Every January I take the time to look back at the best literature of the previous year. Last year, thanks to library audiobooks, I was able to consume 97 books, 86 of them novels.
2016 was a good year to be immersed in fiction. There were a lot of strident voices, unpleasant people, and bald-faced lies. You all know what I’m talking about. Frankly, when someone presents me with a different version of reality, I’d prefer that person be a novelist. It’s okay for novelists to make stuff up—it’s their job. Furthermore, a novelist knows he or she is fabricating a story and readers accept it as such. It’s frightening when politicians become adept at excreting words via their bodies’ exit ramp. It’s even more frightening when they believe in the fabricated reality they’ve created. Most frightening of all is when a large minority of American voters buy into the fantasy.
Which brings me to why we should read/listen to literature. It’s not all about escapism. Any teacher can tell you that children who read, or are read to, develop better vocabularies, an ear for grammar and sentence structure, and develop better communication skills. But more importantly, reading expands our critical thinking. Reading fiction can give you insight into places, times, and scenarios you might otherwise not experience. By exposing you to different people’s cultures, customs and plights, reading can activate empathy sensors thus making you feel more forgiving and nurturing instead of condescending and inflexible. I think that’s a good thing.
I usually consult expert sources—MPR news, GoodReads, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Book Pages, etc—and report their best-of-the-year choices. I did that this year, but found only nominal correlation between their Best Books and mine. So, feel free to google their lists—I’m giving you mine.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles, is so immersive and enchanting it’s like a time-travel ticket to the nineteenth century. Set in 1870, this is an adventure/relationship novel featuring a seventy-year-old man who travels through rural Texas reading aloud a selection of newspapers to the largely illiterate populace. He is tasked with returning a ten-year-old girl—who had been taken by the Kiowa tribe four years previously—to her relatives over four-hundred miles away. Short-listed for the 2016 National Book Award, this tender novella is appropriate for all ages.
If you are white like me, and think you “don’t see color” you really should listen to Jodi Picoult’s new novel, Small Great Things. Typical of Ms. Picoult, she has chosen a controversial social issue—modern day American racism—and told the story using alternating points of views. I was especially happy that they used three different readers for the fourteen-hour audio version—all of them excellent. This thought-provoking tale of a black labor and delivery nurse and a white supremacist couple is compelling and tightly-plotted with well-drawn characters. Warning: may cause an examination of values and foster introspection.
Dodgers by Bill Beverly, is a dark coming-of-age novel about 15-year-old Los Angeles gang member who, along with his younger brother and two other teenage boys, is sent by his uncle to kill a witness hiding out in Wisconsin. Winner of the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger award as well as CWA Best Debut Crime novel, this is more than a gangster/road trip book—this is first-rate fiction.
Though I have previously written about A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, I want to remind you all not to miss this wonderfully written 18-hour audiobook. The author does a brilliant job re-creating the Moscow of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev as he tells the story of Count Rostov and his cronies in The Metropol Hotel. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and ultimately you will sigh at the triumph of goodness over cruelty and hope over despair. Given our new regime, I think it is highly appropriate reading for our times.