Books I read and loved in 2016

I know, it is certainly not 2016 anymore. And I know, my end-of-year roundup is usually Books By Women I Loved (in 2013, 2014, and 2015). You’ll see below that I still mostly read books by women. But I also set a goal two years in a row to make my reading list less white and less heterosexual, so this is an all-inclusive list of Books I Loved in 2016.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Charming, whimsical, melancholy. It’s one of the first books I read after I turned in my dissertation draft, and I blogged about its food scenes. I just recently watched the film adaptation with Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, and a young Henry Cavill–lovely.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm.  This novel was created in a lab for me. It’s a mystery–an art history mystery!–that centers on a Southern girl who moves up north to study art and then things get really complicated and she’s on the lam, hiding out in an antiques restoration shop. It’s suspenseful–I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop–but also makes some really smart observations about class differences and education.

The Marriage of Elinor by Margaret Oliphant. I read Miss Marjoribanks by the same author in 2015, but didn’t even mention it on my book roundup; it was pleasant but not love at first read. Now I think I underestimated Margaret Oliphant. A Scottish lady who was writing around the same time as my loves George Eliot and M. E. Braddon, Oliphant offers marriage plots that get turned on their heads. In The Marriage of Elinor, Elinor falls for a sexy but dishonorable man and marries him even though everyone tells her not to. She has some rough times with him, but neither party experiences untimely death or protracted horrors as you’d might expect from Victorian fiction. Nor are the trials of her marriage left unspoken, as with the ill-fated matches made by lesser characters in Jane Austen’s books. No, Elinor leaves her no-good husband and lives to tell the tale–to her cousin, who is in love with her but never marries her because she really doesn’t think of him that way. Elinor gave me new respect for Miss Marjoribanks, who spends her novel putting off marriage until the last possible page, since she likes her life just fine as the only daughter of a widower, mistress of the house, and thrower of the neighborhood’s best parties.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck. I’m not sure how it came to pass that I’d never read this book before; it’s frequently mentioned in literary studies of food, since the novel is very much preoccupied with growing, eating, and starving. It was a brutal read but actually helped me get through a chunk of dissertation revisions. Whenever I was dragging my feet on revisions, I would read a few chapters; when I felt overwhelmed by page after page of famine, I embraced my revisions with open arms. It’s a well-written and engrossing book, I was into it and I’m glad I read it, but it’s bleak.

Faithful Place, by Tana French. I’ve put off reading Tana French because way too many people told me I should, and I get prim and fussy about books that are loved by many. But this book was a highly enjoyable page-turner, gritty detective fiction set in Dublin and embellished with some needed nuance for the “pretty dead girl” trope.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien was every bit as masterfully crafted and moving as I had been told it would be.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle,  which is a short and riveting revision of “The Horror of Red Hook” by H.P. Lovecraft. I never got too far reading Lovecraft, but I was deeply engrossed in LaValle’s version, which includes vivid description of Harlem in its Renaissance, some pretty convincing eldritch horrors, and an unmistakeable callout to police violence today. Bonus: I read the last half of the book in a coffee shop which happened to be playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as I approached the violent and horrifying climax. Awful things kept happening on the page and the music kept getting faster and faster. I don’t have a habit of listening to music while reading, but the background made this book even more memorable.

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler. This book was so unsettling and so deeply absorbing. Everyone knows that Butler is an incredible writer and world-builder but it’s kind of easy to take that for granted until you spend the length of a novel conveniently forgetting that the sensible, empathetic, charismatic, and sensual narrator is, to all human perceptions, a black girl child. It’s kind of messed up, because black girl children are continually hypersexualized and perceived as dangerous by our culture. But if anyone was going to make this protagonist work, it would be Butler. And although I’m not much of a vampire reader, I devoured this weird book quickly.

Emma and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper. I wasn’t sure I loved this book, but I am still thinking about it months later, so I think I do. It’s maybe a little precious, a term I have been taught to hate by male professors who prefer words like muscular or lean to describe prose. But this book is plenty lean, and its smalltown characters and their epic quests have left an indelible mark on me.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. One of those books you think you’ve read but have only read about, right? I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and became wrapped up in this book. Epistolary novels are not usually my jam.

The Winged Histories, by Sofia Samatar. I adore this book and I want everyone to read it.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I picked this up at a used book sale before the whole tempest about the author’s identity stirred up. Many of my fellow Toast commenters sang high praise of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and it was easy for me to see why: the prose is masterfully crafted, packed with sensory detail but narrated at a fluid, natural pace that doesn’t get bogged down in description. I read it quickly and appreciated its craft, but I wasn’t sure that I loved it until toward the end. The main characters’ relationship is so fascinating and harrowing that it comes as a great relief when they start to be more kind than competitive, yet that shift takes place just as adulthood opens up a big can of hot mess on both. This novel, the first in a trilogy, ends on a cliffhanger that I found deliciously motivating rather than frustrating. I look forward to reading the next!

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Another book I picked up from a used book sale. The book grabbed me by its intro, which mixes pop culture and scifi/fantasy references with historical details from the Dominican Republic and a little bit of magic and curses. How does that even work? How is it possible that the first chapters describe the life and times of a teenaged boy whose defining tragedy is an inability to get laid? How can a book be so well-written and finely imagined that it managed to sell me on the story I am least interested in hearing?  But Junot Diaz made Oscar’s story gripping, not pathetic. And I’m glad I stuck with him, because Oscar’s story gave way to stories about his mother, his sister, his grandmother, their lives together and apart, in the States and in the Dominican Republic, living in a political climate that I can’t even imagine but may soon have to, surviving unbelievable, almost supernatural events. I could not put this book down and I felt that I understood, in the end, how it all came together.

Honorable mentions:

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. I love Susan Bordo, and I will always have a weakness for Tudor history, and I very much enjoyed the first section of the book which traces some popular myths and interpretations of Anne back to their very dubious sources. The first book alone would qualify as a Book I Loved! But I was less in love with Bordo’s interpretations of popular TV and movie Annes, which tiptoed a little into “The thing about youth culture is I don’t understand it” territory.

At the same time I downloaded The Ballad of Black Tom, I also downloaded Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Two imaginative, accessible fantasy fictions that only didn’t become Books I Loved because they were so short and fast. Honestly, though, if you’re a sci-fi/fantasy reader and looking to expand your horizons, you cannot go wrong by reading everything Nnedi Okorafor ever wrote.

The Role, by Richard Pearson.  I have a confession. I am a little mulish, sometimes, about reading my friends’ writing. I am not sure why; perhaps I’m defensive about about my book selection after years of required reading, or perhaps I am accustomed to books being books–I still feel surprised when books reveal their living human authors. But after being a bad friend for a year, I finally read my best friend’s first novel and adored it. It sounds just like him: funny and self-deprecating yet passionate and thoughtful. It takes you backstage during a new production and lord have mercy, if you’ve ever done an “experimental” play in college or beyond, you will find yourself in this story.

I can’t believe I managed to read so many wonderful books in the final year of my dissertation. I think that this year I’ll start posting monthly about books I’ve read. As pleasant as it is to effuse about books I love, I’m missing the chance to talk about books I only felt “meh” about, or books that I might have loved but felt betrayed by.

 

6 Things I love about Sofia Samatar’s Olondria novels

I read A Stranger in Olondria last year and observed how different it felt to read it compared to other books I enjoy. Typically, books that become my favorites are those that are impossible to put down; quick, intense reads. A Stranger in Olondria is so dense with description and mythology that I was compelled to read it slowly, but found that it was absolutely worth taking the time so that the story can unfold slowly in layers and layers of detail.

This year I read Sofia Samatar’s second novel, The Winged Histories, and I cannot wait to read it again. In fact I did re-read the first few chapters almost immediately after finishing the book, just so I could linger in that world again. I’m trying to read through the stack of new-to-me novels I picked up from a used book sale, but what I’d really like to do is start from the beginning of A Stranger in Olondria and go through it all again.

Why do I love these books?

  1. They are rich with sensory detail. Every scene is crowded with information about how things look, feel, sound, and smell.
    Young Adult Historical Vault recently revisited a book I loved as a child, Quest for a Maid, which depicts medieval Scotland in gloriously vivid detail: the main character comes from an enormous merchant household that works hard and plays hard, and her narrative is packed with candies, ribbons, colorful markets, winter sports, instructions for making dresses and keeping house, and magic. I still think of this book many years later in the oddest of places, such as when I encounter marzipan, walk into a pop-up market, or sew.
    I have a feeling Sofia Samatar’s novels will be like this for me too, with its vivid peppercorn trees, the riot of noise and stimulus of the markets, the elaborate written rituals of royalty. Now that I work in a library, I look at old volumes with ornate covers and remember the first time Jevick in Stranger sees a book. When I sit down to write, despite my preference for typing I still think of the handwritten journals and letters, the writing implements, the rituals of writing space both physical and mental employed by the characters who can write.
  2. The books take place in a culturally and historically rich world. I went to all the Middle Earth movies, no matter how terrible. I followed Harry Potter up through the seventh book; I’m even going to Harry Potter Quizzo this weekend. I’ve played every game in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age universes, and in between watching Marvel Comics television and film releases I try to catch up on the original characters and their plotlines. What all of these cultural artifacts have in common is that they take place in worlds that have history, mythology, culture with layers of conflict and interrelationships, sometimes geeky ornamentation such as invented languages or social rules. These are cherished by fans in part because you can dwell in their worlds by learning their rules, languages, lore.
    A Stranger in Olondria provides that the sweeping history, the clash of cultures, the languages and lore in one novel. That is nothing short of remarkable. The Winged Histories expands on that world in a very satisfying way. In both novels, the reader becomes acquainted with the legends and history of Olondria because the characters are learning it (as with Stranger‘s Jevick, who is an immigrant) or loving and finding comfort in its tales (as is frequently the case in Histories). This is a primary factor in my wish to re-read: no doubt there are nuances and details to the lore I missed the first time.
  3. This imagined world is not just another version of the one you already know. By way of explanation, another story: I’ve watched maybe two episodes of Game of Thrones. The first episode I saw was the first episode of Season 2, where the narrative has to check in with each of the seven kingdoms. Although I was not familiar with the plot or characters, it wasn’t hard to follow: the tyrant king, here; the rebel king, there; the sorceress, over here. It is a story built on tropes which felt very familiar to me, which is one reason why I didn’t feel the need to continue. From what I hear, the show introduces novelty and surprise by crossing lines we don’t expect it to cross moreso than by introducing fresh perspectives on these old tropes.
    Olondria is not Medieval England Redux. The center of its empire is warm and lush, where spices and pomegranates grow, but the empire reaches into tropical islands, deserted plains, and snowy highlands. Olondria has tenuously united a diverse array of peoples with a variety of cultures who have a variety of appearances beyond the usual formula of “white people north, brown people south.” The Olondrian Empire doesn’t have a one-to-one parallel with real history: it draws a little from the Roman Empire, a little from the British Empire, most likely from empires whose history is less well known to me. Olondria is pre-industrial but not archaic; its social structures are sophisticated and complex. Its fashionable aristocracy would be recognizable in any time or place, but the trends they pick up and drop feel new and surprising.
  4. The imagined world engages oppression meaningfully, not reflexively. For one example: The Winged Histories explores historical fantasy sexism in a nuanced, meaningful way. It’s not all rape and slavery, as the medieval fantasies of certain male writers tend to be. Nor does it depend on exceptionalism, with just one female rulebreaker to throw the plight of women into contrast. The four female narrators each experience oppression differently based on their respective cultural and family backgrounds. When they rebel, they feel a little lonely, but not completely alone because they can refer to historical precedents and a few living examples: an ambitious queen, a swordmaiden, a sister.
    Likewise, both novels depict the colonial history of the Olondrian Empire as complex. The Empire itself is far from uniform and united; like any real-life empire, it is only tenuously held together by a preferred religion and an exhausted military. The cultures who are assimilated into the Empire have their own complicated history of triumphs and failures. The result is a thoughtful reflection on the exchange of power.
  5. Both books passionately love books. For the love of print, buy a hard copy of each. I did not, even though I knew better for The Winged Histories, but I had already started reading the free sample on my Kindle and I couldn’t wait to continue. But this is a book that benefits from being held in the hands: characters take great risks for books, plunging their hands into fires to rescue burning pages, or carrying precious volumes in their shirts even onto the battlefield. Besides, it would have been helpful to flip between the swordmaiden’s narrative and the map of Olondria to track her travels. I didn’t even know there was a glossary in the back of The Winged Histories; I just marched doggedly through, inferring words like teiva and milim from context. Which was fine, but you don’t have to.
  6. They are magical. The magical and supernatural elements build slowly. Everyone in Olondia has heard of magic, of course; many of them practice living religions and are prepared to accept miracles, spirit guides, and visions, even if those events are rare. And everyone knows the legends, of course. But not everyone experiences magic, and when it happens to certain characters, they aren’t always sure how to explain what’s happening, or why it’s happening to them. Magic enters the story through a process of discovery, making it all the more wonderful and miraculous for the reader.

I have definitely talked myself into re-reading; I may even come up with an entirely different set of Things I Love.

Books by women I read and loved in 2015

The Doctor’s Wife by M. E. Braddon. Just as last year was my Year of Elizabeth Gaskell, 2015 was my year of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Like George Eliot, Braddon had the audacity to live with a man who was not her husband in the 19th century; unlike Eliot, Braddon wrote sensation novels about crime and adultery and mistaken identities, which were wildly popular in her day and somewhat forgotten in ours. Like P. D. James in our era, Braddon was a very smart and self-aware writer of genre. In fact, The Doctor’s Wife was so fun for me to read because it pushes back against some of the genre expectations. The doctor’s wife is not particularly clever but is an ardent reader of sensation novels, so you assume she’s going to end up like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. But she refuses, and meanwhile there’s a lot of great commentary on the genre as well as on popular art and poetry of the period.
The Doctor’s Wife is also long and rambling, so it might not be everyone’s jam. If not, try Lady Audley’s Secret, which is a fairly tight thriller and also includes some sick burns against Pre-Raphaelite painting. I also read Braddon’s Henry Dunbar, The Golden Calf, and The Phantom Fortune, which are a bit shorter and all very absorbing.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. My love for this quiet and meditative post-apocalyptic novel is well-documented.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. In summary, this book is like a checklist of details I would normally find boring or played out: small town in the 1970s, dead teenage girl, family drama, etc. etc. Yet this is one of the most elegantly written and finely imagined novels I’ve read all year. As the teen girl’s family staggers and breaks down in the wake of her death, the narrative wheels back and forth in time to reveal a thousand decisions and circumstances–racial microaggressions, gendered expectations, the burden of familial love and the loneliness of social isolation–that brought them all to this juncture…. suggesting that no one, but really everyone, is responsible for the tragedy. I drank the book up in two days and cried a lot as it was ending.
If you’ve read it and loved it too, check out this lovely and thoughtful interview with the author courtesy of Nicole S Chung on The Toast.

A Thousand Acres by Jane SmileyKing Lear set on a family-run farm in mid-century Midwest, told from the perspective of the eldest daughter Ginny. The Lear adaptation is no mere gimmick: although there are recognizable allusions to the play, this is Ginny’s story and the major and minor dramas of her life are modern and finely detailed. It’s a great food studies book: lots of domestic and agriculture asides–I was wound up for days after finishing this book, thinking that I ought to be mending or putting up pickles or cooking breakfast for somebody–and the characters’ struggle with organic and traditional farming technique is still very relevant. The book is also horrifying and tragic, but beautifully told.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. Most of the time when I am praising books, I say “I couldn’t put it down!” But I did put this book down, often, and I read it very slowly, especially at the beginning: it is so dense with sensory detail and cultural hints about its fantasy realms that it’s like every scene unfolds in slow motion. But this makes sense for the narrator, who travels the island pepper farm of his childhood to a decadent empire across the sea, and immerses himself completely in the experiences of being in the big city. I took little sips of this book for the first quarter of it, and then suddenly things picked up and hurtled toward a rather unexpected convergence of ghost story, adventure story, and love story. This is a book to buy in print, not on Kindle as I did; it’s a book that revels in books, the highs and lows of giving oneself over to storytelling, and it would be a pleasure to read it in a more tactile form.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I picked up this book at the recommendation of Michelle Vider and it did not disappoint. Do not judge it by the free sample, if you go that route, because the story begins very comfortable and familiar with an ordinary girl who turns out to be secretly extraordinary. But then there’s a battle a mere quarter of the way through, and then another, and then another, and the author does not pull punches on these scenes, which are rendered in cinematic detail and are all the scarier and higher stakes in contrast with scenes of beauty and wonder and the raw vulnerability of the heroine. I did not mean to read this book in three days but I couldn’t do otherwise.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I actually started this book several years ago, but set it aside for some reason. I remember liking it well enough to read some passages out loud to my partner of that time, but I wasn’t expecting the level of self-referential snark and breaking the fourth wall, and probably moved on to a novel of more traditional manners. But I returned to it this year expressly for those qualities, and it is a delight, even though I was deeply horrified by Catherine’s terrible friends. Also: “That is a compliment which gives me no pleasure” is the perfect hollaback, and while I don’t think Catherine is capable of delivering it with the icy contempt it deserves, I am sure that I can.

Honorable mentions: I did read Ancillary Justice, and while I found the writing a little unsatisfying–it’s hard to keep up with that ambitious worldbuilding, maybe–I did find its galaxy and its story very interesting and would be happy to talk about it with you! (In fact I have a half-written post in the draft box that uses the ship’s plural perspectives to draw out some of my weird feelings about working in retail, so we’ll get to it.) And I read Lolly Willowes, a short and pleasant novel about a 19th century woman who gives the finger to the marriage plot and becomes a witch. A post I wrote about that book for my food blog got Freshly Pressed and now I have something like three thousand “followers,” some percentage of which may be real humans.

Last year, when I tallied up my favorite books written by female authors, I resolved to find and read more books by queer and nonwhite authors in 2015. I did not fully see this resolution through, in a large part due to the unusual circumstances of my year: I quit my full-time job to work toward completing my dissertation, leaving less money and less mental energy for leisure reading. When I did read for fun, I chose cheap or free books within my comfort zones: popular novels by 19th century women, fantasy fiction, etc. I also re-read a lot of books this year: some for my dissertation, others for comfort.

For the next year, I look forward to doing a little more research and expanding my literary horizons: Ancillary Justice gave me a taste for science fiction, a genre I haven’t spent much time with since I was a teen, and I know there are a number of women out there doing amazing work in the genre. If you’d like to follow along, I keep my shelf up to date on Booklikes.