These are the best books we read in 2016.
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 chef-d’ouvre and winner of the first Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel, The Handmaid’s Tale paints a picture of a bleak world in the very near future where what was once America is now under totalitarian theocratic rule. Called the Republic of Gilead, this fledgling nation subjugates women in the name of a military dictatorship as well as Protestant Christendom and divides them into classes depending on age, marital status and fertility. The women sorted into the handmaid (read: concubine) category take on not only new roles, but new names as well, reflecting their relationship to the men in their lives and also their place as property. (Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren, etc.)
After killing the President and all of Congress, fundamentalist radicals go about seizing women’s finances and forbidding them to work outside the home. Next, the women are separated from their families if deemed illegitimate. In the narrator’s case, “illegitimate” means her husband’s marriage to her was his second, and therefore “adulterous.” Dissenters, homosexuals and even other Christians who refuse to convert to the new denomination are beaten and hanged from hooks on a wall at the outskirts of town. Ripped from her husband and young daughter and robbed of all autonomy, the narrator is sent to an internment camp of sorts for indoctrination where she quickly learns that survival depends on acquiescence to a brutal regime.
At once beautiful and viscerally frightening, Atwood’s novel proves both timeless and timely, calling upon a narrative style evocative of early Puritan testimony and also incorporating then-current events involving sodomy laws and severe abortion restrictions in Eastern Europe. Lush of prose and crafted with attention to detail, The Handmaid’s Tale earns its place in the annals of modern-day classics and showcases Atwood’s deftness in world-building and origination of the feminist dystopian subgenre. – Bernadette Ewing
Have you ever outgrown something, be it an old shirt or a software tool at work? How do you feel about those things? A little sad? A little reminiscent? And a lot of see-you-sucker! Right?
Think of capitalism like this: Capitalism is outmoded, outdated and doesn’t fit our modern culture. It’s on its deathbed, and we see it all around us. Capitalism assumes information disparity, which the internet and data science has all but healed. It relies on inequality, which is inhumane; we’re all starting to see that. The hardcore tenets of neoliberal capitalism are unnerving to most of us suffering under its regime.
This book helps to explain some of the craziness that is happening in the world and informs us of a potential escape route for this corrupted system that works for a mere minority of humanity. One of the smartest books of the year, it inspires conversations and opens one up to overlooked perspectives (and a Zen-like level of calm). There are signs that it’s going to be better. Paul Mason gives you a peek into what those signs are. Do yourself a favor and read this critical and smart detailing of how it’s all going to be okay…Eventually.
Until then, brace yourself for the last, tragic years of capitalism’s death grip and all the ugliness that will ensue. – Cedric Justice
I finally picked up The Last Samurai after reading an intriguing profile of Helen DeWitt in New York Magazine this summer, and it’s easily one of the most fascinating and truly bold novels of the last 20 years. While it’s steeped in history and relies heavily on the well-worn paths of literature and cinema ranging from Homer to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the journey that Ludo undertakes feels novel and unique—largely because DeWitt captures the character so elegantly. The arc of Ludo is universally heart-wrenching, even if his genius isn’t relatable for many of us; there’s an argument to be made that he should be a coming-of-age story icon on par with Holden Caulfield. Even if the story doesn’t grab you, there’s more than enough in DeWitt’s gorgeous writing to keep you moving throughout the novel, and reading the book only further underscores how much of a tragedy it was that her second novel wasn’t released until 2012. The Last Samurai is the rare hyper-intellectual novel that isn’t weighed down by pretention, likely because it is quite self-aware of the absurdity of academic elitism, and there’s even a way to read the book as a kind of parody. However you choose to view it, DeWitt’s novel is an absolute stunner that will open your mind and make you seriously reevaluate more cookie-cutter narratives. – Grant Rindner
For fans of comedy history, there is perhaps no greater audio resource than Mark Maron’s WTF podcast. Over the course of hundreds of interviews, Maron has discussed the history and nuance of comedy with some of its biggest names. Given his love of his medium and reverence for its history and major players, it’s little surprise that Maron became such a champion of Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy. Listening to the pair riff on their respective knowledge of the history of comedy (episodes 314 and 659) proved endlessly entertaining and informative for those who consider themselves scholars of the form.
Indeed, Nesteroff’s exhaustive analysis of the history of American comedy is one of the most complete and authoritative texts on the subject. Tracing its roots back to the origins of Vaudeville Theater, the history of American comedy is full of fascinating personalities, stories and social commentary. Given the sheer volume of material with which Nesteroff had to work, it’s little surprise he had to cherry-pick and give short shrift to a number of subjects. But those present will serve as comedy rabbit holes for those with a passion for not only comedy history, but American history as well.
With literally hundreds of books on comedy, comedians and a history of the form it can be a bit daunting trying to establish a starting point. Fortunately, Nesteroff’s The Comedians ties up all the disparate histories and loose ends into one concise history that, if nothing else, can serve as a starting point for those looking to delve just that much deeper. – John Paul
The title is apt: Bob and Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars and Paul Westerberg were troubled youths in ways that Mehr uncovers in this in-depth portrait of the band. There was real danger and darkness lurking in their lives. Mehr captures that in painstaking detail with stories about early gigs, inner tensions and personal turmoil. The greater sense that one gains from reading these pages is that the band existed in part because there were no other people who could have possibly understood the Mats the way they understood each other.
Readers will wince at some of the details about the group’s famed appearance on Saturday Night Live and the palpable pain Bob Stinson experienced in his short life. That would be exploitative coming from other authors, but Mehr has a sensitivity and empathy for his subjects and the biography perhaps serves as an act of healing.
Bob “Slim” Dunlap joined after Bob Stinson’s dismissal and his contributions to the band—on both a musical and spiritual level—are arguably given greater consideration in these pages than in past accounts. His time with the group gets as much play as the early days as we witness the quartet undertake a tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers that probably drove the nail into the coffin.
Though some bios view a group’s disbanding as the end, Mehr covers the early years of Westerberg’s solo career and Tommy Stinson’s journey to becoming a fuller man than the group ever allowed him. There are glimpses of the reunion dates that may or may not have spelled the last notes the Mats will ever play but a sense that the story will continue in some form or another for years to come is also present. – Jedd Beaudoin
I initially read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation because director Alex Garland announced plans to adapt it (with Oscar Isaac, no less). But by the time I was finished I was left disappointed because I doubt Garland can capture the intensity, frustration and beauty of what VanderMeer’s put out in the first of his Southern Reach trilogy.
The story follows four women, referred only by their occupational designations of The Biologist, The Psychologist, The Anthropologist and The Surveyor. All four are sent into an unknown area called Area X, in the interest of exploring it. For the Biologist, she hopes to learn more about her husband’s untimely death, since he was part of a previous expedition into the area. Once inside, the group finds themselves surrounded by strange creatures, drawn to a mysterious subterranean tunnel all the while slowly starting to turn on each other.
Annihilation is a book you can’t help by be drawn into, much like the characters themselves. You’re only ever privy to what they know, leaving you in the dark as they come into contact with bizarre, plant-like writing, journals of expeditions past and something called The Crawler. It’s akin to reading a haunted house novel, with the house being a living thing whose danger is certain, but unknowable. Despite being a quick read, VanderMeer plays with different narrative formats that lead to a rather dense prose. Told as a field journal by the Biologist, technically brisk military language flows like water. Pictures float through one’s imagination as VanderMeer weaves exotic descriptions of what the women are seeing, which is remarkable considering how unimaginable it all seems (living plants and doppelgangers are the least surprising things the book holds). – Kristin Lopez
Reading David Markson’s Reader’s Block is like a punch to the gut. It is wholly original and a dynamically unique book.
In Reader’s Block, Markson sheds almost all sense of narrative. There is the character of Reader, an elderly writer struggling to write a novel, but aside his attempts at parsing out the writing, no other action takes place. As he thinks about what to write, anecdotes about the lives of authors, poets, artists and musicians obscure his thinking and Reader’s Block becomes a two-hundred page litany of these small, odd stories. For instance, this story about Paul Verlaine: “Fighting with his wife, drunk, Paul Verlaine once threw their three-month-old son against a wall.”
Whether or not the stories are true (though I think they are because many are verifiable) doesn’t matter. Reader’s Block is the result of a lifetime of reading. It is more a collage than a novel, and a breathtaking catalogue of culture. It is the ultimate post-modern escape that leaves you stunned and wanting more. It’s a book that needs to be read for its art and for its ability to keep one captivated in the absence of traditional narrative. – Nicodemus Nicoludis
This short volume stands out for a number of reasons. The thematic appropriateness for 2016, for example—the year of Brexit and Trump. It is also the most accessible and easy-to-read piece Rancière has ever produced, providing uninitiated readers an opportunity to grapple with his rigorous and systematic thought without frustration.
Rancière’s central claim is that electoral politics are a ruse. It is a grand game through which established authority can pretend to truly allow popular sovereignty without ever genuinely risking outcomes unfavorable to its interests. Rancière is not a conspiracy theorist; he would never posit such competence to bureaucrats as would be needed to conspire. Rather, he argues that democracy-as-façade is a fundamental part of the structures of governance. It is a natural outcome, not a nefarious scheme.
What play-acted popular sovereignty is prone to—and here is where Rancière is prescient and on-the-nose for 2016—is a master manipulation. Because electoral politics is theatrical, a demagogic clown could possibly render it a theater of the absurd. Of course, this is precisely what happened with Brexit and Trump. Democratic politics as practiced in the US and UK in 2016 were already devoid of substance; all the Trump and Brexit campaigns did was take this inherent substance black hole to a hyperbolic extreme. Say anything, posture and perform; rinse and repeat. Then count your votes.
Rancière lays this out in vital detail, with his characteristic even-handedness and erudition, in Hatred of Democracy. He also provides a way forward, towards a more humane, progressive political expression. Like all of his work, this short volume is both a dissection of the problems of the political system as well as a suggestion for a better way of organizing society. – Ryne Clos