We asked the authors of our top books of 2016 to share their favorite titles published this year.
In Evicted (Crown), Desmond explores the impact of eviction on eight poor families in Milwaukee, Wis. His pick is another deep study of how poverty reverberates throughout the country.
Desmond’s Pick: From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton (Harvard Univ.)
From 1970 to 2003, the number of prisons in America did not just double or triple, it grew sevenfold. Today, roughly seven million people—what amounts to the entire population of Switzerland—are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. The United States now locks up more of its citizens than any other nation on earth, and racial and economic disparities within the prison population are deeply troubling. The incarceration rate of young black men who do not finish high school is nearly 50 times the national average. How did we get here?
Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime brilliantly addresses the question of mass incarceration in vivid detail and with moral conviction. A young historian, Hinton combines a scholar’s rigor with a seriousness of purpose—I’d call it heart—motivated by her loved ones having done hard time. The result is a critical look into the political machinations that gave rise to America’s prison boom. Hinton locates its source in an unlikely place: the Johnson administration, which declared war on both poverty and crime by pushing legislation that promoted economic mobility and simultaneously militarized police forces. The effects of these transformations reverberate throughout America today, particularly in the lives of poor African-American and Latino families. Hinton’s book is the definitive history of America’s tragic and ultimately failed experiment with mass incarceration.
Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), traces the intense and complex relationship between an American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a young male prostitute. Greenwell’s selection is a genre-bending essay collection.
Greenwell’s Pick: Proxies: Essays Near Knowing by Brian Blanchfield (Nightboat)
Blanchfield is a poet, and the essays in Proxies move the way poems do, through association, juxtaposition, wild leaping. They’re exhilarating, the most exciting prose I’ve read in a year filled with excellent books. The book’s subtitle—Essays Near Knowing—specifies its genre, and each essay follows a particular process. The title declares a starting point or occasion (“On Owls,” “On House Sitting,” “On Man Roulette”), and from there the text ranges as wide as a mind can go, drawing on a lifetime of reading and thinking and experiencing the world. But Blanchfield restricts himself to his own resources, drawing from his knowledge, or what he takes for knowledge, without recourse to reference books or Google. Each essay is prefaced by a line that becomes something like a chant or a charm: “Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.” (A fascinating final section, “Correction,” sets straight the essays’ many errors.) This is thinking without fact checking, thinking that burrows inward without grasping for the usual exterior supports, which means that the essays become a complex and deeply moving inventory of the self, unlike anything else I’ve read.
I read this book with amazement, with writerly envy, with real and deepening wonder. And also with gratitude, especially in an election year in which a very loud and nearly inescapable public discourse has seemed determined to make genuine thinking—thinking that entertains ambiguity, ambivalence, doubt, those human virtues—impossible. Like his great models, Montaigne and Barthes, Blanchfield tries to clear a space for thinking that’s free of the destructive aggression of intellectual or pseudo-intellectual or entirely unintellectual sparring that has made such a despairful mockery of democratic process this year. And so this is a book we very urgently need. Avoiding the usual measures of mastery, disavowing the need to be right, these essays model a better way of thinking—which is to say, of being human.
A Kingdom of Their Own (Knopf) is Partlow’s investigation of the U.S.’s involvement with Afghanistan, specifically with President Hamid Karzai and his family. For his pick, Partlow chooses a debut story collection about soldiers and veterans.
Partlow’s Pick: These Heroic, Happy Dead by Luke Mogelson (Crown/Duggan)
Mogelson’s story collection, These Heroic, Happy Dead, is the best and most haunting book about the Afghan war that I’ve read. A former Army medic who later worked as a magazine writer in Afghanistan (we met as journalists there), Mogelson leaves the violence mostly offstage. Instead his characters—soldiers and veterans and their families—are in orbit around it, enthralled and depleted. This book makes you feel the great isolating power of the war, how its charms and horrors don’t prepare you for anything that comes next. The stories overlap, with background characters in one moving to the forefront in another, their civilian lives illuminated by moments from their deployments abroad.
Back home, the characters tend to find themselves in some way immobilized—in jail, adrift at sea; their wives and children have long since moved on. In one story, a war zone contractor sees the conflict as a soulless racket but has stopped going home between jobs. In another, an Afghan-American translator is caught in the no-mans land between his two countries. And yet, this book hums with momentum and tension, as we watch lives bending toward their breaking points. In one story, “Kids,” about a platoon and their confused, booby-trapped surroundings, the narrator describes Afghanistan as a “lackluster” war, a place with “no hills to charge, peninsulas to hold, bridges to seize.” The narrator says, “Ours was a war that offered few opportunities, aside from getting killed or wounded, to distinguish yourself.”
Heather Ann Thompson
Thompson’s Blood in the Water (Pantheon) is the definitive account of Attica and its aftermath, published 45 years after the prison uprising. Thompson’s pick is also about incarceration, with a focus on the effects of solitary confinement.
Thompson’s Pick: Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd (New Press)
There are so many books published in 2016 that take readers away to magical places or let them experience love or joy in ways they had not before. Those are the books we want to read, because they are a treat, a pleasure. Then there are the books that we really don’t want to read but somehow know that we must. Hell Is a Very Small Place is one of those books.
Hell Is a Very Small Place takes readers into the world of solitary confinement in America’s prisons, and thus it is a harrowing chronicle of pain and torture. In these pages, readers hear firsthand of the soul-crushing loneliness that comes when one is kept away from all other human beings for months and years on end. Readers also witness the terrifying hallucinations that such isolation generates, and they are asked to really consider the panic that sets in when men and women can see that their sense of time and space and reality are eroding and, therefore, that their very sanity is ebbing away.
Hell Is a Very Small Place is not a book anyone will want to read. It is a book that people of conscience must read and share. The stories in it will not simply haunt us. They will inspire us to act.
In The Underground Railroad (Doubleday), Whitehead follows a young slave’s flight north on a reimagined, literal Underground Railroad. Whitehead picks Kevin Young’s selected poems.
Whitehead’s Pick: Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems 1995–2015 by Kevin Young (Knopf)
If you’ve never been introduced to Young’s spectacular imagination, this handy volume will get you up to speed—and send you on the hunt for more. Spanning Young’s career from his masterful debut, Most Way Home (1995), through 2014’s Book of Hours, with some scattered uncollected brilliance in between, Blue Laws provides abundant proof of his playful intellect and relentless humanism. Whether taking us inside Basquiat’s loft, to the deck of the Amistad, or into the half-lit rooms of mourning, Young is an uncanny scientist of the human animal in all its striving and yearning. A retrospective that points to all the great work yet to come.
The 19th-century English writer Thomas De Quincey gets a brilliant biography in Wilson’s Guilty Thing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Wilson’s pick highlights a group of De Quincey’s kindred spirits.
Wilson’s Pick: The Glamour of Strangeness by Jamie James (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Glamour of Strangeness, the most provocative title of any book this year, is, appropriately, wonderfully glamorous and alluringly strange. The phrase comes from T.E. Lawrence’s warning to readers of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “Pray God that men reading the story will not, for love of the glamour of strangeness, go out to prostitute themselves and their talents in serving another race.” All the men, and women, described by James fell for the glamour of strangeness, and, having read the stories collected here, I’m now entirely under James’s spell.
His subject is artistic extremophiles, which he calls “exotes,” a race of voluntary exiles sired by Gauguin and Rimbaud who go to “distant lands in search of a new home with no intent to repatriate.” Gauguin famously found paradise in Tahiti, but I knew nothing of Walter Spies, the “insanely gorgeous” German artist, former lover of F.W. Murnau, who exchanged his “arid” and bourgeois country for Bali. Spies’s hunger for otherness is vividly caught by James, who also introduced me to Raden Saleh, an Indonesian artist who sailed the other way, from Java to Europe; Isabelle Eberhardt, a Russian-Swiss writer who wandered the desert dressed as a man; Victor Segalen, a French naval doctor and poet who found himself in Peking; and Maya Deren, the avant-garde filmmaker who exchanged the magic of Hollywood for the voodoo of Haiti. This group form what James describes as “their own school of art: the school of no nations, or all nations.”
The Glamour of Strangeness makes particularly pertinent reading at a time when the freedom of people and cultures to flow across national boundaries is under threat and countries are walling themselves in.
Julie Buntin is the director of writing programs at Catapult.