Each year around this time we try to send our readers into summer with a thoughtfully curated list of the books that wowed, charmed, and provoked us most over the past 12 months. For this, the fifth-annual edition of Public Picks, we’ve asked our section editors—for Global Black History, Literary Fiction, Comics, Children’s & Young Adult Literature, Art, Sexuality, the B-Sides series, Print/Screen, and Literature in Translation—to wax passionate about their favorites. We hope you’ll find some surprises and future favorites of your own among them.
Keisha N. Blain
Global Black History
Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy by LaShawn D. Harris (University of Illinois Press). In Harris’s beautifully written book, the stories of black women in New York who have been absent in historical narratives vividly come to life. Harris takes us on a fascinating journey of New York City unlike any we have ever seen.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Nation Books). In this tour-de-force, Kendi offers a compelling history of racist ideas in the United States, drawing insights from a wide array of primary sources. His book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding race and racism in this country.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press). It’s entrancingly, maybe deliberately, untimely: a spacious, meandering story of growing up in the absence of emergency, at a time and place where the world might forgive your ignorance and your mistakes. Which is why I may not have been more enchanted by any other novel this year.
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (New Directions). Is it from this year? Clearly no; published originally in 2000, it fell into the out-of-print limbo of cult fanaticism. But also, clearly yes. Reissued in the perilous summer of 2016, its portrayal of a furtive underground world of bookish intelligence seems to have been written for exactly this moment.
In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury). Part of it is mourning: those of us who read everything Diski wrote read this memoir-of-dying as a goodbye to an essential habit. Part of it is the pleasure Diski always gave: seemingly familiar stories told by dispensing with any of the usual reference points, like some sort of trick of the light making you step gingerly into a room you thought you knew.
Public Picks 2016
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics). The most dazzling and original graphic novel debut in ages is also the work of a fully mature comics master. Set in the 1960s, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is narrated by a 10-year-old “monster” who is searching for the bite that will confer immortality on her dying mother. However, our narrator soon gets caught up in a quest of another kind as she seeks to discover who killed her beloved neighbor, a mystery that takes her back to Nazi Germany and a whole new world of monsters. And this is just the first of two volumes.
Becoming Unbecoming by Una (Arsenal Pulp). By weaving her own experiences as a teenage victim of sexual violence in the 1970s with the demonizing of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims by the media and police and the romanticizing of the killer himself, Una crafts a brilliant hybrid of graphic memoir, local history, and political call to arms against global rape culture and its myriad beneficiaries and apologists.
Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq by Sarah Glidden (Drawn & Quarterly). A nuanced journalistic essay (in gorgeous watercolors) on the efforts of independent journalists to tell stories of the veterans and victims of the 21st century’s endless wars—men and women whose stories don’t make for easy soundbites or social media posts.
Children’s & Young Adult Literature
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and Christian Robinson (Roaring Brook). This warm, witty, and inclusive picture book filters first-day-of-school jitters through the perspective of the school itself, giving young readers a new outlook on a familiar place.
Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King (Scholastic). Reminiscent of both E. T. and Louis Sachar’s Holes, this moving middle-grade novel skillfully blends a fantastic element into an otherwise realistic narrative. King’s exploration of the question of what we owe to each other and the earth we inhabit is both poignant and thought-provoking.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (HarperCollins). An instant classic, this brilliantly structured young adult novel vividly evokes the joys and pleasures as well as the tragedies and injustices endured by African Americans living in a poor urban neighborhood.
Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, catalogue for the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2016–2017). The Met celebrated Kerry James Marshall as only the Met can: within a gloriously long tradition. It was into exactly such a tradition and museum that the Chicago painter vowed to introduce black figures. Marshall reinvented how the color black can represent figures, as the exhibition catalogue essays astutely argue. Never before has deep matte black, in which we think we see nothing but absence, had so much political presence. Marshall’s monumental paintings layer multiple references to vernacular African American traditions with subtle allusions to Old Masters. To make that point, the Met had Marshall curate a brilliantly eclectic choice of inspirational works from its collection. This year we learned how the Met brought fiscal ruin on itself by trying too hard to become what it isn’t—yet another New York contemporary art institution. The Marshall exhibition and its catalogue proved the relevance of what the Met is already. Deep roots can nourish true change.
Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection, catalogue for the exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2016–2017). Divided among various museums since the Russian Revolution, 130 modernist paintings that had once belonged to a single collector, Sergei Shchukin, were reunited in the summer and fall of 2016. Names like Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Monet drew more than 1.2 million visitors to the Fondation Vuitton, a building designed by Frank Gehry and located on the edge of Paris. The paintings glowed with the fervor that pushed three generations of artists to defy realist standards and embrace abstraction. Meanwhile, the catalogue revels in Shchukin’s pioneering taste and the home setting in which the paintings once hung. Mirroring the homage to Shchukin’s private collection, the exhibition showcased the philanthropy of Bernard Arnault, creator of the Fondation Vuitton and head of the luxury conglomerate LVMH. The businessman Arnault’s ability to make a deal with the Russian government runs not far beneath the surface of the catalogue’s introductory material and of the televised interviews he has granted. Icons of Modern Art challenged the public French museum system with a spectacle of buying power.
Color in the Age of Impressionism by Laura Anne Kalba (Penn State University Press). Who would have thought there was anything left to say about impressionism? By considering a fundamental material issue, Kalba revitalizes a dormant field. In the middle of the 19th century, new chemical dyes, printing techniques, and artificial lighting transformed color, which had always depended on natural substances. The impressionists, painting modern urban life the way Baudelaire inspired them to, caught on fast. By doing original research into everyday color technologies, Kalba links famous paintings like James McNeill Whistler’s 1875 Falling Rocket with modern pyrotechnics, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre nightlife posters with chromolithography. The book is a model scholarly history of visual culture, abundantly illustrated with pictures you’ve never seen before as well as favorite masterpieces, and easy to read.
The Pussyhat Project. The most potent political symbol of the year is the Pussyhat. How did 12 square inches of pink knitting take on Trump? First, the week after Thanksgiving of 2016, there was an idea by Krista Suh and Jayne Zweiman. Then came instructions by Cat Coyle, sent out on the internet as the Pussyhat Project. Ironically, the instructions made it obvious that any knitter could invent ways to execute the idea individually. When knit-world star Kay Gardiner endorsed the concept, it spread like wildfire through local yarn stores and the global online organization Ravelry. Pussyhats enabled people not only to tint the January 21 Women’s Marches around the world, but also to perform their resistance in the making of the hat, and in the giving of hats to others. Hot pink fought against lukewarm femininity, humor against sexism, craft against the political machine, countless personal variations against the laws of conformity, and generosity against ruthless profit. It’s fun, soft, and warm. Do it yourself. Pass it on.
Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure by Eli Clare (Duke University Press). Clare’s much-anticipated follow-up to his groundbreaking Exile and Pride (1999) reflects on the necessity and violence of cure. Speaking from his experience of disability, queerness, and transgender identity, and from his passionate commitments as an activist, Clare mixes memoir with cultural criticism to offer a portrait of thriving beyond normative definitions of health and well-being.
Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil by Deborah Nelson (University of Chicago Press). Women artists and intellectuals find themselves in a double bind, condemned as sentimental if they show too much emotion and as cold if they show too little. Nelson identifies a counter-tradition in the work of six brilliant and tough-minded thinkers who dealt with catastrophic and ordinary violence by facing it.
In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe (Duke University Press). In a series of formally innovative chapters (“The Wake,” “The Ship,” “The Hold,” and “The Weather”), Sharpe explores the possibilities for black survival and resistance in the aftermath of slavery. Identifying gender and sexuality as key targets of historical and contemporary violence, Sharpe writes, “Black life in and out of the ‘New World’ is always queered and more.”
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A philosopher turned friend-of-cephalopods explores a species that took a path toward intelligence, sociability, and practical jokes that differed from humanity’s at every evolutionary step. Yet at the end of the road, the way these short-lived tricksters and prestidigitators think is not so hard to fathom. As close as we will come to encountering a truly alien intelligence (at least those of us who never go on a White House tour …).
Living by Henry Green (NYRB Classics). Originally published in 1929 (the author was only 24) this was reissued by the indispensable NYRB Classics series. It’s a perceptive novel about factory life, sure, but what’s dazzling is its form: a kind of radio play for voices, dialogue floating in the void, vowels torqued and syllables clipped and just about legible. Like a life seen through smoke or half-audible behind whistles and the clatter of machinery.
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters (Mulholland). In the spirit of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, this account of slavery still ongoing in 2016 America asks readers to notice how much (or how little) has actually changed in our own world of racial profiling and third-world factory production.
Public Library: And Other Stories by Ali Smith (Anchor). Smith’s latest collection looks uncannily like the bookshelf of a library: you don’t know what you’ll find next to what, but you do trust that some logic governs the juxtapositions. The lyrical statistics and laconic anecdotes that caulk together Smith’s stories add up to a story of their own, about the neoliberal British state replacing librarians by volunteers and selling off reading rooms to private fitness clubs. The collection ends with Smith’s partner going through her dead mother’s purse to dispose of credit cards, reward cards, driver’s license: “The one thing I couldn’t bring myself to throw away was her library card.”
Literature in Translation
Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the French by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Michigan State University Press). Originally composed in Wolof and later liberally adapted into French by the author, the titular notebooks are addressed to the narrator’s absent grandson, who may or may not ever return to Senegal to discover this unconventional vade mecum, a beguiling mix of history and fable, braggadocio and melancholy, political critique and dreamy musings.
Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap, translated from the German by Tess Lewis (Archipelago). The vivid portrait of a singular family, part of Austria’s Slovenian-speaking minority, Haderlap’s story opens, little by little and obliquely, onto big themes of historical memory and forgetting, language and identity, and tolerance and tribalism—all without ever betraying the specific humanity of her characters. The narrator’s bitter, manic-depressed father clings to historical grudges, but her joy in accompanying him in furtive forays across the border, the family’s relief at finding him merely asleep in the barn the morning after a bender, are palpable and exhilarating. Her sardonic yet tender, mystical yet pragmatic grandmother can’t forget the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, but, before she’s a victim or a symbol, she’s a wonderfully messy and complex character that lingers in the mind.
War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Pantheon). Our narrator, a Flemish writer, reconstructs the life of his grandfather, an artist and WWI veteran, from a pair of old notebooks. He moves from striking image to telling anecdote, from sensuous detail to philosophical reflection, and in the process his own childhood memories gain significance and clarity. The account is occasionally supplemented by old photographs, uncaptioned. If we’ve seen the like before—from Sebald, certainly, and more recently from Teju Cole and Ali Smith, but I was also reminded of Claudio Magris and Cees Nooteboom—it has rarely been accomplished with such exquisite emotional as well as intellectual precision.