I don’t know about you, but the only time I ever get a consistent amount of reading done is during vacation, when I haven’t spent the entire day scanning webpage after webpage.
As such, here’s some highlights from the year in words that was 2016 that you can enjoy during your holiday downtime, or pass on to others who also need something to distract themselves while watching chestnuts roast—I hear that’s called “gifting”?
“Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” Nikole Hannah-Jones: Rarely do you read something that entirely shifts the lens through which you view your life; in a piece that contextualizes the decision she and her husband made about which school to send their young daughter in Brooklyn within the greater history of school segregation in America, Hannah-Jones built upon a lengthy career reporting on the topic. Reading it made me think in ways I never had about the choices my parents made with regards to where I was educated, and the choices I might make one day as well. Make your way through her other work as well, which includes a This American Life episode from 2015 on the Normandy School District in Missouri where Michael Brown went to school, and a recent interview she did on Longform which dives into the degree to which school segregation has shaped—and continues to shape—our country.
The Mothers, Brit Bennett: Multiple passages from this book are highlighted on my iPad because I stopped so many times to admire sentences and phrases like: “Her father propped his sadness on a pew.” And, “she usually ended up kissing one of them until kissing made her feel like crying.” Bennett (who has written for Jezebel) approaches the events in Nadia’s life—her mom’s suicide, abortion, dealing with the complexity of a lost relationship with a man—with a subtle eloquence that inspires immediate empathy and feels like reading about a close friend. I love that it all happens from the narrative perspective of church women, a group I find deep comfort in, having been so mutually curious about the elder women in my own church growing up. The emotions are heavy, but the layers feel effortless.
“When Whitney Hit the High Note,” Danyel Smith: A brilliantly vivid remembrance of Whitney Houston’s iconic Super Bowl performance. This piece pulled off a difficult balance of deep cultural and emotional context and showed that big sports-related moments aren’t just about athletic achievement, but simply greatness.
“Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” Masha Gessen: Published two days after the most surreal U.S. election in living memory, Masha Gessen’s New York Review of Books essay dumped a bucket of ice-cold water on an ingrained desire to minimize and normalize the mayhem Trump will wreak on our democratic system. Gessen, a gay and Jewish Russian-American journalist, author, and anti-Putin activist, put forth a set of rules we’d be wise to keep revisiting: Believe the autocrat. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Be outraged. “It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself,” she wrote. These days, it’s hard to overstate the value of unflinching realism, even the kind that scares the shit out of us.
“Dinner at Tao With the ‘FoodGod’ Jonathan Cheban,” Joshua David Stein: Few social media inventions confuse me more than Jonathan Cheban, a Kardashian friend with feathered hair who is now trying to do some sort of thing with food. This GQ interview feels, in the best way, like an anthropological study. “Anyone I go to Nobu with who gets rock shrimp, I freak out on them,” he told the author, who ordered the rock shrimp. “It cheapens me. I’m embarrassed about it. That’s the stuff I ordered for the first 10 years eating at Nobu.”
“Elle on Earth,” Jacques Hyzagi: In retrospect it’s appropriate that this grandiose screed against the bourgeoisie by a former Charlie Hebdo writer was published in Jared Kushner’s now half-shuttered Observer; what it really came down to was a man, pissed off at his women editors, ranting epically, a familiar phenomenon this year. (I also believe that Hyzagi may have called me a communist on Twitter, or something, though I don’t recall the specifics; it feels like a decade ago.) Ostensibly about his frustrating efforts to complete an Elle profile on Rei Kawakubo, one of the most enigmatic and talented designers in fashion, he ended up milking his exasperation for a total of four bylines and, no doubt, paychecks. This one ended up being the most satisfying because it was so appalling and thrilling to read—I honestly still can’t believe the gall.
“The Future Looks Good,” Lesley Nneka Arimah: This devastating, perfectly crafted short story was first published in 2014 but I discovered it this year, inside Arimah’s forthcoming collection What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky; like every one of her stories that I’ve read, it uses frugality with words to craft a narrative about women and girls, packaged ever so sharply so that it cuts deeper. A British-born Nigerian now living in Minnesota, most of Arimah’s stories are set in Nigeria and deal with a kind of displacement and longing, whether internal or physical or visceral; “The Future Looks Good” is almost impressionistic and made me cry in just a few pages. I can’t tell you more without ruining the device, it’s that economically written. I rarely find fiction so captivating, short stories so beyond impressive.
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng: Ng’s novel plunges into the fractured, tormented world of a family in mourning. Beginning with the death of a favorite child, Ng introduces us to the Lees, a Chinese-American family living in suburban Ohio. The novel’s loosely retrospective narrative propels towards tragedy, laying bare the lies of omission, neglect, and secrecy that ultimately crack the family’s precarious equilibrium. I always struggle to empathize with characters who explicitly favor one child, but Ng writes so tenderly, and so gently peels back layers of pain and insecurity, that I could only weep for this family (seriously, I was an absolute mess after finishing the book). It’s a gorgeous, heart-shattering novel that, without being moralistic, reminds us to love honestly and vulnerably.
Girls On Fire, Robin Wasserman: My god, this breathless, ferocious novel about female friendship left me reeling. Wasserman’s prose bites and dizzies as we follow the friendship of Hannah (rechristened Dex) and Lacey through crazy devotion and deception and, finally, obsession-driven bloodthirst. Set in the 1990s, when Kurt Cobain oriented desires and personal ethos, the novel is both an exquisite time capsule and a heady dispatch evoking the ways girls can simultaneously love and tear each other to pieces.
Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit: I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to read this slim, perfect volume. If you have yet to do so yourself, I’ll say only two things. First, the title, while appropriate, does not do justice to the book’s breadth of historical and cultural analysis. Secondly, it’s the perfect read for anyone devastated by the election and seeking emotional sustenance as they ready themselves for four long years of fighting.
The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood: My reading tastes have veered toward grim this year and Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which I’ve already shared my enthusiasm for, fit the bill. A feminist dystopia/horror novel, Wood has an uncanny ability to render brutality with elegance, resisting the pure spectacle of pain. It’s simultaneously a difficult and enlightening read.
“Living Things,” Sarah Marshall: Sarah Marshall has been one of my favorite essayists since she wrote a nuanced account of Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding media spectacle for The Believer. Marshall has a rare ability to find humanity in odd, sometimes grotesque, places and teases it out with a fine-toothed comb. Marshall does just that in this essay for Partisan Magazine where she explores the concept of consumption, from the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer to museum collections and in the work of Barbara Gowdy.
Future Sex, Emily Witt: Emily Witt’s slim volume does what Nancy Jo Sales’s book about Tinder should have done, laying bare the ways we use the internet to find love and map our desires. In the book, she visits Burning Man, explores polyamory and dives into the world of internet dating without judgment, looking only to explore and investigate new methods of connection. Saying a book is readable is hardly a compliment, but when there are so many things out there to read, finding something that captures my attention and holds it for longer than thirty pages feels like a treat. I read Future Sex in the backseat of a car on my way to a wedding, finished it in one sitting and emerged from the experience feeling hopeful — a very rare feeling indeed, when considering the state of one’s romantic prospects or the internet at large.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer: Mayer, on staff at the New Yorker, is inarguably one of the most talented and important journalists working today. Her incredible book, Dark Money and her profile of Art of the Deal ghostwriter Tony Schwartz vibrate with righteous outrage filtered through meticulous reporting, putting the lie to an American political mythology built on slithering disingenuousness and greed.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi: As I’ve written about before, I find that much too often stories with black protagonists are relegated to a specific point in time—namely, slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel tells the expansive story of two half sisters and follows their bloodlines from the slave trade to modern day, from Africa to America. Go read this very, very good book.
“A dramatic reading of Meghan Trainor’s new album,” Bobby Finger: The only acceptable way to listen to Meghan Trainor’s music is via the smooth, soothing voice of one Bobby Finger.
“A Love Profane,” Doreen St. Felix: Someone should, and probably one day will, put together an anthology of all the writing Beyonce’s Lemonade birthed. When that happens, they will include this piece.
“Justin Bieber Would Like to Reintroduce Himself,” Caity Weaver: Anyone familiar with pop culture and celebrity writing knows that there are few better voices in the game than that of GQ magazine Senior Editor and former Gawker-ite Caity Weaver. The features that Caity has been putting out at GQ over the past year have been a rare and exciting break from the breathless and sycophantic celebrity profiles that have become so popular elsewhere. With her signature style and humor, Caity manages to do what few writers can—allow her personality to shape the story without becoming the story. Nowhere is this more evident than in her profile of Justin Bieber, in which she describes the fragile man child as “ boy who becomes king, whose first and last royal decree is that it’s chicken-finger time.” Beautiful.
The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante: You’re probably shocked to see a white feminist writer recommending an author as obscure and unheard of as Ferrante on highly trafficked woman’s site, but here I am, a goddamn unicorn. After years of knowing that I SHOULD read Ferrante, I finally DID read Ferrante and guess what? The Neapolitan Novels are very good? I feel like we’re on the crest of a Ferrante backlash, so I want to get this in before it fully arrives: She truly does capture the complexity of female friendships and quiet violence of being female better than almost any writer I’ve read before. (I’ve followed the Neapolitan Novels up with Clover’s recommendation, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, and they complement each other very nicely.)
Mr. Splitfoot, Samantha Hunt: My primary source for book recommendations is my very well-read coworkers. Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot was suggested by Kelly Stout on our back-to-school reading list and I’m so, so glad I picked it up. I’ll let Kelly’s summary attempt to grab you the same way it grabbed me, adding only that it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that felt so complete, with no stone left unturned.
I finally got around to reading The Sun Also Rises this year, if that counts. Otherwise I’d have to go with Jane Mayer’s Dark Money or Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, a dreamy, striking collection of short stories wrapped in a neon cover I eyed on Rich’s desk for months before finally buying a copy for myself. I still think about some of the surreal characters she writes on and I bet you will too.
The Sellout, Paul Beatty: I bought this impulsively after seeing it on a bookstore table, totally unaware that I had stumbled upon one of the most brilliant renderings of race in America. The novel, which is satire but also so much more, tells the story of a Californian farmer raised as a research subject by his psychologist farmer, who eventually ends up tried by the Supreme Court for his own crimes. Beatty packs more ideas in a single sentence than I’ve ever had in my life, and I’m smarter and more depressed having read it. And it just won the Man Booker Prize, so you don’t even have to trust me.
“Whatever It Takes: The Steroid Scandal in Olympic Dressage,” Clickhole: This parody of a longform exploration of “how seedy the underbelly of Olympic dressage really is” makes me unattractively jealous of its writer. Here is one sentence: “Markus is long and thick, with thin eyes that sleep in his face the way that birds build a nest in a child’s bedroom wall.” I mean, it’s a must-read.
I read some novels I liked that are so acclaimed that there’s nothing left to say and don’t need my endorsement anyway (Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad; Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You). Wesley Morris’s piece on the black penis in pop culture, “Last Taboo,” crucially tied the current state of pop culture to the unresolved fear of black sexuality that was used as justification for minstrelsy. Lots of people had important thoughts in their think pieces. We all know this. But for the sake of public service, I’d like to share the best ending of a memoir that I’ve ever laid eyes on (spoiler alert!). It’s from Bobby Brown’s surprisingly candid and frequently goofy Every Little Step: My Story, which reads:
I feel the same way about 2016, swapping out Bobby Brown’s zest with utter despair.
“Uncanny Valley,” Anna Weiner: Silicon Valley and its architects are bad at talking about what their efforts have wrought, except in the most glowing terms. This personal essay written from inside the asylum is a good antidote to that relentless cheeriness that outsiders are used to hearing about tech’s ability to “change the world,” and is funny in places, to boot. The reading experience is both a relief and a warning.
Outline, Rachel Cusk: This novel, set in Athens and on the journey there, follows a woman in town for a few days to teach a writing seminar. The entire story is told through a series of contained conversations—primarily between the main character and various men. Readers don’t actually glimpse the conversations themselves, though. The whole novel is the narrator recounting the conversations, in which she often says little. It’s a reminder of how much people reveal themselves with almost no invitation to. I think of it often.
The Selfishness of Others, Kristen Dombek: This short book, subtitled “An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism” was nothing like what I thought it would be. I anticipated an exploration of the theoretical underpinnings of our proclivity to label Donald Trump, our bad boyfriends, the writers we hated the most narcissists. I looked forward to leaning forward and moving my glass of wine to the side at a dinner party and trotting out what I learned to casual applause. In fact, “fear” is the operative word in this essay’s title, and its wise trick was to stoke my anxiety that I am the most narcissistic of all. In reading it, I thought of no one other than myself, and I suspect that is by design.
“To The Class of 2050,” Jen Spyra: Some incredibly inspiring stuff in here—not only relevant to graduates!
There was a lot of great and powerful politics reporting this year that didn’t make a goddamn bit of difference in the ultimate result of this year’s election, like everything David Fahrenthold wrote at the Washington Post. But let’s pretend for a moment like politics doesn’t exist and we’re not screaming towards the underworld in some kind of express elevator and contemplate “The Architect Who Became a Diamond,” Alice Gregory’s totally captivating story about a really weird art stunt by a woman named Jill Magid. Magid conceived of a weird plan—which I will not ruin for you— in order to gain access to an archive of Luis Barragán’s work, a famed Mexican architect. I don’t have any particular feelings about architecture and I’m not smart enough to understand art, and yet it was a captivating, lovely, almost hypnotically-written piece.
Some great novels I read this year were Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night (which would make a gorgeous Amazon series), Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall (which would make a great big-budget thriller with a November release date), Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger (which I assume Reese Witherspoon’s production company will option any second now), Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest (which I sort of hated but which made me cry anyway), and (as stated above) Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (which I just want to live inside).
“Justin Bieber Would Like to Reintroduce Himself,” Caity Weaver: To echo Madeleine, in the months since reading this profile, I’ll occasionally find myself having a vision of Hailey Baldwin sitting on Justin Bieber’s hotel bed and asking Caity, “What’s up?”