Well, 2016 is finally over. It may have been a shitty year, but hey, at least we’ll always have books, right? I find that fiction is a great method of escapism, while also enriching my empathy and understanding of the world and the humans who inhabit it.
This was a huge reading year for me. My biggest ever, actually. I set an initial goal of reading 50 books, surpassed that, upped it to 100, and then ultimately finished at 142 books. That’s 75 more than 2015. Whether or not I’ll keep up this pace in 2017 remains to be seen.
For this year’s wrap-up, I’m splitting my list into two categories, and picking a top 10 for each: Books Published in 2016 and Books Published Before 2016. The books featured in each category are listed in no particular order. Also, let me just clarify that I’m in no way saying that these were the definitive “Best Books of the Year.” They simply happen to be my personal favorites.
Anyway. Enough buildup. Onto the good stuff.
Books Published in 2016
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This is a deeply vital work of fiction that everyone should read. Through a series of connected vignettes about a family beginning in the 1700s and going right up through present day, Gyasi makes the legacy of slavery personal and intimate without succumbing to sentimentality. She shows how damage is passed down over generations and exposes the realities of institutional racism that have persisted and continue to persist even amid progress.
Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard
I was blown away by this taut little domestic drama that’s as ominous and disquieting as any horror story or psychological thriller. A powerful novel about a couple grappling with isolation, paranoia, helplessness and dread as they embark on an ill-fated road trip. Brilliant.
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin
Characters so alive, you feel like you know them personally. This truly epic family saga explores the nature of genius, ambition, truth, doubt, failure, addiction, meaning, and love. Haunting and unforgettable. I read it in the beginning of the year and still think about it.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
I didn’t want this one to end. A story about a new couple on a short road trip descends into creepy philosophical horror. So thought-provoking and brilliant. You’ll either love or hate the ending. I loved it, though I had to take some time to process it. One of those books that you want to re-read immediately after finishing.
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet
It’s best to go into this one knowing as little as possible and trying to piece it together as you go. Think Chuck Palahniuk if he were a better writer. This is psychological and existential horror at its absolute best: no monsters, no ghosts, no killers. In the end, the self is all we have — is there anything more terrifying than the prospect of losing that?
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
A heartbreaking, haunting, emotional gut punch of a novel. It takes a subject that on the surface is so vile and presents it with such nuance. A story as complex and tender as it is shocking and disturbing.
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
A powerful, moving, hilarious, devastating account of one family’s struggle with mental illness. Haslett may be one of the most talented and capable writers to tackle this heavy topic since David Foster Wallace.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
If you’ve ever wondered how a post-modernist would approach the topic of slavery, The Underground Railroad is your answer. In Whitehead’s imagining, it’s literally an underground railroad, and there are unique horrors that await Cora at each stop. While it’s no secret that Whitehead has cleverly departed from historical accuracy, the lines are blurred just enough for discomfort: each state that Cora enters is a sort of alternate history designed to represent America’s actual racial history.
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
I loved this book about the modern male psyche. Compassionate and hilarious, filled with psychological insight that never feels overwrought. It’s the laugh-out-loud kind of humor and commentary designed to comfort those of us who are intimately familiar with pervasive melancholy, existential anxiety and consuming self-consciousness. I laughed with these 22 men throughout the duration of their beloved weekend, not at them.
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
This powerful, epic work of macro fiction has all the makings of a classic novel. It’s so much more than it appears to be: beneath the surface, it’s a sweeping examination of racism and classism in America. It’s dense and it’s demanding and it requires a significant investment—and yet it’s ceaselessly compelling. Morgan is smarter than most of us—and to the delight of a reader like myself who enjoys being challenged intellectually and emotionally, she isn’t afraid to show it.
Books Published Before 2016
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Ever read a book that makes you wonder what the hell you’ve been doing with your life that you’ve somehow overlooked it all this time? That was White Noise for me. This is a book that focuses relentlessly on the overriding issue that plagues me every day of my atheist life: a crushing fear of death. I’ve yet to find another work of fiction that confronts this fundamental existential dread so deliberately.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Reading this as an adult was horrifying. I’m at a point in my life where I have an acute fear of mortality—my own and that of those I love. Pet Sematary exploits that fear. We all know what it’s like to lose a loved one. What if there was a way to bring them back, but you risked opening a door into the depths of darkness? This is a masterful story about death, love, grief and the hopelessness of trying to escape the will of the universe.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
Anthony Marra weaves these interconnected stories together with the skill of a true master, slowly unraveling the haunting legacy of war and hardship while bringing each character arc full circle. By the time I reached the final sections, I was in awe of what he had managed to accomplish. Unresolved stories from earlier suddenly took on a whole new meaning, and the denoument left me aching in the wake of its beauty.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
If you combined Margaret Atwood, Lord of the Flies, Leaves of Grass and Furiosa from Mad Max, you would get this book. It’s bleak. It’s dystopian. It’s achingly beautiful. It’s an allegorical rallying cry for feminists everywhere, with some of the best prose I’ve come across in recent memory.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
With sharp, insightful prose, Shriver has created an essential work of fiction for our post-Columbine world that challenges us to analyze a culture in which acts of mass violence have increasingly become the norm. Dark, thought-provoking, and highly disturbing, it’s a slow burn psychological thriller as intellectually stimulating as it is harrowing. Truly brilliant.
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
This book is a complete treasure for fans of DFW. He wrote it as an undergrad, and it’s a delight to see the beginnings of what he would become as a novelist. It’s clever, absurd, stimulating and hilarious. DFW makes you work for what you’re reading. He challenges you to remember all of his characters and the clever little details that he plants along the way. But the brilliant thing is that it doesn’t actually feel like work.
Stoner by John Williams
This is the kind of novel whose poignancy slowly creeps up on you, until you come to see Stoner as the quintessential existential hero, and a sobering reminder that each person’s life is more than just the sum of its parts. Achingly beautiful in its simplicity.
A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison
A profound story about the infallibility of memory, the choices we make, and the lies we tell — not only to ones we love, but to ourselves. So much more thoughtful and complex than I expected.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
While it’s not over-the-top terrifying, this is a smart, sad, creepy, fascinating psychological thriller that keeps you hooked until the end while delivering sharp commentary on reality TV culture, the myth of the traditional American family, misogyny and the fallibility of memory.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Do you like relentlessly depressing books? Okay, cool, me too! This is a story about a tragically flawed couple in the 1950s who yearned for more than the “hopeless emptiness” of suburban life, and whose mutual dissatisfaction threatens to destroy them. It’s brutal, heavy and extremely powerful.
What were you favorite books you read this year? Did any of these make your list?