"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

What’s the Best Book, New or Old, You Read This Year?

From left: Siddhartha Deb, Rivka Galchen, Alice Gregory, Zoë Heller. Credit Illustrations by R. Kikuo Johnson
Siddhartha Deb:
At year’s end, I’m remembering Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” Unflinching in its portrayal of settler colonialism and so familiar in its violence, racism and twisted masculinity, it is most memorable for me in its portrait of Judge Holden, the Devil incarnate, perched on a rock and waiting for us to pass by.

Siddhartha Deb’s most recent book is “The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India.”

Rivka Galchen:
The Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg lived through the rise of fascism, which left her widowed with three small children. Among my favorite of her works translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz and collected in “A Place to Live: Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg” are “Winter in the Abruzzi” and “The Baby Who Saw Bears.”
Rivka Galchen’s most recent book is “Little Labors.”

Alice Gregory:
Rebecca Solnit’s “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West” is the most impressive book I read this year or maybe any year. It somehow manages to deploy the most specific and peculiar facts while telling a story that’s about everything — art, politics, history, science, philosophy. It blows my mind that one person wrote it.
Alice Gregory is a contributing editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

Zoë Heller:
I really enjoyed Emma Cline’s debut novel, “The Girls.” Cline writes lovely, noticing sentences, and her story about the charismatic power of an evil cult leader turned out to be a not altogether inappropriate fable for 2016.
Zoë Heller is the author of “Everything You Know,” “Notes on a Scandal” and “The Believers.”
From left: Anna Holmes, Leslie Jamison, Adam Kirsch, Thomas Mallon. Credit Illustrations by R. Kikuo Johnson
Anna Holmes:
Colson Whitehead’s slave-narrative novel, “The Underground Railroad”: a defiant, gorgeous triumph of human imagination and empathy that can be interpreted as a commentary on the past, a reckoning with the present or a provocation of the future. (It’s probably all three.)
Anna Holmes is an editorial executive at First Look Media and the editor of two books, including “The Book of Jezebel.”

Leslie Jamison:
This year I reread Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” a necessary account of the systemic racism embedded in our justice system. Alexander’s book feels more vital now than ever. It’s a protest against the persecution that has persistently operated under alibis of security and justice — a protest we need to keep making as powerfully as we can.
Leslie Jamison is the author of “The Empathy Exams.”

Adam Kirsch:
“Moonglow,” Michael Chabon’s new novel, is my favorite of his books and one of the most memorable novels I read this year. Using autobiography as a launchpad and then taking off for the moon, Chabon offers a funny, moving and dramatic tribute to his grandparents and their American generation.
Adam Kirsch is a poet, critic and columnist for Tablet magazine.

Thomas Mallon:
In “The Dream Life of Astronauts,” Patrick Ryan flies further into a little fictional empyrean he’s made all his own. Peopled by kookily sad denizens of Florida’s Space Coast, whose dreams rarely achieve liftoff without crashing and burning, Ryan’s stories are filled with a wan tenderness and a spectacular lack of condescension.
Thomas Mallon’s most recent book is “Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years.” 

From left: Ayana Mathis, Charles McGrath, Pankaj Mishra, Benjamin Moser. Credit Illustrations by R. Kikuo Johnson
Ayana Mathis:
“The Plague of Doves” takes as its subject the residents of a North Dakota town abutting an Ojibwe reservation. The novel is a kaleidoscope of voices, imagery and memories. Louise Erdrich’s prose evokes the tumult of lived experience and ancestral trauma. She reminds us we are all yearning creatures, subject to forces set in motion long before we were born.
Ayana Mathis is the author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”

Charles McGrath:
“Caught,” by Henry Green. First published in 1943 and now reissued in the New York Review Classics series, “Caught” manages the improbable feat of being both a harrowing war story of London during the Blitz and a sharply observed comedy about social class. Green was a silver-spoon aristocrat, but his ear for common speech was as keen as Dickens’s.
Charles McGrath was the editor of the Book Review from 1995 to 2004.

Pankaj Mishra:
David Kennedy’s “A World of Struggle: How Power, Law, and Expertise Shape Global Political Economy” describes our world more accurately than any book I have read this year. Kennedy offers no clear prescriptions. Yet he clarifies that understanding how this world of injustice and inequality came about is the essential first step toward a democratic alternative.
Pankaj Mishra’s next book, “Age of Anger,” will be published in February.

Benjamin Moser:
In “The Fall Of Language in the Age of English,” Minae Mizumura shows, better than anyone ever has, how English is wrecking other languages — reducing even great literary languages, including Japanese and French, to local dialects — and makes a vigorous case for the superiority of the written over the spoken word.
Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector.”
From left: James Parker, Francine Prose, Liesl Schillinger, Dana Stevens. Credit Illustrations by R. Kikuo Johnson
James Parker:
How I wish I’d written Max Porter’s ugly-beautiful post-Ted Hughes polyphonic spree of a novel “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers”; I listened to an interview with the author and could barely hear his (cultured, friendly) voice through the electrical envy-storm that was writhing in purple bands across my forebrain.
James Parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

Francine Prose:
“Pedro Páramo,” — Juan Rulfo’s 1955 masterpiece — packs the scope and sweep of an epic into just over 120 pages. It has the beauty of a lyric poem and manages the dazzling magic trick of blurring the line between life and death. Set in a rural Mexican ghost town, Rulfo’s book shows us how seamlessly fiction can combine the regional and the universal.
Francine Prose’s most recent novel is “Mister Monkey.”

Liesl Schillinger:
In July, during the national conventions, I read a stunning debut that resurrects the violence and anger of the 1968 Chicago riots, carrying it forward into the present day through the story of two Midwesterners addicted to virtual-reality games. It’s “The Nix,” by Nathan Hill, the first book I’ve read in two decades that earns the title Great American Novel.
Liesl Schillinger is a critic and translator and the author of “Wordbirds.”

Dana Stevens:
I read Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” under ideal conditions: alone in a strange city, at bus stops and in public parks, surrounded by families speaking foreign yet familiar languages. Solnit’s meditation on lostness as a peculiarly American experience animated my thinking and writing for the rest of what turned out to be a very long year.
Dana Stevens is the film critic at Slate and a cohost of the Slate Culture Gabfest.

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