The 22 Best Books I Read in 2016
These books helped keep my brain sane amid a year of near-complete fuckery.
I read less this year than I have in almost 15 years—less than I did in 2014, 2013, 2012 (when I read 135 books), and every other year since I was still in college. From what I'm told, this is true of a lot of people. How could it not be? Our attention span is under attack, among the many other things that are under attack and have been and might be even more so in the months and years to come. For a while, particularly as the election cycle and its coverage and the fallout have gone hyperdrive, my reaction, when not full of fury, was to go blank, to try to think of nothing, as a matter of intermittent relief. Which is, of course, exactly how they get you: Kill the body and the head will die.
What I've found, though, in even just the past week, amid whatever other forms of fighting back, is that as I started to believe even I don't give a shit about books anymore, much less the rest of all of it, I suddenly realized again that reading has long been one of the ways I ever felt alive: Something in the written word can't be struck. It can be erased, ignored, but it can't have been not ever written.
Perhaps now, amid fake news and actual news and actual bullshit, real reading might be more important than it has ever—or at least a reminder of how important it always was. As for looking back on a completely fucked year, some of the most clearly recorded times in my memory are made of language. These memories are vital to maintaining the ownership of a brain in a time of social, psychic, viral plague. It's not the endpoint of why we're here, but it's fuel for the fire.
Anyway, now that I've talked myself into being OK with sharing a list of books that worked for me this year, here are some of them amid the piles and piles of ones I gave up on or haven't had the heart in general to try to read yet.
Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao (Coffee House Press)
It's an extreme feat of economy and vision that Vi Khi Nao was able to so robustly depict the aftermath of the death of one's child in such a fascinating and exciting set of sentences and logic as she has in Fish in Exile. She seems to be able to traverse any kind of theme and terrain and wield them together into an assemblage that dwells in the interstitial state between dreams and our darkest waking places, a kind of laughter derived from shock of the new. For fans of Lars von Trier, Anne Carson, Kobo Abe, and Amy Hempel.
Potted Meat by Steven Dunn (Tarpaulin Sky)
Some folks need a hundred pages to get you in the gut. Potted Meat, meanwhile, contains 101 pages of miniature texts that keep tapping the nails in, over and over, while speaking as clearly and directly as you could ask. A childhood of confusion and abuse blossoms into military inscription like watching a life pass before your eyes. Zero indulgence, all formative. Bone Thugs, underage drinking, alienation, death, love, Bob Ross, dreams of blood: This thin thing is flooded with power.
A Bestiary by Lily Hoang (Cleveland State University Poetry Center)
Speaking of pain, I don't think I've ever read so graceful and understated an exploration of one's own damage, and the traditions and self-flagellation that helped encode it, as A Bestiary. Amid an age of oversharing and self-awareness, Hoang takes the fragments of a life riddled with intense expectations, systemic abuse, mislaid desire, and binds it together, constructing a book that allows the reader into an astonishing range of emotions and gives so much more than it asks.
The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George (Dorothy Project)
The next time you hear some dick say "women aren't funny," hit them in the face with this book. Jen George takes the legacy of Barthelme and Coover or whoever and drives off a cliff with it in a car that gives no shit for GPS, signals, seatbelt, or steering. Recommended especially if you like butt play, masturbation, and advice—and doubly so if you don't like any of those things.
Bandit by Molly Brodak (Grove/Atlantic)
I'm engaged to the person who wrote this book, so I won't try to hype it to you in any way other than how I first heard her talk about the frame in which it operates; that is, that she grew up the daughter of a man who robbed 11 banks and lived a double life. It was fascinating to me then, as a person who hardly knew her, and the grace, humor, and intelligence with which she tells the story, in all its fragments, to all you strangers, is as necessary and distinctive a memoir as they come.
Maze of the Blue Medusa by Zak Sabbath and Patrick Stuart (Satyr Press)
The book of my dreams was always one that I didn't actually have to read, I think, or even exactly know how to hold or look at, but rather, one that seemed to change every time I opened it, that revealed secrets via maps, indexes, fragments of description, cryptic drawings, and instructions that you weren't sure how to apply but that seemed to suggest the portal to another reality. MotBM is a full-color dungeon game book designed to be played as a tabletop RPG. But, to me, it's a kind of encyclopedic novel you could spend forever just flipping open, staring, searching out the impossible combination to its labyrinthine lock.
Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry by B. S. Johnson (New Directions)
It might say the most about 2016 that one of my favorite books of the year was written in 1973 by a guy who slit his wrists at age 40 because he was sick of feeling like a failure. And of course, in death, the British-born Johnson got that cult following. Shit is hilarious. This book is about being pissed as fuck and tired as fuck, angry at the world, and it's insane how closely it reflects the extremities of our present.
Flamingos by Grant Maierhofer (Itna Press)
If it's an era of oversharing, it's also an era of overconsumption, to the point of nausea, disorientation, and misdirection. Flamingos hypnotically embodies the present poly-cacophony of being by taking turns moving through a small cast of voices that all smear together, referencing performance art and black metal and prescription drugs, around the central being of a new messiah, through whom to try to heal is to go blank.
A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press)
The latest collection by one of my all-time literary heroes, A Collapse of Horses finds Brian Evenson continuing his work of burrowing deeper and deeper into the slickest and blackest parts of human psyche. In Evenson, nothing is true, and every face has many layers, just like in real life. Every book he writes, to my mind, is required reading, and this collection's release alongside new editions of three older works is the perfect place to start, or to continue.
So Much for That Winter by Dorthe Nors (Graywolf)
Few forms can be as satisfying to my mind as the novella, and here Denmark's Nors combines two of them, each doing something different, but of a near mind, somehow combining a timid tone with ongoing, vibrant observation. Each unfurl themselves as items in a slowly stacking list, including the calmest of lines, like, "The email contains 56 exclamation points" and "Slept as though I were two people, and one of me awake." There's a ton of kinetic motion here for something so simple, such that it gets wedged in your head and stays there, forming a new sliver of you.
Other Notable Books from 2016
All Back Full by Robert Lopez
Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson
Calamities by Renee Gladman
19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger (reissue)
Holiday Meat by Mark Baumer
Novi Sad by Jeff Jackson
The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks
Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria
Madeleine E by Gabriel Blackwell
The In-Betweens by Matthew Simmons
Zac's Freight Elevator by Dennis Cooper
Mickey by Chelsea Martin