Top Picks of 2016

I read a lot of books last year. 286, to be exact, a 33% increase over last year. If my reading project was a startup looking for investors, this up and to the right chart would guarantee a unicorn horn’s worth of funding. In 2013 I ditched my office job and my consumption of books skyrocketed accordingly. Freelance work agrees very, very well with me.

My most gluttonous month was December, binging on 47 books, taking full advantage of the fact that work for clients dries up considerably the last few weeks of the year. I read over 25% of the entire year’s worth of books post-election as I retreated inward to absorb the shock.

Of the books consumed, 78% were by women writers, 22% by males. This skews slightly more than last year’s 77% women writers. I was surprised to find that 58% of the books were non-fiction, 42% fiction, especially as I am wallowing heavily in mid-20th century British fiction as the only solace I’ve found post-election. Since 11/8/16, this ratio has flipped and I’ve read 56% fiction.

Top Picks of 2016

It’s not easy to sift through almost 300 books to figure out which were the best. After several failed starts, I just closed my eyes and went down the list and tried to remember if the book sparked joy or not (note: Marie Kondo’s book will not be on this list although I did read it).

Newly discovered author: Dorothy Whipple has become a life raft for me as I read 13 of her largely forgotten books. If I had to pick favorites: Greenbanks, The Priory, They Knew Mr. Knight, and High Wages. There is something deeply comforting about the world of mid-20th century Britain that appeals to me when our world seems to be falling apart. These are distinctly middle-brow books and I make no apologies for this.

Epic work: Dorothy Richardson’s 13 book Pilgrimage is a delightful bog of female stream-of-consciousness to get lost in. I read the 13 books across four volumes last summer. My favorites of the bunch were The Tunnel, Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand, and Clear Horizon.

Short story collections

  • Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson. “Strong writing, highly recommended.”
  • Tell it to a Stranger: Stories from the 1940s by Elizabeth Berridge- “upstanding British tales that lead you through strange twists and jerks and gaps.”
  • Like Life – Lorrie Moore’s 1990 collection of short stories does not disappoint.
  • American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell from 2009. “Quiet, disturbing tales of life in Michigan, hard women and hard men, metal-workers, junkyard workers, meth-heads, marginal living.”

Longer fiction

  • The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch… Beautiful, haunting, magical “love” story by an awesome writer.
  • Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton.
  • On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light by Cordelia Strube. “Holy hell, another Canadian woman who can write the boots off a snake. “
  • So Big. “Holy fuck, Edna Ferber. Why is the entire English-speaking world not reading her books and worshiping her for the fantastic fiction she wrote? When I finished reading this minutes ago, I actually held it in the air and shook it.”
  • Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles. “Nearly ever page is filled with inspiration.”
  • The End of the Story by Lydia Davis. “Utterly graceful and mesmerizing writing, she weaves a tale of love, breakup, and loss while more importantly showing us how to put together the bones of a novel.”
  • I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. “I could write a book about reading this book.”
  • The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield; “Spectacular book from 1924 about a woman whose talents are concentrated on raising three children and housekeeping for a husband who barely makes enough money.”
  • The Old Man And Me by Elaine Dundy:  “wonderfully weird and compelling story.”

Biography

  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. I’m including this bio instead of listing every single thing by Shirley Jackson that I ended up reading because of this bio. (Hint: Jackson is terrific)
  • Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin. “A lovely biography of a writer on whom we’ve all more or less turned our backs on this century.”
  • Zelda by Nancy Milford. “Amazing and heartbreaking biography of Zelda (Sayre) Fitzgerald’s creative and unusual life, pub’d in 1970.”
  • The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme. “Engaging and delightful book about Jane and Thomas Carlyle based mostly on letters that witty Jane penned through her life. I never had much interest in Carlyle until reading this; perhaps great men are sometimes better reached via a more oblique angle.”

Memoir

  • Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski – Hermione Lee called this “a typically uncategorizable mixture of travel journal, childhood memoir, and Melvillean meditation on whiteness and oblivion.”
  • M Train by Patti Smith. Especially good for a re-read after seeing her at the Nourse Theater.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “As good as everyone says it is.”
  • I Blame Dennis Hopper by Illeana Douglas. “So much fun to read.”
  • An American Childhood. “I am firmly under the spell of Annie Dillard’s magical way with words.”
  • In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution by Susan Brownmiller. “This is the best book I’ve read on the Second Wave.”

Travel

Other non-fiction

  • Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class . Barbara Ehrenreich’s book charting the shift in consciousness of the middle class is eerily spot-on reading for someone trying desperately to understand what went wrong in the 2016 election.
  • The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses was published in 1974 after seven years of research, interviewing over 500 people, and writing.
  • Ravens in Winter. I couldn’t wait to get back home to finish this real-life detective story by “sociobiologist” Bernd Heinrich, who seeks to discover why ravens share their finds of large meat carcasses instead of gorging on them by themselves.
  • We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction. I never imagined I’d love a book so much about women trying to break into the construction industry. Susan Eisenberg interviewed 30 women about their experiences as the first women in their union locals in the five trades: carpenters, electricians, ironworkers, painters, and plumbers.
  • The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. An entertaining and informative look at diminishing species due to human involvement.

Classics rediscovered and appreciated:

Books to raise your blood pressure:
It’s true. I actually mention my blood pressure rising in these reviews.

Others of note