Best Books of 2016 – John’s Picks
2016 was a bountiful year for readers. Picking 5 books, 10, or 20 books to single out is an imposing task. No matter how much one reads, there are a thousand potential “best books” still to be read. I could have picked another half-dozen books instead of these, and I only chose books that I had reviewed. I could have talked about Henning Mankell, Eric Larson, Sonia Shah, Louise Penny, H. W. Brands, or Elaine Scarry, who believes she may have discovered the young man in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
The most important book of the year was The Conversation: A Revolutionary Plan for End-of-Life Care by Angelo Volandes. The question of how to face the end of life may be the most avoided question of all time. Volandes shares crucial information on how to prepare. I read this just before watching an old friend endure 5 months of suffering because no cogent decisions had been made. Give this book to someone you love and read it together. Then, take action!
My choice for the best book of the year is The Risen by Ron Rash, author of Serena. Yes, he is Southern and, yes, this novel is set in his beloved mountains of Western North Carolina, but its themes are universal. Read the first 128 words and you will be compelled to finish this dark exploration of one family, and a murder mystery that ends with two twists and an unexpected turn. You might also want to check out his Poems — he was a highly regarded poet before his novels dazzled.
Staying in the South allows me to commend Lee Smith’s Dimestore: A Memoir in Stories. From the first captivating essay to the last, Smith writes passages that beg to be re-read immediately in order to capture the moment she has just described. If you want to be a writer or are a writer, read Dimestore and find a writer at the top of her game. It is a nearly perfect memoir.
Jowhor Ile’s And After Many Days is a shining example of wonderful African literature that is becoming more available worldwide. Ile has created a sense of authentic family and village life as he explores the clash of traditional values versus encroaching corporate greed as they impact how a family must deal with the sudden disappearance of their older son.
Given the current political situation in Turkey, Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind offers a brilliant fictional account of political, cultural, and religious growing pains as the people of Turkey struggle into a more modern world, or how in real life, they may be struggling in the opposite direction. It is a soap opera with multiple characters, twists, and turns. It is one of Pamuk’s best novels.
Finally, there should always be something fun on your reading table. The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel sings loud and proud. A dramaturg, a person who studies and writes about the play or musical, Viertel explains how a musical is constructed from the “I Want” song at the beginning through exposition in Act One to complications and resolution in Act Two. You will want to sing along.