Judging 2016: The Lists, Volume 2, “The Book Edition”

This list will functionally a little differently because most of the reading I do is not contemporary. As a result, the following list reflects my top five reads from last year–regardless of their publication date.

As I looked over my Goodreads log of 2016, to be honest, nothing stood out to me like it did in 2015. This was a year of metaphorically eating literary vegetables–I read a number of excellent or acclaimed texts but none of them left me awed or excited. For instance, I finally picked up Salman Rushdie’s infamous postcolonial novel The Satanic Verses and had to force myself to finish it. (It’s a bizarre whirlwind of incoherent magic realism, probably more renowned for the outcry it caused than for the success of the text itself.) I also read a number of interesting, more contemporary novels for a couple of book clubs to which I belong–books that took me out of my comfort zone and challenged me, but didn’t necessarily leave a lasting impression.

Perhaps what did leave a lasting impression in 2016, however, is my newfound love for graphic novels and comic books. In the midst of trying to graduate, move states, and start my Ph.D., comics became a really enjoyable form of escapism into incredibly built and beautifully illustrated worlds. Plus after reading +-200 pages every week, a picture book is a much needed rest for the eyes! So I kick off this list with not one text but a collection of three graphic texts.

1. Watchmen by Alan Moore, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, and The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

These are three very different narratives, though all have been hailed as some of the best in the genre. I’m still developing my literacy in this realm, but it’s easy to recognize how masterfully the authors and illustrators collaborate. These aren’t simply stories with pictures; in graphic texts the images serve to enhance the text as the text in turn serves the images. The two are in constant conversation requiring an attentive and reflexive eye as one reads. Watchmen is a subversion of the classic superhero narrative. Saga is a tale of illegal interspecies love that threatens the very theoretical framework of its universe. The Sandman is the story of Dream (also known as Morpheus) and his realm of the Dreaming. While Watchmen is one cohesive whole (i.e. a graphic novel), the latter two are serial comics told over multiple volumes.

2. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

After reading The Sparrow last year, several people recommended this sci-fi classic of the 20th century. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, the world has receded into a second Dark Age after nuclear holocaust obliterates much of Earth, but one monastic order in the American Southwest remains committed to preserving a fragmented collection of scientific and philosophical texts from the 20th century. The novel feels a bit like Willa Cather meets the Fall Out video game series–yes, a strange blend! But that is what gives Miller’s world such a distinct feel. Even if you don’t enjoy science fiction, Canticle reads like historical fiction, so it is very accessible.

3. Critical Theory and Science Fiction by Carl Freedman

A surprise! Something that isn’t fiction . . . though it’s about fiction. I typically don’t include theory in my top five books, but I enjoyed Critical Theory and Science Fiction so much I decided to include it. Science fiction has traditionally not been taken seriously within the canon of “literature”. Freedman argues for why science fiction not only should be taken seriously but why it should also be recognized as a form of critical theory for the 20th and 21st century. He writes, “I do believe that both critical theory and science fiction have the potential to play a role in the liberation of humanity from oppression” (xx). This was a fun and fascinating read that further deepened my love for the genre of science fiction.

4) Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

This is the third book in J.K. Rowling’s venture into detective fiction, the Cormoran Strike series. Each of the books are really enjoyable reads and the characters are complex and interesting, especially Cormoran Strike, the private eye, who is ex-military with a prosthetic leg and suffering from a form of PTSD. Each mystery is both solving a crime and helping him come to terms with his now civilian life. The next one is supposed to be out this year…and I’m awaiting it eagerly.

5) The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

And finally, I end with a book I read for a book club. The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize last year, and the prize was well deserved. The story is told from the perspective of a Communist double-agent who, during the fall of Saigon, escapes to America with his Vietnamese superior. In Los Angeles, he must make a life for himself while both helping the exiled Vietnamese military plot how to take back Vietnam and while sending intel to the Communist party. He is the sympathizer because he constantly occupies multiple worlds, resonating with those that occupy each. Indeed his conflicted identity began at birth as the son of a French priest and a Vietnamese woman.

I don’t know much about the Vietnam War and what followed, so this was an educational read from that perspective. It was also a compelling and nuanced exploration about identity formation, affiliation and representation in the modern era, especially in the wake of European imperialism. Each character must wrestle with not only how they view themselves, alone and in private, but also how to present themselves to others. This is further complicated when the protagonist finds himself advising a Hollywood crew about Vietnamese culture as they shoot a film about the war.

Special Note: I also finished the remainder of the Red Mars trilogy during 2016. Red Mars made my list last year, and both of its sequels Green Mars and Blue Mars were equally satisfying. 

See my Goodreads Year in Books here.

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