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Best of 2016: Book Edition, Part 2

This year I’m in the unusual position of having already written posts about almost every book in my top 5. Sometimes it’s harder to write about books that I really love because I just want to say, “It’s sooooo good,” but I’m happy to have longer musings to offer. Here are my favorite books of 2016!

5. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Dead Wake Cover

I feel like I’ve read a great deal about World War II and very little about World War I. Thankfully Erik Larson, the wizard of history writing, turned his attention to that era. Dead Wake follows the events leading up to the sinking of the Lusitania, one of the catalysts for the U.S. entering the war in Europe. This being Eric Larson, he gives the full scope of the event, from the ship’s passengers to military intelligence to the soldiers aboard the German submarine. I consider it one of his most fascinating works. (You can read my full review here.)

4. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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As Gillian Flynn did in Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins plays with timelines and perspectives. The Girl on the Train follows Rachel, an alcoholic woman who becomes interested in a couple she sees from the train every day. Although this thriller is mainly focused on plot, I keenly felt Rachel’s loneliness and desperation. Other perspectives come from Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex, and Megan, the girl she watches from the train. I relished looking into these flawed women’s psyches. (You can read my book-to-film comparison here.)

3. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

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Eowyn Ivey made us wait four years for her second novel, but this was worth the wait. To the Bright Edge of the World is another piece of exquisite historical fiction set in Alaska. While her first novel focused on quiet moments, this one has plenty of action as Colonel Allen Forrester leads an expedition up the Wolverine River. Yet their journey also contains simple moments of human connection. Back at the military barracks, his wife Sophie pursues an interest in photography that raises eyebrows with the other wives. A beautifully written, beautifully human novel with a hint of the uncanny. (You can read my full review here.)

2. Room by Emma Donoghue

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Room is a triumph of character voice. The story of a woman held captive in a single room is narrated by her five-year-old son Jack, who has never known the outside world. Even though I committed the cardinal sin of watching the movie first, I could appreciate what Emma Donoghue achieved with this novel. Jack has a distinctive way of speaking that reflects his age and bizarre upbringing. I wanted to jump through the page and hug him, but that’s not to say that the story is saccharine. As was mirrored in the film, Ma and Jack are perfectly imperfect.

1. Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

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Suzanne Rindell is my favorite new author on the literary fiction scene. Three-Martini Lunch deals with three characters searching for literary success in 1958 New York City. As in her first novel The Other Typist, Rindell explores the ways that we present ourselves to others and how small decisions shape our lives. The narrators range from Cliff, a deluded Greenwich Village hipster, to Miles, a black man coming to terms with his identity. Even as they made mistakes, I cared so much for these characters and hated to leave their world. I suspect this isn’t the last time Suzanne Rindell makes my list. (You can read my full review here.)

Thanks for joining me on this year-end review!

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Room Leaves Me in Awe (and Tears)

Room 1

The last year or two have been rather blah years for movies, at least in terms of what interests me. That is, until this awards season brought a whole slew of intriguing movies. As soon as I watched the trailer for Room, it became one of the films I most wanted to see. Although I like to read the book first when it comes to adaptations, it’s hard to make that a rule with so many films coming from source material. The buzz about the lead performances made Room too good to pass up.

Room is about a young woman who has been held captive in one room for seven years. Her five-year-old son Jack has never known the outside world, and for his protection she lets him believe that there’s nothing beyond Room. Emma Donoghue’s novel is written from Jack’s perspective. The film also takes on his point of view through voiceovers and kid’s-eye-view shots. This infuses childish wonderment into a nightmare scenario, and it gives the viewer some breathing room. The focus isn’t on the depravity of their captor, which any adult viewer can deduce without being told, but on the relationship between Jack and Ma.

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This relationship was my entire motivation for seeing the film. Brie Larson gives up all vanity to play Ma, and she’s got the haunted eyes down. Jacob Tremblay is sweet and rough, incredibly natural for a child actor. Although there’s a fierce love between them, the film never portrays their relationship as perfect. Ma gets frustrated and breaks down at times; Jack is stubborn and throws the occasional tantrum. In hindsight, I’m so relieved that Ma wasn’t made into a martyr or Jack into a paragon of cuteness. The story is made all the more devastating by how real their characters seem. Brie Larson earned that Oscar.

The film begins with a series of obscure closeups, giving the viewer a sense of disorientation and claustrophobia that is indicative of life in Room. In a wider frame, it’s a world of grubby pastels, an aesthetic that honors both Ma’s efforts to give Jack a happy childhood and the reality of their situation. When Ma and Jack attempt to escape, the wider world is startling after the confines of Room. Perhaps the greatest feat of this film is making the viewer fully understand Jack’s confusion about the outside world and apprehension about leaving his home.

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As you might imagine, Room isn’t a lighthearted viewing experience. Apparently showing a child in distress is a surefire way to make me weep. (Turns out it was a very good idea to rent it online instead of going to the theater.) Yet Room is also the best movie I’ve seen so far in 2016, and I won’t be forgetting it.

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