Top Books of 2016

Every year, I like to come up with a list of the top books I’ve read for the year. Every year, it’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction, recently published books and older works, and comics. I don’t try to limit it to ten books because I may have read many more amazing works. Below I’ll note the best books I’ve read this year. I’m going to exclude anything by JK Rowling since she’s the best.

  1. The Magician King, Lev Grossman
    1. This is last book of the Magicians trilogy. Imagine Hogwarts but with sex, drugs, and teenage angst. I really enjoyed reading the series but the last book was my favorite. Magical worlds, bravery, did I mention teenage angst?
  2. The Underground Abductor, Nathan Hale
    1. This is YA graphic novel is one of many in the Hazardous Tales series. Each book is a story in US history (occasionally European history) that you may not know. It’s clever, informative, and worth checking out. The Underground Abductor is the story of Harriet Tubman. I had learned about her in school but somehow didn’t learn her entire history. Well worth checking out.
  3. The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon
    1. This work was astonishing. Imagine a world where print media is the past (hmm) and smartphone like technology reigns supreme. Editor Doug Johnson is publishing the last edition of the English Dictionary but he goes missing. His daughter Anana has only the word ALICE to uncover the truth. And there’s a word plague.
  4. H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald
    1. This memoir is about Helen MacDonald’s attempt to train a goshawk while dealing with her father’s sudden death. It’s a very heartfelt book about death, our relationship to animals. I saw her speak earlier this year. She’s got an amazing dry wit. I can’t wait to read what she has next.
  5. Unicorn V. Goblins, Dana Simpson
    1. I know I’ve talked about Dana Simpson before. This work is another published comics of Phoebe and Her Unicorn. It’s like a Calvin and Hobbes of today.
  6. Nimona, Noelle Stevenson
    1. The title character decides to become the sidekick of super villain Lord Ballister Blackheart. But good and evil aren’t quite what they seem. Nor is Nimona.
  7. The Unseen City, Nathanael Johnson
    1. This nonfiction book explores the life in the urban world in a clever way. It starts with his baby daughter being fascinated by the world around her. Each chapter looks at a different organism: pigeons, snails, and much more. See amazing things in our own backyard.
  8. Two Years, Eight months and 28 Days, Salman Rushdie
    1. This work is a modern telling of 1001 Arabian nights with a large touch of the apocalypse. It’s got good and evil Djinns, new wondrous and terrifying worlds.
  9. Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, Dianne Hales
    1. This nonfiction work is about Dianne Hales’ working to uncover as much as possible about the woman behind the famous painting. You learn about the status and role of women in Leonardo’s time plus a bit about the famous artist himself.
  10. Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro
    1. It’s scary how this relevant this series is now. Imagine a dystopia where misogyny wins the day. If you are a noncompliant woman, you are sent to a prison floating in space. Very on point series.
  11. Umbrella Academy Volumes 1 and 2, Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá
    1. Holy cow. These graphic novels blew me away. 43 superpowered children are suddenly born to women who weren’t pregnant. Sir Reginald Hargreaves adopts 7 of the surviving children and turns them into a crime fighting superhero team. But it doesn’t go well at all and they all disband.
  12. A Darker Shade of Magic/The Gathering of Shadows, V.E. Schwab
    1. This trilogy (book 3 is coming out in February) centers on Kell, a special magician who can travel between three Londons. Each London has a different relationship with magic. His London “Red London” is full of magic. Grey London has long since forgotten magic. White London is losing magic violently. But there are rumors of fourth London: Black London where magic went untamed and ruined everything.
  13. Ragseed, Margaret Atwood
    1. This is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This time, it centers around a theater director unceremoniously kicked out of his own festival who ends up teaching Shakespeare at a correctional facility.
  14. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volumes 1-4, Ryan North and Erica Henderson
    1. What a delight! I never thought I’d go for the superhero comics but here we are. Ryan North is one of the writers. Squirrel Girls is hilarious and heartfelt. Pure joy in reading these comics.
  15. March Volume 1, John Lewis
    1. This first in a graphic novel trilogy looks at the history of civil rights in America. It’s thoughtful, informative, and compelling. The critics are likening it to Persepolis. Well worth checking out.

Art Spiegelman’s Wordless

This past Saturday, I went to see Art Spiegelman at the University of Chicago. He’s one of my favorite cartoonists; he wrote Maus which is an incredibly moving work about the Holocaust. I had missed him in the past when he spoke at UC so I wasn’t going to miss it this time. He gave a lecture/performance called “Wordless” and it was simply brilliant.

The piece was basically a celebration of wordless comics with a jazz band, the Microscopic Septet led by Philip Johnston. Art Spiegelman showed us the works of numerous artists who had been largely forgotten, narrated with a sextet. It was simply incredible.

The most moving piece was Mr. Spiegelman’s own work about a man with a fedora floating over his head. At one point, the man goes to a jazz club and there is a sextet on stage with the same instrumentation. When the bass player did a solo, a squiggly line came out of caricature of the bass player. When the baritone saxophone did a solo, the same thing happened. It was simply magical.

This fusion of jazz and comics was brilliant. I’m still feeling awed by it. I don’t tend to like contemporary/experimental jazz but this worked.  It makes so much sense to take a very modern medium, jazz, and juxtapose it with comics, which are relatively modern medium. They fed off each other; they both made each other make sense. I want to work with this idea in my own work with my alto saxophone.

He showed the work of several artists ranging from the 19th century through the mid 20th century. These artists put together entire books of pictures. For instance, Lynn Ward created novels of woodcuts, often dealing with morality tales. One of them was God’s Man about a young artist who makes a deal with a mysterious stranger and tries to find his fortune in the city. It’s very beautiful; his pastoral scenes are breath-taking. However, I’m tired of narratives that focus on the corrupting influence of the city compared to the peace and morality of the countryside.

Art Spiegelman also showed Si Lewen’s The Parade which was powerful. It shows how something seemingly innocent as a parade can turn into massive destruction and suffering. I don’t think I’ve seen such an amazing visual representation of the Nazi indoctrination process before.

There were pieces that weren’t so depressing. One whose name I cannot recall featured a woodcutter who has to save his lady love from a corrupt man in the city. (Once again that pastoral peace, corrupt city trope again). It was a wonderful celebration of these lesser known novels.

My only complaint about the whole program was the lack of female cartoonist. This may sound like nit-picking but it’s really important. Women are frequently left off narratives and that can only be corrected by thought.  Now, I don’t know a lot about wordless novels so maybe there aren’t many famous female artists. However, Art Spiegelman specifically wanted to celebrate these artists who have largely faded from public consciousness; it would have been nice if he could have rescued a female artists from obscurity too.

Anyway, if you have the chance, you should go and see this marvelous program.