I’m terrible at making lists, especially ranked lists. Coming up with my favorite anything is nearly impossible, especially if it has to be done on the spot. Even when there is time to ponder my answer (or write a blog post), I still struggle and second-guess myself and feel an inexplicable disloyalty to items not chosen. Books and movies are, after all, friends, and who wants to rank one’s friends?
This year, however, I’ve enjoyed several “favorite books of 2016” lists from other bloggers that have arrived in my inbox, so I will play, too. Here are five books (in alphabetical order) that have become a part of me in 2016, along with a bit of explanation of how I found them. Maybe among them you will find a title to add to your to-read list for 2017.
Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue
Somehow I’d missed hearing of news surrounding the million-dollar bidding war for Imbolo Mbue’s first novel, Behold the Dreamers. I first learned of the book through a review on Ainehi Edoro’s blog/website Brittle Paper (see also Things Fall Apart, below). The characters of Jende and Neni as they chase an elusive American Dream have stayed with me ever since, and I agree with the Kirkus review: “Realistic, tragic, and still remarkably kind to all its characters, this is a special book.” Watch Imbolo Mbue discuss her debut title:
Dune, by Frank Herbert
I’m not sure how I made it to age fifty-two without having read Dune, but when I saw that Emily Asher-Perrin at Tor.com was going to write a series of posts on “Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune,” I took it as a sign to remedy this particular reading gap. Even before reaching the last page, I knew that this was a book I, too, would be re-reading sooner rather than later. Below, Frank Herbert discusses the world of Dune in a 1982 interview:
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in preparation for Behold the Dreamers because of this paragraph in Ainehi Edoro’s review of Mbue’s novel at Brittle Paper (Edoro describes Brittle Paper as “the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture”):
Behold the Dreamers is also beautifully Achebean. “America is the center of the world,” Jende says to his wife as they sit below the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle. “Columbus Circle is the center of Manhattan. Manhattan is the center of New York. New York is the Center of America and America is the center of the world. So we are sitting in the Center of the world, right?” This is one of the most Achebean moments in the novel. Underneath this e
e of America as a durable center holding the world in neatly drawn concentric circles is the freakish force of the housing market set to destabilize global economy. Mbue’s New York City recalls Achebe’s enduring image of a community falling apart at the moment it imagines itself to be the center of the world. Read full review
Like Dune, Things Fall Apart is a book that I somehow had missed reading (and should have read) in my younger days. Its mythic quality and relevance made me feel that I had read it before. I highly recommend the Norton Critical Edition of the novel, which features contextual essays and interviews. Also read the New Yorker’s “After Empire: Chinua Achebe and the great African novel.”
Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow
Like much of the rest of the world, I caught Hamilton fever in 2016 in a big way. After reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, upon which the Broadway musical is based, I turned to Chernow’s Pulitzer-winning biography of George Washington, forever enriching and complicating my understanding of our first president (and Martha). Read a review and excerpt at NPR.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Huraki Murakami
In October, my husband and I made a bit of an impromptu trip to New York to use some airline miles that were about to expire. While in a lower Manhattan bookstore, I decided to get something not only to read on the way home but also as a memento of the trip (there is a special joy in remembering travels while reading a book bought on the journey). Having enjoyed Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Kafka on the Shore, I chose his The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I was not disappointed. Once again, his words and story made me view life anew, as a journey with the potential for hidden and even magical realties and meaning embedded in each moment, choice, and interaction. Read a Paris Review interview with Murakami here.