This year, poetry, unfortunately, was shoved to the side. My teaching responsibilites and my writing as a MFA student have both pushed me towards prose, so that is what I read. Here is my list of the top reads for 2016. If you have read other lists, then some of these picks may look familiar. However, you may also notice that some popular books, such as Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi have not been included (even though I read, and loved both).
The Girls by Emma Cline
I have to admit that I don’t read a lot of fiction (shamefully), but for me, The Girls is one of the best books I have read this year (fiction or nonfiction). A coming-of-age novel set in the late 1960’s, Emma Cline’s work is, in many ways, a retelling of the Charles Manson cult murders. Unsettling and haunting.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
If I really had to name the best book I have read all year, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, would be the one. Desmond, in this brilliant work of journalism, takes the reader to the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to record the stories of eight different families struggling to live in poverty. His findings explore what it is like to live off $20 a month after the rent for a run-down apartment has been paid or the troublesome path renters often take to find new homes after they are evicted from their current residences. One reader noted that this book is a must read for anyone who wants to run for public office. I disagree. Evicted in a must read for any American.
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
Ghostland is not a book about ghosthunters. It is also not a mere guide to haunted places in the United States. Instead, in this intriguing read, Colin Dickey explores the ghostly locations in our nation to make more sense of our past. Included in his travels are explorations of such places as the Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana, and the Sarah Winchester home in San Jose, California. The next time you want to know about truly scary stories about America, turn off the television and pick up this book!
Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood
How does one fake his or her own death? In this work of investigative journalism, Elizabeth Greenwood explores this very question. Besides relaying stories of those who have tried to fake their own deaths (and have failed), Greenwood also interviews those who actually make it a business to help anyone who wants to disappear and even talks to people who sincerely believe that Michael Jackson is not really dead. A fascinating read.
The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan
Timothy Egan’s book, The Worst Hard Time, is one of my favorite American history books, so I never pass up the chance to read any of his work. His newest book takes the reader through the life of Thomas Francis Meagher, an important figure in Irish history, and who later became an intriguing character in American history as well. Intriguing, well-researched and well-written, The Immortal Irishman will introduce most readers to a part of history that doesn’t seemed to be explored.
Alligator Candy by David Kushner
In this memoir (which is very much also a work of journalism), David Kushner reaches back into the past to recover the events that occurred before the murder of his brother, and then explores what life is like afterwards. What the reader gets is a book that yes, could be read as simply a work of true crime, but is more a memoir of how we face loss and grief, especially when the very worst happens.
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson
In her newest book, Maggie Nelson intertwines her own autobiography with an account of the trial of a man who allegedly killed her aunt – an aunt she never knew - over 35 years ago. More than just a retelling of family history, Nelson also explores violence, grief and what we all believe is a sense of some kind of justice, in America today. A stunning read.
Angels, Burning by Tawni O’Dell
Tawni O’Dell’s newest novel opens with a murder. A teenage girl's body is found in a sinkhole of an abandoned coal town. Chief Dove Carnahan, who hides family secrets of her own, takes on the investigation. What follows is more than just a murder mystery. Yes, much of the plot revolves around Dove seeking to find who committed the murder. Readers of mysteries, however, may be a bit disappointed as the plot and subplots veer off into many different directions so that the book is more than just a whodunit story. Instead, readers will be treated with an exploration of character development and physical setting. Some readers may think that O'Dell approaches her characters with only stereotypes in mind, but I found that she navigates the back roads and people of Pennsylvania with a refreshing eye, pointing out the grit, stubbornness, and yes, sometimes violence that harbors in the northern Appalachia landscape. This may be my favorite O’Dell novel since Coal Run, published in 2004.
Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here by Angela Palm
Angela Palm grew up in a place that wasn’t found on a map, in a landscape that seemed to constantly hover between drought and flooding. Riverine in her lyrical memoir that explores her relationship with a past that intertwines her identity with the land, her family, and even a man who is incarnated for murder – a man she once loved as a child.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
It seems that since the election, J.D. Vance’s memoir about growing up white and poor in Appalachia has gained a lot of attention. Lucky for me, I read Vance’s book before all the fanfare. While some readers have suggested that his book feeds into the stereotypes of White Appalachia, I found his portrayals of both people and rural life brutally honest.
I am a poet and professor from rural Pennsylvania. This page is dedicated to my publishing news and events; for book reviews published online go to the Reviews tab above. For my own personal reviews, explore the Book Picks tab.