Top Ten Non-Local Books of 2016

Blood in The Water

1. Heather Ann Thompson, "Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Aftermath" (Pantheon Books)

In September, Red Emma’s was packed the night Heather Ann Thompson came to talk about what happened at the Attica Correctional Facility in 1971, when a takeover of the prison by inmates demanding their human rights commanded the attention of the entire country. The subsequent massacre of the inmates—and their hostages—by the New York State Police remains one of the darker chapters in American history, not just for how preventable the butchery was but for how determined state authorities were to keep light from ever touching the truth. Drawn from Thompson’s decade of research and tireless pursuit of the cover-up, this book gives incredible dimension to the tragedy: at some points, her reconstruction of the slow and then fast descent into hell at Attica is minute-by-minute. The result is more than a brilliantly crafted, humane work of history—it’s a breakthrough in our understanding of the carceral state. (Andrew Holter)

2. Colson Whitehead, "Underground Railroad" (Doubleday)

Whitehead’s National-Book-Award-winning novel turns the 19th-century network of pathways and safe houses that ferreted enslaved people in the American South to free states as an actual locomotive that travels underground. It’s a fabulous speculative-fiction conceit to inject into a distinctly American freedom saga, and Whitehead brings the full arsenal of his genre-hopping writer’s mind to his tale of Cora and Caesar fleeing from the horrifying Randall plantation in Georgia. Hands down the best American reinvention of the historical novel since Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon.” (Bret McCabe)

3. Tommy Pico, "IRL" (Birds, LLC)

The one thing that everyone who has read this book keeps saying is that it is an extended text message—as in, that’s its poetic form. Okay, sure; It’s that, but it is also a contemporary epic poem the rolls through an uninterrupted stream of verse on queer desire, friendship, social media, FOMO, and the effect of centuries worth of cultural and literal genocide of indigenous people. Tommy Pico deploys a self-conscious and self-effacing voice that shows how the detritus of history is also glitter of popular culture. (Anthony Moll)

4. Masha Gessen, "Where the Jews Aren't: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region" (Random House)

Occasionally, Masha Gessen’s conversational history of Birobidzhan, a U.S.S.R-planned Jewish homeland in the ’30s that didn’t quite work out (“one of the worst good ideas ever”), moves into the first-person and gets grounded in the right now, drawing a line to the Jews sent off with a one-way ticket to a place to call their own (with untenable land and near the Chinese border) to Gessen’s own life (she left Russia where she was born, returned to Russia and left again for fear of its anti-LGBTQ laws and how they might take her children away under Putin) later on. But “Where the Jews Aren’t” is about the less brave ones too, the people scrapping and the ones selling out, especially writer David Bergelson, who flirted with supporting the U.S.S.R. and penned propaganda about Birobidzhan that moved Jews to this shithole to call their own. Bergelson’s an example of who not to be and a vessel through which we understand how authoritarian regimes shred people’s ethics. (Brandon Soderberg)

5. Jace Clayton, "Uproot: Travels In 21st Century Music and Digital Culture" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Writer and musician Jace Clayton aka DJ/Rupture’s “Uproot: Travels In 21st Century Music and Digital Culture” thinks hard about how cultural musics bump into and blend with digital culture: Auto-Tune is understood as more cosmetic than corrective and ties to a dive into Berber musicians in North Africa who mixed acoustic sounds with Auto-Tune’s electronic vibrations; Jimi Hendrix’s take on ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is “the sonic enactment of a black American staking out a piece of the nation for himself,” Clayton writes; and an unraveling of how World Music was branded and handed to the ponytail and sandals set in the ’80s is like reading a collaboration between Howard Zinn and Ellen Willis. Nagging the book’s thesis is the fear of being subsumed, which is valid, but Clayton offers up an optimistic though never tech-utopian travelogue around the world in the new millenium where internet connection makes small ideas big and software, the new vanguard. (BS)

6. Teju Cole, "Known and Strange Things" (Random House)

Since Teju Cole pulled the plug on his uncommonly shrewd and provocative Twitter account in July, 2014, those of us who love his writing have had to survive on what nutrition we can get from the scraps of commentary he’s produced here and there. This book is a feast, with some of those same nonfiction pieces (including his celebrated diagnosis of “The White Savior Industrial Complex”) and many more essays on a kaleidoscope of topics including literature, travel, blackness, film, the Internet, and especially photography. He refuses to let any of these subjects sit by themselves in neat little boxes; as he confronts the world with measured opprobrium and exuberance, he puts culture and politics into conversation with each other whether they want to be or not. This is the kind of book that leaves you with an entire syllabus. And there’s a fantastic piece here about the Baltimore artist (and former CP comics contributor) Dina Kelberman. (AH)

7. Ben Lerner, "The Hatred of Poetry" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

In this book-length essay, Ben Lerner walks readers through an idea we all sort of know already: the contemporary Western world has a deep hatred and distrust of poetry. What he works toward answering in this book is why? Drawing a line from Caedmon to the closest thing there has been to a poetry celebrity in a while, Claudia Rankine, Lerner says that our hatred stems from a yearning – in reading and in writing poetry – for some poetic ideal that no individual poem achieves. The problem with poetry, of course, is poems. (AM)

8. Jacqueline Woodson, "Another Brooklyn" (HarperCollins)

Jacqueline Woodson’s “Another Brooklyn” is a story of girlhood told almost as lyric poem. August, our main character, moves to Brooklyn with her father and brother after the death of her mother. The story unfolds in a series of flashes, memories: waiting up at night for her mother to return; hearing the dull laughs of women her father brought home late at night; gazing longing out the window at girls with intimacies she isn’t sure could ever be hers; the sensations of boys pressing up against her, of wanting and being wanted, of friendships too close, of nervously wading through traumas you can’t fully understand, except that you understand they might pull you down. The writing is spare and haunting, just like the novel’s refrain: “this is memory.” In a world that does not take girls—especially black girls—seriously, this novel is exactly the deep breath we need. (Kate Drabinski)

9. Larissa Pham, "Fantasian" (Badlands Unlimited)

Fires, sex, desire, murder, and the loss and creation of “the self” are the building blocks of this breezy, dark novella by Larissa Pham, part of Badlands Unlimited’s “New Lovers” erotica series. An unnamed narrator navigates relationships and schoolwork, but the reader finds her moldable character grow more complicated and confusing as she melds and mingles with lovers, and as she becomes fixated, in particular, with a new friend, Dolores. In an interview with Esme Wang, Pham described Dolores as symbolic of the struggles she faces as a young Asian woman: “She’s both a mirror and an idealized kind of representation who feels the weight of that idealization.” The narrator and Dolores bring up Lacan and his theory of the mirror stage and the formation of identity—as, I guess, Yale students maybe do—and the book is structured like a mirrored reflection too: We start to learn about this narrator, who seems to either lose or gain pieces of herself in everyone she fucks, until something shifts and at the end of it we’re flustered, looking back at someone we don’t quite recognize. (Rebekah Kirkman)

10. Lezley McSpadden, "Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil: The Life, Legacy, and Love of My Son Michael Brown" (Regan Arts)

In death, Michael Brown became a lot of things for a lot of different people: a body under a sheet, a statistic, a reason to feel fear, a thug. For his mother, however, he was always “Mike Mike,” her tender-hearted, hard headed son. In this book, McFadden fleshes out the parts of the story that national news coverage washed away. She writes about the anger she wrestled with after Brown’s death and also talks about the way she chafed against the restrictions placed on victims thrust into the spotlight, all in the name of optics. Brown gives you her story straight, no bullshit. “Your word is what you still got when you don’t have any money,” she writes. “That’s why if I give you my word, say I’m going to do something or tell you I got you, then I’m ten toes down. Anybody who knows me for real knows that. Feel me?” (Lisa Snowden-McCray)

Recommended on Baltimore Sun