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The Best Things We Read In 2016

Illustration for article titled The Best Things We Read In 2016

When we weren’t busy watching sports contests, we did some reading. Here are the best things we read this year.

Lost In Trumplandia, by Patricia Lockwood

Everyone tried their hand at the My Night At A Donald Trump Rally piece this year, but nobody pulled it off as well as Patricia Lockwood did in The New Republic. Not only is this story full of sentences I would murder someone to have written—“She wore an outfit best described as Sensual Band-Aid and took small, ruthlessly edited steps.”—it accomplished the one thing no other on-the-ground report from Trumpland really did: it showed us precisely how Trump was going to win:

It’s us, was the undercurrent. It’s just us in here. A handshake moved through the air as the speech walloped on, and then something more than a handshake. The more he spoke, the more Trump sounded like a rich man at dinner with a young woman whose passport is her face and her freshness, explaining to her the terms of the arrangement: that he would wear her on his arm, turning her toward the lights, that she would defer to him in public, that he would give her just enough of what he has to sustain her. I wrote in my notebook, “Trump is offering to be our sugar daddy? He wants to make America his trophy wife?” What he was really promising was freedom to move in the world the way he does, under his protection, according to his laws. Nobody owns me, he keeps telling us, not the lobbyists, not the Republican high-ups, not the Washington insiders. I’m not in anybody’s pocket; hop in mine. His wives, you might have noticed, grow lovelier and lovelier. It is a practiced seduction; it has worked before. We ignore it at our peril.


When I read that passage the first time, I smirked and felt a twinge of pity for the poor schmucks that had gathered with Lockwood in New Hampshire, the sad, impotent white people who were allowing themselves to be taken in by a con man and would soon be left holding the bag. Now I just read it and wince, feeling like the biggest mark in the universe. - Tom Ley

I’m A Stupid Bitch, by Joanna Rothkopf

This is honestly so brave and important. - Tom Ley

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James

If you needed to recommend this book to your stoned-out nephew, you’d tell him it’s a book about Bob Marley, the real Bob Marley. “The Singer,” as Marlon James refers to him, is omnipresent in the novel, and his gravity warps the plot, from 1976 to 1991, from Jamaican ghettos to Notorious B.I.G-era Brooklyn. A Brief History of Seven Killings is the story of Jamaica, rather, the story of a Jamaica, at a time when the island was still figuring out what sort of nation it could be. It’s an indulgent expanse of a novel that attempts to tell the story of life in the most oppressive parts of Jamaica and the perils of trying to make it out. The book came out in 2014, but I just got around to reading it, so here we are. - Patrick Redford

The Long Ships, by Frans G. Bengtsson

Books are for escapism. I stare at screens all day, so when I’m home, it’s generally no TV, no phone, no computer, no reminders that the world is as miserable as it is. Give me a book, and give me fiction, and ideally, something old, free of the anxieties that animate the best of modern fiction. (I just read Underground Airlines, a supremely creative alternate history that’s not nearly outlandish enough to be “enjoyable.”)


The book I enjoyed reading most this year was The Long Ships, the straightforward, episodic (and occasionally historical) adventures of a fictional Viking at the tail end of the Viking Age and amid the spread of monotheism to Europe’s fringes. Written in the early 1940s (when it must have served as much-needed escapism to contemporary readers), it’s rousing and dramatic but never harrowing, at turns sad and comical but never cynical. There is a minimum of description and a dearth of concern for characters’ inner thoughts; the action alone drives the plot. It’s the perfect story to lose yourself in for a few hours at a time, and nothing these days could possibly be more welcome. - Barry Petchesky

Interview With A Woman Who Recently Had an Abortion at 32 Weeks, by Jia Tolentino


In terms of sheer impact on my personality, it’s no contest. This is the sort of piece that has become woven into my worldview. Reading it measurably shifted my understanding of late term abortions from the occasionally compromised extreme end of a larger issue to an independently important, medically necessary crusade to protect women at their most vulnerable from active abuse masquerading as ideology that is specifically less applicable in cases where such a drastic action is considered. It’s the sort of piece I sent to people, and followed up to make sure they finished it because I knew it would it be on my mind the next time I saw them.

I read the piece at work and it made me cry openly in the office. And yet I go back to it again and again not just out of masochism but because it contains proof of people caring. Just thinking about Dr. Hern’s (and his staff’s) bravery brings me some small measure of hope (also fear, and righteous anger, and awe). The comment section continues to grow with people asking for ways to help and offering their own experiences or condolences. That it was written—at all, with such honesty and dignity—makes this media thing seem a little more worthwhile. Intensely personal stories illustrative of an important issue are still powerful when done well. At least, it really stuck with me. - Hannah Keyser


A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life, one of 2015 top books of the year, follows Jude St. Francis and his three friends from college through late middle age, with major themes of friendship, gay male identity, and trauma.


In general, people want trauma to be resolved, then quietly tucked away. A Little Life refuses to do just that, and instead makes you watch the effects of trauma play out over the course of 40 years and over 700 pages.

I would not be surprised if many of A Little Life’s readers found its darkness to be gratuitous—I know many of my friends did. But that’s exactly what A Little Life gets right about trauma: the way it tends to plant itself firmly, never seeming to come fully dislodged regardless of respite from abuse. A Little Life is anchored by relationships—romantic and platonic—and as part of such, demonstrates how victims of abuse can find themselves re-victimized, and, alternatively, how emotional security and trust can prove elusive even in the most trustworthy of relationships.


Aside from its inherent sadness, I found A Little Life to be a stunning portrait of what love can look like outside of conventions. I felt that I finished the book feeling like I had genuinely had my horizons expanded, at least in terms of how healthy, fulfilling interpersonal relationships can look. And ultimately, I felt it motivated me to do better in the relationships I already have. That’s no little thing at all. - Lindsey Adler

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, by Anne Fessler


Ann Fessler put together a heart-wrenching chronicle of the experiences of women who, as girls, got pregnant and were sent to homes for pregnant girls, where they’d then ride out the last months of their pregnancies to save their families from shame. Upon giving birth, most of these girls and young women were not given the choice to keep their child; in some cases, the mother never even got to meet the child she’d just given birth to. The trauma these women experienced sublimated over the course of their lives, destroying marriages and relationships with subsequent children. This is a hard-to-stomach look at how women’s physical and mental health are cast aside due to shame, stigma, and the belief that women should be punished for unplanned pregnancies. - Lindsey Adler

The End of Alchemy, by Mervyn King and Burmese Days, by George Orwell

The End of Alchemy is about how we are all pitiful little pieces of dirt controlled by the decisions of central banks. And Burmese Days is about how white people are bad. Still true. - Hamilton Nolan


The GQ Billy Bob Thornton Profile by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Obviously I’m biased, but I don’t give a shit. GQ sent Taffy Brodesser-Akner out on the road with Billy Bob and he turned out to be exactly as fucking insane as you knew he would be. “Sure, I’ll sign your Sling Blade DVD… And you can go home and fuck missionary like a metronome and never have an original creative idea in your life.” I would have read 400 pages of that. - Drew Magary


Theranos Whistleblower Shook the Company—and His Family, by John Carreyrou

Carreyrou’s reporting on blood-testing startup Theranos was a clinic in how to reveal the chicanery behind a mysterious subject earning money and praise without actually doing anything, and the best entry in his series was on whistleblower Tyler Shultz. The details are fantastic, like the part when George Shultz, Tyler’s grandfather and a director at Theranos, promises not to sue his grandson for two years by penciling in a line at the bottom of a confidentiality agreement. The article shows the kind of stress and financial burden that comes with speaking up when you see something wrong. It should be considered an honor to report on a sham so thoroughly that its fraudulent turtleneck bullshit founder calls for an all-hands which deteriorates into the employees chanting “Fuck you,” along with your name. - Samer Kalaf


The 24-Year-Old Coca-Cola Virgin, by Jamie Lauren Keiles

The premise—an adult who’s never had Coca-Cola tries to create the perfect first experience—could have turned into the author going up their own ass if executed poorly, but Keiles struck the right tone, laid out her research, and poked fun at herself along the way. I love the image of a person packing a single Coke bottle into an ice cooler, sweating just the right amount, and biking to the perfect location in order to intentionally set up an experience many have had without thinking. Every person has that one thing they’ve never done, place they’ve never visited, or movie they’ve never seen, and it takes some precision to make it a neat little fact about yourself instead of a smug attribute. As Keiles writes, the remarkable isn’t necessarily the laudable. - Samer Kalaf


The Miami Herald’s Fidel Castro obituary, by Glenn Garvin

There are certain people you get to call by their first name, an assistant city editor at the Miami Herald once told me, like your hair dresser, your mechanic, and your dictator. If you were from South Florida, your dictator was Fidel, no last name needed. It didn’t matter if you weren’t Cuban or not from Miami proper. Fidel, more so than any other human being alive in the 20th century, shaped the history, the culture, the language of South Florida. It was his rise to power and the waves of exiles who in turn arrived in Miami that transformed a small city for retired grandmas, Southern accents, and one of the mob’s “open cities” into an international destination that feels as much a part of Latin America as the United States. And a place where even joking about Fidel remains a fireable offense (as Ozzie Guillen can tell you).


And yet plenty of people outside of South Florida probably didn’t realize he was still alive.

Summing up a life remains one of the most basic things reporters do, regardless the medium, and nothing this year did that as well or as powerfully or under as much pressure as Glenn Garvin in the Miami Herald:

Fidel Castro, who towered over his Caribbean island for nearly five decades, a shaggy-bearded figure in combat fatigues whose long shadow spread across Latin America and the world, is dead at age 90. His brother Raul announced the death late Friday night.

Millions cheered Fidel Castro on the day he entered Havana. Millions more fled the communist dictator’s repressive police state, leaving behind their possessions, their families, the island they loved and often their very lives. It’s part of the paradox of Castro that many people belonged to both groups.

Few national leaders have inspired such intense loyalty — or such a wrenching feeling of betrayal. Few fired the hearts of the world’s restless youth as Castro did when he was young, and few seemed so irrelevant as Castro when he was old — the last Communist, railing on the empty, decrepit street corner that Cuba became under his rule.

He held a unique place among the world’s leaders of the past century. Others had greater impact or won more respect. But none combined his dynamic personality, his decades in power, his profound effect on his own country and his provocative role in international affairs.


There are those who will quibble because Fidel cut such a wide swath across history, and insist the one detail they thought was most important is the one that Garvin left out. There are those that will say the Herald’s obit was too anti-Castro because the Cubans have taken over the newsroom (not true). There are those that will say it was too kind to Castro because everyone knows there are no Cubans in the newsroom (not true). But I dare you to start reading this obit it and not find yourself locked in place, unable to move until you read all the way to the end. - Diana Moskovitz

Holding the T, by Tad Friend

You don’t need to know anything about squash to read Tad Friend’s funny, affecting essay about the obscure racquet game played with a hard ball in a little box; in many ways it’s probably better that you don’t. You just need to know what it’s like to grow older, to get worse, to sense futility, to miss your past selves. Nearly every truly catastrophic piece of sportswriting tries to use Light Sports Thing as a lens to peer into all the Deep Stuff About Being A Human. But very refreshingly, and very unlike all the shittier writers straining to do the same, Friend accomplishes all this without you even noticing. He doesn’t pull a muscle overreaching for florid metaphors or majestic plurals or overwrought allusions. He just tells you about his relationship with the sport over the course of his life, using lots of humor and heaps of granular detail, and along the way, you’ll get a story about aging, self-improvement, and slow decay. You’ll also, conveniently, get a complete primer on a game very few people understand, written by a self-deprecating WASP wholly aware of the sport’s precious rep. I’ve never ended a calendar year with total clarity about the best thing I read in that span—this year was a welcome exception. - Giri Nathan


“Dear Mailer,” by Leonard Cohen

Cohen’s reputation—for the first third of his musical career, at least—may have been that of the ultimate sad-sack, a singer of depressive songs about hatred, misery, and sex with sad women, but he was also really fuckin’ funny, which the world at large didn’t really discover until around the time he picked up his first cheap Casio keyboard. But his humor is on full display in his 1972 poetry collection The Energy of Slaves, which is where you’ll find this concise and brutal comment on swinging-dick mid-century literary celebrity.


Cohen apparently eventually read this poem to Mailer, and immediately regretted it. (No one was punched.) - Alex Pareene


The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

A sort comedic Agatha Christie everybody-trapped-in-the-same-house-together murder mystery, blended with science fiction and some particular Russian-isms. It’s a complex beach read, a breezy read full of great characters and astute observations about humanity. It’s also just downright strange. - Kevin Draper


Unearthing The Secrets Of New York’s Mass Graves, by Nina Bernstein

Important and impactful reporting is also often, unfortunately, quite boring. But Nina Bernstein’s deep investigation of the mass pauper’s graves on New York’s Hart Island is an engrossing read, weaving between the highly personal circumstances and the faceless policies that result in people being buried by the state in unmarked graves. - Kevin Draper

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