Critics’ choice: The year’s best novels and the year’s best nonfiction
1The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, $27)
This year’s National Book Award winner is “something much more interesting than a historical novel,” said Juan Gabriel Vásquez in The New York Times. The tale of a teenage slave named Cora who undertakes a long journey toward freedom, it adopts a conceit “as simple as it is bold”: In the book’s fictional world, the Underground Railroad is an actual subterranean network of rails and trains that transports fugitive slaves north, depositing them at random stops along the way. When Cora disembarks—in South Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and beyond—she encounters half-fantastic worlds that reenact, in strikingly skewed ways, the crimes America has committed in the name of race. The rabid slave-catcher who tails Cora is not her only shadow, said Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker. Cora witnesses lynchings and mass sterilization experiments when she’s below the Mason-Dixon line, but the North she slips into offers no true haven. “It is slavery, as much as the slave-catcher, that is pursuing her, and anyone alive in today’s America knows that she will never entirely outrun it.”
A dissent:Whitehead’s formidable imagination at times feels “a bit hemmed in” by his sense of the story’s gravity, said Laura Miller in Slate.com.
by Zadie Smith (Penguin, $27)
Zadie Smith’s “multilayered tour-de-force” wears its many insights lightly, said Karen Long in the Los Angeles Times. A story that turns on a long friendship and rivalry between two dance-loving biracial Londoners who meet as girls, Swing Time is in one sense “a book-length meditation on cultural appropriation.” But it is so absorbing from page to page “that a reader might flip it open randomly and be immediately caught up.” One of the girls has a gift for dance that initially appears to be a ticket to a fulfilling adulthood. The other is our narrator, and she falls into working as a personal assistant to a pop star whose charity efforts in West Africa lead to public conflict. Much of Swing Time is “a powerful story of lives marred by secrets, unfulfilled potential, and the unjustness of the world,” said The Economist. But it captures as well “the dances people do to rise above it all.”
A dissent:In some stretches, Smith succumbs to “a joylessness previously alien to her work,” said Christian Lorentzen in New Yorkmagazine.
by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, $27)
A novel structured like this remarkable debut is “unbelievably tough to pull off,” said Yvonne Zipp in CSMonitor.com. A 250-year epic told in 14 linked short stories, it weaves together a family portrait by introducing us to various offspring of two young half-sisters who, in 18th-century Ghana, wound up on opposite sides of the Atlantic slave trade. Vivid personalities inhabit tale after tale, and author Yaa Gyasi, who’s only 26, shows “a poet’s ability to paint a scene with a handful of phrases.” She brings to every story “a courageous lack of sentimentality,” said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. Whether we meet them in 1750 Ghana, 1850 Baltimore, or 21st-century Palo Alto, Calif., the black characters and white characters in this book prove “equally capable of kindness and nobility, savagery and wickedness.” From start to finish, “the speed with which Gyasi sweeps across the decades isn’t confusing so much as dazzling.”
A dissent:Previous writers have taken on the African diaspora in linked stories, and “to much greater effect,” said Walton Muyumba in The New Republic.
by Ann Patchett (Harper, $28)
Ann Patchett’s newest book opens with “one of the most enticing first sentences I have read in ages,” said Jocelyn McClurg in USA Today. “The christening party took a turn,” Patchett writes, “when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” A kiss exchanged at that 1964 gathering ends up destroying two marriages, and its reverberations over the next 50 years make for a novel that’s “both tenderhearted and tough, dryly funny and at times intensely moving.” Six children of the 1964 divorce spend their summers together in rural Virginia, engaging in mischief that on one fateful day leads to tragedy. But as the novel hopscotches across the decades to drop in on members of the brood at other moments in life, Commonwealth becomes “a master class in the art of smart, accessible literary fiction,” said Tom Beer in Newsday. “Patchett’s slyly knowing voice—full of wit and warmth—elevates every page.”
A dissent:Not only is the tragedy implausible, said Curtis Sittenfeld in The New York Times, but the reader has to endure the wrenching event three times.
by Han Kang (Hogarth, $21)
Han Kang’s first novel to be translated into English “has an eerie universality that gets under your skin,” said Laura Miller in Slate.com. A powerful fable about a young Korean housewife who profoundly unsettles her overbearing husband and her family when she suddenly chooses to abstain from eating or touching meat, The Vegetarian arguably becomes “a protest against existence itself.” Yeong-hye, previously an unremarkable person, “soon begins to withdraw into an impenetrable world,” turning refusal into near religion, said Leah Greenblatt in Entertainment Weekly. She says no to sex, then to all food, and in doing so becomes a fixation of her artist brother-in-law. A reader is left to wonder: Is this woman mentally ill, or simply rebelling against the culture of conformity in which she was raised? “Kang’s erotic, unnerving, and utterly mesmerizing novel is far too shrewd to tell.”
A dissent:The novel’s “disorienting effect” is less a product of genius than of poor writing or poor translating, said Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books.
How the books were chosen
Our rankings were created by weighting the choices and rankings of other print and online sources. These sources included The Boston Globe, The Buffalo News, Chicago Tribune, The Economist, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, GQ, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Mother Jones, Newsday, Newsweek, New York magazine, The New York Times, NPR.org, O magazine, Publishers Weekly, The Seattle Times, Slate.com, Time, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
by Matthew Desmond (Crown, $28)
“The struggle to pay the rent may sound like a problem the poor have always faced. It’s not,” said Jason DeParle in The New York Review of Books. Matthew Desmond’s “spellbinding” book pulls readers deep into lives that have been destroyed by the rising costs of even substandard shelter and by landlords who depend on often capricious evictions to turn a profit in the poorest neighborhoods. Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, gathered solid statistics to build his analysis, but it’s his ground-level reporting in Milwaukee’s rougher districts that lends his message such force. Greedy slumlords and troublesome tenants alike come alive as singular characters, and Evicted builds to become “a stirring reminder that the U.S. accepts as ordinary a depth of poverty that is extraordinary and cruel.” Desmond, said Carlos Lozada in The Washington Post, “has made it impossible to ever again consider poverty in America without tackling the central role of housing.”
A dissent:Desmond shows that government programs haven’t remedied the problems he identifies—“then he proposes more government programs,” said Charles Sykes in Commentary.
2 Secondhand Time
by Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, $30)
Not in decades has there been a work of Russian literature “as great and personal and troubling” as this 500-page oral history, said Bob Blaisdell in CSMonitor.com. Svetlana Alexievich won a 2015 Nobel Prize for producing books like this, books that create sweeping narratives by blending together the voices of ordinary people. Here, the Belarusian author takes as her subject the experience of living in the various states of the former Soviet Union both before and after the superpower’s collapse. The stories the book shares were derived from hundreds of kitchen-table conversations recorded between 1991 and 2012, and many of those personal stories “clouded my eyes with tears.” Soviet rule was brutal, but so too was the upheaval unleashed by its fall, said Thomas Dylan Eaton in Bookforum.com. Suicides and ethnic violence spiked, and even intellectuals who had cheered on perestroika were left destitute when the Russian economy cratered in the 1990s. Some of Alexievich’s subjects mourn the authoritarian state they grew up in, but the catalog of human suffering she has assembled “rebuffs any notion of a grand Soviet legacy.”
A dissent:Some of the stories told, though engrossing in substance, “can also be baggy and repetitive,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times.
by J.D. Vance (Harper, $28)
J.D. Vance has excellent timing, said Geoffrey Norman in The Weekly Standard. In a campaign year defined by white working-class discontent, his beautifully written memoir delivered an “achingly felt” portrait of a dying Ohio steel town and its Appalachian culture. Vance’s family springs from that “hillbilly” milieu, and the life his drug-addicted mother showed him proves “so full of pointless violence and self-inflicted wounds that if he were any less skillful in rendering it, readers would be tempted to give up.” Vance acknowledges that the region has been hard hit by the loss of manufacturing, but blames his fellow hillbillies for the rut they’re in, said Ronald Bailey in Reason.com. The author escaped, via the Marines, college, and Yale Law School, and urges others to follow. Still, he “fiercely identifies with and loves his people,” and his story “makes compellingly personal” the news stories we hear about small-town America’s social and economic struggles.
A dissent:Don’t fall for Vance’s victim blaming, said Sarah Jones in The New Republic. “Bootstraps are for people with boots.”
by Ruth Franklin (Liveright, $35)
This “brilliant and heartbreaking” biography introduces a Shirley Jackson readers never knew, said Katherine Powers in the Chicago Tribune. Jackson, a celebrated writer of dark stories like “The Lottery” but also of cheery slice-oflife magazine essays, was long presumed to have had a morbid imagination but a relatively sunny mid-century American life. That myth has been “conclusively exploded” by critic Ruth Franklin, who reveals that Jackson escaped the relentless criticisms of her socialite mother only to marry a flagrantly unfaithful husband who took similar pleasure in belittling her. “Intentionally or not,” Jackson channeled her frustrations into her writing, said Nina MacLaughlin in The Boston Globe. But she also became a heavy smoker, a drinker, and a pill popper, and Franklin proves herself “a skilled builder of tension” as we sense Jackson nearing her breaking point. The doyenne of suburban dread died at 48 of a heart attack, in 1965, and this “taut, insightful” account of her life “speaks to what it means to be a woman even now.”
A dissent:Franklin unfairly demonizes Jackson’s husband—a fellow writer who boosted his wife’s career, said Blake Bailey in The Wall Street Journal.
5When Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi (Random House, $25)
Paul Kalanithi’s “exquisitely moving” memoir “begins with a wallop,” said Sandra Martin in The Globe and Mail(Canada). Reading his own CT scans in 2013, the 36-year-old neurosurgical resident learns that he has stage 4 lung cancer. The disease will kill him, readers already know, but he used the time he had left to write eloquently about facing his own decline and death. The challenge forced him, for starters, to figure out what really mattered to him as a husband, as a doctor, and as a human being. Kalanithi “grows his soul as his body wastes away,” said Andrew Solomon in The New York Times. A man who earned master’s degrees in literature and philosophy before taking up medicine, he lets us watch his turn to religion, and the decision he and his wife made, after much debate, to have their first child. The couple’s daughter was born eight months before her father’s death, in 2015, by which time Kalanithi had concluded that death requires a psychic and spiritual reckoning that science could not help him with. Kalanithi begins the book as a doctor, but “in these pages, he becomes a humanist.”
A dissent:With some medical terms, “a word or two of explanation” would have been nice, said Louise Jury in The Independent(U.K.).