These are my favorites of the books I read in 2016. I read 50 books this year and 11 were by Australian writers. My initial list of favorites began with 17 titles and it was painful to reduce it to 11.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. Whenever I read my post about this book again, I am flooded with respect for this writer and with memories of the searing artistry of this book. Though it is a book of short stories, I think of it as a novel as the characters are connected. While the stories are sometimes too grim to bear and the ironies too impossible, the characters are drawn with love and tenderness.
The Secret Son by Jenny Ackland. I was impressed that the author could link the iconic Australian outlaw Ned Kelly (1854-1880) to a defining moment for Australia in the 20th century: the loss of so many Australian soldiers at Gallipoli. Along the way, she introduces the (fictional) son of Ned Kelly, life in a Turkish village after the Gallipoli campaign, and in contemporary times, a young man of Turkish descent who grew up in Melbourne. The unfolding of the connections among the characters is magical.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey. When a woman becomes bedridden with a mysterious illness, her friend brings her a snail in a terra-cotta pot with violets planted in it. Her initial irritation at having responsibility for another creature is replaced by hours of interest in the activities of the snail, who ventured out at night to explore and took square bites from any paper left nearby. The wit, light touch, and beautiful writing of this non-fiction book by Elizabeth Tova Bailey made this a delightful read. The book is a reminder that fascinating creatures, including humans, are all around us. We just need to look closely.
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. When we first meet Major Skobie, a policeman in an outpost in Sierra Leone, we understand he is a man of great moral rectitude, who treats everyone with respect and fairness. He is a character we feel great respect for, so it is with dismay that we follow his descent from one bad moral compromise to the next. I listened to the audiobook read by Michael Kitchen and was sad when it was over.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Though we can probably agree that Steve Jobs is not especially likable, he is a fascinating character, clearly drawn by Walter Isaacson. He made such a positive impact on the world of computers, making them so much more user friendly, creating devices we had no idea we would love so much. But best of all was the story of the creative work of Xerox PARC that the parent company required them to divulge to Jobs. His excitement about those creations and Xerox's inability to capitalize on them tells us a great story about a large corporation's shortcomings and an individual's ability to be visionary.
We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. The author writes convincingly about the importance of respect for beings who are not human. This is the fictional story of a family that takes in a chimp as a member of the family a month after the narrator is born. This occurred in a number of experimental settings over the years and it almost never works out well for the chimp. The writing is beautiful: the narrator's brother was "stropping his stories into knives" to convey his anger to his parents. The tone is conversational and light at times and a gripping narrative at other times.
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. Undine Sprague is relentlessly unpleasant: she is blind to the needs of others when those needs conflict with her own desires. In her wake she leaves a string of broke and broken men. You do have to admire her determination in the pursuit of those desires and sometimes she spends months or years in exile to achieve her goals. Wharton offers a full-throated defense of Undine, and by extension all women through a minor character. Women are excluded from the business of life by "the custom of the country," so of course they pursue their own goals.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell. The central story of this book is that of Claudette: when she was an extremely well-known actress, she dropped from sight, moving to a remote house in Ireland. The story is told from multiple points of view so that various characters have their moment to present themselves (or be presented). The chapters may be long or short and the time varies from the mid-80s to 2016 and the locations include Ireland, New York, California and more. I was captivated by each in turn, but must mention the lovable teenage "California Girl" Phoebe. The intensity and beauty of this book required an occasional little break for me.
American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin. It was wild to relive that bizarre story and those strange times, especially as Mr. Booklog and I listened together while driving to Iowa. When we took breaks from listening, we marveled at what we remembered, as well as what we either hadn't known or had forgotten. This book makes my top ten list for its success in putting me into this very different time.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. The narrator's story of growing up in 1970s Brooklyn is beautiful despite the drugs, sexual predation, teen pregnancy, and more observed by this motherless girl. She has adults who know how to care for her, a loving father and brother, and three teenage friends who take care of each other (until they don't). We know from the outset that though Brooklyn felt like "a stone in her throat," she leaves for a life unimaginable to that little girl. The beauty was enhanced by the reader, Robin Miles.
The Floating Garden by Emma Ashmere. I do love a book that has Sydney as a character. This one has three storylines: A young girl arrives in the city at the turn of the century, is taken in and exploited by spiritualists; twenty years later, this same character is losing her home and neighborhood as the harbor bridge is being built; and the third, a woman escaping her abusive rich husband lands in that neighborhood. Each story is strong and appealing and adds to each other and the whole.