Best books of 2016 – Chicago Tribune – Chicago Tribune
We Want Everything by Nanni Balestrini
Translated by Matt Holden, Verso, 226 pages, $24.95
One of the best novels of 2016 is a translation of a novel published in Italy in 1971 about the “hot autumn” of 1969, when workers at Fiat and elsewhere staged a series of strikes to demand better wages and conditions. The charming, vulgar narrator, an unnamed young migrant from southern Italy, just wants to hang out on the beach. He hates everything — work, bosses, unions, security guards, factories — and he wants everything. His political consciousness develops and unfolds until he’s leading wildcat strikes and fighting cops in the streets. Nothing could seem further from or be more relevant to our historical moment: “[We] don’t want to work and die any more for the development of capital and its state. We can’t keep this crap going any more.”
The North Water by Ian McGuire
Henry Holt, 272 pages, $27
At a point in British novelist Ian McGuire’s bloody cannonball of an adventure novel, the crew of a doomed whaling ship in the 19th century kidnap a baby polar bear and keep it, indifferently, cruelly. It scrapes and screams at the bottom of a barrel for its doomed parent. That’s the kind of adventure novel this is — the adventure is in McGuire’s hurtling rhythms, not his plot. The tale is pure Conrad, by way of Homer and “Blood Meridian” (with a resemblance to “The Revenant”). Keepers of a flailing hunting industry, the men bluster and boast and fight and kill and survive, and the landscape will not spare them. Your mind is never far from Cormac McCarthy’s evil-that-men-do, the clear inspiration, but McGuire’s sense for the cheap thrills of old pulp is unapologetic and artful.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
Back Bay, 320 pages, $15.99
A beguiling foreign stranger comes to the provincial Irish town of Cloonoila. Establishing himself as a mystical healer, he stirs an undercurrent of excitement in Edna O’Brien’s dark and indelible novel, “The Little Red Chairs.” For 40-year-old Fidelma, who longs to have a child after two miscarriages, his arrival is a last chance. Employing shifting perspectives, O’Brien soon reveals that Dr. Vlad Dragan is a monster, an international war criminal modeled on Radovan Karadžić, the Butcher of Bosnia. When the mystic’s identity is discovered, Fidelma falls victim to his former conspirators in a harrowing and brutal scene. Her husband, shamed, rejects her, the town turns on her, and she flees to London where, in the book’s second half, she lives among refugees. Finally, among those who lost their home, she finds hers. “I could not go home until I could come home to myself,” she says.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Viking, 480 pages, $27
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov should have been shot by the Bolsheviks in 1922, but thanks to a certain pre-revolutionary poem is condemned to life imprisonment inside Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. What happens next is the subject of Amor Towles’ delightful novel “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Towles’ Count Rostov charms his way into the reader’s mind and then lingers like something more than mere literary figment. He is quite the Renaissance man: He can taste the nettles tucked under the Ukrainian ham of a saltimbocca “fashioned from necessity”; seat a banquet’s worth of Soviet bigwigs with a diplomat’s dexterity; memorably bed an actress; befriend practically everyone; and quietly outwit dogmatic apparatchiks. Still, prison is prison. Living in a proverbial gilded cage like the (expertly rendered) Metropol has an impact on Count Rostov. If unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, then so too are unhappy men. Towles mines Rostov’s misfortune for a truly marvelous portrait.
Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Image Comics, Vol. 1: 144 pages, $9.99, Vol. 2: 128 pages, $12.99
Women and comics are having a moment: Superheroes have Willow Wilson’s charming “Ms. Marvel” series, Kate Beaton rules the one-panel gag strip, Marjorie Liu’s “Monstress” owns fantasy comics and whatever Lauren Redniss’ journalism/memoir/art hybrids are true originals. All of which makes it perhaps even more remarkable how thoughtful, engrossing and tough-minded that Brian K. Vaughn’s “Paper Girls” has been. It tells the story of four 12-year old girls who deliver the newspaper in 1988 Cleveland. On Halloween night — shades of Ray Bradbury‘s “The Halloween Tree” are everywhere — they run into time travelers; then flying dinosaurs; then a time machine mysteriously stamped with an Apple logo; then it gets unpredictable. Part ’80s adventure movie, part coming of age tale with a killer twist, it’s an incisive argument against living in the past, all while reminding former latchkey kid readers of a roving, exhilarating freedom now gone.
Evicted by Matthew Desmond
Crown, 432 pages, $28
When you’re spending more than half your income on rental housing — up to 70 percent of your income, as is the case with much of the working poor — it’s no surprise when the sheriff, along with a moving crew ready to set your belongings out on the curb, comes knocking on your door. That dreaded sound echoes through “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Matthew Desmond’s carefully researched, often heartbreaking book based on living as an embedded writer in some of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods in 2008-09. From his headquarters in a trailer park — and, later, in a rooming house on the city’s largely African-American north side — Desmond followed several low-income families, including some with single parents and children, as they were forced out of one apartment after another by landlords backed by the legal system. Desmond’s important work deftly explores the inequality and human tragedies that are part of what Desmond calls the “eviction epidemic” in America — and the role of eviction not just as a symptom of poverty but as a driver of it.
Trials of the Earth by Mary Mann Hamilton
Little, Brown, 336 pages, $27