The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, by Kia Corthron, took my breath away. Sweeping, epic, it crosses America from 1941 to 2010, following the lives of four men—two white, two black. Corthron has such an exquisite ear, not just for language but the heartbeat of our lives; the delicate way people traverse the world. Her characters are beautifully, complexly rendered. At 789 pages, this is a novel that teaches as much about American history as it does about humanity—our collective ability to create harm as well as joy. This is what they mean by great American literature. The Castle is not just the best book I read all year. It's one of the best books I've ever read. RENE DENFELD, death penalty investigator, journalist and author of the novel The Enchanted.
I purposefully did not read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita for 20 years. I knew the novel told the story (in first person, no less) of a grown man, Humbert Humbert, and his mad quest to possess a preadolescent Lolita, and I felt no desire to enter that world. I thought that I never would. Then, this summer, my partner handed me a well-loved copy of Lolita. "It creeps me out," I said. He nodded at me and said, "Just let me read you the first page." Lolita is a cathedral; it is at times the funniest book I've ever read and at times the saddest. It shook me and shocked me and made me stay up late to read another chapter. I was so entranced by Nabokov's language, pacing and general virtuoso ability as a writer that in the end I even believed Humbert Humbert deserved his cathedral. A.M. O'MALLEY, author of Expecting Something Else, director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center.
The best thing I read this year was the magisterial, moving, remarkable Masters of the Air, by Donald L. Miller, about the young American pilots who went to help the Royal Air Force fight the Nazis. It was terrific—as good a history as I've read in years. BRIAN DOYLE, novelist, essayist, author of Martin Marten and Children & Other Wild Animals.
Man, if I had to choose just one thing that I read that was crucial and that saved me, especially this fall when nothing seemed to be going the way I'd hoped, when the world turned unpredictable and revealed itself as other despite my usual happy oblivion, that book would be Writings, by the painter Agnes Martin. Her paintings, I suppose, could be understood as a necessary demonstration of her words, which are so stark, assertive, abstract, as if arriving out of a lifetime of creative turbulence. At a time when I felt at a loss, surrounded by students who couldn't figure out why, exactly, we might continue to write, these essays were a reassurance that promised a way out. "Of course we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last," Martin writes, "So we say that inspiration comes and goes but really it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again." PETER ROCK, novelist, author of The Shelter Cycle.
Without question, Seeing Red by Lina Meruane was the best book I read in 2016. I read it in the original Spanish (Sangre en el ojo) but have been assured by trusted sources that the book is just as extraordinary in translation. Meruane, an award-winning novelist and journalist, is an established star of the Spanish-language literary world, but this is her first book to be translated into English. Seeing Red is a precise, gorgeously crafted autofiction that explores illness and disability, and the fears and logic of a person who's been betrayed by their own body but refuses to take on the role of passive victim. This is a swift, dark, vicious book. I've never read anything quite like it. CARI LUNA, novelist, author of The Revolution of Every Day.
Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, by Max Porter, is the only book this year I have read three times. Part memoir, part essay, and part poetry collection, Max Porter's first book is marketed as a novel about a father with two sons who have recently and suddenly lost the matriarch of the family. The book begins as the father is visited by a rather large crow that announces, "I won't leave until you don't need me any more." So begins the family's grieving. Grief Is a Thing With Feathers is mournful, funny, heartbreaking, and ultimately shows the need for one to be creative in order to not be crushed by life's sadnesses. Time doesn't heal all wounds here, but the family does grow and change, while the dead, as William Kennedy pointed out in his astonishing book Ironweed, "even more than the living settle down in neighborhoods." CARL ADAMSHICK, poet, author of Saint Friend and Curses and Wishes.
The title of A.M. O'Malley's first—and brilliant—book might well serve as a tagline for the disappointment fest that was 2016: Expecting Something Else. Not one sentence in this book disappoints, though. Each line is carefully stacked in neat, centered columns and surrounded by white space, like cordwood in a snowstorm. Yet within each prose poem there's hardly a punctuation mark to be found. The lines spill and splinter and melt into one another. In lesser hands, going sans punctuation might feel like an affectation, but here the breathless torrents of language effectively mirror the content of O'Malley's memories: She grew up with a restless, often unmoored mother who moved her repeatedly from state to state and school to school, never settling into the rhythms or boundaries of conventional home life. O'Malley alternately mourns and celebrates her patchwork childhood: "I cut my hair cropped my shirts shortened my skirts I fluffed and fought I kept eloping." JUSTIN HOCKING, author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, former director of the IPRC.
"Information is the poetry of the people who love war," writes Anne Boyer in Garments Against Women, a book I read and re-read as evidence for the feelings I didn't know how to have publicly. Garments is a book beyond classification, which in itself is an act of protest. There's poetry here, and prose, and criticism, and philosophy. There's industry and feminism and economics and art. Mostly, there's Anne, shining the sharp beam of her own mind into the spaces we long to see. "My favorite arts are the ones that can move your body or make a new world," she writes, and I agree. This book is the moon: powerful, comforting, illuminating, feminine. I can't recommend it enough. KELLY SCHIRMANN, poet, essayist, author of Popular Music, co-author of Boyfriend Mountain.