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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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Three Martinis, Three Narrators

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It was bizarre the way time was like an accordion, and distinct moments that felt so disparate sometimes folded together with a callous symmetry.

Three-Martini Lunch was largely the inspiration for my rewatching Mad Men. The novel is set in Greenwich Village in 1958, two years before the start of the show. Although Mad Men mostly inhabits a different social sphere, Don has a few run-ins with hipsters in the Village. Reading the book and watching the show at the same time enriched both experiences for me.

Suzanne Rindell is the author of The Other Typist, one of my favorite books in recent years. In her second novel, she turns her attention to a different era of New York City. Three-Martini Lunch intertwines the lives of a Greenwich Village hipster, an aspiring editor fresh off the bus from Indiana, and a talented writer from Harlem. While her first novel showed a gift for character voice, Rindell takes this a step further by creating three distinct voices in her latest work. She makes me absolutely feel the characters through their way of thinking and speaking. With Three-Martini Lunch, she brings together individuals from very different backgrounds to create a surprising and meaningful story.

Cliff Nelson has chosen the Village lifestyle, but he was raised in wealth with a successful book editor for a father. Eden Katz pursues a publishing career amid hints that her Jewish last name, not to mention being female, could be barriers. Miles Tillman was raised in Harlem, but his intellectualism and natural writing ability draw him into the Village crowd. The Other Typist was deliciously unnerving because of its unreliable narrator. Although Rindell explores similar ground with Cliff, his delusions of grandeur are more along the lines of hilarious or pathetic. The reader is invited to question the biases of all three narrators, which I think is one of the most valuable effects literature can have.

Suzanne Rindell is a literature nerd’s novelist. While all writing is in conversation with the work that came before it, Rindell is unusually candid about her literary inspirations. And I love that about her! Three-Martini Lunch has echoes of Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath, and James Baldwin—all of these cited by Rindell in the acknowledgments. Having read The Bell Jar earlier this year, I enjoyed seeing the parallels between Eden and Esther Greenwood’s experiences as young women trying to enter the elite world of writers and editors. Not to mention, Eden lives at the Barbizon Hotel for Women, just as Plath did when she stayed in New York for a summer internship. (Esther lived in a fictionalized version of the Barbizon.)

Although I was more familiar with the cultural reference points for Cliff and Eden’s stories, Miles was the emotional heart of the story. As he attempts to learn more about his late father, he is forced to confront the complexities of his own identity. Miles and Cliff are excellent foils. At first glance Miles certainly seems like a more reliable narrator, but his restrained manner extends to the way he tells the story. I may want to work backwards to the source material and read some James Baldwin. Probably a sign that I didn’t want this book to end.

One great book makes a new favorite book. Two great books makes a new favorite author. Pairing history with fascinatingly flawed characters and all things identity-themed, Suzanne Rindell is right in my sweet spot.

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