Best Books of 2016 – Jeff’s Picks
What a fantastic year of books – it’s quite difficult to narrow it down to a top few. I hate to exclude Don DeLillo’s Zero K, and Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, but there can only be five! In no particular order:
This was released this fall, but isn’t technically a 2016 book (sorry!): Last Look compiles the three parts of Burns’ “Nitnit” Trilogy that he wrote from 2010-2014 (X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull). Having read the trilogy incrementally over 4 years, I can confidently say that Last Look feels different and reads like more of a complete, realized novel when presented all in one go. The book is about a washed-out ex-punk who is haunted by some decisions from his past. These troubles are manifested in a delirious and twisted dream world, full of mutated Tintin references. I’m a big Charles Burns fan and think this is his best book yet: he’s an outstanding writer as well as a haunting illustrator and both skills are exemplified here.
Composed of twenty-two staple-bound chapbooks that can be read in any order (ranging in theme from classical poetry to essays to staged performances), Float is an exercise in transitioning between ideas. When does a poem become an essay? And when does a translation become an original composition? Her playful blend of classics and modernism makes for a dizzying read but also reinforces her interest in the space between the two, adrift between the past and today.
This was one of the best surprises of the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlist. Eerie and meta-fictionally engaging, the novel claims to be a compilation of documents pertaining to the 1869 triple homicide purportedly committed by the author’s distant relative, seventeen-year old Roderick Macrae, in the rural village of Culduie in the Scottish Highlands. Burnet brings readers back to the era of works like Alexander Dumas’ Celebrated Crimes and the Appin Murder of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. His Bloody Project is a modern look at 19th-century thrills, a book that manages to be progressive and thoughtful while reveling in escapist, nostalgic frights.
Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs To You tells the story of an American ex-pat teaching in Bulgaria and his love affair with a local hustler named Mitko. Despite its decidedly foreign situation (both geographically so, and for some, sexually), there is a mirror here for everyone: Greenwell pares away specificity from this seemingly unrelatable story to reveal an achingly reflective emotional core. Greenwell shows how universal the heart is, in all its swells and fractures, and the empathy he elicits is staggering. Protagonists Mitko and the novel’s narrator are rendered so finely that the pain we feel for their heartache is real. And, if we know that pain so well, maybe it’s not theirs, but something that belongs to all of us.
This one is a difficult but deeply rewarding read: set in the Ardennes region of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, Roy Jacobsen’s fine novel Borders (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) is a multi-layered saga of philosophical geopolitics and World War II. Using a myriad of interlocking short stories, Jacobsen superimposes generations upon generations of life in the rural village of Clervaux, from a bridge-building farmer in 1893 to Germany’s Western Front tearing through the region on their way towards Antwerp. Each chapter in Borders focuses on a new story of Clervaux, often circling around a tangentially related family and their past. Jacobsen’s networked prose is a marvel to read; not only does the novel unfold with a connected tenderness and familiarity, it’s exquisitely cartographic.
…and an honorable mention, from 2015:
Eileen by Ottessa Moshegh:
Finally, I’d like to mention Eileen, which I’m certain put up a great fight against Paul Beatty for this year’s Man Booker Prize. (Like The Sellout, this came out officially in 2015 but had a second wind this year thanks to the Booker Prize.) Eileen is a weird, scuzzy novel about a strange woman who is looking back on a life-changing moment from her twenties (from before she “disappeared”). What follows is the rapturous narrative of one of the strangest voices I’ve encountered in recent literary memory. Endearing, alienating, and horrifyingly relatable, Eileen is a dark, noir gem.