Read it Forward’s Favorite Books of 2016

As we look back on a difficult year, we are more thankful than ever for the existence of books.

As we come to the end of 2016, there’s a lot to reflect on. You know just as well as we do that 2016 has been a difficult year for many, and recent events are only proving that we can’t catch a break. From the deaths of many beloved celebrities to the atrocities in Aleppo to the recent attack in Berlin to the Pulse massacre to the standoff at Standing Rock — it has been a very, very hard year. Maybe every year has its fair share of sadness, but for whatever reason, it seems that many of us have felt something about 2016 to be different, and so we are now more than ever thankful for the existence of books. They teach us, they inform us, they make us feel things, they elicit empathy, and they also allow us to escape our realities. We hope you enjoy our favorite books of 2016 as much as we did and that you find them equally important.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

The heart wrenching facts about this book are part of what makes it so wonderful: The author, Paul Kalanithi, died while writing it; his baby was only eight months old; he knew he was dying; he’d decided to become a neurosurgeon even after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; and prior to entering medical school, he’d almost completed a PhD in literature. With a brain full of fascinating quandaries, Kalanithi writes about the decisions he made, searching for a meaning in both literature and biology long before he became ill, and about continuing to live to the fullest even after his diagnosis, even after knowing that he was going to die, even while dying. From student to doctor to patient, Kalanithi’s journey is both satisfying and deeply, terribly sad.

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Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

A surreal and beautiful novel with two parallel timelines, Mr. Splitfoot is an ambitious addition to Samantha Hunt’s publications. In one timeline, Ruth and Nat are children at the upstate New York cultish residence, The Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission. Years later, Ruth’s niece, Cora, is pregnant and walking barefoot with the now-mute Ruth across the state of New York. Both timelines include a journey, both include a blur of fantastical elements and surreal moments, and throughout the novel, the dialogue and descriptions are full of hints to apparently nonsensical things. But the larger whole slowly comes together as the book proceeds, creating a wonderful read.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Han Kang’s incredible novel was translated into English this year, and anyone who’s not yet picked it up absolutely must. Kang’s novel revolves around Yeong-hai, whose perspective we almost never get to see. The first section of the book is narrated by her husband, the second focuses on her brother-in-law, and the third on her sister, so that Yeong-hai herself is always seen from a certain distance. She becomes a vegetarian, a vegan really, but eventually stops eating altogether. As her family revolves around her perceived madness, her actions speak loudly of independence, of divorcing herself from womanhood and even personhood, and of a kind of protest against the society she’s surrounded by.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

In this gorgeously told and deeply researched historical novel, Ruta Sepetys introduces us to a morally complicated tragedy. At the end of World War II, a German ship, full of Germans – civilians and soldiers alike – sinks. Through four characters aboard this ship, Salt to the Sea brings us the narratives and back stories of very different people: Joana, Emilia, Florian, and Alfred, the last of whom is a Hitler supporter to his bones, and the least sympathetic character we’re given access too. Still, he is important for the balancing act of this ship – no pun intended – as it meets its watery grave and the various characters meditate on their lives before, their attempts at survival now, and their futures if they occur.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond’s incredible work of nonfiction was deservedly a bestseller, as well as on the long and short lists of a bunch of awards. Desmond tells the stories of eight families in Milwaukee as well as the landlords in whose hands their fates rest. He looks at the increasing commonality of eviction, which used to be rare, and the way so many people are constantly on the brink of eviction because of their inability to make rent on time. By bringing to life the people behind the statistics we’ve all heard in the news at one point or another, Desmond drives home the real tragedy that is the cycle of poverty, housing, and homelessness in the United States. A gripping, hard read, but well worth the investment.

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

A fascinating book about the correlation between a rise in the number of single women and major social changes in the United States, Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies is both incredibly readable and interesting. While it does focus largely on a particular segment of the single lady population, Traister does her due diligence within that segment, interviewing over 100 women, and telling the stories of some 30 of them. Beginning with a discussion of historical women like Anita Hill and Gloria Steinem, Traister then moves to contemporary women’s experiences in their housing, their friendships, their finances, and their sexual relationships. Looking at all aspects of their lives in the world, Rebecca Traister argues that single ladies are bringing about big change and are the ladies to watch out for, in the best of ways.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Hope Jahren’s gorgeous memoir comes from years of work, challenging and rewarding alike. Jahren shares with us not only valuable and surprisingly philosophical lessons about the plant life she works with and studies, but also the way she reached this point. A childhood spent playing in labs and reading seems like a good way to get started on her journey of words and science, and with warmth and beautiful language she draws us through the narrative of her life. From the most difficult moments and failures of her work to the triumphs and beauty she finds in her friendship with her lab partner, Jahren takes us on an emotional journey that is gripping and full of memorable characters and a poetic love for a different kind of life form.

The Girls by Emma Cline

The debut novel of this new talent, Emma Cline brings to life an era and phenomenon many of us have found both troublesome and fascinating over the years. It is the 1960s, and Evie Boyd falls in love with the freedom she sees one day when watching a group of young women frolicking in a park. She is taken in by them, these eponymous girls, and begins to visit the ranch where their dangerous and charismatic leader lives. Specifically, Evie is obsessed with Suzanne, who brings her closer and closer to the darkness that is at the midst of the apparent freedom Evie wishes to experience. And as Evie nears the center around which the girls revolve, so too does the scent of violence grow stronger. A mesmerizing, beautiful read.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

A gripping thriller that also goes into the deep pit of survivor’s guilt, Before the Fall is both intelligent and emotional. A plane full of important and wealthy passengers crashes, and the only survivors are the heir to a vast fortune and the only seemingly unimportant person on board – a painter named Scott Burroughs. The novel moves back and forth between the aftermath of the crash, where Scott is a hero for saving the four-year-old heir, and the sixteen minutes before the crash happened, where we’re given glimpses into the backstories of the various passengers during their final moments. As Scott is hounded by the media, we begin to wonder – was the crash a setup? Is there a conspiracy afoot to kill these powerful people? Or is it just a mysterious coincidence?

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

In her incredible debut – which has made many best-of lists and was NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year – Yaa Gyasi traces the generations that follow two half-sisters, who unbeknownst to one another are living very different lives. Effia is married to an Englishman and lives comfortably, but her children and their children endure the centuries of war in Ghana as two nations fight against the British and their slave trade. Effia’s half sister Esi is held in the dungeon of the very castle in which Effia is living. Esi is sold, along with many, many others, to slave traders and Gyasi follows her line through slavery in America, through abolition, the Civil Rights era, and into the present day. Captivity, slavery, and being treated as property – these are things the descendent of Effia and Esi need to contend with as well as the ancestral memory of such realities in their countries.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Jason Dessen thinks everything is fine. He is a college professor, he’s married, he has a child. But is everything fine? Is this actually his life? When he’s knocked unconscious after an anonymous attacker asks him “Are you happy with your life?” he gets the chance to find out. When Jason wakes up, he’s in an alternate reality, one in which he’s a genius and celebrated to boot. But his wife isn’t his wife and his son has never been born. Will Jason Dessen accept this reality, this life that is different but has so many things he’s always wanted? Or will he fight his way back to a reality he’s not even sure exists anymore? A deeply disturbing but wonderful psychological thriller is in store for you should you choose to find out.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

From the incredible Jacqueline Woodson who brought us Brown Girl Dreaming comes this novel for adults set in the Brooklyn the author grew up in and well remembers. It was a Brooklyn in which August, her main character, felt free with her friends, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, in the 1970s. Now August is returning to a very different Brooklyn in order to help her brother bury their father, and memories of childhood are stirred up for her constantly. She remembers the good and the bad, the freedom and the moments of darkness where men reached for her and her friends. August describes the moments of terror where she and her friends had to navigate the male gaze and desire they were surrounded by, the way their mothers were absent from these events, and how the girls coped together. A gorgeous, painful, truly important book, Woodson has wowed us all again.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

“The Nix (Nixie plural) is the most popular term for the shapeshifting water spirits of Germanic and Nordic folklore,” according to the New World Encyclopedia. And so it is that professor and writer Samuel Anderson-Anderson discovers that his long-absent mother may just be a Nix of sorts. She’s returned, a newly famous criminal. While the media paints Samuel’s mother as a woman with a complex and ugly past and a once-upon-a-time hippie, Samuel knows otherwise: she was just a regular woman who married her boyfriend from high school. Then again, maybe Samuel is mistaken and everything he knows about his mother is wrong… Or it’s right, and she exists in various states of being, like the shapeshifting Nix. To try to save her from the charges being brought against her, he has to dive into her past and discover who his family really is.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The latest ingenious novel by Colson Whitehead combines true history with its alternative and brings a kind of travelog-novel style to a runaway slave’s desperate attempts to attain freedom. Cora is the slave in question, a young woman in Georgia. When she meets Caesar, an educated slave from Virginia, he tells her of a way out: the underground railroad, which in this book is a literal subterranean network of tunnels through which train cars travel across the country. As Cora sets off to find her freedom, she navigates these tunnels towards various venues which are different than their historical counterparts. Each time Cora thinks she’s found her freedom, she finds a sinister catch, and Ridgeway, a slave catcher, is still after her. Drawing through Cora the continued terrors that African Americans face in this country, this novel is both enjoyable and horrifying in what it reveals.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s most recent novel is a gorgeous exploration of a complicated American family across five decades. The Keating and Cousins families were completely separate until Bert showed up uninvited to the christening of one of the Keating children and fell in love with Beverly Keating, the mother. The Keatings’ marriage dissolves as she marries Bert, and now the two families are tied together with ramifications spanning years and decades and generations. The novel jumps from there to Franny Keating’s young adulthood (she was the girl whose christening Bert crashed) where she is involved with a much older novelist who uses her own family story as the basis of what becomes his incredibly successful book. The families must come together again to understand and repair and cherish their relationships.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

In this eerie and strange and beautiful new novel by Ian McEwan, an as-yet unborn child narrates his mother’s betrayal and her plot to kill her husband. Sound familiar? Well, just might be because it is, a tad. McEwan has written here a slim and fascinating retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (sort of), which is clear what with the narrator’s mother Trudie (Gertrude?) and her new lover Claude (Claudius) plotting to kill her husband John (the not-yet ghost of Hamlet’s father). Clever and potty-mouthed, this baby is smarter than it has any right to be, which is part of what makes this odd and slim novel so entirely gripping.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

When Nadia Turner’s mother kills herself, everything begins to change in Oceanside, a California town in which the Upper Room congregation seems to have eyes and ears everywhere. The Mothers, the older women who take charge of various parts of Upper Room, narrate parts of this gorgeous book, sharing their gossip and story as they know it. In other parts of the book we get to watch Nadia, her friend Aubrey, and the pastor’s son, Luke, all grow up from daring teenagerhood to messy, complicated, burdonsome adulthood. This realist novel is a reminder of why we reach such books in the first place – Brit Bennett leaves no one entirely innocent because people simply aren’t, but gives us room to love these characters, because even people who make mistakes are entirely loveable.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s newest book swings the reader around her timeline, from childhood to adulthood and back again, slowly peeling the layers of her secrets and loneliness away. From the ballet class where she met Tracey, the only other mixed-race child the narrator knew, to the heart of an unnamed West African country, the narrator’s life is both extremely large (she travels all over the world) and very small (she only associates these days with the pop music icon she works with, Aimee). But the narrator keeps hearkening back to her home in London where her mother has become a local politician and where Tracey has become… well, who knows? The girls drifted apart as they grew up, but the narrator’s obsession with Tracey and their former friendship never quite goes away. A tour de force of a novel about womanhood, loneliness, belonging, and more.

About Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is a queer writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, comes out May 2020.

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