In the days and weeks following the constitutional coup that put a puppet in the White House, books were one of the only things that made me feel better. I spent a weekend ganking kids’ chapter books from shelves in my parents’ house and crying over a sign in the window of their local independent bookstore. It read, “Keep going, stay civilized” in a friendly chalk scrawl, and accompanied a display of books about feminism, racial justice, and getting involved in politics and activism at the local and national levels. If you love books, you know how important they’re going to be as we face down the presidency of a man who has no understanding of why freedom of the press matters, much less any respect for the beauty of the written word and the delights of proper grammar and punctuation. Usually, when I reach out to local publishers, authors, and Mercury book critics for their year-end picks, it’s a gleeful thing. But this year, it’s something else: It’s more somber, but it’s also more important.
Here are the good books we read in a shitty year. Put them on your list.
Then: Keep going. Stay civilized. Don’t forget to read.
“Over the past 15 years, Jace Clayton’s work—as an essayist, a DJ, a radio host, a musician, and conceptual artist—has affected my life so deeply that when his debut book came out this summer, my world screeched to a halt. To put it lightly: My expectations were high. But Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture went far beyond anything I could have hoped for or imagined.
“Uproot is a bible of modern music history, covering the evolution/devolution of cultures around the world in the internet age, and the boundaries that are crossed when corporations try to influence and benefit from the arts. As he travels the globe as a DIY-minded DJ/sound provocateur, he looks longest at what’s happening under the radar—where artists are reimagining how to create, gather, and share.
“Early in the book Clayton writes, ‘as I’ve traveled, time and time again I’ve found myself in places where musical innovation and excitement emerge from a community experience.’ In the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland—the mourning that interconnected communities around the globe are going through, the short-sighted and offensive closures of DIY spaces around the country—I hold Clayton’s words close.”
—Joshua James Amberson, Mercury contributor
“This year was a shit year for the world but a good year for books. I loved so many books this year—The Lesser Bohemians, Problems, The Wangs vs. the World, Sweetbitter, The Queen of the Night, Modern Lovers—but I want to shine a light on (Oregon’s own!) Lily Brooks-Dalton’s beautiful, haunting novel Good Morning, Midnight. Augustine is a misanthropic elderly astronomer alone with his beloved stars (and a mysterious little girl) at a research center in the deep Arctic. He refused to evacuate the station after an unspecified ‘catastrophic event’—following which all communication has been silent. Meanwhile, Sully is an astronaut on a return journey from Jupiter when Mission Control goes suddenly silent, and Sully and her crew mates must keep themselves and their mission going when they are not sure what they are headed home to, if anything. The descriptions of landscape in Good Morning, Midnight are stunningly gorgeous, from the frozen Arctic to the vastness of space, and the book contemplates the biggest questions—What is left at the end of the world? What is the impact of a life’s work?—through the very different, but undeniably connected, individual experiences of a man always looking up at the stars and a woman adrift among them. It’s a quiet novel, a post-apocalypse novel with no apocalypse, that stays with you long after the last page.”
—Amanda Bullock, Literary Arts
“Originally published in 1997 and reprinted in 2010, Christine Colasurdo’s Return to Spirit Lake attempts to make sense of a landscape obliterated by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. This book works on every level: as a memoir (Colasurdo’s family owned a cabin directly in the blast zone, and she spent the best parts of her childhood playing in the shadow of the volcano), as a slice of popular science and Pacific Northwest history, and as a lyrical meditation on incomprehensible change. In a year in which the worst often happened, perhaps it’s fitting that I found solace in a book that reminded me, in the most visceral way, that we’re all on borrowed time, and that even if you can’t go home again, it’s worth trying to find it under 500 feet of rubble.”
—Michael Heald, Perfect Day Publishing
“Following her critically acclaimed novels Boy, Snow, Bird, and Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is her first short-story collection. À la Angela Carter or Kelly Link, Oyeyemi builds off traditional fairy tales and folklore, but then takes biting turns with her storytelling. A hidden garden, sentient puppets, experimental marriage counseling—the settings of her stories are at once timelessly fanciful and eerily contemporary.
“One of my favorite stories, “‘Sorry” Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,’ begins one way and ends another. A man reluctantly house-sits for a loyal friend, even though the fish he must feed intimidates him and the house is creepy: The doors ‘don’t stay closed unless they’re locked. Once you’ve done that, you hear sounds behind them: sounds that convince you you’ve locked someone in.’ By the end of the story, he’s grappling with discussing celebrity and rape culture with the teenage daughters of his boyfriend. Like many of her stories, what at first seemed far away and magical, in the end, appears quite close and uncomfortably real.”
—Kjerstin Johnson, Mercury contributor
“In Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, 10 women wake in a remote Australian outpost after being drugged and dressed in rags. They are held captive by increasingly unstable guards and a lethally charged electric fence. It is soon revealed that the women have all been involved in high-profile sex scandals and they are being punished for their roles—as victims or participants—for being women. In an early scene, a protagonist tells a guard, ‘I need to know where I am.’ He responds with, ‘Oh sweetie. You need to learn what you are.’ Wood’s prose is beautiful, but it doesn’t coddle. The Natural Way of Things is an unapologetic confrontation of misogyny and rape culture. It’s a tough and necessary read.”
—Jakob Vala, Tin House
“The best book of 2016: a tie between Aaron Gilbreath’s Everything We Don’t Know and Steven Church’s One with the Tiger. Both are essay collections; both strike a skillful balance between self-revelation and news from the wider world. Gilbreath’s essay ‘(Be)coming Clean’ lets you in on one of his darkest secrets without a shred of melodrama—it reads like an intimate conversation with your closest friend. Church rips the genre of nature writing down to the raw bone and reassembles the parts into one of the most disturbing and electrifying narratives of the year.”
—Justin Hocking, author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld
“It’s hard to pick a clear winner for fave read of 2016, but the type of book I found myself drawn to most was what you might call the IDGAF school of fiction writers like Ottessa Moshfegh, Amie Barrodale, and Nell Zink. All three write with artful precision about agitated, sometimes unlikeable (whatever that means) characters. Plus, I don’t think any of them personally care about growing any kind of ‘brand’ or being on social media (they’re not). There’s something kind of old-fashioned but badass about that. They just write shit, man, and they don’t give a fuck if you’re onboard.
“Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen, is full of sad-angry longing amid a backdrop of dirty snow and unclean houses. Barrodale’s story collection, You Are Having a Good Time, is unapologetic and unrequited with stories that sometimes stop abruptly, like they’re comically throwing up their hands and giving up. Zink’s books are great and clever, but the thing I like most about her is her own strange personal journey to publishing (wrote pretty much for her Israeli pen pal for several years and then inexplicably made Jonathan Franzen fall in love with her writing). I met her in person this past year and even her energy exuded a frantic eccentricity. Her Lit Hub essay on how to become a novelist is an amazing and blunt gem of advice. I admire all of these writers for various reasons and honestly wish I could be more like them.”
—Kevin Sampsell, Future Tense Books
“Toiling over a lit mag slush pile for a living, I don’t get to read as much published writing as I’d like. The year’s blockbusters are stacked in various corners of my house awaiting a holiday binge session. That said, I make time once a month, six months a year, to read the new issue of Saga, a space opera comic book that relies as much on the emotional dynamism of writer Brian K. Vaughan’s characters as it does on artist Fiona Staples’ deliriously gorgeous art. This year’s arc has been especially moving, from the tragic death of an already-dead ghost to the nebulous redemption of a robot villain (fueled by poignant images on the TV he has for a head), and I can’t wait to see how Vaughan and Staples will break my heart next year.”
—Thomas Ross, Mercury contributor
“Two books I keep thinking about are both set in Hungary (a country about which I knew embarrassingly little before this year) and deal in its troubled history: The Door by Magda Szabo (a novel) and In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi (a memoir).”
—Katie Pelletier, Mercury contributor
“This year I loved Proxies by Brian Blanchfield. Subtitled ‘Essays Near Knowing,’ each begins with an ostensible topic (tumbleweed, foot washing, frottage) and continues with a wide-ranging, associative investigation that refuses to end until Blanchfield has found a site of his own vulnerability to mine. The self, however, is not an end point—it’s an entry to considering what it means to be a person in a body in the world.”
—Sara Jaffe, author of Dryland
“Yes, I may be biased by the impending due date of my firstborn, but I can’t think of a (you know, non-Tin House) book I’ve gone back to more this year than Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, a fragmented volume of essay, memoir, list-making, and cultural criticism all hung on the scaffolding of her early days of motherhood and Sei Shonagon’s 11th century The Pillow Book. If you know Galchen’s criticism, you know she’s a brilliant, original thinker; if you know her fiction, you know she’s funny, dark, and one of our best writers of sentences. Little Labors has all of that, along with a kind of honesty that feels intimate rather than performative.”