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

Busting & Building Bubbles | What We’re Reading

Not long ago, I went to a meeting of like-minded people that began to feel too claustrophobic and echo-chambery and made me consider how to reach beyond my snow-globe demographic. That experience led me to ask the WWR crew about books that extend outside their comfort zone, or show another side of things that perhaps they hadn’t considered: bubble-busting books. Some respondents crossed the divide and some didn’t—pretty sure the nays won this round—but as usual the gang’s write-ups are darn good reading. Let’s reach across that bookshelf to another side and see what they’ve got on the docket.

weir-henryviiiwivesMahnaz Dar, Assistant Managing Editor, LJS
I don’t usually read a ton of history. But I found myself taking a long walk down the history section of my local library (that’s Stack 1, the very last floor) to locate Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Grove). Having just watched the TV series The Crown and Elizabeth, I’m intrigued by the royals. Let’s face it, if you’re going to read history, U.S. history just can’t compete with British. Give me a few more beheadings, and maybe we’ll talk! I do remember studying the Tudors (and, of course, I do recall lusting just a teensy bit after Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s Henry VIII in the few episodes of The Tudors I saw), so I’m excited to jump right back in.

I haven’t stepped entirely outside my bubble, though. I’m still a huge mystery buff. I’ve picked up my third Laura Lippman book, What the Dead Know (thanks to Liz French for turning me on to Lippman!), and I’m loving the author’s ability to balance twisty plots with wonderful writing and absolutely stellar character development. Not since Ruth Rendell and P.D. James has a mystery writer excited me so much!

lillianboxfish-rooneyLiz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
I so rarely follow my own directives for this column, and this week is no exception. While in real life I’m trying to find common ground with people I don’t understand, in reading life I’m sticking with what I know and whom I like. I finished Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s) last week but wanted to share a “library” part with LJ readers—I love finding those in books. This is from Lillian’s wild years as a party girl and on-the-rise adwoman at Macy’s.

One night in late August 1933 I threw an unforgettable party, maybe the best I had when I resided in that particular apartment. It was the party that caused Olive Dodd, my archrival and colleague at R.H. Macy’s, not to speak to me outside of professional contexts for almost a solid year.
I invited Hattie, the downstairs neighbor, of course, to avoid complaint, and because the more the merrier. She worked at the main branch of the New York Public Library, and luckily for our harmonious neighborliness, she got all the peace and quiet she needed while laboring amid the stacks: A little racket on the weekend was fine by her. She certainly wasn’t shushing anybody present that night.

There are some library scenes in my latest read as well: Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, part of the Penguin Random House’s “Hogarth Shakespeare” series, reworking The Tempest. I’ll find a good excerpt for next week. This book made me laugh out loud on the subway, much to my fellow commuters’ consternation.

kingnightshiftTyler Hixson, Editorial Assistant, SLJ Reviews
I’m rereading Night Shift (Doubleday), Stephen King’s first collection of short stories, because I’ve become a little underwhelmed by his latest works, and I need to rediscover why I love his writing so much. These stories are vintage King: a group of graveyard-shift construction workers stumble upon an abandoned house full of rats; a laundry press machine is the sinister cause of several murders; a recluse becomes infected with a flesh-eating fungus…that sort of stuff. This collection also contains “Children of the Corn,” which is one of King’s more well-known movie adaptations, and “Sometimes They Come Back,” a story about a man who is haunted by the ghosts of the bullies that tormented him during his childhood.

These stories stand out in this collection because they contain a glimmer of the power that King wields in his tour de forces (The Stand; The Shining; Carrie, etc.). “Children of the Corn,” for those who are unfamiliar, is the story of a couple who are trying to save their marriage by taking a vacation. After a car accident, they stop off in Gatlin, NE, only to find that the town is ruled by children who worship a deity called He Who Walks Behind the Rows (the town is surrounded by cornfields). Vicky is captured and sacrificed to the corn god, and while Burt escapes, he is killed by a red-eyed monster in the cornfields. The eeriest part is at the end, when Malachi, the 18-year-old leader of the children, says that He Who Walks Behind the Rows is furious that it had to kill Burt on its own, so it is lowering the age limit to 18. Malachi leads all the 18-year-olds out into the cornfields to sacrifice themselves. The story ends with this: “Dusk deepened into night. Around Gatlin the corn rustled and whispered secretly. It was well pleased.”

King has always had a penchant for making humans seem monstrous, and while both of these stories contain supernatural forces, it is the dreams of the bullying Jim Norman has about his brother getting murdered in “Sometimes They Come Back,” and Burt finding his wife’s crucified body on a cross of cornhusks with her eyes ripped out that we remember as monstrous. This is what makes King the king of horror; he makes humanity horrifying and us realize that monsters could be our next-door neighbors.

Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
I’m feeling a pretty urgent need right now to stay informed chang-wegonbeabout life lived outside my own experience. To that end, my bubble-buster book at the moment is Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Picador), a short, smart, and cogent essay collection about race in America—written earlier in 2016, before the election but perhaps even more immediate now. Chang writes nicely: readable and to the point, pulling no punches. I’m only two-thirds of the way through but I’ll still go ahead and highly recommend it.

My last book, on the other hand, was more of a bubble-reinforcer. Robert Gottlieb’s memoir Avid Reader: A Life (Farrar), about his life as a star editor, I would characterize as breezy: great literary and dance world gossip, not particularly introspective even when he tries for it, almost no friction anywhere in what was clearly a pretty charmed existence (with one divorce and one special-needs child, I know it wasn’t all roses, but he minimizes any heartache so I will, too). Something I both liked and disliked about the book was its very clear definition of reading as a primary, life-shaping activity. It’s a wonderful ode to the sheer joy of reading, but it also smacked a bit of what I dislike about the way people sometimes identify as capital-B Bibliophiles like it’s a cardinal virtue—as if their love of books and expansive reading somehow elevates them above the masses. Because while yes, reading is good for a body and mind and goes a long way toward canceling out the mind-numbingness of TV, I don’t think people who are capital-R Readers are necessarily any better than anyone else. That small, soft brand of superiority has always irked me and probably always will. Which isn’t to say that Gottlieb’s love of reading isn’t 100 percent genuine and (at least for me) relatable. Anyway, overall a fun book, if self-indulgent—and why not? I probably would be if I were him. And hey, bless him—he sounds like he’s really enjoyed it.

Bonus best description: of Blanche Knopf as “a tiny woman who looked as if she had gone straight from Dachau to Elizabeth Arden. No wonder everyone was scared of her.”

jacobs-beautifulmoneyHenrietta Verma, Author, Reviews Are In: Read, Write, and Expand Your Career (Mission Bell Media; see LJ’s author Q&A here)
I’ve had several reading false starts lately as nothing seemed to hold my interest. But now I’ve found something that works, and it’s even good for me! Leanne Jacobs’s Beautiful Money: The 4-Week Total Wealth Makeover (available on Edelweiss now and will be released by TarcherPerigreee in January) is reminiscent of a book everyone’s sick of hearing me talk about: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In fact, similar to Kondo, Jacobs believes that a tidy space frees the mind to better organize all areas of life, and one of the steps in her book involves decluttering your home. Jacobs also discusses spring cleaning your spending, savings, and other money concerns. Airy fairy though it may sound, I’m finding the book confidence inspiring and already feel more in control for having enacted the step of figuring out what you actually spend your money on. It’s a bit soon for New Year’s resolutions, but if yours are money related, Jacobs’s work is a wise start.

 

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Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench

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