Another year, another Top 5 list. It’s an ordinary thing to do as a new year and altogether a new reading list is underway. But I assure you there is nothing ordinary about the books I’ve singled out below. It’s because of their singular impact on me that, in turn, compelled me to pay them forward. As with last year, this list is a little more selective than my best films list (coming up shortly) and that’s because books require a little more time. Here are the top 5 books I happily dedicated my time to in 2016 and would happily do so again.
- Scrappy Little Nobody
Up in the Air remains as one of my favorite movies of all time. So it’s with a bit of coincidence that I chose Anna Kendrick’s delightful collection of essays as my form of entertainment during my flight. At 30,000 feet, she was my row buddy, the two of us getting to know each other over complimentary snacks and drinks. I was wonderfully entertained by her charming wit and honesty, a voice she strikes pitch-perfectly (you bet your ass that pun was intended). Hollywood may be glamorous, but ol’ Kendrick isn’t afraid to point out how hideous of an institution it is. Beyond that, she traces us to her humble beginnings as a young starlet working full-time as a stage actress, then as a teenager awkwardly stumbling through her discovery years while occasionally being dwarfed by her own ambitions. The spotlight doesn’t make everything pretty; it simply shines a light on what desperately needs attention. Kendrick may not crave attention, but she’s certainly got mine.
- The Best American Essays 2015
This book was given to me as a Christmas gift from the year before and I treasure it to this day. You can’t go wrong with The Best American Series because it’s like a report on the world. For any aspiring essayist, this is essential reading. This collection in particular is full of good company. Justin Cronin writes of a divine intervention, one that comes not during a moment of tragedy, but afterwards in a moment of epiphany. Meghan Daum journals her experiences as a foster-care advocate and learns that she’s not making a difference in children’s lives so much as they’re making a difference in hers. Zadie Smith lends her voice to the “Goodbye, New York” subgenre and cleverly subverts her colleagues by remaining hopeful, rather than cynical, about her life in the Big Apple. But if there is one essay I’d have to single out, it’s Kelly Sundberg’s It Will Look Like a Sunset, a haunting meditation on an abusive marriage. The violence, she recalls, happened “so slowly, then so fast,” a description made all the more chilling by the way we often describe falling in love. Her account is written so brutally and breathlessly, you can almost see the tear stains on the page, or rather, the bruises and lesions left by her husband. You can read Sundberg’s essay here.
- This Is How You Lose Her
I read this book last January and it has stayed with me ever since, particularly it’s openness about the indifference of man. Junot Diaz’s book is a series of fables, that of disintegrating relationships and the people doomed to witness them end, or suffer through them for the rest of their lives. The connective tissue of these stories is Yunior, a man disinterested in meaningful connections and more concerned with the number of women he sleeps with and proving his overall worth as a man. Yunior is a character shaped by his own fractured relationships and corrupted view of women, thus he is primed to perpetuate this vicious cycle of infidelity and objectification. Embedded in the rhythms of the Latino working-class, Diaz puts the cultural idea of masculinity beneath the microscope and reveals how hollow and self-destructive such a worldview is. History teaches us to take pride in being a man. Diaz bravely shows us why that has and always will be our downfall.
- The Course of Love
This is Alain de Botton’s second fiction novel in two decades, yet it may as well be an instructional book on relationships. Here, he tells the story of Rabih and Kirsten’s 13-year marriage, honing in on key moments in their lives that will inevitably shape who they will become and how they will love each other. Rabih and Kirtsten are uniquely drawn characters. Rabih is Lebanese, Kirsten is Scottish. He’s an architect at an urban design firm. She’s a surveyor for the local city council. He’s painfully insecure. She’s maddeningly stubborn. What’s surprising, then, is how ordinary their marriage turns out to be. Right from the start, Botton tells us exactly what will happen. They will marry, have children, one of them will have an affair, they will go to couples therapy. Sound familiar? These familiar moments serve as the canvas of Botton’s discourse. Between every scene features italicized contemplations on love. These passages can be exhausting and outright pretentious for some, but I found it particularly illuminating. Botton instructs us on how fragile we are. How stubborn we can be when we argue, and how lucky we are to have someone to argue with. How jealousy is not always about mistrust, but rather an insecure sense of self. And how love is a skill, not an enthusiasm. In the immortal words of Shakespeare from which Botton’s novel takes reference, “the course of true love never did run smooth.” When did we forget that that’s what makes it worthwhile?
- Fates and Furies
Lauren Groff’s novel on marriage is as beautifully rendered as it is richly layered. I read a lot about relationships this year, and while Botton’s book is more insightful, Groff’s book is far more satisfying. Fates and Furies tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde, two wonderfully naïve paramours who elope at the peak of their youth. Their story, however, is split into two parts, each one representing a radically different view of their union, something not unlike Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Anyone familiar with Greek mythology will get a sense of the novel’s trajectory: the Fates – the goddesses of destiny, and Furies – the goddesses of retribution. Lotto’s life is not of his control. He loses his father, his mother sends him to boarding school. Later, we learn that his chance encounter with Mathilde might not have been purely coincidence, the same way his successful career as a playwright might not have been solely because of his genius.
Enter Furies, Mathilde’s half of the story, exponentially expanding what we’ve come to learn about her following Lotto’s limited view. Such represents the paradox of matrimony. One can live with the same person for years yet inhabit very different worlds and perspectives. Lotto remembers being a great actor. Mathilde remembers him failing and getting him on his feet. Lotto recalls an otherwise carefree marriage. Mathilde recalls the effort required to making it so. I suppose this is true for all marriages, where one spouse never realizes nor acknowledges the solemn duty necessary to uphold and support the other. Mathilde is a force of nature in that regard, especially when it’s left all to her to keep their marriage alive. The same could be said of Groff’s novel. Groff’s prose is among the most lyrical I’ve seen:
“We are in an immensely slow tango with the Andromeda galaxy,” Groff writes, speaking towards Lotto and Mathilde’s inevitable tango with each other, and their fateful end, “both galaxies shaped as spirals with outstretched arms, and we are moving toward each other like spinning bodies…And then the long arms of both galaxies will reach longingly out and grasp hands at the last moment, and they will come spinning back in the opposite direction, their legs entwined but never hitting, until the second swirl becomes a clutch, a dip, a kiss. And then, at the very center of things, when they are at their closest, there will open a supermassive black hole.”
Never have I seen a dissolving union captured so starkly or more eloquently. Groff argues that there is no perceptible difference between tragedy and comedy. It’s only a matter of vision. And what a vision this is.