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January 2017

Best Books of 2016

This is an overdue post about my favorite books of 2016, for those of you looking for reading suggestions.

Fiction

EarlyWarning-SmileyEarly Warning by Jane Smiley (Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga #2) This is my favorite novel of the year. Smiley proved herself a masterful storyteller who shares important lessons about how people change as their lives progress and they are faced with a wide range of experiences - the protagonists are a family of farmers in Iowa but their children scatter over the country and witness or participate in some of the defining moments of the times - lives cut too short, lives that don't turn out as hoped, people who end up with someone else than than the person they loved, children gone too soon, illnesses, and all that without being downbeat but simply told from a realistic perspective by an author with extraordinary empathy for her characters and a keen eye for human nature. Some of the storylines really moved me and Smiley's prose is breathtaking in its choice of detail and precision. Back in October I wrote a blog post entitled Why isn't Jane Smiley more famous? and I still ask myself that same question.

 

 

GoldenAge-SmileyGolden Age (Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga #3) I have to admit this is the book I read first in the trilogy, having picked it up at the airport without realizing it was meant as the last part of a group, but the characters are so hard to keep track of, given all the different story lines, you can just dive into the book and catch up along the way. Now if you want to be smarter, you can start with Volume 2 and then read Volume 3. If you only have time for one volume, then for me Early Warning is the best of the three. I am not including Some Luck: Last Hundred Years A Family Saga #1 because I wasn't as impressed by it - Smiley spends too much time writing about what cute toddlers the first protagonists were without giving us a reason to read further, and if I had started with that volume I probably would never have read the other two.

 

 

 

UndergroundRailroad The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I wrote a blog post about a reading he gave in Dallas near SMU back in September here. In the meantime he won the National Book Award for his chronicle of "a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom" (from the Amazon product description).

 

 

 

 

 

KavalierClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. This novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize and recounts the adventures of two teenage boys mostly in the 1940s in New York, is so exuberant in tone and theme (one of the teenage boys is an escape artist and budding magician, the other one draws comic books, they become partners in a new comic book creation and go from adventure to adventure) that it gave me energy just from reading it. Chabon's command of language is impressive.

 

 

 

 

 

GWTWGone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. I might have finished reading this book in December 2015 but don't see it in my "best of" list of 2015, so here it is for 2016. I had watched the movie twenty-five years ago and hadn't cared for it. Scarlett played by Vivien Leigh was insufferable, while she comes across as a flawed but fascinating human being on the page. The nauseating nostalgia for times gone by (with plantations, slaves etc) in the movie is replaced by a strong focus on Scarlett's family home of Tara without as many of nauseating aspects. I got the e-book on the advice of a writer friend, and was amazed by how much of a page-turner it is. It is a pity Mitchell didn't write more, but Gone with the Wind is her masterpiece. 

 

 

 

Nonfiction

FolliesOfGodFollies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog by James Grissom. Because each chapter is about a different woman that inspired Tennessee Williams in some way, the risk was real to create a series of vignettes the reader would never connect to. Yet, Grissom makes Williams masterfully come to life and even incited me to watch the DVD versions of lesser-known plays by Williams such as the Night of the Iguana, in addition to providing fascinating insights into some of the greatest stage actresses of the time. 

 

 

 

 

StellaAdlerIbsenStella Adler on Ibsen, Stringberg and Chekhov by Stella Adler. The late Adler can illuminate a classic like no one else. I bought it for the part on Chekhov but loved her comments on Ibsen as well. As for Stringberg... I still don't care for his work, but that's not Adler's fault. Read the post I wrote about the book here.

 

 

 

 

 

NixonOneManAgainstOne Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner. I find Nixon fascinating in the sheer complexity of his personality, the scope of his hubris, the story he told himself about the world (Weiner's book title gives that part away) and his massive fall from grace.

 

 

 

 

 

DidionWhiteAlbumThe White Album: Essays by Joan Didion. Until I read the White Album I was convinced Didion was overrated, especially because of The Year of Magical Thinking, although I liked the Broadway one-woman show that came from it. Then I realized what a remarkable writer a younger Didion was. 

 

 

 

 

 

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare. Or what happens when power goes to someone's head, and his wife's too. In the words of the Amazon.com blurb: "Perhaps no other Shakespearean drama so engulfs its readers in the ruinous journey of surrender to evil as does Macbeth. A timeless tragedy about the nature of ambition, conscience, and the human heart, the play holds a profound grip on the Western imagination."

 

 

 

 

 

SomewhereSomewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins by Amanda Vaill. The definitive biography of Robbins, which makes both the choreographer and the times come to life on the page. A real page-turner, at least for people like me who love modern dance. No man has had more impact on Broadway musicals and ballet alike. We owe him the choreographies for West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof, among many others. He was a commanding presence at New York City Ballet for many years, known for his commitment to excellence and exacting standards (that is the positive way to put it). Even now, NYCB continues to put on all-Robbins programs, showing that the impact he had on twentieth-century dance continues today. Off stage, he is also known for testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and giving names. The PBS American Masters documentary on Robbins is based on this book; you can read my blog post about that here.

 


Zadie Smith at the Dallas Museum of Art

ZadieSmith-SwingTimeOn Saturday I attended a reading and talk by Zadie Smith at the Dallas Museum of Art, where she promoted her latest book, Swing Time. The ticket included a copy of the book, and I also picked up her first novel, White Teeth, and her collection of essays Changing My Mind from the DMA bookstore since - dare I admit it? - I'd never read a book by Zadie Smith before. As a matter of fact, the only piece I'd read by her before was the phenomenal On Optimism and Despair, published in December in the New York Review of Books

Smith began by reading from the middle of her book for about 15 minutes (the 2nd trip of the narrator to Africa) and then spent about 45 minutes to 1 hour in conversation with Kris Boyd, host(ess) of the Think! program on the KERA TV/radio station, before opening to Q&A. Throughout, she proved herself to be an articulate speaker who thinks on her feet. I didn't take down any notes, so I bear all responsibility if I remember something incorrectly. 

Overall I was struck by how down-to-earth yet well-spoken Smith was. For instance, when asked about blackface (the book starts with the narrator watching on TV Fred Astaire in the 1936 movie Swing Time, Astaire who imitates Bill "Bojangles" Robinson tap dancing while he wears blackface), she was careful to speak against general statements and preferred looking at the details of each appropriation instead. In this case, Astaire doesn't have his lips painted white and doesn't make wild, grotesque gestures, as would be expected in blackface. Instead, according to Smith, he does his best to imitate Bojangles as well as possible to provide a record of the way the man danced. Bojangles was a tap dancing icon and nothing would remain of his performances if it hadn't been for Astaire trying to record himself as Bojangles for posterity. 

A powerful moment in the evening was when she talked about the obscenity of people being denied the opportunity of realizing their potential because of how they're being written off due to their poverty. She also talked a bit about her mother, the first trip to Jamaica (where her mother's family is from) where the two of them stayed in a hotel instead of with relatives and the dichotomy between those two worlds, the Jamaican world of her family and the Jamaican world of the tourism business, especially given that the hotels tend to be owned not by locals but by German or Swiss companies,  the small hut, now half-destroyed, where her mother had grown up, and the current political situation, especially the possibility of the incoming president reducing aid to Africa, where Smith brought up the fact that developed countries have had a long tradition of exploiting African resources through some of their companies established there and that the African situation can't be resolved without a hard look at what those companies are doing to the African ecosystem. She mentioned Liberia but stopped short of referring to a specific company by name.

She also remarked that some reviewers had believed the unnamed African country that provides the backdrop for a part of the book was Senegal, when in fact it was its neighbor Gambia. I haven't read that part of the book yet but apparently she uses city names from Gambia, and compared the mistake to setting a novel in Paris without saying it's France and having a reviewer says it's set in Spain, but was also the first one to forgive the reviewers, having been a book reviewer herself and gotten boxes with one hundred books inside to read in a matter of weeks.  

To read the rest of my account of the evening and my comments on the book, please click here