At the end of every year I read a lot of book lists: what’s great, what sucked, what should have been better. Sometimes I get the sneaking suspicion that everyone got together and voted on the year’s best books before anyone wrote anything, given that certain titles seem to pop up over and over and over again.
Not being a professional book critic, I don’t confine myself to primarily new books. This list, then, will contain mostly older books that I read for the first time in 2016. As well, it should be noted that I read a damn good number of excellent books this year that don’t really need my assistance reaching audiences (Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, for example, or John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries). What follows, however, are some amazing reads that are little off the well-trod path.
The books below all blew my mind. They may blow yours.
Vision Quest by Terry Davis
I wrote about Vision Quest last year as a forgotten masterpiece, a judgment I still hold. As a coming of age novel, it sits well alongside books like Catcher in the Rye and The Fault in Our Stars. The truth is, though, that it’s a better book than either.
Vision Quest holds the distinction of being turned into the first movie in which Madonna acted: a bit part in which she sings “Crazy for You.” The movie was actually shot on location in Spokane, Washington, where the novel takes place (and where, as it happens, I currently live).
Movie and novel follow the story of Louden Swain, a high school wrestler training for his big match against the state’s best wrestler, Gary Shute. In order to wrestle Shute, however, Louden has to drop thirty pounds to make the right weight class. While wrestling plays a focal point of the novel, the book isn’t a “sports novel.” Much of the story, rather, surrounds Louden’s involvement with Carla, a young woman in her early twenties who ends up living with Louden and his father for much of the year.
What distinguishes Davis is a level of honesty about coming into manhood that is sadly lacking in most fiction that covers this ground. Louden grapples with sexuality, friendship, ideas of honor and duty, and falling in love, and these elements are treated with an acute understanding that they are not hokey “lessons” to be learned but rather difficult and subtle challenges to becoming an adult.
Brief Encounters With Che Guevara by Ben Fountain
Fountain’s first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, was recently turned into a movie, but this is the book he wrote before that, a stunning collection of short stories as good as any I’ve read. Brief Encounters is one of the three best story collections I’ve read in the last twenty years (the other two being Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts and Holly Goddard Jones’ Girl Trouble).
Fountain’s collection won the PEN Hemingway award and caught the eye of a lot of critics when it was released. He was compared to, alternately: Graham Greene, John le Carre, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gary Shteyngart, Joseph Conrad, Robert Stone, and–oddly–Thomas Pynchon (seriously, Pynchon? wtf).
The writer to whom he most deserves comparison, however, is W Somerset Maugham. Both writers have a languorous approach to narrative, something that is rather appealing in our current milieu with its worship of micro-narratives (not that I have anything against that kind of compression…Dan Chaon and Junot Diaz are brilliant, but it’s nice to have some variety). As well, both write stories about white men adventuring in far away lands, often where they don’t really belong.
The fact that Fountain is American makes these qualities stand out all the more. Most American writers compose stories set entirely within the Empire, rather than taking their narratives overseas. The international flavor of Fountain’s stories removes a lot of the navel-gazing that mars so many American short stories today.
Fountain also excels at acknowledging the shortcomings of his characters and the dubious moral path of Americans abroad. His characters are good people who mean well, but who often find their willingness to do good upended in a world that doesn’t conform to their fairytale notions of reality.
Miss Margaret Ridpath and the Dismantling of the Universe by Don Robertson
Don Robertson remains one of my favorite writers, a guy I like to surprise people with. He has been soundly forgotten by the reading public, and he gets no attention whatsoever by academic circles. Too bad. He’s one of the few American writers from the latter half of the 20th century you could legitimately place next to Hemingway, Faulkner, etc.
Margaret Ridpath is a tremendous novel, showcasing a variety of Robertson’s talents. The first four-fifths of the novel interweaves the stories of Margaret Ridpath, a lonely old woman living in Paradise Falls, Ohio, and two women (Wanda Ripple and Pauline Jones) who she hires to take care of her ailing mother. It is not a lot to make a novel from, but Robertson is a real master at crafting fascinating workaday characters.
He’s also amazingly funny.
One of Robertson’s key insights is how absurd people truly are. He uses our absurdities and our foibles to great comic effect, and like other great comic novelists (John Irving comes to mind) he understands that humor is a double-edged sword: it makes you laugh, but it can cut you deep.
And it is the humor that Robertson utilizes throughout the majority of the novel that contrasts so sharply with the last sections of the book, in which Robertson gives us the most disturbing psychopath I’ve ever read.
Now, I’ve read a lot of thrillers, mystery novels and the like. Come across a heck of a lot of freaky psychos. No one–not Thomas Harris, not Stephen King–has created anyone as disturbing as the character of Lee Pike. Pike enters the novel only near the end, and he leaves a powerful impression.
It is fate that puts Margaret Ridpath, a decent old woman living out her twilight years, and Lee Pike, a twisted sexual psycho, on an intersecting path. What happens when they meet forms the climax of the novel, the titular dismantling of the universe.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens isn’t quite as brief as the title implies, but given that it covers the entire history of our species it certainly could have been a heck of a lot longer. It is also a hefty book. The hardback edition comes with thick heavy-duty gloss paper, allowing the work to double as a wrist weight.
But what’s on the pages is far more fascinating than the pages themselves. Harari, it turns out, is a captivating guide through human history. Learned, wise, insightful, few authors could have pulled this off half as well.
Sapiens is one of those books that stops you in your tracks every few pages, not because the writing itself is brilliant (although, to be fair, it is), but because the ideas it is conveying are stunning. Even concepts you think you have a solid grasp on, such as money, become fresh and new under Harari’s tutelage.
(What is money, you ask? According to Harari: “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”)
Reading Sapiens is akin to taking a class from a lecturer who turns out to be both an engaging speaker and a unique thinker, a teacher who allows you to see the world from an angle you had never considered before. It is rare for me to want to go back and read a book a second time–especially a work of nonfiction–but I have been hesitant to hand Sapiens out to anyone, as I know I’ll want to give it a second pass in 2017.
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
I don’t read much YA. Generally, I find the writing to be rather sub-par (with exceptions: John Green is an excellent prose stylist, as is Sherman Alexie) and the stories rather lacking in depth. Not so with Chris Crutcher, a writer I picked up for the first time this year.
Crutcher is, as far as I know, still writing, but he began publishing in the early 80s and is thus a good deal older than the cohort of hot young YA writers who dominate the field today. He also happens to be a better writer than his younger peers.
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is narrated by Eric “Moby” Calhoune, so nicknamed because he was quite grotesquely overweight for much of his life. In high school, however, he has joined the swim team and lost a good deal of weight, though he is still a rather large boy. In middle school, Eric became friends with the titular Sarah Byrnes. As Eric explains it, they were friends because they were both outcasts: Eric because he was obese, and Sarah because she was horrendously scarred by a childhood accident that left hideous burns across her face.
Like all excellent novels, Sarah Byrnes covers a lot of ground, touching on some heady issues along the way: religious zealotry, teenage abortion, child abuse, attempted murder…
It’s impressive that Crutcher never loses control of his story, never makes the reader feel like the tale is running away from its maker. And, like Terry Davis, Crutcher has a deep instinctual understanding of the teenage mind. His narrator speaks with a kind of fluent adolescent flair that rings true without sounding trite or contrived.
A Few More For the Road
I read a lot of really good books in 2016. The five above are the ones I felt were real mind-blowers that deserved more attention in the wider world. A few other excellent reads:
- The Great Victorian Collection by Brian Moore
- The Fireman by Joe Hill
- World Gone By by Dennis Lehane
- End of Watch by Stephen King
- Five Patients by Michael Crichton
- The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III
- Decider by Dick Francis
- The Church of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns