Nobody can really choose the 10 best books of the year, because nobody can read them all.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but, between traditional publishers and self-publishing, somewhere in the neighborhood of a million new titles are released each year.
Even those of us who get to read for a living can't make a dent in that number.
What I can do is choose my favorites from the books I've reviewed in 2016. I'm lucky to read so many good books that even that is difficult, but here are my top 10 for 2016, in alphabetical order, plus two bonus debut novels.
Barkskins (Scribner) by Annie Proulx spans three centuries, six generations of two intertwined families and much of North America in an epic story focused on the timber industry. Proulx's stunningly beautiful prose gives us a huge cast of vivid characters, a nearly hallucinatory realism and an all-too-timely story of a culture destroying the natural world in the name of profit.
LaRose (Harper) by Louise Erdrich, set on the Ojibwe reservation, opens with a terrible accident. While deer hunting, Landreaux Iron shoots his best friend's 5-year-old son. Landreaux's wife, Emmaline, is the sister of Nola, the dead boy's mother. Following Ojibwe tradition, the Irons give their own young son, LaRose, to the bereaved family. What unfolds is a harrowing but ultimately hopeful (and often surprisingly funny) story of family bonds and survival.
Moonglow (Harper) by Michael Chabon is an engrossing, witty, often dreamlike novel based in part on the author's grandfather, who told the story of his life on his deathbed. Chabon transforms that premise into a tale of wild adventure, moving from World War II Europe to postwar Baltimore to the condominiums of Florida, with a strange and moving love story at its heart.
The Underground Railroad (Doubleday) by Colson Whitehead began with the author's childhood notion that the historical phenomenon of its title was an actual railroad, underground. But Whitehead has much more than whimsy on his mind; his gripping, surreal story of the escape — or rather, escapes — of a teenage slave named Cora is a darkly satirical, Swiftian take on America's original sin of slavery.
The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Little, Brown) by Michael Connelly is just one of the fine crime fiction novels I read this year — frequent readers will know I could probably make a top 10 list just from the genre — but it edges out the rest. With this irresistible novel about his iconic series character Harry Bosch tackling retirement by taking on two jobs, Connelly nods to his early inspiration Raymond Chandler while strengthening his own claim to the mystery writers' pantheon.
Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews (University of Georgia Press) by Ted Geltner takes on a task with a high degree of difficulty. It's the first biography of Crews, a longtime University of Florida writing professor who was both a brilliant and influential novelist and, to put it mildly, a very difficult human being. Crews' wild-man lifestyle won him a multitude of admirers and as many enemies; Geltner does an impressive job of navigating that to bring readers a clear-eyed, balanced portrait of the man.
Born to Run (Simon & Schuster) by Bruce Springsteen is a wonderful exception to the rule that rock-star autobiographies are self-serving (and ghost-written). It shouldn't be a surprise; much of Springsteen's genius is his gift for storytelling, and in this charming, thoughtful book that gift is on full display, from rollicking stories of his bar-band days to his moving revelation of his struggles with depression.
Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (Spiegel & Grau) by James McBride is a fascinating look at the Godfather of Soul, whom the author calls "arguably the most misunderstood and misrepresented African American figure of the last three hundred years." McBride sets out to help us understand his extraordinary life and to put him in larger cultural context — even though, as he discovers, Brown was a man who in many ways didn't want to be understood.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White (Harper) by Michael Tisserand is the first full-length biography of Herriman, whose wonderful comic strip Krazy Kat ran in hundreds of newspapers between 1913 and 1944 and deeply influenced several generations of cartoonists, from Charles Schulz to Patrick McDonnell. Tisserand does a splendid job of telling the life stories of both Krazy Kat and Herriman, whose deepest secret — born in New Orleans to a mixed-race family, he passed for white most of his life — casts his brilliant art in a new light.
Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South (Little, Brown) by Beth Macy is one of those true stories that are stranger than fiction. Around the turn of the 20th century, two young brothers, George and Willie Muse, were taken from a North Carolina tobacco field and put to work — without pay — in a circus sideshow. Albinos born to an African-American family, they were touted as "sheep-headed cannibals" and "ambassadors from Mars." Even more amazing is the quest of their mother, Harriett Muse, to find and free them. Macy surrounds their life stories with a wealth of historical research and interviews.
Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (Graywolf) by Max Porter is part novella, part poetry, part grim fairy tale and an indelible depiction of the experience of sudden loss. The book's human characters, Dad and the Boys, are mourning the shocking death of their wife and mother when an enormous crow shows up at their door. The crow is everything from Freudian symbol to wise counselor to actual stinky bird and more.
The Nix (Knopf) by Nathan Hill swings with brio between the present and the 1960s, specifically Chicago in 1968 and the police riots surrounding the Democratic Convention, as the book's main character, a young college professor with a stalled career as a novelist, tries to find the truth about the mother who abandoned him when he was a boy.