The Thing Itself
368 pp., 34.04
Favorite Books Of 2016
A few of you may have followed this annual list ever since I started posting it more than 15 years ago. Many of you have been tuning in long enough to know the ground rules. This isn't a systematic reckoning with "the year in books," nor does it presume to identify the year's "best" books. Rather, these are the books that came most readily to mind when I entered a semi-trance and thought back, jotting down titles on the back of an envelope. (Sound track for this list: Advent at Ephesus (Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles); You Want It Darker (Leonard Cohen); A Star in the East: Medieval Hungarian Christmas Music (Anonymous 4); and Ther Is No Rose: Renaissance Music for the Christmas Season (Virelai).)
Generally this procedure has worked pretty well. This year, I have to admit, the results are noticeably lopsided. All of the titles included are "literary," and the list is particularly heavy on fiction. What about all the books I read this year in other categories—some of them quite excellent books—that are completely unrepresented here? On top of that, the list is too long.
But I was disinclined to fiddle with results. As usual, the books are (mostly) listed in alphabetical order by title (but keep an eye out for a RUSSIAN SPECIAL highlighting several noteworthy books by various authors), followed at the end by the Book of the Year. (The titles aren't linked—you will have to copy & paste if you want to search.) I hope you'll find a title or two here that catches your eye, to add to your own bookshelves or to give to someone else—or both!
The Big Book of Science Fiction. Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Vintage). + The History of Science Fiction, 2nd Ed. Adam Roberts (Palgrave Macmillan). If you want to understand the history of "our time," you should read these two big books, whether or not you are a fan of sci-fi (as I usually call it) or "SF" (as the purists insist). Of course it helps if (like me) you actually quite enjoy some of the stuff. (To whet your appetite: Roberts argues that "science fiction begins not with Gernsback, Wells, Verne, or Shelley, but rather with the Protestant Reformation.")
The Billy Collins Experience. A M. Juster (Kelsay Books/Aldrich Press). + Sleaze & Slander. A. M. Juster (Measure Press). Wit in poetry (not to mention flat-out comedy in multiple registers) is out fashion. Ditto what some people call "formalism" (a term I ardently dislike). Juster majors in both. Don't miss (in Sleaze & Slander, pp. 55-56) his translation of a poem from the Middle Welsh of Gwerful Mechain, unexpectedly relevant to current events on the American scene.
Do We Not Bleed? Daniel Taylor (Slant/Wipf & Stock). A sequel to Death Comes for the Deconstructionist (reviewed by David Lyle Jeffrey in Books & Culture), this novel again features the reluctant amateur detective (and even more reluctant amateur metaphysician) Jon Mote and his sister, Judy, a resident in a group home for developmentally disabled adults, where Jon himself has taken a job. Taylor's wickedly keen ear for the evasive language of political correctness places him in the Christopher Buckley class as a satirist, but this is satire that doesn't allow to us to stop with easy laughs at someone else's expense—satire unexpectedly yoked with tenderness and humility.
The First Modern Japanese: The Life of Ishikawa Takuboku. Donald Keene (Columbia Univ. Press). + Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering. Makoto Fujimura (IVP). These two books offer very different perspectives and are, at first glance, pitched to audiences that hardly overlap at all. But I think if you read them together, they will be even more interesting than they are read alone. Fujimura's book, which takes Shusaku Endo's novel Silence as a point of departure, is particularly timely with the release of the Scorsese film. (Jessica Hooten Wilson reviewed the book for B&C.) Keene's book is the work of one of the most distinguished Western scholars of Japanese literature (and one of my first guides), now in his nineties. His subject is a poet who is famous in Japan but little known here, a willful prodigy whose life (1886-1912) was cut short by illness. The book suffers from a lack of adequate editing (there are typos, confusions with chronology, etc.), but I found it deeply absorbing nonetheless, especially with Fujimura and Endo in mind.
The Fox Was Ever the Hunter. Herta Muller. Translated by Philip Boehm (Metropolitan Books). A friend wrote to me after reading this novel: "I have never had an experience quite like this while reading a book. She carries you to a place that feels strangely familiar and the flow of nature seamlessly woven into the psychological states is amazing." That captures something distinctive about Muller's work: an uneasy intensity in which a childlike experience of the world is channeled to express the harrowing nature of everyday life in a country ruled by a narcissistic dictator with a vast security apparatus at his disposal. She accomplishes this with an almost violent aversion to clichés, prefabricated scenarios, and the like. Since Muller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, only two of her novels not previously translated have appeared in English (this is the second). I want more!
Good as Gone. Amy Gentry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Here's part of what I wrote about this superb first novel a couple of months ago: "It's fair to say (as Gentry herself has acknowledged) that the story was inspired by the case of Elizabeth Smart, who (as a fourteen-year-old in 2002) was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City. But it is not a fictionalized retelling of Smart's experience.
"What is it, then? It is, among other things, a book animated by anger—especially anger against sexual abuse of women, but not only that. Anger at hypocrisy, too, and in particular against bent Christianity. (The book is set in Houston, and one of the characters is the slick pastor of a quasi-evangelical megachurch.) The novel includes a brief travesty of one of my favorite books of the Bible….
"[T]he suspense in this book derives not only from the twists and turns of the story and its sinewy sentences but also from the reader's own changing perceptions of the author's intention, her ‘point of view’ not just as a storyteller within the frame of the book but as the human being who told this story that adds up (as all novels do) to a little model of the world we all share. You might suppose, early on, that you know pretty well what that model will look like (whether or not you feel that she's a kindred spirit); you will probably be wrong."
The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. Andrew Klavan (Thomas Nelson). Here's a bit from my review of this memoir: "If you have been reading Books & Culture for any length of time, you know that Klavan is a writer I greatly admire. Stephen King has called him "the most original American novelist of suspense since Cornell Woolrich," and his most recent novel, Werewolf Cop, is (so I think) his best yet.
"When I started reading Klavan about ten years ago, devouring his books, I had no idea that he had recently been baptized (nor did I know that he had grown up in a secular Jewish family). Gradually, as new books appeared, I began to think that this writer might be a Christian, until finally I was convinced that it must be so. The Great Good Thing tells the story of his conversion with candor, wit, and humility (no preening, no cant). It is a memoir, he emphasizes, focused on that story, not a full-fledged autobiography, but it encompasses the whole arc of his life, and especially his childhood and growing-up years before he left home at the age of seventeen. (In my favorite part of the book, he tells of meeting and pursuing his wife-to-be, Ellen, when he was a student at Berkeley.)"
The Hidden Letters of Velta B. Gina Ochsner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). If the International Court of Justice at the Hague ever begins to treat "cultural appropriation" as a crime against humanity, you can be sure that Gina Ochsner will be in the dock before long. In her new novel, she brazenly appropriates the Latvian experience over decades of upheaval, making use of her own homegrown magic realism. She's a serial offender, too—she's currently at work on a novel about Gypsies in the Pacific Northwest. You might enjoy her conversation with fellow-writer Paula Huston, published this summer in B&C.
House of Lords and Commons. Ishion Hutchinson (FSG). This is one of the strongest collections by a new poet I've seen in the last several years. Dan Chiasson's piece in The New Yorker is perceptive, and all the more valuable for praising without gushing. What Chiasson doesn't spell out (though he hints at it, referring to Hutchinson's "hyperkinetic ear") is how rich the sound of Hutchinson's poems is, in contrast to so much contemporary poetry from so many different factions. A poem titled "Sibelius and Marley" begins thus: "History is dismantled music; slant, / bleak on gravel." I can't wait for Hutchinson's next book.
In the Café of Lost Dreams. Patrick Modiano. Translated by Chris Clarke (NYRB Classics). This is my favorite among several Modiano novels (all welcome) newly arrived on our shores in 2016. Mentioning it also gives me a chance to say how grateful I am to the various imprints of NYRB; I could easily have done a whole list like this featuring nothing but selections of theirs from this single year!
It's All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives. Paul Nelson & Kevin Avery with Jeff Wong (Fantagraphics Books). + Raymond Chandler: The Detection of Totality. Fredric Jameson (Verso). + The Wrong Side of Goodbye. Michael Connelly (Little, Brown). The Macdonald compendium is an absolute feast, with long interviews, covers of various editions of his books, photos, all superbly reproduced and laid out. Macdonald/ Millar was exceptionally precise in his speech, and I think he would wince at many passages in these interviews, conducted when his powers were waning though before the marked onset of Alzheimer's. Nevertheless, anyone passionate about his work will want to have this collection, clearly a labor of love. (I should also mention that the second Library of America volume devoted to Macdonald appeared this year, Three Novels of the Early 1960s: The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Chill, and The Far Side of the Dollar. Pure gold. Also, Syndicate Books and Soho Crime issued the first two volumes of a wonderfully timed project, Collected Millar, which will reissue Margaret Millar's complete works in seven volumes.) The Jameson book is slim but tasty, "synthesiz[ing]" several pieces he has done on Chandler over the years. As usual with Jameson, it's loaded with insights useful for readers who don't necessarily share his Marxist perspective. And The Wrong Side of Goodbye is the most recent Harry Bosch novel (in which Bosch's half-brother, Mickey Haller, also figures prominently). In a conversation with Gregory Cowles of the New York Times Book Review ("Inside the List," Nov. 20, 2016), Michael Connelly said, "I really wanted to go back to my elders with this book… . The title, the opening in Pasadena, the missing-heir case, much of the book is a tip of the hat to writers like Chandler and Ross Macdonald." Characteristically generous of Connelly. "Quite early in the book," I wrote when I reviewed it, "we're told that in San Fernando, nine out of ten citizens are Latino. This turns out to be not simply another bit of information but rather a pointer to one of the key themes of the story, emphasized in different ways in both plot-strands. This theme—the long history of Latinos in California, the discrimination they've suffered, their changing status—isn't new at all in Connelly's work, but it's foregrounded here."
Moonglow. Michael Chabon (Harper). I've read this novel twice now—first as an e-galley, then in the hardback with the striking cover designed by Adalis Martinez, a name new to me—and my copy is full of Post-it Notes, many of them with scribbled comments, others with striking sentences copied out (as always in a book by Michael Chabon, there are a lot of those). I'm still chewing on it: it's a book that rewards sustained attention, the kind of book that you want (or I want, anyway) to hold in your head (my head), complete. I'm not there yet. But that simply means I'll need to read it one more time.
My Radio Radio. Jessie van Eerden (Vandalia Press/West Virginian Univ. Press). Here's what I wrote for CT magazine: "This second novel (following Glorybound) by an exceptional young writer is narrated by a girl named Omi (Naomi) Ruth Wincott, who has grown up in a Christian commune (a cult, some call it). Omi has the instincts of an artist, though no one is putting such ideas in her head. She pores over old issues of National Geographic and a missionary magazine called The Macedonian Call, cutting out photos to make collages, and she undergoes some haphazard 'homeschooling.' Scenarios like this have furnished dozens of contemporary novels, but never (in my reading) as freshly and winsomely as here."
News of the World. Paulette Jiles (William Morrow). I had never read Paulette Jiles until I opened this book (a pleasing size, not bloated) and took a gander at the first two sentences of Chapter 1, under the heading Wichita Falls, Texas, Winter 1870. Those sentences were enough to convince me that I wanted to read on. Here they are: "Captain Kidd laid out the Boston Morning Journal on the lectern and began to read from the article on the Fifteenth Amendment. He had been born in 1798 and the third war of his lifetime had ended five years ago and he hoped never to see another but now the news of the world aged him more than time itself." The story—but I won't sketch it here, won't tell you about the girl whose parents and sister were killed by raiding Kiowas, who took the girl with her, and all the rest, because if those two sentences aren't enough, what would it avail?
RUSSIAN SPECIAL!!!! Four books to celebrate. (1) Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Knopf), with a delicious dust jacket by Oliver Munday. (2) Odessa Stories. Isaac Babel. Translated and introduced (brilliantly) by Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press), in the same appealing format as Babel's Red Cavalry, also translated by Dralyuk and reviewed in Books & Culture by Emily Raboteau. (3) Strolls with Pushkin. Andrei Sinyaksky. Translated by Catherine Theimer Nepomnyashchy & Slava Yastremski, with an afterword by Michael M. Naydan (Columbia Univ. Press), with gorgeous cover design by Roberto de Vicq and interior design by Lisa Hamm, one of the first set of three books in Columbia's Russian Library. Note that this is not merely a reissue of the volume published by Yale University Press in 1994; this new edition also includes Sinyavsky's long Pushkinian essay "A Journey to the River Black." (4) Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader. Edited & translated by Alexandra Berlina (Bloomsbury Academic). The appearance of these four books within a few weeks of one another is comparable to one of those rare conjunctions of the planets that excite skywatchers to a frenzy.
The Sampo. Peter O'Leary (The Cultural Society). In an afterword, Peter O'Leary describes this book-length poem based on five sections of the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, as his attempt to write a "magic song," an "imagist epic" (he cites Christopher Logue and Thomas Meyer as guiding influences in this respect), and a "fantasy." O'Leary (who has Finnish ancestry himself) has succeeded on all three fronts. His book is a delight, casting a welcome spell.
Shine on Me. A. G. Mojtabai (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern Univ. Press). Mojtabai's slim but potent new novel is based on a contest held by an auto dealer in Longworth, Texas, a competition in which the last contestant to keep hands on a brand-new pickup truck would win it. The contest inspired a 1998 documentary, Hands on a Hard Body, a musical, and now a novel—but, as Mojtabai emphasizes, she is writing fiction. To get a sense of why you might want to give this book a try, here is a piece I wrote when her previous novel appeared. She is a writer I greatly admire.
BOOK OF THE YEAR
The Thing Itself. Adam Roberts (Gollancz). Adam Roberts has dual citizenship. On the one hand, he is a scholar, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. On the other hand, he is a novelist. In both capacities he is quite productive. Then again, each of these identities is doubled in turn. Roberts is both a scholar of Nineteenth Century Literature (Browning, Tennyson, and so on) and a scholar of science fiction. Roberts the novelist writes science fiction as ambitious as anyone now at work; at the same time, he dashes off spoofs, parodies. He relishes puns. It wouldn't at all surprise me to learn that he was writing MORE books of yet a different kind under a pseudonym or two. For some reason, though he is certainly not unknown in the US, his books mostly don't get discussed as they should—as among the most interesting works of fiction now being written in any genre.
On the acknowledgements page at the end of his novel The Thing Itself—published in Britain in 2015, and in the US, more or less invisibly, this fall—he says, "As an atheist writing a novel about why you should believe in God, I have taken more than I can say from the eloquent and persuasive devotional writing of my friends Alan Jacobs and Francis Spufford, Christians both."
I'm hoping that will rouse your curiosity sufficiently for you to investigate further. You might also take a look at this piece by Kevin Power at Strange Horizons.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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