26 best books of 2016, because at least we had some good stories to get us through the year
2016 has been, hands down, the most despicable. Beloved actors and musicians were ruthlessly taken from us, our country elected a person who needed his Twitter taken away from him, and countless numbers of hate crimes and terrorist attacks made headlines over and over again. 2016, I am DONE with you.
But that does lead me to what this post is actually about: books. This year was THE year to fully submerge yourself in fiction, in non-fiction, in pages and pages of words and words. Because while I know you are a responsible human person and you read the news and you digest it and you react to it, it’s okay to take a break and read and temporarily forget about this garbage shit show of a status quo.
So, thank god for books. Shall we celebrate the many amazing reads of the year? We SHALL.
1 Swing Time by Zadie Smith
This yellow book was one of the most talked-about pieces of literature this year — and for good reason. Swing Time is about the friendship between two black girls and their aspirations to become great dancers. Female relationships and the way power is constantly shifted between them is the main theme, but what will keep you reading is Smith’s breathtaking prose.
2 Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Modern Lovers presents readers with two hipster families living in Brooklyn, trying to navigate their mid-life malaise. There is a yoga cult involved, as well as an awkward teen romance. There’s a backstory that entails a college rock band and BETRAYAL (*gasp*).
3 Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam
It’s difficult to capture the friendship between two adult women, and when you realize Rumaan Alam is a man writer, you might think, “How will he get us? How will he understand?” Trust me, he does. Rich and Pretty follows two young women trying to pull off adulthood, each succeeding/failing in their own way. What will grab you is not even the story (which is very good, by the way), but the storytelling. It’s just mesmerizing.
4 The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
This is not another story about star-crossed lovers! Okay, maybe it is, but that’s okay. Daniel is the son of Korean immigrants, parents who expect their son to succeed beyond anyone (and everyone’s) wildest expectations. Natasha knows exactly what she wants for her future (she wants to be a scientist), and she knows how to get there (lots of college). But her plans are derailed when she learns her family is getting deported back to Jamaica. Pretty much immediately. Of course THIS is precisely when Daniel and Natasha meet. Get your Kleenex ready.
5 The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Change
The once successful, wealthy Wangs are suddenly stripped of their fortune and big, fancy Bel Air house. Dun, dun, dun! Patriarch Charles Wang decides that after his cosmetics empire crumbles to the ground, he’ll just take his family to China, where they can start over and rebuild their life. Simple. A story about a Chinese immigrant’s rise to prosperity and how the “American Dream” both rewarded and crushed him is a brilliant (and endlessly entertaining) page-turner.
6 Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave it all Away by Lisa Napoli
Behind every great man is…a strong, smart woman who is willing to sacrifice everything for what she believes in. Ray & Joan is about a tumultuous marriage, and yes, McDonald’s. If you need more exciting non-fiction in your life, this was meant for you.
7 Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers by Leslie Bennetts
The iconic, ever-polarizing and hilarious Joan Rivers affected all of us in some way, shape or form. Maybe she was your comedic/fashion/snark queen. Or maybe you thought her jokes pretty crass and fashion intel too intense, but couldn’t help but laugh and listen to her anyway. Regardless — Joan Rivers was a feminist and a rebel-rouser. Her story, her full story, deserves to be known. And in this biography, details of her personal and professional life are told in a smart, exquisite way. For any true Joan fan, Last Girl Before Freeway is a must-read.
8 The Girls by Emma Cline
There were a lot of cults in 2016 literature (Jessica Grose’s Soulmates, Modern Lovers — for awhile, people thought American Horror Story Season 6 was going to be based on Charles Manson‘s gory following), but The Girls chilled us to the bone like no other story did. Because really, The Girls was about friendship, fitting in, and growing up. It’s just that in Evie Boyd’s world, that included orgies and murder.
9 Soulmates by Jessica Grose
Like I said, 2016 was the Year of Cults (and other terrible things). Grose’s Soulmates follows Dana’s ambitious life post-divorcing her yogi husband, Ethan. Everything comes to a halt when she reads in The New York Post that her ex-husband has been found slain in the desert. Turns out, he had been teaching yoga classes with the woman he left Dana for, and said woman was also found dead right next to him. WHAT THE WHAT. Dana enrolls in the yoga community that ensnarled Ethan, desperate to find out what happened. Soulmates is the satire and commentary on New Age spirituality you absolutely never knew you needed until right now.
10 An Innocent Fashion by R.J. Hernández
An Innocent Fashion is like The Devil Wears Prada, but much more serious (and just as good). Elián San Jamar works his ass off to get into Yale, where his academic pursuits lead him to fashion magazine Régine. It’s there he comes to learn that the fashion and magazine industry isn’t just glamor and labels. A poignant observation about the realities of our painstaking dreams and goals, An Innocent Fashion is a refreshing (and pretty) read for anyone trying to get through this whole adulthood thing without combusting.
11 A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women by Siri Hustvedt
A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women (released just this month) is the book all the smart women (and men) will be talking about well into 2017. Why? Because Siri Hustvedt provides a very good and very insightful investigation into how gender biases effect everything we see and touch and know. In a Trump America, let A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women be your guide.
12 Little Nothing by Marisa Silver
Little Nothing is the magical realism we needed this year: Pavla, a peasant girl who can grow no taller than a few feet, is subjected to medical treatments from the owner of a freak show — the effects are unimaginable. Following her journey is Danilo, a man who falls in love with Pavla, and stops at nothing to protect her. Little Nothing is the grown-up, twisted version of Thumbelina; you won’t be able to stop reading.
13 Nicotine by Nell Zink
A weirdly funny and unexpectedly essential novel, Nicotine follows Penny, an unemployed business major who did everything in her power to be everything her parents weren’t. But then life comes to a screeching halt when Penny’s father dies, and she has to deal with his childhood home (which has been claimed by a crew of nicotine-addicted, Anarchist squatters). Consider this another satire to put on your to-read list.
14 Intimations: Stories by Alexandra Kleeman
Intimations looks into the human existence through three lenses: birth, life, and death. The twelve stories are just as bizarre and wonderful as Kleeman’s first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (you know, the blue book you saw everyone reading by the pool last year), but I hate to compare, because Intimations deserves its own praise. It’s hard for fiction to capture the confusion and weirdness of living, and this collection of stories does so in a gorgeously creepy way.
15 We Could be Beautiful by Swan Huntley
Swan Huntley’s We Could Be Beautiful is a page-turning, satirical psychological thriller that is both hilarious and crazy captivating. The protagonist, Catherine West, is a wealthy adult woman whose expensive tastes are funded by the money her father left her and her sister. She owns a failing, artsy greeting card shop, a beautiful house in New York, and has her own personal trainer — what more could she want? True love and a family, of course! “Serendipitously” she meets William Stockton, and the two hit it off immediately. But you should always be weary of a person who shows up in your life claiming to be your soulmate (especially if it turns out he’s a family friend who mysteriously moved to Europe for a number of years and your mother who has Alzheimer’s has a tantrum every time his name is mentioned).
16 Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
You may not have heard of her, but you should definitely get to know her (her work, that is — Kathleen Collins passed away in 1988). What Happened to Interracial Love? is a collection of stories about infatuation, the African American experience and identity, and “otherness.” Thoughtful and endlessly beautiful, we’re lucky to be able to read this collection of short fiction Collins left behind.
17 Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter
Jen has given up art (her life’s passion), is thrown into an aimless job hunt after she’s laid off, and has been trying (and failing) to get pregnant with her husband. Things seemingly start to look up when she’s suddenly employed by a feminist nonprofit — until Jen realizes her bosses (and company) are, well, ethically challenged. Worst of all, she accidentally involves her best friend in an offensively-executed work project, and now Jen is not only underemployed and struggling to get pregnant, but she’s also sans-BFF. Break in Case of Emergency is a novel about careers, marriage, and how women treat each other. Required reading? Hell yes.
18 Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Sweetbitter was one of 2016’s most talked-about novels — and rightfully so. It’s hard to capture the gritty and often times manic life that one leads when they work in the food and beverage industry, but Stephanie Danler somehow pulls it off, AND manages to write an uncomfortably good coming-of-age story. Meet Tess, a 22-year-old who stumbles into a restaurant looking for a job and walks out not knowing her life will be changed forever by a woman named Simone (an older server whose knowledge of wine and poetry is beyond), a bartender named Jake (what is it with guys/bartenders named Jake?), and all the alcohol and drugs you can imagine.
19 Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Just as stop-you-in-your-tracks poetic and tremendous as the rest of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels are, Here I Am is the big read we’ve all been waiting for. Foer, in his signature voice we’ve come to fall in love with ever since we read Everything is Illuminated, gives us a gorgeous tale of a family that must make some hard choices when an earthquake sets off what was already the murmurings of war in the Middle East.
20 Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing is a story about two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who are ruthlessly and painfully ripped away from each other. One is sold into slavery, while the other marries a British slave owner. Written with such precision and rawness, Yaa Gyasi creates a historically-rich novel (one that spans over 250 years) that addresses colonialism and slavery in America and Ghana, Africa.
21 Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams
Diane Williams’ book of flash fiction is the punchy read you absolutely need in your life. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine is comprised of 40 stories, which read more like observations. “His recovery of an old debt reverses a disappointment. He will buy a new V-necked cardigan!,” one segment reads. “She holds the loaf against her breast and presses it up under her chin. But this is no violin! Won’t she sever her head?,” is another.Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine is weird, poignant, and wonderful.
22 What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
What is Not Yours is Not Yours is beautifully trippy and will make you think. Helen Oyeyemi’s short story collection has magical properties — though at first they may seem confusing, her tales eventually unveil themselves, and you’re left asking questions, re-reading parts of the book, anything to unlock this fantastical world Oyeyemi has created for us.
23 Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
Pond is a quaint series of somewhat connected short stories, stories told through the lens of an Irish woman who lives alone. Though it’s dense, Pond explores day-to-day life and pokes and prods at the mundane in a fascinating way.
24 The Mothers by Brit Bennett
The last year of high school for Nadia Turner is a tumultuous one: Her mother commits suicide, and she becomes romantically involved with her community’s pastor’s son. Things happen, and Nadia discovers she’s pregnant. Afraid, Nadia hides the truth from everyone, especially her righteous best friend, Aubrey. Mothers is about a relationship, but it’s also about belief and community and the different lives we could have led.
25 You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein
I don’t know about you, but I REALLY needed this book when it came out. Comedian Jessi Klein (she writes for Amy Schumer’s show, Inside Amy Schumer) talks about womanhood, relationships, and her career in a super relatable, hilarious, and inspiring way. Plus, You’ll Grow Out Of It is just a comforting read when you’re in the midst of a quarter-life crisis and need the guidance of a smart, successful woman. Or, just, you know, whenever.
26 Today Will be Different by Maria Semple
If you loved the quirkiness of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, you will fall in love with Maria Semple’s newest flawed heroine, Eleanor. The crux of the story is ignited when Eleanor stops by her surgeon husband’s office, only to discover he lied to his staff saying he was on vacation (when really he was not on vacation) which leads Eleanor to believe there is something deeply wrong with their marriage. Furthermore, we learn about Eleanor’s past and her mysterious sister. The heart of Today Will Be Different is about family and relationships, and it’s told through the perspective of a hilarious, imperfect woman. I dare you to not find pieces of yourself in Eleanor.