Every year I post the ten books that I most enjoyed that year – here are my picks from 2016. Not all of the books were new releases, some are decades old! But they were all new to me. I loved them, and I think you might, too.
Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin (non-fiction) – There’s a quote by Markus Zusak that sums up how much I love this book: “Sometimes you read a book so special that you want to carry it around with you for months after you’ve finished just to stay near it.”
I literally did that with Dead Ladies Project because Jessa Crispin is such a ferociously brilliant thinker and writer that it was one of my favorite reads of the decade, not just year. At 30, Crispin packs a bag and begins a life on the road tracing literary exiles around the world. She reflects on William James, James Joyce, Maud Gonne, and many others, while meditating on subjects like magic, depression, revolution, mythology, place, and personality. It is an intoxicating, phenomenal book that I keep recommending to everyone I know. READ IT.
“Those of us without family ties long for kinship, long to be recognized. The act of writing, the act of fleshing out our wintry family trees with the philosophers and storytellers and androgynous weirdos who have at one point or another saved our lives, is an important one.”
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (fiction) – When I saw this YA book described as the ‘Nigerian Harry Potter’, I had to read it. It is so lush and fresh and densely packed with magic that I couldn’t put it down. I adore books that build authentic, organic magical worlds and Okorafor does that flawlessly, while also bringing together a cast of characters that are complex and beautifully rendered. This book will steal your heart.
“There are more valuable things in life than safety and comfort. Learn. You owe it to yourself.”
The Drifters by James Michener (fiction) – Michener is considered a master for a reason. This book is so vividly well-realized and all-encompassing that it can be difficult to remember that the characters aren’t actually real people. Following the lives and journeys of a group of young people in the late 1960s/early 1970s as they drift around the world in search of something they don’t even know, Michener captures the feeling of a tumultuous era and explores a wide cross-section of themes all through the lens of characters that are tenderly and richly drawn.
“The permanent temptation of life is to confuse dreams with reality. The permanent defeat of life comes when dreams are surrendered to reality.”
Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros (fiction) – A collection of stories set along the borderlands between the US and Mexico, this book reads like poetry and resonates long after you’ve finished. Cisneros poignantly and powerfully gives voice to characters that exist between nebulous metaphorical borders as well as geographic ones, bringing to life a diverse range of experiences and identities that reverberate with authenticity. Cisneros’s voice is lyrical and evocative, she is one of the most inventive writers that I know, and this collection of stories is staggeringly beautiful.
“My sky, my life, my eyes. Let me look at you. Before you open those eyes of yours. The days to come, the days gone by. Before we go back to what we’ll always be.”
Heroines by Kate Zambreno (non-fiction) – This is another book that I lugged around with me everywhere I went. Kate Zambreno writes about the ‘traditionally pathologized’ biographies of modernism’s ‘wives and mistresses’, like Vivienne Eliot, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Zelda Fitzgerald. She visits with her favorite ‘toxic girls’ and explores ideas of who is allowed to write, who gets to claim the title of ‘artist’, and how so many of these women’s creative impulses were drained by their male partners until they ended up silenced, erased, and institutionalized. This book is enraging, fierce, a battle cry. A must read.
“These mad women, these abstracted women are dangerous when they don’t speak, and their tales must be pulled from them, colonized, repeated and rewritten.”
Monsters and Other Silent Creatures and No God but Ghosts by Mai’a Williams (poetry) – These were two of my favorite poetry books this year and I loved them both so much I couldn’t choose between them. Williams writes like the sky is on fire but makes the burning so beautiful you can’t look away. Intimate and compelling, her poems are a testament to the power of words to dream new worlds and ways of being into existence. Spectacular.
“You say, yes
I say, na’am
And we walk into the rising desert sun
These days piled barbed wire divide us
I write another poem
You write graffiti on your arm”
Among Others by Jo Walton (fiction) – Otherworldly, haunting, and intimate, this Hugo Award winner is not a big-boom-fireworks story; it is a quiet story that packs an almighty punch. Mori is an introverted, bookish girl sent away to school, wrestling with the legacy of mental illness, grief, and consequences both magical and mundane. Written with the fervent intensity of a teenager, this book is for those of us who found our family in science fiction and fantasy books and always longed for a karass of our own. Among Others reminds me of one of my favorite reads from last year, the dark, gritty, and sweet How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran…except with magic.
“It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.”
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley (non-fiction) – Hot damn this book is brilliant. Each piece in this collection of Hugo-award-winner Hurley’s essays on geekdom, popular culture, science fiction, and feminism, is stunningly sharp and unapologetically outspoken. Built on years of experience in the field, Hurley calls out the bullshit that dominates a lot of the speculative fiction genre and does so with ferocious wit and enormous insight. This book is about building a better, more inclusive, more thrilling future.
“The more women writers I read, from Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler to Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Toni Morrison, the less alone I felt, and the more I began to see myself as part of something more. It wasn’t about one woman toiling against the universe. It was about all of us moving together, crying out into some black, inhospitable place that we would not be quiet, we would not go silently, we would not stop speaking, we would not give in.”
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (fiction) – Eleanor and Park are two high-school kids in the US in the 1980s, who become friends and then fall for each other, all while navigating the often torturous world of adolescence. It’s hard for me to even explain how good, how electrifying, how heartfelt this book is. How the dialogue is bitingly real and howlingly hilarious. How by the end of it the nail-biting climax is so gripping that you fly through the pages fast enough to give yourself a paper cut. It’s about being an outcast, loving and hating your family, finding your first love, escaping into comics and music, and learning what it means to be yourself. It is urgent and dark and funny and true. Rowell is one of the very best.
“I just want to break that song into pieces and love them all to death.”
Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer (poetry/lyric essay) – This dark, intense, viscerally dreamy book is as beautiful as it is indefinable. Poetry, lyric essay, memoir, and treatise against all things that can stifle a creative life, Boyer builds a world that is both startling and familiar. This is a book about survival and about what makes life worth surviving. It is about finding new forms of expression while sustaining the old forms that got us this far. It is about cleaving to our voice and our vision despite sickness, despite abuse, despite heartache. This is poetry about life in all its mundane magnificence.
“Guess this is all just what is less about geology than cosmos.
Guess this is just the supreme whateverness of upward moving depths.”