2016: The Year in Reading

I read 66 books in 2016, and reviewed 52 of them. I decided right away that I would not review any books written by my clients, to avoid any possible conflicts of interest, so I had to make sure I read some extra books so I wouldn’t be caught short. (I work for a lot of really fantastic authors! I was especially proud of my longtime client Susan McBride for topping the Amazon bestseller lists with her thriller Walk Into Silence.)

The most popular posts (in terms of page views) were reviews of Act Like It by Lucy Parker (thanks to a retweet by NPR podcast host Linda Holmes) and Scientology: A to Xenu by Chris Shelton (which experienced a spike in views after Shelton appeared on Leah Remini’s A&E docuseries about Scientology). The least popular post: The Killing Kind by Chris Holm. I think the only people who read that one were my three most loyal readers: my mom, my husband, and my friend Vallery.

My favorite books that I reviewed during the past year? In no particular order: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers, Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake, Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes, and Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10.

I only reviewed nine nonfiction books, and four of those were about Scientology. Considering the enormous popularity of Remini’s TV show, I’ll bet there will be more to come in 2017, though it might be harder to find a fresh angle on the “church” at this point. (For up-to-the-minute Scientology news, Tony Ortega’s Underground Bunker is always the first place to look.)

Sometimes I look back on what I read and chastise myself a bit for not reading more serious books—the timeless classics and big, important works of nonfiction—but considering everything that’s going on in the world right now, it seems like a pretty good time to stock up on escapist fare. Here’s a lovely passage by Neil Gaiman (author and former Scientologist!):

I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

“Our Secret Better Lives” by Matthew Amster-Burton

Our Secret Better Lives by Matthew Amster-BurtonOne of the descriptive tags I have used on this site is “history,” which designates books set in the past: say, Steven Saylor’s The Seven Wonders (92 B.C.) or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (the mid-18th century). However, it’s very tempting to apply a “historical fiction” tag to Matthew Amster-Burton’s delightful new novel, Our Secret Better Lives, which takes place way back in… the mid-1990s.

Granted, it wasn’t all that long ago, but some of the experiences the college-age characters have seem like they belong to a time as far removed from 2016 as ancient Greece. It was before Spotify and even Napster, so you found out about new music from friends or listening stations in certain hip CD stores. (“Alternative” music, that is; Amster-Burton’s characters namedrop Camper van Beethoven, Sebadoh, Veruca Salt and Lush in the book’s first 15 pages.) The only kids who were using computers for anything other than formatting term papers were geeks and weirdos. And to get the word out about events, you Xeroxed flyers instead of issuing invitations on Facebook. When protagonist Katy decides to make a website for her band, “she went to the campus bookstore to ask if they had any books about creating websites. Nobody had the slightest idea what she was talking about.” (I had a very similar experience at a Borders, so I can vouch for the authenticity of this scene.)

Katy is an Oregon native starting college in sunny southern California. She’s always been an overachieving student, but college has endless distractions, especially music; she meets a group of like-minded friends and they start a band called the Laundry Room. While some of Katy’s circumstances are definitely 90s-specific, there are other aspects of college that are eminently relatable: the generic cereal in the cafeteria, adapting to a roommate with whom you have little in common, and realizing that while you may have been among the smartest kid in your high school, college is an endless series of fresh challenges, both social and academic.

Amster-Burton covers Katy’s first year at Atwood College in short, breezy chapters; the book is as easy to enjoy as a great three-minute pop song. If you’re a Gen X’er like Katy, Amster-Burton and me, you’ll no doubt find it delightfully nostalgic, while younger readers will likely be charmed by the characters while they marvel at what life was like for college kids way, way back in the late 20th century.

“Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderWhen I was a kid, my family frequently traveled overseas to visit relatives abroad. This was in the days before iPads, laptops and other electronic distractions; I don’t even recall movies ever being offered on those drop-down screens you used to see on planes before every traveler was provided with his or her own seatback entertainment center. (Admittedly, to save money, we frequently took charter flights or flew off-brand air carriers, where in-flight movies were probably considered unnecessary frills.)

Therefore, I had one option when it came to entertainment: I could bring a book. I remember going to Waldenbooks in the mall and scanning the shelves for the thickest possible spines. I needed a book that would last a long time, but also provide a super-sized entertainment value. I wanted epics, with exotic settings, life-and-death conflict, and romance, books like M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.

Perhaps a nostalgia for the sweeping sagas of my youth led me to pick up Outlander, the enormously popular, and just plain enormous, time-travel romance, for a recent overseas trip. (I got the Kindle edition, not the paperback—I appreciate the technical innovations of the 21st century.) I feel like 16-year-old me would have loved Outlander; 2016 me was rather lukewarm, though I did make it through the entire thing. It took me about two weeks; I started it in Stockholm, and it kept me company through trips to Amsterdam and Paris, before I finally finished it in a Copenhagen airport hotel. I’m unlikely to pick up other books in the series (there are currently eight), though I’d consider watching the TV show if I had the Starz pay-cable channel.

The best thing about Outlander is that it has a strong and resourceful female heroine, Claire Beauchamp, a 20th century nurse who inadvertently winds up in 18th century Scotland after time-traveling through a standing stone. Claire is English, but was in Scotland on a second honeymoon of sorts with her husband Frank. World War II has just ended, and she and Frank were apart for most of it, so they were just getting reacquainted when Claire finds herself in a very different time period. It was smart of Gabaldon to start the book in the postwar era, which was one of hardship and deprivation; the only things Claire really misses are hot baths and modern medicine. Imagine a 2016 woman sent back to 1743—I’m not sure I could function without a smartphone, a good sunscreen, speedy modes of transportation, well-stocked grocery stores, and (dare I say it) modern feminine-hygiene products.

Through a series of events, Claire winds up married to Jamie Fraser, a younger man who was a virgin on their wedding night but soon becomes an ardent and attentive lover. (There are a lot of sex scenes in this book.) At first, she tries hard to return to the standing stone to see if she can time-travel back to 1945, but eventually she realizes that she loves Jamie much more than she ever loved her 20th century husband, who is not nearly so rugged and sexy as the 18th century Scot. Jamie is also a wounded man, literally and figuratively, and becomes more so over the course of the book; Claire has to nurse him back to health several times, though he also saves her life a time or two.

I guess there is something appealing about the fantasy of escaping to a more uncomplicated time, but I kept thinking that despite having a hunky 18th century babe at my disposal, I’d still opt to return to the mid-1940s in a heartbeat. Life was nasty, brutish and short in 1743! It was an especially rough time for women, who were essentially considered property and died in childbirth at an alarming rate. Claire survives and eventually thrives, but I think for the vast majority of us, that time period may be a fun place to read about, but thank goodness we don’t live there.

“Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes

Me Before YouThis book sounded pretty sappy—poor, quirky small-town woman gets a job as caretaker to a rich, (understandably) bitter quadriplegic—but it’s been hugely popular for a reason: it’s really good. (It was adapted into a widely-panned movie, which I have not seen.)

Lou had been perfectly content with her job in a tea shop, but when it closes abruptly, she has to find new employment—fast. Her family is depending on her paycheck. The only good job she can find is working for Will, or rather Will’s demanding mother. She’s the latest in a long line of people who have attempted to do the job, but against all odds, Lou and Will kind of hit it off—she stands up to him when he’s cantankerous, and he wants to show her that there’s more to life beyond the borders of their town. (He was a hotshot financier in London before the accident that paralyzed him.)

There was some outcry over the movie (I don’t know if anyone complained about the book) from certain quarters of the disabled community over the portrayal of Will, but he’s presented as a strong-minded man who wants to make his own choices—a far cry from the cliché of the saintly disabled person. It’s possible the movie didn’t portray his situation with the nuance it is dealt with in the book, which is often what happens when a 400-page novel is distilled into a two-hour movie. I found Me Before You to be a smart, moving page-turner.

“The Inseparables” by Stuart Nadler

The InseparablesIf you read a lot of modern literary fiction, as I do, you tend to read a lot of dysfunctional-family novels. But what are the odds that I’d happen to read two dysfunctional-family novels in a single year that both deal with the aftermath of the publication of an infamous book about sex? (The Position by Meg Wolitzer was the first.)

The sexy volume that’s continued to reverberate through the generations in Stuart Nadler’s The Inseparables is a novel that sounds like a combination of Fear of Flying and Valley of the Dolls—irresistibly trashy, in other words. Henrietta, now in her 70s, has spent most of her adult life trying to live down the notoriety of her book, which has remained a cult classic even as it’s fallen out of print. Finally, she has agreed to let the book be republished in a new edition, because after the death of her husband (whose failed restaurant left a mountain of debt in its wake), she desperately needs the money.

Henrietta’s daughter Oona is a workaholic surgeon whose marriage is falling apart; we also meet Oona’s teenage daughter Lydia, whose young life is being ruined by a topless selfie that’s been making the rounds online. Both of these storylines seemed less compelling to me than Henrietta’s (a chapter about the decline of her husband’s once-successful restaurant was particularly poignant); Oona falls into an affair with her couples therapist, which seems almost too over-the-top, and the indifference by authorities (by both police and school) to Lydia’s stolen photo, which is essentially child pornography, as she is underage, felt a little unrealistic. A few days after finishing The Inseparables, it is Henrietta’s story that has continued to linger in my mind.