The Atlantic

The Best Books We Read in 2016

The Atlantic’s editors and writers share their favorite titles—new, classic, or somewhere in between—from a year of reading.
Source: Zak Bickel / Katie Martin / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Roadside Picnic is a book about aliens in which no aliens appear. Rather, one character hypothesizes, aliens seemed to have zipped carelessly around Earth and strewed it with trash—like roadside picnickers leaving behind wrappers and empty bottles. The scientists, smugglers, and other profiteers so drawn to these alien objects are but ants crawling through the picnic crumbs. Is this a book that makes you contemplate the smallness of humans? Absolutely. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly breezy title. Roadside Picnic was first written in Russian in 1972, and it is the very loose inspiration for the movie Stalker. An afterward to the 2012 English translation describes Soviet efforts to censor the book, which seems somehow newly relevant in America.

Book I’m hoping to read before 2017 arrives: The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

Sarah Zhang, staff writer


Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

Flynn Berry’s debut novel Under the Harrow plunges the reader into the mind of a woman who heads to small-town England to hang out with her sister—only to find she’s been murdered. Stunned and sickened, she encamps at a local inn to find the killer. The result is a brisk and chilling psychological study about grief, paranoia, and memory; a smart portrait of a complex sibling relationship; and, more than anything, an effective murder mystery.

The book is also a very good, very quiet work of political art. By now, crime fiction is so littered with the bodies of women that The Kroll Show’s sketch “Dead Girl Town” doesn’t have to explain its joke; in so many stories, a particular gendered tragedy has become a cheap trope. But Under the Harrow vests liveliness, agency, and believable flaws into its murder victim as her sister combs through her memories. More than that, Berry takes some of the big social struggles that have animated the feminist movement and makes them specific and personal, exploring the rippling effects of power imbalances across individual lives. There’s nothing pedantic about the taut, tricky narrative, though. Like solving the whodunit, finding the bigger meaning is simply a matter of paying attention.

Book I’m hoping to read before 2017 arrives: Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein

Spencer Kornhaber, staff writer


Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

Late in this book, a homicide detective voices the idea that there is no higher or better purpose to policing than responding to crime. Responding, not preventing—this is key. And controversial, right? Isn’t the point of the police, after all, to maintain law and order?

Jill Leovy’s masterful volume, filled with hard-won insights from her years as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is billed as a book about homicide, but the implications of Leovy’s argument reach much further. That argument is laid out very clearly from the get-go, and its airtight logic is given weight and texture by the tragic stories to which Leovy and her protagonists bear witness. If there are few crimes more serious than murder, and black and brown people can be murdered with few consequences for their killers, they will be killed more often, and their unavenged deaths will rot any chance of faith in their would-be protectors.

Anyone who read David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (or, yes, watched the TV shows it inspired) will recognize Leovy’s book as a sort of sequel. Like Leovy, Simon wrote his opus after years reporting on his city’s homicide detectives for the local paper. Both books tell rich and lively stories with vivid protagonists fighting enormous pain. But Ghettoside builds more forcefully to its conclusions, while Homicide tends to leave readers to draw their own. In some ways, Leovy has completed the book that Simon began. No other book has animated my thoughts more this year.

Book I’m hoping to read before 2017 arrives: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Matt Thompson, deputy editor


The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

This has been a year of what if? in American politics. What if Trump wins? What if, when he wins, he puts into place the policies he has advocated, such as religion-based restrictions on Muslim immigration? What if online trolls feel more empowered to spew their anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-everything rhetoric—or actually gain real power?

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a book for a what if time. It’s set in a world in which the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel turned out differently: Instead of settling in the Middle East, Jewish refugees moved en masse to Alaska. Inevitably, the Jews are asked to leave—and their worst fears are realized. But these bad times are also morally ambiguous: The good guys are never fully good guys, the bad guys never fully bad. Ultimately, the Jews of Sitka, Alaska, learn that they are helpless in the face of what if coming true, that there will always be more bad times. The goal isn’t to remake the world, Chabon seems to argue, but, rather, to survive it

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