Privilege Blog

The Books Of 2016 Were The Best Part Of The Year, But Some I Hated And Some I Simply Couldn’t Remember

Lucky for humanity, even the most awful of years give us good books. Thank you writers.

I will confess that I have come to think about reading in terms of Use Cases, i.e. when, and in what form, I will read what. This is perhaps not the pure approach literature deserves. I would apologize but I’ve used up my store of sorries for the year and I hope a weak smile suffices.

In any case, we’ve got:

  • Books you want to live in. These you are going to want to page back into and back up out of. You will want to revisit the early chapters to see if the events now excoriating your heart were foretold, to check the book’s jacket and the author’s bio, finally, to see if they matter. These books are worth buying in paper; actually they demand it. Worth delaying your purchase gratification for shipment or a trip to the bookstore, worth holding in two hands.
  • Good Kindle (e-of any sort) books. Perfect at bedtime. These stories are simple enough, or their details so unimportant, you can happily consume small digital servings of words as they come. These books can still address important issues, can and should give you good characters.
  • Not so good books. In this category we have the ones that everyone loves except you. We’ve also got uninspired narratives you’ve read but can’t remember a single detail, and pap you can remember solely for how much you wanted to throw it over the fence into your neighbor’s yard. The annoying neighbor, mind you.

Books Worth Buying In Paper, Hard Or Soft

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara. I’m reading this right now. When I wake in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep I don’t mind because two hours with this book enrich my life. Even in darkness. What’s so great about it? The deep patience Yanagihara has for absolutely everything in a novel. She never takes the easy way out. This story of four men, friends in college when the book begins, (so far I’ve made it to their 40s, I don’t know yet where it will finish,) inhabits me. Not by any means easy, I have to add. The book includes detailed descriptions of the practice of “cutting,” and less detailed but more miserable stories of child abuse.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel – Anthony Marra. Published in 2014. I’m also halfway through this. I’ll admit, dealing with my mother’s move, fall, and subsequent care, meant I read nothing but fantasy the first three quarters of the year. I’m trying to catch up now. Constellation is patient and skillful, like Little Life, Its setting in Chechnya makes it somewhat more demanding of the American reader, i.e., not so good for the middle of the night.

The Neapolitan Novels – Elsa Ferrante. This series has been reviewed and discussed everywhere. Materfamilias is hosting a read-along series here. When I read the first book, My Neapolitan Friend, I felt I was experiencing an entirely new kind of literature. So female, in a way that made clear to me how much of literature is male. If the thought of four books gives you pause, just read the first one. Even that will add to your understanding of the idea of women.

Good Kindle Books

The Gilded Years – Karin Tanabe – Addy, an African-American woman attends Vassar. However, the story’s set in 1897, so she has to pass as white. Based on a true story, the novel gives us one of those useful simple slices of complex history. Heavy on Vassar detail, the privileged girlish traditions contrast with Addy’s life and what she faces.

The Raven King (And all the Raven Boys books) – Maggie Stiefvater. As I said, the first half of my year was heavy on fantasy. This series is one of the best of type – particularly in the Young Adult genre. Boys, cars, a girl, prep school, Welsh-sounding royalty, magic tale-telling. Read all of it. So lovely.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel – Helen Simonson. A retired widowed English major meets a working widowed Indian woman. Their families have opinions, so does the village. Way, way more affecting than it sounds. Romance and racial dynamics told in the standard Village of Britain voice makes for a surprisingly powerful story. One of my favorites of the year.

Vinegar Girl – Anne Tyler. Taming of the Shrew for modern times. Cute! Good bedtime reading.

Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld. Also cute. Pride and Prejudice in modern day Cincinnati. Darcy is a neurosurgeon. Not Jane Austen, but, then, we have Jane Austen for that.

The Girls – Emma Cline. Reviewed briefly here. I stick by my assessment – beautifully, vividly written, not quite enough for a novel but worth a read. In retrospect, it illuminates a decade without relying on Klieg lights.

Well-Reviewed Books That I Didn’t Like Much

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett. Somehow, the same patience and detail I love in A Little Life bored the heck out of me in Commonwealth. Go figure. Perhaps I was still knee deep in emergency when I read it, and couldn’t open up to its careful emotions.

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff. OK, so, to me, and perhaps only to me, this book reads like dilute William Faulkner marries Edith Wharton and they populate a novel with preppy-shaded shadow puppets. Cardboard characters make a lot of money and navigate a privileged life even though they had sad childhoods. Everyone else loved it.

Nope, Nope, Nope

Real Life & Liars – Kristina Riggle. Since I have considered (now and again) writing a Kindle-variety book myself, I thought I should research good “women’s novels.” Real Life was bad data. The plot arc is so visible from the beginning I could have recited aloud what was coming next. I deduct extra points for use of weather phenomena to create drama, and for characters I wouldn’t want to overhear in an airport, much less spend time with in a book.

I Don’t Even Remember What These Were About And That Doesn’t Worry Me Too Much

Sunday’s On The Phone To Monday – Christine Reilly. When I looked at the reviews I did kind of eventually remember it. Kind of. It wasn’t bad.

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty. Australia. Money. Friends. Children. Oh just watch the TV miniseries. It’s coming soon.

The Flotsam And Jetsam Of A Reading Life

No need to discuss the rest of what you see on my Kindle, in depth. At a certain point it’s no longer fun to diss unloved books. But don’t you rejoice when you find a good one?

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71 Responses

  1. Oh dear. . . you’re juggling A Little Life and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.. . .maybe cue yourself some Love Actually-watching or something else cheery to follow. I loved so much of both those books, but they are so tough. (A Little Life, in retrospect, might have felt manipulative, but I could hardly be aware of that in the middle of caring for those characters. And A Constellation is redemptive in so many ways but it presents realities about history and humanity that are undeniable and, potentially, just obliterating, especially given Aleppo right now).
    Thanks for mentioning my Ferrante ReadAlong — the series made me long to find a good book club again. . .

    1. @Frances/Materfamilias, I confess, I’m really just reading A Little Life and letting A Constellation wait until I have some afternoons on the sofa to read it. I dread finding out that A Little Life is less pure than it seems, but, I can imagine that might happen.

      Maybe at some point in my life I’ll finally join a book club. I fear my opinionated nature…

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful mini-reviews and for suggesting some titles I haven’t seen elsewhere! I adored _A Little Life_, but it destroyed me. I finished it nearly a year ago and still sometimes find my mind wandering to the events near the end of the book. Such a treasure.

    (And I don’t understand the fuss about _Fates and Furies_. At all.)

    Since it seems we have some overlapping tastes in such things, might I hazard a recommendation? _Astonish Me_ was recommended by a friend who said “there’s one thing I didn’t like about this book: it ended.” I concur. Set among ballet dancers living a beautiful and challenging creative life and coming to terms with the changes in their world.

    And if you liked Major Pettigrew, you must read the Old FILTH trilogy. FILTH was apparently a descriptor of colonial attorneys (“Failed in London, Try Hong Kong”), and the series is witty, insightful, and worthy of slurping up.

    To a winter of good books!

    1. @Ann, So it inhabits you still. What we all dream of in reading. Thank you for the recommendations, especially if our tastes overlap. I’d seen FILTH come up in searches, I look forward to starting the series.

  3. I loved Commonwealth but didn’t get through Fates and Furies, couldn’t stand it actually. Same with The Girls. I loved Lucy Barton and enjoyed Eligible.

    In hard times, I too often resort to YA, but not so much in the fantasy genre.

    I agree so much about certain books for certain times. I’m not in the mood for one more book about dysfunctional families, so I’m reading The Song of Achilles, which is very, very good and captivating, which I need right now.

    I haven’t tried the Ferrante series, and I will at some point, I’m sure. I love posts about books and other people’s recommendations etc. Will be checking back for comments.

    Thanks for this great post. What a tough year.

    1. @Kathy, What a ridiculously tough year. Elizabeth Strout is amazing. The Song of Achilles looks like the kind of book I’d like to read about now. I loved the Iliad and the Odyssey when I was a kid.

  4. Hello Lisa, I find that much modern literature is disappointing, so I tend to read older books. I have read a couple of newer books lately, namely Ivor Noel Hume’s A Passion for the Past (absolutely top-notch) and Betty Fussell’s My Kitchen Wars (interesting, but the warts-and-all style sometimes off-putting). Then back to the good old stuff: John Dryden, Henry Fielding, and Eliza Haywood. Haywood turned out not to be so fine as some writers of her period, but she is good at creating page-turners and pot-boilers, while adding a feminist touch.

  5. LOVED the Neapolitan novels! Did not want them to end; it felt like saying goodbye to friends.

    1. @Danielle, <3. Although I admit that I peaked a little too early, and by the time the fourth came round I sort of wanted everyone to just sit down. But loved the whole endeavor nonetheless.

  6. Thanks to Mater for recommending Kate Atkinson. A God in Ruins may be the best ever but read Life After Life , also amazing, first. Then go on to the Jackson Brody crime novels (for lack of a better descriptor). The Ferrante novels were the highlight of the year for me and I am silently following the book club online that Mater is hosting. Barbara from Guelph

  7. I found A little life to be contrived suffering simply for the sake of suffering. Then more suffering. Yes, beautifully written but not a book I would reccomend. Haven’t read the Ann Patchet book although I am enjoying her older book This is a happy marriage (I think? Essays, non-fiction).
    My 2 standouts are both young adult but offer much to the Grown Up Reader – True (sort of) and The War that Saved My Life. Both are wonderful to listen to as well.

    1. @JB, Somehow suffering must be what I needed to read right now. And thank you for the new YA books, after Little Life and Constellation I’ll be in the mood for some sweeter reading.

    1. @Cathy, Somehow posted that before I was finished. – I’ll be coming back to this list, as there is only one I’ve read. I love book reviews!

  8. Interesting lists, Lisa. I’m glad to see Elsa Ferrante on the hard copy list. For the life of me I can’t remember what Fates and Furies was about; I can only remember I hated it. Major Pettigrew was utterly charming.

  9. My favorite genre of literature is the memoir (and, as you know I have read the wonderful memoir by your father). I seldom get it together to read a novel, but usually have several memoirs going. But, I thank you for this post. I will read it carefully!

    1. @Susan D., If there are some you have loved, and want to add them here, I am sure some feel as you do. I was so touched that you read A Momentary Bliss.

  10. I’m so behind the game with serious novels this year. Just not in the mood, somehow. So I read one and then binge on good mysteries. I am down on the library wait list for the first Elsa Ferrante book. But it may be years before I get it.
    Second what Barbara says about Kate Atkinson…anything she writes is well worth reading IMHO. As well Ann’s recommendation of the Old Filth series by Jane Gardham. Gardham is one of my favourite writers. A bit meatier than Ann Simonson’s Major Pettigrew…which I loved.

  11. If you haven’t read any of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mysteries, I highly recommend them. They are most often set in a small town just north of Vermont, with cute houses, eccentric people, and wonderful food and drink. Very cozy! Of course, there are murders to be solved, but the setting, no matter what the season, is wonderful.

    The first one is Still Life, and I am on number 8!

    1. @Kate, I tried one, but as sometimes happens with series, I think I tried the only mediocre one. So I will have to start from the beginning!

  12. I love reading book reviews.

    I was there for my mother when she had a glioblastoma. Everyday. I’ve always been so grateful that I was there. But I must say for years afterward I could only read books about cooking. Could not deal with real life

    I also will not read any book that mentions “heatbreaking” in it’s description. I’ve gotten to an age where I do not need to read about it there is enough around me.

    I’m sorry for your mother and what your family is going through. Keep on Truckin!

    1. Like you Sandra, I have totally given up reading anything having to do with heartbreaking. At my age (almost 65), I’ve had plenty of that in real life.

  13. BTW, I love reading the coments and getting good ideas for books I want to read. My latest favorite is “A Man Named Ove.” Loved it and loved the movie.

    Also read his Britt-Marie, crazy book yet satisfying.

  14. Am I the only one that hasn’t managed to read a book this year? Where has the time gone! It is not that I don’t read, but to have the luxury of sitting with a good book, long enough to get through it, has been an elusive experience for me this year. I’ve stuck to coffee table boks so far.

    Note to Santa: Need to catch up on my reading so please bring books, thank you.

  15. I am a fan of fantasy, and so many good ones are labeled young adult. I also like science fiction, though the seriously sciency stuff of the Neal Stephenson type sometimes makes my head hurt. I’m a particular fan of Connie Willis, especially her oxford time travel novels. Thanks for the other book ideas, always looking for suggestions.

  16. All these reviews are much, much appreciated, Lisa! I’m considering many of them. 2016 was also not the great reading year I had planned either, for family health reasons as well.

    And your line “… dilute William Faulkner marries Edith Wharton and they populate a novel with preppy-shaded shadow puppets” made my night. I can’t imagine HOW you did that! Am only happy you did. :)


    1. @Ann, You are very welcome. And you know how writing goes, sometimes the words that slip out when you throw a mental Hail Mary down the halls of talkage, are the best.

  17. Another plug for Jane Gardham’s Old Filth series. And totally agree with the recommendation to read Ferrante on the page instead of on a screen. And agree that Commonwealth wasn’t one of my favorite Patchett books.

    If you enjoy a bit of fantasy with a good dollop of history, you might want to check out Guy Gavriel Kay. He’s a bit of a genre bender but always a grand storyteller. You’ve also convinced me to pick up Marra’s book the next time I’m at my local bookshop.

    1. @Marilyn, Oh I adored Patchett’s first book, the one about the people trapped in a room in Latin America, what was it called? She’s a wonderful, wonderful writer. Thanks for the GGK recommendation. I am so looking forward to reading through these comments next year.

  18. Great list! Our book choices — and reaction — have much overlap. I’ve had “Little Life” on my to-read list for months. Thanks for the nudge to get to it.

    1. @Drew, You’re welcome. I’m at 90% now. There have been less intoxicating moments, but still, completely drawn in and moved and loving her writing.

  19. I like to read books and books reviews indeed. Feel the same about your theory of Book Cases. In my case there are some alterations:
    -all the books in foreign languages I read on Kindle for Windows-much easier access-but there are books I would like to order in paper and sometimes I do
    -all my books in Croatian are in paper( it could change as Croatia has become Free Reading Zone now)-because I looove “real” books. Most of them are forwarded to my friends afterwards
    There are times in my life when I could read only “happy books”-I resonate with Sandra Sallin
    I read a great deal of the books on your list(and bookmarked all “the good ones” I didn’t,yours and commentators)
    I loved A Little Life but have suffered a lot reading it,more than Goldfinch-where the description of sorrow after loosing the mother-one of the best- made me cry- (and, as I believe in fixing people,it was very painful for me-although Mater could be right about it)
    Ferrante is great,what more to say,I’m re-reading it now with ” Materfamilias writes”
    One of my favourite books this year was Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book. Reading one of Agatha Christie’s memoirs that I somehow missed before,as comfort reading,I’ve found some interesting insights about Middle East before almost a century

    1. @dottoressa, I so agree about Agatha Christie’s autobiography. It remains one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. Sounds silly, but it’s not for many reasons — the span of her life, her presence at and participation in many historical events, and her grit. She certainly had grit.

    2. @dottoressa, I can see how the language issues and the changing culture of Croatia would make your book choices more complex by a factor of 10! And I loved Agatha Christie as a kid – if I read memoirs hers would be a first pick.

  20. Hmm. Love your assessments generally. “A Little Life” was probably the best or one of the best books I read this year. I haven’t looked at the list yet. And Ferrante, which I am still reading and haven’t written about and may not. I keep getting interrupted, not because I don’t love it, but because life intervenes and I can’t give it the attention it deserves.

    I love, love, love what you wrote about “Fates and Furies”. It is so true, and perfectly stated. Yet I stand by my own review and loving the book. I struggled with the book for over half of it, until it came together for me, and rose above itself. But then I think it captures a certain class of educated Americans (my peers); and your criticism applies equally.

    1. @Mardel, I hadn’t remembered that you loved the book, but now you mention it, I think it’s your blog that convinced me to read it. Clearly people with finely tuned sensibilities can have very different reactions to a book. There’s always that emotional component, the place you live, the place your life is, etc.

  21. This post is a great example of why I enjoy your blog. I agree with you about 90%, maybe more, on the books that you and I have both read. I kind of hated Elena Ferrante at the beginning, and sometimes even later, yet I felt compelled to keep reading and through all four books and am glad I did. I liked Commonwealth a little better than you did. I am currently reading Fates and Furies, which I picked up partly because Obama said it was the best book he had read all year. Now I am questioning his judgment. I remember thinking that Major Pettigrew was going to be banal, but found it surprisingly affecting. And now to suggestions my own. If you are looking for a sweet book to read, you might try starting with the first book of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (and if you like it, keep going). They remind me of Major Pettigrew. Second, if you’re ever inclined to read a murder mystery, start with In The Woods, the first book of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. She writes about a different detective each time, so each novel is as much a character study and exploration of modern-day Dublin as it is a murder mystery. Happy reading!

    1. @MJ, Oh, I’d like to enthusiastically second the Tana French recommendation. I’ve read multiple books in this series, and enjoyed them all.

  22. Interesting list. Alas, slogging through Elena Ferrante’s book two, which just barely keeps me interested. It is unsparing, unforgiving, depressing and sometimes I just can’t stand it. But you are right, it is a new kind of literature that somehow gets into the mind, heart and soul of a female. It sticks with me.
    HATED Fates and Furies.
    Didn’t like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand … couldn’t relate much to the love story… but my late mother loved it.,,
    Otherwise I dig back into older books I have missed, chosen depending on mood. Right now I’m on a Roman empire kick, so John Edward Williams’ “Augustus” is on tap. Williams wrote “Stoner” which is kind of having a renaissance but sounds depressing. Augustus is more in the I,Claudius school of novels.
    The Line of Beauty: hilarious, tragic novel of AIDS in Thatcher’s Britain.
    Love WWII novels, so Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy (which were made into a great PBS series, Fortunes of War, with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, viewable on YouTube, are great).

    1. @Mackenzie Carpenter,Just wanted to add a quick note on Stoner. I found Stoner to be astonishing. It made me so incredibly sad and frustrated and then lifted me up in a manner that I can’t remember another book had done before or since.

  23. Final comment — this post and all the comments make me feel like an accidental visitor to a world-class book club. What a treat. Thanks to everyone.

  24. True (sort of) is wonderful. As is The War That Saved my life. Both young adult. I too struggle with heartbreaking & suffering. I try to keep one serious garden/gardening book on my nightstand at all times when I need to read a little something…

    1. @JB, Thanks for the recommendations. I find I have to have fiction for sleeping, real world reading gets my mind going rather than calming it down:).

  25. If you liked Major Pettigrew, you might like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It is sad, though.

    For something light with happy endings and with lovely, lovely writing, anything by Alexander McCall Smith (Number One Ladies’ Detective series) is perfect. Short, quick reads. Lyrical prose. Characters you want to meet in person. You are happy at the end and the best part is there are more Alexander McCall Smith books!

    1. @the gold digger, I will try the Harold Fry book. And yes, I’ve loved McCall Smith over the years – although the Ladies Detective series began to bug me a little bit, I dunno, something about him being a white man that would every now and again make me wonder if I sensed condescension. I was perhaps over-sensitive.

  26. Hi Lisa
    I have been thinking about this post and wondering if, in the time of emotional upheaval, whether it might make sense to return to the seminal books of ones youth and young adulthood . For me that would be Little Women, Jane Eyre, Ann Karenina, War and Peace, Kristin Lavransdatter, Middlemarch, Vanity Fair Barchester Towers, Age of Innocence…. I guess it is basically a retreat into the nineteenth century and a time when the world seemed less fraught. Though the stories certainly did not have happy endings, they were somehow more complete. I do not know why it seems easier but that’s my take. Just a thought…….Wonder which books you might return to…..

  27. Thank you for the comment about Commonwealth. I kept getting bored with it and laying it aside so yeah started in October finished in December a book so short I’d normally have knocked it out in about a week. I kept forgetting who everybody was. I’m intrigued by the Neopolitian series so thanks also for that.

  28. I loved finishing up the Ferrantes. I think the “Books of the Year” for me were Jane Smiley’s American saga, which I cannot recommend enough–the tale of a family in 4 volumes, starting in the 1920s and going just ever so slightly into our future. One chapter=one year. Sounds gimmicky, but it worked brilliantly for me, and I love books with an ever expanding family tree.

  29. Thank you for the excellent tips, and I am so relieved that I’m not the only one who thoroughly disliked Fates and Furies!

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