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  • John Wood

Top Ten Books of 2016

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

10. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, Candice Millard At age 24, Winston Churchill was utterly convinced it was his destiny to become prime minister of England, despite the fact he had just lost his first Parliamentary election campaign. He believed that to achieve his goal - or in modern terms, to build his brand - he would need to do something spectacular on the battlefield. Despite having deliberately placed himself in extreme danger as a British Army officer in colonial wars in India and Sudan, glory and fame had eluded him. So when the British declared war against the Boer Republic in southern Africa, Churchill wasted no time in earning a journalist’s commission. In this jaunty little read by Candice Millard (River of Doubt), we enjoy a history lesson from the days when a nation would declare war, and then wait six weeks for their ships to deliver the troops. Churchill manages to not only cross the line from journalist to combatant, but to then make himself the story. He plots a daring escape from a POW camp, only to then have to traverse hundreds of miles of enemy territory, alone, with nothing but a crumpled wad of cash, four slabs of chocolate, and his wits to guide him across the border into Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). If all history was this compelling, readers would consume a lot more of it.

9. Ocean of Words, Ha Jin I have always been a fan of Ha Jin, especially for his novels Waiting, A Free Life and The Bridegroom.  So a tip of my hat to London’s Daunt Books (once again my bookstore of the year!) for introducing me to his first book.  Ocean of Words is a compact collection of short stories set on the frozen border of Russia and China. It’s the the early 1970s, Mao is still in charge, and the two giants were poised on the brink of war (so much for socialist brotherhood!). The characters in this thrilling collection of stories are Chinese soldiers who must constantly scrutinize the enemy even as they themselves are watched for signs of the fatal disease of bourgeois liberalism.  Terrified when they’re fighting, bored when they’re not, and constantly at the whim of petty diktats from their commanders, these young men quickly gained my sympathy despite their numerous (and often very funny) flaws. 

8. Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

My second favorite novel of the year.  British novelist Helen Oyeyemi has delivered everything I humbly believe every novel should have – compelling characters, believable dialogue, tight editing, no superfluous words or scenes, and a plot that constantly moves forward.  In this book, dear reader, you get all of that, plus a little bit of mystery that is lovingly revealed at a teasing pace. The book touches on modern issues of race in America that IMHO deserve far more praise than this year’s fiction Pulitzer winner The Sellout (which wins my award for most over-rated book this year and possibly this decade).  The day Oyeyemi’s next novel comes out, I’ll be standing in line.

7. The Corpse Walker, Liao Yiwu

I have long devoured any book I could get my hands on from the legendary oral historian and Chicago-based radio personality Studs Terkel. In classics like Working and The Good War he would interview “ordinary Americans” in the simplest way: he would turn on a tape recorder, ask some basic “fire starter” questions, and then get the hell out of the way.  The transcripts that evolved revealed that even the most ordinary-seeming people had stories to tell and histories that were worth learning. So imagine how delighted I was, nearly two years into my second China stint, to discover that Liao Yiwu had borrowed Terkel’s methods to interview ordinary Chinese citizens. From bathroom attendants to political dissidents to people employed as corpse walkers (yes, that is an actual profession), Yiwu provides a lens on modern China that few others can offer. My absolute favorite (and by itself worth the price of the book) – was his interview with a group of professional mourners - people who are paid to attend the funerals of complete strangers, and “wail and mourn even louder than family members”, often for days on end (and you thought your job was tough!).

6. The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra

Amy and I were already fans of Anthony Marra, having both rated his brilliant A Constellation of Vital Phenomena on our Top Three list of 2014. Our love affair only deepened after reading his latest collection of short stories. Marra takes the reader on a hyper-caffeinated journey through the Russia of the last hundred years, introducing us to a crazy quilt of compelling characters. As the reader goes deeper into the book, unexpected linkages between what had seemed independent chapters begin to spring up. My reaction was to rush forward faster, wondering what other surprises would be revealed. As with Constellation, the war in Chechnya plays a role, as do mix tapes, the erasing of disgraced characters from the historical record, the quotidian life of soldiers, and teenage boys fascination with space travel during the Sputnik era.

5. The Train to Crystal City, Jan Jarboe Russell

Starting in 1942, trains carrying thousands of families from across America pulled into the dusty scrub-brush backwater town of Crystal City, on the southern tip of Texas.  These involuntary passengers were being forcibly incarcerated in a secret guarded camp approved by President Roosevelt.  For six years, American citizens, mostly of Japanese and German origin, were held in America’s only “family internment camp”.   Making this human rights tragedy even worse is the fact that many of them were used as trade bait – offered to the governments of Germany, Japan and Italy in exchange for those viewed as “more important Americans” – diplomats, doctors, missionaries and captured soldiers.  An American family that had never seen Germany could be whisked away and soon be living behind enemy lines.  This sounds like a tragedy out of an opera, but unfortunately it actually happened.  The story of these family’s lives is told in a sympathetic and compelling way by Jan Russell.  Just like one of my top books from 2015 – The Book of Unknown Americans – this story forced me to think about what it means to be an American, and which values will we challenge ourselves to stand up for, even when it’s difficult or inconvenient.

4. Deep Down Dark, Héctor Tobar

When Chile’s San Jose mine collapsed in August 2010, 33 miners were trapped under thousands of feet of rock.  The world sat riveted to their television sets and computer screens, while beneath the Atacama desert the miners remained trapped for 69 very long days.  Although the cameras and journalists who flocked to the site could tell us what was happening above the ground, we could only speculate on what was taking place deep down in the dark.  Had any of the miners survived? If so, did they have adequate food and water?  Would they ever see their families again? Fortunately for us, Héctor Tobar (a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist) has written this book, based on interviews with the survivors and their families. The result is described by GoodReads as “a miraculous and emotionally textured account of the thirty-three men who came to think of the San José mine as a kind of coffin, as a cave inflicting constant and thundering aural torment, and as a church where they sought redemption through prayer while the world watched from above.”

3. The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline, Jonathan Tepperman

It can be endlessly frustrating to constantly witness governmental incompetence (commute to JFK, anyone?). But on occasion governments actually get some big things right.  Jonathan Tepperman traveled the world to find examples and to interview the people who had made it happen.   How has Rwanda recovered from one of the worst genocides of the last century? How did land-locked and resource-poor Singapore rise in two generations to have a per capita GDP rivaling Switzerland? How has Canada so eagerly embraced immigration and created a peaceful and multi-cultural society? Tepperman is a most amiable and informative guide who sheds light on what it looks like when government actually works.  Ten challenges, ten nations, ten chapters – highly recommend as an airplane read.

Related (but still shameless) plug – My TEDx UNC Closing Keynote dealt with governments and institutions that can’t seem to get things done.  Titled What the World Needs Now is GSD (Get Shit Done), its now edited and on the web here:

2. Becoming Nicole:  The Transformation of an American Family, Amy Ellis Nutt

Amy Ellis Nutt, a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer for the Washington Post, has delivered a masterpiece. She tells the story of an upstate New York family whose lives are unexpectedly torn apart by an unwelcome surprise.  When Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted twin boys they were convinced their lives were complete.  But it wasn’t long before they noticed a marked difference between the two. Jonas preferred sports and trucks and many of the things little boys were “supposed” to like.  But Wyatt enjoyed Little Mermaid, playing dress up, and princess dolls.  By age 6, Wyatt grew his hair long and would cry if he was not allowed to wear a dress to school.  Nutt chronicles the family’s struggle – from the negativity of the machismo-obsessed father, the recation from denizens of their small and conservative town, and the heroic support from many of their fellow students.  If you want to better understand trans-gender issues, you’d be hard pressed to find a more compelling read.   I could not put this book down and found myself constantly plotting to blow off my real responsibilities to pick it back up. 

1. The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes

Dmitri Shostakovich must have been nervous the evening of the premier of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Seated prominently in the front row was Comrade Joseph Stalin, a man known for delivering negative reviews via one-way train tickets to Siberia. And in the midst of the second act, Stalin wordlessly walked out. Thus opens my favorite novel of the year, a brilliant blending of history, character and struggles with power that is beautifully delivered by Julian Barnes. Within days, a damning article in Pravda (likely written by Stalin himself) condemns the opera as “non-political and confusing” because it “tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music”. When we first meet Shostakovich, he is putting his wife and children to bed before departing to stand by his apartment’s lift, “at his feet a small case containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away.”   Touchingly, he does not want the arrest (which never actually comes) to disturb his family’s slumber.  Just as with one of my top books of 2011 – The Sense of an Ending – Barnes has written a slender novel that is well-paced, tightly-scripted and proof that great novels (looking at you Franzen!) don’t have to be 600 pages long. 

Honorable Mentions – On the Move (Oliver Sacks), Barbarian Days (William Finnegan), Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Carrie Brownstein)

OK, if you are still with me……I hope you will be inspired to read at least a few of these, and if you do and have thoughts or commentary to share, please let me know!

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