There's nothing better than a book that feels like a discovery. That particular book that inspires the reader to proselytize its greatness to anyone who’ll listen. The FADER reached out to the writers of 2016’s most celebrated fiction and nonfiction titles, and asked them to share the books they were gushing about this year — a year which perhaps inspired an particular need for escape.
1. Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You Charlie Freeman
How do you have the energy to move forward, when 2016 seems to have been designed to suck the life out of us? How do you find hope in a time when, if polls are to be believed, the majority of people don't believe democracy is necessary and others crow about the death of the left, of the ideals of equality and diversity? You read Gabrielle Lucille Fuente's The Sleeping World. It's a novel that thrums with revolution, with youth, and with longing. Set in 1970s post-Franco Spain, it's full of punks and students and siblings and activists and the possibilities of a world turned upside down.
2. Jung Yun, author of Shelter
Earlier this year, my husband and I moved away from a town that we thought of as “home” (and all the good friends who made it feel like a home we wanted to live in). The first book I read after the move was Rumaan Alam’s Rich and Pretty, a novel about two twenty-somethings in New York—best friends whose relationship changes as they do. While I’m well past my twenties, Alam’s novel captured so many strange and delicate truths about friendship that only become more true with age, particularly how they can expand, contract, and evolve over time, and yet the friendships worth having continue to endure. After the elections, when I was trying to focus on things I felt truly grateful for (because a Trump victory wasn’t one of them), friendships were at the top of my list and I found myself thinking about Alam’s sharp and poignant debut all over again.
3. Karan Mahajan, author of The Association of Small Bombs
Private Citizens, Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, is a high-fidelity evocation of what it was like to be a morally-conflicted millennial in mid-aughts San Francisco. Tulathimutte achieves an almost panoramic portrait of his generation through four characters—a snotty writer who won’t write, a pious activist with body-image issues, a scientist struggling with depression, and a tech guy addicted to porn. The novel has a breathtaking granularity that suggests (obviously, falsely) that the author has seen and done everything in the book. The sentences are plain majestic: rich with references, knowing, funny, slangy but most of all, fresh and tight, and never over-freighted. I kept opening Tulathimutte’s book to find a bad sentence and simply couldn't. He seems to have taken Martin Amis’s fear of cliché and smashed it against Franzen’s love of natural cadences. There’s a bit of David Foster Wallace in it, too, in the way characters asphyxiate in their own self-awareness and in how their thoughts flower into essays on topics such as paying for sex, the confluence of tech and activism, and the politics of veganism. Tulathimutte is already, with this book, one of the key voices of his generation, a writer with the moxie to take mundane materials and exalt them into literature. Private Citizens is the first salvo in a fertile career.
4. Jeff Garvin, author of Symptoms of Being Human
Existential angst should be as satisfying to read about as it is painful to experience — and Jeff Zentner pulls it off flawlessly in his debut novel. The Serpent King takes place in the crucible of a southern small town, and its alchemy is completely character-driven and painfully authentic. The brooding, songwriting son of a snake-handling preacher, the upwardly mobile, budding fashion blogger he secretly loves, and their fantasy-obsessed, staff-toting best friend are all trying to escape the clutches of small-town Tennessee to find a life beyond the pasts that weigh them down. My heart is still broken from this one. But, you know, in a good way.
5. Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted
From 1970 to 2003, the number of prisons in America did not double or triple; it grew sevenfold. Today, roughly seven million people — what amounts to the entire population of Switzerland — are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. The United States now locks up more of its citizens than any other nation on earth, and racial and economic disparities within the prison population are deeply troubling. The incarceration rate of young black men who do not finish high school is nearly fifty times the national average. How did we get here?
Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America brilliantly addresses that question with vivid detail and moral conviction. A young historian, Hinton combines a scholar’s rigor with a seriousness of purpose—I’d call it heart—motivated by her loved ones having done hard time. The result is a deep and critical look into the political machinations that gave rise to America’s prison boom. Hinton locates its source in an unlikely place: the Johnson Administration, which declared war on both poverty and crime by pushing legislation that promoted economic mobility and simultaneously militarized police forces. The effects of these transformations reverberate throughout America today, particularly in the lives of poor African American and Latino families. Hinton’s book will go down as one of the definitive histories of America’s tragic, and ultimately failed experiment with mass incarceration.
6. Jade Chang, author of The Wangs Vs. The World
It's not entirely surprising that I would think Neon Green should be on this list of amazing books—I'm good friends with its author, Margaret Wappler, and we've spent many hours drinking beers and banging on laptops at reluctant bars and restaurants across Los Angeles. But here's the thing: If a book that you've discussed for years and years and already read in draft can still find ways to surprise you and crack open your brain, it's clearly doing the work of fiction right. To be honest, I wasn't even planning to read the actual final book, but I flipped through it soon after it came out in July and was immediately pulled back into the alternate '90s world where spaceships from Jupiter regularly visit earth. Though the book has a sci-fi premise, it's really about how the Allen family deals with a growing crisis. I found that I still loved the relationship between the siblings and still loved-to-hate the environmental activist father. But what really moved me, and what I think will excite readers, is the head-on exploration of wonder and belief that builds to a truly beautiful ending.
7. Samantha Hunt, author of Mr. Splitfoot
What do you know when you turn off the Internet? Brian Blanchfield’s PROXIES: Essays Near Knowing is a corrective — a directive for the Post-Truth era. It made me feel human again, erasing the damage done in forever presenting perfections on social media. This book chokes the information deluge. Blanchfield wrote what he knows — no outside sources allowed. There are essays on owls, peripersonal space, the Locus Amoenus, sardines, confoundedness, tumbleweeds, and Manroulette (plus a 20-page endnote amending and confessing the facts Blanchfield got wrong.) Here is thought done slowly, memory and forgetfulness. Here is the pleasure and error of Telephone Operator. Here are the gorgeous faults, the holy wonder of our flawed, undigitized, mortal bodies and minds. Deep sigh of satisfaction.
8. Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter
Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First was recommended to me by a beloved bookseller, but I thought I knew what I was getting. It has the markings of historical fiction, set in the seventeenth century, centered on the life of the real duchess Margaret Cavendish, the first woman to write and publish under her own name. Margaret — or Mad Madge as she’s called for her philosophy, poems, plays, and general audacity — is a fascinating feminist study but that alone doesn’t make a great novel. It’s the boldness, precision, and lyricism of Danielle Dutton’s prose that creates a Margaret that I know very well: a woman negotiating the timeless difficulty of how to create art, and through that, an authentic self.
9. Ramona Ausubel, author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty
Derek Palacio’s The Mortifications is a magnificent novel about longing—longing for home (in this case, Cuba), for people we once loved, for bodies we once inhabited—and the way that the heart’s desire for something changes the thing itself. The book is big and sweeping, yet Palacio writes so deeply into the characters that they feel like people I’ll always know.
10. Hope Jahren, author of Lab Girl
Rachel Ignotofsky’s delightful Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World is a charming encyclopedia including text and drawings of the women scientists you’ve heard of — and plenty you haven’t! The book has good coverage of the 1800s and early 1900s — a critical time when women’s expanding participation in science was changing the very structure of how knowledge is pursued. Interspersed with gems like a colorful timeline of women’s achievements, and a cartoon celebrating a wonderful hoard of lab supplies, Ignotofsky’s profiles of diverse female scientists is a great addition to the shelf of any student, of any age.
11. Manuel Gonzales, author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!
Here we are stuck in 2016, the year of the monkey, a notorious trickster, and now that we're here, I'm not sure that we're ever going to get out. I am not the only one fearful of a new normal of post-truths and of the mistresses of fate sticking a finger in our collective eye. But if I am going to be permanently stuck in the year of the trickster, then what better book to spend trickster purgatory with than Mark Binelli's novel, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits. Diving headlong into the lies and half truths and fabrications Hawkins constructed around his own bizarre life, Binelli weaves a fantastic and fantastical narrative of self-invention, the undeniable power of myth, and the folly of those who believe too deeply in their own fictions.
12. Ken Liu, author of The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan is a brilliant, searing meditation on the weight of history and the moral responsibility of the individual living in a system founded on intolerable crimes against humanity. Set in an alternate history in which Japan emerged as a victor in the Second World War and conquered East Asia and much of the United States, this tale of rebellion and self-discovery features giant mechas, clever electronics, inventive video games, and smart, thoughtful exploration of an aspect of the Second World War that is often ignored in the West.
13. Sunil Yapa, author of Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
There were some Americans who were shocked by the results of the 2016 election. I wasn't exactly surprised, but I was — what? Depressed isn't even the word. Heartbroken for the hundredth time, how about, that as a country we are going to double-down on our nation’s most evil ills: white supremacy, fear, intolerance, militarization, and the dehumanization of millions of lives. Way back in March, I started carrying everywhere I went Rebecca Solnit’s book of short essays Hope in the Dark [originally published in 2004, re-released with a new foreword and afterword]. Not because it made me feel better, not because she tells me what to do, but because in its voice I hear reflected my own grief and rage. And in its stories of resistance, big and small, from all over the world, I find evidence, again, that the future is not inevitable. The wall is filled with cracks and openings. And if we did it once, endured the impossible and broke through to the other side, we can do it again.