Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Top Ten Books of 2016

I read enough books in 2016 that were published that year--and enough of them were good--that it actually makes some meaningful sense for me to indicate which of those books were, for me, in the top ten. These are included without regard to genre, with the result that two are novels, five are single-author collections of short stories, one is a scholarly monograph, and two are single-author collections of essays.

1. Rabih Alameddine, The Angel of History

Despite the advances in anti-retroviral therapies, it is still possible to die of HIV/AIDS. Nonetheless, the "plague" marks off discernible generational divisions among gay and bisexual men. For the elders, those who are now in their fifties (like Jacob, the protagonist of this novel) or older, it meant watching your friends and lovers die. For those around my age, it meant knowing people who caught it when it was still expected to be a certain death sentence, and coming out in an atmosphere in which that threat haunted every erotic liaison. Comparatively carefree young ones appear as characters, foils to Jacob's grim aesthetic of survival. By extensively referencing Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, one of the best novels of the 20th century, Alameddine plays a dangerous game, which works because of his own sharp dialogue and shimmering prose. Early on in the book, I felt myself falling in love with Jacob. The elements of the fantastic are extensive enough that I hope any readers of mine who are eligible to nominate for awards in the macro-genre of "science fiction and fantasy" will read this novel and consider it.

2. Louise Erdrich, LaRose

I already did a long post about the changes in my reception of Erdrich over the years. I had been looking forward to this novel since the appearance of "The Flower" in the New Yorker, a short story based on sections of the novel. I was surprised but not disappointed--though "The Flower" digs deep into the history of colonization, much of LaRose takes place closer to the present. The result is an affecting portrait of the unpredictable ways history can play out into multiple presents, complete with cute kids, family tragedies, and fart jokes.

3. Matthew Neill Null, Allegheny Front

Null's short story "Gauley Season" appeared an earlier Meta-Anthology entry of mine, so I was thrilled to see this collection. Nearly all the stories were as good or better than "Gauley Season." Loosely linked, and well rooted their Appalachian setting, the collection shows Null to be one of the best practitioners of the art of the short story working today.

4. Catherine Besteman, Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine

A young anthropologist begins her career studying members of a subordinate ethno-racial caste in a distant land, settled agriculturalists in a country where nomadic herders dominate, many of them descendants of slaves marked by a darker hue. Decades later, after much turmoil in their homeland, the people she studied, including several of her original informants, find themselves resettled as refugees in a declining mill town in the whitest state of the USA--the same state where the anthropologist is now a tenured professor. And the same city where I work, not far from where I live, so reading this book I had the at times disorienting experience of encountering friends and acquaintances in the text, endnotes, and/or acknowledgements. The sole weak point of the book is chapter 6, which I wish had been as incisively critical as the other chapters, highlighting gaps and contradictions in the discourses of the more cosmopolitan-minded members of the helping professions that it profiles, as ruthlessly as other chapters expose the muddles of international humanitarian NGOs, national and local governments, bigots, and even refugees themselves. Aside from that, the book serves as a guide for how to stop "seeing like a state," and start "seeing like a refugee." And in my opinion, the latter will become an increasingly necessary disposition, not only for remaining humane, but for survival.

5. Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

If Liu were only responsible for much of the growing availability of Chinese science fiction in English translation, he would be one of the most important figures in literature today. But before he turned his hand to translation, he was already an undisputed champion of short fiction in the genre. This collection is a welcome addition, not least because many of his short stories previously appeared in online publications. (Personally, I prefer to read fiction on a printed page; I find it more conducive to the necessary contemplative posture than reading on a screen.) The new story contained in the collection "An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition," should be considered for awards.

6. Eric Neuenfeldt, Wild Horse: Stories

If this book already won the Grace Paley Prize, does it need my praise? Evidently, judging from the fact that two months after its release mine is still the only review on Goodreads. Loosely linked short stories, most set in Wisconsin, all with youngish working-class white men as protagonists--a sawyer, a scrap hauler, a snow plow driver, a wheelchair builder, retail clerks in marine and medical supplies, a remedial educator in a prison, and a good few bicycle mechanics. This book could be subtitled "Why Trump Won"--not because I could imagine most of these characters voting for him (though there are some exceptions), but because through these stories one sees the aftermath of the decay of social institutions that would once have worked for men like them, the growth of their cynicism--and you know that none of them would have been ready for Hillary. The best story in the book is "Lifer".

7. Rion Amilcar Scott, Insurrections: Stories

Another set of loosely linked short stories, this time all set in a fictional Maryland town, descended from a fictional antebellum slave insurrection. Within that space, Scott satirically explores the potentialities of blackness set not against whiteness (at least, for a change, not primarily) but against itself. The insurrections chronicled here are on smaller scales, but prefigure the fire next time.

8. Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things: Essays

Worth reading if only for the first essay, "Black Body," which revisits the "village" in James Baldwin's "Stranger in the Village" in order to give voice to critiques that might be unimaginable otherwise. But there is much more that is worth reading in this volume.

9. John Manderino, But You Scared Me the Most: And Other Short Stories

It is unfortunate for Manderino that this book is getting shelved with horror, because even though he toys with the conventions of that genre and makes good use of the uncanny, the predominant emotional expression that results is laughter rather than the shiver. I especially recommend the title story, "Bigfoot Tells All," "Self-Portrait with Wine," "Bob and Todd," and "The Weary Ghost of Uncle Doug."

10. Sayed Kashua, Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life

Kashua is arguably the best living writer in Hebrew. There is probably no argument that he is the funniest. And he is a Palestinian, an Arab, who grew up with Arabic as his primary language until high school in the "Arab town" of Tira. (Municipalities in Israel are classified--by the government--according to their ethnic makeup. Tira and places like it exist because the ethnic cleansing with which the state of Israel was created was not 100% successful, only about 80%.) All of which helps him in his efforts as an ironist. My Hebrew is good enough to appreciate Kashua in the original, but only in short bursts, so the translation of this collection is welcome--not only for my sake, but for others who should hear his voice. This leaves the question of whether the translation works or not. Does humor translate? For me it did, though this translation makes some odd choices, particularly when it comes to leaving Hebrew and Arabic phrases untranslated. Sometimes inexplicable--why not render "ikhsa" as "yuck" or "yech" or "gross"? Sometimes clearly prudish. (Did the translator think that Kashua's profanity would render him less sympathetic to an Anglophone audience? Mother's cunt!) So I wonder how many of the layers of meaning would make their way to a reader who was not like me, who did not know some Hebrew and a little Arabic and a lot about Israeli society and Israeli racism. And if the only people who can appreciate the book are those who have been immersed enough already in "the situation" to have made up their minds about it, then what, exactly, will it have accomplished? Well, if nothing else, it will have accomplished this passage:

"Dad, what's a mortgage?" I asked whenever I saw an article about mortgage holders being thrown into the street, penniless.
"A mortgage, my son," the communist would answer after lengthy reflection, "is a debt because of which poor people have their home taken away."
"What, a mortgage is a Nakba, Dad?"
"Exactly, a Jews' Nakba."

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