Top Ten Books 2016

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Repeating myself from last year, but more succinctly – I might blog about anime, but I read a lot more books than I watch anime. This year around, the count was anime, 28, books, 99. Wow, anime got obliterated! Maybe I should be blogging about books instead…? (Just kidding! Goodreads is a great indicator that book bloggers are even more petty and self-righteous than the anime blogging scene is.)

Unlike the anime list, I’ll be considering all books I read this year, not just those that were published this year, as if I limited myself in that manner, I’d have very little to write about (only fifteen of the books I read came out this year in English, and three of them were from the same long-concluded series). Hardcovers are expensive!

For my reading patterns in 2016, I tried to improve my diversity in terms of race and national origin. I ran up against a couple of issues with this – firstly, I was living in a country for much of the year where I did not speak much of the local language, and the supply of books in English was limited. This limitation, it turned out, meant that it was harder to get my hands on books by non-white, non-American, or queer authors, which was frustrating. The second block I hit was that, and this wasn’t honestly surprising, the world of World War I books is overwhelmingly white and male. There are a lot of good books by women in the field, and a few great books by writers of color, but there is definitely need for improvement. That there’s been increasing interest in the experience of people of color during the conflict within the past decade or so does give me some optimism, although it’s in a very cautious sense.

For 2017, then, I want to keep working on ensuring I’m reading the works of authors of color. I also want to try to work in more books by queer authors! I started today with starting to re-read Monica Nolan’s “Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante”, so I think I’m off to a solid start for the latter.

Anyway, without further ado, and in alphabetical order:

german-high-command-at-war

The German High Command at War

(Robert B. Asprey)

As the title implies, this is about the German High Command at war, specifically during the First World War. But it is also about how the pre-war question of whether Germany was a nation with a military, or if the German Army was a military with a nation ended up being answered by the dissolution of civil control of the nation as the war ground onward from 1914. Ultimately, what is seen in these pages is also an answer to how Germany ended up as it did in the 1930’s, as the seizure of governmental functions by the military gave precedent for a dictatorial nation-state.

This is an incredibly engrossing read, and I found it did an excellent job of covering both the military and political portions of its tale. It does seem inordinately hung-up on the physiques of some of the military figures toward the beginning of the book, but it mercifully drops this angle by the third chapter or so. Asprey makes a compelling argument that one of the problems which hobbled Germany’s ability to effectively fight the war was that the military disdained civilian leadership and abhorred sharing information with them. Essentially, the German military was in the business of self-fulfilling prophecy, as their secretive approach and “civilians are stupid and bad” mentality meant that the civil government couldn’t possibly have the necessary knowledge to assess the situation. If you’re looking for a great case study of why its so important for governments and their militaries to have transparency between them, this is a fantastic one.

This was the sort of book where the moment I finished it, I wanted to write the author a letter to tell him I’d loved his book. I was pretty crestfallen when I discovered the man has been deceased since 2009. Thankfully, he at least was so obliging as to leave a decent stack of writings behind, and I intend to track some of them down in 2017.

the-crowded-street

The Crowded Street

(Winifred Holtby)

This novel, which takes place in the early 20th century, follows Muriel, a girl, and then a woman, who is early in her life crunched down into a societally-pleasing shape by her mother and does not get over it until well into her life. Muriel throughout her childhood and young adulthood continually allows those around her to direct her entire life, and it isn’t until her sister becomes a casualty of the demands of polite society that she begins to be able to pull away and salvage herself.

This was not always an easy read, as it was difficult to watch the heroine continuously undermining her own happiness in her efforts to contort herself to her society’s ideas about what is appropriate behavior from girls and women. And Muriel takes a very long time to reach a point where she is willing to make a stand for herself, and even then her efforts are fairly incremental. However, in making us bear such close witness to the ordeal, Holtby makes it clear just how damaging to the human spirit social strictures can be, and how hard it is to overcome it even as an adult. Originally published in 1924, this remains quite relevant, particularly as we stare down a backlash that would shove marginalized groups who’ve made gains in recent years right back into the corners they’ve smashed their way out of.

farewell-cowboy

Farewell, Cowboy

(Olja Savičević Ivančević)

Dada, a would-be college drop-out, returns to her hometown to look after her depressed and pill-addicted mother when her sister tells her she will no longer do so. Fairly directionless, she begins to try to untangle the mystery surrounding her brother’s apparent suicide years before. She also becomes involved with a sexually voracious young man whom she grew up with, and who himself has returned to his hometown in order to star in a cowboy movie being filmed locally.

While my synopsis is an accurate one, I want to emphasize that this isn’t exactly a mystery story even as the question about Dada’s younger brother’s death is a thread that runs through the entire book. Dada makes for an unusual protagonist for this kind of book, as she’s curious about figuring out what happened, but she’s got a very laid-back attitude and seems nearly immune to being ruffled by anything. Her departure from Zagreb at the behest of her sister is one which she is quite unceremonious about, as she simply walks away from her life there, which includes a job and a married lover, neither of whom she informs of her plans. Another departure later in the book is undertaken with similar abruptness.

Her personality makes it a bit difficult initially to get involved in the narrative, but its her ability ultimately to absorb terrible things and adjust quickly that makes her intriguing and drew me into the book. She wants to know why her brother suddenly died, and she is willing to make other people uncomfortable in her pursuit of that, but when she does get the answer, she takes it in, accepts it, and moves on. She has, after all, already lived through the disasters – the Balkan Wars of the 90’s, the death of her father, and the death of her brother – and she finds her mother’s pill-and-grief addiction boring and impossible to truly combat. Dada is a survivor; not the more heroic sort which literature often provides, but one which in real life is much more common.

ballad-of-black-tom

The Ballad of Black Tom

(Victor LaValle)

Tommy Tester is a black man and a hustler who supports his disapproving father in bigotry-plagued 1930’s New York City. When he interferes with one of his own deliveries, having recognized the danger the delivered item presents, he becomes embroiled in an occult-infused scheme by an eccentric white man to awaken other-worldly beings who will eventually destroy Earth. This is a retelling and upending of H.P. Lovecraft’s viciously racist “The Horror at Red Hook”.

…and what a fantastic retelling it is! The Ballad of Black Tom was probably the single best-written thing I read in 2016. LaValle takes Lovecraft’s lore and makes it wholly his, utilizing the very same mythos that for Lovecraft was often a means of expressing his bigoted views as a way to tear down racist ideology. Reading this, I finally got what it is that people enjoy and admire in Lovecraft’s works, which isn’t something I ever got out of reading any of Lovecraft’s stuff in the first place. I find myself hoping that we may see some more takes on Lovecraftian lore out of LaValle going forward.

the-paper-menagerie

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

(Ken Liu)

A collection of primarily science-fiction and fantasy tales, spanning the distant past to the distant future, and places such as an imagined sub-marine tunnel from North America to Asia and a parallel steampunk China of a century ago. It’s a bit difficult to sum up a collection of short stories, and in that previous sentence alone I can’t help but feel the ache of all that I didn’t specifically cite. There are also a few stories which are historical in nature and eschew fantastical elements.

As a person who doesn’t read much fantasy or sci-fi, I can say that this is a collection worth checking out even if those are not genres you normally read. The breadth of subject and genre on display here is impressive, and if a few of the stories don’t quite work, the ones that do aren’t merely good but great. I ended up giving this to two different people as a Christmas present this year.

land-of-green-plums

The Land of Green Plums

(Herta Müller)

A group of four students come together in the wake of a mutual associate’s suicide in the Romania of Nicolae Ceaușescu, forming what they on some level hope will be a bulwark against the hostility of their oppressive and repressive society. But they remain dogged by the Securitate as they transition from students to workers, and cracks begin to show as some waver and buckle under the continual pressure. And the Securitate is not an agency who is ever satisfied with simply driving suspected dissidents from its borders.

While this is about a specific group of four characters, it is really about how personal relationships are rendered impossible in a repressive surveillance society. The four characters trust each other as people, so much so that years of periodic torment by the government doesn’t break that trust, but the ways in which the government can force its way into their relationships is not one which simple trust can elude. Outside of these four, the heroine’s daily life reveals how dysfunctional her society is, as the fact that anyone could be an informer means that even things like going to a dressmaker or buying food becomes fraught. And much of this is written in an almost dreamlike style of prose, with a chronology that while on the whole is linear, often sidetracks to go back to previous occurrences we weren’t told about at the time or to reminiscences of childhood. It’s a manner that imparts a sense of near unreality which itself seems to be what helps the heroine continue to endure the inhumanity of dictatorial Romania.

It’s a generally grim read, of the sort where even spots of optimism have a pall cast over them. But, and this should be obvious from its appearance here, it is also a very good read. Müller, by the way, won the Nobel for literature in 2009.

the-sympathizer

The Sympathizer

(Viet Thanh Nguyen)

A Viet Cong operative writes his confession from a cell in post-war Vietnam to an unseen figure known as the Commandant. In doing so, we witness the fall of Saigon, and the Vietnamese refugee community as they fashion new lives in America, or, in some cases, don’t. Our narrator is a half-French, half-Vietnamese man who serves as a mole, continuing to write his handlers of the attempts by former officers and soldiers to create a counter-revolution to seize back their homeland. In doing so he, too, bears witness to American society, and provides a window into the racist attitudes of both his childhood in rural North Vietnam and that of 1970’s America. But he keeps dreaming of a return to the Vietnam that he has helped create.

A book which won the Pulitzer hardly needs my help in promotion. Nevertheless, this easily made my top ten, so I do have to say something about it. I will note that I had thought I had my list pretty much finalized by Christmas, but after reading about fifty pages of this, I identified which book I could remove from my top ten if this continued as well as what I’d read of it had.  It did, so, as painful as it was, another book got bumped.

In reading this quickly, I was helped by the fact that it was over holidays, especially so because I had to put it down periodically since it is not a remotely light read. Unsurprisingly, there is quite a bit of violence, although Nguyen is pretty blunt about it; to his hero (who goes unnamed), it’s just a fact of life, so he doesn’t relish over the details to pornographic levels. What stands out, instead, is how humane the author’s treatment of not only his lead, but also of all the people his lead encounters, including those whom are his enemies.

I do want to advise you that there is a scene of sexual violence toward the end of the book. Nguyen writes the scenes in a way that is almost documentary, as he is neither euphemistic about it, nor does he give the sort of fetishized detail which often goes hand-in-hand with rape in literature. It is a brutal scene of a brutal act, but it fully fit with the rest of the story and did not come across as extraneous, as something added in as a means of shocking or titillating the audience.

the-fww-an-agrarian-interpretation

The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation

(Avner Offer)

An in-depth examination of the impact of agrarian policy on the conduct of WWI, as well as on policy-making and strategic planning prior to the war, and on the role that culture played in perceptions of food availability during the conflict. The focus is largely on Great Britain and the Dominions, and on Germany, although Great Britain gets more focus in the pre-war period while the portions on Germany are more oriented to during the war. There is a decent bit about America as well, as trends and trade regarding Canadian agriculture of the era are borderline impossible to talk about without doing so.

So, yeah, the chance that any of you will ever so much as indirectly breathe on this one is less than the chance that one of you gets bitten by a shark. Having said that – this is a great book! While indeed dense, I found this surprisingly accessible despite the fact that there’s a fair bit on economics in it, a field in which I do not have much formal study. The blockade of the Central Powers had a large impact on their ability to keep up the war effort, and while the development of maritime blockade as strategy by the Royal Navy has been given in-depth treatment elsewhere, Offner does an excellent job of giving the fuller picture of how the conditions became such that it could be an effective approach to undermining Germany. And, if WWI isn’t exactly your thing, you may still wish to give it a go if you are interested in agricultural trends throughout the British Empire of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. There is additionally some very interesting examination of how racism affected immigration law around the Pacific Rim, and how that in turn created security problems at the inter/national level for Great Britain and the United States.

The only downside is that every time I read this, it made me really hungry.

before-the-feast

Before the Feast

(Saša Stanišić)

It’s the night before the Anna Feast in the town of Fürstenfelde, and although a busy day awaits them, many in the village are restless and full of memories, regrets, and imagination. Some are questioning their continued existence, and others wondering over decisions they’ve made which will bring change; at least one person stands in the lake, unable to paint what she truly wishes to. Through it all, the town’s history is revealed in bits and pieces, and it’s character becomes apparent in watching its denizens shuffle around, under the eyes of a fox plotting a good meal for her cubs.

I’m struggling with this one as I’m worried that if I’m not careful, I’ll end up making this sound dreadfully twee, and that wouldn’t be accurate. This is about a particular village in former East Germany, and about the people who live there, but on a larger level it is about the changing nature of life in any place, as populations shift and traditions carry on even as people forget their original purpose. Of course, taking place in eastern Germany as it does, it necessarily in being that is also to a degree about memory in modern Germany; unconfirmed rumors of someone having been a Stasi informant persist while the plaque that named a field after a Nazi figure is long-vanished. Meanwhile, the town archivist hoards the archives for herself, everything strictly under lock and key.

That isn’t, though, to imply that this is a dark book exactly. There is a sense at points of seeing a glimpse of darker corners of human nature, but this is also a book in which a guy considering suicide repeatedly shoots a cigarette machine instead of himself. It isn’t explicit upon this point, but it felt optimistic about the future for a diverse German society.

Anyway, at the very least, this was one of the more unique books I read in 2016.

the-age-of-innocence

The Age of Innocence

(Edith Wharton)

Newland Archer is a by-the-books sort of man, born and bred to the splendor of Gilded Age New York’s high society. Having followed the path set before him in life with dedication, he is on the cusp of marrying when his fiancee’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, re-appears on the grand stage after years abroad. It is an event which upsets Newland’s contentment with his life, and introduces a sense of struggle he has never known in his comfortable world.

How to talk about a book that is considered a classic? I was originally assigned The Age of Innocence to read while in high school, and I’ll admit that the description did little to fire my imagination. A book about the absurdly rich in old New York? What on earth did this have to offer me? But I was a good student, and I hadn’t hit the phase yet where I did refuse to read assigned books, and, in this case, my effort was rewarded.

So, when I picked up this book, it was a re-read. And it was a rare instance of a re-read which revealed the book to be even better than I had recalled. Also, in re-reading it, I discovered that Wharton was using the term “thirst” waaaay before any of us were, something I didn’t recall from the first time around.

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One Response to Top Ten Books 2016

  1. Reblogged this on Aquila et Infans and commented:
    A fascinating top ten list of books from the author’s reading in 2016. I can see half of them (The German High Command at War, Before the Feast, The Sympathizer, The Land of Green Plums, and The Paper Menagerie) winding up on my reading list for 2017.

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