The Best Things We Read in 2016

We asked some of our friends and staff what the best story they read/heard/consumed in 2016 was. We did this last year, and we loved what our friends and worker bees had to say, so we decided to do it again. We all struggled to look back on the year as an entire thing, not just on the last few months post-election. It was hard to find the good, but it is undoubtably a year of stories: the creation, the consumption, the need.

Please, if you can, support us in our winter fundraiser and let’s make sure that those stories that need to be heard are told by the people who need to tell them, in 2017 and beyond. And as we slam the door on 2016, take a look at what our friends and staff came up with for things they loved: books, audiobooks, essays, articles, podcasts. We love them and we love what they love:

Justin Hudnall is the Executive Director of So Say We All, and produces and hosts the public radio series Incoming on KPBS. 

WTF Podcast # 741 with Marc Maron and Ron Perlman:

Why: I listen to the WTF Podcast almost daily because it’s a combination of therapy and The Actor’s Studio that can be ingested while doing something mindless I hate, like going to the gym or managing spreadsheet. This is my favorite, most-quoted episode of the year, because the dynamic created between these two middle-aged Jewish war horses–the vulnerability and candor they get out of each other–is a lesson to anyone pursuing a career in the arts, and how a person thinks is as important a factor as what they actually do or make.
–Justin Hudnall

Natanya Ann Pulley teaches creative writing and literature at Colorado College and was the guest editor for Black Candies: Gross and Unlikeable.

The 7th Man by Melanie Rae Thon

I read a lot of innovative fiction and often forget that the reason others do not is because it tends to push readers away rather than draw them in. For me, innovative fiction engages the puzzle-solving side of my brain. I want to put things together, make connections, and leap through word, character, and story architectures that seem impossible. Not every reader enjoys this type of reading and I certainly don’t only read experimental works, but I find them soothing (even when they are just a plain mess) because they reflect my experience–I’m just a being sorting through images, text, moments, and drawing conclusions and hopes and calling myself a name. When I introduced The 7th Man to my students this year, I was expecting the same discussions about what makes story and character, and how we read through the gaps and gutters even in so-called traditional or conventional writing. I hoped my students would walk away with a new ear towards poetic novellas (and Thon’s exquisite lines), the use of echoes and returns in fiction, and characters as quantum equations and not sums of data. And, of course, I wanted them to encounter a perspective on capital punishment. Instead, they fell hard for this novella (and I along with them as I often do). Sometimes when I’m searching for adventure in my reading–when I crave the type of line that speaks to my senses or the narrative construction that is as unexpected as it is expected, I forget to feed all of my heart. But The 7th Man doesn’t ignore the very heart of why we read or why we need other human’s stories as it gracefully moves through life ephemeral and liminal and raw.
–Natanya Ann Pulley


Adrian Van Young is the author of The Man Who Noticed Everything, a collection of stories, and Shadows in Summerland, a novel. Adrian recently read with us at our inaugural Foundry reading series this April. 

Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss–the first novel in her wild, disquieting Cass Neary series–was my favorite read of 2016. It takes the sub-genre of the anti-hero mystery procedural and turns it completely on its head, subverting the reader’s expectations at every turn with wry anticlimaxes, picaresque plot devices and hints of the supernatural. Plus, it’s steeped indelibly in the culture and music of American punk. I first picked up Hand’s novel, and then read the successive installments, Available Dark and Hard Light in quick succession, because I’m writing an anti-hero mystery procedural steeped in the culture and music of American punk of my own; Hand’s books boasted these and many more thematic crossovers. Moreover, I’d been hearing wonderful things about Hand for years as a writer who delights in the sheer variety of literature, slipping effortlessly between genres in nearly every project she undertakes. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. Generation Loss is the best literary thriller I’ve read in many, many years.
–Adrian Van Young

Skyler McCurine is a personal stylist, public speaker, wonder woman and founder of Le Red Balloon, and a So Say We All contributor and producer.

I consider myself to be a conscious, woke ass Queen and yet, in some ways I willingly participate in my own persecution and marginalization; some of the choices, ideas, thoughts I’ve grown up understanding as “truth” are really misogyny in action. This book was an invitation into truth, myself, and allowed me to question and critique femininity to write womanhood for myself. Caitlin Moran’s book, How to Be a Woman made me look at everything from waxing and Botox to abortion and my obsession with fatness (and why do I fear that word worse than any other). She writes the truth, the real of it, for her and in turn gives permission and freedom to anyone who reads it.
–Skyler McCurine

Tenley Lozano spent five years as an officer in the US Coast Guard. Her writing has appeared on the War Horse website, in O-Dark Thirty, and in our anthology Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home. 

This past summer, I spent six weeks backpacking and car camping in Western Washington with my dog. We would hike during the day, then set up camp in the early afternoon and relax. During those quiet moments in camp, I listened to audiobooks while my dog napped. Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, read by the author herself, held my attention during many long afternoons in Olympic National Park campsites. I loved hearing of her struggles and successes as a female scientist, and she deftly wove biology facts about the lives of trees with memories of her own experiences. It was especially moving to read about her dedication to trees and other plants while camping among old growth forests, or driving on the Olympic Highway and watching truck after truck full of lumber heading for the ports. Hope Jahren did an excellent job narrating her memoir, and the stories of her career, friendships, and family life are entwined with those of the plants she strives to understand.
–Tenley Lozano

Eric Obenauf is the editorial director of Two Dollar Radio, a press he founded with his wife, based in Columbus, Ohio.

The election inspired all manner of reductive confusion that made it tough to dig out of. In the last couple months, I’ve been turned onto the writing of Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, a poet and cultural critic originally from Columbus, who is now a columnist at MTV. His poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is incredible, but what I’ve been drawn to especially are his essays, which grapple with a storm cloud of confounding emotions with prose that is immediate, personal, poetic, sometimes funny and always deeply touching. His essay from last week, anointing Chance the Rapper as artist of the year at MTV, is a great example of the way he’s able to take music criticism and apply a worldview that is broad in scope while remaining deeply personal. I’ve enjoyed Hanif’s essays so much, that I contacted the writer and we’ll be publishing a collection of them next winter at Two Dollar Radio.
–Eric Obenauf

Lauren Marie Fleming wrote the book Bawdy Love: 10 Steps to Profoundly Loving Your Body, and her work has appeared in VICE, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a So Say We All teaching artist and coach.

The literary community often gets snobby about quick-read paperback novels, but I think there is a lot of value in the escapism these kinds of books can give us. This year, I was elbow deep in writing and editing my own weighty novel, giving it all of my brain power and emotional energy, so I especially appreciated sitting down at the end of the day with an easy read. I read many young adult and romance novels, but I got completely addicted to the Alex Craft novels by Kalayna Price. If you’re into paranormal romance novels (and who isn’t?), I highly suggest them.
–Lauren Marie Fleming

Nancy first performed on the So Say We All VAMP stage in 2013 and since then has volunteered in all capacities, from writing coach to SSWA board president in 2016. She is a founding member of the independent, non-profit City Works Press.

In Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays, I could point to stand out essays that cover more political ground, more cultural criticism, but I’m sweet on Gay’s personal reflection and honest bafflement about why in high school she gave up on being likeable and thus in trying to tell her truth, discovered she had then been typecast as a mean girl.
I craved everything Gay had to say about the limits to which a woman character in a book, film, or real life, could be unlikeable. You can read the essay for all the examples she explores.
What I’ve reread and pondered is the part of the essay where she unflinchingly gazes back at her younger girl self and finds the point in time (junior in high school) when she no longer cared what people thought about her; where she determined she was just being honest and human–although she allows she lacked tact–; and where she sensed that such qualities were generally unlikeable in women.
Gay challenges her reader to embrace imperfection, resist labels, and consider, if one is a writer as well as a reader, that writing is a political act.

–Nancy Cary

Jahleh Ghanbari is an MFA fiction student, an editor for Poetry International, as well as a VAMP contributor. 

I’m currently enrolled in the MFA program at San Diego State so, admittedly, I’m not reading very much beyond what is assigned to me these days. Fortunately, I have some amazing reading lists from the classes that I take and one of the books, in particular, struck me so profoundly as I made my way through it. It is one of those books that stays with you long after you read it, and while you are reading it, illuminates everything around you at a slant. It’s not a new book, but it was new to me. John Berger’s King is a heartbreaking insight into the story of a homeless couple, and their community at an encampment, told through the eyes of their dog, King. Humanity fills the pages in Berger’s poetic lines. The book takes place over the course of one day, but the amount of beautiful nuance that is stretched over 24-hours is enough to make you realize that every human being, no matter what their situation, has had a life, has stories to tell – something we should all know, inherently, but certainly need to be reminded of. We all sit far too comfortably in our egos, and once in a while, need to be ejected from those seats.
–Jahleh Ghanbari

Ryan Bradford is the author of Horror Business and founding editor of Black Candies, So Say We All’s journal of literary horror.

I read a lot of great stuff this year, so it’s hard to qualify “best” for me. I will say that the thing I read that had the most singular impact on me was “No Matter Which Way We Turned,” an ultra-short horror story by Brian Evenson, published on People Holding. It’s got a masterful, economic (almost disarming) use of language, which is classic Evenson, but it also maintains a peripheral horror throughout its short duration. Uncertainty, dread and ambiguity always make the most effective horror stories, and this story checks all those boxes. I still get chills every time I read it.
–Ryan Bradford

Julia Dixon Evans is the author of the forthcoming novel Other Burning Places, and serves as production director for So Say We All.

In a year saturated with tweet threads and brilliant political must-reads, I wolfed down everything I could, and most of it has run together in a (somewhat monotonous) blob of importance. So the standout for me this year was probably some insane fiction, the novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman. Every word, every piece of food, everything on television: it all had total pay off. Relationships in particular: the line between intimacy and insanity, the line between being close and being oppressed. It seemed like the entire first 2/3 of the book is a super insightful look into how human connection can look (and be sabotaged) from deep in the interior. And in that way, this book made me feel like our human flaws are simple little avatars for everything powerful (bad?) in the world.  Gorgeous and wild.

“I felt a smothered hunger beating out from the unseen places inside my body. I felt corseted in skin. I wanted to turn myself violently inside out. I wanted to throw myself into the outside and begin tearing off chunks of it for food.” (from You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine)
–Julia Dixon Evans

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