Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Favorite Reads 2016

During 2016, I read more new books than last year. Though my shelves spill over with older books I mean to read, I am also always looking for the latest and greatest books. Some of my favorite sources for keeping up with publishing now that I am a retired librarian include Book Page and the New York Times Book Review, not to mention browsing in Barnes & Noble and other local bookstores. There is only one older title in my list below, Cutting For Stone, which I was so very happy to (finally) read along with other members of the West University Library Book Group. Gosh, how we loved that book!
 Four of the books on this year's list are nonfiction. Eight of the books were penned by female authors. Two publishers are represented twice: Knopf and Algonquin. I love this exercise of gathering up my favorite reads at the end of every year. Here they are: 
Cutting for Stone (Knopf, 2009) by Abraham Verghese. All I needed to know to whet my interest herein was that a nun gives birth to pair of boy twins in an African Missionary hospital. Then she dies. How does that grab you? Larger than life, brimming with themes such as forgiveness, compassion, loyalty, love, loss, devotion and fortitude, the writing style of this novel reminded me of both D. H. Lawrence and John Irving.

Dimestore: A Writer's Life (Algonquin, 2016) by Lee Smith. Well, since I adore Lee Smith's novels (especially Fair and Tender Ladies, Putnam, 1988 ), this memoir felt like manna from heaven.  "I write because I want more than one life," Smith tells us, echoing Anne Tyler. Such a wonderful truism, one that can also pertain to readers. We read fiction because we want more than one life, don't we? We want to know what being human feels like to others! And now I thankfully know a bit more about Smith's life and writerly inspirations.

Dinner With Edward: A Story Of An Unexpected Friendship (Algonquin, 2016) by Isabel Vincent. I was charmed and enchanted by this tiny book gigantic in its scope, simply telling its tale of a rare friendship between a young woman reporter near divorce and a sweet, elegant nonagenarian widower. Truly they become a balm for each other's soul. And for mine. Read it if you feel the need to be uplifted!

Everybody's Fool (Knopf, 2016) by Richard Russo. Perhaps you remember the dark, sardonic tone of Nobody's Fool (1993) and its main character, Sully, such a lovable loser. Now Sully is older and perhaps a bit wiser. He steps back a bit to share page time with a colorful bunch of depressed and/or neurotic characters. There are comic moments amongst all the doom and gloom, and it was great to be back in upstate New York with Sully.

LaRose (Harper, 2016) by Louise Erdrich. Tragedies and miracles abound in this novel of native America. One child is accidentally killed. Oh my goodness, then the killer gives his own son to the family of the boy he accidentally shot. I found myself thinking of a pressure cooker as the plot thickened. Would things blow sky high or would the pressure be released safely? Erdrich weaves a complicated web and the result is a novel ultimately attesting to the power of familial love.

Modern Lovers (Riverhead, 2016) by Emma Straub. Bandmates in college decades later are still good friends, living near each other in super-hip Brooklyn. Now their teen-aged children are starting to date each other. And most of the parents seem to be going through midlife crises. Straub has a way of bringing even the trendiest characters alive, far beyond any level of caricature. Instead she seems to peer into their hearts in the most believable way.

My Name Is Lucy Barton (Random House, 2016) by Elizabeth Strout. Laid up in a hospital bed, Manhattanite Lucy Barton is surprised when her mother visits from small town Illinois. Lucy has never felt very nurtured by her mother. Perhaps now the past with all its deprivations can be re-examined. Somehow we get to know both of these women more through their ruminations than their conversations. Spare and eloquent, this character-driven novel was for me nothing short of a true gem.

News of the World (William Morrow, 2016) by Paulette Jiles. When 71 year-old Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd reluctantly agrees to accompany a 10 year-old Indian captive, Johanna, back "home" to her relatives in the Texas Hill country, many adventures ensue. The time period is post-Civil War and in Texas the war is hardly over, so conflicts still arise. At least once, Johanna saves the Captain's life. The bond that forms between Kidd and Johanna is visceral, no matter how many times Kidd near kicks himself for taking on the responsibility for the wild child. Fantastic historical fiction!

The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir (Flatiron, 2016) by Ruth Wariner. This is  tale of polygamy is set in Mexico. Ruth Wariner's childhood is chaotic, impoverished and confusing. She loves her mother but hates her stepfather, he with the 4 wives and a proclivity to sexually abusing his stepchildren. Ruth has some 41 siblings and step-siblings; can you imagine??? I don't know why exactly, but Surviving a Terrible, Horrible or Extremely Eccentric Childhood is very much a favorite memoir sub-genre of mine. I know this book is not for everyone, but I for one certainly have a lot of respect for the author's ability to present her story to us with such clear-eyed hindsight.

Upstream:Selected Essays (Penguin, 2016) by Mary Oliver. In these assorted essays, poet Mary Oliver makes her loving attention to the natural world seem as simple as breathing. What a privilege it is to be right there with her as she rescues a seagull or spend hours observing spiders. There are also chapters on Walt Whitman, Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson. We come away from this collection feeling we have walked through the woods and Provincetown wetlands with Mary. "For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple,” she explains. I am humbled by her gift and grateful for the way she opens the door to her temple for all of us. Enter and rejoice! (See also my longer review of Upstream on

I could never keep up with my reader self if it were not for Goodreads. I reviewed most of these books in full there, so please go to my Goodreads feed if you'd like to read more about any of the titles. Happy New Year ahead and may it be full of many good books!

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