My favorite book I read in 2016 is All the Living by C.E. Morgan. It was published in 2009. Morgan owns a part of my heart forever for writing things like “Aloma shrank behind the piano wall, sat there hunched in her ill ease, unable to reconcile herself to the tenderheartedness of mountain boys” and “her face was pink with pleasure and she looked more beautiful than she was.” She writes of a quiet man in Carhartts and I love a quiet man in Carhartts. She writes things like “she kicked instead with extra fury at her shorts till they flew under the table like a bird under a tree and she stormed out of the room in her underpants, her bottom shaking behind her.” All the Living is a book about a dry, dry Kentucky summer, a tobacco farm, a relationship between a man and a woman, that woman and another man, a relationship between a God and His people, a relationship between the Earth and the rain. The title comes from Ecclesiastes: “But whoever is joined with all the living has hope.” This is a story about Aloma and Orren and their little lives, both together and apart. It's a quiet, sexy novel full of country dust and spark. I keep it on my Kentucky nightstand. I am besotted.
2016, despite all its ceaseless badness, was a great reading year for me. It is a small solace, but solace nonetheless. I read a lot of books, so many that it stopped being impressive and started to feel a little ridiculous. Still, I read a lot of books I loved and that is always good. Over the summer, I devoured Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, released by Button Poetry in July. It’s filled with compassion and energy and lyric beauty and fear and anger. Willis-Abdurraqib’s debut book is one of the best poetry collections I’ve read the past few years. Kristen Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others, is a slim, book length essay about the evolution of thought on narcissism and the contradictions that have come from it. She charts it through a handful of stock narcissistic characters and the coverage that they’ve received in quasi-psychological books and coverage in prestige publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times. She tackles these arguments with good humor, irony, and academic rigor.
Alexandra Kleeman’s Intimations is a great follow-up to her fantastic novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. The stories are odd and play with language and Kleeman has an uncanny ability to construct stories that isolate the unusual in everyday life. Every story feels exciting and new. Kleeman will be a great force for fiction in the coming years. Of course, I also did a lot of political reading, and some of it was very, very good. The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, is moving and essential. Bush by Jean Edward Smith was a fascinating biography and thorough accounting of how the administration created the public justification for the Iraq War out of thin air. Verso Book’s collaboration with Jacobin, a leading left-wing publication, has published some amazing books for the left or left-curious. Utopia or Bust, Benjamin Kunkel’s book about the ideologies of many Marxist thinkers is a great introduction and Strike for America by Micah Uetricht is a good accounting of the recent Chicago Teacher’s Union strike.
To close, I’ll run through a few of my other favorites: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead was as advertised; The Mothers by Brit Bennnett was heart-wrenching and beautiful; Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik is a gripping emotional thriller, which I couldn’t put down; For The Time Being by Annie Dillard is a little older, but one of the best works of literary nonfiction I’ve ever read; Cool Characters by Lee Konstantinou is a really fantastic and interesting and funny work of criticism. The Self Unstable by Elisa Gabbert was powerful and held on to me for days; Yell Hound Blues by (my friend) Anne Barngrover felt so fully realized and so fully true. Here’s to more books (and resistance to tyranny) in 2017.
Hard to look over the past year and pick favorites, as most of the books I read this year were completed in its first half, before my first son was born in July. But one that I read before then, all the way back in the early part of last January, was Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. Coates's book not only blew me away with the force of his message, but with the sheer ferocious and eloquent power of his sentences. A representative moment: "In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live--specifically, how do I live in this black body? It is a profound question because America understands itself as God's handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men." I also spent a fair bit of time with Susan Sontag's journals, which are unsurprisingly brilliant, but also provide a glimpse into all of the self-doubt and occasional despair of being a writer. This, from a journal entry, age 16: "The really important thing is not to reject anything . . . ." If anything, reading Sontag's journals makes me want to seek out the journals and notebooks of other writers; very few things are as exciting as watching a writer become the writer who we later come to know. As far as poetry goes, this year I discovered the work of Marie Howe and Dara Wier--Howe's first book, What the Living Do (1994), is one of the most incredible distillations of human grief I've ever read. Wier's most recent collection, You Good Thing (2013), a sonnet sequence of sorts, contains all sorts of fire: "You will be / Counted eternally missing eternally lost," she writes. "By and by we’ll / Adjust to your absence".
Leesa Cross-Smith is a homemaker, the author of Every Kiss A War, and the editor of WhiskeyPaper.
Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. He is the editor-in-chief of Redivider, and his work has been published or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He lives in Boston, MA.
Nathan Knapp is the editor-in-chief of The Collapsar.