A.V. Club Most Read

News Newswire Great Job, Internet!
TV Club All Reviews What's On Tonight
Video All Video A.V. Undercover A.V. Cocktail Club Film Club
Reviews All Reviews Film TV Music Books
Features All Features Newswire Great Job, Internet!
Sections Film Tv Music Food Comedy Books Games Aux
Our Company About Us Contact Advertise Privacy Policy Careers RSS
Onion Inc. Sites The Onion The A.V. Club ClickHole Onion Studios

Our 20 favorite books of 2016

In The Cafe Of Lost Youth, Based On A True Story, Tranny
In The Cafe Of Lost Youth, Based On A True Story, Tranny

When things get hard, you can always retreat into a good book. For all the drawbacks of 2016, the year produced some wonderful books to lose ourselves in, from extraordinary memoirs to autobiographies seeking deeper truths about the nature of fame to fantasy worlds that hold us enthralled. In no particular order, The A.V. Club winnowed the deluge of great work that’s come out this year to our top 20 favorite books. In no particular order:

Trouble Boys: The True Story Of The Replacements by Bob Mehr

Bob Mehr’s history of The Replacements probably looks a bit daunting to non- or even casual fans of the band: At more than 500 pages, it seems thicker than the group might merit. But there’s so much story here, so much misery, so much great music, and an undeniable amount of personality. The Replacements’ formation feels like a cautionary fairy tale, with half brothers Tommy and Bob Stinson coming out of abusive childhoods to find some comfort in music, and singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg basically willing himself into their unit. Every step of the journey is fraught with nihilism and self-sabotage: Showcases for record executives inevitably become raucous, sloppy, drunken debacles, and when the band isn’t physically beating each other up on stage, they’re trashing their own stuff. All of that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without the music that the band created in the ’80s, and the story of every classic record is delivered with fresh detail—all the living players were fully cooperative, offering honest takes on what was clearly the most exciting, turbulent time of their lives. [Josh Modell]

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

Unsettling and antagonizing, Harmony is a slow-burn mystery of a desperate family who joins forces with a charismatic man on a cultish endeavor. Carolyn Parkhurst’s prose is never less than sumptuous; she allows her page-turner room to inhale and exhale, slowly unravelling the plot through multiple perspectives that build to a compelling mystery. Early chapters hint at a coming doom as the family becomes more and more involved in what seems to be a cult operating under the guise of a camp for families with children on the autism spectrum. Harmony keeps its answers close to its chest, and it’s not until the final pages that this central riddle is revealed. Recommended for anyone looking to indulge in a smarter-than-average mystery that doesn’t sacrifice lush prose for feverish page-riffling. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Beautifully written and thematically ambitious novels are never not in demand, but it feels particularly serendipitous for Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming to arrive now, when the real world seems to have created three new chapters for her never-ending story in the past year. The book begins with half sisters in 18th-century Ghana, a pair divided when one is brought to America as a slave. Each chapter depicts the subsequent generations of each woman, allowing Gyasi to trace the impact and path of racism through the decades, with all the steps forward and back that implies. This would be interesting simply as a structural conceit, or as a kind of riff on Roots (or long-view Moonlight in prose), but Gyasi’s greatest accomplishment is to make this idea heartfelt and cohesive. Her characters, even the ones who only get a few pages to make an impact, feel fully lived in and alive, distinct but connected to their forbearers, suggesting a soul’s evolution throughout time. Remarkably, this is Gyasi’s debut. We haven’t heard the last of her. [Ryan Vlastelica]

Where Am I Now?: True Stories Of Girlhood And Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson

Mara Wilson crafted a slyly funny and overtly heartwarming memoir about her time in Hollywood and that nebulous region of post-fame. Or, as it was probably known to most other 8-year-olds: childhood and puberty. Where Am I Now? is refreshingly bereft of salacious tales, focusing instead on the loss of her mother and reconciliation with the iconic character that defined her early career: Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Wilson manages to be both an unassuming and prepossessing storyteller, a role she’s always been comfortable in. Her reveries are loosely structured, giving the sense that they’re being shared for the first time, despite almost certainly being in their hundredth retelling. There are still plenty of revelations, including Wilson’s struggles with OCD. But even with all the disappointments and tragedies—Wilson was close to the late Robin Williams, who’d played her father in Mrs. Doubtfire—her hope is palpable. Where Am I Now? is the rare look back that’s as cathartic for the reader as the author. [Danette Chavez]

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

The eternal question of what makes a life well lived gets a metaphysical workout in Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, a book that manages to be both conceptually heady and unabashedly romantic without becoming mired in either arena. Crouch is an artful populist, with a knack for crafting tightly constructed narratives; thank God, because this story would have quickly become unwieldy without that finesse. An amiable family man is kidnapped and taken to an abandoned factory, where a drug is administered. When he comes to, things are not as they should be, including himself. To say any more would be a disservice to curious readers; even with the reveal of what happened coming fairly early on (much sooner than it does for the protagonist), the mysteries still continue to unfold, each successive chapter adding layers of twists and complications to the fundamental sci-fi conceit. In my review I called it an “It’s A Wonderful Life for the 21st century,” and at the end of an exhausting year, Dark Matter’s warm embrace of sentiment without sentimentality feels more necessary than ever. [Alex McCown-Levy]

Future Sex by Emily Witt

Emily Witt’s elegantly written and well-researched debut essay collection explores an array of sexual subcultures—from Silicon Valley polyamory and fetish porn to internet dating and the webcam economy—acting as a kind of survey of contemporary sex and relationships. In Future Sex, Witt positions herself as the curious outsider looking in. She begins her essays with her first-hand experience of a subculture or phenomenon—she attends a shoot for Kink.com, takes part in orgasmic meditation, and steps inside the orgy dome at Burning Man, for example—then provides its historical context, giving a full, detailed view of each subject. Even while she immerses herself in such titillating material, Witt plays it close to the chest, maintaining her critical tone and dry humor throughout. She reveals less about herself than many of her en vogue contemporaries, allowing her to more deeply investigate her central question: What does free love mean today? And more specifically, what does sexual freedom mean for women? Although Witt never arrives at a single conclusion, Future Sex will surely serve as a marker for what sex and dating was like in this decade. [Laura Adamczyk]

Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace and Dan Ozzi

The very title of Laura Jane Grace’s memoir—which is co-written by Noisey editor and occasional A.V. Club contributor, Dan Ozzi—shows that she’s not interested in gussying up her experiences. Tranny is unique in that Grace is found writing against herself, setting up a scene only to use her own diary entries from that time period to flesh them out. The result is a book that touches on every piece of her life without regard for how Grace will be painted. When it comes to honesty she’s a brutalist, laying out punk scene drama, falling-outs within her band, her own failures in personal relationships, and the lifelong feelings of gender dysphoria that colored each of these experiences. As much as Tranny works for fans of Against Me!, there’s an element that feels it was necessary for Grace as well. By the book’s end, things are far from perfect, but she’s found a peace that was previously missing. It’s thrilling to watch her find it. [David Anthony]

Her Again by Michael Schulman

The title of Her Again is a cheeky reference to a cheeky moment in Meryl Streep’s 2012 Best Actress acceptance speech. It was a humblebrag on Streep’s part: People must be so annoyed to see her win yet another Oscar, she surmised, and then waved that off with a casual, “whatever.” Michael Schulman’s tasty text digs into the question of what it’s like to be Streep—someone whose life has been defined by being the best of her generation. The book is not a complete biography, only spanning her high school years through her first Academy Award win for Kramer Vs. Kramer. Even so, it paints a complete picture of the traits that define her. In his research, Schulman, yes, scooped up some juicy anecdotes. The one that got a lot of attention around the time of release had to do with Dustin Hoffman’s verbally abusive behavior on the set of that aforementioned film. But that’s not what makes Her Again so good. Rather, a fascinating look at a woman who never relied on the praise she received, and instead fought for her convictions, feminist and otherwise. Reading it, it’s impossible not to admire Streep and get a little jealous of the fact that, yeah, she’s always been that way. Her again? Yes, but you have to admit, you love it. [Esther Zuckerman]

Invisible Planets (anthology)

By its very nature, a new anthology of Chinese speculative fiction—the first such book to be published in English since the late 1980s—is a minor literary event. Translated and edited by the American sci-fi writer Ken Liu (who also translated Liu Cixin’s Hugo-winning The Three-Body Problem), Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction In Translation offers a handy primer on the burgeoning sci-fi scene of the world’s most populous nation. The best stories in the collection create memorable contemporary metaphors, like Chen Qiufan’s “The Year Of The Rat,” in which unemployed college grads are sent into the countryside to fight super-intelligent rodents, and Xia Jia’s Ray Bradbury-esque “Tongtong’s Summer,” in which a little girl watches her grandfather adjust to life with a remotely operated caregiving robot. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Based On A True Story: A Memoir by Norm Macdonald

The current publishing market is overflowing with memoirs from comedians, who scrape up their leftover stand-up bits and the few remaining personal anecdotes they didn’t already share on Instagram, combine them with pithy observations about overcoming adversity, then package them as brand extensions perfectly timed between movie releases. Thank Christ Norm Macdonald isn’t one of them. His Based On A True Story: A Memoir is a welcome lie right from its title: It’s a comic novel that’s only masquerading as a celebrity tell-all, one that satirizes all the expected beats—the hardscrabble upbringing; the feints at backstage gossip; the rise, fall, and final redemptive plateau—with the sort of smirking, self-reflexive put-on that’s long colored Macdonald’s comedy. It’s also a deftly written literary experiment that borrows knowingly from Tolstoy and Nabokov, balancing its moments of hilariously blunt stupidity and blowjob jokes with passages of startling lyrical beauty that wend their way toward moments of disarming existential truth. You won’t learn anything new about Saturday Night Live or find out what Chris Farley was really like, but you’ll walk away from Based On A True Story with a far deeper understanding of who Macdonald is—and even who you are, you cannibalistic consumer of celebrity—than you would have with yet another confessional. It’s also really fucking funny. [Sean O’Neal]

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

The first scientist to have reported seeing microbes was delighted to find small creatures living in rainwater and his own mouth. But in the centuries that followed, most science involving microorganisms has been focused on eradicating them to prevent disease. That’s a mistake according to science journalist Ed Yong, whose book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us And A Grander View Of Life explores the many ways that creatures invisible to the naked eye interact with the rest of life on Earth. Yong’s book is filled with fascinating anecdotes that make it easy to understand the effectively invisible world that exists on, in, and all around us including tales of seemingly spontaneously generating oysters, glowing squid without shadows, and researchers trying to get access to the anuses and vaginas of every animal in a zoo. Far more than just the culprits behind disease, microbes have played a major role in animal evolution. Viewing them as partners rather than parasites can give us a better idea of where we come from and how we can build a healthier future. [Samantha Nelson]

Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind by Tom Cox

Like David Sedaris, Tom Cox’s memoirs are closer to a series of essays that connect into a loose narrative, and Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind mostly centers around the British author moving across the country. He’s accompanied by his four cats, one of whom adorns the cover and is the ostensible draw. But the heart of this humorous book is in Cox’s relationship to the rural British countryside, which sounds like it should be boring but is a subject Cox somehow makes captivating and alluring. He is a charming guide through the countryside, and like Sedaris, twists the mundane into the very funny. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

Great storytellers don’t always make great writers. More than a few musicians who can evoke entire worlds in song have those same poetic verses flail about in prose form, bereft of their musical accompaniment. And Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography doesn’t exactly shy away from his expansive, aiming-for-the-cheap-seats style of performance: More than a few paragraphs contain such a surfeit of exclamation points, all-caps shouting, and italicized intensity, they could supply the entirety of a Reddit politics thread with the needed emphasis. But that’s part of the magic. Springsteen channels his showman’s flair into book form, turning the story of his life into a rollicking adventure of a read. His style changes based on the needs of whatever anecdote he’s currently recounting, the literary equivalent of his bombastic live shows where you dim the lights for the ballads and set off the flashes for the showstopper moments. He orchestrates the rising and falling action of his life with a master conductor’s skill, penning the rare memoir that delivers elegant poetry and rafter-shaking exhortations in equal measure. That’s probably why he’s the Boss. [Alex McCown-Levy]

The Babysitter At Rest by Jen George

Jen George’s debut from venerable indie press Dorothy is a singular, deadpan, and dark short-story collection that exaggerates women’s mistreatment to create a nightmarish, dystopic world that nonetheless reflects pieces of our own. In The Babysitter At Rest, George magnifies and pushes every feminine expectation, insecurity, and reduction to the nth degree, continually threatening to run off the rails but never quite doing so. For every older man who reduces a female protagonist to a sexual plaything, for every dollar that one of the characters anxiously spends to improve herself, there is a moment of understated poignancy that reveals the profound sadness of these often impassive and passive young women. George’s prose is abstract, minimal, and frequently surprising, her language just odd and funny enough to unsettle readers as much as her plots do. [Laura Adamczyk]

Sex With Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan

A memoir that focuses on author Jillian Keenan’s spanking fetish, Sex With Shakespeare is both entertaining and educational. Fetishes are so often made into jokes or dismissed altogether, and Keenan makes a powerfully persuasive case for viewing fetishes as a core part of a person’s identity. She cleverly frames this coming-of-age story through the works of Shakespeare, exploring and analyzing her life through his depictions of love, relationships, and sexuality. The characters of Othello, Hamlet, and As You Like It are especially illuminating, with Keenan periodically traversing to the surreal as she converses with characters from these plays, seeking to understand their motivations and, in turn, gain their counsel on hers. It’s a playful book that belies its core message of acceptance. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

In The Café Of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano
Young Once by Patrick Modiano

Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize In Literature, but did he need it? Because aside from the prize money, the one truly important thing the Swedish Academy can give writers is attention. When the great French writer Patrick Modiano received the Nobel in 2014, his prose was little known in the English-speaking world. Half a dozen new Modiano translations have been published just this year in the United States, including two superb shorter novels put out by New York Review Books: Young Once, translated by Damion Searls, and In The Café Of Lost Youth, translated by Chris Clarke. Though written decades apart, both are set in the late 1950s, in the twilight world that has become the major obsession and metaphor of Modiano’s prose. With a careful minimum of adjectives and a selection of bare details, he creates the ambiance of a lost world and captures the experience of being haunted by memory. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Page for page, is there any essayist today who is better at spitballing than Chuck Klosterman? After the relative disappointment of I Wear The Black Hat, a look at villainy that was limited by the former New York Times Ethicist’s butting up against moral absolutes, But What If We’re Wrong? finds him back on solid ground, which here means ground that is very, very shaky. The book, premised on how humanity has been very wrong on very big things very often throughout our history, attempts to speculate on what current bedrock principles could be upended through time, changing mores, and forgetfulness. His inquiry ranges from the scientific—will our understanding of gravity change centuries from now?—to the cultural—what TV and music will last the test of time, and what will that mean about how we remember those art forms?—to the political. That last topic takes on added urgency in the wake of Trump’s victory, an event many thought impossible. As always, Klosterman is a joy to hang out with: He relishes the contradictions he examines while making complex ideas comprehensible. In this new world, though, his voids of certainty aren’t just exhilarating, but ominous. [Ryan Vlastelica]

Welcome To The Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman

If there’s one message Blair Braverman expertly conveys in her sublime memoir, it’s that being a woman is always a dangerous struggle. A story of her lifelong fascination with the Arctic north, Braverman deftly mixes the near-constant misogyny she experiences with heart-pounding episodes of sled dog racing, frigid survival, and keen observations of her landscape. She so adheres to the writers’ adage to “show, don’t tell” that this memoir should be taught in introductory writing courses. The result of such straightforward storytelling is a rare memoir that doesn’t get bogged down in nitty-gritty regrets or disappointments. Welcome To The Goddamn Ice Cube stands out for Braverman’s refusal to come to neat conclusions and tie her story up in a neat bow. It’s a harrowing, engrossing memoir. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

A Torch Against The Night by Sabaa Tahir

It’s a pleasure to see how Sabaa Tahir has grown up along with her characters in A Torch Against The Night, the second chapter in the fantasy series she launched with An Ember In The Ashes. Experience has allowed her to smooth away some of the clichés and rough edges from her debut, revealing a fascinating world based on a mix of Roman history and Arabian myth that’s especially satisfying for genre fans looking for more cultural diversity and well-written women. It’s worth reading the first book to get to know Tahir’s characters, who shine even brighter here. Tahir’s complex heroes are forced to compromise their values and face devastating loss, while her hauntingly creepy and cruel villains engage in torture and genocide but then articulately justify their actions. Two more books are planned for the series, so Tahir and her cast will have even more time to show what they’re made of. [Samantha Nelson]