The best book of 2016:
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
British novelist Zadie Smith never disappoints. Her novel, Swing Time, follows the journey of two black dancers from London to West Africa. Told through our protagonist’s memories, Smith reflects on relationships and the powers of music and dance. Smith suggests dance as a way of remembering history. “For a great dancer has no time, no generation,” Smith tells her readers in Swing Time, “He moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him.” With its careful consideration of identity, Swing Time is perfect for anyone who has questioned who they are, where they’ve come from, and what they’ve been told.
When Breathe Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This autobiographical memoir of neuro-surgeon Paul Kalanithi’s battle with stage IV metastatic lung cancer is gripping, inspiring, and unforgettable. When Breath Becomes Air tells the story of a doctor who is challenged to face his own impending mortality. Kalanithi’s memoir jolts us back into our everyday present, telling us, “There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.” While Kalanithi learns about his own loves, friendships, passions, and pains, we are begged to think about our own lives in turn, making this non-fiction read distinctly rewarding.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead’s novel wowed audiences, topping every best-seller list and winning a 2016 National Book Award for fiction. The Underground Railroad powerfully tells the story of two slaves who flee a Georgia plantations by following the Underground Railroad. In this story, however, the Underground Railroad is an actual, dream-like train. Although the story is based in fantastical elements, Whitehead gives the reader a detailed and realistic sense of life as an escaping slave, and how different parts of the country approached slavery. His re-imagination of the slave narrative forces us to unsettle our resolved sense of the past, making it an important American novel.
The Girls by Emma Cline
With classics like The Catcher in Rye, the Harry Potter series, and Great Expectations, the teenage girl longs for a book to capture the experience of female adolescence. For many, Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, will be that book. The story, loosely based on the story of Charles Manson and his young female followers, presents girlhood through Evie Boyd, a young, “average-looking” girl. Cline’s prose enables her to craft a relatable world, evoking an unique sense of empathy for Evie’s passions, misgivings, anxieties, and rebellions. The Girls is truly “a new voice in American fiction.”
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in eleven years is all at once painfully heartbreaking, hilarious and desperately provoking. Here I Am tells the story of Jewish family during an earthquake in the Middle East, a narrative through which Foer presents a complex and elaborate painting of a family’s broken world. Here I Am is definitely not the easiest book to read – it sea-saws between comedy, melancholy and all that exists in between – and the plot threads of the novel are sown together with flashbacks, flashforwards, and some tangential narratives, which makes it often read as fragmentary. The challenge is for the reader is enjoyable, however, and it feels like putting together the pieces of a complex puzzle. Foer’s work is also notable for its deep questioning of Jewish identity, which his characters consider during their self-conscious, meticulous midlife crises.