The Thing Itself
368 pp., $23.99
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!