Make a list, regret it twice: choosing the “Best” books in any year is a procedure guaranteed to given any book reviewer grief. Whatever number you choose, you’ll be leaving out books that make their own arguments for inclusion with urgency and eloquence. Yet, as the year winds up– particularly a year like this one, in which breaking news often threatened to break us under the sheer flooding volume and seismic consequences– looking back to capture some of what the slower work of the book had to offer seems all the more essential.
Consider this list from the B&N Review to be part of that attempt: an admitted fragment, a snapshot of highlights, a particular edit of a scene a different eye might have filmed quite differently. We’ve chosen ten new-in-2016 works of fiction and nonfiction that appeared in our pages, books we think represent this year with particular significance — whether for their urgent attention to the moment we share, their fresh and illuminating point of view, or their achievement in breaking through the cacaphony with a singular voice. (Next month we’ll highlight some significant rediscoveries and new translations as well). Our selections, along with excerpts of our coverage in the Review, are below:
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister
From Barbara Spindel’s interview with author Rebecca Traister: “American public policy and civic institutions were built with one formulation of the citizenry in mind, a model in which there was a breadwinning person and a domestic laborer. The assumption was that the earner was male. He got a series of things from the government: tax breaks for being married, for having a kid, for owning a home. The assumption has also been that that person had an unpaid or low-paid person, always a woman, who stayed at home and was working to put meals on the table, do laundry, pick up children from school at three o’clock in the afternoon — just think about how our country is built on the assumption that there is somebody who’s going to pick up a child at three o’clock in the afternoon! People don’t live like that anymore.” Read More.
From our interview with author Jeffrey Toobin: “What gives the book, I think, contemporary resonance is that, you know, terrorism is nothing new in the United States. We are very scared of ISIS today. But in fact, there was more terrorism in the ’70s. …I do think that if you believe, as many people do, that events are shimmering out of control, it may be helpful to know that things have been worse in the past. But I don’t want to pretend that I wrote this book as sort of like a guide to contemporary life. It’s mostly just an extraordinary story from the past that has one woman at the mysterious heart of it.” Read More.
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
From Hawa Allan’s review: “’The white man in this book is a symbol of progress,’ according to the former English literature teacher of Furo Wariboko, the protagonist of A. Igoni Barrett’s novel Blackass... But of course, in the zero-sum politics of settler colonialism, one man’s progress is another man’s decline. “Progress always wins,” Furo’s English teacher had taught, “that’s why it’s progress.” Read More.
Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips
From Tayari Jones’s interview with author Patrick Phillips: “So even as a schoolkid, I asked some of my classmates, ‘Why are there no black people here? Why is everyone so full of hatred when there don’t seem to be any people of color around?’ That’s when I first heard this story in its most mythic terms, which was that, a long-long time ago, this girl had been attacked and, in response, the white people had ‘run out’ all of their black neighbors. That’s the version of it I always knew. And exactly as you say, it was always told in very vague, mythic terms. There were never any names or dates or places. It was stripped of all of the detail. So it seemed like this thing that was just lost in the mists of time.” Read More.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
From Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s interview with author Matthew Desmond: “Americans are matched in their rich democracy with the depth and expanse of poverty. That’s really always unsettled me. So I wanted to get as close as I could and try to understand that from a ground level…So I started by moving into a trailer park on the south side of Milwaukee, and I lived in that trailer for about five months. Then I moved into a rooming house on the north side of Milwaukee, which is a traditional inner-city, predominantly African-American neighborhood, and I lived in that rooming house for about ten months. From those two places, I followed families that were getting evicted and the landlords doing the evicting. If you were getting evicted, I went to court with you, followed you into abandoned shelters and houses… I went to funerals with folks. Slept at their houses. Ate meals at their table. I was there for a birth… I saw landlords buy property, sell properties, pass out eviction notices, and collect rents, and tried to really plumb the complications of that relationship that defines the lives of so many families today.” Read More.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
From Amy Gall’s review and interview with Nicole Dennis-Benn: “It is impossible to read Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, and not be changed. The book traces the stories of four Jamaican women fighting for selfhood and love in a country that is built upon their exploitation… [The novel]is beautiful and unsparing in its critique of the tourism industry and the ways in which racism, sexual violence, and homophobia warp the lives of the characters. It is a meditation on the possibility of hope and intimacy in the face of great adversity.” Read More.
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
From Melissa Holbrooke Pierson’s review: “Imagine Me Gone fulfills its considerable ambitions. It touches greatness, and its seamless interleaving of the deeply personal with the widely collective is one reason. The character of Michael is another. Haslett suggests grief is passed to succeeding generations of a society by the same mechanism it is to individuals. In Michael both converge.” Read More.
Mercury by Margot Livesey
From Katherine A. Powers’s review: “Mercury is Margot Livesey’s eighth novel, and just like the previous seven, it is completely different from its predecessors. Her books have been peopled by a most variegated lot, among them an evil child, a lunatic, a blackmailer, an amnesiac, a control freak, a couple of ghosts, and, last time, in The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a mid-twentieth-century version of Jane Eyre. Now we find ourselves sucked deep into the lives of an optometrist, his equestrian wife, and their two children….I came to this story in a state of innocence, and I feel that its terrific power depended in great part on the gradual unfolding of unlooked-for events.” Read More.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
From Megan Abbott’s review: “‘You once wrote me a letter . . . telling me that I would never be lonely again. I think that was the first, the most dreadful lie you ever told me.’..These wrenching lines appear twice in Ruth Franklin’s magisterial biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life and are, by some measures, the beating heart of the book. They are taken from an undated letter Jackson wrote to her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. But Franklin employs them not so much for what they reveal about Jackson’s frequently unhappy marriage but instead to tease out the many murky nuances of what ‘lonely’ meant for Jackson — as a writer whose work frequently defied categorization, as a woman chafing against her era’s notions of what a woman could be, and as an artist of singular talent in a time and place when singularity was often suspect.” Read More.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
From Barbara Spindel’s review: “Hochschild sees the Arenos, who are staunch Republicans, as part of what she calls ‘the Great Paradox’: in Louisiana, as in other red states in the South, one finds ‘great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters.’ Strangers in Their Own Land…grew out of Hochschild’s alarm over the country’s deepening political divide and her heartfelt interest in understanding, in her words, ‘how life feels to people on the right.’ Over a period of five years, Hochschild traveled to Louisiana bayou country from her Berkeley home to get to know a group of men and women she comes to refer to as her ‘Tea Party friends’ and to understand why, in an area that’s suffered from calamitous industrial pollution, they put more faith in industry than in government.” Read More.