the best and worst of 2016

hey guys!  I’ve decided to kick off the new year (a few weeks late) by getting into the habit of book blogging.  this is a little belated, but I figured a good way to start would be to post a list of my best and worst reads of 2016.  note that these were not necessarily published in 2016, just books I read last year.  so without further ado:

THE TEN BEST:

1. everything i never told you by celeste ng.  an asian-american family crumbles in 1970s ohio after the death of their eldest daughter lydia.  (historical fiction/literary fiction/occasionally shelved as YA.)

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there’s something undeniably admirable about a book that can say so much in so few words.  though everything i never told you only adds up to about 200 pages, celeste ng leaves no stone unturned as she deftly examines the racism and sexism of 1970s america in this compelling and heartbreaking story.  i felt so thoroughly immersed in this world and this family that it was difficult to put the book down at the end, and although celeste ng said everything there was to say, i selfishly wanted more.  this is one of those books that i recommend to absolutely everyone – i think around 10 of my goodreads friends have read it and each one has given it 5 stars.  how often does that happen?  this book is really something special and i cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

2. a little life by hanya yanagihara.  a group of friends navigate post-grad life in new york city while they all deal with personal demons… the most depressing thing you will ever read.  (literary fiction.)

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on the other hand, you know how every once in a while you find a book that feels so intimately personal that you almost don’t want to share it with anyone?  that’s this book for me.  I mean, there are enough other reasons for not recommending a little life – massive trigger warnings for rape, childhood sexual assault, suicide, abuse, eating disorders, mental and physical illness… and on top of that, it’s just not for everyone!  even if you can stomach the difficult subject matter, this book really is only for a certain reader.  this is a story about extremes – there’s an almost surrealist fairytale-like quality to the pervasive darkness in this novel and you have to be willing to embrace that.  reading this book is legitimately one of the most intense experiences i went through this year and it ends up being one of those ‘you either love it or hate it’ kind of things, so if you didn’t like it, that’s fine, but i loved it.  every second of it.  even while i was suffering.

3. burial rites by hannah kent.  a woman is accused of murder and sentenced to death in 1800s iceland.  based on the true story of agnes magnusdottir, the last woman to ever receive the death penalty in iceland.  (historical/literary fiction.)

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simultaneously bleak and beautiful, burial rites is a story about losing authority of your own narrative, struggling to endure when your life is out of your hands.  it’s some seriously impressive writing for a debut, and alternates between third person past tense and first person present, a tricky format to pull off, though hannah kent does so effortlessly.  it’s one of the most impressively atmospheric things i’ve ever read – the extreme isolation of rural iceland is almost palpable.  it’s a powerful and lyrical book.  haunting and memorable.

 

 

4. the bell jar by sylvia plath.  plath’s disturbing semi-autobiographical novel about a woman grappling with mental illness.  (classics/literary fiction)

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i know there’s nothing particularly original about being a young woman who identifies with the protagonist of the bell jar but here we are.  i’m just going to leave this quote here, because this passage hit me harder than arguably anything i have ever read:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

5. the vegetarian by han kang (trans. deborah smith).  a south korean woman stops eating meat as a reaction to a violent dream.  (literary fiction.)

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this isn’t a book that addresses the moral and ethical implications behind a vegetarian diet (which would have been fine with me – i’ve been a vegetarian for a decade).  instead, han kang takes a metaphorical route, and it’s hard to say what exactly this book is ‘about’.  there are a lot of layers to unravel: gender roles, sexual freedom, mental illness, the restriction of societal expectations, and the underlying question: can the violence inherent to the human experience ever be completely eradicated?  this tiny novel is comprised of three novellas which are told from three different POVs, which makes it easy to read it in one sitting, so while you may not spend too many hours with it, i think it’s impossible to come away from this book without thinking about it for weeks after the fact.  i’ve never read a book like this.  (massive trigger warnings for eating disorders, starvation, gore, violence… and it’s just one of those where you  have to be able to embrace the weirdness.  so it’s not for everyone, but it’s very rewarding for a certain type of reader.)

6. oedipus the king by sophocles (trans. robert fagles).  the king of thebes learns the truth behind a prophecy which proclaimed he would kill his father and marry his mother.  (classics/plays.)

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having already known the story of oedipus i’m not sure what i was expecting, but this play was more intense and devastating than i could have imagined.  i’ve read a lot of greek tragedies this year, and oedipus is the undisputed victor.  fast-paced and tense, this story is an incredibly compelling read, which isn’t even to mention thematic richness: fate vs free will, sight and blindness, conflict between the individual and the state, oedipus’ role as victim or tragic hero, and ultimately, how much of this story was inevitable…?   i was surprised at just how hard-hitting this was.

 

 

7. tender by belinda mckeon.  the story of two friends in 1990s dublin, whose relationship devolves into an unhealthy obsession.  (literary fiction.)

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fragmented dialogue representing a deteriorating mental state is such a hit or miss prose technique but i have never seen it done as well as it is here.  belinda mckeon is a skilled writer who makes you empathize with her characters even when you don’t want to, even when you’re hiding behind your hands cringing, because even when they do terrible things nothing is outside the realm of plausibility, and it’s nothing most people can condemn without being a bit of a hypocrite, because mckeon taps into the raw and ugly side of emotional vulnerability.  tense and frantic and brilliant.

 

8.  the song of achilles by madeline miller.  a modern retelling of the iliad, focusing on the relationship between achilles and patroclus.  (historical fiction/fantasy-mythology.)

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look, i understand why some iliad purists hate this book.  miller certainly takes a lot of liberties with characterizations, and achilles ends up fundamentally more likable than he was ever meant to be.  but despite this, i loved this book.  i can’t help it.  i thought miller’s prose was beautiful and the setting was brilliantly evocative.  this book was both wonderful and devastating escapism.  there’s a lot of hype surrounding this book, so i will just stress that you shouldn’t approach it thinking it’s going to be the best thing you’ve ever read.  just enjoy it for what it is, which is a poignant and moving story.

 

9. in cold blood by truman capote.  in a small kansas town in 1959, four members of the clutter family are murdered.  this is capote’s account of the capture and execution of the killers.  (nonfiction/true crime.)

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books 1-8 on this list always had a definite spot, but i vacillated on these last two.  in cold blood nearly didn’t make the cut, but it didn’t feel right to exclude it, as this book probably had one of the biggest impacts on me of anything i’ve read this year.  this book is disturbing.  not in the same way as a story about monsters or zombies – disturbing in that it tells a side of this story that you probably would have been more comfortable not knowing.  while the vivid and occasionally sympathetic lens through which we view the murderers is deeply unsettling, it’s a fascinating psychological study behind what drove this brutal crime.  an absolute must-read for all lovers of classic american lit and true crime books.

 

10.  more happy than not by adam silvera.  eternal sunshine of the spotless mind + gay teenagers set in the bronx in the near future.  (YA.)

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it’s no secret that i tend to dislike YA, and here’s the reason: i find the optimism (for lack of a better word) of the genre frustratingly unrealistic – as the majority of this list should tell you, i tend to veer toward the dark and depressing, and i often find YA a bit too neat and clean.  but, without giving anything away, let me just say, more happy than not is not a happy book.  adam silvera gets his hands dirty with this one, and i ended up feeling more deeply affected than i think i ever have from a contemporary YA novel.

 

 

 

because this list turned out overwhelmingly depressing, shout out to some happier books that almost made the cut: girl waits with gun by amy stewart, the price of salt by patricia highsmith, daddy long legs by jean webster.

THE FIVE WORST:

1. red rising by pierce brown.  in a dystopian future where society is built on an elaborate caste system, katniss everde – i mean, darrow – must compete against tributes from other districts – sorry, must compete against teenagers of the noble elite – in order to ultimately overthrow the corrupt governing system of panem – wait, mars.  (YA sci fi/fantasy.)

51sz0tslgal-_sx330_bo1204203200_while hunger games rip offs are a dime a dozen, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest… if the particular competition we’re entering is ‘hunger games rip offs which are offensively terrible.’  i’ve practically written a novel on this already, so i’ll keep it brief.  women are raped, tortured, and killed on just about every other page in order to further the power struggles of the men.  humankind has literally colonized mars but for some reason i’m supposed to accept that gender politics haven’t matured since the 21st century?  i’m supposed to just accept that for a book published as recently as 2014, we can’t do better than this?  there are only about two female characters with speaking roles, one of whom is killed at the offset to fuel our insufferable protagonist’s manpain, and both of whom are obviously in love with the handsome, unfailingly talented darrow.  (when i say unfailingly talented, i mean, darrow is good at everything.)  and even if we gloss over how offensive this book is, it is terribly written.  it drones on for 400 pages in an insufferable staccato rhythm, all sense of tension obliterated by the author’s insistence on using a deus ex machina twist on about thirty five separate occasions.  bottom line: misogynistic, derivative garbage.  do yourselves a favor and ignore the hype, because i am here to tell you that this drivel would never have been published if the author weren’t a conventionally attractive white guy.

2. the mirror empire by kameron hurley.  um… parallel universes… some kind of blood magic… trees that eat people…???  yeah i’m out i have no idea what this book was about.  (fantasy.)

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listen guys, i tend to consider myself a decently intelligent person.  but i have no idea what in the everloving fuck was going on for the entire 500 pages that i spent with this book.  too many characters, too many locations which weren’t adequately described to the extent that i couldn’t picture anything, not a clear enough sense of which character was in which parallel universe at any given time… this was a super cool premise but the result was a mess.  throw in a brutal matriarchy where women rape their husbands for the hell of it and some of the most juvenile writing i’ve ever encountered, and this book was downright painful to get through.  for some real feminist fantasy, go for the fifth season by n.k. jemisin.

 

3. mischling by affinity konar.   konar puts a literary spin on a holocaust story.  the result is every bit as offensive as you would imagine.  (literary fiction)

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i was so excited to receive an ARC of this book.  i tend to enjoy wwii fiction and i’ve had a morbid interest in jozef mengele since studying him in high school.  but this book was………… a mess.  poorly written, pretentious garbage.  forgive me if i don’t think the holocaust is an appropriate subject for an elaborate mfa-creative-writing exercise.

 

 

 

4. fates and furies by lauren groff. there isn’t much of a plot but there are a truly extraordinary amount of awkward sex scenes and at one point a guy’s stomach is compared to the tautness of creme brûlée.  (literary fiction.)

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one of those books that probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it weren’t for the hype.  but actually… yeah it probably would have bothered me anyway.  i hated – hated – the prose, i found it gaudy and annoyingly overwritten; i hated the two protagonists; i didn’t care about their marriage, i didn’t care about their friends, i didn’t care about any of it.  i don’t DNF books, but if i did, i would have put this down after about ten pages.

 

 

5. the penelopiad by margaret atwood.  tl;dr: the odyssey from penelope’s point of view, and the most misogynistic ‘feminist’ retelling you will ever encounter.  (historical/literary fiction/fantasy-mythology.)

17645i’m a classics/greek lit lover who finds the sexist limitations of classical lit frustrating, so i was thrilled by the premise of this book.  although i may be the only feminist alive who couldn’t stand the handmaid’s tale, i was ready to be wowed by the penelopiad.  no such luck.  the insidious misogyny in this book is downright shocking.  atwood exonerates penelope for her modesty and in the same breath demonizes helen for her supposed narcissism (a character who’s already been wrongfully maligned for her role in the trojan war throughout the centuries – i’d just like to point out that she was taken against her will); atwood also vilifies anticlea, clytemnestra, eurycleia – she constantly tears down other women to absolve penelope, and it’s insulting and exhausting. for a modern adaptation of greek/roman mythology from a female character’s point of view, skip this one and try lavinia by ursula k. leguin or alcestis by katharine beutner.

so, what does everyone think?  agree, disagree?  what are some of your favorites from last year?  feel free to leave a comment and let me know!

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