Looking back at the books I read in 2016, these are the ones that left the greatest impressions:
Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution by Jonathan Abrams (2016)
Yes, the book is obviously about basketball, but it’s also about how individuals in the United States go about careening through the ephemeral dreamscape we call the American Dream. And it’s about basketball.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015)
This novel is almost two years old. I read it a year ago. Since then, it has won the Man Booker Prize, so you probably don’t need me for an introduction to Beatty’s work. Still, the book reminded me some of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo—there’s something not quite whole about it, even as it tucks joke after joke inside silhouettes of the Little Rascals and that time in the United States when the United States couldn’t decide what to do with or how to think about blackness. And then that laughter you hear when you’re reading a book all alone becomes altogether too real and too strange and you realize you shouldn’t be laughing because these funny circumstances aren’t so funny. They are keeping the past alive in ways that can’t be healthy. And you laugh. And you wonder why you’re laughing.
The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba by Brin-Jonathan Butler (2015)
Read the title and then ask, what isn’t this book about?
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (1970)
For reasons I cannot explain, I read this book in the delivery room of my first child. Anyway, it later became the foundation of my AP and English 11 curriculums this past fall. I only regret not reading and teaching it sooner.
Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon (2009)
Whether his projects succeed with daring or falter under the weight of his sentences, Chabon ultimately succeeds, at least for me, in his ability to inspire. After reading one of his novels, I always want to try and write something I haven’t quite tried before. Also, the essays in Maps and Legends definitely work, and the last essay in the bunch is ready made to sit beside Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or Life of Pi in a high school English curriculum.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016)
Walk a mile in other people’s shoes. Maybe it would be better to live a month in other people’s apartments. While I read Matthew Desmond dissection of urban America's ailments, specifically the traps of poverty and unaffordable housing, not once did I hear one of his proposed solutions mentioned in the course of the 2016 Presidential Debates between Clinton and Trump, as if both candidates existed on a stage divorced from the city streets, kitchen tables, and school desks that make up the American reality. Sadly, that’s something not likely to be remedied anytime soon, which makes Desmond’s work even more impressive: he’s finding solutions where most aren’t even seeing the problems.
Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching ‘80s Movies by Jason Diamond (2016)
I really enjoyed reading Diamond speak about how he dedicated himself to a passion of his, and when his efforts failed him, he turned something into nothing. The keyword from the title really is “searching.” I took a lot away from this book on a personal level I hope to detail at some later time, possibly.
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers (2016)
I always tell students how Eggers is a sneaky writer. He’s not writing confusing sentences. He isn’t loading up on SAT words. He doesn’t make obvious allusions. Instead, he presents what appears to be simple and lulls the reader into a sort of sleepy comfort. That is, unless one has already read Eggers or is naturally suspicious of narrators and human wisdom. If the latter is the case, then his characters become worthy of ridicule. What makes for an even better reading of his material is when we as readers share the traits of his subjects, fictive or not, because then our impulse to critique turns inward and we have to face our worst or at least most foolish selves. Aside from constantly finding new ways to play this game with his readers, Eggers continues to grow in his ability to create cinematic set pieces and Heroes of the Frontier contains some of his best.
Sudden Death by Àlvaro Enrigue (2016)
While I probably didn’t understand a lot of what Enrigue does in Sudden Death, this translation of his 2013 Spanish novel prompted and instructed me on how to finish Everything That Dunks Must Converge, especially the introductory chapters for Act One, Act Two, and Act Three.
Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy by Eri Hotta (2013)
I wouldn’t exactly describe this book as an entertaining read, but it fascinated and frightened me nonetheless. Essentially, it is a book about how a country can lose control of its capacities for reason by ignoring both credible sources of knowledge and the needs of its people, trading in these pillars of stability for pride and pettiness. Also, and perhaps just as interesting, is how Hotta’s depiction of prewar Japan casts the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as an act of desperation rather than as something simply cunning and militaristic. In other words, countries that can’t face their own weaknesses end up doing stupid shit they regret for decades.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2015)
You pick up James’ novel and there’s heft to it. You read the description on the jacket and you latch onto the familiar, which also happens to be the iconic. You latch onto that name you know, Bob Marley. You hum part of a refrain. Then another. You hum fragments from Legend (it played at all the high school parties you vaguely remember). Then you wonder how a novel about him that’s not really about him but a place and a time that is really something else altogether could consist of so many heavy pages. What you hold in your hand—the literal weight of pulp and ink—is something akin to an island lost in time. You flip the pages back and forth. You reread passages. You’re searching. You’re hoping it doesn’t end, and you’re searching. In the end, you find yourself in a small New York diner. You’re reading the names of Jamaican foods. And by this time, they almost read with an old familiarity, like you can remember how they taste—and yet, you’ve never tasted them, never been to the island, never even left your snug living room. And so then you know Marlon James is a magician, and he has ripped out the center of your middle class life in the middle of the United States’ eastern seaboard and sunk it deep in the blue Caribbean tide. And you will never find your way back to believing Bob Marley is the whole of the story because the book will wake you with the weight of the worlds you never knew, that you failed to know, that you could not have known without this book or some other mother to hold you.
The North Water by Ian McGuire (2016)
The book jacket makes comparisons to Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy, and I get that. McGuire’s book, after all, contains a sea voyage and violence. But I also think critics and readers have started throwing around McCarthy comparisons a bit too lightly. In some ways, doing so is a compliment to the man, but it’s also kind of lazy. Other writers do exist. Ian McGuire might even be one of them, and his book’s journey from shipyard crime scene to polar bear cage is worth a read. It might remind you of McCarthy and Melville. It might remind you of Robert Louis Stevenson or Gary Paulsen. Maybe you’ll read those authors and think of Ian McGuire.
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan (2016)
Morgan’s second novel is an ambitious one. The narrative essentially follows three generations in the Bluegrass state, which rather forcefully causes us to think of plotlines and bloodlines and people and horses as all being intertwined. In this sense, the book feels a bit like Steinbeck’s East of Eden, at least in the scope of the project. There are also passages that read like Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner (I guess I make lazy comparisons too). And, in a sense, the real jockey here is Morgan because she manages to stay on top of her ambitious narrative, steering and manipulating all of its unwieldy sinew and muscle and bone around the track, relaying a rather furious send up of genteel Southern honor and its eternal bedfellow, racism.
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (1955)
What can I say here about Flannery O’Connor that hasn’t already been said? I read most of this book with my newborn daughter strapped to my chest. I want her to understand the south’s underpinnings, its deplorables and unmentionables, and how those cruelties are in her blood and therefore she need own up to them. God, I’m already ruining her life, aren’t I?
Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy (2016)
I don’t read a lot of craft books, but this one made a lot of sense to me, plus the eyeball on the front cover hypnotized my infant daughter. What really clicked for me in Percy’s writing tips is how he aligns writing fiction with iconic moments in cinema. I used to teach creative writing, but I haven’t for a few years now. I have, however, started teaching a Film Studies class. Strangely, and unexpectedly so, I think the latter has helped me improve my writing more than the former. I could also be gravely mistaken. Anyway, Percy’s book, published via Graywolf Press, would make an excellent resource for either high school literature or creative writing teachers.
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (2015)
This book takes on a lot. Its concerns traverse national borders as well as decades. It examines the fraying of family relationships, the disintegration of ethics in the medical profession, the vulnerabilities that come with having everything, and the desperation born from having nothing at all. Sometimes governments and institutions fail people because they cling too tightly to power. Sometimes they fail because they do nothing at all. This epidemic appears to be more of the latter, at least in terms of proportion. After all, humanity’s desire for easing its pain is nothing new, but once upon a time, doctors may not have so easily prescribed manufactured poisons to an entire generation. There is a lot here. You should read it. Then we should all figure out what might possibly be done to help those in need. America’s pain needs more than slogans and tax breaks: it needs professional help.
The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand (2015)
Sometimes the world is a stranger place than anything the writer might imagine. The world in Kurt Vonnegut’s books, however, at least as far as I knew, always flaunted such maxims. The island in Cat’s Cradle is a weird place, as are the travel habits of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. Then you read Strand’s book and how it places Kurt’s literary work side by side with his brother’s scientific work at General Electric, and you find that the imagination of Kilgore Trout may not be strange enough to articulate the truth of it all.
The Coyote’s Bicycle: The Untold Story of 7,000 Bicycles and the Rise of a Borderland Empire by Kimball Taylor (2016)
Place an obstacle in front of the human imagination. Tell a person that history and politics have decided a particular fate for them and their families—that parts of the world are forever roped off to them—unless they participate by certain imaginary rules, and they will invent new rules. They will build pathways over, under, and through the physical impediments that separate one side of a border from another. Borderlands are mysterious geographies, full of deceit and magic tricks. This book is a love story written to such places and the people who inhabit them. The games played there are really about more than life and death—they are about drawing substance from the dream. This book really is worth considering every time someone thinks or speaks on the certainty walls may or may not defend.
Authority by Jeff VanDerMeer (2014)
First, I’m not sure where the spaces and capitalizations should be for Jeff’s last name. I looked at the book and online and I’m not sure anyone’s spelling it consistently. Maybe there’s more than one Jeff Van Der Meer. Anyway—
it’s in how the last scene just allows all the tension and repression and running on a wheel to just uncoil into the great unknown of whatever the third book in his Southern Reach series holds in store. Well done.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (2011)
For me, the natural comparisons are to The Buest Eye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Swamplandia! In that sense, this book belongs on high school reading lists. I want my own daughter (who is currently just shy of six months old) to read it, if only for the strength to be found in the last line.
Bryan Harvey tweets about books and basketball mostly @LawnChairBoys.