Well, it’s been quite a year. Many of us have suffered great losses, from family members and friends to celebrity muses like David Bowie and Prince. But we’ve also been gifted with wonderful new art in the form of books, films and music. Here’s a brief roundup of the Eleventh Stack Team’s favorites from 2016.
How do you pick a favorite book of 2016? I’ve already written posts about many of my favorites, which you can read about here. So instead of repeating myself, I have a new favorite just in time for the end of the year! I’ve chosen the teen novel, A Monster Calls written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay. The book tells the story of a lonely boy named Conor who dreams the same nightmare over and over every night. His mother is sick, his father lives far away and no one talks to him at school. Then the monster shows up, except this monster is not at all what Conor expects. You might think you know where this story is heading, but Ness surprises you at every turn with depth, truth and pain, all held together by Jim Kay’s gorgeously dark illustrations. You seriously need to read this book right now. And keep an eye out for the upcoming movie adaptation (the trailer alone made me cry, so you know it’s going to be good). Happy Holidays! May they be filled with books, warmth and love.
As the mom of a toddler, I find free time only exists when my son is sleeping. Also, I am very behind on all of the movies and shows I want to watch and the books I want to read. So please don’t laugh when I say the best thing I watch in 2016 – is Game of Thrones. Seriously, though. My husband and I started watching Season 1 in April…and made it through all current seasons by the middle of June. And when you are an exhausted parent – that means watching an episode or two a night before falling asleep on the couch. And then the next night watching the last 15 minutes of the episode from the night before (because you fell asleep). This show pulls you in with all the elements that make for a great TV experience: great actors, characters you love (or love to hate), accents, kings, queens, Jon Snow (he’s easy on the eyes) and dragons. It is absolutely addictive, and if you haven’t watched yet, now is the time to jump on the bandwagon. The next season won’t premiere until summer of 2017, so you have plenty of time to get caught up!
Day of Tears by Julius Lester is most definitely the best book I read in 2016. Lester blends history and fiction, creating a gut-wrenching account of the largest slave auction in history. On March 2nd and 3rd, 1859, 400 slaves were sold in Savannah, Georgia. It rained tremendously during those two days, only stopping when the auction ended. Lester uses names of actual slaves sold to create a story that is sure to make you weep, yearn for those who endured and ponder your own humanity.
This year I fully discovered the brilliance of Norman Blake. If you like folk guitar, check out the amazing 1974 album called Fields of November. Do yourself a favor and give this album a listen. If you like folk music chances are you won’t be disappointed!
It’s always difficult to choose a “best book of the year,” so to help myself narrow down my choices, I decided to highlight the book that I’ve recommended to the most people: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon, but admits he didn’t think much about the emotional and personal impact of making decisions about end-of-life care until his own father began battling terminal illness. In Being Mortal, Gawande examines the history of illness and aging in America, discusses the shortcomings of the ways that doctors are (and aren’t) trained to navigate fraught conversations and chronicles real stories of how families (including his own) make tough decisions. It might sound like a downer, but rather than being depressing, I found this book to be engrossing, thought-provoking and even comforting.
I know two things to be true whenever I start a new Sarah Vowell book: I am going to learn a lot and I am going to be very entertained. Layfayette in the Somewhat United States explores how the Marquis de Lafayette came from France at age 19 to become a Revolutionary War hero and his return more than 30 years later to a country still trying to find its way. With Vowell’s background in public radio, listening to her books rather than reading them is highly recommended. She regularly assembles a fantastic cast to flesh out the people populating her books. In this case, you can expect John Slatterly as Lafayette, Patton Oswalt as Thomas Jefferson and Nick Offerman as a delightfully grumpy George Washington.
My choice for the best album of 2016 is Beyoncé’s Lemonade. There have been a lot of great albums this year, but I really love this one (I wrote about it in more detail here). Beyoncé takes us on a journey of a woman who has been through the trials and tribulations of infidelity. The music is so raw and real that listeners felt like they were experiencing the journey themselves. It was a wonderful added bonus to see Beyoncé perform tracks from this album on her Pittsburgh stop of her Formation World Tour earlier this year.
I read so many amazing books this year, it’s hard to choose only one, but I will anyway: How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran. The novel follows Johanna, a teenager from a poor working-class family in England who desperately tries to make something of herself so she can help her family. Johanna finds her identity as a writer when she wins a contest, which emboldens her to start writing music reviews for a top magazine. She drops out of high school to travel all around the UK to cover concerts and interview musicians, and adopts an all-black wardrobe and a hard-drinking attitude in an attempt to fit in with her colleagues. Moran perfectly captures the anxiety and fear of the teen years, and all the awkwardness we go through in our attempts to find ourselves. This is an engrossing and heartwarming novel that I highly recommend—especially if you’ve been feeling a bit down.
There were so many good books and movies this year, nothing stands out as a favorite above the rest. So I decided to simply highlight one thing I liked a lot: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge. I discovered this author through her middle grade books, which I found so delightful that I can’t understand why everyone isn’t reading them. The Lie Tree is a YA novel; it has a darker tone than her works for younger readers, but equally good characters and story. It features a girl named Faith, whose father mysteriously moves the family to a remote island. She’s a curious girl, who readily sneaks around investigating anything that seems strange. Unable to resist the questions surrounding their move, she soon discovers that her father is hiding something dangerous, leading him to tell more and more elaborate lies. The more she learns about it, the more she, too, finds herself spreading lies in the pursuit of truth.
Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant and compassionate neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 38 just as he was on the verge of completing a 10 year medical residency program. His posthumously published memoir When Breath Becomes Air is the most profound and impactful book I’ve read all year. Heartbreakingly honest, beautifully written and occasionally even funny, When Breath Becomes Air is more than the journey towards one’s own lightbulb, a-ha, now-I-know-what-life-is-all-about moment of revelation that often accompanies a serious illness or tragic event. Indeed, many memoirs cover similar ground — but this one is, somehow, very different. It’s about what it means when everything you have worked toward and planned for 10 years vanishes at the precise moment when you are on the cusp of realizing all those dreams and aspirations. With a neurosurgeon’s precision, Kalanithi discovers what it is about our souls that gives each of us our identity and purpose.
This year I embarked on a perilous journey to decide which movie is the most depressing movie in our library’s film collection. Because of this, I made sure to watch plenty of comedies and other feel-good entertainments in between my punishing viewing sessions. One in particular left me smiling ear-to-ear: the Irish coming-of-age saga Sing Street. For fans of 80s era pop music, Sing Street is an absolute treat. Conor is a teenager growing up in working-class Ireland; life at his new high school is pretty bleak until he spots Raphina, a beautiful coed outside his high school. In order to impress her he asks her to star in a music video for his band — only he doesn’t (as yet) actually have a band. Conor sets about assembling a ragtag group of his peers and writing songs (many of them actually quite good). If you’re a fan of bands like Duran Duran or The Cure then this film is for you. Director John Carney also directed Once and Begin Again, and this is the perfect capper to his musical trilogy.
My favorite book this year had to be The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower. Like my previously reviewed work on her more recent book First Women, this book is a behind-the-scenes exploration of the notoriously tight-lipped, discreet and loyal White House staff. From the maids, butlers, florists, cooks, doormen and many others who serve the first family, come stories allowing the public a peek at the private lives of the modern first families. It also gives the reader a solid look at the sheer amount of effort it takes to make sure the ship runs smoothly in the 6-floor, 55,000-square-foot, 132-room executive mansion. Though it is at times a bit like sharing gossip with your best friend, the book’s conversational tone makes it a delightful read. If you’re looking for Downton Abbey’s American equivalent, look no further.
What was your favorite book, movie or album that you discovered in 2016? Let us know in the comments!
-Team Eleventh Stack