The Best American Essays 2016
Edited by Jonathan Franzen, series editor Robert Atwan. Mariner, $14.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-544-81210-9In choosing the essays for this thought-provoking volume, guest editor Franzen (Purity) used risk as his main criterion: specifically, did the author take one? And his selections do indeed go to risky, sensitive places. Most of all, they do what the essay form arguably does best: engaging the personal in order to reach larger themes. There are several standouts even among this stellar company, such as Joyce Carol Oates’s gut-wrenching story of her severely autistic younger sister, and Jaquira Díaz’s vivid telling of being abused as a child. Francisco Cantú’s diary of becoming a border patrol agent is gripping. Laura Kipnis’s exploration of sexual consent guidelines about relationships between students and college professors is startlingly candid. Alexander Chee and Mason Stokes both grapple with questions of queer identity, and Jill Sisson Quinn makes unexpectedly poignant connections between wanting to adopt a child and her love of salamander watching. The collection also includes one of the last pieces written by Oliver Sacks before his death in 2015. As Franzen notes in his excellent introduction, and as his selections prove, the essay form forces authors to take measure of themselves, and allows the reader to do so as well. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 08/29/2016
Release date: 10/04/2016
Open Ebook - 336 pages - 978-0-544-81217-8
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BARKSKINS.By Annie Proulx. (Scribner, $32.) Tracing two families and their part in the destruction of the world’s forests, Proulx’s latest novel is a tale of long-term, shortsighted greed.
BEFORE THE FALL.By Noah Hawley. (Grand Central, $26.) A private-jet crash leads to a media firestorm in Hawley’s readable thrill ride of a novel.
BEHOLD THE DREAMERS. By Imbolo Mbue. (Random House, $28.) In Mbue’s bighearted debut, set against the backdrop of the American financial crisis, a Cameroonian family makes a new life in Harlem.
BLACK WATER.By Louise Doughty. (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) Expecting to be assassinated, the hero of this excellent novel grapples with guilt over his actions in Indonesia.
CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD. By Alexander Weinstein. (Picador, paper, $16.) The terror that technology may rob us of authentic experience — that it may annihilate our very sense of self — is central to this debut collection of short stories.
COLLECTED POEMS 1950-2012. By Adrienne Rich. (Norton, $50.) Work from seven decades displays Rich’s evolution from careful neo-classicism to free verse, and her embrace of lesbian feminism and radical politics.
COMMONWEALTH.By Ann Patchett. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) An engaging family portrait, tracing the lives of six stepsiblings over half a century.
DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING. By Madeleine Thien. (Norton, $26.95.) A Chinese-Canadian professor probes the mystery of her father’s life amid upheavals in China in this ambitious novel.
DON’T LET MY BABY DO RODEO.By Boris Fishman. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) A family from the former Soviet Union embarks on an American road trip in a novel that is a joy to read.
END OF WATCH.By Stephen King. (Scribner, $30.) The gloriously fitting final installment of King’s trilogy featuring the retired police detective Bill Hodges is a big genre-busting romp.
EVERYBODY’S FOOL.By Richard Russo. (Knopf, $27.95.) This sequel to “Nobody’s Fool,” set 10 years later in the same upstate New York town, presents engaging characters and benign humor.
THE FORTUNES.By Peter Ho Davies. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27.) This novel, a meditation on 150 years of the Chinese-American experience, asks what it means to be a Chinese-American.
A GAMBLER’S ANATOMY. By Jonathan Lethem. (Doubleday, $27.95.) A backgammon hustler with telepathic powers returns to Berkeley, Calif., for surgery in Lethem’s inventive 10th novel, the theme of which is remaining open to possibilities.
THE GLOAMING.By Melanie Finn. (Two Dollar Radio, paper, $16.99.) A woman tries to remake her life in Africa in Finn’s intricately plotted novel.
GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS.By Max Porter. (Graywolf, paper, $14.) A father and his sons struggle with a death in this luminous novel.
HERE COMES THE SUN. By Nicole Dennis-Benn. (Liveright, $26.95.) Dennis-Benn’s tale of life in the impoverished neighborhoods of Montego Bay, Jamaica, sheds light on the island’s disenfranchised.
HERE I AM.By Jonathan Safran Foer. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) Private and public crises converge for four generations of a Jewish family in this ambitious, often brilliant novel, Foer’s third.
HOMEGOING. By Yaa Gyasi. (Knopf, $26.95.) This wonderful debut by a Ghanaian-American novelist follows the shifting fortunes of the progeny of two half sisters, unknown to each other, in West Africa and America. Gyasi was one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honorees in 2016.
HOT MILK.By Deborah Levy. (Bloomsbury, $26.) In Levy’s evocative novel, dense with symbolism, a woman struggles against her hypochondriacal mother to achieve her own identity.
HOUSE OF LORDS AND COMMONS.By Ishion Hutchinson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.) Exuberant work from a young Jamaican-born poet who looks to the island’s teeming life and fractured past.
I MUST BE LIVING TWICE:New and Selected Poems, 1975-2014. By Eileen Myles. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $29.99.) Charming and confounding poems from a provocative voice.
IZA’S BALLAD. By Magda Szabo. Translated by George Szirtes. (New York Review, paper, $16.95.) A meditative Hungarian novel about grief and history by the author of “The Door.”
LAROSE.By Louise Erdrich. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) A man who accidentally killed his best friend’s son gives the man his own child in this powerful story about justice and forgiveness, set in and near a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation.
THE LIFE-WRITER.By David Constantine. (Biblioasis, paper, $14.95.) A widow immerses herself in the letters her late husband received from an earlier lover in Constantine’s lyrical novel.
THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS.By Edna O’Brien. (Little, Brown, $27.) In her harrowing, boldly imagined novel, O’Brien both explores Irish provincial life and offers an unsettling fabulist vision.
LOOK:Poems.By Solmaz Sharif. (Graywolf, paper, $16.) Sharif’s skillful debut collection draws on a Defense Department lexicon of military terms.
THE MIRROR THIEF. By Martin Seay. (Melville House, $27.95.) Linked narratives and various Venices reflect one another in this clever first novel.
MISCHLING.By Affinity Konar. (Lee Boudreaux/Little, Brown, $27.) Konar uses the unsettling and grievous history of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments on children, particularly twins, to riveting effect in her debut novel.
MISTER MONKEY. By Francine Prose. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) The dreadful revival of a musical based on a children’s novel about an orphaned chimp is observed through various points of view in this fresh, Chekhovian novel.
MOONGLOW. By Michael Chabon. (Harper/HarperCollins, $28.99.) In this beautifully written hybrid, a San Francisco writer named Mike presents a memoir about his grandparents, a World War II soldier and a Holocaust survivor.
THE MORTIFICATIONS.By Derek Palacio. (Tim Duggan, $27.) This sweeping debut novel limns the exile and return of a Cuban-American family.
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON.By Elizabeth Strout. (Random House, $26.) A writer and her estranged mother attempt to reconnect during a brief visit in a Pulitzer Prize winner’s exquisite novel of careful words and vibrating silences.
NINETY-NINE STORIES OF GOD.By Joy Williams. (Tin House, $19.95.) This collection of micro-fictions is a treasure trove of tiny wry masterpieces.
THE NIX. By Nathan Hill. (Knopf, $27.95.) In this entertaining debut novel, full of postmodern digressions, a young professor tries to write a biography of his political activist mother.
THE NORTH WATER.By Ian McGuire. (Holt, $27.) In McGuire’s darkly brilliant novel, the crew of a doomed whaling ship bound for the Arctic Circle must reckon with fierce weather, pure evil, and the shadows of Melville and Conrad.
NUTSHELL.By Ian McEwan. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $24.95.) An unborn baby overhears his mother and her lover plotting to murder his father in McEwan’s compact, captivating novel.
REPUTATIONS.By Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Translated by Anne McLean. (Riverhead, $25.) A slender but impactful Colombian novel about a political cartoonist who re-examines his accusations against a politician.
THE SPORT OF KINGS.By C. E. Morgan. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Three Kentucky dynasties — black, white and equine — converge in this vitally written if melodramatic novel.
STILL HERE.By Lara Vapnyar. (Hogarth, $26.) In this razor-funny novel, four Russian friends try to make their way in New York.
SWING TIME.By Zadie Smith. (Penguin Press, $27.) Two multiracial girls in North London dream of becoming dancers (one has talent, the other doesn’t) in Smith’s exuberant new novel about friendship, music, race and global politics.
TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT.By Maria Semple. (Little, Brown, $27.) In this brainy, seriously funny novel by the author of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” a Seattle woman confronts private school parents, a husband’s secret life and more.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.By Colson Whitehead. (Doubleday, $26.95.) Whitehead’s well-built, stunningly daring novel turns the historical freedom network from metaphor to reality, complete with tracks, locomotives and platforms. The winner of this year’s National Book Award for fiction.
VALIANT GENTLEMEN.By Sabina Murray. (Grove, $27.) An audacious historical novel about the Irish revolutionary martyr Roger Casement.
THE VEGETARIAN.By Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith. (Hogarth, $21.) This novella in three parts is both thriller and parable. The winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
WAR AND TURPENTINE. By Stefan Hertmans. Translated by David McKay. (Pantheon, $26.95.) A masterly novel about memory, art, love and war, based on the author’s grandfather’s notebooks.
WEATHERING. By Lucy Wood. (Bloomsbury, $26.) This poetic debut novel, set in a damp house near a roaring river, explores the relationship between mothers and daughters.
ZERO K.By Don DeLillo. (Scribner, $27.) In the post-postcolonial future of DeLillo’s moving, mysterious 16th novel, a man joins his billionaire father at a desert compound where people can be preserved forever.
ALL THE SINGLE LADIES:Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.By Rebecca Traister. (Simon & Schuster, $27.) A deeply researched and thought-provoking examination of the role of single women throughout history.
AMERICAN HEIRESS:The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.By Jeffrey Toobin. (Doubleday, $28.95.) In this riveting account, even the S.L.A. is shown some compassion.
AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFÉ: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. By Sarah Bakewell. (Other Press, $25.) A lucid joint portrait of the writers and philosophers who embodied existentialism.
BLOOD AT THE ROOT:A Racial Cleansing in America. By Patrick Phillips. (Norton, $26.95.) How a Georgia county drove out its black citizens in 1912 and remained all-white for 80 years: a well-written, timely and important account.
BLOOD IN THE WATER: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.By Heather Ann Thompson. (Pantheon, $35.) A masterly — and heartbreaking — history, based in part on new materials about the Attica prison uprising and its terrible aftermath.
BORN TO RUN.By Bruce Springsteen. (Simon & Schuster, $32.50.) Springsteen’s autobiography, explaining how he rose from Freehold, N.J., to international fame is both plain-spoken and eloquent.
CITY OF DREAMS:The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. By Tyler Anbinder. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35.) A richly textured guide to the past of the nation’s chief immigrant city.
DARK MONEY: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.By Jane Mayer. (Doubleday, $29.95.) A formidable account of how the Koch brothers and their allies have bought their way to political power.
THE DEFENDER:How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America From the Age of the Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama.By Ethan Michaeli. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $32.) A powerful, elegant history of the influential paper.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT:The War Years and After. Volume Three: 1939-1962.By Blanche Wiesen Cook. (Viking, $40.) The long-awaited conclusion of a monumental and inspirational biography.
THE ENGLISH AND THEIR HISTORY. By Robert Tombs. (Knopf, $45.) A Cambridge historian’s clearsighted retelling of English history also analyzes how the English themselves have viewed their past.
EVICTED:Poverty and Profit in the American City. By Matthew Desmond. (Crown, $28.) A sociologist shows what the lack of affordable housing means as he portrays the desperate lives of people who spend most of their incomes in rent.
THE FACE OF BRITAIN: A History of the Nation Through Its Portraits.By Simon Schama. (Oxford University, $39.95.) A splendid book to accompany a BBC series hosted by the eminently readable historian and art critic.
FAR AND AWAY. REPORTING FROM THE BRINK OF CHANGE:Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years. By Andrew Solomon. (Scribner, $30.) Some 30 travel pieces, in prose sparkling with insight, describe “places in the throes of transformation.”
FROM THE WAR ON POVERTY TO THE WAR ON CRIME:The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. By Elizabeth Hinton. (Harvard University, $29.95.) A well-researched study of the bipartisan embrace of punishment after the 1960s.
THE GENE:An Intimate History. By Siddhartha Mukherjee. (Scribner, $32.) With scope and grandeur, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Emperor of All Maladies” presents the history of the science of genetics and examines the philosophical questions it raises.
GHETTO: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea.By Mitchell Duneier. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) Duneier offers a stunningly detailed, timely survey of scholarly work on the topic.
HERO OF THE EMPIRE: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill.By Candice Millard. (Doubleday, $30.) Imperialism and courage are on display as Churchill fights the Boer War in Millard’s readable, enjoyable book.
HIS FINAL BATTLE:The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt. By Joseph Lelyveld. (Knopf, $30.) A gripping, deeply human account of Roosevelt’s last 16 months in office, when the president fought to create lasting global peace — despite having received a diagnosis of acute congestive heart failure.
HITLER:Ascent 1889-1939.By Volker Ullrich. Translated by Jefferson Chase. (Knopf, $40.) The first volume of a timely new biography focuses on Hitler the man, seeing him as a consummate tactician and an actor aware of his audience.
HOW EVERYTHING BECAME WAR AND THE MILITARY BECAME EVERYTHING:Tales From the Pentagon. By Rosa Brooks. (Simon & Schuster, $29.95.) A disturbing exploration of the erosion of boundaries between war and peace.
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. By David France. (Knopf, $30.) A remarkable account of how activists and patients won the funding that led to AIDS treatment from a reluctant government.
I CONTAIN MULTITUDES:The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. By Ed Yong. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $27.99.) A science journalist’s first book is an excellent, vivid introduction to the all-enveloping realm of our secret sharers.
IN THE DARKROOM. By Susan Faludi. (Metropolitan/Holt, $32.) Faludi offers a rich and ultimately generous investigation of her long-estranged father, who suddenly contacted her from his home in Hungary after undergoing gender-reassignment surgery at the age of 76.
IN GRATITUDE.By Jenny Diski. (Bloomsbury, $26.) In her final memoir before her death, Diski, who was quasi-adopted by Doris Lessing, examines the origin, and the close, of her life as a writer.
AN IRON WIND:Europe Under Hitler. By Peter Fritzsche. (Basic, $29.99.) A deep reflection about World War II’s moral challenges for civilians.
LAB GIRL.By Hope Jahren. (Knopf, $26.95.) A geobiologist with a literary bent makes her science both accessible and lyrical, and offers a gratifying and moving chronicle of the scientist’s life.
THE LIMOUSINE LIBERAL:How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America. By Steve Fraser. (Basic Books, $27.50.) An incisive history of a right-wing metaphor and its effects.
THE MAN WHO KNEW:The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan. By Sebastian Mallaby. (Penguin Press, $40.) This thorough account of the former Fed chairman’s rise depicts him as political to a fault.
NEW ENGLAND BOUND:Slavery and Colonization in Early America.By Wendy Warren. (Liveright, $29.95.) Warren enlivens her study of Northern slavery with new research and a fresh approach.
ORSON WELLES. Volume 3:One-Man Band. By Simon Callow. (Viking, $40.) Expertly and convincingly, Callow rejects the common disdain for Welles’s post-1948 career.
THE PEOPLE AND THE BOOKS: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature. By Adam Kirsch. (Norton, $28.95.) Detailed and lucid accounts of seminal texts highlight the variety of Jewish experience.
PLAYING TO THE EDGE:American Intelligence in the Age of Terror. By Michael V. Hayden. (Penguin Press, $30.) The former C.I.A. director makes the case for Bush-era security measures.
PRETENTIOUSNESS:Why It Matters. By Dan Fox. (Coffee House, paper, $15.95.) A nimble case for pretentiousness as a willingness to take risks.
PUMPKINFLOWERS:A Soldier’s Story. By Matti Friedman. (Algonquin, $25.95.) Friedman has written a striking memoir about his stint in the Israeli Army in southern Lebanon in the 1990s.
A RAGE FOR ORDER:The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS. By Robert F. Worth. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.) The story of the 2011 Arab Spring and its slide into autocracy and civil war, beautifully told by a veteran correspondent.
THE RETURN:Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between. By Hisham Matar. (Random House, $26.) In this extraordinary memoir-cum-family history, Matar describes his search for his father, who disappeared into a Libyan prison in 1990.
THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH:The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War.By Robert J. Gordon. (Princeton University, $39.95.) An economic historian’s magisterial assessment of the past and future of American living standards.
SECONDHAND TIME:The Last of the Soviets. By Svetlana Alexievich. Translated by Bela Shayevich. (Random House, $30.) The Nobel winner offers a powerful oral history of Russia, post-1991.
SHIRLEY JACKSON:A Rather Haunted Life.By Ruth Franklin. (Liveright, $35.) This thorough biography traces Jackson’s evolution as an artist and makes a case for her importance.
SING FOR YOUR LIFE:A Story of Race, Music, and Family. By Daniel Bergner. (Lee Boudreaux/Little, Brown, $28.) A portrait of Ryan Speedo Green, an African-American opera singer who overcame terrible childhood poverty and abuse. This season he has a lead role in the Metropolitan Opera’s “La Bohème.”
STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.By Arlie Russell Hochschild. (New Press, $27.95.) A Berkeley sociologist takes a generous but disconcerting look at Tea Party backers in Louisiana to explain the way many people in this country live now, often to the astonishment of everyone else.
TRUEVINE.Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South. By Beth Macy. (Little, Brown, $28.) A riveting account of two albino African-American brothers who were exhibited in a circus.
UNFORBIDDEN PLEASURES. By Adam Phillips. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.) Linked essays examine the idea that forbidden pleasures have a tendency to obscure the meaningfulness to our lives of the unforbidden ones.
WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. By Cathy O’Neil. (Crown, $26.) A frightening look at the risks of the algorithms that regulate our lives, by a former hedge fund “quant” (she got her Ph.D. in math at Harvard) who became an Occupy Wall Street activist.
WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR. By Paul Kalanithi. (Random House, $25.) A brilliant young neurosurgeon reckons with the meaning of life and death when he learns he has advanced lung cancer; a moving and courageous account.
WHEN IN FRENCH:Love in a Second Language. By Lauren Collins. (Penguin Press, $27.) Collins, a New Yorker staff writer married to a Frenchman, writes a very personal memoir about love and language, shrewdly assessing how language affects our lives.
WHITE RAGE: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.By Carol Anderson. (Bloomsbury, $26.) A timely and urgent call to confront the forces opposed to black progress since the Civil War.
WHITE TRASH:The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.By Nancy Isenberg. (Viking, $28.) A masterly and ambitious cultural history of changing concepts of class and inferiority.
YOU’LL GROW OUT OF IT.By Jessi Klein. (Grand Central, $26.) Humorous riffs on being a woman by Amy Schumer’s head writer.Continue reading the main story