As 2016 draws to a close, the Vox staff is once again sharing the best books we’ve read over the past 12 months. Some of them were published a long time ago, others just earlier this year. They all have one thing in common: In a year with countless news stories, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and other books vying for our attention, these 17 titles captured our minds and our imaginations.
High Wages by Dorothy Whipple (fiction)
Dorothy Whipple is one of the most maligned writers of the 20th century. Whipple wrote domestic bourgeois women’s fiction, and for that the literary establishment despised her. In 1973, when Carmen Callil founded Virago Press to promote women’s writing, she used Whipple as the go-to symbol for the sort of book she would not abide. “We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink,” she wrote, because Whipple’s “prose and content absolutely defeated us.”
But Whipple’s domestic novels are not to be despised. They are in fact perfect iterations of their form: precise, detailed, and unsentimental portraits of middle-class British women trying to live their ordinary lives in peace, and generally being stymied by men who will keep interfering.
In High Wages, the central character is named Jane, a young woman on her own in 1912, and all she wants in the world is to open her own shop. But of course she is stymied: first by her boss, who wants to keep her working for him, and then by her married lover, who wants her to give up everything and run away with him. (That Whipple both makes it clear why Jane thinks her relationship is romantic and makes it impossible for the reader to think the same is one of her great strengths.)
The deep pleasure of this book comes from watching Jane develop her commercial instincts and realize that she’s actually remarkably good at what she does. When she is at last able to arrange her shop’s first display window — with a bowl of flowers “just where it should be” — it’s an incredibly satisfying moment.
— Constance Grady
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (fiction)
Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein’s 2012 young adult novel about pilots and spies in World War II, was widely and justifiably lauded for its twisty two-narrator structure, its page-turning plot, and its heartbreaking finish. Rose Under Fire, a companion book published in 2013, has a more straightforward setup — Rose, a young American serving as an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot, is shot down and ends up in the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, where she inevitably witnesses horrors. Rose Under Fire doesn’t need to rely on twists or structure for its raw, emotional power, and Wein’s insistence on historical specificity stops it from feeling generic or exploitative.
— Libby Nelson
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (fiction)
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing is an epic series of interlaced short stories spanning 250 years and weaving together the two branches of one Ghanaian family split by the original sin of the African slave trade. One branch begins with a woman who is married to a British colonial officer in the 18th century and whose descendants collaborate with slavers; the other branch, beginning with the woman’s half-sister, is enslaved in America. Both branches of the family undergo trauma both generational and individual, but the juxtaposition of the two narratives demonstrates the violence of the Middle Passage in a way that lingers.
— Libby Nelson
The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang (fiction)
This is the first book I've read about Asian-American immigrants that gives them more than just a story of struggle and otherness in a strange land. Charles Wang, an entrepreneur who came to the US from China to build a cosmetics empire, has lost it all and is on a cross-country road trip from California to the Hudson Valley to reunite his three young adult children. All of the family members we meet, from the silent stepmother to the son attempting to break out as a stand-up comic, are granted their own compelling story as their separate lives come together while the recession hits.
— Elite Truong
This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper (fiction)
Jonathan Tropper's novel starts similarly to the film Death at a Funeral, where an entire family must come together in the wake of their father’s death (this isn't a spoiler; it happens on the first page). While such a premise might sound pretty grim, Tropper is able to spin humor and wit onto every page. The quirkiness of each character — the downtrodden narrator, the tragic sister stuck in a loveless marriage, the reckless younger brother going out with an older woman to prove some point left unbeknownst to the rest of the family — leaves the reader feeling empathy, but not sadness. Tropper’s sharp, quick-witted humor cuts through the grief and will make you literally laugh out loud.
— Michelle Goldchain
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (fiction)
This book is fairly well-known at this point, thanks to its 2012 film adaptation starring Emma Watson. But for those who haven't ventured into this diary novel, it's well worth the read. The Perks of Being a Wallflower looks into the life of a quiet high school boy, his hard-to-access family, and his eccentric friends. It's super sad and super beautiful at the same time.
— Michelle Goldchain
Version Control by Dexter Palmer (fiction)
Time, in Version Control, is hard to pin down.
There's lots of time science, which makes the concept feel solidly objective. But as the time travel device at the heart of the book starts warping the plot, time becomes more and more subjective, shaped by race, by gender, by media representations, by human relationships.
It's a book that keeps you off kilter and questioning — a good read for 2016.
— Byrd Pinkerton
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (fiction)
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth has always hovered near the top of my “books I know I need to read” list. But I’m so glad I finally picked it up, even if I’m still processing the fact that she published it when she was 25 years old. This debut novel — spanning generations of British immigrants and the native citizens who don’t, or won’t, understand them — is dense with history and wit, and rich in the kind of detail that makes you feel like Smith rooted around in people’s heads to figure out exactly how they tick. Meanwhile, White Teeth’s searing and thoughtful examinations of the everyday realities of racism and fundamentalism sting as much in 2016 as ever.
— Caroline Framke
Your Name is Renée: Ruth Kapp Hartz's Story as a Hidden Child in Nazi-Occupied France by Stacy Cretzmeyer and Beate Klarsfeld (nonfiction novel)
This book about a Jewish woman named Ruth Kapp Hartz, who was “hidden” as a child while growing up in Nazi-occupied France, is simultaneously difficult to read and hard to put down. Hartz’s story of moving from place to place with her family before ultimately being placed in an orphanage for protection — where she wasn’t allowed to talk about her parents and didn’t even know if they were still alive — is a chilling, heartbreaking tale. Ruth ultimately became a French language teacher in Philadelphia, and she connected with a former student to write this moving story that highlights the terrors of war.
Disclosure: I am family friends with Hartz.
— Lauren Katz
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (memoir)
In 143 pages, The Argonauts follows the story of Maggie Nelson and her partner, Harry Dodge, a gender fluid San Francisco-based artist, through Nelson’s journey with impending motherhood and Dodge’s decision to begin testosterone injections. It is primarily a story about love — and one that weaves together Nelson's introspective outpourings with excerpts of critical thought to capture the transcendental nature of life.
Nelson writes the reflections on partnership, family, womanhood, and pleasure that our society is so quick to call dirty or shameful, only to normalize them as the ultimate shared human experiences. She highlights the queerness of things we accept as the natural order. The Argonauts is a window into Nelson’s head, intertwining her self-doubts, jealous inclinations, and hardened assumptions about life with established philosophy on love and intimacy.
This is a story about learning to accept change. “The summer of our changing bodies. Me, four months pregnant, you six months on T,” she writes of a life so distant from my own, yet relatable.
— Tara Golshan
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu (nonfiction)
Tim Wu's history of media and advertising, and examination of the way companies like Facebook distort our collective attention, was important before the election. It's urgent now.
— Andrew Golis
Hitler: A Biography by Ian Kershaw (nonfiction)
At every turn of this biography of one of the 20th century’s darkest figures, Ian Kershaw takes a step back to ask: how much of the horror unfolding is attributable to Adolf Hitler’s unique personality, and how much to the state of Germany of the time? Much of Hitler’s ideology — his feverish anti-Semitism, frenzied anti-Communism, and desire to restore Germany’s lost glory through military conquest — were widespread in his adopted country. And elements at nearly every level of German society promoted his career, collaborated with him, or looked the other way when they disagreed with him. Eventually, however, a cult of personality was constructed around him, and ushered him into immense power. The result was that the man’s own dark, unique whims shaped his country’s destiny — and the world’s.
— Andrew Prokop
Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras (nonfiction)
I always appreciate a book where I can flip to any page and find some weird tidbit I didn't know. Atlas Obscura, a print version of the beloved website that functions as a travelogue for all the strange, off-the-beaten-path places you've never heard of, is just such a book. For someone who likes to plan imaginary vacations he won't take until retirement (if then), it's a great peek into the world's hidden corners and most remote tourist traps. Keep one in your library and one in your glovebox.
— Todd VanDerWerff
TV: The Book by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, and TV's Platinum Age by David Bianculli (nonfiction)
The idea of the 2000s as the "golden age of television" and the 2010s as the era of "peak TV" is pervasive, but it's also self-flattering — of course we, who are lucky enough to be alive right now, would be the ones to live through television's very best days. But that idea is also completely false, because good TV has existed from the very inception of the medium. There might be more right now, but that's because there's more TV, period. (There's also a lot more bad TV.)
These new, essential TV tomes push back against the idea that everything good has debuted in the last 20 years. Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz's TV: The Book is the more opinionated and snappy of the two — it's two longtime friends arguing back and forth about the medium's history, best shows, and their personal favorites, before ranking the top 100 shows of all time. It's also packed with supplemental lists, so you'll have more than enough to watch. David Bianculli's The Platinum Age of Television is more scholarly, more interested in tracing the various influences and ancestral lines racing throughout TV history, complete with interviews with titans of the industry. Both books are essential additions to the bookshelf of any TV fan.
— Todd VanDerWerff
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (nonfiction)
For any creative writer looking for a professional author's advice on how to tackle a writing project, look no further than Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. It breaks down the writing process into sections like plot, dialogue, and character. The book is great not only because of the helpful tips inside, but because of the quirky, funny stories Lamott tells about her own trials and tribulations as a writer experiencing rejection and failure. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to scribble all over, jotting down notes about what makes good dialogue (it should make readers feel like they’re eavesdropping) and why certain stories are so hard to write (they lack a center that the writer cares passionately about).
— Michelle Goldchain
Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart (nonfiction)
For narrative nerds interested in learning about how stories work to move people — or fall flat — this is a must-read to revisit every six months. Hart, a long-time narrative nonfiction editor at the Oregonian who oversaw a slew of Pulitzer Prize–winning stories, deconstructs story theory and the narrative arc, and shares his well-honed tips for observing and connecting to people in order to get the information you need. The book will make you both a better writer and more astute reader, and deserves a place alongside other writing classics like The Elements of Style and On Writing Well.
— Julia Belluz