Part V: Best Books I Read in 2016

Yesterday I revealed my favorite book from 2016, the lyrical, haunting:

Image result for thomas jefferson dreams of sally hemings

Slavery is at the heart of that story, and it takes center stage in two other novels I really liked in 2016.

The first is:

Image result for underground airlines ben winters

Winters, who’s already made a name for himself as the author of the fine The Last Policeman trilogy, chillingly imagines a United States in which slavery has survived into contemporary times. The “Hard Four” states are determined never to give it up, and the federal government is required to support these states, including assisting with the retrieval of fugitive slaves. Victor, a successful bounty hunter, pursues a runaway called Jackdaw and finds much more than he’d ever imagined. Though Winters wrapped up this story line, it’s clear this has series potential.

The second is:

National Book Award winner, New York Times bestseller, Oprah’s book club–Whitehead’s book has had quite a year. Historical fiction with a wash of steampunk, Whitehead’s underground railroad is an actual train beneath the surface that carries runaways North. Cora, fleeing from a Georgia plantation, makes stops along the way, in locations that seem to offer some version of freedom.

If you can manage, it would be fascinating to read all three of these books one after the other. The horrors of slavery will never leave you.

Tomorrow: two works of historical fiction that feature women and revenge.


Part IV: Best Books I Read in 2016

Judging by the historical novels I normally gravitate towards, my favorite book from 2016 shouldn’t appear on this “Best” list. It’s the kind of book more likely to end up on one of my “Worst” lists.

Image result for surprised woman reading

My favorite novel of 2016 focuses on real-life historical figures, my least favorite kind of historical fiction. And one of those figures is a founding father. In my own real life as an academic historian, I haven’t leapt on the founding father bandwagon to devour big, bulky biographies of the men who kickstarted this country. And though I’ve heard some of the songs, I haven’t listened to the entirety of Hamilton or schemed to score a couple of tickets.

I still hold a grudge because those guys couldn’t see that the “course of human events” involved so much more than white men.

The first couple times I saw this novel–the one that turned out to be my favorite–on the library shelf, I passed it by. I looked at the title, winced, and left it there. Then one day I decided to add it to my check-out pile. It was a library book. It didn’t cost me anything. If I got frustrated with the first few pages, I’d just return it.

I didn’t get frustrated. I became mesmerized. This is the novel I think about more than any other from 2016:

Image result for thomas jefferson dreams of sally hemings

In my reading, O’Connor doesn’t romanticize what happened between Jefferson and Hemings, nor does he reduce Hemings to a one-dimensional victim.

The two best reviews I’ve read of the novel come from the always astute Ron Charles and the novelist Jean Zimmerman.

Charles concluded his review:

“Ultimately, this is a book in vigorous debate with itself, just as strange and contradictory as the author of the Declaration of Independence. With its magically engineered collection of fiction, history and fantasy, and particularly with its own capacious spirit, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings doesn’t just knock Jefferson off his pedestal, it blows us over, too, shatters the whole sinner-saint debate and clears out new room to reconsider these two impossibly different people who once gave birth to the United States. It’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant.”

Here, Zimmerman highlights Sally Hemings:

“…after reading this novel I would love to know Sally Hemings…. She is one of history’s numberless mystery women, but she comes thoroughly and thrillingly alive in O’Connor’s telling.”

History is full of “numberless mystery women.” My fascination with them is the reason I so admire O’Connor’s novel.

Check back tomorrow, when I recommend two novels about slavery.


Part III: Best Books I Read in 2016

Mothers and daughters. That’s the theme for today’s pair of recommendations.

4 Auguste Reading to Her Daughter impressionism mothers children Mary Cassatt (Mary Cassatt)

The 5-star is:

Image result for the wonder by emma donoghue

Ever since reading Slammerkin I’ve eagerly awaited each new book by Donoghue. I haven’t liked them all, but she always comes up with interesting plots. The Wonder is set in 19th century Ireland where a little girl named Anna O’Donnell seems to be surviving without eating. Lib Wright, a trained nurse from England, is brought in to determine if this is a miraculous event or a clever fraud. Donoghue’s careful portrayal of Lib’s growing closeness to Anna, interlaced with an array of artfully concealed secrets, serves as a meditation on the bond between mothers and daughters.

Very close to 5 stars:

For me, this slender novel narrowly missed 5 stars because I was left wanting a bit more plot. Maybe that’s a testament to Strout’s finely drawn characters. Lucy Barton is in the hospital, her estranged mother comes for a visit, and the family stories flow. It is a marvelous book about mother-daughter love and the power of shaping a story about it.

Tomorrow, the last of my 5-star novels from 2016. Then a few more posts about several other books I liked a lot.


Part II: Best Books I Read in 2016

I launched this novel reading year in review with recommendations for two books about female artists.

467pxlebrun_selfportrait (Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun)

Georgia by Dawn Tripp is a fascinating fictionalization of the life of Georgia O’Keeffe. The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro, with its main character Alizée Benoit, is overtly political. The fictional Benoit shares O’Keeffe’s struggles to be taken seriously as an artist, but Benoit is also consumed with fear and outrage over the fate of Jewish people in Europe during World War II.

Today’s pair of recommendations are novels about the Holocaust. My 5-star rating went to:

Late in the war, twin sisters Pearl and Stasha arrive in Auschwitz where they are subjected to Josef Mengele’s medical experiments. When Pearl disappears, Stasha cannot believe her sister is dead. The story is horrifying and harrowing, yet full of hope.

Very nearly 5 stars is:

Also focusing on children, equally harrowing and horrifying, Shepard’s novel is set in the Warsaw ghetto. Young teen Aron gradually loses his family and ends up in the ghetto’s orphanage, protected by the once-influential Dr. Janusz Korczak.

I liked Konar’s book a bit more because it is a story about sisters. I also admired her deft depictions of Mengele’s brutality–crystal clear without being gratuitously graphic. And Konar managed true, beautiful voices for twins who, despite outward appearances, are so very different.

Stay tuned. The next two novels deal with mothers and daughters.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

I write nonfiction history, real life tales of extra/ordinary women. This means I do a lot of research, not only in rich and compelling primary sources but also in a wide swath of secondaries. My leisure reading, then, is all about fiction. (Vanessa Bell)

I read over 50 novels in 2016, most of which were historical fiction. My next few posts will be devoted to the best books I read this year (though they weren’t necessarily published in 2016).

I’m not limiting myself to 10 books. While that’s a neat number, it’s arbitrary. In 2016, for example, I ranked 4 novels as 5-star reads, but I liked an additional 13 very much.

The first of the 5-star novels is:

Image result for georgia by dawn tripp

Tripp did a marvelous job of imagining the life and career of painter Georgia O’Keeffe. I didn’t know much about O’Keeffe, but I do know quite a lot about women’s lives in the 20th century. Tripp deftly handled the historical context while providing a complex, compelling portrait of a talented and driven woman. The novel is every bit as gorgeous as O’Keeffe’s paintings.

Another work of historical fiction about a female artist that I liked a lot is:

Image result for the muralist by b.a. shapiro

Shapiro’s main character is a fictional female artist hired by one of the New Deal programs in the 1930s. Increasingly radicalized by the politics of the times, Alizée makes a fateful decision to try to help the European Jews being crushed by Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. Some of the real-life historical figures who appeared in the book didn’t always quite ring true for me, but the character of Alizée is fascinating.

Up next: another pairing of a 5-star novel with one that came pretty close.