Best Books of 2016
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
Widely hailed as the book of the year, this National Book Award-winning tour-de-force imagines the metaphorical Underground Railroad as a literal network of tunnels and tracks that helps slaves escape the horrors of the pre-Civil War U.S. south. What follows is a Gulliver-esque odyssey that invites comparisons to 12 Years a Slave and other classics.
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang
A South Korean housewife refuses to eat meat. It may not sound like the most gripping premise in this taut, 190-page novella, but it serves as the catalyst for a dark tale that bears the influence of Kafka on its sleeve as it details the protagonist’s descent into madness and her husband’s callousness in the face of it. No wonder it won the Man Booker International prize.
Appetites: A Cookbook, by Anthony Bourdain
Bad boy chef and globetrotter Bourdain delivers his off-the-cuff, brutally honest take on culinary classics with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson. For example, regarding macaroni and cheese: “If you add truffle oil, which is made from a petroleum-based chemical additive… you should be punched in the kidneys.” It’s one of the few cookbooks that are truly fun to read.
The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
After writing what could be the definitive book on cancer with “The Emperor of All Maladies,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Mukherjee returns with an even more ambitious endeavor: a biography of the gene, namely how we came to understand and conceptualize this all-too-important biological concept. The result is an engrossing science book that also has a lot of heart.
The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than a Man, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernández
Comic books usually get no respect around these parts, but this tale, starring the android hero made popular in The Avengers film sequel, may make converts out of a few with its scathing social commentary. The tale stars a Vision who, desperate to achieve a sense of humanity and normalcy, builds his own family complete with a suburban home and white picket fence.
When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
In what is surely the most emotional memoir published this year, Kalanithi, a gifted neurosurgeon, gives a first-hand account of his struggles after being diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. With an unadorned yet beautiful writing style, Kalanithi chronicles the last months of his life and his resilience in the face of the inevitable. The result is a heart-wrenching, yet highly rewarding masterwork.
At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell
A masterpiece in contextualization, Bakewell turns the heady ideas of existentialism into an engrossing narrative starring philosophers the likes of Sartre, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty. Part history book, part philosophical treatise, and part salacious biography, the book delivers an enlightening look at one of the most important intellectual movements of the twentieth century.
El Laberinto de los Espíritus, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Spanish author Ruiz Zafón topped the bestseller lists back in 2001 with the release of The Shadow of the Wind, an epic set in the Spanish Civil War that carried strains of García Márquez, Eco and Borges. Two sequel/prequels followed, and this year saw the conclusion in the series, a doorstopper of a novel that also serves as a love song to the power of books. An English translation is slated for 2018.
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, by Phil Knight
If there’s a single business book that you must read this year, make it this one. With a first-hand account of the beginning and rise of one of the most successful companies in recent memory, Nike founder and chairman Knight delivers an electrifying story of true grit and know-how in the face of almost insurmountable odds, along the way transforming a whole industry.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance
In what is perhaps the most important book on this list, especially in the aftermath of the U.S. elections, Vance makes the case of the disenfranchised white working class as they struggle against the futility of the American dream, painting a vivid picture of his “hillbilly” background, warts and all, that also serves as an unflinchingly honest cultural critique. A must-read for anyone struggling to make sense of these uncertain times.
Jerusalem, by Alan Moore; Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen; Los Herederos de la Tierra, by Idelfonso Falcones; Swing Time, by Sadie Smith; Moonglow, by Michael Chabon; March: Book Three, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell; Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth.