Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Annual Favorite Books

Top Ten Books I Read In 2016

These are the top books I have read since January 1, 2016.  The listing  includes fiction, non-fiction, critical essays, drama, and poetry.  It was a very rich year for reading although the quantity of books I read declined somewhat from my recent experience.  While there were other very good books that I read these are the ten that I rated most highly.  There is no particular order to the list and  I highly recommend all of the following:

Angels in America: 
A Gay Fantasia on National Themes 
by Tony Kushner

In two full-length plays--Millennium Approaches and Perestroika--Kushner tells the story of a handful of people trying to make sense of the world.  The plays display the literary erudition of the author through themes that encapsulate the American experience and the transcendence of love, death, and angels.  Reading these two plays was a deeply emotional experience.

Four Quartets
by T.S. Eliot

The Four Quartets is a series of four poems by T.S. Eliot, published individually from 1936 to 1942, and in book form in 1943. Each of the quartets has five "movements" and each is titled by a place name -- BURNT NORTON (1936), EAST COKER (1940), THE DRY SALVAGES (1941), and LITTLE GIDDING (1942). Eliot's insights into the cyclical nature of life are revealed through themes and images woven throughout the four poems. Spiritual, philosophical, and personal themes emerge through symbolic allusions and literary and religious references from both Eastern and Western thought.

The Death of Virgil 
by Hermann Broch

With the use of third person narrative that often seems like a "stream of consciousness" Hermann Broch is able to put the reader inside the head of Virgil for much of the book. From the opening pages we meet a poet/artist Virgil who is on the edge of life in several different respects. The edge between water and land is explored as Virgil's ship, one among the parade of ships escorting Augustus back to the port of Brundisium in Roman Italy, sails toward land on the first page of the novel.  This is a very difficult novel that rewards reader's perseverance with deep thoughts about creativity, life, and death.

Swann's Way 
by Marcel Proust

This is the first volume of the seven that comprise In Search of Lost Time. Swann's Way tells two related stories, the first of which revolves around Marcel, a younger version of the narrator, and his experiences in, and memories of, the French town Combray. Inspired by the "gusts of memory" that rise up within him as he dips a Madeleine into hot tea, the narrator discusses his fear of going to bed at night.  Rereading this novel reminded why I love the prose of Marcel Proust.

The Origins of Totalitarianism 
by Hannah Arendt

The Origins of Totalitarianism is three books in one. The first part is titled "Antisemitism". The second is "Imperialism", and the third is "Totalitarianism". Moreover, the "new edition" which I read included four prefaces.  It is powerful prose that presents thought-provoking ideas about the source and nature of Twentieth-century totalitarianism.  This is another difficult book to read both due to the complex ideas that are presented and the profound nature of the issue of the nature of evil.

An Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine

Sometimes the voice of the narrator enchants the reader with her life and that of those around her. That is what happens in Rabih Alameddine's captivating novel. The narrator is a woman named Aaliya. She is a book-lover in her seventies who runs a book store and translates books.  I found the author's depiction of the importance of books in the life of this woman to mirror my own experience.

The Age of Insight: 
The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present  
by Eric R. Kandel  

A brilliant book by Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight takes us to Vienna 1900, where leaders in science, medicine, and art began a revolution that changed forever how we think about the human mind—our conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions—and how mind and brain relate to art.  To some extent this book seemed to contain almost too many ideas, nevertheless I found the presentation invigorating and endlessly engaging.

A Minor Apocalypse 
by Tadeusz Konwicki  

This is a story about the "end of the world" for an aging Polish writer named Konwicki who has built a reputation as a representative of the people in their battle against the oppressive Communist government and its Soviet allies.  The world of Poland before the collapse of Communism is presented in a searingly personal way for the characters in this captivating novel.

Where I'm Reading From: 
The Changing World of Books  
by Tim Parks 

Why do we need fiction? Why do books need to be printed on paper, copyrighted, read to the finish? Why should a group of aging Swedish men determine what “world” literature is best? Do books change anything? Did they use to? Do we read to challenge our vision of the world or to confirm it?  Tim Parks is both a noted translator and award-winning novelist.  In this collection he demonstrates his skill as an essayist as he addresses questions that challenge the serious reader.

The Narrow Road 
to the Deep North 
by Richard Flanagan  

There are good books and there are great books. This book is one of the rare great books that "compels you to reread your soul". There are many reasons for this.  It is such a well-wrought novel that the thought of attempting to write about it is somewhat daunting. A good place to begin is the author's mesmerizing prose; prose that approaches poetry on almost every page.  This is one of the best contemporary novels that I have ever read.


Brian Joseph said...

This is a very impressive list James.

It is reminding me that I want to revisit T.S. Eliot soon.

The Tom Parks book is also something that I want to get to in the coming months.

James said...

Thanks for your observations. Eliot is surely worth returning to again and again. Along with Eliot I read some Stevens and Frost last spring. I find reading Tim Parks rewarding; he is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.

Stephen said...

Ms. Arendt's book has been one I've wanted to look into for a year or so now, spurred on mostly by the presidential election. Another was "Death by Government".

James said...

Hannah Arendt's analysis of Totalitarianism is a thought-provoking book. I would also recommend Eichmann in Jerusalem and her essays.