Welcome to PW’s 2016 Best Books. Our cover author this year is Colson Whitehead, whose stunning novel, The Underground Railroad, depicts one of America’s darkest moments in a new light. In our top 10, you’ll find Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, Garth Greenwell’s brilliant and intense debut novel, What Belongs to You, and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, a gripping study of the impact of eviction on poverty-stricken families. Beyond our top 10, there are 100 exceptional adult titles across all categories from poetry to comics, and 50 extraordinary children’s titles. Read on for the best of 2016.
Annie Proulx (Scribner)
Spanning 300 years and including a cast of dozens, Proulx’s monumental achievement traces the descendants of two 17th-century woodsmen and their divergent paths. One family drifts and battles the erosion of Mi’kmaq culture, while the other develops a timber empire. Despite the scope and length, the story never slips from Proulx’s grasp, resulting in an exhilarating, immersive reading experience.
What Belongs to You
Garth Greenwell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
With nearly unbearable intensity, Greenwell relates the story of an American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a young male prostitute named Mitko. Their relationship starts as purely sexual, but as it becomes increasingly complicated, Greenwell proves himself a master of driving to the heart of obsession, fear, and love.
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Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy
Heather Ann Thompson (Pantheon)
A 45th anniversary may be an odd milestone to mark, but prison reform can’t wait. Thompson’s encyclopedic account of Attica and its aftermath is the first of its kind, primarily because New York State authorities tried to suppress the truth from the moment the prisoners began agitating for their rights.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Matthew Desmond (Crown)
Gripping storytelling and scrupulous research undergird this outstanding ethnographic study in which Desmond, a professor of sociology at Harvard, explores the impact of eviction on poor families in Milwaukee, Wis. Focusing on eight families in varying circumstances, Desmond adds depth and immediacy to the role of housing in the creation of poverty in America.
Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey
Frances Wilson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
This is a mesmerizing and agile biography of the 19th century English writer, best known for the autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Wilson captures De Quincey’s multifaceted personality and career—as obsessive literary stalker, “born journalist,” and visionary author, as well as his continuing influence on our own time.
A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster
Joshua Partlow (Knopf)
Partlow, a veteran foreign correspondent, gives an excellent account of a vastly difficult topic, exploring America’s entanglement with Afghanistan, our country’s longest war, in terms of U.S. relations with President Hamid Karzai and his family. The book offers an eye-opening new perspective on what went wrong, and on Karzai’s much criticized tenure.
Ninety-Nine Stories of God
Joy Williams (Tin House)
The title of this slender collection is not a lie: it features 99 very short stories about God. The catch is that the wonderfully twisted Williams is behind the stories, which means the Lord finds himself at a hotdog-eating contest or waiting in line for a shingles vaccination. This transcendent book is 100% Williams: funny, unsettling, and mysterious, to be puzzled over and enjoyed across multiple readings.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
Svetlana Alexievich, trans. from the Russian by Bela Shayevich (Random House)
Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” She demonstrates great skill and care in documenting real human lives as the Soviet Union reached its end and newly independent states struggled into being. Hardship permeates this largely bleak work, but it’s a necessary confrontation with brutal realities.
The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
In Whitehead’s brilliant and visceral reimagining of one of America’s most shameful periods, a young slave named Cora flees from a Georgia plantation toward freedom in the North. Whitehead conceives the Underground Railroad of the antebellum South as a literal subterranean tunnel with tracks, trains, and conductors, ferrying runaways into darkness and, occasionally, into light.
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Han Kang, trans. from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Hogarth)
Yeong-hye, a woman living in Seoul, undergoes a bizarre, surreal transformation when she wakes up one day after a bloody nightmare and refuses to eat meat. Her family members watch with mounting horror as she begins to eat less and less, and then not at all, and starts taking off her clothes on sunny days. Han’s debut is ingenious, upsetting, and unforgettable.