As the two librarian selectors for adult fiction and nonfiction at the Kitsap Regional Library, Gail Goodrick and I are usually focused on the future, on what’s coming out next, working to add titles to the collection when they are fresh and new. As the year winds to a close, we recently took a break to reflect back on some of the books that have stood out, focusing on books that have staying power, because of their subjects, quality of writing and relevance to the world we live in today.
Gail’s Nonfiction Favorites:
Two of the outstanding books in 2016 deal with the existence of poverty and the huge income gaps in America—not just today, but historically as well. We all recognize that it is possible to succeed through hard work and ability but the circumstance of your origins can make it very difficult. “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg uncovers the long-held prejudices against poor whites in our “class-less” society. “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J. D. Vance gives a true life picture of how one person succeeded in raising himself from a poverty-stricken childhood in Appalachia to become a Yale Law School graduate. Drug and alcohol abuse and family violence notwithstanding, Vance learned to overcome the struggles and helplessness of this underclass.
Another memorable title this year is “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. This moving memoir, written by a young medical student given a terminal cancer diagnosis while completing his residency, demonstrates that one can live fully and gratefully despite having one’s mortality as a constant reminder. The book is made even more poignant by the epilogue written by his wife following Kalanithi’s passing shortly after she became pregnant.
If you’re looking for a great history, look no further than “Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution” by Nathaniel Philbrick. While Washington is almost universally admired and Benedict Arnold scorned as a traitor, Philbrick shows us that this is a gross simplification. Told with historic accuracy but reading like a novel, this is popular history at its best.
Two science focused books stand out this year. The Washington Post has dubbed Mary Roach as “America’s funniest science writer” and she has proved it again with her book “Grunt; The Curious Science of Humans at War.” Roach examines the world of military scientists who study ways to keep soldiers dry, fed and safe while in battle. She even participates in some of these experiments. In the end, she honors the dedication and accomplishments of the military people who work to keep soldiers safe. “The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee follows his previous Pulitzer Prize winning biography of cancer “The Emperor of All Maladies.” His new book is another “biography” of an important aspect of scientific inquiry. Mukherjee traces the discoveries along the way which led to our current understanding of the gene. Because mental illness has affected Mukherjee’s own family, he is able to place his scientific knowledge in the real world and demonstrate how genetic research might influence our future health. This book is fascinating, authoritative and thought-provoking.
Sarah’s Fiction Favorites:
Two amazing novels this year use history as doors into a greater understanding of the human condition. In “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi, the lives of two half-sisters – one sold into slavery in the United States, the other remaining in Ghana, form the backbone of this striking debut. A dual history of two countries as told through the descendants of the sisters, it is a beautifully written novel of compassion and a timely exploration of these cultural histories. Another debut novel, “The Nix” by Nathan Hill uses the protest movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, as experienced by an activist mother and the son she abandoned at 11, to frame a story of great sweep with something to say about Everything, from politics to video games. Funny and at times heart wrenching, it ponders the interconnectedness of our actions and the ever changing transformation of the self.
For those who love speculative fiction, this year produced “Version Control” by Dexter Palmer. In a future very close to our present, Rebecca can’t help but feel like something is a little ‘off.’ Her husband, absorbed in scientific experiments surrounding a causality violation device, does not seem to be as she remembers him. She’s not alone, as part of her work with an online dating site, her days are full of customers who feel like their online profiles are not themselves. Using the voices of multiple, complex, fully imagined, characters and looping timelines, Palmer circles around the main mystery at the heart of the novel and explores themes of time, religion, race, science, love, and free will.
Another notable novel is “Another Brooklyn” by Jacqueline Woodson. Short and poetic, it tells the poignant story of four childhood friends growing up during the 70s. August, Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela are each other's lifelines as they navigate the often rough waters of home and neighborhood. Highly evocative of the place and time, the novel becomes universal through its portrayal of friendship, coming-of-age and loss.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” by Iain Reid is at once a psychological thriller and literary novel. Another debut novel, the story begins with a nameless young woman going to visit her boyfriend’s parents in the country. Told in an increasingly uneasy stream of consciousness, an overwhelming sense of dread compels the reader to move forward as the young woman navigates a chilling internal and external landscape. Every detail is important in this novel, it is one of those books that begs for re-reading as it explores the very nature of identity and truth.