2016 in reading: Favorite books of the year

Highlights from 2016
Reading highlights from 2016
Courtesy of publishers

'Tis the season for book lists. What are the books that stuck with you this year? What was your favorite read — new or old?

Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, and Matt Keliher, manager at Subtext Books in St. Paul, joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to share their lists.

"There's so much you get from a book that you can't get from anyplace else," Lucas said.

Tell us your favorites on Twitter @TheThreadMPR.


"The Brother" by Rein Raud

Keliher calls this novel, translated from Estonian, "a Spaghetti Western that would make Clint Eastwood proud."

"Swing Time" by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith's latest follows two young girls growing up in London in the 1980s, dreaming of becoming dancers — but their lives take them in very different, unexpected directions. "Fantastic," Lucas said.

"The Sport of Kings" by C.E. Morgan

An epic family saga tied up in horse racing and the shadow of slavery in the American south.

"The Queen of the Night" by Alexander Chee

This sumptuous novel about a 19th century opera singer with an incredible past is begging for a movie adaptation Lucas said. Read the novel first.

"Grief is the Thing with Feathers" by Max Porter

Max Porter's utterly original spin on grief and loss is suffused with mythological elements.

"The Wangs vs. the World" by Jade Chang

A family road trip novel with depth, cutting humor and insight into life as an American immigrant.


"Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life" by Ruth Franklin

Jackson is an unsung legend in American literature: Her short story, "The Lottery," is still a syllabus staple. Get lost in her fascinating life with Ruth Franklin's new biography, one of Lucas's favorites of the year.

"When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi's memoir, written while facing down his own death from cancer, is a startling, honest, raw and beautiful meditation on what it means to live.

"Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy" by Lewis Lapham

Many books have been recommended for helping to better understand the country after a contentious election — "Strangers in Their Own Land," "White Trash" and others — but Keliher's pick for the topic is Lewis Lapham's look at the fate of democracy.

"Stamped from the Beginning" by Ibram X. Kendi

This National Book Award-winning look at the history of racism in America is a must-read, Lucas said.

"Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right" by Jane Mayer

Lucas recommends this look at how "the money pumping into how we vote has changed over time."

"The Return" by Hisham Matar

Twenty year after his father was abducted off the streets of Egypt, Hisham Matar returns to his home country of Libya to uncover what happened to him.

"My Life on the Road" by Gloria Steinem

Interviewing legendary activist Gloria Steinem was the only Talking Volumes interview that made Kerri Miller tremble, she confessed.

"Evicted" by Matthew Desmond

An astoundingly in-depth examination of what life as a low-income renter is like.


"Look" by Solmaz Sharif

Keliher doesn't think of himself as a big poetry reader, but several poetry collections ended up on his best-of-the-year list. He called this collection "mind-bending and spooky and wonderful."

Young adult

"The Sun is Also a Star" by Nicola Yoon

For those in need of a beautiful young adult read, Nicola Yoon's novel follows a young girl who falls in love on the day her family is scheduled to be deported.

"The Girl Who Drank the Moon" by Kelly Barnhill

Here's another crowd favorite at Subtext: This young adult fantasy novel explores the uneasy relationship between a remote town and the witch who lives in the neighboring woods.

Recommendations from listeners

"Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson

"Grit" by Angela Duckworth

"Wild Swans" by Jung Chang

"The Latehomecomer" and "The Song Poet" by Kao Kalia Yang

"The Thunder Before the Storm: The Autobiography of Clyde Bellecourt," as told to Jon Lurie

"Life of Pi" by Yan Martel

"The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho

"Broken For You" by Stephanie Kallos

"Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce