I enjoy reading a few pages after work, or listen to an audiobook when commuting. Here are the five novels I loved most in 2016.
Arthur Japin: De Gevleugelde (The Winged, 2015)
A novel based on the life of Alberto Santos-Dumont, Brazilian aviation pioneer. Inspired by Jules Vernes, the young Alberto sets out to invent flying machines, building his own hot air balloons, dirigibles (Zeppelins), and eventually planes. In 1901 he is the winner of a competition to fly a route of 11km around the Eiffel Tower, and in 1906 he is the first in Europe to make a flight with an “aircraft heavier than air”. Japin describes what drives the engineer Santos-Dumont to make his inventions and reach his fame. But most of all he tells the story of Santos-Dumont’s forbidden love for his mechanic Albert Chapin.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by the author (who is a trained actor). Many of Japin’s novels are translated and I expect a Portuguese and English version to appear soon, maybe in 2017?
In real life, Alberto Santos-Dumont refused to file any patents (he “open-sourced” his designs), as he wanted the world to benefit from the ability to fly as soon as possible. Later, suffering from multiple sclerosis and hugely disappointed by the military use of planes in world war I and during the Brazilian São Paolo revolution of 1932, he burned all his designs and committed suicide. See also this santos-movie for a short biography.
John Green: The Fault in Our Stars (2012)
Love story of 16 year old Hazel Lancaster and 17 year old Augustus Waters, both cancer patients. Heartbreaking and beautiful. Also features the Amsterdam Anne Frank house and Westerkerk.
“Young Adult Literature”: Amazingly well done novel about love and death that is meaningful to parents and kids alike.
Chances are you read the Fault in Our Stars before me: If you loved it, also consider John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” (2006). Most commonly banned book at US schools and libraries: Can you imagine a better recommendation?
John Green and his brother Hank Green set an example to universities around the world by their crash course initiative offering free on line courses on such topics as astronomy, psychology, world history, physics, and (soon) computer science.
Griet op de Beeck: Kom hier dat ik U Kus (Come Here so that I Can Kiss You, 2014)
Griet op de Beeck is a Belgian author who was to be appointed as TU Delft “cultural professor” in 2016. Unfortunately she had to cancel due to personal circumstances. Before that, she featured in the highly regarded Dutch TV show Zomergasten where she gave an open and optimistic account of her life and her mental health struggles.
Her novel tells the story of three stages in the life of Mona. Told by Mona herself, the first part is set in the simple and compelling language of a 10 year old. Mona tries to make sense of the world after the death of her mother. In the later parts, 24 and 34 year old Mona seeks to find and understand herself, and her relationship to her parents, stepmother, and her brother and stepsister.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by the author in wonderful Flemish. Translations in German (“Komm her und lass dich küssen”) available, and forthcoming in French and other languages in 2017.
Andy Weir: The Martian (2011)
A delightful page turner written by a software engineer. It is the year 2035, and when his mission to Mars gets into trouble, astronaut Mark Watney gets left behind all alone. Thanks to his knowledge of potatoes, farming, and chemistry, and thanks to his amazing optimism, perseverance, and improvisation skills, Mark manages to travel across Mars on his own to reach a place where he might be picked up to return to earth.
Thomas Mann. Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie (The Decline of a Family, 1901)
My classic of choice in 2016 was Mann’s first novel, telling the story of four generations of a 19th century German merchant family. Thomas Buddenbrook runs the family business, optimistic at first, but more and more exhausted and depressed as life goes on. His brother Christian suffers from mental health problems; His sister Anthonie has bad luck in her marriages, and her daughter Erika is unfortunate in marrying a merchant who ends up in prison. And young Johann’s fate is covered in a heartbreaking chapter just describing the symptoms of typhoid.