Now is the time of year when we're supposed to look back on everything that happened and celebrate the best of it. This has been a particularly challenging task this year, because, well, there's little about 2016 which immediately springs to mind as being all that great. And yet, despite all the atrocious things that have transpired on the world's stage, it's hard to deny that there has, at least, been lots of good stuff to read.
This year saw the release of blockbuster novels by literary lions like Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad), Michael Chabon (Moonglow), and Zadie Smith (Swing Time), all of which are remarkable accomplishments, with Whitehead's, in particular, standing out for its lyrical and profound writing, and the degree to which his novel doesn't just feel wanted at this present time, but actually needed.
Beyond those huge titles, however, came an abundance of releases from authors who aren't household names (yet). This year boasted an impressive roster of debut or otherwise early-in-their-career writers who blew us away with their narrative strength, sharp wit, and profound empathy; there were also exemplary collections of short fiction, which reinvigorated the form for me, proving once and for all that doorstop-sized novels are certainly not an indication of quality. There were excellent nonfiction works, with notable entries in the field of biography, history, Sontagian essay, and, yes, advice. As it turned out, 2016 has been a year in which there's something for everybody—at least there is if that person loves to read. And isn't that everybody?
RICH AND PRETTY Rumaan Alam
Alam’s debut novel is a biting, moving, wildly relatable account of two young women whose lifelong friendship is challenged as they navigate the treacherous waters of young adulthood in New York City and all the complications that encompasses.
HERE COMES THE SUN Nicole Dennis-Benn
Capturing a Jamaica unfamiliar to anyone who purely thinks of the island as a tourist destination, Dennis-Benn’s novel tells the story of three women—a mother and her two daughters—whose hopes and dreams for one another are as complicated as the environment in which they dwell—one with dark secrets, cast into the shadows by the blindingly bright sun.
PRIVATE CITIZENS Tony Tulathimutte
Although Tulathimutte resists the notion that his is a millennial novel (or that there even is such a thing as a millennial novel), it’s hard to read this compulsively engaging, hilariously unhinged look at the at-turns intersecting and diverging lives of four, well, millennials. Nothing and no one is safe from Tulathimutte’s razor-sharp gaze, and that definitely includes everyone reading it and recognizing themselves in it.
THE SELFISHNESS OF OTHERS Kristin Dombek
There is perhaps no better time to contemplate the newly popular inclination to write off anyone with whom we have a conflict as being an unrepentant narcissist. Dombek is the ideal writer to guide us through this current cultural tendency while tackling pertinent topics like empathy and fear, skepticism and a willingness to forgive.
HOMEGOING Yaa Gyasi
Epical in its ambition, Gyasi’s debut traverses two continents, several centuries, and multiple generations in the lives of two families. Gyasi tackles issues ranging from slavery to religion to incarceration to drug addiction, and she does it all with a touch whose deftness still leaves the reader reeling with the story’s import.
SHIRLEY JACKSON: A RATHER HAUNTED LIFE Ruth Franklin
Who doesn’t want to spend the last couple weeks of this wretched year reading about the life of Shirley Jackson, indisputably one of America’s greatest writers? Franklin reveals the particular suffocating domestic hell that Jackson lived through, one which was covered up from the outside world with a veneer of familial happiness. And yet, considering Jackson gave us such terrifying classics as “The Lottery,” it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that her life held a darkness unapparent to the outside world.
PROBLEMS Jade Sharma
This is an addiction novel, but the substances upon which narrator Maya relies extend far beyond her taste for heroin or unavailable men. With searing honesty and an unflinching gaze, Sharma brilliantly dismantles the brittle structures that so many young women today have built around themselves in the hopes that eventually the interior will match what’s on the outside. Sharma reveals the emptiness within, and doesn’t offer anything so insipid as simple hope in terms of a way of moving forward; rather, she allows Maya to hit bottom over and over again, never promising redemption, only the kind of imperfect, messy future to which so many of us feel bound.
WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN Kaitlyn Greenidge
At its surface, Greenidge’s brilliant debut is a meditation on complicated family and racial relations, but as it progresses, it becomes clear that much more profound issues are tackled here, including the way in which our very language has been designed and used to solidify and obfuscate some of the darkest parts of our history.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INTERRACIAL LOVE? Kathleen Collins
These incredible stories deal with issues like race, sexuality, and gender in a way both intimate and universal. That they have only been published now, despite being written decades ago, is all the more remarkable for how relevant they are for readers today.
REEL Tobias Carroll
Carroll’s debut novel is ostensibly (well, and actually) about the journey two people go on after meeting at a punk show in Seattle, but it’s also a provocative meditation on the larger trip that they—and all of us—are on; namely, finding out who we really are, the fragility of the lives we’ve constructed around us, and what it is we’re doing in the little time we have.
THE MOTHERS Brit Bennett
This masterful debut quite literally begins with a secret: All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.
From there, Bennett takes readers along on a journey of three friends who are all dealing in one way or another with the consequences of the secret that was kept one fateful summer. The plot is exceptional, and moves at a pace which makes it hard to take a break, but it is Bennett's lyrical prose which truly blew us away.
ISLAND PEOPLE Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
An essential look at the many, varied island countries that are America’s direct neighbor to the southeast, and with whom the U.S. has always had a complicated history, Island People is a lucid, fascinating look at the culture and historical resonance of countries from Haiti to Jamaica, Puerto Rico to Cuba. Jelly-Schapiro’s voice is compelling and his subject is vital; the Caribbean, after all, is the birthplace of globalization and is home to 40 million people who still have a profound influence on the world today.
SOME POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS Helen Phillips
These surreal, genius stories grapple with at times otherworldly (like, what if your child were actually an alien? Or what if you could find out the exact day of your death?) topics in a way that makes them all eminently relatable, and leads the reader into an all too real journey of asking “what if?” about all sorts of bizarre possibilities.
AGAINST EVERYTHING Mark Greif
Here, Greif offers liberation through resistance as he elegantly meditates on tyrannical elements of our culture, including things like exercise, the rise of the foodie, and the sexualization of childhood. Greif’s intelligence and likeable rationality (he is the opposite of a boorish intellectual) actually give us hope for our future and our society at large; after all, if Greif and his way of thinking can flourish here, perhaps we’re not totally doomed?
INTIMATIONS Alexandra Kleeman
The author of one of our favorite novels of 2015, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Kleeman’s latest is a collection of 12 short stories which grapple with topics like life and death. Quite literally, in fact, as the stories in the book touch on the distress felt by the newly born, as well as that felt by those smack in the middle of life, and those who approach its end. Each story is transportative, even transcendent, and will leave the reader questioning the most profound, unknowable aspects of our existence.
GIRLS ON FIRE Robin Wasserman
Of all the books with “girls” in their title this year, Wasserman’s was our favorite and stood out among the others as a beautiful example of the wild craziness of close female relationships. Set in the early ’90s, it touches on everything you’d want in a book about those intoxicating, dangerous years of teenage friendships; namely, sex, violence, betrayal, and Doc Martens.
THE VEGETARIAN Han Kang
This slim novel can, and probably should, be read in a single, captivating sitting. But don’t let its brief length fool you; its effect is profoundly troubling, and its haunting narrative will stay with you for long after you’ve put it down. Centered around a woman whose nightmares have led her to foreswear eating meat, this book also deals with larger issues of morality, betrayal, loyalty, and deceit.
WHAT BELONGS TO YOU Garth Greenwell
Lyrical and haunting, Greenwell’s debut challenges its readers to explore those topics we’d most often prefer to leave in the dark: things like shame, humiliation, base lust, and overwhelming desire. Greenwell’s beautiful prose paints the year’s most vivid portrait of the way our past pain and our scars coalesce and make us who we are.
HOW TO BE A PERSON IN THE WORLD Heather Havrilesky
Author of the wonderful Ask Polly advice column, Havrilesky’s book is a genuinely helpful guide to navigating the difficulties of life and all that it throws at us. Havrilesky is exactly what you’d want in an advice-giver: personally experienced in the travails of life, clear in her intentions, reliably ready to call out bullshit, and willing to admit that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to many of our problems, and that’s okay; it’s just important to do the best we can.
LA FEMME DE GILLES Madeleine Bourdouxhe
Initially published in 1937, this wonderful book was republished by Melville House this year and is the perfect pick for anyone who loves stories centered around heartbreak, lust, despair, tragedy, and a woman on the brink of empowerment. This is not, shall we say, an inherently feel good story; there are no happy endings. And yet no book this year made me feel as hopeful for the future as this one, so clearly did it reveal women’s past patriarchal oppression and the distance we have come over the course of the last few decades. Read it and rage and then do something with all that anger. That, anyway, is perhaps the best lesson any book can give us in 2016; the rage is inevitable, it’s just what you do with it that counts.