My Ten (Plus) Favorite Novels of 2016
December 21, 2016
As the year draws to a close, I take the time to reread my journals and revisit the books I read during the year that made my life so much richer than it would have been without them. This year, I’ve decided to share this list because the books on them are, in my judgment, too good to miss reading. I do have a reputation for finding and reading provocative, beautifully written, quirky, intelligent books, often set in the past or in foreign countries, with profound moral issues at the novel’s center. And since I became ill, and because my ability to travel, at the moment, has been curtailed, I found that, during the past year I wanted to travel through fiction—to other places, to other times. I also, in retrospect, see that I gravitated towards works of fiction with supreme acts of generosity and ethical and moral behavior at the core of the work. Was I anticipating that I needed this assurance that people can be kind to one another, can engage in deeply moral (and sometimes dangerous) actions that benefit others? Perhaps. Still, these are fantastic reads, ones I hope you enjoy and are edified by as much as I was.
A note: not all of these books were published last year.
And, as I do not believe in lengthy plot summaries—who wants to know what happens before you read?–I will offer only a few very idiosyncratic observations about what “grabbed” me while reading these books.
They are listed in the order I read them (except for #10)—I don’t really like “the best of…” lists because I learned early that judgments of worth are really only statements of personal preference.
In answer to a recent question about how I read so much (and always have, even while teaching full time and writing), I answer: No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever else I see as time wasting. I only read a half hour after lunch, and a half hour to an hour before bed.
- Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Set in Chechnya, which made me revisit its history. A young girl, Havaa, sees her father abducted. The relationship between her and Akmed, a neighbor who assists her despite risk, is magnificent. And there is a wonderful woman doctor, Sonja, who continues to take care of people without resources. One of several books I’ve read this year that has, as its moral center, a man and a woman taking care of a young girl regardless of the consequences. A necessary antidote, to me, of all the fiction I’ve read with men as despoilers. And I love that the female characters are so gorgeously written—all those assumptions about men not being able to write women go right out the window here (and in other books in this list).
- Jennifer Cody Epstein, The Painter from Shanghai.
I chose to read this novel because it was based upon the life of Pan Yuliang, one of the most important Chinese artists of the 20th century. I love to read novels about creativity. And that it was set in China and Paris appealed to me because I am so often under what I term “house arrest” because of my illness There is also a relationship with a man who becomes her lover at the heart of the novel. He helps Pan Yuliang leave the world of prostitution she was sold into so she can live the life of an artist.
- Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time.
The life of Shostakovich in the Soviet Union and the challenges and horrific difficulties he faced to compose his work. Another of the novels about creativity I read this year that illuminated, for me, the enormous risks of working in an autocratic, dangerous country, and how any art form can be censured, and how working authentically without negative and tragic consequences is sometimes close to impossible.
- Kristen Hannah, The Nightingale.
Based on the life of a woman member of the French Underground during World War II. A narrative about a woman who choses to help people to safety over a life without risk. And a reminder of the consequences of Fascism and dictatorship, and, most importantly, of deeming categories of people as worthy of extermination.
- John Banville, The Sea.
Each year I reread a few favorites. This year, I reread The Sea, a sublime work of the unfurling of memory. Here, an aging character, Max Maden, revisits a place he knew well when he was young, and his interaction with a family, the Graces. A gorgeous lesson in how to write backstory, how to foreshadow what we as readers learn about what “really” happened very late in the game. And the language, the language! I love to slow down and study Banville’s sentences. As I told a friend, some books seem to be miracles. This is such a one.
- Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy.
What to say about what is my touchstone for a book about the creative process rendering the artist, the struggle, the times, in such exquisite detail? Reread for the fourth time this year. Sometimes, when a student told me they had trouble doing their work, I’d suggest reading Stone. That “The Pieta,” “The David,” exist seems, upon reading this novel, dependent as much upon chance as anything else, including Michelangelo’s prodigious talent. We sometimes assume that monumental works of art come into being without challenge and that creators as famous and as universally recognized as geniuses, made their work without difficulty. This novel reminds us that the existence of even the most celebrated of his works was so often contingent on so very many external events (including the changes in governance in Florence and at the Vatican) that could have made their creation impossible. And you’ll meet Savonarola, that despiser of art, who persuaded Botticelli to consign many of his canvases to the flames, and how a place where art was revered and championed can so very quickly turn into a place where works of art are destroyed.
- Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow.
The life of Alexander Rostov while he is incarcerated at the Metropole Hotel in Moscow. Exquisite, delightful, delicious, illuminating. I loved how Rostov met the challenges of the changes in Soviet attitudes through the years and how he manages a good enough life under difficult circumstances, without being allowed to leave the hotel, while being consigned to a place in the attic. Hilarious moments, like when a Soviet decree makes it necessary to take all the labels off the wines in the hotel’s cellar. But to me, Nina, a delightful young girl, whom we see grow through the novel, and her relationship with Rostov, so magnificently rendered, are what made the novel so memorable: another instance of a character doing what is right rather than what is expedient.
- Rose Tremain, The Road Home.
Lev, emigrating from Eastern Europe, tries to make a life in London that will provide him with money for his mother and his daughter back home. Illuminated, for me, the recent émigré experience in London, and such a necessary book for our times. Again, supreme acts of kindness and generosity are at the core of this novel. And the love of this man for his daughter from afar, so very deeply sad, and so inspiriting.
- Paulette Jiles, News of the World.
An itinerant elderly news reader in the aftermath of the Civil War takes on the task of returning a Caucasian girl captured by the Kiowa to her family. A picaresque novel, delightful, harrowing, with the landscape through which Johanna and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travel magnificently rendered. Another novel in which an elderly man and a young girl achieve a relationship that is grounded in a clear sense of what a character’s moral sense dictates he must do despite the risk to his own well-being.
- And, finally, all the novels of Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child, The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter.
Each year I read deeply in the work of one author. This past year, it was Ferrante’s work, whose novels are, in a word, ferocious, essential explorations of a girl trying to become more, much more, than her culture demands she be. The works explained more to me about my Southern Italian family, and my own struggles to escape rigid social expectations for Italian American women, than all the works I’ve read to date. These books are not for the faint of heart, for they render the reality of life in the often brutal world these characters inhabit, where a girl can be thrown out of a window for displeasing her autocratic father without anyone thinking it’s horrific. I read them one after another, immersed myself in this world, and then went back and reread them again. Was it worth it? To me, the works are the most important rendering of a people in the context of their culture since Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
And what I’m reading now and loving:
Janna Levin, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Oh my goodness, just as I thought nothing could compare with the great books I’ve read this year, I found this one through the website Brain Pickings (if you don’t know it, check it out). Levin is an astrophysicist and a writer, whose latest book is Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space (next on my list), which is about the search for gravitational waves. Madman traces Kurt Godel’s (Incompleteness Theorems) life (and his revelation of his theorems at The Vienna Circle) against Alan Turing’s (who helped break the Nazi Enigma Machine, and who was so horrifically treated because he was homosexual). An utterly magnificent rendering of what Turing had to put up with at his school. The language is magnificent. We get into the heads of each of these characters, including, so far as I’ve read, that of Gödel’s mistress Adele, a fine example of a multiple point of view novel About a quarter of the way through, and I know I will immediately reread as soon as I finish.