It started with a reply to a question posed on Twitter.
Steve Gleason, the Spokane native and former NFL player, late last year was tweeting about books. He’d written a review of David James Duncan’s 1992 novel “The Brothers K” for MMQB, the NFL blog run by Sports Illustrated writer Peter King. In his review, Gleason writes that the coming-of-age book set in Camas, Washington, is his favorite book, and that he reads it every couple years.
In reply to another question on Twitter, he then rattled off a list of books at the top of his list: “ ‘Enders Game.’ ‘Oh The Places You’ll Go.’ ‘East of Eden.’ ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ The Gospels. ‘Ramayana.’ ”
So we tweeted to him a question: What was the best book you read in 2016?
It didn’t take him long to reply: “When Breath Becomes Air,” by Dr. Paul Kalanithi, his posthumously published memoir of his life after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at age 36.
That choice, of course, take on poignancy when made by Gleason, the 39-year-old who types with his eyes as his motor function has been decimated by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the terminal neurological disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
We then cast a wider net, putting our question to a handful of readers and writers in the Inland Northwest. The answers were diverse, and should help local book fans put together a list of titles to tackle in 2017.
Gary Stokes, general manager, KSPS: “The best book I read in 2016 is Stephen King’s ‘Bazaar of Broken Dreams.’ While I’ve always been a fan of his work (‘The Stand’ is my desert island book,) his short story collections are always a great read. This one is no exception – from the stories of things that would never happen (maybe) to the things that happen every day – with the Stephen King twist (check out ‘Batman and Robin Have an Altercation’). But the best part were the forewords for each story. This is where we get the process behind the story – where the ideas started, how the characters developed, and the light bulb moment that made it uniquely his. After a few stories, I started reading the foreword afterward – try it, you’ll like it.”
Ellen Welcker, poet, author of the new collection “Ram Hands”: “I’m reading ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ right now, by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions, 2016). IT IS MIRACULOUS. I love it so much, I am walking around my in-laws’ house quoting hilarious, devastating, stunning line upon line to any and all – like when the polar bear’s bookseller friend says, after recommending a book written by another animal, ‘what I mean is that this literature is valuable as literature, not because it was written from a minority perspective. In fact, the main character is never an animal. During the process by which an animal is transformed into a nonanimal or a human into a nonhuman, memory gets lost, and its this memory that is the main character.’ ”
Gary Graham, editor emeritus, The Spokesman-Review: “ ‘King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero,’ by David Remnick. Shortly after Ali died last June, I asked two of my friends who are boxing fans to recommend what they considered the best biography of Ali. Both pals voted for the Remnick book, published in 1999. Remnick is the editor of the New Yorker and a legendary long-form writer. Remnick’s approach to Ali’s colorful and dramatic life was masterful because he set up Ali’s story by profiling two boxers, Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, whose lives and careers were a critical prelude to the Ali era.”
Karen Mobley, artist, poet, writer: “This year, I re-read Amy Tan’s ‘The Kitchen God’s Wife.’ I read it when it came out in the early 1990s and keep coming back to it. It is the story of a family and their relationships but even more importantly, it is the story of people who are immigrants who live in the between world of a new place and an old place. The language is rich. The relationships tense but loving. I stayed up all night in January and re-read it with tears in my eyes. I’m not Chinese and this is not my story. Any woman who loved her mother and was simultaneously annoyed by her would love these characters.”
Tod Marshall, Washington poet laureate: “I really felt that I learned from these two books: Paula Meehan, EWU MFA alum and Poetry Chair of Ireland, recently published ‘Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees in Them’ (University of Dublin Press, 2016); this book collects the lectures from her time as poet laureate of Ireland, and it reminds us of the potential magic in art, as well as the intersection of poetry and activism. Suzanne Buffam’s ‘A Pillow Book’ (Canarium Books, 2016) is a collection that explores the boundaries between poetry and nonfiction while also asking us to think about the intersections between domesticity, power and creativity.”
Melissa DeMotte, owner of the Well-Read Moose bookstore in Coeur d’Alene: “ ‘A Man Called Ove,’ by Fredrik Bachman. It’s a heart-warming laugh-out-loud and grab-a-Kleenex book! Bachman does a great job slowly revealing the main character’s backstory. A great storyteller and I can see why it was a huge hit oversees before it was translated into English.”
Kip Hill, government reporter, The Spokesman-Review: “ ‘The Thrill of the Grass,’ by W.P. Kinsella. The Canadian author W.P. Kinsella died in September, an appropriate month for a man whose life’s work was devoted to the metaphysical implications of baseball. ‘The Thrill of the Grass’ is a 1984 collection of short stories from Kinsella, best known for the novel ‘Shoeless Joe’ that would become the Kevin Costner classic film ‘Field of Dreams.’ Like most collections, ‘The Thrill of the Grass’ is hit or miss in its execution. The title work is a somewhat unfinished piece of idolatry fiction that foresaw the events of the 1994 baseball strike. Other works, like ‘The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record,’ employ Kinsella’s signature magical realism to explore our faith in humanity and religion. The real reason it’s my favorite thing I read this year is its opening tale, ‘The Last Pennant Before Armageddon,’ which, until the events of this past fall, were the closest we’d come to envisioning a Chicago Cubs World Series title. Kinsella tells the delightful tale of manager Al Tiller, who’s haunted by prophetic visions of the end of the world if the North Siders win it all. Tiller works for a Willy Wonka-like owner who throws cash at the team willy-nilly until they become contenders with an unlikely cadre of characters. The closing lines of the story – in which Tiller must make a decision whether to coach his team to victory or stave off nuclear war – rival the real-life intrigue of the extra innings thriller that concluded this year’s Fall Classic.”
Lupito Flores, general manager, KYRS, Thin Air Community Radio: “I just read a great new book, if you’re into craft ale and Washington state history, that is. ‘Washington Beer: A Heady History of Evergreen State Brewing,’ by Michael F. Rizzo, is a fascinating history of brewing beer in Washington. Going way back before Prohibition, the book covers the origins of giants like Rainier and Olympia, and provides an encyclopedic timeline of the microbrewery craze, beginning with Grant’s Yakima Brewing Co. (which, in 1982 was the first brewpub in the country since Prohibition), all the way up to Bennidito’s new brewery in Spokane in the summer of 2015. Couldn’t put the book down!”
Shawn Vestal, author of “Daredevils” and columnist for The Spokesman-Review: “I thought Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘The Sympathizer’ was so brilliant – a slippery, scathing, darkly hilarious tale of divided loyalties among Vietnamese refugees in America following the war. Also among my favorites this year was Kirstin Valdez Quade’s ‘Night at the Fiestas,’ a wonderful collection of short stories, and Atticus Lish’s ‘Preparations for the Next Life,’ which I am reading with great admiration right now.”
Sharma Shields, Washington Book Award winner in fiction for “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac”: “I was a HUGE fan of Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian’ (the 2016 Man Booker Prize winner) and of Brit Bennett’s debut novel, ‘The Mothers.’ (Until now, 26-year-old Bennett has been better known for what the New York Times describes as her ‘unflinching personal essays about racial injustice, segregation and police violence.’) The first is set in South Korea, the latter in an African American community in Southern California. While these titles are different from one another stylistically and tonally, they both penetrate the stranglehold that family and society place on female corporeality. ‘The Vegetarian’ reads more like a thriller, with notes of terror that would make Shirley Jackson grin, and ‘The Mothers’ is a more traditional literary read, with characters deeply and patiently drawn. Both books are available at local libraries (I checked mine out from the Spokane County Library District’s Moran Prairie Library, where I work).”
Jess Walter, New York Times best-selling novelist (“Beautiful Ruins”) and National Book Award finalist (“The Zero”): “The best book I read in 2016 isn’t much of a surprise. Colson Whitehead’s devastating and inventive ‘The Underground Railroad’ has already won the National Book Award for fiction and should be on the short list for the Pulitzer Prize. It deserves all the praise it’s getting. It takes an almost childlike premise – what if the Underground Railroad were a real railroad – and turns it into a harrowing story of escape and more, an impressionistic tour of slavery’s legacy in America.”
Carolyn Lamberson, features editor, The Spokesman-Review: “I didn’t have much time to read for pleasure this year, but what I did read was terrific. So I’ll pick “Daredevils,” by Shawn Vestal. Now before you get all ‘Well, of course she picked that one – she works with him!’ on me, I’ll defend that choice by saying that nearly a year after reading Vestal’s coming-of-age tale, there are scenes that still stick with me. Three young people on the run hanging out in a divey Nevada casino with Evel Knievel, a horrific wild rabbit hunt, the repeated chapters “Evel Knievel Addresses an Adoring Nation.” In this story of a teenage girl growing up in a polygamist Mormon sect who is married off as punishment for her misdeeds, we have a richly drawn portrait of life in the American West.”
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