2016 Book list
- Pyongyang – Guy Delisle
- Race in American Science Fiction* – Isiaah Lavender
- How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America** – Kiese Laymon
- The Bazaar of Bad Dreams – Stephen King
- A Little Life*** – Hanya Yanagihara
- Roving Pack* – Sassafras Lowrey
- The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics** – Ramzi Fawaz
- Bombs Away – Harry Turtledove
- Cults and New Religions: A Brief History – Douglas Cowan and David Bromley
- Long Division – Kiese Laymon
- Ruthless – Ronald Miscavige
- The Three-Body Problem* – Cixin Liu
- The Plots Against the President – Sally Denton
- Porcelain* – Moby
- The Spitboy Rule – Michelle Cruz Gonzales
- The Girls** – Emma Cline
- The Dark Forest* – Cixin Liu
- Fallout – Harry Turtledove
- Kingdom of the Unjust – Medea Benjamin
- The Underground Railroad** – Colson Whitehead
- Stories of Your Life and Others ** – Ted Chiang
At first glance, it appears that I read an astounding small number of books this year (only 21, compared to my usually 50+), which surprised me at first. But then, recognizing that A Life Life is incredibly long (I do read quickly, but even for me, this one took a bit), that I did a large amount of writing this year, and had lots of personal stuff going on (including the death of my father), it makes more sense. But this list really shows a large gap around gender, with fifteen of the above 21 books (or 70 percent) being books by men, and five by women, and one by a genderqueer writer. I’m going to try and do better in 2017.
The number of comic book series trade paperback collections and graphic novels I read this year is also way down (43 from about 110 last year). I didn’t include books written as single works — as opposed to collections of series — in my count of “books” this year for some reason (except the Guy Delisle book); they are included instead in this number.
Some standouts from those are:
- The Finder Library: Volume One by Carla Speed McNeil, about this weird sprawling dystopian world it’s impossible to describe briefly, but it involves gender fluidity, humanoid animals, mysticism, war trauma/PTSD. It’s chock full of allusions and endnotes that explain the world, which made it a slow read for me. Feel like I need to build myself up to Volume Two. But it’s an incredibly ambitious work, if you’re interested in a rich, deeply thought-out alternate world.
- Sandman Series: I read Neil Gaiman’s whole Sandman series this year, and found it to be much different than I’d expected. While I didn’t love every part of it, I really enjoyed some of the darker arcs, and also learning about his siblings The Endless. And there are some wonderful sort of “tangent” or one-shot style stories that don’t have anything to do with the main character that I really liked. Again, it’s hard to boil a long series down, but definitely felt it to be a rewarding read. We need more dreams these days.
As for non-comics-related books, here are the highlights:
- How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon: I don’t know why this writer isn’t celebrated in the same way that Ta-Nehisi Coates is. This collection of essays and memoir felt just as incendiary and unsettling (in a good way) to me as Between the World and Me, perhaps even more, in that while Coates’ book grapples with race in America, Laymon digs into black masculinity and class in similarly powerful and painful ways. His background as a deep Southerner is distinctively different, which made this book a great redirection of some of my thinking following reading Coates’ book. It’s potent and distilled writing, which inspired and helped propel my own writing work this year. Check it out.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was easily the best book I read this year. It was incredibly raw, and difficult to process, and I didn’t want it to end. If you haven’t heard about it, know it’s centers around a jagged examination of friendship and love through a quartet of friends living in New York City following college. It sounds pretty basic on its face, but the book shifts into one of the most unflinching portrayals of trauma survivorship I’ve ever seen in a piece of literature, through the story of one (really, two) of the four main characters. (I need to qualify that by saying that I have not experienced anything as awful as what this character has in my own life, and can only claim to know the contours of such trauma through my own experiences and my understanding — to whatever degree I can — of those experiences of other folks I know who have gone through some ugly traumas and described them to me). It’s compelling, heart-breaking and heart-shaking, challenging and gorgeous and tragic all at the same time. After hearing that it had swiftly become THE favorite book of several folks whose opinions I know and respect after they read it, I was still skeptical. But within ten minutes of beginning this book, I was astounded by how much I already loved it, and was looking forward to the rest of it. When it was over (about 700 pages later), I was devastated. But in the best possible way.
- Porcelain by Moby was an incredible memoir. I’m by no means a big Moby fan, but after having heard him talk on the radio about this book, I was intrigued. It spans his teenage years, growing up fairly poor in wealthy Darien, Connecticut, through his early days as a struggling DJ, living in squats, to his first indie record successes (which were mixed with some setbacks as well). The book ends right before he is set to release Play, the album which brought him into the mainstream. Struggles with faith (both the religious and creative kind) and various substances become part of the mix as well (my understanding is he’s now sober). While mentions of interesting collisions he has along the way with other established and emerging NYC artists are entertaining, it’s really his rendering of a lower Manhattan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one that no longer exists, that I found the most engaging. It’s the story of so many places now gone, basement venues and dive bars where folks made their own filthy, freaky, fun culture. I went to college only only an hour away from NYC in the early to mid 1990s, so trips to see shows at lower Manhattan venues like CBGB’s and ABC No Rio and to explore the city a big part of my last teenage years and early 20s, so this piece of the overall narrative really resonated with me, even as I’m glad to not have been part of the drug culture Moby describes. But the writing is really, really solid, and at several moments, he really becomes deeply vulnerable; I actually found myself thinking it was the best memoir I’d read (and I’ve read several) since Patti Smith’s Just Kids (though Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys is still likely closer to Smith’s level). And again, while I’m a big Moby music fan, I am slightly more of one now, and I have much more respect for him as a person.
- The Girls by Emma Cline, which is a fictionalized story of a teenage girl who becomes seduced by a Manson Family-like community, and her adult self, still reckoning with the aftermath many years later. It depicted an aching, jittery, intensity named girlhood that I will never know, but feel I was given an exquisitely crafted glimpse of. The yearning for family, the simultaneous, dizzying sense of immersion and repulsion between young women that feels sometimes like love and sometimes like hate runs through this book, the feral freedom of teenage searching, finding and losing are all over this book. I tore through it. It’s that good.
- The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics by Ramzi Fawaz is a deliciously brown, queer, nerdy examination of how comics have been used by creators to engage readers around issues of race, class, and gender, in both explicit (through direct storytelling and answers to reader letters) and deceptively subversive ways, over a few decades. It’s an intriguing read, because Fawaz has obviously done his homework, and while I’ve not read all the series he examines (including the Fantastic Four, Green Arrow and Green Lantern, X-Men, and New Mutants), I’ve definitely read enough and am aware enough of those I haven’t read to have found this book to follow the threads. Fawaz really argues through this book for comics, fantasy, science fiction to be examined as serious literature, or at least as serious cultural narratives, capable of wrestling with some of our most tangled questions, particularly, what is means to be human, what power and responsibility look like, how those work differently for different people, and what being an ethical, good person means. Books like this capture so much of me that I can’t help but love them. They talk of how fantasy both explodes and constrains our understanding of the possible and the already existing, with an eye towards always better seeing ourselves through new lenses. I wish for more and more of them in the future.
- Finally, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Slavery narratives have a long, complex history, with at least a few landmark books looming large in our society already — Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical narrative, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved and Octavia Butler’s Kindred being three of the most prominent. So you might be tempted to ask what does this particular book might have to offer. Colson Whitehead — a somewhat speculative or at least “askew view” writer — provides a look not only at the dystopian world of a plantation, but then an escape through a rather strange point of departure: a literal underground railroad. This device makes manifest the infrastructure of resistance to slavery and the desperate risks so many made to escape it, as well as providing material vulnerable targets for those seeking to uphold white supremacy (in the form of conductors, station-masters, and actual, hidden stations). Through the main character, Cora, he takes us on a tour of the South through several stops, providing what felt to me an original opportunity to understand the varieties of how white supremacist society — in some cases, brutally chattel slavery, in others, more apartheid-style pre-Jim Crow Jim Crow — was lived in various places throughout the South and the Midwestern frontier. Whitehead makes this story feel new, while at the same time still rendering the ugliness and ever-present sense of threat, menace and danger to black lives and spirits. He makes it feel all too real, and too current, and thus, succeeds in adding to this lineage.