There’s a common theme in the best books I read in 2016: oppression. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising in a year where the country seemed to take a giant leap backward following a contentious election, but it also reflects a sort of state of being for where I am as a reader. Perhaps you’ve noticed that a lot of fiction is about white men, and that a lot of the narratives want you to find those white men adorable while they stumble around unable to get their lives in order? I’ve developed an intolerance for that narrative. I live that narrative in my everyday life, thank you very much, and I read to travel the world and discover new things, so 2016 was a year in which I began to explore more. Thankfully, there were some great books in 2016 to help me walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
5. The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith (1952)
As you can probably guess, my interest in The Price of Salt was piqued by its film adaptation, Carol. The Price of Salt is an intriguing book because it challenges every preconceived notion you bring to it. It appears to have been historically marketed as a suspense book, perhaps because that’s what Patricia Highsmith was known for, but it isn’t a suspense book. It’s a story about two women falling in love when such a thing was utterly taboo, but Highsmith has no interest in the conventions or tropes of traditional romance. Instead, The Price of Salt is a warts-and-all look at two women from very different ages and life backgrounds falling in love and coming to terms with what they will have to sacrifice if they give into that love. It’s only natural that sacrifice come with its share of bitterness and argument, and while that doesn’t make for a particularly romantic story, it makes for one of the greatest depictions of LGBT life in a bygone era. Full review here.
4. The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy (2015)
The rest of the list moves hard into the topic of race in America. I discovered The Turner House because of The Tournament of Books and fell easily under its spell. What’s so great about The Turner House is that it manages to get at so many issues–deep, heavy issues–without ever feeling preachy or obvious. Instead, it gets at these topics by simply telling the story of the Turner family. The Turners moved to Yarrow Street in Detroit fifty years ago. They raised thirteen children there, surviving hard times and even riots to make a better life for their children. Now their matriarch is dying and the house is worth only a tenth of its mortgage, meaning the Turner children need to come together to decide what to do about the house and how to take care of their mother. As they say goodbye to their childhood once and for all, Angela Fluornoy manages to hint at a range of issues without ever losing sight of the narrative at the center. And she does it with such grace and beauty that it belies the talent it took to craft such an intricate narrative. She’s definitely a talent to watch. Full review here.
3. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (2016)
Winner of the National Book Award, one of The New York Times five best fiction books of the year, anointed by Oprah as a book club 2.0 selection, and numerous other accolades fell over The Underground Railroad in 2016. I confess, my biggest problem with the book was what most people celebrated as its chief creative achievement: reimagining the Underground Railroad as a literal railroad to transport slaves from state to state until they may emerge in free territory. It was a great idea, particularly given Whitehead’s selection of Gulliver’s Travels as an inspiration for his novel. It allowed him to transport escaped slave Cora from one state to another and in a sense reboot her experience of slavery in each state. Slavery may be omnipresent and violent in one state, and racism may be more insidious and hidden in the next. The methodology allows Whitehead to come at slavery from multiple angles and experiences–giving the reader a better idea of how it didn’t just survive as it has been popularly portrayed. But what I found disappointing is that this structure essentially reduces the Underground Railroad to a deus ex machina in every single segment. It exists only to transport Cora, leave her stranded for the plot to develop, then whisk her away at a moment’s notice. Still, there is no denying that Whitehead’s novel is a stunning, and frequently stomach-churning, look at a subject Americans are usually all too eager to shy away from.
2. March, books 1 and 2, by John Lewis (2013 and 2015)
I read these books after Congressman John Lewis won a National Book Award for the third volume in his graphic novel memoirs of the Civil Rights struggle, but because the waiting list for volume 3 was so long after its National Book Award win I didn’t get to read it until 2017 so it’s ineligible for this list (spoiler alert: it’s amazing). Lewis was on the frontline of the Civil Rights movement–a colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr and the last living person who spoke on the day MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. He was part of sit-ins at white-only lunch counters to peacefully protest for integration. He was an original Freedom Rider. He marched in Selma and had his skull fractured during the resulting confrontation with police. His story is still relevant today, and the graphic novel form treats each section with urgency and heightened suspense.
1. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi (2016)
The feeling most people describe having when they read The Underground Railroad is the feeling I had when I read Homegoing. It profoundly moved me. It devastated me. It enlightened me. I read Homegoing right before The Underground Railroad was released amid the fanfare of Oprah’s book club selection, so Underground Railroad wasn’t even a thing at the time I read this book. Unfortunately, all of Homegoing‘s thunder got stolen. Apparently most people only have stamina for one book about slavery per year, because me recommending Homegoing all year has been like shouting into the wind. I genuinely hope people discover this book more widely in the future because it combines the best traits of The Underground Railroad and The Turner House into one revelatory book. It’s an astonishing feat of writing and it’s an important book–tracing the histories of two half-sisters from Ghana in the 1700’s to the present day, through slavery and civil war and upheaval (in both North America and Africa). I cannot recommend it enough. Full review here.
If you think being negative is more fun, check out the worst books I read in 2016. Or check out my 2017 Reading Goals. And here’s to a lot more reading in 2017!
What was the best book you read last year?