2016 Year in Reading

Considering its tumultuous and largely depressing events as well as my own poor physical and mental health at various times, I’m surprised I read as much as I did last year. But those challenges meant I needed the comfort of books more than ever.

I read 79 books in 2016: 54% were by women and 46% by men; 68% were written in English and 32% in translation.

A few words about my favourites, in no particular order:

The Best of the Best:

I wrote about (and have already linked to) my absolute favourites for Open Letters Monthly. But I can’t say enough good things about them so I’ll list them again here:

More was Lost—Eleanor Perényi

I adore this book—just thinking about it makes me smile. But I haven’t heard anyone else talking about it, and so I just want to trumpet its moving elegance over and over again. Do you like Lubitsch? Of course you do. Then you’re going to like this book. My list is stacked with New York Review Books, but this year I am most grateful to my favourite press for reissuing this little marvel, the story of an American who falls in love with a Hungarian and experiences a world that is on the point of vanishing. I wrote about it here.

Eline Vere-Louis Couperus

You can read my thoughts on this magnificent 19th century Dutch novel of female anxiety here.

The Fifth Season & The Obelisk Gate—N. K. Jemisin

2016 was the year I started reading science fiction again after a twenty or thirty year absence. I’ve a long way to go to get up to speed, but I think we’re all going to need more SF in the coming years, not as escapism but as laboratories for how to resist the coming darkness.

These two novels, the first parts of the Broken Earth Trilogy, offer an allegory for the psychic damage minorities experience every day—as if Du Bois’s double consciousness was used as the basis for an exciting and carefully detailed epic story. I hope the final volume will be out in 2017.

Best of the rest:

The Trespasser—Tana French

French made the list last year, too. For me she is the best crime writer today, period, and shows no signs of falling off with this excellent, smart novel that continues her preoccupation with friendship. What’s new is how overtly the twists of the investigation are offered as an allegory for the process of storytelling. I hope that doesn’t sound boring or airy-fairy. The book’s as gripping as all her others.

The Door—Magda Szabó

On vacation at the end of the year I had some good reading time and made my way through a number of interesting books. But the most amazing one—so great that it’s jumped on to this list—was this Hungarian novel from 1987. Szabó has this power, I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not as though her style is particularly flashy or anything. It’s the story of a woman and her housekeeper. And about the history of Hungary in the 20th Century. It’s as good on psychology as on politics. None of these things come even close to suggesting how awesome it is. All I can say is that I was just riveted. I’ve got another of her books now and hope to write about them together soon.

Three by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Time of Gifts; Between the Woods and the Water; The Broken Road

I wrote a short appreciation of these extraordinary travel books for Open Letters Monthly back in the summer. In 1933, the eighteen-year-old Fermor set off to walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. It took the rest of his life to tell the story, but what amazing books these are, so full of joy and life, and neither naïve nor knowing. Can’t think of anyone else who has captured as well as Fermor that sense of heady reinvention you sometimes feel, especially as a young person, when living abroad.

The Vegetarian—Han Kang

Wasn’t sure about this one at first—kept wanting it to be more like Atwood’s Edible Woman, which it superficially resembles—but decided to teach it later in the year and seeing my students take to it so strongly made me like it so much more. A book about a woman who just really wants to be a plant, and the people in her life who want other things for her. Han tackles this without ever letting us inside the protagonist’s head: impressive. Feel I could get a lot more from this book if I knew more (i.e. anything) about modern Korean history. Looking forward to reading Human Acts in 2017.

What Belongs to You—Garth Greenwell

Critically acclaimed for a good reason. Proustian sentences, good sex scenes, impressive ability to generate menace. Had the good fortune to hear Greenwell at the Little Rock Literary Festival: he was smart and kind. Started to write about the book and got bogged down but one day I am going to write an essay about the uncanny parallels between what happens to the narrator of this novel and to Patrick Leigh Fermor, as recounted in The Broken Road, in Varna, Bulgaria.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—Barbara Comyns

Less bleak than Comyns’s amazing The Vet’s Daughter (on the 2015 list) but just as terrific. The wonder here is the vast tonal range of the narrator’s voice. Sometimes Sophia is naïve (“I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come”) and sometimes she’s hilariously, ruefully inept (making an impromptu meal of spaghetti she finds a piece of dry cheese: “it grated so fine I thought afterwards it must have been a knife handle”). She’s also no-nonsense (she tells a man who has fallen in love with her and is masochistically kissing the bottom of her skirt, “Don’t do that. The hem is coming undone already”) and knowing (describing that same man, who for a time becomes her lover, she says, “His dark face became full of animation when he talked (I think the right word to use for his face would be mobile)”). British women writers of the mid twentieth century are still criminally underrated.

Best group reading experience:

Jean Giono’s Hill. A terrific book that speaks to us today in ways its author surely couldn’t have anticipated. My take here. Thanks to Scott for co-hosting and to Meredith, Grant, Frances, Melissa and others for reading along with.

Most revelatory experience of a book I’ve taught many times:

Lots of contenders here (Woolf, Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, Three Guineas (I really love that one), Lawrence, Sons and Lovers) but the winner has to be Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, which is one of the greatest novels about the Holocaust. Only now, on my fourth or fifth go round with this book, and thanks in large part to some stellar students who really responded to it, do I feel I’m getting the hang of this one.  I blogged about teaching it here.

Most revelatory experience of a writer I’ve taught many times:

Ida Fink. I’ve taught a few of her amazing short stories about the Holocaust before but only this year, thanks to the scholar Sara Horowitz, did I really get what Fink was up to. She didn’t write much, just two short story collections and a novel, but man, what a writer. Want to write about her in 2017.

Two books about hotels:

Grand Hotel by Vicky Baum (1929) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016). In my head I composed a mini-essay comparing these books, which I happened to read back to back. Both consider the transience of hotel life, though Gentleman inverts the idea by making its protagonist a nobleman in 1920s Russia who can’t quite be done away with by the new regime because of his service to the cause in the past and so is put under house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Metropol Hotel.

Baum’s book might be better—it holds up amazingly well, and becomes a real page-turner in its last third—but I enjoyed Towles’s more. It’s sweeter and that’s what I needed in the days after the election. I kept wondering if its pleasures weren’t in fact too regressive, but the book would regularly throw little curve balls, show its self-consciousness about the difficulties of structuring a book around a seemingly perfect protagonist. And sometimes you just want a suave, kind, handsome, intelligent, well-manner character! Anyway, you should read both of these books, they are terrific. I’m unconvinced anyone will be reissuing Towles in 80 years, but that’s okay, some books we just need for today.

Best book about life during the rise of fascism:

Plenty of contenders, but Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight made a big impression on me.

Reliable pleasures:

Ellis Peters’s Cadfael books (have read the first four so far, but need to ration: important to know they are still out there for me to savour); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 series (the last one was a bit bloated but I’m still a fan); Denise Mina (she keeps on going from strength to strength)

Light reading winners:

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (pleasing alternate history-steampunk-thing all about queer and non-queer friendship—very much look forward to the sequel in 2017); Joe Ide, IQ (smart and funny Sherlock update in East Long Beach. Not suspenseful, really, but totally enjoyable); Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison (I finally met Harriet Vane! Must read the others)

Finally, although, I didn’t actually read that much Jean Rhys this year, one of the most satisfying parts of the year was contributing this post on my experiences teaching her work to students to the Jean Rhys event co-hosted by Jacqui and Eric.

Above all, my heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s visited the blog in the past year. Your comments, whether here or on Twitter or Facebook or even in person, mean so much to me. Here’s to more good reading and good talk about our reading in 2017.

38 thoughts on “2016 Year in Reading

  1. Great wrap up Dorian. I find these year end wrap-ups so fascinating—it’s great to see the diversity in the community of readers. And it was great to spend the afternoon book shopping with you last summer. If you’re back in town this year we’ll have to do it again!

    • Agree on all counts, Joe. I too love the wrap-ups: interesting to see the points of convergence but also to get leads for new reading directions. And absolutely more book shopping this year. Still figuring out our plans, but likely July.

  2. A fascinating round-up, partly because for all the points of connection in our reading, there are more differences, so I pick up a lot from you about books and authors I wouldn’t otherwise think or know anything about. I’ll definitely get to the new Tana French in a bit, though I thought her last one went on a bit too long. I have never been a sci-fi reader but you make the Jemisin books sound really worthwhile.

    • Thanks, Rohan. (And thanks for the twitter RT–aiming to be better at my twitter etiquette this year.) Agree about the Venn diagram of our reading: plenty of overlap but also interesting differences. I didn’t think I would ever say this but you have made me curious to read some romances. (Where would you say to start? Georgette Heyer?) Agree Secret Place had its longeurs, though I’m such a fan of French’s that didn’t really bother me; the new one, though also pretty long, feels leaner and tighter. It’s also more conventional. And I haven’t read SF in ages, as I said in the post, but I think a lot of interesting stuff is happening there. Maybe it took some of the life I felt crime fiction had five or so years ago, or maybe I’ve just read too much crime fiction. Anyway, I would be VERY curious to know what you make of the Jemisin. I think it’s a good place for non-SF readers to start. I wish you all the best in 2017!

  3. Great round-up, Dorian. Thanks so much for your marvellous post about teaching Rhys, a thoroughly deserving winner of our favourite piece from the reading week. (I particularly loved hearing about Molly, a very special lady by all accounts.)

    Baum’s Grand Hotel made my end-or-year round-up too. I really enjoyed that novel and can still remember the sunny afternoons I spent with it lounging around in the garden at home. (Can I encourage you to write that mini essay if you get a chance? I’d love to read it. I liked Towles’ Rules of Civility when I read it a few years ago, so I have form with him.) You’ve made a strong case for the Perényi, so I shall have to check it out – plus, I’m a sucker for those NYRB Classics editions, and the cover of this one is particularly attractive.

    The Comyns is on my Classics Club list – possibly one for later this year, but I’m trying not to make fixed plans at this stage. I’ve had a bit of a false start with her as I didn’t get very far with The Vet’s Daughter – maybe I need to try again sometime.

    Wishing you all the best for the year ahead – I look forward to seeing what you’ll be tackling in 2017!

    • Just realized I never responded to this. Thanks for the kind words. I’m a lot better at imagining essays than actually writing them, but who knows. I’ve got Rules of Civility lying around; mean to get to it sometime.
      If you ever feel up to it, I’d say give The Vet’s Daughter another try. It really worked for me.
      All best to you too for 2017. Here’s to lots more great reading!

    • Thanks, Grant. Let me know how you get on with the Keun. Super impressed by your advent posts, BTW. I still have some to catch up on as I was away for a while there but it’s amazing you wrote every day!

  4. Loved reading with you, one of the highlights of my year. I so agree with you on A Gentleman in Moscow, and I enjoyed The Vegetarian very much even though I can’t help thinking there was more going on than the simple desire of a woman to be a plant. She seemed a bit crazy to me, but I dont quite grasp all I feel Kang wanted to say. Tana French’s Trespasser was good indeed, but The Secret Place remains my favorite. So good to blog with Dorian, to read your bookish thoughts and erudite posts. xo

    Oh, and it’s so true how the students’ excitement only enhances the teacher’s (my) own.

    • Thanks, Meredith. Always a pleasure to read with you, too. I started Captivity yesterday. Intrigued but OMG it’s long! I have a soft spot for The Secret Place too (I think it’s often thought to be her weakest/most indulgent) but I really loved The Trespasser. As to The Vegetarian, I think others think she’s crazy, but I don’t think she thinks so. It’s impossible to say, since we never have access to Yeong-hye’s mind. But as I talked about it with student it became clear how much we as readers are like all the others in Yeong-hye’s life, who want things for her that she just doesn’t want.

      • It is indeed long! And now that I am halfway through it I find myself needing to lay it down for C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength which I’m reading for a book group at Wheaton College. I will finish Captivity, though, as soon as I can. I find it interesting, but also a really great foundation for understanding the Roman/Judean times. Shal, we carry on the best we can? No hurry, of course.

      • Yes! I’ve been distracted by pre-semester reading (making adjustments to syllabi always necessitates a lot of reading around, for me) but I want to continue. I’m hoping–now that the journey is underway–that the book will start sweeping me away. I’ve found it fascinating so far (learning a lot about early Judaism!) but not yet engrossing, if that distinction makes sense.

  5. Several here I don’t know, which is always rather nice. The Towles may be something of an honourable mention, but it sounds fun and I’ll look it out. The Perenyi is new to me so I’ll read the review. Couperus I already have an unread one, but I’ll make note of that too.

    I really should read The Vegetarian. I have it. Everyone loves it. Somehow it just never quite makes it to the top of the pile.

    • The Towles is definitely worth checking out. And as I wrote at your blog, let me know if you read the Baum, since they are an interesting pair.
      I’m usually fairly allergic to books that everyone loves, but as I said I really came around on The Vegetarian. But if you’re not reading it, just means you’ve time to read something else cool.

  6. What a pleasure and a revelation to read your blog this year, Dorian, and especially to participate in the group read of Hill with you. For me, your Holocaust literature posts made for one of the highlights of the literary blogging year, and I will surely pick up Facelessness and Ida Fink from your list of recommendations. I’ve already picked up another from your list – The Fifth Season – thinking the sci-fi fan in the house might like it, but I’ve snatched it for myself. You remind me too that I’ve wanted to read the Perényi since your glowing review of it. Since Grand Hotel is already here on the bookshelf, maybe I’ll start with that. Oh heck, all of these look great. I trust you’ll go on to finish the Fermor trilogy? Regardless, I greatly look forward to your choices in 2017 – and to reading about them.

    • Thank you so much, Scott. Your kind words really mean a lot to me. I loved our conversations this year, especially the, for me at any rate, very productive disagreement over Seethaler. (Did you read The Tobacconist, BTW?) I hope you get a chance to read some of these. Fink is extraordinary, so heartbreaking. A critic called her the Chekhov of the Holocaust which at first I thought a terrible, even offensive thing to say, but actually it’s quite apt. And I *really* want to know what you make of the Jemisin.
      As to the Fermor trilogy, I did read them all this summer, and adored them all. I’d like to read some of his other books. Have you?
      I’m sure you have excellent reasons for not blogging as much lately, but I hope very much you’ll return to it at some point. I miss it!

      • Thanks so much, Dorian. I’d almost forgotten about the Seethaler. I still haven’t re-read it, but the fact that I feel little compulsion to do so perhaps says enough. I have not read The Tobacconist. I certainly plan to look up Ida Fink as soon as I can. After commenting yesterday I started Grand Hotel last night. The Jemisin is a bit out of my usual orbit of reading, but I’m going to give it a try anyway.

        As for Fermor, I’ve read all but two of his books at this point, including his crazy little novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques. Mani is a favorite.

        And many thanks for the encouragement to get back to blogging – I expect to do so soon.

      • I found Grand Hotel a bit slack about a third of the way through but then it really gets going.
        Glad to hear these intriguing words about his novels because NYRB is reissuing that this summer and I am very curious.
        Fink–she’s a stunner. Start with Scrap of Time.

  7. Having only read two from your list so far (the first two thirds of the Patrick Leigh Fermor travel trilogy) but already very much interested in the Szabó and a couple of the others, what can I say? Great list! I’m relieved, by the way, to hear you rate Tana French so highly. I’ve read many rave reviews of her books from fellow bloggers, but I wasn’t sure whether to trust them or not because I find most modern crime writers a big letdown/lightweight/oddly overrated/preposterous/etc. Anyway, nice to make the acquaintance of your fine blog. Cheers!

    • Thanks, Richard! I appreciate the kind words. Will you be hosting Spanish Lit month(s) again this summer? I hope to participate. I’ve read very little Spanish-language literature–your blog is such wonderful impetus to dive in.
      I think Tana French is fantastic. I mean, yes, her books are also a bit preposterous, but only in the way that pretty much all Gothic fiction is. I think you can put her in that great Irish Gothic tradition from Castle Rackrent and LeFanu to the present. Plus she’s just really suspenseful. And she takes her time: I love that in crime fiction.
      And Szabó is something else altogether. I see NYRB is publishing some more this fall, too.

  8. While I haven’t talked to my co-host Stu about it yet, I suspect we’ll be hosting Spanish Lit Month again this summer barring any unforeseen circumstances. Glad to know that you’re thinking about participating, and thanks for the kind words about the blog. Sorry for the delay getting back to you about this, by the way.

    • Yes, I’d really like to. August is always terrible for my schedule but I’d like to make it work. I’ve so much to learn when it comes to Spanish language literature. And no worries about the delay. I know how that goes!

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