Before we get started, just so you know... there is more fiction coming. Yes, I know it's been a while, but THE TRIAL OF MARCUS AURELIUS is coming out in a few months--follow me on Twitter for that announcement--so I'm back into fiction-writing mode.
Now, here's the ten best books I read in 2016.
10) DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (Philip K. Dick, 1968)
It bears very little resemblance to Blade Runner, and that’s a good thing, because—blasphemy alert—I’ve always found the movie to be beautiful but boring. Philip K. Dick’s novel, however, is grimy and wondrous. The book is not just a rumination on what constitutes life, but on the intrinsic value of one life over another. It’s not enough that we think and feel, but what we think about and who we feel for. In a dystopia where people drug themselves into emotion, any emotion, and where androids are identified via a test for empathy they should not have, the simulacra of life have developed not just consciousness but a fraternity of otherness. Each android cares as much about the others as it/he/she does about it/him/herself. Roy Batty is not a snarling Rutger Hauer. He is a charismatic and committed leader exhausted by a series of difficult choices. After a book populated by humans less alive than their machines, the happy ending is a hard-learned but well-earned lesson that teaches Deckard to recognize and value life in its strangest form and most unorthodox splendor.
9) THE SPORTSWRITER (Richard Ford, 1986)
“An eloquent and stately character study, brimming with the tensions of everyday drama,” is an example of the kind of blurb that could grace the cover of the novel, but it probably wouldn’t galvanize you to take the book home. But Richard Ford’s story of a man slowly pulling himself out of a grave of despair following the death of his child and the dissolution of his marriage is why literary fiction remains the most lauded of genres. Ford’s prose, lacking showmanship and disinterested in impression, is the eye of the emotional hurricane that is wreaking havoc on his protagonist, Frank Bascombe. In the shadows of his craftsmanship, the trenches between lines, and the nooks and crannies between words, is a cosmos of subtext, the primordial soup that gives richness and immediacy to a simple, human story. Richard Ford’s characters are indelibly real, and his story is foundationally profound. This book is marvelous.
8) THE STORY OF THE JEWS (Simon Schama, 2013)
The title is a little misleading and slightly dishonest (most dogmatically absolutist titles are—don’t trust a book named “How So-and-So Saved Civilization” or “Such-and-Such Made the Modern World”). But Schama does chronicle an aspect of Jewish history that is often neglected by Jews and gentiles alike. Beginning with an exhaustive and mesmerizing examination of the oldest extant ruins of identifiably Jewish origin, Schama presents a compelling and comprehensive case that the central conflict of Judaism and Jewishness has always been the internal struggle between a belief that says, “We are Chosen, and to remain Chosen we must remain separate from the non-Jewish world,” and the contrary belief of, “We can engage with society-at-large, allow a cross-pollination of cultures, and still be Jewish.” From the fog of near-lost Antiquity to the waning days of the Middle Ages, Schama tells the story in a passionate voice filled with ebullient wisdom that will leave history buffs ensorcelled and smitten.
7) THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER (Octavia Butler, 1993)
I’ve finally acquainted myself with the work of Octavia Butler, and she has proven her bonafides as a singular artist of uncommon power. As a creator of science fiction, she has crafted a believable apocalypse-in-progress that, two decades later, appears chillingly prophetic in its accuracy and all-encompassing probity. As an African-American woman, she has plumbed the vicissitudes she’s endured to conjure a reality that is tragically too familiar. As a writer her ability to turn a phrase, erect a narrative arc, and bring to life characters we come to know as well as we would anyone beyond the pages is a feat to behold. THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER is a novel unlike any other I’ve read, but I’m hoping to find its equal in the rest of Octavia Butler’s bibliography.
6) RED SORGHUM (Mo Yan, 1986)
Thank god I discovered Mo Yan this past year. Read my original Not-a-Review here.
5) BLOOD ON THE FORGE (William Attaway, 1941)
A child of the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance, William Attaway’s titanic BLOOD ON THE FORGE is an intellectual primal scream. The Moss brothers escape the Jim Crow South for the more lucrative and tolerant future promised by the North, only to find the unfamiliarity of the steel mills, the depersonalized mechanization, is more dehumanizing than the familiar marginalization of the southern farms. Attaway contrasts the blistering red and orange heat of the cauldrons with the warm, wet, fertile earth the brothers are accustomed to and take pleasure in. The fires burn down the brothers—angry, god-fearing Big Mat; sensible, responsible Chinatown; and foolish, fun-loving Melody—in a tragic conflagration that leaves each of them in the last place he wanted to be. Like NATIVE SON, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, and INVISIBLE MAN, William Attaway’s novel is about much more than the black experience, and BLOOD ON THE FORGE stands shoulder to shoulder with those other giants.
4) CALL IT SLEEP (Henry Roth, 1934)
It’s the only proper novel Henry Roth ever published, and upon reading the book it’s easy to see why it took him over forty years to write another word. Like Ralph Ellison, Roth has presented a single life with multi-faceted verisimilitude and bullseye specificity that captures an entire universe of human experience. The poor, the immigrant, the young, the neurotic, the Jewish, the abused all have their story brought to life in CALL IT SLEEP. What else can Roth say? I’m hesitant to recommend the novel to anyone but the heartiest of literary adventurers. Consider yourself warned: CALL IT SLEEP is relentlessly bleak. The prose is a fugue of tears, and the plot is a totem pole of compounded miseries, so much so that the experience of reading is largely an endurance trial. But if you’re willing to endure for the sake of majestic writing, or if you’re just a masochist of letters, this novel will leave a scar on your heart you will cherish forever.
3) THE TENANTS (Bernard Malamud, 1971)
There’s something different about Bernard Malamud. His stories are always in one way or another about Jewish identity and its concomitant pains. As a Jewish friend of mine once observed, “That’s the culture,” but unlike Henry Roth’s writing, Malamud’s does not drown me in dourness and crushing loss. There is always an ember roasting in the dark center of his work. THE TENANTS is a story about two writers; one Jewish, one black; squatting in a condemned apartment, desperate for the isolation they need to finish their purgative books. But in each other they see a world they wish included them. They feel the sting of their respective hypocrisies, and the resentment stoked between the two desperate, broken men leaves the apartment building beyond dilapidated. As bleak as the plot may be, there is still that ember burning in the black ink of every letter, and while the characters may not feel its heat, we the readers do.
2) THE POWER BROKER (Robert A. Caro, 1974)
America’s scholarly community has really dropped the ball. Every child in this country should grow up learning about Robert Moses. He was a real-life Charles Foster Kane, a man of unshakable self-confidence and unparalleled intellect who sacrificed his own soul to propitiate the god of power. Robert Caro, now the go-to authority on Lyndon Johnson, tells the epic story of how Robert Moses transformed himself from an idealistic youth dedicated to solving New York’s many social ills into the state’s unelected dictator whose aims began with getting his way and ended with crushing anyone who opposed him. Caro’s doorstop of a biography is electrifying from the first page to the last because Caro never takes the stance of either apologist or persecutor. He details how Moses’ tireless energy and blade-sharp mind built the infrastructure of modern New York as they corrupted the mechanisms of government to make Moses’ dreams a reality. Robert Moses was a character with a capital-C.
1) AUGUSTUS (John Williams, 1973)
John Williams is simply one the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century. Read my original Not-a-Review here.