Favorite Books of 2016
BY HARVEY FREEDENBERG
1. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (Doubleday)
Colson Whitehead’s vivid and disturbing story about the horrors of slavery and racism has already won the National Book Award and has been a fixture on many “Best of 2016” lists. That’s likely only the beginning of the accolades for a novel that brilliantly re-imagines the metaphor of the 19th-Century network that carried slaves to freedom.
2. Mark Haddon, The Pier Falls: And Other Stories (Doubleday)
The nine distinctive stories that compose this volume – transporting the reader from contemporary England to ancient Greece to outer space and evoking legitimate comparisons to the work of writers like Joseph Conrad, Stephen King and George Saunders – reveal Mark Haddon as a master of the short form.
3. Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs (Little, Brown and Company)
Nearing the end of an illustrious career, Edna O’Brien brings a unique perspective to the tragedy of the ethnic conflicts that have riven postwar Europe as it plays out in the life of a lonely Irish woman whose fateful encounter, far from the field of battle, with a war criminal veteran of one of those wars changes her life forever.
4. Francine Prose, Mister Monkey (Harper)
Francine Prose focuses on a cast of “underpaid, brave, disappointed actors” in the waning days of an off-off-off-off Broadway production of a children’s musical about an orphaned monkey transported from Africa to New York City, magically transforming that unprepossessing premise into an endearing examination of the indomitability of the human spirit.
5. Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown and Company)
In his second novel, Adam Haslett takes another giant step toward fulfilling the promise of his earlier work in a story of the terror of mental illness and its devastating effect on an utterly ordinary family. Through his restrained, yet expressive, prose, Haslett gently reminds us of the infinite scope the intimate drama of family life offers to a novelist of his imposing talent.
6. Michael Chabon, Moonglow (HarperCollins)
Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon skillfully navigates a beguiling journey along the ever-shifting boundary between truth and fiction in the stories families hand down from one generation to the next, at least when they’re not concealing them. Moonglow is an entertaining reminder that we should seek out or pass on those stories before it’s too late.
7. Jennifer Haigh, Heat and Light (Ecco)
Dickinson College alumna Jennifer Haigh returns to the town of Bakerton she created in her novel Baker Towers, and revisited in the short story collection News from Heaven, to describe the economic and social impact of the Marcellus Shale boom on the life of a small Pennsylvania town. It’s an engrossing story that never loses sight of the overriding novelistic imperative to tell a good tale.
8. Richard Russo, Everybody’s Fool (Alfred A. Knopf)
Twenty-three years after creating the benighted town of North Bath, New York, in his novel Nobody’s Fool, Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo invites readers back there on a steamy Memorial Day weekend to find that while the lot of most of the town’s inhabitants hasn’t improved much, their lives and loves provide ample fodder for a tragicomic encounter with the human condition.
9. Ian McEwan, Nutshell (Nan A. Talese)
In recent novels like Atonement and Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan has enjoyed playing tricks with questions of his narrator’s identity. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, McEwan’s devilishly clever and darkly humorous Nutshell takes another step in that direction, revealing the arc of a bizarre murder plot from the point of view of the ultimate unreliable narrator: a child in utero two weeks from birth.
10. Ethan Canin, A Doubter’s Almanac (Random House)
Physician and writer Ethan Canin understands both the allure of great intellectual accomplishment and the terrible price it sometimes exacts from those who pursue it. But unlike the damage wreaked by his protagonist, a self-destructive mathematics genius, his own prodigious efforts have produced a work of exquisite and enduring beauty.
1. Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (Random House)
In May 2013, Paul Kalanithi was an ambitious sixth-year resident in neurosurgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Twenty-two months later, he was dead at age 37 from lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is the frank and moving account of this young doctor’s striving to excel in one of medicine’s most demanding specialties while his life was shadowed by the terror of a terminal illness.
2. Gary Younge, Another Day in the Death of America (Nation Books)
Younge’s powerful work draws upon both his dogged reporting and extensive research to illuminate, through the particularity of the deaths of 10 boys and young men on November 23-24, 2013, the complex and vexing subject of why nearly 2,500 children and teens succumb to gun violence in the United States each year.