As I did last year, I’ve broken the list into two sections, one for books I finished and the other for those I didn’t. I read some wonderful things this year, things that stayed with me and shaped my worldview, starting with the first book of the year.
The Human Nature of Playwriting, Samson Raphaelson (1949): Purchased for research while I was writing this piece. Raphaelson was a playwright and screenwriter most notable for a nine-film collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch. In 1948, he taught a course at the University of Illinois about playwriting, and this book is an edited collection of the transcripts of his weekly lessons. The group discussions and the dissection of the students’ material are fantastic, and Raphaelson’s observations about life, art, and creativity are beautifully honest and devoid of false sentimentality. I think about this book often.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King (2015) (selections): King can still do a number of things well—suspense, pacing—but his dialogue and sense of character, which were never consistent to begin with, are only weakening with time. I slogged through a few stories here, but I couldn’t make it all the way. What’s fascinating is that each story is introduced by a brief (one- or two-page) note from King about the situation or thought process that inspired it, and in these notes he writes with clarity and honesty about the complicated drama of human life in ways that never seem to make it into his fiction.
The Passage, Justin Cronin (2010) (reread, selections)
The Twelve, Justin Cronin (2012) (reread, selections)
I dug back into Justin Cronin’s work to prepare for writing this feature (here’s a fuller version of the interview). The first book in Cronin’s Passage trilogy—continued in The Twelve and The City of Mirrors—is in many ways the strongest, in part because it hums with the energy of an author finally allowing himself to tackle the project he’s always dreamed of doing. The opening sequence, which sets up the sad home life of the soon-to-be-orphaned little girl named Amy, remains some of the most affecting work he’s done. The Twelve is strong, too, especially for the way Cronin avoids predictable outcomes and takes the story to interesting places.
The Summer Guest, Justin Cronin (2004) (selections): Again, the prologue could stand on its own as a great short story. What follows looks good, too; I only moved on because I was trying to cram in as much of Cronin’s bibliography as possible before interviewing him.
The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin (2016): A strong end to the trilogy, and a deft exploration of how rumors turn into stories on their way to becoming legends. The series is, in many ways, about the way we shape our communities and traditions through storytelling.
Mary and O’Neil, Justin Cronin (2001): Billed as a novel told in short stories, though if it’d come out a decade later, it would’ve just been called a novel (like A Visit From the Goon Squad). Even in straight literary fiction, though, Cronin’s humaneness comes through.
The Sportswriter, Richard Ford (1986): Beautiful, stunning, evocative. I picked up more Bascombe books before I was even finished.
Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2001): Absolutely wonderful. It all moves so effortlessly, and it’s so full of humor and sadness and connection.
Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (1993): One of the (many) good things here is the way the story pushes beyond the initial amazement that its characters feel about being the first to colonize Mars and moves quickly into the tangled, internecine conflicts and relationships that mark the political struggle to tame a new frontier.
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (1996): Endearing and brisk, though I keep feeling that there’s something in Gaiman’s work his fans see that I do not.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1867): I spent more time in 2016 reading this than any other book. I read Notes From Underground a couple years ago, and I read bits and pieces of abridged treatments of the author’s work in school, but I felt a strong desire to tackle the real thing.1 The scenes depicting Raskolnikov’s crimes are as taut and breathless as anything ever written, and its investigation of guilt and duty is sublime. I’m glad I sat with this.
The Tenth Man, Graham Greene (1985): The ideal quick shot to chase a book as big as Crime and Punishment (and, appropriately, dealing with the same ideas).
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (2007): I tried and failed to stay hooked with this one a year or two earlier, but after snagging a well-loved mass-market paperback at Half Price Books, I jumped back in and devoured it. It’s got just the right amount of purple prose, balance with humor and a humming narrative.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders (1996): There is no David Foster Wallace without George Saunders. This collection deals a lot with capitalism taken to apocalyptic extremes, but it’s still warm-hearted, as expected.
Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut (1968) (selections): I say “selections” because I’m not finished as of this writing, though I will be soon.2 Going in, I was only familiar with “Harrison Bergeron,” having come to Vonnegut only in college when I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five, and that on my own, not in the context of an assigned reading for class. The collection is wistful and dark and beautiful. Everything you could really want.
Left By the Wayside
On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005): I didn’t make it far. I remember liking White Teeth quite a bit, but I couldn’t stay interested in this one.
All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (2016): Some neat ideas (magic is real, etc.), but the approach felt a little too broad. The best way I found to describe it would be to imagine a book created by the comments section of Boing Boing.
In alphabetical order:
Crime and Punishment
The Human Nature of Playwriting
The Name of the Wind
I am almost perversely fascinated by the Russian masters, to the point where I feel like I need to read the greatest hits of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others if I ever want to understand humanity. I do not know where this belief comes from, but I have it.↩
One of the great things about collections of short stories is being able to move around in them out of sequence, or coming back to the collection a month later to finish it off.↩