A lot went wrong in 2016 but it was a banner year for books. Spread the joy of escapism by giving books to the naughty and nice readers on your gift list.
For the Perverted and the Disturbed
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder
The brilliant brain behind the @sosadtoday Twitter account lays bare her anxieties, her depression, her eating disorder, and her sex life in a series of painfully true essays that will either have you commiserating (“I’m not the only one who fell in love with a Twitter avi!”) or thanking your lucky stars (“At least I don’t have a vomiting fetish!”). Either way, you have to admire Broder’s bravery and eviscerating honesty.
The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese
“…all men are voyeurs to some degree,” states Gerald Foos in his journal, the contents of which are the meat of Gay Talese’s non-fiction book, The Voyeur’s Hotel. Foos owned and operated the Manor Hotel, a venue where he created an “observation deck” in order to spy on his guests. Unbeknownst to them, Foos witnessed an act of incest, drug deals, homosexual encounters, adultery, an attempted murder, and many unhappy vacations. Talese, known for his non-judgmental reporting, writes Foos’ story in a way that helps the reader understand this deviant behavior without endorsing it. Talese, known for controversial exposés on sex (Thy Neighbor’s Wife) and the mafia (Honor Thy Father), challenges the perp, and while he doesn’t change Foos’ mind about the moral implications of his peeping Tom behavior, he does document Foos’ fascinating insights on human behavior and the way such behavior affects a man.
For the Fierce and Fiery Females
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
Don’t write this short story collection off as chick lit. Chances are, if the recipient even mildly identifies as a feminist, she admires its author, Roxane Gay. The characters in this book aren’t difficult so much as they are complex—a good thing both in fiction and in real life. Gay’s “difficult women” work as strippers, as maids, as engineers; some are wives and mothers, but not blindly so. They are deeply conflicted and contradictory. They like to hunt and fuck and form fight clubs. They are feisty and unforgettable. This book isn’t only about women, either. Some of Gay’s most memorable characters are men–rough men, mean men, weak men, misogynistic men. These men love their women tenderly–when they aren’t treating them like meat. There is sex in almost every story, and it is written to erotic perfection. Here’s hoping that you and your recipient end up reading it in bed together. It’s not out until Jan. 3, so you’ll have to provide a placeholder until it ships. Gay’s gut-wrenching novel, An Untamed State, or her whip-smart collection of essays, Bad Feminist, should do just fine.
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West.
It’s hard to be a woman on the Internet. Lindy West should know; the writer and activist has faced an uphill battle and fended off online trolls since she began writing for Seattle’s alt-weekly, The Stranger, in 2009. In this funny–and, at times, frightening–memoir, West recounts confrontations with misogynistic comics, receiving rape threats from haters, calling out fat shaming, and falling in love with a friend. Women will see their struggles reflected in these pages and men will gain a better appreciation of all the shit the opposite sex has to put up with.
The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky
Aspiring author Leah is living a ho-hum existence with her husband in Queens when her former boss, Judy, has an accident in her beloved red sports car. Judy doesn’t survive, but the car does, and Leah is the new owner according to Judy’s will. The funeral and the mission to recoup the car provide the perfect excuse for Leah to hit the pause button and reconsider where she would be if only she’d listened to Judy’s advice. Author Marcy Dermansky packs a lot of self-discovery, wisdom, and rebellion into this thin tome, surprising the reader every step–err, mile–of the way.
For the Aimless Millennials
How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky
Advice giver Heather Havrilesky of “Ask Polly” fame compiled the best questions and answers from her longtime column in this book where no topic is off-limits: career changes, creative aspirations, family deaths, depression, adultery. The author’s kick-ass guidance uses plenty of curse words and pop culture references (“What would Kanye do?”) that make reading about other people’s misery the most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Remember working in restaurants in your 20s? No? Lucky you. For the rest of us, there’s Sweetbitter, a novel by Stephanie Danler that will have you waxing nostalgic about your time waiting tables. From the moment protagonist Tess arrives in New York City and immerses herself in culinary culture, Danler captures the invigorating energy of restaurant life as well as the aching loneliness that overwhelms a newcomer in the city that never sleeps. You may be frustrated by Tess’ egotism at times, but isn’t that what 20-somethings are known for?
For the Change-Makers
Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders
Only a week after the United States’ presidential race culminated in the election of Donald Trump, discarded Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders released his campaign trail memoir. The Vermont senator is as fired up as ever as he recalls defining events from his childhood and poignant moments from his harrowing fight against Hillary Clinton in the primary before outlining his vision for the future. If the results of the 2016 election left you feeling deflated, this book will get your political fire stoked again.
Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers by Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale
Long before Black Lives Matter, there were the Black Panthers. Oft misunderstood by the public and misrepresented by the press, the political party’s members organized the Free Breakfast for Children program, free sickle-cell anemia testing, free preventative health care clinics, voter registration drives, and many other programs. (Of course, the only thing most people remember the group for is the call to armed self-defense against the police.) This retrospective, released on the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers’ formation, includes reflections by founder Bobby Seale and photographs by then University of California-Berkeley student Stephen Shames.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
As one of the most lauded books of the year, The Underground Railroad won the prestigious National Book Award, received praise from Oprah (and inclusion in her exclusive book club), and hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. But don’t be fooled; this is not a pleasurable read. Check your privilege and expectations at the door and get ready to be uncomfortable as you follow cotton plantation slave Cora, who, after suffering the indignities and abuse rampant in the pre-Civil War era, hatches an escape plan with a man named Caesar. Her heroic journey to freedom is anything but easy.
For the Aging Fathers
Zero K by Don DeLillo
In this darkly funny novel, 17-time novelist Don DeLillo follows Jeffrey Lockhart and his father, Ross, an investor in a secret compound where bodies are preserved until future advances can revive them. Ross’ young wife, Artis, has decided to have her body preserved. Despite its sci-fi-sounding plot, the book is ultimately about relationships, what makes life worth living, and whether or not “controlling” death makes it any less terrifying. If you and your dad have unfinished business, this might prove to be a good ice-breaker.
Bucky F*cking Dent by David Duchovny
Ivy-league educated and failed writer Ted Fullilove is trying to lift his father’s spirits. He’s noticed that the old man (afflicted with lung cancer) suffers a dip in health whenever the Red Sox lose. With the help of elderly neighbors and his father’s grief counselor, Ted creates the illusion of a Sox winning streak and re-cements a long-lost bond with his father. Bucky F*cking Dent is packed with baseball stats and terminology, yes, but ultimately it’s about the lengths men go to to bond with one another.
For the Gossip-Loving Mothers
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
This multi-generational saga languorously traces 50 years of fraught family relationships. The autobiographical novel opens in an age where the men are men (read: work in law enforcement), the women raise children, and the oranges are always ripe. As each member of two blended families grows up and leaves home, they learn that their actions have serious, often unintended, consequences.
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
Most bibliophiles are familiar with the prolific, award-winning writer Louise Erdrich. But this elegant tale about the fracture caused in two families by the accidental shooting of a young boy is perhaps the author’s best thus far. Themes of masculinity, addiction, revenge, and meddling exes create a delicious tension throughout a story that takes place over several years and includes cultural touchstones like Y2K and the Iraq War.
For The Baby-Crazy
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
This critically-acclaimed novel explores racism, gender roles, and secrecy in a black community in Southern California. Poetic and gripping, this narrative centers on Nadia Turner, a 17-year-old coping with the suicide of her mother and an unintended pregnancy thanks to a preacher’s son. As she soldiers on through young adulthood, Nadia must reconcile what could have been with what is.
The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs
Infertility is not an easy subject to talk about, and it’s certainly not written about much. Author Belle Boggs was inspired to write a book about her own struggle after an essay by the same name was received with outstanding response from readers. Part memoir, part cultural critique, The Art of Waiting delicately examines what drives women to become mothers as well as how one copes when that goal proves elusive.