Thursday, November 24, 2016

My Year's Best List 2016

The best things that I read, watched, listened to, and otherwise ingested in 2016!

(Previous lists: 201520142013.)

Best Books—Fiction

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 2 (2013)

I began this groundbreaking series with Book 4, but beginning with Book 2 would also be good. In fluent prose, Knausgaard recounts the events of his mid- to late-thirties, addressing such themes as love, parenting, masculinity, obligation, and modern values.

In Book 2 we learn how My Struggle arose from Knausgaard's life, from his painful artistic struggles, and from his growing dissatisfaction with fiction and the traditional novel form. The unstated subject of this series appears to be reality itself—or the means by which art achieves verisimilitude.

Rachel Cusk, who posited another brilliant solution to the problem of the novel, reviews the book insightfully here. And here is a second review in the NY Times.

Buy it online: My Struggle: Book 2

Patrick Modiano, Young Once (1981)

Modiano convincingly conveys character, period, and place as he examines a critical year in the formation of two lives. Louis and Odile meet at age nineteen and drift together through their early adulthood in postwar Paris. Young Once offers enough plot to maintain the reader's interest, but plot isn't the reason people read Modiano, an author whose simple prose imbues certain moments with an almost unbearable emotional depth.

I don't see many reviews available online; Modiano's 2014 Nobel win seems to have caught the English-speaking literary world by surprise.

Buy it online: Young Once

Honorable mention: Chris Bachelder, The Throwback Special.

This poignantly comic, well written novel would make an excellent gift for your once-athletic husband (or from your once-athletic husband). Here is the NY Times review.

Buy it online: The Throwback Special.

Best Book—Children's

William Steig, Abel's Island (1976)

Browsing in a used bookstore while on vacation, I found Abel's Island by William Steig (1907–2003), author-illustrator of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Amos & Boris, Shrek!, and other beloved children's books. Abel's Island is about a wealthy, married mouse who becomes separated from his wife and his comforts by a violent storm—and by a fateful act that ultimately fuses the material with the transcendent. About 120 pages long, the book has charming illustrations, some terrific writing, and the author's usual aversion to baby-talk.

The edition I bought was the 1987 ninth printing in hardcover from Farrar/Straus/Giroux. I don't see that version available online, but there have been many editions published since then.

Buy it online: Abel's Island.

Best Books—Nonfiction

Dominick Tyler, Uncommon Ground: A Word-Lover's Guide to the British Landscape (2015). Tyler, a photographer, traveled Britain to produce this treasury of words that name features of the landscape. Often ancient, sometimes unpronounceable, his lexicon evokes by turns the bucolic, the desolate, the sylvan, and even the sinister. Tyler is interested in the way words allow us to attach to reality in general and to the landscape in particular. His pensive mini-essays, and his artful yet unpretentious photographs, offer pure browsing pleasure while advancing his proposition that "rebuilding our landscape vocabulary might enable more complicated conversations about nature to take place." Here is the Guardian review including a few of the photos. See my full review and buy the book on Amazon.

William M. Kramer, A Lone Traveler: Einstein in California (2004). A concise and pleasurable account of Einstein's three visits to California in the early 1930s. When the book opens, Einstein is still a German citizen and still an outspoken pacifist. By the time of the book's close, Einstein is a U.S. citizen and a proponent of military action against the Nazis. Kramer rightly judged that this transitional period in Einstein's life was worth a closer look. See my full review and buy the book on Amazon.

J. Kenji López-Alt, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science (2015). The Food Lab has quickly earned its place on our shelf alongside The Joy of CookingThe New Vegetarian EpicureIsa Does ItEveryday Italian, and Marcella Says. I credit this book for some of the best dishes I've ever prepared. Don't take my word for it; try this chili con carne recipe, and then buy the book online: The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.

Best Short Stories

Ann Beattie, "Panthers." Paris Review, Fall 2016.

David Szalay, "Lascia amor e siegui Marte." Paris Review, Winter 2015.

Best Poem

April Bernard, "Cold Morning." New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016. In this poem by a former Bennington colleague, the speaker is telling us about a morning when she saw a horse lying dead on the ground surrounded by its puzzled brethren. Later that same morning, she heard a strange news item about some buffalo that had blundered onto the interstate. Between these two recounted anecdotes, the speaker tells of her grief over the death of a friend. The emotion of the subject matter is controlled by a stately rhythm and lightened just a little by wit.

Best Essay

Ta-Nahesi Coates, "What O.J. Simpson Means to Me." The Atlantic, October 2016. An exemplary personal essay because the self is not the subject, but rather the lens on the subject. Read it online.

Patrick Deneen, "After Liberalism," the Nineteenth Annual Paul Holmer Lecture. A critique of Enlightenment liberalism from a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. Read the transcript online.

Daniel Mendelsohn, "How Greek Drama Saved the City." New York Review of Books, June 23, 2016. One of America's foremost essayists describes the theater in ancient Greece and how it differs from theater in today's society. Reading this was like being in college again, but in a good way. Read it online.

Luc Sante, "The Invisible Man." New York Review of Books, May 10, 1984. A William S. Burroughs critical biography in miniature. Read it online.

Best Long-Form Journalism 

Ariel Sabar, "The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus's Wife."
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
Author-journalist Ariel Sabar took it upon himself to investigate the provenance of 'The Gospel of Jesus's Wife.' What he discovered, you couldn't make up. Read it online.

Christopher Goffard, "Framed: A Mystery in Six Parts."
She was the PTA mom everybody knew. Who would want to harm her?
This is crack-cocaine in newspaper form. Read it online.

Best Music, Best Theater

No awards this year. We saw one concert and one play, and both were OK.

Best Movies

(Links point to reviews.)

The Assassin – Mythic tale with sumptuous period details and sublime scenery; I wasn't always clear on the plot.

The Lobster – Not sure that dystopian-quirky-black-comedy-parables are my thing, but the film succeeds very well on its own terms.

Moana – A pretty good road movie, suffused with the joy the makers must have felt in expressing such astonishing visual creativity.

Everybody Wants Some!! – Yet another Linklater gem. "Few filmmakers have so fully embraced the bittersweet joy of living in the moment."

The Hunter (2011) – A contemplatively beautiful quest film, badly misrepresented by a thriller-style marketing poster.

Creed – A great sports flick. Director Ryan Coogler did for the Rocky franchise what J. J. Abrams ought to have done for Star Wars.

Which leads us to:

Biggest disappointment: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There's some great movie-making in the scenes where Finn becomes Finn, and in the scenes that introduce Rae, but the film grows workmanlike as it enters recycling mode. As soon as I met Rae, I wanted the film to tell her story. Instead, the movie pastes Rae and everybody else into a story we've all heard before.

Best Meal in an Airport

Tie between Chelsea's Kitchen in PHX (the 2014 winner) and Columbia Cafe in TPA.

Columbia Cafe is the TPA outpost of Ybor City's famous Columbia Restaurant (said to be Florida's oldest). The whole staff was friendly and fast, and I had a delicious lechon asado (roasted pulled pork marinated with garlic and citrus topped with Mojo onions).

At Chelsea's Kitchen with my sister and her husband, I had a very good roast chicken before hopping on a red-eye flight. Something is working with the decor at Chelsea's, because while you're there it's easy to forget you're in an airport terminal.

Best Solo Drive

Quebec City to Halifax via the Gaspé Peninsula.

One day in 2015 I was perusing my Times Atlas of the World for ideas, and my eye was drawn to a strange offshoot of Quebec I'd never noticed before: the Gaspé Peninsula. Gazing into the map, I could almost see little fishing boats sheltering between headlands in the cold waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Maybe a rustic lodge in the highlands.... I made up my mind to drive the Gaspé. Sometimes, a place is exactly what you think it will be. Here's a brief overview of the region, and if you want to research the drive, this page is a good starting point. Note: Buy a French phrasebook! I met almost nobody in the Gaspé who spoke English.

Best Single-Artist Exhibition

Portraits by Alex Katz at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Great portraitists work on many fronts, including color, composition, and clothing. But what matters in portraiture is the face. In great portraits, the sitter's expression is often ambiguous or enigmatic. Mr. Katz achieves this effect through abstraction—yet he doesn't abstract away the individuality of his subjects. What the portraits lack in painterliness, they make up for in boldness of design. Here is a review of the exhibition I saw, and here is a profile of the 88-year-old artist.

Best of the Year—Period. 

This summer in Williamstown, my wife and I escaped from my college reunion to visit the Clark Art Institute for the opening of Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado. The exhibition included 28 pictures by Titian, Veláquez, Rubens, and other painters from the 1500s and 1600s. Twenty-four of the pictures were being shown in the United States for the first time. Some of these masterpieces were breathtaking—almost too overwhelming to look at.

The theme of the exhibition was the tension between Catholic culture and artistic representations of the body. However, the painting I lingered over the longest was not a nude, but the royal portrait of Philip IV from ca. 1653, considered one of Velázquez's greatest portraits.

Here is the exhibition website, and here is a review of the show from the Wall Street Journal. A review from the Boston Globe includes a few more images.

The art alone would have been worth the trip, but adding to the experience was the opening event, which was held in the early evening. As the summer sun descended behind the Berkshire hills, my wife and I strolled in the new museum expansion by architect Tadao Ando. Then we enjoyed drinks and dancing with a DJ. All in all, a fabulous night.


I like ending the list with something to watch or listen to, so here is a scene from Creed in which the main character is going for a training run. The action takes place in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia. This is one of those times when you're watching a B-movie and suddenly genius erupts.

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