Best books of 2016
“The Underground Railroad’’ by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
A slave runs to freedom in an alternate America, with an actual underground railroad running under the earth and deviations in antebellum history, in this powerful sixth novel by Whitehead, winner of the 2016 National Book Award.
“Ema, the Captive’’ by César Aira. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)
In this magical little Frisbee of a novel by the prolific Argentine, a kidnapped woman seduces her captors in a fort at the edge of civilization, turning the tables on their power.
“LaRose’’ by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins)
In the wake of an accidental hunting death, one North Dakota family gives a neighboring clan their son as payment in this devastating novel by America’s greatest living storyteller.
“In the Café of Lost Youth’’ by Patrick Modiano. Translated from the French by Chris Clarke (New York Review Books)
Paris of the 1950s is crowded with thieves, hustlers, drinkers, and posers, and in this brisk novel by the 2013 Nobel winner, a group of them fall under the sway of a mysterious woman.
“Barkskins’’ by Annie Proulx (Scribner)
In this extraordinary epic spanning three centuries and multiple continents, Proulx chronicles the lives of two families — one who chops down trees, the other who turns them into profit — spinning one of her best tales yet.
“The Queen of the Night’’ by Alexander Chee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
A strong-willed American orphan rises up to be the toast of society and a legendary soprano only to be caught up in the vertigo of her past in this sumptuous Napoleonic historical.
“The Fox Was Ever the Hunter’’ by Herta Müller. Translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Metropolitan)
At the end of the Ceausescu regime, a group of friends in Bucharest try to outfox the endless observations of the secret police in this early novel by the 2009 Nobel laureate from Romania.
“The Year of the Runaways’’ by Sunjeev Sahota (Knopf)
Tolstoy and Steinbeck are not exaggerated comparisons for the sweep and power of Sahota’s second novel about five immigrant men living in England illegally and what they went through to get there.
“My Name Is Lucy Barton’’ by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)
A young mother recovering from surgery gets a visit from her own mother, and secrets unspool in this demonstration of the necessity of simplicity in storytelling, if not living.
“The Good Lieutenant’’ by Whitney Terrell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
If only people read more novels like this one, told backward from a young woman’s experience in Iraq to her innocence in the American Midwest, we might think twice about sending soldiers to war.
“Thus Bad Begins’’ by Javier Marías. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf)
In 1980 Madrid, a young man takes a job assisting a once-famous film director and slowly, ineluctably gets drawn into his complex world of relationships, betrayals, and lingering bitterness over Spain’s bloody civil war and the Franco era.
“Zero K’’ by Don DeLillo (Scribner)
The reigning poet of unease, DeLillo has always understood the greatest disquiet — our mortality — and how our sense of it coats the surfaces of day-to-day life with a film, something DeLillo peels back at last in this bravura new novel about cryogenic life extension, family, and the losses we can’t overcome.
“Our Young Man’’ by Edmund White (Bloomsbury)
An ageless young Frenchman rises to the zenith of New York modeling at the dawn of the AIDS crisis in this affecting meditation on youth and beauty.
“The Story of a Brief Marriage’’ by Anuk Arudpragasam (Flatiron)
In a refugee camp during Sri Lanka’s civil war, a older man chooses a survivor to marry his daughter, the last remaining member of his family, in this gorgeous, heartbreaking debut novel.
“Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets’’ by Svetlana Alexievich. Translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich (Random House)
Though by some lights this would be considered nonfiction, the 2015 Nobel laureate refers to her oral histories as “novel[s] in voices,” in this case those of Russians bewildered, enraged, and only occasionally overjoyed by the fall of communism.
“All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation’’ by Rebecca Traister (Simon and Schuster)
Journalist and cultural critic Traister probes the power and freedom of women — especially when not constrained by the demands of marriage — in this thrilling and wide-ranging survey.
“At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails’’ by Sarah Bakewell (Other)
Bakewell profiles Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, and their circle in this thoughtful, entertaining group biography of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers.
“Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary’’ by Joe Jackson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A spiritual leader who bore eloquent witness to his people’s traditions, Black Elk became a counterculture icon years after his death; this new biography places him within the history of devastation and loss among the Plains Indians.
“Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America’’ by Patrick Phillips (Norton)
A poet, Phillips recounts the ugly story behind the purge of black residents of Forsyth County, Ga., the virtually all-white region in which he grew up.
“Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy’’ by Heather Ann Thompson (Pantheon)
The product of a decade’s deep research, Thompson’s narrative history reveals the root causes, horrific events, and enduring wounds of one of the 1970s’ most violent events.
“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’’ by Matthew Desmond (Crown)
Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, tells the human story of what happens when families lose their homes and tracks a growing crisis in an increasingly unequal America.
“Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck’’ by Adam Cohen (Penguin)
“Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes in one of the Supreme Court’s most shameful rulings; Cohen deftly blends legal, medical, and social history in his account of how it came to pass.
“Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul’’ by James McBride (Spiegel & Grau)
More than a standard biography, National Book Award-winner McBride’s meditation on the legend of James Brown shines a light into previously unconsidered corners of the star’s life and music.
“Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies’’ by Ross King (Bloomsbury)
In this enlightening look at Monet’s most famous works, King not only illuminates their beauty but examines the harsh realities during which they were created, from the artist’s excruciating eye troubles to the devastation of war.
“Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story: How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War’’ by Nigel Cliff (Harper)
A beautifully done biography of one of the Cold War’s most famous and unlikely characters, the Texas-born, Baptist pianist who won the hearts of Russians through his extravagant, romantic renditions of their favorite songs.
“On Trails: An Exploration’’ by Robert Moor (Simon and Schuster)
A solitary child who discovered the meditative joys of hiking, Moor brings that same authentic wonder to his exploration of all manner of trails from those made by ants and glaciers to those earliest clues of our own wanderlust.
“One of These Things First’’ by Steven Gaines (Delphinium)
A deeply affecting memoir of growing up gay in the 1950s that somehow turns poignantly humorous when a teenage Gaines talks his way into a fabulous private mental hospital after a suicide attempt.
“Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon’’ by Bronwen Dickey (Knopf)
Dickey brings a fair-minded, evidence-based approach to her history of the dog breed most likely to inspire strong negative emotions — a cultural reversal from the days when the pit bull was seen as America’s favorite pooch.
“Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life’’ by Ruth Franklin (Liveright)
Brilliant and timely, Franklin’s biography of the midcentury author reveals Jackson as a deep thinker, ambitious writer, and conflicted but loving wife and mother; the obstacles she faced seem both specific to her time and troublingly persistent.
“The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father’’ by Kao Kalia Yang (Metropolitan)
A story of devotion — both that of the author’s Hmong father in sublimating his own art to protect and nurture his family from Thailand to America and the author’s for her father in telling his story.
“Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America’’ by Ibram X. Kendi (Nation)
In this National Book Award winner, Kendi upends many commonly held beliefs about how racism works, exploring the ideas and thinkers behind our most intractable social and cultural problem.
“Time Travel: A History’’ by James Gleick (Pantheon)
Starting with H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine,” Gleick’s dazzling book explores the cultural and intellectual roots of the idea of time travel, which leads to a deep dive into the nature of time itself.
“Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy’’ by Cathy O’Neil (Crown)
Algorithms play an increasingly important rule in our everyday lives — determining everything from interest rates to what kind of news articles we see on social media — yet we rarely think to question what goes into making them. Mathematician O’Neil does, and she reports it here, urgently.
“White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide’’ by Carol Anderson (Bloomsbury)
From the end of Civil War to recent battles over voting rights and police brutality, historian Anderson traces a series of black victories and the intense white backlash that followed each one.
“Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File’’ by John Edgar Wideman (Scribner)
The father of lynching victim Emmett Till had his own tragic story, which Wideman tracks down in this sensitive, moving meditation on history, race, and family.
“Rain Dogs’’ by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street)
In this canny take on a locked-room mystery, McKinty’s Belfast-based detective Sean Duffy tangles with a fiendish foreign delegation, his local higher-ups and, most significantly perhaps, with life-changing matters of his own heart.
“South Village’’ by Rob Hart (Polis)
A case of a suspicious death finds reluctant PI Ash McKenna even as he’s aiming for some much-needed R&R — well, biding his time and imbibing impressive amounts of whiskey while waiting for his passport to arrive — in a part-groovy, part-sinister commune in the woods of Georgia.
“Silence of the Sea’’ by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Minotaur)
An empty yacht autopilots into Reykjavik harbor and investigative lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir faces a bizarre case: What on earth — or sea — happened to the seven people that set sail in the cruiser from Portugal?
“So Say the Fallen’’ by Stuart Neville (Soho Crime)
With detective Serena Flanagan’s latest investigation, this one into the apparent suicide of a rich businessman, Neville — who exposes the interior lives of villains as extensively as he does those of the good guys — ups his writerly game by about a zillion notches: If you haven’t read him yet, now’s the time to start.
“Even Dogs in the Wild’’ by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown)
A turf war, the murder of a special prosecutor, and threats to retired cop John Rebus’s nemesis Big Ger Cafferty keep Rebus, Siobhan Clarke, and Malcolm Fox on their toes in this tale that takes on father-son relationships as well as life on the mean streets of Edinburgh.
“Wilde Lake’’ by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)
In Lippman’s latest — hands down one of the year’s most beautifully written novels — newly elected state’s attorney Lu Brant tackles a murder case while revisiting childhood memories of her own family’s relationships with the law in the famous planned egalitarian community of Columbia, Md.
“The Darkest Secret’’ by Alex Marwood (Penguin)
This third novel from one of psychological suspense’s best writers confirms Marwood’s first hat trick with its chilling tale of a long unsolved child disappearance and the years-later death of the child’s wealthy, philandering father, striking at the heart of the area where familial and other relations meet personal self-interest.
“Red Right Hand’’ by Chris Holm (Mulholland)
In his second Michael Hendricks thriller, Holm performs authorial acrobatics, elegantly and nimbly leaping between various locations and voices to produce not just a suspenseful tale kicked off by a San Francisco terrorist attack, but one imbued with multiple fine characters to boot.
“The Death of Rex Nhongo’’ by C.B. George (Lee Boudreaux/Little, Brown)
A gun left in a Harare taxi spells trouble for four very different couples in this smart political thriller steeped in the ways in which unchecked dictatorships affect civilian lives.
“Real Tigers’’ by Mick Herron (Soho Crime)
The third installment in a terrific spy series focusing on the “slow horses” of Slough House, a dead-end office for discredited MI5 agents. With one of their own kidnapped, the agents find themselves caught in a very intriguing — and far-reaching — conspiratorial web indeed.
“Let the Devil Out’’ by Bill Loehfelm (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
New Orleans policewoman — and, let’s face it, part-time rogue warrior — Maureen Coughlin is still pursuing her most recent case when her life becomes that much more complex as she tangles with a local white supremacist group.
“Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith’’ and “Collected Millar: Legendary Novels of Suspense’’ by Margaret Millar (Soho Syndicate)
First two of a seven-volume set reviving the excellent and prolific stories, novels, and nonfiction of the Edgar Allen Poe Award-winning suspense writer.
“You Will Know Me’’ by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown)
A taut murder mystery, yes, but also a mesmerizing — and, at times, alarming — look into the hearts and minds of parents and children with their hearts set on gymnastics stardom.
“Out of Bounds’’ by Val McDermid (Atlantic)
Cold-case detective Karen Pirie has her hands full tracking a break in an unsolved murder, a suspicious suicide, and an alleged IRA bombing from years before, tangling her in issues such as inheritance, privacy, and migration.
“The Ex’’ by Alafair Burke (Harper)
In this smart, twisty, propulsive page-turner — which doesn’t shy away from major contemporary themes — criminal defense lawyer Olivia Randall takes on a case very close to her heart (maybe too close?), defending her former fiancée on a triple murder charge.
“The Sound of Silence” by Katrina Goldsaito, illustrated by Julia Kuo (Little, Brown), ages 5-8
A deeply resonant story — illustrated in precise harmony with the text — about a young boy’s search for silence amid the cacophony of daily life in Tokyo.
“Give and Take” by Lucie Félix (Candlewick), ages 3-7
This clever, playful board book about opposites — with shapes that pop in and out of pages — is perfect for busy toddler fingers.
“The Night Gardener” by Terry Fan and Eric Fan (Simon and Schuster), ages 4-8
If Charles Dickens and Chris Van Allsburg collaborated on a children’s book it might look something like this magical story about a mysterious stranger who — with his dazzling environmental art — transforms a small town and the life of a young boy.
“They All Saw a Cat” by Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle), ages 3-6
A fox, a fish, a bird, a dog, and a worm are among the creatures that see the same striped cat; the animals’ wildly different perspectives, illustrated in a spectacular array of styles, nudge readers into considering what it’s like to see through another’s eyes.
“Horrible Bear!” by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zachariah OHora (Little, Brown), ages 3-6
Quirky, endearing illustrations lighten up this sensitively told, all-too-familiar story about hurt feelings and forgiveness between friends.
“The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles” by Michelle Cuevas, illustrated by Erin E. Stead (Dial), ages 4-8
Fine drawings and a muted palette set the mood for this wistful, dreamy story about a lonely man whose unique job — he delivers messages in bottles that he finds bobbing in the ocean — allows him to connect with his community.
“What Color Is the Wind?” by Anne Herbauts (Enchanted Lion), ages 5 and up
Embossed images and peek-a-boo cut-outs deepen this story about abstract and concrete sensory experiences in the natural world.
“We Found a Hat” by Jon Klassen (Candlewick), ages 4-8
Klassen’s hat trilogy (which includes “I Want My Hat Back” and “This Is Not My Hat”) comes to a sweet end in this story about friendship — between turtles in the desert — and selflessness.
“School’s First Day of School” by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Roaring Brook), ages 4-8
The first day of school can be nerve-wracking for children, but in this tender heart-squeezer readers are forced to consider the jittery feelings of the school building itself.
“Jazz Day” by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Francis Vallejo (Candlewick), ages 8-12
In lively verse “Jazz Day” tells the stories behind the making of a famous 1958 photograph of jazz legends.
“The Dead Bird” by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Christian Robinson (HarperCollins), ages 4-8
With illustrations that are equal parts wise and innocent, earthy, and ethereal Christian Robinson revives Wise Brown’s neglected classic about a group of children who honor a lifeless bird with sorrow, joy, and ceremony.
“Thunder Boy Jr.” by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Little, Brown), ages 2-5
Electric illustrations bursting with color match the vibrant personality of Little Thunder, a little boy with a big personality who is in search of a new nickname.
“Du Iz Tak?’’ By Carson Ellis (Candlewick), ages 4-8
Sophisticated, curious, well-dressed bugs watch as a plant shoot grows and blossoms into a magnificent flower. Their miniature world is alluringly well-realized and includes an invented language, which young readers delight in decoding.
“The Not So Quiet Library” by Zachariah OHora (Dial), ages 3-5
This zany, yet homey book about the joys of reading features a pair of brothers who battle (in the library, with donuts) a boorish five-headed monster.
“Grandad’s Island” by Benji Davies (Candlewick), ages 4-8
Loss is reimagined, gently, in this story of the sweet, rich relationship between a boy and his grandfather who stay connected even when they are apart.
“You Negotiate Like a Girl: Reflections on a Career in the National Football League’’ by Amy Trask with Michael Freeman (Triumph)
An account of life in the NFL boardrooms by the former Raiders CEO, whom one of the owners addressed as “girlie.”
“I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love’’ by Tim Kurkjian, (St. Martin’s)
Presenting his thoughts and observations thematically (“Hit by the Pitch,’’ “Box Scores’’), the veteran commentator shows he is at the top of his game in relating baseball anecdotes.
“Terror in the City of Champions: Murder, Baseball, and the Secret Society that Shocked Depression-era Detroit’’ by Tom Stanton (Lyons)
An account of the terrorizing and murdering of black citizens by a Ku Klux Klan-like group in 1930s Detroit, even as the city’s pro teams were winning everything.
“Champion of the World’’ by Chad Dundas (Putnam)
A fine, intelligent, and complex novel featuring the unlikely comeback tale of a wrestler named Pepper Van Dean set in the days when wrestling wasn’t scripted.
“The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team’’ by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller (Holt)
Two confirmed analytics guys write about what happened when they got the hands-on opportunity to apply their calculations to a minor league team.
“Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball’’ by Onaje X.O. Woodbine (Columbia University)
A thoughtful, passionate, and personal exploration of what basketball means to a group of young black men and to the larger community in Roxbury.
“The Games: A Global History of the Olympics’’ by David Goldblatt (Norton)
Goldblatt is a wise, thoughtful, sometimes caustic observer of what the Games mean and have meant in this social and sports history.
“Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape’’ by Jessica Luther (Akashic)
Investigative journalist Luther catalogues the abuses created and enabled by college football programs and suggests workable reforms.
“The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing With Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba’’ by Brin-Jonathan Butler (Macmillan)
Part memoir, part immersive journalism, Butler explores sports in Cuba and various other aspects of the island we should all be learning more about as quickly as we can.
“Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town’’ by S.L. Price (Atlantic Monthly)
Price chronicles the rise and fall of Aliquippa, Pa., a former steel town near Pittsburgh, focusing on the enormous significance of high school football in a community where nothing matters more.
“The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights’’ by Shaun Assael (Blue Rider)
Assael’s account of Liston’s life in a city full of racial tensions, mob connections, and heroin is illuminating, though not conclusive, regarding the heavyweight champ’s last days and mysterious overdose death.
“Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White’’ by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld (Liberty Street)
Abdul-Jabbar’s analysis of where we are on race, how we got there, and where we might land next — if we have any sense — is sharp and wise.
“Muhammad Ali Unfiltered: Rare, Iconic, and Officially Authorized Photos of the Greatest’’ with foreword by Lonnie Ali (Gallery)
It’s a picture book, but many of the pictures are terrific.
“This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn From the T-Shirt Cannon’’ by L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers (Crown Archetype)
Wertheim, Sports Illustrated executive editor, and Sommers, Tufts psychology professor, take a close look at the players and fans through the lens of behavioral science — the stuff about the T-shirt cannon presents an especially discouraging view of our potential to evolve.
“Odes’’ by Sharon Olds (Knopf)
Is there a poet as frank and frankly arresting as Olds, who sings the praises here of family, of the body, and of time’s benediction with verse as powerful as anything she’s written yet?
“Night’’ by Etel Adnan (Nightboat)
The Lebanese poet and philosopher meditates on origins and the divine in language as deep and strange as a forest at night.
“Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015’’ by Kevin Young (Knopf)
There’s a lot of jive in American poetry of late, but none of it in this rich and musical selection of Young’s work, a book that will make you hungry, sad, sing the blues, and love the ones you love a little harder.
“White Blight’’ by Athena Farrokhzad. Translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida (Argos)
Laid out in black strips against a white page, the lines of this book-length poem by the Swedish-Iranian poet read like the surreptitiously overheard confession of a family on the run — the debut of an essential new voice.
“The Black Maria’’ by Aracelis Girmay (BOA Editions)
The long history of abuse against African Americans threads through this latest excavation by Girmay, whose work always lays bare the importance of history and the vertigo caused by its unknowing.
“House of Lords and Commons’’ by Ishion Hutchinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Baroque and moon-lit, these poems by the Jamaican-born writer expand the galaxy Derek Walcott made possible, where the tonal warmth of island memories blends with the brisk syntax of Anglo traditions.
“Olio’’ by Tyehimba Jess (Wave)
A whole band of mostly unrecorded African-American musicians marches, struts, and peacocks across the pages of this brilliant book, which resurrects with care and joy the content of their songs and the story of black America’s music before the Harlem Renaissance.
“The Little Edges’’ by Fred Moten (Wesleyan)
The river of sound pouring out of Moten in the last decade takes on a sharp, crystalline precision in these shards, which feel like outtakes of a recording session rescued from erasure.
“Look’’ by Solmaz Sharif (Graywolf)
Borrowing the language of a US Defense Department list of military terms, Iranian-American Sharif, who was born in Turkey, builds an elegy to her family and the parts of herself reclaimed — briefly — by the language of her adopted home.
“Night Sky With Exit Wounds’’ by Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon)
If Frank O’Hara knew a thing or two about war and exile and what it does to a family, he’d have written verse like this from a grandchild of an American soldier and a Vietnamese farm girl — ecstatic, bawdy, haunted, and brilliant with the pressures of its arrival.