My favorite books of 2016
Recent studies that show it takes two years to fully recover mentally from pregnancy and childbirth, and boy do I believe it.
Last year, with a newborn and a new job, I had zero time for, or interest in, reading. It was like my brain turned off. This year, the toddler started going to bed at 7:30 and sleeping through the night, and I swam in literature. I luxuriated over having hours and hours of uninterrupted time at night to read books. I started hoarding them again, thumbing the pages.
Reading, like writing, makes me feel complete, and gives me meaning. Books are my way of the river that is humanity’s thoughts, and last year my brain was cut off from the city’s water supply.
This year, I drank from the firehose. I read everything I could get my hands on. I read classics I hadn’t gotten around to. I read Fahrenheit 451 (foreboding), A Tale of Two Cities (classic Dickens), and some Alice Munro (skillful, depressing). I read short books. I read long books. Books piled up in my study and magazines litter the back of our kitchen counter. It was like I was afraid that, after I had a baby, I would never have any access to information again.
And, for the first time in my life, spurred on by the Russian I was speaking to my daughter, I read in Russian. Mostly, I started by listening to audiobooks, but somewhere halfway through the year, I decided my vocabulary had grown to the point where I could read outright, and I read three print books in Russian. Reading in Russian has always been some kind of unattainable dream, so to be able to do it was one of the things I’m most proud of in 2016.
Here are my ten favorite books of the year. You can see the rest of the ones I read, plus my reviews, on Goodreads.
Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes by Guzel Yakhina (Зулейха открывает глаза, Гузель Яхина)
This was, hands down, uncontested, no questions asked, the best book of my year. And judging by the fact that it just won a bunch of Russian prizes, is going to be adapted into a film series and will have an English translation, I wasn’t alone.
I listened to it on the way to and from work, and I would have to wait to come into the office because I was sobbing so hard. At random moments, scenes from the book come to my mind and I have to brace myself. It is a good book not because it seeks to shock the reader, but because everything in it is true, and was true, and will be true about humanity.
This is a cruel, hard book, because it is about a cruel, hard time. The author respects the reader by not sparing him the horrors of life in Russia in the 1930s. It is the story of Zuleikha, an ethnic Tatar woman who lives in a Tatar village in Russia, and survives the dekulakization of the village. It is not just about Zuleikha, but about women, men, the relationships between family, friends, the definition of honor, the cruelty of the both the government and the social order, about communism and society, about Siberia, about nature, and much, much more than I can describe.
Unfortunately looks like it will be a year or two before the English translation comes out, but keep an eye out for it.
Digital Apollo by David Mindell and The Martian by Andy Weir
At the beginning of the year, I read The Martian, which means I’m finally caught up on books that were popular in 2011. Around the first wave of its popularity as a self-published manuscript, Mr. B read it.
“What’s it about,” I asked him. “This guy who lives on Mars,” he said, and my interested ended there, because, for some reason, even though Star Wars is absolutely one of my favorite movies, other space science fiction just doesn’t grab me.
Then, the book became super-popular, and then it became a movie. I still put off reading it until this year, because I didn’t think I’d like the kind of book it was: highly philosophical, and imbued with details of space physics that I was not interested in.
But then, something just pushed me over the edge (I think maybe the book was on sale on Kindle?), and I devoured the novel in under a week. Yes, it was long and super-nerdy, and the character is basically almost in conversation with himself the entire book, but I LOVED IT. The reason it has so many stars on Amazon is because the author, in spite of his own geekiness, was still able to move the plot forward in such a compelling way, that I was reading through the night to find out how the book ended. At the end of the book, if you are a skeptic, you turn into someone as enthused by space travel and the physics and emotions behind it as Weir is.
Along the way, I got caught up in the author’s NASA geekiness myself, and felt like I needed to research everything about the space program afterwards. I watched an amazing documentary, The Last Man on the Moon, which really cemented just how AMAZING it is that man was able to reach outer space in my mind. I have been in awe ever since.
One of the facts the really stuck out to me is that the computer used to travel to the moon was MUCH less powerful than your average Macbook today, and I wanted to find out more about that, so I read Digital Apollo, which if you like that kind of thing, is an AMAZING look at the topic.
One of the most interesting things I found out from this book was that the battle between what it means to be human and what a robot can automate has been going on for much longer than the latest hand-wringing articles about lost American jobs. There was an enormous debate within NASA whether the rocket should even be piloted by an astronaut at all, whether humans could be trusted with that kind of task. In the end, the pilots won, but at what great cost. This book is very nerdy, but also largely explores the larger, more philosophical aspects of what it means to be human hundreds of thousands of miles away from safety.
The Seven Good Years - Etgar Keret
Etgar Keret has been well-known, both in Israel in Hebrew, and in the United States among the Jewish and/or NPR crowd (interchangeable really) for a while now, especially since his stories have been getting translated in Tablet and the New Yorker.
This is the first book of his I’ve read, and I was interested in it because he describes the seven good years as bookends between when his son was born and when his father died, a human dynamic I’ve become very keenly interested in since the birth of my daughter.
Beret, even in an English translation that doesn’t do complete justice to Hebrew words that have no American cultural equivalent, is a genius.
This book is short enough to enjoy and think about over one or two days.
The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Sometimes you just need a book that’s Fun. This book, by the authors of the tremendously popular and smart fashion critique site Go Fug Yourself, is basically British royal fan fiction, but with a smart twist.
Bex is an American who studies abroad in London and meets and starts dating Nick, who is first in line to the throne. Yes, this is about Kate and Will, but in addition to being a nice juicy story line to follow, it really makes you feel for these people who are constantly subjected to barrages of media. The authors, while presenting a fun story, clearly did their research. And yes, there is a wedding scene and it is beautiful and hilarious.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
I’m hit or miss on Gaiman’s work in general - I LOVED Stardust and Neverwhere, but had to start three times on American Gods before giving up. This was among his best efforts. It’s a fantasy book, but it takes place mostly in the real world, in rural England. It has an amazingly fast-paced plot and very interesting characters that leave you with a lot of questions at the end of the book. If you loved A Wrinkle in Time, you’ll love this atmospheric read.
Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman
I don’t read many parenting books because I am already a neurotic wreck of a human being when it comes to figuring out if what I’m doing is right, and these books just compound my neuroses. But I’ve been interested in this one since before I had my daughter because I’m interested in cross-cultural observations.
This book has them in spades, and in a way that is not as entirely condescending to Americans as French Women Don’t Get Fat and the ilk are. Some of the things Druckerman describes here have really made me look at American culture with a fresh new perspective, which I’ve loved. Particularly of interest was the chapter on how the French versus Americans understand food culture. I still think about this book every time I see a children’s menu at a restaurant.
A nice complement read to this book was Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun, about how we make parenting miserable by spending too much time on it.
Ours by Sergei Dovlatov
I started the year by reading Sergei Dovlatov because I liked the book cover for the audio book in the app store, and serendipitously, I’ve discovered one of the best authors in Russian literature.
Dovlatov is dry and witty without seemingly making any effort to appear so, sarcastic, serious, and simply human. He has a journalist’s eye for details and manages to depict Soviet life, and Life in general in a way that sometimes brings a tear to the eye. This particular book is about all the members of his large, interesting family, and he portrays all of them with humanity, dignity, and respect, as well as wit. Everyone should want this kind of book written about them.
All Who Go Do Not Return - Shulem Deen
For a man who has been ostracized from his community and forcefully isolated from his children, Deen writes with a kind of grace I don’t think anyone else could muster. Born into the Skverers, a Hasidic community in New York, he describes how he slowly started to understand that there was more to the world than a narrow prescription of prayer and home life, and how painful that realization was for him. The beginning of the book is a look into a world few can enter. By the end of the book, you find yourself feverishly hoping that he finds the peace he is looking for.
Disrupted by Dan Lyons
I work in the tech industry, and I both love how amazing it is and think it’s the most ridiculous thing in the world. I love talking inside baseball, and hearing about inside baseball, and Dan Lyons knows this about people who work in tech, which is why he wrote this book about how he worked at, and got fired from HubSpot, a tech-startup-marketing firm in Boston.
Lyons writes for Silicon Valley, one of my favorite shows out today, and many of those experiences he got from the same years that fueled this book. It really shines a light on how ridiculous the current Silicon Valley culture hype train is.
To be fair, Dan Lyons is a jerk and he knows this, and he plays it up to maximum effect, but as the book goes on, it’s harder to tell who’s more ridiculous: a 54-year-old veteran journalist who thinks he can work normally at a startup aimed at churning through 20-somethings, or the people who work for startups and have bought into the cool aid.
At most, the book provides a good laugh. And I think we can all use a good laugh going into 2017.