I was one of those book-loving children, oft told, “Why don’t you go outside and play?” Well, perhaps because outside in the real world I felt, at best, tolerated, while, inside books, I celebrated with friends who saw life like I did and, more important, their stories promised the possibility of belonging and thriving with people of my own kind, a comfort I hadn’t yet found in my day-to-day life where my earliest memories have to do with hiding who I was and how I felt.
While much is different, right now, it seems too little has changed. And 2016 has left me once more burrowing into the comfort of books, resisting the world outside my little bubble wherein I can keep believing the world is made of Love and Light, and all people are, at the core and essence, good.
I read 125 books in 2016 and whether or not it was this cursed year itself distracting me, or perhaps my advancing age and weakening faculties, only a few made lasting impressions. As I go through the list there are many about which I recall very little, except disappointment. In 2017 I intend to be more careful about taking recommendations because often the books about which others are abuzz do so little for me as to infuriate me into believing I’ve been misled by shills or ad placements masquerading as journalism. But, I’m not going to talk about those books, this is about the books I loved — or, if I didn’t exactly love them, I was moved, influenced, impressed.
BOOK OF THE YEAR: WHAT BELONGS TO YOU, by Garth Greenwell There is nothing more to say. I started talking about it while reading the first pages in January and I haven’t stopped since. And many esteemed critics, publications, and remarkably literate people of exquisite taste have also loved it and included it on awards and year-end lists. Click here for my original post about it from February 1, 2016.
AND OTHER LOVES . . . I’m not going to do a top ten or anything like that. This is a casual chat between friends about the books I remember most and most fondly from the past twelve months.
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, by Elizabeth Strout was a study in emotional precision. In a not very long book, Ms. Strout told many stories about the ways in which love can fail. And survive. With not one wasted word or space.
WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, by Idra Novey was one of my very favorite novels of this year and NPR agreed, including it in the Best of 2016. It’s quite a bit more than that. Shaped of incongruously and impossibly beautiful sentences begging to be read out loud, this novel is layer upon layer of truth and effect and reality and fantasy and a literary banquet of pathos and ecstasy quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. I read it twice in a row, which I rarely do, because there is so much there there.
There was a longish dry-spell for me from February to May during which the books I read were not — for the most part — awful, but they didn’t get me really excited. Then came May and:
TUESDAY NIGHTS IN 1980, by Molly Prentiss which was engaging and intriguing and filled with well-drawn and fascinating characters, and a compelling existential conundrum: What makes us who we are? If we lose the gifts and quirks we think define us, what’s left of us? And it was hella fun too, set in the art world of the 80s with kick-ass detail and capture of the era. This, too, like What Belongs To You, and Ways To Disappear, is a debut novel, and, like those, it is written with an assurance and command promising even more greatness in the future. I can’t wait for the second releases from these three. Click here for my original write-up about Tuesday Nights In 1980.
Next, during the summer, I fell in love with:
THEY MAY NOT MEAN TO, BUT THEY DO, by Cathleen Schine which was the first of her writing I had read and I loved that it had an octogenarian main character and explored the guilts of parenting, childhood, and family so well and with such tenderness, truth, and humor. And, too, the summer brought me:
THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS, by Jane Hamilton which was another grand and touching exploration of family dynamics.
And, finally, my summer was made fantastic by the release of:
A GREAT RECKONING, by Louise Penny which is the twelfth in the Inspector Gamache series. Armand Gamache and his creator, Louise Penny, are both people I would like to be. This series is so much more than a chain of mysteries; it is the embodiment of a world, a community, a magical place difficult to find because it is largely unmapped and out of reach of wi-fi — a dream world full of marvelous people who are quirky and brilliant and angry and flawed and human and friends. I feel they are my friends, my people. Click here for my original blog about A Great Reckoning.
September brought me a wonderful new (to me) writer recommended by Ann Patchett, who happened to have her own September release. But first:
THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS: STORIES, by Patrick Ryan which was a glorious collection, unconnected but connected. I went on and on about this book in my original blog — Click here for my write-up about Mr. Ryan’s The Dream Life Of Astronauts — but do you really need me to tell you read this when Ann Patchett has already told you to? Get busy. Then, if somehow you haven’t, it’s time for:
COMMONWEALTH, by Ann Patchett herself. This is another exploration of complicated family dynamics and angers and loves and losses, like so many of the books by which I was moved this year, and it is unsurprisingly brilliant. Ms. Patchett’s deceptively simple style is incredibly complicated and complex, with an eye for detail and the telling moment un-equalled today. Click here for my original blog about Commonwealth.
Now, the thing. My next much-moved-by books were read in November and since the election I have been unable to focus enough to blog about books. I have been reading like a mad-man. Which, in many ways on many levels with many different meanings, I am. I am near crazy from the results. Flabbergasted and disbelieving, still in denial. I am angry unto furious as in enraged that the election was stolen and, far worse, that sixty-two million people in this country are bigoted, misogynist, homophobic, Islamaphobic, racist, mocking the differently-abled, okay with sexual predators, cretins. I don’t want to hear any excuses about how not everyone who voted for him is all those things — for me, that is bullshit. He clearly exemplified all of those horrifying traits, and/or appealed to those who did and if they voted for him, they are at some level guilty of those things. It is horrifying to me. HORRIFYING.
So, as I finish this up, there are no book-blog-entries to which to refer you. I am reading to numb myself, like I did as a child, and to convince myself that a world and a people exist where I am welcome and honored. So, here we go:
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, by Colson Whitehead which was almost as brilliant as everyone said it was HOWEVER, I remained bitter and didn’t read it for quite a while because I thought Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You should have made the short list and won, hands down. I still do, but Mr. Whitehead’s work was definitely salient and topical and relevant and well-done.
THE MOTHERS, by Brit Bennett made me laugh and cry and rage and lust and all the things a grand novel ought to do. I read it in that rarer and rarer “what’s going to happen next” mode, I had to keep going. I found its construction fascinating and the characters compelling and I liked it much more than I had expected to — because it had been so hyped, I feared it was another pet of the insiders club. Maybe it was, but this one deserved it. And, then, from Twitter-folk I found –
PHANTOM LIMBS, by Paula Garner which was another very promising debut novel by a writer I heard about from Twitter (although we do not follow each other) and I am glad I believed and took a chance on this one. Again, a plot in which one of the main characters has lost a close family member — little surprise that this interests and touches me — but there is nothing maudlin or cloying or manipulative in this, and Ms. Garner captures the voices of teens quite brilliantly.
And so ends my 2016 wrap-up. I know there are a few days left, but I am not going to finish another new-to-me book. I am busy re-reading Helene Hanff and Garth Greenwell.
I re-read Ms. Hanff every year because she takes me back to my past, when my dear aunt and I shared books, passed them back and forth, talked about them, and marveled. My aunt believed I would move to New York and be a Broadway star or a writer or someone who somehow managed to live at the Algonquin. She’d wanted to be Edna St. Vincent Millay and I wanted to be Dorothy Parker-slash-Mary Martin. What was most amazing about the two of us, the love we shared, was that for each other — to each other — we already lived at the Algonquin and were our own versions of Millay-Parker-Martin.
I would very much like to have such a love again. I never have come close. I doubt I will.
So, there’s another part of me which makes soul-connections, usually brief, intense, naked and raw and passionate in an entirely different way, and that part of me seemed to be known and understood and written about from the center of truth by Garth Greenwell in What Belongs To You. It spoke to my soul. And it was a fantastic piece of literature with transparent and glorious technique.
So, I’m hanging on by a thread by blanketing myself in Hanff and Greenwell, memories of what was (and wasn’t) and trying to believe believe believe that maybe, some day, I can feel connected again and welcome in the world — despite the sixty-two million assholes who wish me gone, consider me unequal, and voted to abrogate my rights.
I’m being told by a few the equivalent of “Go outside and play” but I am not so inclined. Not right now. So, here I am, NOT going. And, although I want to say Happy New Year, I dasn’t tempt fate.