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The best books of 2016 so far: The A.V. Club’s catch-up guide

(Graphic: Nick Wanserski)
(Graphic: Nick Wanserski)

Avid readers will always have more books on their shelves than time to read them, and staying contemporary can be a challenge for even the most dedicated bibliophile. 2016 has provided a bounty of riches for the literary-minded, from cinematic mysteries to progressive memoirs to a book bringing burger puns to life. Because we understand that you only have so much time to dedicate to the printed part of your media diet, we offer a bit-sized explanation of why each is worth your time, along with recommended reading scenarios (being part of a book club helps).

I’m Just A Person by Tig Notaro

What is it? Comedian Tig Notaro’s candid memoir about surviving cancer and overcoming grief.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? At 123 pages, it won’t take you long to finish this book, but it will stick with you. In keeping with her stand-up, Notaro is wry and frank about her health problems and the death of her mother. She doesn’t employ any euphemisms, just lays bare her grief—and that vulnerability makes this a compelling read.

Recommended reading: This one’s for the secular mourners out there, who aren’t able to find comfort in platitudes or beatitudes. [Danette Chavez]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

The Bob’s Burgers Burger Book by Loren Bouchard and the writers of Bob’s Burgers; recipes by Cole Bowden

What is it? A varied collection of funny hamburger recipes inspired by a chalkboard in Fox’s animated comedy Bob’s Burgers.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Everyone has to eat. It is, unequivocally, better not to eat crappy food. It also is nice when the cookbook’s recipes offer a few good laughs, the ingredients are easy enough to find, the burgers varied enough to stay appetizingly interesting, and the commercial tie-in on point. The Bob’s Burgers Burger Book has it all.

Recommended reading: The Bob’s Burgers Burger Book is perfect for the summer barbecue grill-master lacking in creativity, as well as families that want to make cooking fun while getting their children to branch out a bit from the usual. [Bill Jones]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

The Girls by Emma Cline

What is it? A 1960s-set novel following a teenage girl who is slowly seduced into a Charles Manson-like cult, with predictably horrifying results.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? The Girls is a beach read with real literary merit: eloquently written, evocative about the era and lives it depicts, and full of foreboding and menace (that Cline is all of 27 makes it even more impressive). It lives up to its hype by casually and gradually revealing its greatness; Cline never risks blowing her fuses. This could be the start of a major career in American letters.

Recommended reading: The Girls would make a great selection for those wanting to start a book club: It’s satisfying without being easy, complex without being dense, and it offers plenty to think and talk about, while remaining pulpy enough to serve as a propulsive summer read. [Ryan Vlastelica]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

Before The Fall by Noah Hawley

What is it? This thriller from Fargo series creator Noah Hawley begins with a private plan crashing into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving just two survivors.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Hawley certainly knows his way around a taut and edgy storyline, weaving the past with the present, the individual lives with the official investigation, and drawing the reader deeper into the mystery of how and why the plane came to the moment of disaster. From the opening scene to the pulse-quickening march toward the final revelation, Hawley’s book is a page-turner ripe with cinematic potential.

Recommended reading: Before The Fall makes an easy recommendation for any fan of Hawley’s fantastic Fargo series, as well as readers swept away by other recent blockbuster thrillers like The Girl On The Train and Gone Girl. [Eric Swedlund]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

You’ll Grow Out Of It by Jessi Klein

What is it? Humorous essays from the head writer and executive producer of Inside Amy Schumer about her life as a woman and comedian.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Jessi Klein is fiercely observant, self-deprecating, and just plain hilarious. For female readers especially, she offers a lot to identify with: from lingerie shopping and transforming from a “miss” into a “ma’am” to seeking artistic and personal success. Sample funny line: “Seeing pockets on a dress is now the sartorial equivalent of finding out that a guy has a giant dick.”

Recommended reading: You’re feeling conflicted about the girly shit you sometimes do (waxing, shopping at Anthropologie, watching The Bachelor) and want to laugh about it. [Laura Adamczyk]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

What is it? A satirical novel about a black man in Lagos, Nigeria, who wakes up one morning and finds that he has been transformed into a white man (except for the titular body part).

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? A very dim silver lining to today’s heightened racial tensions has been the excellent books that have taken race on as a subject, from Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me. Blackass easily fits into that company, and would be the most searing race-based satire in years if not for Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. It is a work of piercing insights and realized ambition, all the more impressive for nailing it’s tricky and unusual tone.

Recommended reading: This is the kind of book that needs to first be digested, then discussed. The right reading group, made up of diverse and open-minded members, will find endless material to turn over here. [Ryan Vlastelica]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

The History Of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane

What is it? A semi-autobiographical novel about Crane’s complicated relationship with her opera singer mother.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Told as a collaborative tale where both Crane and her mother take turns telling stories about the other person’s life, The History Of Great Things is a quirky and sometimes whimsical examination of the difference between perception and reality. With the authenticity forged of personal experience, Crane finds ways to bring a bit of humor and a lot of love to tough issues including alcoholism, mental illness, racism, divorce, and grieving.

Recommended reading: The History Of Great Things will help fortify you before or provide comfort after a tough family visit. [Samantha Nelson]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

Sober Stick Figure by Amber Tozer

What is it? The memoir of a stand-up comedian unafraid to chronicle her own alcoholism and recovery, complemented by stick figure illustrations.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Most good comedy is about getting at a core truth—the laughs are the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Despite the stick figures used as visual aids, Amber Tozer’s memoir is rarely as laugh-out-loud funny as it is honest, but that candor is its greatest strength. Tozer offers no simple answers, but the pieces are all there, from her family history to the eventual recovery and an ongoing struggle to stay sober. Maybe it’s the bright yellow cover, but Sober Stick Figure is hard to ignore.

Recommended reading: Anyone who has struggled with or been close to addiction will find a relatable companion in Sober Stick Figure. [Bill Jones]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

Sex With Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan

What is it? Jillian Keenan’s memoir about coming to terms with her spanking fetish, as told through the work of Shakespeare.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Keenan is a deftly funny guide for those unversed with fetishes. It’s a remarkably honest book that pushes sexual acceptance in a direction that still has a long way to go, legitimizing what’s mostly the butt of a joke into a real sexual identity and providing some great lessons on the plays of Shakespeare along the way. If you’re a progressive type—or if you just love Shakespeare—this one’s for you.

Recommended reading: Sex With Shakespeare would be a great selection for a feminist book club, or as supplemental material for a Shakespeare class. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

What is it? A horror novel inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, wherein a black family is terrorized by both the monsters of that white supremacist’s writings, and by the racism of 1950s America.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? A lot of great horror uses its central danger as metaphor, but there’s something particularly frightening about the ones that feature both text and subtext (Ruff shared five such books with The A.V. Club). Lovecraft has such staples as portals to other dimensions and body horror, but what lingers is the culture of hate that’s recalled, one where racist cops happily abuse their powers. While depressingly relevant given recent tragic events, Lovecraft still succeeds as a popcorn throwback in the best possible sense.

Recommended reading: It’s a muggy summer night. The news has been ominous. You’re on a porch in a rocking chair trying to lose yourself in a book. A twig snaps. What’s that behind you? Oh no, it’s Donald Trump! [Ryan Vlastelica]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

Before We Visit The Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

What is it? A series of interwoven stories about three generations of Indian women.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Divakaruni is a veteran novelist but takes a nonlinear approach to her storytelling here so that, for instance, a traumatic moment in one character’s life finds a new explanation in a later chapter from her mother’s perspective. That style could be gimmicky in lesser hands, but here it drives an emotional if short narrative about the immigrant experience and families pulled apart by tradition and physical distance.

Recommended reading: Before We Visit The Goddess is perfect women’s book club material, though its emphasis on food and its cultural significance also would make it appropriate for foodies. [Samantha Nelson]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

Welcome To The Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman

What is it? Blair Braverman’s memoir of her young adulthood in the arctic north, where she braved the subzero temperatures, sexist culture, and her own fears and anxieties.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Braverman’s prose is gorgeously minimalist, with alternating time periods of her live in Norway and an Alaskan glacier woven together into a gripping narrative. It’s a personal peek into her life, but also a fascinating account of dog sledding, northern Norwegian tradition, and what it takes to survive in the cold.

Recommended reading: Women especially will find a friend in Braverman, but Ice Cube is as adventurous as it is feminist. Read with a glass of ice water on a hot summer day to cool off with her chilly, daring tales. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

Grunt by Mary Roach

What is it? Mary Roach’s latest look at the “curious science” of an unusual field, this time focusing on military technology—“not the killing, but the keeping alive.” Subjects include how to better armor cars, developing stink bombs for different cultural “preferences,” and the effect of sleep deprivation on submariners.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Like all of Roach’s books, Grunt comes packed with fascinating historical tidbits; anyone spending their summer at cocktail parties can load up on factoids to share and amaze. Furthermore, Roach remains one of the flat-out funniest and most entertaining writers around, covering complex subjects with clarity and wit. Grunt features a ton of big laughs, but the serious purpose behind this science—keeping soldiers as safe as possible—allows Roach to inject more complexity and emotion than her earlier books on sex or space.

Recommended reading: Each of Grunt’s chapters is standalone, meaning readers can skip to the topic they’re most interested in, making this an ideal companion for not-too-long bus rides or flights. [Ryan Vlastelica]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

The Suicide Motor Club by Christopher Buehlman

What is it? A period road novel with vampires.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? This is a breezy novel, so it’s a light investment but packs in plenty of humor, poignant moments, and genuinely unsettling monsters. Set in the U.S. in 1969, it feels like the long-form version of an urban legend, mixing pulpy fights with a glimpse of the uncertainty of a period of major social transition.

Recommended reading: The Suicide Motor Club is perfect for reading in your hotel room before you get some sleep to prepare for the next leg of your summer road trip. [Samantha Nelson]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

What is it? John Wray’s epic, fever dream of a novel chronicling the multi-generational family history of Waldy Tolliver, a man stuck where time stands still.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? The Lost Time Accidents, at 491 pages, is a beast of a book, but it mesmerizes. Wray’s writing is circuitous, blurring the line between what is real and what is imaginary. His protagonist searches for the key to The Lost Time Accidents, something akin to time travel, and in telling his tale, the book plays with notions of memory, history, family, guilt, responsibility, and love.

Recommended reading: The Lost Time Accidents is perfect for those who want grand, thought-provoking storytelling to sink into this summer. [Frank Valish]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

Heroes Of The Frontier by Dave Eggers

What is it? A particularly American piece of fiction, featuring an escape from suburbia to a search for something more in Alaska.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Dave Eggers has proven time and again that his novels are worth the read, even if they’re not quite the staggering works of genius that was his debut memoir. From start to finish, Heroes Of The Frontier is a joy—one that relishes in its absurd humor while digging at deeper truths about life and family in modern America.

Recommended reading: Heroes Of The Frontier is best read in or around a dilapidated RV, on the road, on a search for greater meaning in America’s most remote locales. [Bill Jones]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

The Man Without A Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates

What is it? A heartbreaking romance, of sorts, about a neurologist who falls in love with a patient suffering from short-term memory loss.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Among the questions raised by The Man Without A Shadow: Is the central relationship abusive or beautiful? How much is a person simply the sum total of their memories? How much does anyone know of their partners or themselves, and how much are we all just projecting? This is a haunting and thought-provoking book that will linger with you in unsettling ways, and of course, Oates remains a master stylist and narrative architect.

Recommended reading: Given the circular, slipstream structure of the story, The Man Without A Shadow calls out to be read in a single sitting, preferably one where the reader can feel free to bawl or rage as they see fit without coming off as unusually crazy. Cross-country flight it is. [Ryan Vlastelica]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

What is it? Haslett’s novel traces the story of a family touched by the suicide of its patriarch, following how each family member is affected, tries to cope, and attempts to help their kin.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Haslett brilliantly constructs his tale through the eyes of each of his protagonists, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different family member. His story touches on growing up, heredity, familial interaction, masculinity, and above all mental illness. Haslett’s portrayal of the family’s eldest son is wondrous.

Recommended reading: Imagine Me Gone is ripe for discussion and closer examination, so it would be perfect for a book club, but its emotional relevance is also well suited for lone introspection. [Frank Valish]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down The Klan by Laurence Leamer

What is it? Laurence Leamer’s chronicle of the 1981 Ku Klux Klan-related lynching of 19-year-old Michael Donald and the criminal and civil trials that follow.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? The Lynching is an important book for these tenuous times. Leamer outlines the story of a terrible crime and the Klan-crippling justice that follows, providing context and outlining a racial divide sadly still present today. Leamer deftly blends insightful history with detailed courtroom drama. His writing will consume you.

Recommended reading: The Lynching is a good selection for history buffs and the socially conscious alike. [Frank Valish]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

The Cinematic Legacy Of Frank Sinatra by David Wills

What is it? A look at Ol’ Blue Eyes’ film career, featuring stills, off-set photos, and vintage posters, alongside essays and excerpts from interviews and reviews.

Why should I spend my precious time reading it? Despite appearing in a few all-time classics—including The Manchurian Candidate and From Here To Eternity, for which he won an Oscar—Frank Sinatra’s film performances inevitably get less attention and critical appreciation than his recording and nightclub work. This gorgeous book is a useful corrective to that, reminding readers of not only Sinatra’s range and the variety of roles he took, but the man’s overall coolness and the Rat Pack’s time in Hollywood.

Recommended reading: This is a coffee-table book, not a work of critical analysis, meaning fans should leaf through it on the classiest, most ring-a-ding-ding crapper they can find. [Ryan Vlastelica]

You can purchase this book on Amazon.

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