LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

Life Losses & Gains | Memoir

If there’s a theme that holds this month’s memoirs together, it’s loss. Here, two men lose their wives, another his life partner, and a woman (for a while at least) her sense of self. Families hang in the background, too, though few of them are conventional—a man and his son, two men (who choose not to live together), and a collective, operating in place of the traditional nuclear unit.

evans-shouldstillEvans, John W. Should I Still Wish. Univ. of Nebraska. (American Lives). Jan. 2017. 160p. ISBN 9780803295223. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9780803295797. MEMOIR
After his wife is killed in a violent bear attack, Evans (creative writing, Stanford Univ.) spends a year grieving, at a loss for what to do with his life. Then, as a way to pick himself up and begin again, he takes a cross-country journey—from Indiana to California—during which he reunites with an old friend whom he eventually marries and has a family. The loss of Evans first wife hovers over the entire book, but there is something cathartic in his writing about her and his new life without her. In the end, he comes to see how she made his fresh start possible and is able to arrive at some sense of acceptance. VERDICT Evans’s prose is often pedestrian, and his insights don’t always resonate. This is a book that would be more enjoyable to pick up and read in increments rather than all the way through. 

hayes-insomniaccityHayes, Bill. Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me. Bloomsbury USA. Feb. 2017. 304p. photos. ISBN 9781620404935. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781620404959. MEMOIR
This memoir is quite compelling when Hayes (The Anatomist) writes about his relationship with writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, and much of this consists of direct quotes from Sacks. Otherwise, the narrative comprises rather forgettable musings on the author’s experience of New York City and the death of a previous partner. Because this account was quite obviously put together from disparate pieces, it doesn’t jell as a coherent work. Perhaps it should have been presented as a collection of writings rather than as a book-length memoir. VERDICT Admirers of Sacks will want to seek this out for the glimpses into his personal life; general readers need not bother.

leiris-nothavehatestarred review starLeiris, Antoine. You Will Not Have My Hate. Penguin Pr. Oct. 2016. 144p. tr. from French by Sam Taylor. ISBN 9780735222113. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780735222144. MEMOIR
Here is a short and brilliant meditation on grief and loss as experienced in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. On November 13, 2015, Leiris lost his wife, Hélène Muyal-Leir, in a terrorist attack at the Bataclan Theater in Paris.  Hélène was also survived by their 17-month-old son, Melvil. It was the need to take care of Melvil, and to not allow the terrorists to “have his hate,” that made it necessary for Leiris to continue. As should be expected, this is a very raw book—Leiris says he began composing it just days after the attack—and as such provides tremendous insight into the early grieving process. VERDICT Leiris is to be commended for not providing easy answers nor engaging in the platitudinous language that too often infects memoirs of this sort. This is necessary reading for all of us. [See Prepub Alert, 4/3/16.] 

neeman-wewerefutureNeeman, Yael. We Were the Future: A Memoir of the Kibbutz. Overlook. Nov. 2016. 256p. tr. from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston. photos. ISBN 9781468313567. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781468313864. MEMOIR
The kibbutz (“communal settlement”) movement in Israel was a radical reaction to the Holocaust, an attempt to create a society that was not based on traditional norms. Neeman’s (Orange Tuesday) memoir is surely one of the few written in the first-person plural (“we”), a wonderful choice, as it perfectly captures the collective experience of life at Kibbutz Yehiam, near the Lebanese border. Without judgement or sentiment, Neeman shows rather than explains, through the most minor details, what a kibbutz is or should be. One of the more compelling sections describes smoking and its ubiquity at Kibbutz Yehiam. In this community, it seems even ordinary acts take on highly significant, even ecstatic, meaning. VERDICT A highly recommended introduction to the kibbutz movement.

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Derek Sanderson About Derek Sanderson

Derek Sanderson is currently Assistant Librarian for Instruction Services at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. When not reviewing books or at the library he enjoys spending time with his son, reading, listening to the Grateful Dead, making mix tapes, and watching whichever sports are in season.

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