that were originally released in 2016)
Lindsay Faye, Jane Steele
Garth Greenwell, What Belongs To You
Saleem Haddad, Guapa
Paul Lisicky, The Narrow Door
Patrick Modiano, The Black Notebook
Idra Novey, Ways To Disappear
Suzanne Rindell, Three Martini Lunch
Hilary Salk, Eavesdropping In Oberammergau
Sjón, Moonstone: The Boy That Never Was
Dawn Tripp: Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe