The Books of 2016: Fiction

I read more non-fiction than fiction, but the books that have stuck me most strongly this year tended to be from the latter category. To wit, here are my favorite fiction reads of 2016 (note: doesn’t mean they came out in 2016, just that that’s when I read ’em):

The Dog Starsby Peter Heller

I love me some apocalyptic fiction, and The Dog Stars is one of the finest examples of the genre, particularly those focused on the impact of a global catastrophe on a very small group of people. If you like this genre mostly for the disaster-porn aspect of reading about society collapsing and all the bad shit that attends that, this isn’t the book for you (not judging you for that; I love that shit, too, but that’s just not what this book is about).

If, rather, you’re cool with picking up the story of how basically one man, his dog, and the less than a dozen folks he’ll interact with for the rest of his life post-apocalypse get on in the face of such sorrow, this IS the book for you. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but this book gives the reader at least a smidge of hope that, even if everything were to crumble, if you can survive that, there are ways to hold on to your humanity and even perhaps find happiness even given everything you had grown to love and live with being destroyed.

The Nix: A novel, by Nathan Hill

I’m an admitted sucker for the classic Iowa MFA-style of “Big Books About Families”. If this debut is any indication, Mr. Hill is going to be an author on my auto-buy list for years to come. Imagine a Franzen novel where you didn’t loathe every major character and wish them harm. Where the author didn’t revel in their misery. Where bad shit happens, because bad shit happens to everyone, but there may actually be reasons and redemptions along the way.

That’s how The Nix read to me. Spanning generations of a family, from Norway in the 40’s to Chicago in the late 60’s to modern suburbia and even the Internet itself as a place where people form relationships, The Nix explores the many ways the urge to conform to the mores of a time and place can affect people, from outright rebelling against them to taking comfort in such boundaries, if at a cost that will be paid tenfold later in life.

If you at all like the sort of fiction that NPR can’t shut up about, embrace that about yourself and pick this book up. It was wonderful.

Tomorrow, we’ll hit some books that didn’t quite make the cut as my personal Best Of for last year, but are still totally worth reading.


The Books of 2016: Non-Fiction

Welp, due to the usual causes of laziness and poor follow-up, I’m waaaay behind on reviewing the books I read in 2016. So, we’ll just do a Greatest Hits type thing this week to wrap that up before I fall behind on 2017 as well. Which I will. Because I suck.

Anywho. These are the best non-fiction books I read this year.

The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India
by John Wilson

Wilson’s case here is simply that the entire British experience in India was an orgy of unplanned violence and accidental conquest that cared solely about perpetuating itself. So, a revisionist take for sure, but a much-needed one, even if Wilson often commits the authorial foul of ascribing the worst possible motives to English agency at all times while excusing/diminishing those of the Indians themselves.

I’m not sure that Wilson makes his case entirely, but it’s enjoyable regardless to wade through the reams of evidence he piles up to make his point that the entire British legacy in India amounts to little more than a bureaucratic predilection towards writing things down and never referring to them again, alongside an almost incalculable pile of bloodshed and death via, if not outright violence and racism, then criminal administrative indifference to the fate of the governed.

Taking or leaving agreement with the author’s thesis, the book works well as a single-volume history of Britain and the subcontinent, a solid achievement in and of itself as such volumes aren’t exactly in abundance.

The Fall of Paris: The Siege and The Commune 1870-71 by Alistair Horne

Even the French admit that Horne, an Englishman, is one of the best historians of France ever to exist. I love every book of his that I’ve read (his Seven Ages of Paris will forever remain one of the most enjoyable works of history I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading through), and figured it was high time to start in on the trilogy that he made his name with back in the 60’s.

The Fall of Paris is the first of three books dealing with pivotal events in the history of modern Paris (and, through its crown jewel of a city, France in general), the other two being about the Battle of Sedan in 1916 and the German invasion and defeat of France in 1940, both of which are on my docket to read this year.

This is a long book, because a fucking LOT happened in those two years. And Horne can almost make you feel like you were there, from the initial expectations of victory over the hated Prussians, through the agony of the following defeat, and then the increasingly bloody chaos of the Commune and the Republic’s savage reaction afterwards.

This is not a topic well-covered or even known much about by many Americans, but it’s one of the more-fascinating stories in Western history and this book is a fantastic way to learn about it. Horne loads the book with personal details about the events and all of personas dramatis that have roles in them; it’s a hell of a narrative as well as a history.

So, there ya go. Two great non-fiction reads I enjoyed immensely in 2016. There were others (Paper, by Mark Kurlansky, was oddly engaging for a book about, well… paper, so consider this an Honorable Mention), but these two, when I look back, are the ones that stood out most.

The Books of 2016, #14: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan


  • For a non-academic history, covers a topic/region that is severely under-represented in western literature, particularly when weighed against its historical importance.
  • Well-written; not the kind of writing that inspires dreams of becoming an author one’s self, but, for a history book, flowing and engaging enough to not put the reader to sleep.
  • Situates what was going on on either end of the area in great detail so the reader can understand why the Silk Roads were particularly important at those points in time.


  • Is more of a history of Central Asia than it is of the Silk Roads per se; fails to really explain that there is controversy regarding whether or not a recognized “Silk Road” ever existed; some historians believe that the water routes through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea carrying the spice trade were always more important to the civilizations on either end than the Silk Roads were. I buy the author’s argument that the Silk Roads were a very important transmission route for valuable materials as well as, later, ideas and new knowledge, but would’ve liked to read more about the opposing opinions that are out there.
  • Goes overboard on situational detail at times; there are pretty detailed sections on, say, the progress of the German invasion of Russia in World War 2 or the development of religions in the Middle East that the author doesn’t really tie to Central Asia and/or the Silk Roads except in the most vague “this  big event happened sorta close to the area we’re concerned with so here’s 100 pages on it” kind of way.
  • Related to the point above, I found the book not quite focused enough on the topic. I understood going in that it’s a generalist history of the topic, but it could’ve presumed a bit more knowledge on the more well-known topics that occurred around the periphery of the Silk Roads and focused more on those events impact ON the area in question or how the area affected those events. There’s a weird disconnect in his writing that doesn’t tie his long digressions on, say, how religion developed in ancient Palestine to how the Silk Roads impacted that development or helped transmit it to other areas.


It’s a good book. I feel it either could’ve been shorter, via cutting down the reams of info that are outside of the topic and could be assumed as already understood on behalf of the reader, or the same length but with a tighter focus on the area of study and/or with arguments presented against those who believe the Silk Roads importance is overstated to begin with. Still, given the paucity of good generalist writing on Central Asian history in general, it’s a great starter for gaining an understanding of that region.

The Books of 2016, #13: The Gates of Europe, by Serhii Plokhy


Hooooo boy… nothing says “light summer reading” like a history of Ukraine.

“The Gates of Europe” is a fairly traditional telling of the land and people that have, at some times, but not at others, been referred to as Ukraine and Ukrainians. I say “fairly traditional” as, while it’s mostly a chronological narrative of events that occur over time in a reasonably specific patch of geography, Ukraine has not been an independent, sovereign state for much, nay, most of that time, and the people we today identify as Ukrainians often weren’t in the past.

It’s a bit of a muddle.

Due to Ukraine’s anomalous status throughout most of history, its story is of necessity thickly intertwined with those of the other nations of which Ukraine has been part over the centuries. To his credit, Plokhy keeps a pretty tight focus on the Ukrainians and only brings in the Poles, Austrians, Russians, etc., as much as is needed to put the Ukrainian narrative into proper context. More importantly, he spends a good amount of time covering what each period itself thought it meant to “be Ukrainian”, going into detail on contemporary academic and literary trends and arguments that were completely unknown to the vast majority of peasants whose identity was being argued over. This detail spent on the arguments of tiny elites isn’t, I’m sure, by choice; as ever with history, nobody cared to write down much about what the vast majority of people felt about these things at the time. So Plokhy is just working with what he has here.

The book covers well the various bases on which a putative Ukrainian “nationhood” has been claimed over time; religion, language, Cossack-ness, the ancient Kievan kingdom of Rus… part of the difficulty in writing a book such as this is that there is not, even today, any agreement that characteristics X, Y and Z being present in person A makes them a Ukrainian as opposed to a Russian or a Belarusian.  There are diehard Ukrainian nationalists today who can only speak Russian, for example. Likewise, there are Uniate Church-adhering Ukrainian speakers who consider themselves fully Russian, and who would like their chunk of the nation-state of Ukraine to revert to the Rodina as soon as possible.

Plokhy does not place value judgments either way, an admirable locking down of whatever bias he may actually feel on the issue; it’s a pretty dry, straight-forward narrative that does not push a belief that Ukraine is a unique, distinct culture/nation/person-type separate from Russia in any overbearing fashion. That he wrote a book about Ukrainian history in the first place makes his point of view clear; overselling the point would probably just turn the rather intense partisans on either side of the divide off from the get-go (a point which online reviews of this book make sadly clear).

I enjoyed the book, though I found Plokhy’s studious devotion to detachment to have rendered it rather dry at times. There aren’t many English-language histories that cover the whole of the Ukrainian story in one volume without including a lot of non-Ukrainian narrative, so I’m glad “The Gates of Europe” exists. If you just want to try and wrap your head around Ukraine’s deal, you’d easily do worse than to pick this one off of the shelf.

The Books of 2016, #12: The Borgias: The Hidden History, by G. J. Meyer


G.J. Meyer has a shtick. He writes “provocative” histories about “provocative” subjects that are mostly designed to help him stack cheddah by serving as the basis for “provocative”, historical-ish drama series on cable TV.

You may recall his earlier book, The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty, (and, man, revel in the sheer clickbaitiness of that very title) which was the source material for the BBC series, much like The Borgias provided the basis for Showtime’s canceled series of the same name. I read that book a couple of years ago and found it entertaining, but also ludicrous. Entertaining simply because you’d have to work very hard to write a boring book about the Tudors. Ludicrous because of the second aspect of G.J. Meyer’s shtick: his books almost always go against the “conventional wisdom” and sport theses that make pure academic historians spit blood. For example, the gist of The Tudors was, really, that Henry wasn’t an absolute bastard of a monster. Somehow. When, in fact: he totes was.

Likewise, The Borgias: The Hidden History, in which Meyer tries to argue that the Borgias were not the monsters that almost all of history has made them out to be, but were rather just typical of any ennobled family of the time in how they used their wealth and power to reinforce each other and that, further, much of the horribleness attributed to them is outright false. To Meyer’s credit, I think he makes a much stronger case here than he did with The Tudors.

The book makes its case by alternating chapters between the main chronological narrative of the three primary Borgias (Rodrigo the Pope, Cesare the alleged inspiration for Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, and Lucrezia, possibly the most vilified woman of the Middle Ages) and what I’d call “context” chapters. The context chapters are quite useful in terms of situating the reader in how, say, the Papacy worked during the era in which the Borgias were active with it. Likewise, he explains Italian politics, international diplomacy… basically any topic where the reader may have an understanding of how it operates _today_, but NOT how it operated then. So these chapters help educate the user AND reinforce one of Meyer’s main arguments: that while a lot of what the Borgias did may seem unsavory to modern mores, they were not at all out of line with contemporary standards (an argument Meyer makes, I think, successfully over the course of the book) and, actually, were near-saintly when compared to other major figures of the day (this argument, not so much).

At any rate, the framework is very solid and keeps the user properly informed on the context needed to understand the narrative events as they unfold.

As for that narrative, I wish the writing of it were more exciting. For being about an era positively brimming with strong personalities, amazing new art, sex, epic violence, etc., the book is a bit of a slog to get through.

Part of the slog is due to the voluminous chat about sourcing interspersed throughout. To Meyer’s credit, most of this is segregated from the main narrative in a way that makes it easy to skip over if source-talk ain’t your jam. I think this is partially an over-reaction to the eyerolls that greeted his thesis about Henry VIII in The Tudors being actually a nice guy, and partially the usual work of a historian going into detail about their sources to validate their interpretation of them. I found it interesting, and believe he did an effective job of highlighting how his sources (and, to be honest, primary sources on the Borgias are remarkably limited so he’s quite thorough about it), once analyzed for bias, actually rather strongly support his own arguments. You may disagree, but I didn’t have that sense of “wow, this author is really contorting things to make it work here” that I sometimes get when reading through a writer’s own analysis of their source materials as related to their argument.

Overwhelming sourcing chat aside, Meyer does move the reader along from the rise of Rodrigo from minor Castilian nobility to leader of the Church, through Cesare’s brilliant but notorious and violent rise and even more notorious fall, and finishes up with a good discussion of the whorification of Lucrezia. While the least “action-packed” part of the story, the sections focusing on Lucrezia were the most interesting to me, as they are basically a textbook for how shoddily any woman who rose to any sort of prominence could be expected to be treated both by her contemporaries and by later writers. Of the three main subjects of the book, I think Meyer makes his most compelling case regarding history having given these folks a bad rap when it comes to the unfortunate Borgia sister/bargaining chip/marriage prize.

So, yeah, I think Meyer does a solid job of making his case, if overselling it a bit with both Rodrigo and Cezare, in this book, but really wish he had somehow injected the spirit of the age he is covering into his writing on it. People and events this interesting shouldn’t turn into quite so much of a slog when set down on paper.

The Books of 2016, #11: Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict In Korea, by Sheila Miyoshi Jager

brothers_at_warThis book, frankly, exhausted me. In terms of the information presented, it’s very good; you’re not going to find a better English-language one-volume history of the entire period in which the Two Koreas have existed. She places the war itself in the proper context of the long-view of Korea’s divided history, and gives much more focus to Korean impetus and sources than you’d usually get in the American-centric histories that dominate the reading lists here. That said, though; it’s just a bit of a slog to _read_. The level of detail occasionally approaches overwhelming, and Jager doesn’t provide the best narrative flow in which to situate, comprehend, and retain that detail.

To start with, if you don’t already have a good grounding in the war itself, this book is not going to give it to you. For example, there’s much more in this book about the rebellion of POW’s at Koje-Do than there is regarding, say, the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. The latter is covered, but not to the depth of events elsewhere. And that’s FINE; I believe her whole point is to restore the agency the Koreans usually lose in English-language histories of the conflict, and therefore she chooses to focus more on events that haven’t been covered well before. Arguably, in terms of KOREAN history, the rebellion at Koje-Do mattered more than the retreat from Chosin. Just know that going in, and read something like Halberstam’s “The Coldest Winter” to get grounded on the war itself.

More problematically, even though she does present a lot of detail overall on the war era, it’s provided in a weirdly staggered way that makes it hard to follow the actual chronological flow of events. Or at least it was for me.

That said, the book also succeeds on a lot of fronts, particularly on the level of new information presented regarding the domestic South Korean front and the entirety of the Communist side. While again obviously focused on presenting the Koreans as their own actors with their own methods, she does not shrink away from showing that the Rhees and Il Sungs of the time had their actions strongly circumscribed by what their ideological big brothers would allow. For all of the loud trumpeting of the North Korean autarkic ideal of “juche” they have subjected everyone to over the decades, the historical record makes it clear that, at almost no times throughout its history, has North Korea been able to decide entirely on its own course. Rather, the South Koreans have had more success making their American patrons react to their own actions than the North Koreans ever did at getting the Chinese or the Soviet/Russians to theirs.

Jager also does well in presenting an honest picture of the economic race of each Korea in the post-war era; it sounds surprising to consider that North Korea was actually probably ahead of the South Koreans economically until the mid-1960’s, even after being bombed mostly flat by the American Air Force in the war, but the South Korean leadership was that bad at caring about or knowing how to improve the lot of the average citizen for quite some time.

I enjoyed Jager most when she discusses how the poor economic performance of early South Korean governments led to civilian dissatisfaction with western-style democracy and, instead, resulted in support for the Communist cause that seemed to be doing a better job of raising the standard of its people at the time. This carries into the reaction and repression that stripped away rights from the South, but also provided the stability necessary for genuine economic growth to finally occur. In turn, that increasing wealth empowered the people to where they were able to force a return of democracy. Meanwhile, throughout, the North simply became increasingly poor, isolated, and unstable.

Overall, I can give Brothers at War a qualified recommendation; if you’re well-versed in the war itself that is the dominating event of this entire era, and can deal with the occasionally confusing and meandering nature of the narrative, this book will fill in the periods before and following the war better than anything else you’re going to find in English today. If not, I’d recommend reading some dedicated histories of the war itself first, and/or waiting to see if anybody else decides to try and replicate Jager’s work here in the next few years in a clearer, more cohesive fashion.

The Books of 2016, #10: The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople, by Susan Wise Bauer

medieval_worldThis is a weird book to review as it’s not a standard, single-topic narrative history. Rather, each chapter focuses on a different slice of the world that makes sense to narrow in on topically, with the whole group of chapters slowly moving forward in time. So, for example, every fifth-ish chapter will revisit what’s happened in, say, Korea since the last chapter on that area.

Over the course of the whole book, you get a pretty damned good overview of everything that happened of note in every major civilization region across the globe over the couple hundred years this book covers (the same basic idea holds for the previous entries in the series as well). There’s an almost unavoidable weighting of text in favor of European civilizations, just due to the simple fact that there’s more written source material to work with for them (Bauer made clear in the intro to the first book of the series that she had to limit herself to civilizations that left written records; there’s no room in her scope for archaeology or trying to interpret, say, whatever the hell the Harappans were up to in India, or what the bulk of pre-Colombian America was doing). That said, she obviously cares to give as much weight to non-European civilizations as the material can allow for, and does that well.

Even as carefully as written a book such as this must, due to the vast scope of the topic being covered, be a wide but shallow pool. Bauer presents a pretty amazing level of detail on each cultural area over time, but if you’re looking for explosive new interpretations or thoughtful analysis of larger trends, you’re not going to find it here.

I like this series best as an accompaniment to deeper books I’m reading at the time; like, if I want a wider context on what all of Europe or the world was like during the time period covered by, say, the Third Crusade, I can get that from Bauer’s series.

So, for the well-read historian, the series will serve as a great refresher on areas the reader may be weaker on or have forgotten about. But it will work best for the novice; if you haven’t cracked a history book since your college World History AP course, but are interested in catching up, this is the first series I’d point you to.