Our ever-intrepid staff has reviewed their reading lists for 2016 and presents a small sampling of their favorites. Whether you’re looking for the perfect gift or something for your own nightstand, we hope our recommendations can bring you a bit of yuletide joy. —Eds.
I feel a bit like the dog-chewed-my-homework student. This is because I did not read many new titles this year. I read two. One of those I reviewed here already, and the other I wrote lengthy comments on elsewhere.
However, in February I got the notion that I might get into the Sewanee summer program in poetry. I read volumes from each of the instructors, thinking I might become teacher’s pet by being so knowledgeable of their work. Sewanee did not invite me, but it was one of many parties I didn’t get invited to this year. Sad. I didn’t throw any parties, either.
Here are the names of these thin poetry volumes. All less than 100 pages, most less than 75, and the words don’t even cover the whole page, right? Each one is unique and surprising, very accessible and engaging. Inspiring, even.
My Seneca Village by Marilyn Nelson, an imaginative exploration of life in the African-American community of Seneca from 1825 to 1857. It was “absorbed” into what is now Central Park. The most scholarly of the five, but enriching even if you don’t recognize the sonnet form and are historically impaired.
Straits and Narrows by Sidney Wade, a delightful work consisting of nothing but three word lines in couplet.
The Arrival of the Future by B. H. Fairchild, which uses the backdrop of toil and sport in a way that made me feel very present.
The Common Man by Maurice Manning, which reminded me that the common is not at all common.
The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel by Daniel Anderson, which focuses on the contrast between the public and private self.
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan Saga 16), by Lois McMaster Bujold. Choice and change, vision and re-vision in one’s later life; family, loss and redemption. Bujold’s mastery of characterization paints interior landscapes worthy of the galaxy-spanning exteriors of the series. Ignore the intimidating vol. 16 over there, hiding behind the parenthesis; the book stands easily on its own. As someone with a shiny new AARP card, I welcomed the look at evolving perspectives, and her writing is always a treat.
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor. Short but densely packed, well-deserving of its awards, this tale of survival and adaptation is refreshing both for the hope it inspired in me and for starring a capable young heroine whose powers did not require me to suspend my belief by the neck until dead. Compelling action and significant food for thought both.
Atlas Obscura, by Joshua Foer, Ella Morton, and Dylan Thuras. Delightful and just what it says on the package: a compendium of obscure and intriguing places and institutions, complete with directions on how to visit. The hardcover is a truly gorgeous object but as it is the information that really shines the electronic versions are of course the more portable for the inevitable road trips the entries will inspire. (They also have a website, newsletter, and sponsored events at atlasobscura.com.)
I don’t know from “best,” but as far as “OMG, these are words that change my thinking,” books this year I offer:
Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. The former is an inspired poetic, apocalyptic visionary novel of how evil is out there and just might get you; the latter is a paean to progressive politics (defined differently than today) and friendship and a caution on how they can self-destruct. (Maybe I see them in shadows cast by the election, which is why they are highlights?)
Regarding best chain of reading fun, Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading, a collection of book review essays he wrote for The Believer Magazine, sent me to the pages of Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince, which ultimately disappointed a bit in plot but always mesmerized with voice.
And in the spirit of honesty regarding a “Best of 2016” feature, I probably should mention that I may not have met my BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR yet as both Paul Beatty’s Booker-winning The Sellout and Chimamanda Adichie’s Book Critic’s Circle winner Americanah are on my night table and I am expecting really, really, really great things from one or both.
I spent a good deal of reading time this year trying to focus on nonfiction. It’s not that I didn’t read fiction, too, but I made a concerted effort to try and read away from the work I was consciously trying to create. It was difficult to select the best three: I pored over tales of wildfire fighters and paramedics, billionaire recluses and Chernobyl, mountain climbing disasters and the great Cascade train avalanche of 1910. Not that my reading list did anything to thaw this year’s glacial writing pace, but it does allow me to share the three best nonfiction reads I encountered in 2016:
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan reminds us that Washington, D.C. isn’t always the place where environmental policy should start or end. The destruction wrought in the American High Plains in the 1930s is hardly imaginable by those who didn’t live through the dust storms. As we deplete our groundwater sources, frack, and explore yet more domestic crude exports, we will need to rely on the warnings of those who came before us and remember the collective immensity of what we lost.
So lyrical that it’s almost painful to read, the late Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a rare specimen of a book. Though the reader is aware of the young neurosurgeon’s untimely death—it’s the premise of the book—Kalanithi’s prose is not sorrowful or maudlin. We despair when he despairs, but we also celebrate when he celebrates and are permitted to explore his wide ranging emotions and interests. His love of literature and of life itself isn’t a meditation on sadness, but on promise. Keep the tissues handy, but don’t miss this one.
My corner of the Pacific Northwest was horrified when, in 2009, news broke that a lesbian couple had been raped and attacked in a south Seattle neighborhood, with one of the young women losing her life. While the City Slept is a groundbreaking and empathetic piece of journalism from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saunders. While the story carefully (and respectfully) delves into the tale of the women whose lives were seized that night, Saunders explores, in parallel, the life of the murderer. I admit I was at first skeptical of trying to understand the motivations of this particular crime, but an understanding of the abuse, anger, fear that fed the life and mental illness of Isaiah Kalebu brought fresh color to the ongoing ways in which the mental health system continues to fail individuals and the community as a whole.