Friday, January 6, 2017

Brent's Best Books of the Year, 2016

So, 10 years, 500 books (never was an overachiever...) and countless shifts of perspective due to this stuff. Certainly, 50B has been one of the most rewarding things I've ever taken part in. When Christopher and I started this blog a decade ago, he was a eunuch who had never read a word of English, and I was living on the street of Bangladesh. Now, thanks to Austen, Klosterman and the rest, I'm the U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Christopher is CEO of Tandy Computers. How times have changed. Also, I used to do most of my reading on paper.

This year I made a conscious effort to break out of some reading ruts. I read very little YA lit, which I've always been shamelessly willing to read to keep my numbers up, very few graphic novels, and, most importantly, far less straight white males. Now, I love those guys so much, but with the way things have been over the past couple years and my own shifting perspectives, I decided it was time to broaden my horizons. And if you look at my book list, you'll see I'm still not at parity, but certainly some of the most powerful books I read this year were written from perspectives not my own. And here's to doing even better the next 10 years.

Because I read a lot of non-fiction and theology this year, it was a little hard to rank these after the first two, so take the numbers with a grain of salt. Some of these are longer becuase I dind't review most of them, so all my thoughts are here. And with no further ado:

10. Hillbilly Elegy - J. D. Vance
This book never mentions Trump by name, but if you want a look at the poor, white segment of America that helped elect him that presents a more nuanced view than "Look at all those dumb racists", this is your book. Vance is a conservative who came out of the rust belt but still calls himself a hillbilly, and his take on his home is both empathetic and unsparing.

9. The New Asceticism - Sarah Coakley
The only theology I read by a woman this year, this was more a philosophical work that challenged a lot of my beliefs about gender and sexuality, and did it within the bounds of what I'd consider orthodox Christianity. I haven't stopped thinking about it since I put it down.

8. The Takeover - Muriel Spark
Spark is almost always funny, but not funny like this. There are so many characters here, and so much going on, that it hardly feels surprising when the narrative shifts from a real estate swindle to something more existential and strange. I laughed a lot.

7. The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
Certainly the most purely fun book I read this year, this is what an adventure novel should be. A murder mystery set in a monastery, with a climax that revolves around nitpicky theological positions and the ambiguity of belief? Yes, please.

6. The True Deceiver - Tove Jansson
I debated whether to include this or The Summer Book, but this nasty little novella, about how even the best of intention can corrupt a good thing, is so trim, economical and unsparing that I wanted to give it some love. It reminded me a lot of Muriel Spark in its cyncism with just the barst glint of hope.

5. Water to Wine - Brian Zahnd
This one is more personal, but as a Christian, Zahnd's blog and Twitter feed were a great comfort to me in this embarrassing election year. His message that Christians are to emulate Christ first and foremost cut through a lot of the fundamentalism I've internalized throughout my life and helped me see that I'm not alone, as well as turning me on to a bunch of other great theology.

4. Dear Life - Alice Munro
The thing I liked best about the stories in this collection is that you get the feeling that any one of them could be turned into a novel quite easily, but at the same time, they feel like the perfect length. Munro has the amazing ability to craft a fully-concieved character simply by surrounding them with things and people that could only make sense with them. I didn't find the writing particularly flashy, but it's often subtly beautiful and alway appropriate. I recently saw a review that said Munro allows nothing to get in the way of character, and that's true even in the weaker stories here. Can't wait to read more of her stuff.

3. Oblivion- David Foster Wallace
I couldn't decide whether to put this or Munro higher. if I'm honest, Munro is a lot more consistent (the longest story in Oblivion didn't work for me at all), but Good Old Neon, about a guy who decides to kill himself because he's got it all and it doesn't matter, has the most devastating twist and closing passage I've read this year. It moved me to tears:

You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.

The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul. And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or to laugh, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali — it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.

So cry all you want, I won’t tell anybody.

2. Beloved- Toni Morrison
What can I possibly say about Beloved that hasn't been said? Possibly the most beautifully brutal book I've ever read, Morrison's language and insight do nothing to blunt the edge of one of the best novels on race ever written. I most appreciated the concept that the worst part of being enslaved is not the treatment received, but the fact that slavery removes all personhood from even the best-treated. The best actor in a corrupt system is still spreading corruption. Powerful.

1. Silence- Shusako Endo
Graham Greene loved this novel about missionaries in Japan during a time of heavy persecution, and so does Martin Scorsese. It's not hard to see why. While the religious angle adds a lot of resonance for me, it is, at its heart, a story about people, their worldviews, and the way they do (and don't resist) systems that seek to destroy them. And it also about Jesus, and presents him in such a way to cut through the unforgiving dogmatism that often surrounds Christianity to end at a place of pure grace. A life-changer for me.

And that's it for this year. It's amazing that it's been 10 years. I'd like to say thank you to all the participants, now and in the past, and especially to Christopher who has helped me keep encouraged through marriage and three kids, that making time for reading is worthwhile. Here's to next 10!

No comments: