2016 has made me even more superstitious than usual, so I waited until there was basically no chance of my finishing another book this year before compiling my "best books of the year" list. Interestingly, apparently I did not do a list of favorite books I read for 2015. Looking back, this appears to be because I was kind of overwhelmed by local and national events: the San Bernardino shooting, Justin Chin's death, the "controversy" over my music column on "Norwegian Wood." So if 2016 was legendarily bad, it's partly because it got a head start in late 2015.
In no particular order, then, a baker's dozen:
* Bluets by Maggie Nelson. A book-length meditation on the color blue. At the bookstore, we file this in "poetry" (same as we do with "Tender Points," below, but not what we do with "Argonauts"), but other people call it a "lyric essay"; it's actually loosely modeled after Wittgenstein -- the numbered paragraphs are called "propositions" and the philosopher himself makes a guest appearance, as do Goethe and, more briefly, Novalis, which made me feel like I was revisiting a certain class I took in college, actually (I remember it as "European Romanticism" but I also remember Poe on the syllabus, so...?), along with a lot of other philosophers and artists and such -- Joseph Cornell, Joni Mitchell, etc.. Also bowerbirds and cornflowers, the bluets of the title (spoiler!). It's not at all dry and detached analysis, it's deeply engaged, autobiographical meditation informed by many sources, and I loved it.
* The Dead Ladies Project by Jessica Crispin. A nonfiction travel narrative, sort of. The author suffers a breakdown in the first chapter and decides to ditch it all and travel around Europe visiting the cities that were important to various literary figures she's interested in, most but not all of whom are women. Some of the destinations (Berlin) are well-worn travel-narrative-wise, and some (Trieste) are not. The final chapter on genderbendy surrealist lesbian photographer Claude Cahun is stunning.
* Bullies by Alex Abramovich. Nonfiction memoir with local interest. It starts by Abramovich discovering that his childhood bully is now the head of the East Bay Rats motorcycle club, and conceives of a GQ magazine assignment to go meet up with the guy as an adult and see what transpires. What transpires is this: he discovered that the childhood relationship in question may have been more reciprocal than he remembers. The author moves from NYC to Oakland and hangs out a lot at the Rats' clubhouse in West Oakland and their home bar near the shores of Lake Merritt. He does a lot of observation and a lot of thinking, and writes it all down. Meanwhile, Oakland embarks on the beginning of the rapid spurt of gentrification that we are still living through now. The result is an utterly absorbing snapshot of a time and place that was slipping away fast but has still left its traces on this place I live.
* Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney. Fictional, set in 1980s Berlin and narrated by a gay black expat from Chicago, who flees to Europe, takes a position in the firm of a hot modern architect, and moves in with his cousin, once a promising young concert pianist and now married to a German tycoon. He ping-pongs back to Chicago, then to Berlin again, and all the while Pinckney dryly takes on radical chic, architectural theory, the flavors of racism both foreign and domestic. And his narrator is a fuck-up, falling out of sobriety as the novel progresses, so he's not spared either. This book is in part a response to Isherwood, but only in part. It also speaks to brilliant underachievers, which is probably a part of why I liked it so much. But what you need to know is that it's exquisitely written and worth checking out based on its style alone.
* H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. One of those rare books that deserved its runaway bestseller status. It's a memoir of Macdonald's attempts to train a goshawk in the wake of her father's unexpected death. It's full of details on the history of hawking, the biology of hawks, and somewhere in the middle it turns into an extended meditation on E.B. White and his own, failed attempt to train a goshawk, which he meticulously chronicled as well. White had no clue why he was such a fuckup in this particular endeavor, but Macdonald has more than a few clues.
* Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. This is a pillow book (modeled after The Pillow Book) about early motherhood. In little fragments of text, never more than a page or three long, it makes art out of a time when many women find it hard to write anything at all, in a form that turns out to be perfectly suited for it, something that seems slight and trifling and is not, not one bit.
* We Gon' Be Alright by Jeff Chang. Chang is suffering from a little bit of bad timing. His last book, Who We Be, a discussion about, more or less, the optics of diversity, came out right as Black Lives Matter ramped up. We Gon' Be Alright is sort of a postscript to that book, talking about how those optics contrast with the actual lived experience of retrenched segregation. And it had the bad luck to come out just before Trump was elected, which calls the title into sharp question. (Less so if you watch it with Kendrick Lamar's video for the song of the same name in the front of your mind.) Read it anyway, because the first essay, on who "diversity" is really for, is essential, and the last, on "Asian-American" as an identity category and how Chang has personally wrestled with it as a concept, is too.
And now, a Mark Binelli interlude:
Mark Binelli has written three books: Detroit City Is The Place To Be, a nonfiction book about his hometown, and two novels, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits. I read all three this year and I loved them all. Detroit City is something everyone should read, and folks who grew up within 100 miles of Detroit should read twice. Sacco and Vanzetti is a highly inventive novel in which S&V are a silent-film comedy duo; the novel is told mostly via film reviews, transcripts, and personal journals. Mostly. Screamin' Jay Hawkins takes the joke of the title -- Hawkins had exactly one hit, the lurid "I Put a Spell on You" -- and turns it inside out. Binelli is doing really interesting stuff, ambitious stuff, and I feel like I'm the only one who has noticed. But I'm glad I did.
And now, a middle-grade interlude:
I read a chapter or so of a "long read" book to the kids every night. We've done everything from The Hobbit and A Christmas Carol to Charlotte's Web, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, whatever the kids think is interesting. We tried out a bunch of middle-grade books this year along with everything else, and threeof them were as good as anything I've read this year: The One and Only Ivan, The Real Meaning of Smekday and The Wild Robot. The first is about a silverback gorilla stuck in a rundown "circus" at a rundown mall somewhere in the United States, and his friendship with a young elephant, whom he has promised to get to a real zoo, where she can grow up in the company of other elephants. It's told in small fragmenty chapters from Ivan's point of view. Ivan succeeds in his task and thus gets reunited with other gorillas, too, so technically this has a happy (or at least bittersweet) ending, but it was such a supremely sad book. And it didn't stoop to cheap villainy, either. You have compassion for the circus owner even as you know what he's doing is not only wrong but harmful. This book one several awards and deservedly so.
Smekday is the book that the movie "Home" is based on, and fuck that (apparently well-regarded) movie because you'll see how much it's just the same old Extruded Movie Product once you read this. Smekday is fucking brilliant. It has a biracial protagonist! And the anti-Magical Indian supporting character! And a really interesting alien. And a road trip. And action! Comics! Humor that's actually funny! Satire that adults can appreciate too! Commentary on colonialism and white anxiety thereof, written at a level that middle-grade kids can get, yet not heavy-handed or simplistic! Yeah.
The Wild Robot is a quieter book. In it, a robot washes up on the shore of a deserted island, gets activated by accident, and has to figure out what her purpose is, with the help of the local wildlife. HER purpose. HER. OK, so she becomes a mother and that's a concession to gender roles, but she's an adoptive mother (of a gosling whose family she accidentally killed while climbing a cliff) and I'm going to let that go. This one does *not* have a happy ending. Nor does it have an unhappy ending. It has an ambiguous ending. It totally trusts its middle-grade readers to be able to handle an open, unresolved ending. Also, in terms of science-fictiony worldbuildingish storytelling, I haven't read anything recently as thoroughly thought-out as this book.
And finally, three Honorable Mentions:
I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. On another social media platform this year, Nick suggested we mark all books by people the list-maker knows personally with an asterisk. So, here's one of two total for this year's list: (*) An existential whodunit set at a Lovecraft-themed con and narrated, in part, by the dissolving mind of the victim from his slab in the morgue.
Black Hole by Bucky Sinister. This is the second (*); before he moved to L.A., Sinister lived around the corner from me for several years, among other things. I miss running into him as he walked home from the bus stop. (Speaking of Justin Chin, Sinister also delivered a devastating poem at his memorial early this year, and I encourage people to hunt it down.) This is a "drug novel" with messed-up time, another murder mystery of a sort, and lots of really funny and on-point satire of the gentrification of the Mission District.
Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz. A short poetic narrative about living with fibromyalgia in specific and chronic pain in general. HM'd only because I really wanted more, and I am aware why that's a problematic ask in this context.