TOM'S 2016 TOP 10
Tom Nissley's ten favorite reads from 2016 (not necessarily published in 2016) in alphabetical order by author.
Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street's Great Foreclosure Fraud
by David Dayen
Want to get angry? Dayen's character-driven expose takes up where Michael Lewis's Big Short left off, in the chaotic, greedy aftermath of the real estate collapse. Among the millions—millions!—of homeowners herded into foreclosure as home values collapsed and sketchy mortgages came due, three Floridians followed the paper trail of their own foreclosures into a swamp of fraud and corruption, in which banks, mortgage servicers, and complicit judges swept aside law and centuries of legal precedent to hustle families out of their homes. You'll shake your head at the brazen deceit and at the rarity of the small but significant victories Dayen's three whistleblowers earned. And then you might pour yourself a stiff drink.
The Last Samurai
by Helen DeWitt
How wonderful to have DeWitt's debut novel (which has nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie) back in print! The story of a brilliant (too brilliant?) mother trying to educate her brilliant (too brilliant?) son as he looks for a father figure (both of them using Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai as a model) is funny, moving, thrilling, and enlightening. And of course brilliant, but not in a merely show-offy way. Brilliance—its burdens, its excitement, its hungry necessity, its self-destructive impatience—is what gives the story its poignancy and its power. It's one of my favorite books of the century so far, and I expect it will remain so no matter how much of this century I see.
What Belongs to You
by Garth Greenwell
Garth Greenwell first came on my radar when he wrote an almost-convincing defense of Hanya Yanigahara's A Little Life. Now his own novel has come out, and I don't need anyone to convince me: it's fantastic. The story of a young American's—well, "affair" isn't the right word for a relationship whose terms, financial and otherwise, are always being negotiated—desire for a Bulgarian man he meets in a public bathroom in Sofia, What Belongs to You is written in thrillingly exact and observant language, equally knowing about human tenderness and cruelty. It's my first favorite book of the year, and we're only just getting started.
by Hope Jahren
Oh, this is a good one, the sort of book you feel has been welling up inside its author, waiting to burst out. An unlikely but wonderful amalgam of plant science (Jahren's specialty and passion) and memoir, Lab Girl is both finely crafted and raw: Jahren is a star scientist with a gift for explaining the miraculous poetry of plants, but she is equally eloquent about the desperate, single-minded passion that has driven her career and that sometimes seems like the only thing that's holding the lives of her and her lifelong work partner, Bill, together. The comparison to Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk (and to Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones, and Butter) is obvious, but that doesn't mean I won't make it when I push this book into your hands for the rest of the year.
The Golden Age
by Joan London
A polio hospital for children in Western Australia in the 1950s might not seem the most promising territory for a story of heart-catching beauty, but that's exactly what London's third novel is. I hate to crib from a publisher's blurb, but I can't improve on what Helen Garner calls it: "deeply benevolent." It's a story as sad as it is sweet, but there is a rare goodness to so many of the people within the hospital's walls, not least the two twelve-year-olds, the elders in this isolated society, who fall believably in love. With its wondrously exact language and its awareness of the bitterness of life alongside its beauty, The Golden Age reads like a minor-key companion to Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
The Sport of Kings
by C.E. Morgan
"Is all this too purple, too florid?" C.E. Morgan suddenly, cheekily asks two-thirds of the way through her proudly purple and florid novel. "Do you prefer your tales lean, muscular, and dry?" If you do, you're in the wrong place if you open up The Sport of Kings, but I was hungry for a big and big-hearted novel to settle into, and boy did I get one. It's an epic story of Kentucky breeding, both human and equine, and Morgan takes to it with giant gulps of language, drama, and emotion. The next book I read is likely to feel small and timid by comparison with this thrilling, messy, brilliant yawp of a tale.
John Aubrey, My Own Life
by Ruth Scurr
One of the most acclaimed books in the UK last year (Mary Beard called it a "game-changer") turns out to be as good as advertised. John Aubrey, one of the first modern biographers, was nearly lost to history himself, but Scurr has reclaimed his life, piecing together a biography as if it were his diary. And what a diary! Aubrey is a charming, fully human companion, funny, observant, anxious, and frank, equally sure of the truth of witchcraft and the new modern science. He knew everyone in Britain's tumultuous 17th century—Newton, Hobbes, Hooke, Milton, William Penn, Christopher Wren—and tirelessly gathered evidence of Britain's past while avoiding his creditors and the political dangers of his revolutionary time. He would have loved this book.
Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams
by Nick Tosches
You wouldn't think that the easy-going life of Dean Martin, who skated through a haze of booze, broads, and untold millions with a wink and a shrug, would provide such depths, but for Tosches, drawn to his broody loneliness and his effortless, Old World masculinity, he's the dream subject. His research was tireless—he got everybody to talk and found out how much Dino was paid for every gig, from small-time Ohio roadhouses to his soused, self-mocking headlining at the Sands—and those concrete details ground his lyrical descents into the abyss of Dino's nihilism and make them as devastating as his fantastic subtitle promises.
by Brad Watson
Do you want to read a book about good people in a hard but beautiful world? On a small southern farm in 1915, Jane Chisholm is born with an affliction that sets her apart, and is likely to continue to do so. How will she make a life? It's a question she proves more capable of answering than many others around her (who all carry their own human afflictions), and in Watson's graceful, compassionate hands, the story of her development is lonely and melancholy and so radiant with wonder and resolve that you might be forgiven if you think you've found a tiny utopia on the rough ground of east-central Mississippi.
The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
The escape from slavery is one of the most powerful of American stories, but it usually leads in a single direction: north. Whitehead's railroad, as you might guess from the cover image, doesn't run in such a straight line. An escape might lead to a greater hell, or to an oddly unsettling heaven. Whitehead doesn't shy from the worst of slavery's horrors, but he nudges the history we know slightly off track (his underground railroad, for one thing, really isa railroad), opening up a space of strange uncertainty that he fills with a vividly human cast of characters, especially his hero, Cora. It's a colossally ambitious story, but Whitehead tells it with a light step, a heavy heart, and a breathtaking clarity.