‘Tis the season for best-of lists. Normally these include things that are easily listed: books read, songs heard, movies watched. I tried to think of some other things I might have kept record of this year (meals in restaurants? Donald Trump think pieces? memes? moments of personal despair and failure?) but these either seem too uninteresting, too messy, or too much work.
So, I’ll keep it simple. Here are the 8 best books I read in 2016 in no particular order.
I’m actually still in the middle of this one. Erdich is a superstar in Native American lit. I began 2016 by reading her award winning The Round House, which seems to take place on the same reservation as LaRose. Erdich’s stories weave family trauma, historical memory, and questions of culture, law, and justice for Native Americans living on the margins of U.S. society. What I like about LaRose is the way it combines a deeply intimate and vulnerable telling of its characters’ lives with themes that are as deep, dark, and wide. The story centers on two families (both of whom are of mixed white and Native ancestry) who are neighbors on the reservation. The father of one family accidentally kills the young son of the other family while hunting, and in accordance with traditional practice, gives his own young son to the grieving family to balance things out. How this arrangement impacts the families is told with heartbreaking honesty and humor.
Like all Erdich’s work, LaRose uses family stories to bring light to the painful but resilient history of Native America–genocide, loss of land and sovereignty, alcoholism. The novel also contains a version of one of the best short stories I read this year, Erdich’s “The Flower.”
Wow. This was a wild ride of masterful storytelling. Marlon James crafted a bold and ambitious novel–a whirlwind of politics, violence, race, Cold War intrigue, music, drugs, crime, immigration and so much more. This book won the Mann Booker prize and it was well deserved.
The narrative structure of the book is unique and can be overwhelming at times, with its abundant cast of characters, jumps through time, and multiple (sometimes conflicting) viewpoints. But it was utterly absorbing. James succeeds in creating an epic, cinematic feel. Maybe it is the setting of the book (Jamaican slums in the 70s, New York City slums in the 1980s), but at points I felt like I was in a gritty 70s film or a crack-era rap song.
The core of the plot is the real-life 1976 assassination attempt against Bob Marley. Marley himself hovers as a mysterious but heavy presence in the novel, which is just as much about the ways in which Jamaica (and, you might say, the Global South) struggles to define itself in a world where the violence of politics and capitalism flow unfiltered into the lives of families, communities, and people who are just trying to live and love each other and themselves.
Slavery dominated pop culture and media in 2015 and 2016. Ta-Nehisi Coates blew up and became a celebrity/prophet, and novels, films, and TV swam boldly into the topic. This book isn’t for a popular audience, but it gives scholarly depth to a lot of what is being talked about in the mainstream. It also ranks as one of the most entertaining and beautifully written scholarly works I have ever read.
Johnson’s writing is sharp, accurate, contextual, and packed with mad insight. Each chapter covers a different aspect of the slave-based economy/social structure in the antebellum Mississippi Valley. These include: The technology and economics of steamboats, the attempts by pro-slavery filibusters to invade and take over Cuba and Nicaragua for the United States, an examination of how credit and debt worked in the cotton economy, the importance of food as a tool of control on plantations, and many others.
The narrative and analysis alone are excellent, but added to that Johnson’s incredible use of language and wit, this was a thoroughly fascinating and engaging read from beginning to end.
Several chapters were devoted to painting a picture of the lived experiences of slaves in the Mississippi Valley cotton empire, and Johnson’s use of former slaves’ memoirs in these chapters is stunning and powerful. The connections between intimate bodily violence, capitalism, imperialism (and Manifest Destiny), white supremacy, technology, and ecology are illustrated in this book like no where else I have ever seen, and done so with remarkable clarity and insight.
One chapter for example, entitled “The Carceral Landscape,” was haunting and disturbing in how it showed how the reorganization of land in service of one single export crop became a physical medium through which master oversaw, controlled, and inflicted violence on enslaved bodies. Throughout the book, Johnson holds no punches when it comes to breaking slavery down into its most fundamental elements. Black labor and Black flesh (and Indian land) were “converted into” bales of cotton and thus, white wealth. The mechanism for this conversion was not complicated: it was the torture of Black bodies, the destruction of Black families, the commodification of Black labor (and the conversion of Indian land into white property).
Johnson ends his study with an implication that reappears throughout the book: That in American history, the very idea and reality of “freedom” may not be an inevitable outcome of human progress, but rather the consequence of intentional and systematic violence and extraction directed at others. In other words, Black slavery (and Indigenous removal) were not incidental to White freedom, empire, and democracy– they were its very foundation.
I’m very new to the fantasy/sci-fi genre, and this year I made a big effort to get more into it. I wanted to start by focusing on authors of color, and N.K. Jemisin’s book (the first of a trilogy) set the bar very high.
This was a thoroughly fun and enthralling read, new and exciting on many levels. Jemisin, according to her bio, is a counseling psychologist by day, and her dialogue and development of the characters’ relationships and emotional lives really reflect that. To see those things so superbly crafted in an original work of speculative fiction, with all its world building and intricate and epic plotting, is refreshing and exciting. Also refreshing is the way Jemisin writes with an intrinsic understanding and grasp of race and sexuality that almost never appears in sci-fi or fantasy. And it’s done in a way that is subtle and poignant, but not the focus of the narrative. In other words, diversity is normalized.
The originality of the concept and the depth of emotional development in the characters made this one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.
This book is insane and hilarious and incredible. It is a wild and notes of Boondocks and Chappelle, and is smart in all the ways those shows were smart and then some. But it’s also literary and self aware and it nails Los Angeles beautifully.
The premise is a young Black farmer in South Central L.A. who gets hauled before the Supreme Court for re-instituting segregation and slavery. Yeah.
If you’ve spent this year reading Ta-Nehisi & Claudia Rankine, you need to pick this up and get well rounded. Every page had me laughing out loud and/or saying “Damn that is some deep sh**.” Definitely one of the most memorable books I’ve read in a long time.
Oh, and I shouted when he referenced my local Trader Joe’s on National & Westwood Blvd.
Agh, all the feels. Heartbreak and joy and violence. And this is just one story of so many like it about Turtle Island and the way the world changed forever when two civilizations met and clashed. It’s tragic, complicated, and hopeful all at once. I thirst for more stories like this to be told and heard widely.
Three lives intertwine on the early 17th century French-Canadian frontier: a Jesuit missionary, a wise but troubled Huron warrior chief, and a young and fiery Iroquois girl whose family was murdered by said chief.
The Orenda (by Canadian half-French, half-Indigenous author Joseph Boyden) was a great novel to read I was developing my own novel idea: it concerns First Contact, cultural conflict and cultural survival. It asks how conflicting worldviews can be reconciled between individuals even as their clashing results in unspeakable loss and violence on a larger and historical scale. And it is told with remarkably researched detail and aching intimacy.
This debut from 25 year old Brit Bennet got a lot of buzz this year. Having read a few buzzed-about novels, I know that they don’t always live up to the hype. This is definitely a first novel by a young writer, but it surpassed my expectations.
Bennet crafts young adult characters that are authentic and complex. This is a coming of age novel, but it’s also an exploration of love, loyalty, and friendship among millennials of color. Oh, and abortion and motherhood are big themes.
Like The Sellout, this book is about a Black community in Southern California (in this case, the beach town of Oceanside). Both books stray from tradition and tell the stories of people of color in their own unique and refreshing ways, which is a really nice by-product of having more and more diverse voices in the arts.
I read a number of books of poetry this year, and it is hard to choose a favorite. Solmaz Sharif’s Look could easily have been on this list, and Night Sky With Exit Wounds is often grouped along with that one. Both are debut collections from non-white, immigrant authors. Both deal with dislocation and how war and colonialism inflict psychic and generational violence.
Ocean Vuong was born in a Vietnamese village and raised by his mother in New Jersey tenements. His skill with the English language clearly is rooted in experiences of being an outsider, a translator for the older generation, a refugee, queer. To Vuong, language is a bridge, a tool, a weapon, a key to citizenship, a challenge to citizenship. It is a middle finger to empire and to conformity, and to all the voices that say a poor, illiterate rice farmer could never raise a son who would one day publish his writing in The New Yorker.