It was cold the morning after it was announced David Bowie had died. Not surprising since I live in New York City and it happened in January. Yet I found myself standing outside my apartment around six in the morning, gym clothes on, not really dressed to be idling around. I put on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which I’ve listened to countless times since I was about 13, and simply referred to as “Ziggy.” I guess I could have latched onto the whole point of the song being that we have five years left, that the earth is really dying and all of that. Yet there was one part of the song that I really focused on that made me feel a little better, and that has been my mantra for 2016: “I never thought I’d need so many people.”
I don’t need to really do a breakdown of what made 2016 so awful, you already know about the election, Aleppo, police shootings, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Gene Wilder, Harper Lee, Gwen Ifill, and all those other people who left our world for good after a lifetime spent making it a better place. Other writers have done a good job on those subjects. What I’m focused on is people and the things they made. That’s how I got through 2016.
My favorite novel of the year is definitely The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang. Although early on I was a little worried that the year was shaping up to be a little thin in terms of novels I loved, I had a handful that blew me away including Alexander Chee’s glorious The Queen of the Night, The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, Teddy Wayne’s creepy, Lolita-esque Loner was really hard to put down, Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton, Nicotine by Nell Zink, and, maybe not surprisingly, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead were all fantastic. Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers took me by surprise, not because I don’t think she’s a great writer, but more because I think it’s so difficult to write a great circa-now Brooklyn novel, and she really wrote something that stuck with me. I looked around my own neighborhood and could see characters from it. It’s funny because there are so many writers in Brooklyn (crazy observation, right?) but so few really good current books are set there. I feel like people are almost ashamed to write about the place, and I guess that’s understandable because it’s Brooklyn. Yet Straub really nailed it.
I think my biggest regret in terms of reading is that I haven’t finished Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Michael Chabon’s Moonglow before 2017 so I can’t quite fit those other two big novels of the year into this list. I tend to beat myself up over things like that. Both Smith and Chabon are writers I enjoy reading a great deal, and I’m actually a little ashamed I haven’t found time to visit their newest books. I also started on Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death at the end of the year, and need to read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. I’m loving Sudden Death so far and could see it on a list like this if only I’d read it earlier.
Chang’s debut came out in a shining year for debut novels, and along with incredibly strong books by Tony Tulathimutte, Brit Bennett and Garth Greenwell, it took me by surprise. I figured I’d like it, but after reading Bennett’s The Mothers, I felt there was nothing that could top that. I felt like Bennett put her first book into the world and made it seem effortless like a seasoned pro. I thought the way she built her characters and their story, wasted no time setting up what their part of the world is like and the people around them, was perfect. She wrapped you up in the story, left nothing out, and took my breath away. I also thought The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang was another standout debut, and I’m looking forward to her Graywolf essay collection. All in all, I feel like the future is pretty bright thanks to those writers, but Chang’s debut resonated with me the most.
I forgot what calamity was taking place when I was reading The Wangs vs. The World, but I recall burying my head in the book to power me through it. In Chang’s debut I saw equal parts Willy Loman and Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Having grown up the child of an immigrant, I tend to really relate to books that tell stories of people who move to America and just fall backwards into its promises of money and a better life, only to realize that might not be the case. Charles Wang realizes that there are American dreams and there are also nightmares. Everybody talks about the dream, how if you work hard enough that you’re entitled to a better life. The immigrant idea of America, the fulfillment of that dream, the 1st generation children who grow up here with all the things their parents never had, and, as Chang writes about so brilliantly, the crash. There isn’t always a crash, but it is such a tragic setup: Charles Wang comes to America, hits it rich, then it’s all gone. And his kids? Who are these people? A friend who was born in American to Russian parents once told me she thought American-born kids must seem like aliens to their immigrant parents. Chang wraps that up into a novel that, no matter who you are or where you’re from, I feel like really says so much about present-day America. What we think we need and deserve, and the realization that we never paid attention to what was truly important.
Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter was a book my friends seemed to be divided on. Same with Emma Cline’s The Girls. I’ll be honest, I didn’t like The Girls very much at all (it’s fine, she sold a ton of copies). It felt too forced, too researched. Like it was trying too hard to be something it isn’t like an eventual movie or Amazon series. Sweetbitter, on the other hand, I loved. I felt like the Bright Lights, Big City comparisons were a little much, but what I did get was my own fucked up memories of working in the service industry in New York City in the aughts. Maybe that’s why I connected with it so much and why some of my friends didn’t. Maybe they just didn’t flat out like the book. Whatever it was, I read it in two days and loved it.
I thought Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss was a great novel that utilized a different time as the setting. Prentiss took on some big jumps for her first book, and not all of them were executed perfectly, but I really enjoyed the hell out of it overall.
There seems to be this thing happening where one year I’m more obsessed with short stories and the next I’d rather read novels. I feel like last year I picked up more short story collections that blew me away, less in 2016. Yet a few that I read, Sing the Song by Meredith Alling and The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks, will remain on my shelf and will be suggested to people for a long time to come. Sparks has the strange sort of imagination that I love, sort of like a Kelly Link, and Alling is like Amy Hempel on speed. Yet my favorite short story collection of the year was Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott.
I don’t think I could ever write short stories, and Insurrections reminds me why. Scott’s are layered and affecting without ever letting the prose go sour. I read it earlier this year and liked it, but revisited it recently and found myself really sucked into each and every story, realizing i was somewhere between wanting more because he’s such a great storyteller, but also totally satisfied with what he fit into such a small space.
Going into 2017, I keep flipping between whether or not I’ll want more fiction or writing based in reality. Do I want to get the fuck out of this world for a little bit and spend some time in an imagined story or stay real? In 2016 I really did a fair amount of both, starting with Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door and The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. Both books, in their own way, reimagine the memoir. Lisicky floored me. A meditation on love, friendship, writing, just all kinds of powerful thoughts and ideas come shining through. It’s a memoir, yes, but it’s something bigger than that. Lisicky tells the story of another person, but his experiences surrounding that person. It’s just an incredibly beautiful book.
What more can I say about Laing? I loved The Trip to Echo Spring, but in this look at being lonely in the big city, relating her own experiences back to artists like Andy Warhol and Edward Hopper, the work they created and the lives they led, should serve as her masterpiece until the next great book. What I think amplified the experience of this book is I largely read it at my local bar, illuminated by candles and a Miller High Life sign. I was also feeling alone and alienated, much of it my own doing. My wife was out of town for school and just the days leading up to the election and the indian summer heat made me just want to be by myself, so I walked to Sharleen’s on Flatbush over a few nights, plunked down and read this cover to cover. I’m really glad I did.
I won’t call Mira Ptacin’s Poor Your Soul and Rob Spillman All Tomorrow’s Parties “traditional” memoirs, but I guess you could say that in comparison to the previously mentioned books. Although I think both Ptacin and Spillman really peel things back and offer up so many layers, Poor Your Soul as a look at love, loss, and how we deal with things that will haunt us forever, and Spillman’s deeply profound story abut searching through wandering, the guy is like a Gen X Patrick Leigh Fermor dealing with some real existential shit. Kat Kinsman’s Hi, Anxiety, while not a self-help book, helped me deal with some of my own issues that have troubled me throughout my life. It’s one of those books that lets you know that you’re not alone, and we need books like that. She’s also funny and empathetic in a way that makes you wish you could talk to her right after you close the book and tell her everything.
One of the good things about 2016 is that Chloe Caldwell really made her mark as one of our great essayistsI liked her first two books, but something about I’ll Tell You in Person really grabbed me even more. Tales of missing people and times really done so well and with such heart without holding anything back. Caldwell is one of the few writers who can take the experience of being down and out and in your 20s or 30s in a big, hip city and make it relatable and interesting.
Also going to say that I loved the hell out of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir. It’s literally the exact book and way you’d want from The Boss. The guy is a walking, breathing myth, and he brings himself down a few notches and gives an honest and really fascinating look into his whole life. Two more music memoirs blew me away more, however: The Humorless Ladies Of Border Control by Franz Nicolay and Tranny by Laura Jane Grace. Nicolay, who has no problem wearing his love of Eastern European culture (especially literature) on his sleeve, gives a fascinating look not only into touring, but also a specific time and place. Crust punks, shady promoters, and international conflicts are all in this book, along with Nicolay’s observations from years of touring.
You get a lot of that in Tranny as well, but ultimately you end up with is a very honest look at a life and career path that hasn’t always been easy. Grace, trying to survive a shitty teenage life in Florida, attempting to get Against Me! to a good place, and dealing with gender dysphoria as well as addiction are all laid out for the reader without holding anything back. There isn’t some sappy happy ending offered up, and that’s what makes the whole thing so deeply satisfying. Grace admits the world is fucked up and people, including herself, are flawed and prone to screwing up. What we as readers are supposed to take away is that she seems like she’s in a better place, and that it’s hopefully getting better every day. This memoir serves as part of that process, and it’s simply one of the best punk memoirs I’ve ever read.
Bruja by Wendy C. Ortiz was another standout this year. I said this when I introduced her at an event at The Last Bookstore in November, but I get excited when I hear Ortiz has a new book coming out. She’s one of the most fascinating writers operating right now, and I think she takes storytelling and just flips it and shakes it and delivers something new and exciting with every new book.
The books that resonated with me the most from the day I closed them until this very moment as I type this, and I’m guessing beyond, was Pretentiousness, a book-length essay by Dan Fox, and also The Fire This Time, the most important collection of essays to come out this year, edited by the great Jesmyn Ward. Honestly, Ward’s own contributions to the book ran circles around most of the writing I read in 2016, but taking a handful of writers to use James Baldwin as a jumping off point to explore being black in America today yielded something I hope will be read for years to come. And also, not trying to move too far away from what the book as a whole means, 2016 was the 20th anniversary of Outkast’s ATLiens, so Kiese Laymon’s contribution was especially wonderful. I’d like more Outkast essays, please.
I didn’t think I’d like Pretentiousness because, yes, the title. I had figured it would be a writer defending why they look down on people. I kept hearing the word “uneducated” thrown around by talking heads and journalists to label people from Appalachia to the South Side of Chicago. The elitism was nearly as thick as the racism and sexism on display throughout the election, and ultimately it came back to bite us on the ass. Yet what Fox did with this little book is brilliant. It isn’t looking down on anybody, rather it’s Fox questioning why we’re so hellbent on looking down on intelligence, on loving great art, and why “Anti-intellectualism” seems to be so in fashion when that in itself is really its own brand of pretentiousness.
Fox summed up so much for me, he took a lot of what I’ve been feeling and packaged it into what I think is a very important book, and that’s why, if I’m ever going to build a reading list of books that represented this strange as hell year that was, I’d put his book on the top of it. 2016 was the year a lot of beautiful people died and a lot of scared people decided to accept sinking deeper into the mud. I’ve always wanted to know and learn from the beautiful people, and as 2017 begins, I plan to do that even more. I’m going to look for the people and the things they create that give us a little light more so than ever, and hopefully we will all make it out on the other side together.
I never thought I’d need so many people. But now, more than ever, I realize that I do.