Posted by: Matt Compton | December 23, 2017

My favorite books of 2016

EVICTED by Matthew Desmond is a vivid, powerful piece of policy reporting that drops us into the lives of a series of families desperate to make ends meet in working-class Milwaukee. Central to this book is the idea that eviction is a cause (not just a condition) of poverty. And gradually, Desmond reveals both the immediacy of the problem and its scale. “Every year in this country,” he writes, “families are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands, but by the millions.” EVICTED is filled with moments that leave you furious and frustrated, but Desmond describes the people he follows with such sensitivity and candor that, mostly, this is a book defined by its empathy.

HERO OF THE EMPIRE by Candice Millard is a biography of Winston Churchill in the Second Boer War, written with a thriller’s breakneck pace. Sent to South Africa in 1899 as a correspondent for the The Morning Post, Churchill is seeking redemption. Twice already, he had fought for the British Army — both in the Sudan and in British India — without an opportunity to show his valor. That changes when Boer forces ambush an armored train and Churchill is captured while leading an effort to free the locomotive from a damaged set of cars. That initial act of bravery inspires headlines, but when Churchill slips away from the Boer prison, he becomes an international sensation. In Millard’s hands, the young man’s escape, a hallmark of the Churchillian legend, becomes cinematic.

LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren is a beautiful, fascinating, often-hilarious memoir from a geobiologist. It’s a story of discovery — both in how Jahren found her vocation and in the nature of what plants and soil can reveal to us about life. Early on, we meet Jahren’s lab partner, Bill. Like her, he’s misfit, but somehow the two fit together. As they navigate fights for funding, university politics, and the backroads of Ireland, Alaska, and Georgia on research trips, we watch them grow from colleagues to friends to a kind of family. Over time, the depth and contours of their relationship becomes the heart of this wonderful book.

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett is a novel about the lives of six children from a blended family. As we watch them grow into adulthood, there’s drama — a love affair, a brush with the law, an unexpected death — but it’s unadorned, almost scrubbed bare. Patchett is a wonderful observer of the rhythms of everyday life, and here, she brings that talent to bear in writing about the injustices of childhood, the geopolitical relationships between siblings, and the way that our perspectives can shift with time.

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles is a mannered, elegant piece of historical fiction. In an early chapter, Count Alexander Rostov stands for judgement before a Bolshevik tribunal — charged with writing subversive poetry. He’s sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. Gradually, he builds a full life for himself. And when the diversions offered by the hotel are no longer enough, Rostov finds employment as a waiter in the hotel’s restaurant, and then, unexpectedly, meaning as a parent. As you read, avoid the mistake of thinking this book is a mere collection of tasteful interludes strung together. In the conclusion, we see that Towles has worked a kind of magic trick — where the details come together to create something greater than the sum of its charm.

MOONGLOW by Michael Chabon is a novel written as a memoir, and we’re left to wonder what’s fact and what’s fiction. In the author’s note, Chabon tells us, “I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” The narrator (a writer named Michael) details the life of his grandfather (who goes unnamed). As the narrative zigzags back and forth through time, we learn about a man who hunts Nazi scientists in his youth and boa constrictors in his retirement. We’re treated to stories touching on mental illness, the Space Race, pool sharking, and the nature of local broadcast television. There’s sex and combat, comedy and tears. But once your vision adjusts to the dazzle of the pyrotechnics (and all the brilliant wordplay you expect from Chabon), what emerges is a portrait of a complicated, tender marriage and a meditation on the evasive nature of memory.

NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles is 219 pages of near-perfect writing and quick-moving plot. Just after the Civil War, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd makes his living traveling from one end of Texas to the other, reading a collection of broadsheets to people eager to hear the latest news from the wider world. At one stop, he’s asked to deliver a 10-year-old girl, “rescued” from a band of Kiowa, who took her captive four years prior, to her closest surviving kin. Kidd and the little girl, Johanna, must navigate bad roads, an absence of common language (she has forgotten the English of her earlier childhood), and, of course, a group of men with bad intentions. Their destination is, perhaps, what you might expect — a growing regard for one another that blossoms into partnership and trust — but the way they arrive is so beautifully rendered that it’s captivating, even thrilling.

THE TRESPASSER by Tana French is the sixth novel in the author’s series about the Dublin Murder Squad. As before, a supporting character from a previous book is now our new narrator. This time, the case belongs to Antoinette Conway, now the only woman in the unit, and the victim is Aislinn Murray — young, blond, murdered in her own home. There’s a boyfriend without an alibi, a best friend who’s hiding something, and another detective with a bit too much interest in the investigation. But while there is, of course, a murder to solve, the real mystery we explore is the case of Detective Conway — who she is, where she comes from, and what makes see the world as she does.


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