Tag Archives: Best of 2016

Longreads Best of 2016: Essays & Criticism

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in essays and criticism.

* * *

Kiese Laymon
A Professor of English and Creative Writing at University of Mississippi, and author of forthcoming memoir, Heavy.

Chicago State of Mind (Derrick Harriell, LA Review of Books)

Derrick Harriell wrote a piece on Chicago State that challenged my understanding of what’s possible with form and content in the long lyric essay. The piece narrativizes educational place and the journey of learning in a beautiful black place that’s trying to survive.


Mira Ptacin
Writer whose work has appeared in NPR, New York Magazine, Guernica, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Tin House, The Rumpus, and more. Author of the memoir Poor Your Soul, and teacher of memoir to women at the Maine Correctional Center.

On Domestic Disobedience (A.N. Devers, The New Republic)

I nominate this sharp-eyed and insightful piece not only because it brilliantly gave us a taste of Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection, but it gives it its proper place in the family tree of nature-writers by blowing “nature-dude” writing out of the water. Devers shows readers how important and triumphantly Bennett’s penmanship is, even in its simplicity: how even writing about the goings-on in the microcosm of a kitchen can dip into great depths to the mind and soul.


Tobias Carroll
Freelance writer, managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and author of the books Reel and Transitory.

Advanced Search (Franceska Rouzard, Real Life Magazine)

The right essay can turn an object or memory that I’d previously found mundane into the stuff of gripping narrative. Such is the case here, as Rouzard’s essay opens with descriptions of AOL dial-up in the mid-1990s before segueing into a capsule history of social media, and then extending into broader questions of identity and the sacred. It neatly parallels its author’s life with broader societal questions, keeping the two in perfect balance, and leaving me with a greater sense of both–I can’t ask a great essay to do more than that.


Sara Benincasa
Screenwriter, comedian, and writer, whose books include Agorafabulous, Great, DC Trip, and Real Artists Have Day Jobs.

Southern Fried Pride: What Hattiesburg’s First Pride Means in the Deep South (Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Medium)

The Reverend Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of the United Church of Christ is a wife, a mother, a lesbian, a former college professor (I took her class at Warren Wilson College), and the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. In this piece, Jasmine takes a road trip across the Deep South to visit Hattiesburg, Mississippi on the occasion of its very first Pride parade. People like Jasmine do the work that all Americans need, whether they accept it or not. In her peaceful, dignified but impassioned manner, she fights for equality for all Americans. That she happens to be a damn fine storyteller is just icing on the deep-fried cake.

More Than Coffee: New York’s Vanishing Diner Culture (George Blecher, The New York Times)

George Blecher paints a wonderful portrait of the diner he loves the most. He also gives a great bit of history about the rise of the diner in New York City. I grew up in New Jersey, which has its own brilliant and thriving diner culture but I lived in New York for many years. The old diner joints there are just as important as George says. Here in my newer home in Los Angeles, a city I love, I’ve got a few diners I can depend on: in Silverlake, Sunset Junction Coffee Shop; in Los Feliz, House of Pies; and more scattered around town. And in Manhattan, at 100th and Broadway, George has the Metro – for now.


Emily Gould
Half of the Coffee House Press imprint and e-bookstore Emily Books, and the author, most recently, of the novel Friendship.

H.: On Heroin and Harm Reduction (Sarah Resnick, n+1)

This year I started teaching writing workshop classes for the first time, and a lot of students want to learn how to do exactly what Sarah Resnick does here–and so do I! Addressed to a relative with a longstanding heroin habit, as well as a host of other problems, Resnick’s essay goes down several different paths, ultimately illuminating a lot of what’s circuitous and maddening about addiction and recovery as they’re currently understood in America, and how harm reduction programs work. The essay’s idiosyncratic, personal approach makes it more convincing than a straightforward argument for a new understanding of addiction could be. Reading it is memorable the way an experience is.

Perhaps Having Kids Saves You From Mourning the Person you Might Have Been (Laura Hazard Owen, Medium and tinyletter)

Owen publishes her essays about parenthood via newsletter as well as on Medium. She’s a journalist with expertise in publishing, tech and the business of journalism, and she brings the same kind of skepticism about received wisdom and eye for detail to her observations about children and parenting culture as she does to her other work. In this one, she takes on the hardest question of all — whether having children could be a mistake, whether parents can allow themselves to think it might have been. She writes about ambition so well. I will always remember the line here about lying on a couch reading in a beautiful house.


Porochista Khakpour
Author of the forthcoming memoir, Sick (Harper Perennial, August 2017) and the novels The Last Illusion, and Sons & Other Flammable Objects, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bookforum, Elle, Spin, Slate, and many other publications around the world.

The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Buzzfeed)

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah has become my favorite writer of my generation since I first read her writing about Dave Chappelle in The Believer several years ago (it was a National Magazine Award finalist, collected in The Best American Nonrequired Reading as well as The Believer’s anthology Read Harder). Since then I’ve been a fan of every piece of hers and this chronicle of traveling to the home of James Baldwin in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France is no exception. (It’s a highlight of what I consider one of the best books of the year, the Jesmyn Ward-edited The First This Time). Ghansah writes about Baldwin from all different angles and with every emotion, braided with her own issues of identity. The result is a hard, rough, beautiful diamond of piece, pushed to brilliance from considerable pressure. Ghansah is perhaps one of the only writers we have today who can live up to Baldwin in so many shades of style and substance.

Who are All the Trump Supporters? (George Saunders, The New Yorker)

Saunders has always been one of my favorite writers–it’s physically impossible for me to not read a piece by him–but this classic from last summer will be surely studied for decades if not centuries in the future. Trump and his supporters are a perfect match for Saunders, who although a liberal, often sketches the America Trump supporters know well in his fiction. The trademark Saundersian dark absurdism is a perfect fit for taking to the campaign trail and interviewing Trump supporters at rallies in Arizona, Wisconsin and California. The result is as funny as it frightening. It’s doubly a punch in the gut to read it now that Trump is, somehow, our president-elect.”Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail,” Saunders writes, and ends almost prophetically: “But I imagine it that way now.”


Emily Perper
Emily Perper is a writer, bookseller and contributing editor at Longreads. In addition to word-work, they’re on the board of The Frederick Center, which provides resources for queer people in central Maryland.

My Son, the Prince of Fashion (Michael Chabon, GQ)

Both of my “best of” personal essay nominations concern the reaches and limits of parenthood. At GQ, novelist Michael Chabon writes about his trip to Paris Men’s Fashion Week, where his young son, 13-year-old Abe, catches a glimpse of his future and yearns after his tribe. I’d never presume to understand the intricacies of childrearing, but Chabon treats his son with a blend of kindness and respect we’d all do well to emulate with the young folks in our own lives–taking their desires, ideas and motivations seriously, and fostering their artistic instincts. And Chabon is simply an excellent writer, blending gentle self-deprecation with astute observation. He doesn’t need paragraphs of adjectives to transport the reader to the studios and runways of Paris. You are there, sweating in the French summer. You are there, checking out the throngs of stylish young men loitering outside shows. And you there, beaming (Guardedly! Be cool!) at your son, when he recognizes and is recognized.

Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid (Rufi Thorpe, Vela)

Novelist Rufi Thorpe upends traditional discourse around the ponderous/condescending/exhausting query, “Can women have it all?” Instead, she makes a distinction between the selfishness of the artist’s way and motherhood’s requisite selflessness. Beyond her powerful and honest observations, the energy behind her language is distinct and exciting; it’s why I’ll read anything she writes. When I read the line “Children are a hinge that only bends one way,” I gasped.


Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Story Wrangler, WordPress.com and Longreads

Champagne in the Cellar (John Temple, The Atlantic)

During the Second World War, John Temple’s parents hid in a basement in Budapest with a French doctor, underneath a home that German soldiers had made their headquarters. After they separated from the doctor, they never reconnected. For the next 70 years, they wondered what had happened to this man who saved their lives. After his parents’ death, Temple turns to the internet to search for this man, known to him only as Dr. Lanusse. This is a touching story about history, family, memory, and — ultimately — a lasting bond between two families, connected by extraordinary circumstances. Read more…

Longreads Best of 2016: Under-Recognized Books

We asked our contributors to tell us about a few books they felt deserved more recognition in 2016. Here they are.

* * *

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee
A writer whose memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, is due from Ecco/Harper Collins in February.

Him, Me, Muhammad Ali (Randa Jarrar, Sarabande Books)

These are stories that don’t compromise—that stand their ground and say come here, because I won’t come to you. And that’s the most valuable thing to read—to go somewhere other than where you are. The characters are dark and twisty; she’s an Arab American Roald Dahl—the world they inhabit likewise whimsical yet treacherous. Her lively staccato use of language is the perfect foil to this darkness, keeping the reader suspended and engaged throughout. It never plods. Never holds your hand to the fire for longer than a few seconds at a time. The title story, “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali,” is one of the strongest in the collection, interweaving ancestry and tradition with contemporary conflict. There’s not a minaret in sight. Not even on the cover.

The story, “A Sailor,” dissects a marriage. A husband refuses to become angry with his wife for having had an affair. The following excerpt shows you what Jarrar’s writing is like. If you don’t like curse words, this isn’t for you. I like curse words done well. Jarrar does them well:

“She fucks a Sailor, a Turkish sailor, the summer she spends in Istanbul. When she comes home to Wisconsin, it takes her three days to come clean about it to her husband.

“He says this doesn’t bother him, and she tells him that it bothers her that it doesn’t bother him. He asks if she prefers him to be the kind of man who is bothered by fleeting moments, and she tells him that yes, she prefers that he be that kind of man. He tells her he thinks she married him because he is precisely the kind of man who doesn’t dwell on fleeting moments, because he is the kind of man who does not hold a grudge. She tells him that holding a grudge and working up some anger about one’s wife fucking a sailor is not the same thing. He agrees that holding a grudge isn’t the same as working up some anger about one’s wife fucking a sailor, but he adds, one’s wife, specifically his own, would never leave him for a sailor, and not a Turkish sailor. In fact, he says, she did not leave him for the Turkish sailor. She is here. So why should he be angry?”

Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Ocean Vuong, Copper Canyon Press)

Poetry is often under-recognized—and while Ocean Vuong’s has been recognized by Whiting, poetry needs every opportunity to be read. So I’m laying it down here. This is the one to read. Every poem beats with exigency and passion, and his work is complicated—spanning history and time and blood and heartbreak and hope. And yet there is meaningful silence in the words, too—gaps and pauses in the line breaks and spaces filled with guesses and anticipation and questioning. Vuong is a fan of Li-Young Lee and like Lee, Vuong investigates fathers, mothers, country, and historical pain. But it very well could be that he will make a mark bigger than Lee’s.

From Daily Bread:

“He’ll imagine the softness of bread
as he peels back the wool blanket, raises
her phantom limb to his lips as each kiss
dissolves down her air-light ankles.

& he will never see the pleasure

this brings to her face. Never

her face. Because in my hurry

to make her real, make her

here, I will forget to write

a bit of light into the room.

Because my hands were always brief

& dim as my father’s.

& it will start to rain. I won’t

even think to put a roof over the house—

her prosthetic leg on the nightstand,

the clack clack as it fills to the brim. Listen,

the year is gone. I know

nothing of my country. I write things

down. I build a life & tear it apart

& the sun keeps shining. Crescent

wave. Salt-spray. Tsunami. I have

enough ink to give you the sea

but not the ships, but it’s my book

& I’ll say anything just to stay inside

this skin. Sassafras. Douglas fir.

Sextant & compass…”


Ruth Curry
Co-publisher of Emily Books; writer, whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed, the Paris Review Daily, Nylon, Bookforum, and n+1; and author of the newsletter Coffee & TV.

Surveys (Natasha Stagg, Semiotexte)

If Marshall McLuhan rewrote “Cinderella,” the result might come out looking something like this novel, Stagg’s first. Colleen, an aimless 23 year old who works administering marketing surveys in an anodyne Arizona mall, lives a bleak and listless life, online when she’s not drinking or avoiding the advances of the peeping Tom in her shabby apartment complex. Then she meets Jim, a minor celebrity, “online, it doesn’t matter how…Describing it would be pointless and anyway, you can look it up.” Colleen and Jim fall in love and quickly, as a unit, become rich and very famous. The specifics aren’t clear, and they never need to be: Stagg lays out the truths and the falsehoods of the attention economy brilliantly without them. At the height of her fame, Colleen becomes obsessed with Lucinda, Jim’s ex, her obsession growing more desperate as Colleen’s notoriety inevitably wanes. “I curled around my computer, searching for all the things I’d seen a million times. The views were not growing as steadily, but they were growing, and would always grow, never diminish… I grabbed my phone and muscle memory led me to look up Lucinda’s Twitter. It looked as if all of it had been deleted. How stupid is she? I thought. You can’t really delete any of it.” Stagg’s dark wit, her accurate-to-the-millimeter rendering of the physical and psychological experience of consuming and being consumed by social media, and the emergence of Lucinda as someone whose power comes from her ability to be completely sustained by her own inner life — or at least, appear that way — makes Surveys really special.

The Black Wave (Michelle Tea, Feminist Press)

The DMV is no longer issuing driver’s licenses and the names of the fish that have gone extinct are crossed out on the walls of sushi restaurants: this is how we know the apocalypse is coming to San Francisco in 1999. There’s the thick perma-smog and a vegetable shortage too, but it is the driver’s license issue that grabs our narrator Michelle’s attention in Black Wave, the latest book from Michelle Tea. She needs a driver’s license to drive her getaway van to Los Angeles and escape the codependent relationships, drugs, and squalor (captured in all their pre-gentrified post-nostalgized charm) of the Mission in the late 90s. When Michelle gets to Los Angeles Black Wave bifurcates: LA Michelle, now sober, is attempting to adapt her unruly, unpublished 500-pg memoir called Black Wave into a screenplay. She is struggling, with sobriety, with the ethics of writing about her life and her loved ones, haunted by her past and by people she has yet to meet (in memoir-land, at the computer where she works every day — yes, there’s an element of metafiction at work). But then the apocalypse comes to contemporary Los Angeles too, the actual irreversible accelerationist climate one we’ve all been in denial about since 1999, in a series of tsunamis that will take out the entire West Coast. The mass suicides begin in New York. Michelle’s brother calls in a panic, begging an incredulous Michelle to turn on the TV and see for herself: “Michelle knew once she turned on her television it would remain on for a very long time.”

While telling a literal apocalypse story, Tea also interrogates other life-ending moments with the warmth and humor she’s known for: sobriety, the loss of a love, the practice (metaphorical suicide, if not real relationship-cide) of narrating one’s life for an audience. But it is the ‘real’ apocalypse that allows ‘real’ Michelle to finally finish her memoir, on the last day of the world: “She could, after all, write only the stories she was meant to write. She could write nothing more than that, nothing more or less perfect. As it turned out, time could not be wasted.” Perhaps it’s too on-the-nose to recommend an apocalypse story right now, but not this one. Read more…

Longreads Best of 2016: Our 25 Most Popular Exclusives of the Year

Thanks to funding from Longreads Members and a generous match from WordPress.com, we were able to publish another fantastic year of original reporting, essays, book excerpts, and exclusives in partnership with other publishers and some of our favorite writers. If you like what we do and want to support us, considering becoming a Longreads Member today.

Below are the 25 most popular exclusives we published this year. You can see all of our stories here Read more…

Longreads Best of 2016: Here Are All of Our No. 1 Story Picks from This Year

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2016. To get you ready, here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our free weekly email every Friday. Read more…