Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 21, 2016

The Books of 2016: Especially Mr. Greene

The end of the year is a time to look back on accomplishments and highlights and move forward with the hope that we’ll do even better next year or at least learn from any failures and disappointments.

Looking back at the books I read is one part of taking stock. The number doesn’t matter, it’s not a contest. I was delighted to encounter some authors that were new to me and enjoyed reading additional books by writers I’d previously known.

With the exception of only a handful of books, they were fiction. One biography, a couple of memoirs, a study of the pottery of the ancient Mimbres culture of southwest New Mexico but, otherwise, works of fiction. Mostly novels, a few collections of short stories. That’s typical for me.

Atypical for me, I did very little rereading. The exception was tearing through 5 books by one of my favorite sci-fi writers, Philip K. Dick. The news that there’s a spinoff of “Blade Runner” in the works spurred me to reread the novel on which it’s based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and I just kept going for two weeks in September. I’ll have more to say about Mr. Dick in 2017. If you’re gearing up for the “Blade Runner” sequel, add reading the novel to your to-do list, along with watching the original film.

I read a collection of stories, War Dances, by the American writer, Sherman Alexie, expanding my familiarity with his work. Mr. Alexie’s storytelling is captivating, and his writing has the one characteristic that I think determines if I’ll seek out more than one book by an author: a distinctive and compelling prose style.

To that category I can add a writer I’d been remiss in picking up: Junot Diaz. I read his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and was absolutely flabbergasted by his brilliant writing. I raced back to the library to get Drown, his first collection of short stories. Now I know what all the fuss is about.

One year and 3 days ago I posted an article here about a list of the 100 greatest British novels and invited readers to react. Both former colleague and band mate Bill and brother Mark put in a word for Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I add my voice to their endorsement of the book. A fictional account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell to the court of Henry VIII, it’s a fascinating tale, but the most exciting thing is Mantel’s prose, especially the dialogue. Ms. Mantel accomplished the impressive task of creating voices that sound both as if they might truly be 16th-Century speakers, but not stilted or artificial in any way: The characters have fire and vivacity that blaze off the page. Thanks, Bill and Mark.

One decides to read a book for many reasons: a friend’s suggestion, an intriguing review. This summer, staying in a rented vacation house, I found The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford in the bookshelves. A happy discovery. His storytelling features artfully crafted interior monologue and his language is always meticulously constructed. I was almost immediately reminded of two other favorite American writers: John Updike, a dozen years Ford’s senior and, 10 years older than Updike, John Cheever. Interestingly, The Lay of the Land is the third of a series following the life of one protagonist — reminding one of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. I followed up with the 2nd in the series, Independence Day, and was equally enthralled by that one. Looks like my 2017 list will include the first in the series, The Sportswriter.

A good friend loaned me The Narrow Road to the Deep North by the Australian, Richard Flanagan, recipient of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A harrowing account set partially in the jungles of Burma in WWII during the enforced construction of the “Death Railway” by POWs and captives, but surrounded by a sparkling framing story, it was one of those memorable experiences one has with a book: almost too terrible, too painful to endure, but so masterfully written that I simply could not stop. The denouement is one of the most wrenching literary moments I can recall.

My most treasured rediscovery of 2016, though, was the British writer Graham Greene (3 of whose books appear on that “Greatest” list). Looking at the list a year ago, I realized that my recall of his work was dim, decades old. I have every expectation that one or two of Mr. Greene’s work will find a spot in my rotation of books I simply must reread every year or two. In quick succession I consumed The Ministry of Fear, The Tenth ManThe End of the Affair, The Power and the Glory, The Honorary Consul and Our Man in Havana.

Some 21st Century readers might feel a bit distanced from the world Greene described, but, for me, I was thunderstruck by his artistry. His language, the characters and the compellingly visceral conflicts they confront are masterfully imagined and executed. Quite often concise and spare , but also elaborately and intellectually challenging, his prose is an artistic marvel. He’s also, on occasion, hilariously funny.

I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite from those Graham Greene books. I’ll simply have to read them again. THAT is why one reads, after all: to discover something wonderful.

I wish you a joyful 2017 replete with new reading discoveries and repeat visits to longtime favorites.

What was your favorite book of 2016? What’s on your list for the new year? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2016

 

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Responses

  1. Since you’ve had a taste of Richard Flanagan, you might want to add “Gould’s Book of Fish” (A Novel in 12 Fish) to your reading list.

    I also note that’ “The Comedians” was not on amongst your 2016 Graham Greene selections, so I commend it to you for 2017.

    The Blade Runner sequel now has a name – Blade Runner 2049. I believe there is a trailer out for it (which I haven’t had time to chase up as yet) and is due for release in the 3rd quarter on 2017, acts of Trump permitting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I’ll get the Flanagan — hope it’s not as tough on me. I read The Comedians in high school, so I’m due. Not accountable for Acts of Trump. Pushing back.

      Like

  2. Very interesting reading list!

    I don’t recall everything I’ve read off the top of my head, but my blog is a pretty accurate diary of most of what I’ve read. I’ve read some other books not represented on my blog, but the majority of them are represented. As of this morning I also just finished reading through the Bible.

    For 2017, my reading will continue to take me through the library–I’m currently reading things about law enforcement and am about to embark on a section of true crime. I will continue my Bible study by actually using a study Bible. I am looking forward to learning a lot of the background of cultures listed in the Bible.

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    • Yes, and your ambitious read through the entire Dewey Decimal system is fun to follow. Happy reading in 2017.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the piece, it made me reflect and realize I’d done more reading this year than I’d remembered. Not much rereading, though I did read The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers again. Not having read them since the movies came out (has it really been 13 years since Return of the King was released?) it was nice to visit Tom Bombadil, and others who didn’t make the cut, again.

    I did finally get through Moby Dick, though saying “get through” makes it sound like a chore, which it certainly was not. Goes immediately to the top tier of the “Reread” pile. Also read Frankenstein, which was nothing like what I’d thought it would be.

    One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward were my introduction to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works, both memorable and both fascinating on many levels. Motivated me to pick up the Gulag Archipelago. I’ve gotten started, but not sure if I’ll finish in time for the end of ’17 roundup.

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    • Congrats on Moby-Dick. Now you know why it’s endured. I don’t think I’ve read Gulag Archipeligo. And, you know, I’ve never read Frankenstein. Okay, it goes on the ’17 list. Thanks!

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  4. I’m more of a visual person than a literary one. I saw the cinema version of some of those books. Does that count? 🙂

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  5. Thanks for all the book recommendations. I always look forward to this from you and will check some of these out. I have read the Alexie, Diaz and Mantel books but only “The Heart of The Matter” by Greene and none of the rest you mention.
    Glad you enjoyed “Wolf Hall”. The second book, “Bring Up The Bodies” did not strike me as did “Wolf Hall” but was still a fun read and somewhat a “must” after the first book.
    Just got into Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue” and expecting more on the level of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” but too soon to say for sure.
    2016 highlights were “Bleeding Edge” by Pynchon, “Thirteen Moons” by Charles Frazier, “1776” by David McCullough and Melville’s “Typee”, though it was no “Moby Dick”. But what is?

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    • Glad Bleeding Edge was a highlight for you. I’m still puzzling over it. I may have read Typee in college: reread? Thanks for all the other suggestions. So many books ….

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      • Not saying I understood all of Bleeding Edge. Like every other Pynchon book it challenges me and I do a poor job with getting back to reread. I’d hazard a guess that your dated memory of Typee is good. As you say, there is no end of other new and old books to read.

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