I’ve always seen books as one of the only tangible gifts worth giving. So I thought I might make some recommendations for the holidays. No one asked, but since I’ve spent quite a bit time as a book critic over the years, I thought I’d toss out some of the most interesting reads I had this year. This is not a best-of list, because I can’t claim to have read all the likely contenders.
I’m including a list of books by some of my good friends, because they are all so modest and wouldn’t toot their own horns. And I’ll probably leave out most of the Hemingway stuff I consumed, which I read mainly for research, and probably all of the political stuff I read early in the year while still in the trenches (Jane Mayer on the Kochs, the Nation on Hillary, etc.), just because.
Most of these books were new this year and would still be in hard-cover. A few came out earlier, but were new to me in 2016.
News of the World, by Paulette Jiles (FSG). Call me sentimental, but this old-fashioned Western fable caught me instantly and wouldn’t let go. The short novel introduces readers to some real, post-Civil War Texas history. An old soldier makes a living by traveling from town to town reading newspaper stories from afar to assembled audiences. He’s hired to take a 10-year-old girl, rescued from Kiowa captivity, back to family outside San Antonio. Their 400-mile journey is full of thrills, chills, violence and emotional eruptions you won’t be able to avoid. And you really won’t want it to end.
Heat and Light, by Jennifer Haigh (Ecco). Such a timely novel about fracking, the fossil-fuel business, and a tough part of rural, blue-collar America. This is another novel set in Haigh’s regular narrative turf of Pennsylvania coal country, and it moves quickly, often painfully, but with a great heart. Quite a rewarding experience.
1914 and Ravel, by Jean Echenoz (New Press). Two very brief and concentrated novels, translated from the French, are typical of the work of this riveting writer. A friend turned me on to 1914, an aching story of friends who leave home for the trenches, and I agree it’s one fine tale of WWI. I’ve long had a thing for Ravel and this little novel draws a vivid portrait of the composer and his quirky persona through a journey to the U.S. in 1928.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday). Well-deserving of the accolades, this daring work of fiction recreates the perilous journey of slaves as if a real railroad thundered through the woods. An alternate-history examination of the original American tragedy.
Everybody Behaves Badly, by Lesley M.M. Blume (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). OK, this is Hemingway-related, but it’s a fairly good, popular read that delves deeply into the creation of The Sun Also Rises (90 years old as of Oct. 22) and the real lives that Papa celebrated and skewered in the process.
Algren, by Mary Wisniewski (Chicago Review Press). I’ve never spent much time with Nelson Algren, the obsessive chronicler of dispossessed Americans and the Chicago underbelly of the 1930s. This sharp biography filled a personal gap and, for one thing, introduced me to one of the odder love affairs of the 20th-century, the long-running hookup between Algren and Simone de Beauvoir (see also Jean-Paul Sartre).
The Hour of the Land, by Terry Tempest Williams (FSG). Williams’ haunting memoir Refuge, a landmark book and environmental cri de couer, turned 25 this year. Here she travels around the country to profile a dozen cherished federal properties, from Alcatraz to Acadia, in honor of the centennial of the National Parks Service. Just in time to shore up our understanding of what’s at stake in the coming anti-environmental horror show that’s shaping the incoming administration.
Stuart Davis: In Full Swing (Prestel) and Kerry James Marshall: Mastry (Skira). This is sort of cheating, but I’m including the large catalogues to two of the most compelling retrospective art exhibits I took in this year. The Stuart Davis show (I caught it at the Whitney in N.Y.; it’s now in D.C.) was a jaunty romp through the years with the American Cubist and jazz-influenced painter, one of my longtime favorites. And we saw Kerry James Marshall’s grand retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (it later moved to NY) and were rattled by his poignant and explosive modern genre scenes of black America
Books by Friends
Hero of the Empire, by Candice Millard (Doubleday). Even if Candice weren’t my friend, this biography of a young and daring Winston Churchill would deserve ranking very high among the best books of the year. Hands down.
Among the Gorgons, by Michelle Boisseau (University of Tampa). Show me a poet more in touch with the human body, the creatures and essences of the natural world, the glory of words, the agony of personal history. This is the real stuff. It will make you weep and wiser.
The Good Lieutenant, by Whitney Terrell (FSG). This rightfully acclaimed novel of the life-shattering Iraq War puts the reader inside the head of an unforgettable protagonist, Emma Fowler, and craftily reveals its spark, arc and backstory in a reverse timeline.
the dulcimer, by H.R. Stoneback (Des Hymnagistes Press). I’ve known Stoney for a quarter century as one of our leading Hemingway scholars, a man who has led a literary life to the fullest. This surprising memoir recounts his delinquent boyhood in Camden, N.J., and the redemption that began when he saved Walt Whitman’s house there from a torching. The eponymous “dulcimer” was the folk café Stoney co-founded while at Rutgers-Camden, a labor of love, generosity, and cultural openness that set the stage for the most remarkable career that followed. Friends and others with an interest in American culture will appreciate this journey through Stoney’s own Philly-Camden “moveable feast,” a pilgrimage of sorts that encompasses not only Whitman, but Pound, a love of language, the sound of jazz and the voices of a wide array of friends and passersby. The book is a love song to the city of his youth, to poetry and literature, to his beloved late wife, Sparrow, and to the joy of living the examined and intellectual life.
American Endurance, by Richard Serrano (Smithsonian). Another piece of Western history, this one tells the real tale of a 1,000-mile horse race and all the complications and characters that surrounded the gimmick. Among the players in this true story, which stretches geographically from Chadron, Neb., to Chicago, are Buffalo Bill Cody, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the animal rights movement. Rather fascinating.
Good Seeds, by Thomas Pecore Weso (Wisconsin Historical Society Press). This “Menominee Indian Food Memoir” is a charming family portrait, with recipes, of the ways food and nature shape daily lives. And in a Lawrence, Kan., doubleheader, there’s also Denise Low Weso’s family memoir, The Turtle’s Beating Heart (University of Nebraska).
Steve Paul, a retired journalist, is a longtime book critic, onetime bookstore owner, and author of Hemingway at Eighteen, to be published in October 2017 by Chicago Review Press. He lives in Kansas City.