What SAL’s Reading: Best of 2016

One thing about 2017 is certain: the literature will be stunning. As the new year unfolds, many are turning to our cultural thought leaders for direction and perspective, which always makes for a good beginning—reading, as book-lovers have long suspected, has been proven to enhance our ability to empathize and to increase brain function. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we asked SAL staff, WITS Writers-in-Residence, and board members to reflect on the best books they read this year, in 2016, to celebrate an excellent twelve months in reading.

Amanda Carrubba, Finance & Operations Director: 

As a new mom, I’ve rediscovered so many great kids books this year! I did learn of a few new ones that I really love, as well. They are:

All the World, written by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee.
A is for Activist, written & illustrated by Innosanto Nagara.
The 20th Century Children’s Book Treasury: Celebrated Picture Books and Stories to Read Aloud, selected by Janet Schulman.

Rebecca Hoogs, Associate Director:

MOTHERs by Rachel Zucker, a poetic memoir whose collage form and content were both inspiring. I read the book in one sitting on a flight to NYC. You could say it was transporting.

Kelly Froh, WITS Writer-in-Residence:

I read a lot of graphic novels this year, but the one that stuck with me most was Brecht Evens’ Panther. At first glance, it looks like a kid’s book—but it’s actually a very dark story about how menace can sneak into our lives.

Cody Pherigo, WITS Writer-in-Residence:

My top three favorite books of 2016 were Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson, Another Country by James Baldwin, and Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Each of these books in their own turn offered a kind of emotional intimacy from their narrative leads that healed, or at the very least, affirmed something within myself. And Bluets gave me the idea for my next major project!

Alison Stagner, Events & Development Coordinator:

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Practically everyone I know in the Seattle science community tried shoving this book into my hands this year, and I’m so glad they did. Half memoir, half rumination on the natural world, this geobiologist gives us a window into the lives of plants, while simultaneously penning her challenging journey as a woman in a male-dominated field. The takeaway? Jahren wants you to become a devoted observer of your world: “Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. Over and over, Night Sky asks: What is the difference between love and fear, between intimacy and vulnerability? Vuong is so prodigiously talented that putting him on a “Best Books of 2016” list is a little like telling your sixth-grade drama teacher you like Shakespeare. Oh, really? This debut collection has muscularity, agility, and a powerful vision about trauma and the intersections of his queerness and refugee past. If you’re looking to get into contemporary poetry but are unsure of where to start, Night Sky is a good place.

What Belongs to You: A Novel by Garth Greenwell. Another unfairly talented debut author, Greenwell writes a rather devastating tale about a gay American expat in modern-day Bulgaria who has an intermittent relationship with a sex worker. This one was a binge-read. Loneliness and desire saturate each sentence, and I was sucked into a painful atmosphere of taboo, shame, and hiding.

Alex Gallo-Brown, WITS Writer-in-Residence:

It’s Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun. Sometimes, when you’re struggling with your own work, finding the right example can help you to break through the fog. James Lasdun’s stories were like that for me. Elegant, expertly crafted, and unflinching in their observations of flawed human beings, this collection (particularly the first half) is one of the finest I’ve ever read. 

(Editor’s note: Alex’s review of two other books by James Lasdun have recently appeared in The Seattle Review of Books, here.)

Corinne Manning, WITS Writer-in-Residence:

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, There Will Be Flowers
Brian Blanchfield, Proxies
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Zadie Smith, Swing Time

Ruth Dickey, Executive Director:

My favorite three books of 2016 have been Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy (which I think should be required reading for everyone); Elena Ferrante’s Story of the Lost Child (I was late to Ferrante fever but absolutely couldn’t put these down, especially the final two); and Good Morning, Midnight by Lilly Brooks Dalton (which Marilyn Dahl gave me and I not only adored, but still find myself thinking about six months after reading. Marilyn also is the person who introduced me to All the Light We Cannot See and A Man Called Ove; the important lesson here is that if Marilyn tells you to read something, you should do so immediately!).

Nancy Tollefson, Secretary, SAL Board:

Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. Loved it!

Nichole Coates, WITS Program Associate:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a manga-memoir-essay collection that I read earlier this year: What is Obscenity? by Tokyo artist Rokudenashiko, who was arrested for obscenity charges in 2014. It’s an incredibly simple, playful read, but it highlights the ways in which control over artistic representations of female sexuality correlates directly to the literal policing of female bodies as they move through society.

Peter Mountford,WITS Writer-in-Residence:

Grief Is The Thing With Wings by Max Porter.

Christina Gould, Patron Services Manager:

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy. This powerful testimony about lawlessness and urban violence in America, specifically in L.A., is a timely story that in all its devastation and humanity served as a constant reminder to me that “black lives matter.”

Insomnia by Linda Pastan. These lovely poems about living and aging have remained on my bedside all year. The quiet of her poems elevates the mundane to the sublime. In my hours of insomnia, a line from Pastan makes me smile: “Sleep has stepped out for a smoke and may not be back.”

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. This is an arresting exploration of the love between mother and daughter by one of my favorite writers. Strout is a powerful storyteller that handles the nuance of human relationships with compassion and insight. She never disappoints.


If you’d like even more suggestions than these 25 titles, take a look at our favorite books from 2015.

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