The State of the Art: Books 2016

They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but then that must mean the opposite is true, too. Once a year turns shitty in one area, it's bound to affect other areas as well. I don't know if I can truly connect them, but here are two facts for you: 1) 2016 has been one of my worst years ever. 2) Since I've been list-making, I've read the least amount of books in 2016, and the great majority of ones I did read do not begin to stack up in quality to the ones in previous years.

You'd think I'd be more focused on the problems in my own life and in greater society in general, but right now, all I can do is mourn over this weak, pathetic little list of books. It honestly makes me cringe a bit in embarrassment. I guess the only thing to be done is to buckle down, and hope against hope that I'll have a better reading year in 2017.

That said, there were a few gems in the pile of rocks. As usual, once I start looking back at the year, a theme emerges that I didn't notice while I was in the midst of it. 2013: Year of the Short Story. 2014: Year of the Parallel Universe. 2015: Year of the Family Drama. All three of those themes show up this year, too, but in looking at my list, it appears that 2016 is officially the Year of the Protagonist in Peril.

A time-traveling woman must survive a slave plantation. A band of traveling artists must survive a post-pandemic world of dangers. A young boy must survive a crumbling house built on a pile of shifting garbage. A rural gay teen must survive a high school full of homophobes. And then there were the actual women who...didn't survive Puritan Massachusetts. Everywhere I look on this list, mortal danger looms. There's probably a lesson in that, somewhere. Enough bad news, though. Let's get to the top five that did their best to save 2016.

#1: Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

What I Said: It's only February, but I can already tell that this is likely to land on my top five at the end of the year...[Dana] must survive, but she doesn't want to be completely servile. She wants the union between Rufus and a slave girl to eventually happen, but is unhappy with his attitude towards the slaves under his family's watch. It's a really fantastic book, and a much-needed reminder that the horrors of slavery can't just be summed up in a dry recitation of facts in a high school history textbook.

#2: Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli

What I Said: This is easily the best of the books I've read lately. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different gender. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different sexual orientation. It's incredibly difficult to write a believable teenaged character (especially one who isn't an annoying ass). And yet, somehow Becky Albertalli has pulled off the trifecta.

#3: Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

What I Said: Station Eleven got a lot of attention when it was published, and I was immediately intrigued by its plot. At first glance, it's another of the many books to tackle an outbreak that wipes out most of the world's population. But this book sets itself apart in many ways, not least of which because it doesn't really focus on the collapse of society at all, but in the times just before and just after. Its characters are complex and relatable, and I found myself truly invested in how they would navigate a world that's totally alien to the one they were born into.

#4: The Clasp - Sloane Crosley

What I Said: This book combines the fun of an adventure story with Crosley's perfectly acerbic brand of humor, and was a really enjoyable read.

#5: Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell

What I Said: As someone who enjoyed Mad Men, how could I resist a book set in the publishing world of 1950s New York? It wasn't the most remarkable book I've ever read, but it's a solid, entertaining read. It also really captures the mood of the era, which is a tough feat to accomplish.

Hey, my top five is all female authors! Nice! Assuming that I'm able to pick up the reading pace in 2017, I'd like to continue my ongoing resolution to read more books by women and minority authors. In the meantime, let's look at the full year's ranking, with books published in 2016 underlined:

Kindred - Octavia E. Butler (1979) (A)
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli (2015) (A)
Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel (2014) (A-)

The Clasp - Sloane Crosley (2015) (B+)
Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell (B)
Why Not Me? - Mindy Kaling (2015) (B)
The Witches - Salem, 1692 - Stacy Schiff (2015) (B)
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have Kids - Edited by Meghan Daum (2015) (B)
The Hand That Feeds You - A.J. Rich (2015) (B)

Sorceror to the Crown - Zen Cho (2015) (B-)
The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks - Toni Tipton-Martin (2015) (B-)
The Unfortunates - Sophie McManus (2015) (B-)
Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here - Anna Breslaw (B-)
The Doll Maker - Richard Montanari (2014) (B-)

Cub - Jeff Mann (2014) (C+)
The Miniature Wife and Other Stories - Manuel Gonzales (2013) (C+)
Heap House (Iremonger #1) - Edward Carey (2013) (C)
The Eighth Day - Dianne K. Salerni (2014) (C)
Swamplandia! - Karen Russell (2011) (C-)

And finally, a few books that get no grade at all. These have the dubious distinction of joining the handful of books that I couldn't even get through. Sometimes, it's my fault; I'm just not in the right mood to work with what a perfectly-decent book is trying to convey. Not always, though.

Notorious RBG - Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik: I adore Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but I need to go find an actual biography of her. This is a cute little coffee table book from 2015, but doesn't really explore anything beyond her highlight reel.

Louisa Meets Bear - Lisa Gornick: A 2015 book of short stories, each of which featured a different protagonist, though they're all linked in some way. I just couldn't connect with any of the characters, and gave up halfway through.

Earthly Possessions - Anne Tyler: A 1977 novel that was so boring that I literally fell asleep every time I tried to read it.

Thank goodness we can now tie a bow on this reading year and put it on the shelf. Hopefully, 2017 will give me enough of a break to relax and enjoy some terrific books. There's plenty of talent out there; I just need to catch my breath and find it.


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