My first blog post of 2016 comes at the end of a trying and fraught year. I am more than ready to say goodbye to 2016, but am already worried about a time when I might be nostalgic for it. The future feels less certain than ever. Books, again, have saved my sanity and will continue to be where I turn when nothing else makes sense. Choosing my favorites this week has allowed me to relive their magic.
Goodreads tells me that I am tracking behind in books this year (20 books left to match 2015), and there are so many on my list that I still haven’t gotten to (Moonglow! We Love You, Charlie Freeman!). So many more that I read and absolutely loved (Homegoing! The Queen of the Night! The Underground Railroad!). But I can never turn down the opportunity to make a list, so here are my favorites in 2016.
Grace: A Novel—Natashia Deón
I knew when I read Grace this summer that it was unlikely any other novel—or book of any genre—would capture my heart in quite the same way this year. Deón’s debut novel gripped me from the first sentence, held me in suspense and near heartbreak throughout, and was slow to let go after I’d read its last words. This story is now embedded deep within me, among those that I want always to remember. Treat yourself also to the Skylight Books podcast of Deón reading from Grace, where her melodic voice brings her gorgeous prose to life on another level.
“With her debut novel, ‘Grace,’ Natashia Deón has announced herself beautifully and distinctively. Her emotional range spans several octaves. She writes with her nerves, generating terrific suspense. And her style is so visual it plays tricks on the imagination — did I just watch that scene? Or did I read it? Ms. Deón is not merely another new author to watch. She has delivered something whole, and to be reckoned with, right now.” –Jennifer Senior, The New York Times
In a similar manner to reading Grace, I knew within the first pages of Liar that I had in my hands something uniquely special and powerful. Roberge’s first memoir is an attempt to remember a past that may eventually be lost, and a desire to sort out the lies from what is true. Written in the second person across years that are presented out of order, in fragments, the reader gets to experience a sliver of the rapid-cycling bipolar disorder and addiction through which Roberge struggles to piece together his life. Few memoirs have changed me as a reader and a writer as much as this one.
“This is anything but a redemption memoir; Roberge gives the sense rather of someone holding on to life and kind of amazed they’ve managed. At the same time, there’s nothing show-offy here either, no attempt to brag about what depths you’ve plumbed. What makes the book appealing is not so much that it’s inspiring or that it depicts a VH1 nightmare descent: it’s more a desire to see how Roberge will or won’t bring all the book’s different threads together. He does so delicately, constructing a kind of airy, shimmering structure crisscrossed with ligatures, with events expanded or retold or speaking to other similar events from one end of the book to the other. –Brian Evenson, Electric Literature
The Mothers—Brit Bennett
Another beautiful debut novel, The Mothers is about loss, about secrets, about expectations and the lengths that we go to both meet and defy them. Bennett skillfully weaves in narratives from “the mothers” that magnify the impact of individual decisions on a community, and hover lightly above the story in a manner that satisfies the readers’ desire to know more.
“Despite Bennett’s thrumming plot, despite the snap of her pacing, it’s the always deepening complexity of her characters that provides the book’s urgency. Bennett’s ability to unwind them gently, offering insights both shocking and revelatory, has a striking effect. I found myself reading not to find out what happens to the characters, but to find out who they are. Long after closing the book, I am still, like the most dogged of children, trying to follow them.” –Mira Jacob, The New York Times
Behold The Dreamers—Imbolo Mbue
A novel about two families intersecting in New York during the investment banking collapse in 2008, Mbue seamlessly weaves between a world of privilege and that of an immigrant’s struggle, hope their biggest unifier. They are all dreamers, and this brilliant debut was a necessary reminder for me this year of the power of our dreams.
“But this surprising writer won’t leave us in that slough of despair. There’s a persistent warmth in this book, a species of faith that’s too often singed away by wit in contemporary fiction. For all its comedy, Mbue’s social commentary never develops that toxic level of irony. Jende and his wife may not get exactly what they thought they wanted, but this book’s spirit remains irrepressibly buoyant.” –Ron Charles, Washington Post
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers—Max Porter
Described on its book jacket as “part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief”, this novel is unlike any other I have read. It features a family in the wake of sudden loss, and a crow who moves into their lives and functions as both therapist and antagonist. Nothing about this novel is conventional, everything is a surprise, and the book’s magic lies in its unique treatment of grief and recovery.
“The shape of the book, like the grieving brain, is chaotic. The grieving brain can’t navigate the visual density of paragraphs for long. It can’t manage to remember the world of a weighty novel. It has a short attention span. It cries out and gesticulates and bounces from one thought to the next. It mourns and then mocks itself for mourning. It lashes out.” –Karen Gentry, The Rumpus
My Name Is Lucy Barton—Elizabeth Strout
Told over the course of five nights during a hospital stay where the title character’s mother visits her after a lengthy estrangement, My Name Is Lucy Barton reads almost like a memoir. The longing and loneliness that underscore conversations between mother and daughter are felt viscerally. Strout has whittled down language to only the essential, leaving behind this slim novel that cuts directly to the heart of the story.
“And yet this is a novel about love: about the complicated, complex love between a mother and daughter. My Name Is Lucy Barton confirms Strout as a powerful storyteller immersed in the nuances of human relationships, weaving family tapestries with compassion, wisdom and insight. If she hadn’t already won the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge, this new novel would surely be a contender.”–Hannah Beckerman, The Guardian
Another Brooklyn—Jacqueline Woodson
My favorites list was finished, ready to be published. Then I picked up Another Brooklyn, and at the end of the first page, I knew I needed to include it here. Spare, quiet, poetic, this was my long overdue introduction to Woodson, and it is in the white space between these mini-prose poems that I was most drawn into the story. This is a novel I aspire to write, knowing I never will, but eager to keep trying.
“But that’s the real attraction of this novel, which mixes wonder and grief so poignantly. Woodson manages to remember what cannot be documented, to suggest what cannot be said. ‘Another Brooklyn’ is another name for poetry.” –Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Rarely does a writer so firmly ground me in a place and time I have never been, but it happened again and again in Altman’s wonderful memoir about family, religion and treyf, the forbidden. The longing that pulsates through the story—for love, for understanding, for acceptance—is more familiar than foreign, showing how the very specific becomes so quickly universal.
“What makes ‘Treyf’ so original is the author’s wry humor and her gimlet eye. She is expert at evoking time, place and social status with her mentions of period details like 1960s Sputnik chandeliers, 1970s Huk-A-Poo blouses or Nixon-era parties where bored neighbors swap spouses by fishing keys out of a fondue pot.” –Wayne Hoffman, The Wall Street Journal
When Breath Becomes Air—Paul Kalanithi
My only advice to people reading this book, which I believe should be required reading: consider how comfortable you are sobbing at Starbucks or on an airplane before reading this book in public. A neurosurgeon with a deep love for literature is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at thirty-six. He dies before the book is finished but leaves us with his beautiful exploration into living while facing his mortality.
“Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him — passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die — so well. None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated. As he wrote to a friend: ‘It’s just tragic enough and just imaginable enough.’ And just important enough to be unmissable.” –Janet Maslin, The New York Times
The Narrow Door—Paul Lisicky
Two relationships—one friendships, one romance—change shape in this lyrical memoir that explores those shifts with compassion and a tenderness rarely witnessed on the page or in life. Lisicky’s poetic prose, and a structure that moves fluidly through time create powerful, emotionally resonant work that echoes long after the last word has been read.
“The Narrow Door is a book about a long friendship, which means it’s a book about everything in life: love, hope, longing, death, fallings-out, reconciliation, art, dumb jokes, deep loss. In The Narrow Door, Paul Lisicky proves, again, that he’s one of our finest writers on the intricacies of the human heart. Like all of Lisicky’s work, it’s beautiful and brilliant.” –Elizabeth McCracken
Poor Your Soul—Mira Ptacin
The intricate braiding of two stories—Ptacin’s and her mother’s—made this gorgeous memoir unforgettable. When Ptacin returns to her childhood and to her brother’s death to come to terms with the loss of her unborn baby, her realizations about motherhood and her own mother are honest, heartbreaking and ultimately, redemptive.
“Poor Your Soul is an emotional and engrossing memoir about Ptacin’s decision to have an abortion after learning that a host of medical conditions make the baby ‘unviable outside the womb.’ It is also a story about becoming—or failing to become—a mother, tied up with the complexities of having a mother. Even the title, Poor Your Soul, is a tribute to Ptacin’s mother, who often somewhat ominously leaves the judgment of her misbehaving family up to God: ‘If those weeds are not cleaned up in two minutes, then poor your soul.’… Ultimately, Poor Your Soul is a eulogy for brief lives and those who loved them.” –Virginia Marshall, Harvard Review
Deceit And Other Possibilities—Vanessa Hua (Short Stories):
Vivid, complex, immigrant characters navigating life in America make this debut story collection heartbreaking and memorable.
“In parts, the collection reminded me of the best of Jhumpa Lahiri and Robert Olen Butler, but these are only incidental comparisons, and I have full confidence that in time Vanessa Hua will be a writer to whom up-and-coming storytellers are compared. My overall impression of Hua’s debut collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities is that it feels less like a debut and more like the effort of a seasoned and well-established master.” –Jonathan Louis Duckworth, Pank Magazine
Goodnight, Beautiful Women—Anna Noyes (Short Stories)
This stunning debut collection features eleven stories about women and girls in small coastal towns in New England, written in Noyes’s exquisite prose.
“Noyes’s stories work by elision. Partial, elusive, inconclusive, they are like lit windows on trailers glimpsed from the road. One has a sense of peering in, fascinated but no less baffled than the characters. Hers is a spare and disjunctive style. If the fiction of Stephen King and Alice Munro had a literary love child, it might look like this: luminous domestic moments married to a pervasive sense of threat.” –E.J. Levy, The Washington Post
Look—Solmaz Sharif (Poetry)
I know very little about poetry. I do know that from the title poem on, Sharif’s words jarred me out of a complacency I hadn’t realized I’d surrendered to, and urged me not to let it happen again.
“The language of ‘Look’ is a body that cannot be separated from its maker — it is always the best and worst of its speakers’ desires, needs and actions. Language can never be innocent. An artful lexicographer, Sharif shows us that the diameter of a word is often as devastating as the diameter of a bomb. When she writes, ‘Let me look at you,’ the mine detonates and a single line rings through the entire collection into the larger world of poetry and life: ‘It matters what you call a thing.’” –Natalie Diaz, The New York Times
Night Sky With Exit Wounds—Ocean Vuong (Poetry)
Michiko Kakutani uses words like “searing” and “remarkable”, and refers to Vuong’s sincerity and candor. My only words: read this book now.
“These fierce, startling poems capture the history of prejudice in America (where ‘trees know/ the weight of history’) and the hopes and fears that bring immigrants to its shores. Mr. Vuong — who was born on a rice farm outside Saigon in 1988 and was the first in his immediate family to learn to read — writes with a musical appreciation for the sound and rhythm of words. He has a talent for capturing stories and memories (like those of his grandmother, who remembers the fall of Saigon) in unexpected and searing images, and uses the magic of language here to turn ‘bones to sonatas’ and by pressing pen to paper, to touch his family ‘back from extinction.’” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times