First, a shout out to The Millions for this wonderful idea to revisit the year in books. Please visit their site to see what others were reading in 2016.
Let's start with my favorite book of the year. Without a doubt, it is Hisham Matar's The Return. Confession: I did not actually read this book. I listened to it (beautifully narrated by Matar himself) while driving through Nova Scotia this summer. There's something to be said for listening to a book while seeing a new landscape for the first time. The two will forever be linked in my mind. This is the story of Matar's journey back home to Libya after the fall of Qaddafi on a quest to find out what happened to his father, who was imprisoned during Qaddafi's reign. Matar reunites with family members as he desperately searches to find any trace of his father and uses literature and art to help him make sense of his return to his homeland. Haunting, brave and luminous, I cannot forget this book.
I stayed up late toward the end of 2016 reading the essays in Peter Orner's brilliant book, Am I Alone Here? As Orner contemplates his favorite works of literature and the connections to his own life, you will find your TBR pile growing significantly. Orner is one of my very favorite writers, and this generous, thoughtful book feels like you are having a literary conversation with your best friend.
Blair Braverman's memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube follows Braverman through her time as an exchange student in Norway to Alaska, where she works as a tour guide and back again, as she unravels what it takes to thrive in a harsh, cold environment. While there's plenty of adventure to be had, it is so much more than an adventure story. This book has a lot of heart. I kept stopping between chapters to talk to my husband about it. Highly recommended.
In fiction, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Alex Chee's The Queen of the Night. Lush descriptions, unforgettable characters, and a quickly moving storyline made it the perfect read during the dreary month of February.
Brit Bennett's The Mothers was the only book that I read in one sitting this year. There's really no need for me to say anything else except that I cannot wait for Bennett's next book.
Zadie Smith's Swing Time was a bit of a slow burn for me. In the beginning of the novel, I wished for less Aimee and more Tracey. However, as I turned the pages, I was completely won over. I still think about these characters on a daily basis.
If short stories are more your speed, do pick up Robin MacArthur's Half Wild and Sara Majka's Cities I've Never Lived In. Both of these debuts are fantastic.
I didn't read as much poetry this year as I would have liked, but I have to mention Solmaz Sharif's Look. Sharif takes words from the Department of Defense's dictionary and includes them in her poems in all caps, forcing the reader to think about the language of violence and war. Look is challenging, beautiful, and fierce; Sharif would be a great choice for poet laureate. Start with her poems "Look" and "Safe House."