To curate a best of list for 2016 I had to set specific parameters for myself or I would just never finish the list (which is what happened last year). I love books so much and 2016, while an especially challenging year in many ways, was also filled with incredible reads. That being said, not everything I loved this year was new (“The Dud Avocado,” by Elaine Dundy, for example). I was also surprised to discover that, while I read more fiction than nonfiction, the books that stayed with me this year were largely nonfiction. This is a list of my top books published in 2016 (plus a few honorable mentions).
By Maggie Nelson
Nelson’s voice, raw and magnetic and smoky, explores love, sexuality, and the ever-changing nuclear family in this deeply compassionate memoir about parenthood and everyday romance with her ungendered partner. If I could sum up this book in one word? Compassion. And Love, Okay, two words that are increasingly important in the current political and socioeconomic climate.
By Matthew Desmond
This was one of the most important books of 2016, and somehow made less waves than I expected. Desmond, a seasoned journalist with an eye for detail and an ear for an incredible story, lives with eight families in Milwaukee to see first hand how the American housing system actually maintains poverty rather than providing the structure to climb out. Reading this book is an important component of understanding the great political divides in our nation today. Desmond makes a few suggestions for fixing the flawed housing system, but also expresses that there is no answer that will work everywhere, and that our ideas must be as unique as we are.
When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi
Kalanithi faces death with the cognition of a neurosurgeon and the precision of a poet in his memoir about metastatic cancer. This posthumous publication stirred hearts across the nation last winter as his widow toured, reading from her husband’s book and matching his candor in interviews. We are all dying, every day, just as we are living. Kalanithi inspires us to live and die well by giving and receiving love and laughter and knowledge at every opportunity. This book is beautiful, and is simultaneously affirming and heartbreaking.
By Hope Jahren
“Each beginning is the end of waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every tree was first a seed that waited.” I have this beautiful quote hanging above my computer. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Jahren’s memoir is part natural history, part chronicle of being a woman working in a male dominated field, part crazy adventure of friendship with her lab partner, and so much more besides.
Nordic Theory of Everything
By Anu Partanen
Parten, a Finnish-born journalist who married an American and moved to New York, explains how the ways Americans preserve our freedoms actually inhibit them. She explains how our current health care system and tax laws, for example, make people more dependent in personal relationships. The Nordic theory of love states that authentic love and friendship are only possible between people who are independent and equal. According to Partanen, this mentality dictates policies that support the freedom of individuals, such as equal access to health care and education. She demonstrates how current American policies create unequal relationships between parents and children, romantic partners, and employees and employers. This book is a game-changer.
Strangers in Their Own Land
By Arlie Russell Hochschild
Hochschild crosses what she calls “the empathy wall” to present an unflinching portrait of Americans who feel marginalized to the point of anger and the rise of Donald Trump. She visits the homes of staunch members of the Tea Party and Republicans living in Louisiana and Florida, folks who have lost faith in politics but not in God, who desperately resent any federal help they might need, and feel the attention they do receive is in the form of over-regulation. With empathy and an ear for the “deep story,” Hochschild examines the divide between the right and left, proposing ideas and sharing stories that might make the space feel less like a chasm and more like a bridgeable gap.
By Zadie Smith
In her fourth novel Smith explores race, gender, identity, and class through the rhythms of female friendship. The narrator of “Swing Time” goes unnamed as she moves from a childhood friendship found in dance class to an adult friendship that takes her deep into rural west Africa, where she sees in young girls something she recognizes from long ago: “All that fire with so little kindling.”
By Brit Bennet
“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them,” and consequences that linger for a lifetime. Bennet’s coming-of-age story deals with community, race and implicit racism, and female reproductive rights in a story that is authentic and fresh. The women of Upper Room Chapel Church narrate the love triangle between Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey. As their lives stretch from teenagehood into young adulthood their fates twist and fold in unexpected, yet seemingly inevitable, ways.
By Deborah Levy
Almost every page in this book contained a concept or philosophy, or a sentence so beautifully and precisely constructed that, by the time I finished, post-it-notes stuck out of my copy like the petals of some exotic flower. A mother and daughter visit Greece seeking treatment for the mother’s sudden, unexplained, partial paralysis. As the treatment progresses the lines between physician and patient, between illness and insanity, blur and blend. Intoxicating.
“Commonwealth,” by Ann Patchett
“Before the Feast,” by Sasa Stanisic
“Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead
“Hagseed,” by Margaret Atwood
“Books for Living,” by Will Schwalbe
“Barbarian Days,” by William Finnegan
“Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance
“Marrow Island,” by Alexis Smith
“Sport of Kings,” by C.E. Morgan
“Lily and the Octopus,” by Stephen Rowley
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” by J.K. Rowling
“Jane Steele,” by Lyndsay Faye
“White Trash,” by Nancy Isenberg