I struggled with frontlist titles this year, but I lucked out when it came to backlist books, especially nonfiction. Every single one of the books on this list has my highest recommendation, so if you want to take a break from all those new releases, check out these titles from your local library!
5. I Am China by Xiaolu Guo
London translator Iona Kirkpatrick is at work on a collection of letters by a Chinese punk guitarist named Kublai Jian. As she translates the handwritten pages, a story of romance and revolution emerges between Jian and Mu, the poet whom he loves. Iona cannot know that Jian has come to Britain seeking political asylum and is mere miles away. Mu is in Beijing, feverishly trying to track Jian down. As Iona charts the course of their twenty-year relationship, her empty life takes on an urgent purpose: to bring Jian and Mu together again before it’s too late.
Stories about music and musicians aren’t usually my thing, so I didn’t read this book until two years after the publisher sent it to me. I’m glad I didn’t just pass it on to someone else because it surprised me in a wonderful way. The writing is so simple and elegant, I think I would have liked the book no matter what it was about. The story was moving and I enjoyed it more than I expected to, but it was the writing that really drove this one home for me. I Am China is a solid four-star read.
4. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.
I picked up a copy of this book after noticing it pop up on numerous BookTube channels. It wasn’t what I expected. I’m not sure “horror” is really the right word to describe it. Perhaps “horror light.” The writing style is utterly unique and it has a distinct rhythmic repetition to it, like the ticking of a clock. This creates a visceral and atmospheric reading experience that I quite enjoyed. Read my full review here.
3. Silence by Shūsaku Endō
Seventeenth-century Japan: Two Portuguese Jesuit priests travel to a country hostile to their religion, where feudal lords force the faithful to publicly renounce their beliefs. Eventually captured and forced to watch their Japanese Christian brothers lay down their lives for their faith, the priests bear witness to unimaginable cruelties that test their own beliefs.
I decided to read Silence in 2016 because that is when the film adaptation directed by Martin Scorsese was announced and because of the corresponding publication of Silence and Beauty, an analysis of the book’s themes by renowned artist Makoto Fujimura. Silence is a novel of unusual depth. It deftly explores faith under the most extreme circumstances and asks uncomfortable questions of the reader about the silence of God in the midst of suffering and the divide between inner and outer expressions of faith. Read my full review here.
2. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
The Bloody Chamber—which includes the story that is the basis of Neil Jordan’s 1984 movie The Company of Wolves—is a collection of subversively dark and sensual versions of familiar fairy tales and legends like “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
This is another book I read after seeing it repeatedly on BookTube and around the blogosphere. The writing is absolutely sumptuous. I greatly enjoyed the gothic atmosphere, erotic overtones, and feminist thread woven into each tale. The title story is definitely my favorite, but overall I was impressed by the entire collection. I look forward to reading more of Carter’s work in the future. Read my full review here.
1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Reverend Ames tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend’s wayward son.
Gilead is one of those books that feels like a lake in the middle of a desert. You never want it to end because that means you’ll have to go back to reading normal books. It’s heartfelt, hopeful, lyrical, and un-rushed— a nice break from the cynical, fast-paced modern world. My advice: read this book during a lazy summer when you can really take your time and savor it. Preferably outdoors. This is a book that begs to be read outdoors.
5. In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park
Park’s family was loving and close-knit, but life in North Korea was brutal. After her father was imprisoned and tortured by the regime for trading on the black market, Yeonmi and her family were branded as criminals and forced to the cruel margins of North Korean society. With thirteen-year-old Park suffering from a botched appendectomy and weighing a mere sixty pounds, she and her mother were smuggled across the border into China. In Order to Live is the story of their harrowing escape.
I read this book in a little over twenty-four hours. Sometimes nonfiction is more thrilling than fiction and, in this case, the stakes are incredible. Park’s ordeal—which lasted nearly two years before she finally reached safety in South Korea—is inspiring and horrifying in equal measure. I promise that once you pick up this book, you will not be able to put it down.
4. The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D.
An astonishing new science called “neuroplasticity” is overthrowing the centuries-old notion that the human brain is immutable. In this revolutionary look at the brain, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, M.D., provides an introduction to both the brilliant scientists championing neuroplasticity and the people whose lives they’ve transformed. From stroke patients learning to speak again to the remarkable case of a woman born with half a brain that rewired itself to work as a whole, The Brain That Changes Itself will permanently alter the way we look at our brains, human nature, and human potential.
In a year that felt pretty hopeless, The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing were two of the most hopeful, inspiring books I encountered. In this first volume, Dr. Doidge explores the limits of what the brain can do and finds that they are, in fact, quite flexible. The science of neuroplasticity is truly fascinating and highly applicable to everyday life. If you own a brain or care for someone who does, you need to read this book.
3. Infectious Madness by Harriet A. Washington
What causes mental illness? We’ve long blamed stress, trauma, and brain-chemistry imbalances. But a new theory is quietly achieving critical mass. In Infectious Madness, award-winning science writer Harriet Washington reveals that schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s, and anorexia may also be caused by bacteria, parasites, or viruses. Weaving together cutting-edge research and case studies she shows how strep throat can trigger rapid-onset OCD in a formerly healthy teen and how contact with cat litter elevates the risk of schizophrenia. Infectious Madness pulls back the curtain on a new paradigm with profound implications for us all.
The thing about science is that it’s not always what it appears to be. Popular “scientific” narratives are often proven wrong with time and more rigorous research. (Mid-twentieth century ideas about neuroplasticity are a perfect example.) Sometimes science is outright fake, especially when it is sponsored by corporations with financial interests at stake. In this fine example of investigative medical journalism, Washington digs through the available research to uncover how sometimes, certain mental illnesses can be caused by pathogens, and why the medical community has been so slow to integrate this information into mainstream medical practice. Read my full review here.
2. Ravensbrück by Sarah Helm
Months before the outbreak of World War II, Heinrich Himmler designed a special concentration camp for women. Only a small number of the prisoners were Jewish. Ravensbrück was primarily a place for the Nazis to hold other inferior beings: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Resistance fighters, lesbians, prostitutes, and aristocrats. For decades the story of Ravensbrück was hidden behind the Iron Curtain. Now, using testimony unearthed since the end of the Cold War and interviews with survivors who have never talked before, Sarah Helm takes us into the heart of the camp.
This book should have been nominated for a Pulitzer. Helm does an outstanding job of presenting the story of Ravensbrück in a way that is accessible, easy to follow, and incredibly moving. It’s the story of the Holocaust told through the eyes of women who suffered all the same horrors as the men but with the addition of gender-specific brutalities. It took me over a month to read this book, not only because it’s long (it’s the longest book I read in 2016), but because the subject matter is so heavy. Reading this book gave me a whole new perspective on the Holocaust. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
1. The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, M.D.
The Brain’s Way of Healing describes natural, noninvasive avenues into the brain provided by the energy around us that can awaken the brain’s own healing capacities without producing unpleasant side effects. Doidge explores cases where patients alleviated chronic pain; recovered from debilitating strokes, brain injuries, and learning disorders; and found relief from symptoms of autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and cerebral palsy. For centuries it was believed that the brain’s complexity prevented recovery from damage or disease. The Brain’s Way of Healing shows that this very sophistication is the source of a unique kind of healing.
The Brain’s Way of Healing is the sequel to The Brain That Changes Itself. While The Brain That Changes Itself is more of a general overview of the current science of neuroplasticity, The Brain’s Way of Healing is much more specific, focusing on how the power of neuroplasticity is being harnessed to treat seemingly incurable conditions. Doidge is a wonderful writer and the case histories are truly fascinating. This book should also have been nominated for a Pulitzer!
What were the best backlist books you read in 2016?
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