2016 Favorite Reads

There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.
— Ray Bradbury

Every year seems to slip away faster than the year before, but the stack of books to read never ends. This is a good thing. Also, a good thing was my 22-year-old son telling me on Christmas Eve that his goal was to read 25 books in 2017. Yes!! I did something right in the show them don’t tell them parenting department. Not that reading should become a competitive sport, but hey, a mom can dream. I wrote about my favorite summer reads here http://www.robingaines.net/summer-reads/ and a few of those made my Top Ten for the year. And yes, I did read a handful of non-fiction, two making the list. So here goes in no particular order:

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead. I finished the book this morning. It had been sitting on the “stack” for months. Every time I went to the pile for a new read I ignored this one. Just not in the mood to read about slavery, I told myself. Well, it was exquisite in its seamless story about an awful time in American history. Whitehead’s story reads like a fairy tale with his use of the Underground Railroad as a real thing with tracks and engineers and a bevy of people helping slaves escape their brutal lives. Should be required reading for everyone in America.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante. I’m still mad about the author (notoriously private) outed by a journalist. Leave her alone to write. I went on a Ferrante binge this year reading everything but a couple of her books. The one that stood out for me was ABANDONMENT. Gut wrenching in its depiction of the narrator as she struggles with life as a single mother of two after her husband leaves her. The anger and jealousy and disillusionment she feels at the implosion of her life is on every page. Riveting.

EUPHORIA by Lily King. Okay, I thought I read this when it first came out. I didn’t! I think I confused it with another woman anthropologist goes to the jungle novel that seemed to occupy the fiction section for a few years. I met King at the Metro Detroit Book & Author Luncheon when she came to speak in 2015. She couldn’t have been lovelier. When she spoke about Euphoria, I realized I hadn’t read it–after just telling her I did! Anyway, it’s a love story triangle between three anthropologists in the 1930s. Lush writing and vivid detail give this novel (plus the love story) five stars.

THE UNDERTAKING by Thomas Lynch. He’s another author I had the pleasure of meeting—and he bought four copies of Invincible Summers—so there’s that, too. I loved every word in these twelve essays about living and dying. Lynch made his living as an undertaker in Milford, Michigan but bequeathed us his poet’s heart in this beautiful book. And after a horrendous year of deaths, both personal and in the public eye, I cherished Lynch’s soft touch in writing about loss.

SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler. Although a novel this one reads like a memoir. It’s the authentic voice of Tess who works as a “backwaiter” in a popular restaurant in Brooklyn that sends this novel over the top for me. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you’ll recognize the crazy cast of characters who bond over booze, cocaine, hookups and getting the food out to the tables on time. Can’t wait to see the movie! There’s got to be a movie!

HOURGLASS: TIME, MEMORY, MARRIAGE by Dani Shapiro. This memoir isn’t due out until April, but I read the galley. Shapiro writes honestly about the fragility of time and the bond between love and sorrow. I’ve read some of her other work and feel like we could be great friends, or she the best therapist. That’s how intimate her writing about the internal mechanisms inside all of us that feel so abstract to the individual, but Shapiro shows us we’re not alone. There are so many great lines. This one on a long marriage: “We know each other in a way that young couple couldn’t have fathomed. Our shared vocabulary–our own language–will die with us. We are the treasure itself: fathoms deep, in the world we have made and made again.” Brava.

LISTEN TO ME by Hannah Pittard. Someone recommended this book. I devoured it in a couple of days. Here’s some of the jacket copy: “Mark and Maggie’s annual drive east to visit family has gotten off to a rocky start. By the time they’re on the road, it’s late, a storm is brewing, and they are no longer speaking to each other.” I’m all in. And it only gets better. Wobbly marriage, lost on a dark hilltop road without cell service, and fears from the past equal exciting read. Pittard hits it out of the park.

IMAGINE ME GONE by Adam Haslett. A story about a family dealing with the effects of one sibling’s mental illness and the relationship issues it causes within the family. The novel spans decades and is told in alternating chapters from different characters. The writing is off the charts. The subject matter sad. But what a story Haslett imagines.

DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY by Bill Clegg. (I’m still wondering why there isn’t a question mark????) This one was a book club selection. There are a lot of characters to follow and mysterious subplots galore, but I enjoyed Clegg’s ability to put the reader smack dab into the small Connecticut town where the story takes place, and the effortless way he allows the residents to speak about the tragedy at the heart of the novel. How Clegg writes with all these voices in his head is amazing. Our book discussion was lively and brought up many an interesting comment about what constitutes a family.

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline. This novel received a lot of hype before it was released. I happen to think it was deserved. As a young girl, I was fascinated by the Charles Manson murders in the late 1960s and just a couple years younger than the narrator, Evie, in the novel. Cline is in her 20s. Her ability to write fictionally about this time with such a convincing voice is a real talent. I loved the book even though the subject matter is a real downer. Can’t wait to see what this author does next.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON/THE BURGESS BOYS both by Elizabeth Strout. Yes, I know this is #11 and #12 on my Top Ten List, but hey, I had to include Strout since I was lucky enough to visit the author’s hometown this fall. To see the place where Olive Kitteridge lived and breathed (one of my all-time favorite fictional characters) was a ginormous highlight of 2016. The Burgess Boys also has it’s setting in the southern part of Maine with its Somalian culture as a centerpiece to the story. With the ongoing questions raised during the election about immigration, this novel is so timely to what we should be talking about instead of walls!! What a great selection for book clubs. My Name Is Lucy Barton is a small lovely story about a mother-daughter relationship. It takes place in a hospital whee the mother, who Lucy hasn’t spoken to in years, has come to stay with the daughter while she’s in the hospital after an appendectomy surgery that goes wrong. “Just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters.” Loved this book. What was your favorite(s) book(s) you read in 2016? I need to add to my pile for 2017