DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has her list of the 10-best books of the year. From historical fiction to rock 'n' roll memories to biographies of nasty women, it's a packed list.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I hesitate to say it, but the one word that characterizes my best books of 2016 list is serious. These books aren't grim and they're certainly not dull, but collectively they're serious about tackling big, sometimes difficult subjects. And they're also distinguished by seriously good writing.
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is my pick for the book of the year. When Whitehead made his debut in 1999 with "The Intuitionist," he was praised for his ingenuity. After all, who thinks up a novel about race featuring elevator inspectors? "The Underground Railroad," set in antebellum America, is every bit as imaginative while its vision of the surreal insanity of racism is even more devastating.
Whitehead's premise is that the Underground Railroad was an actual network of trains running beneath the soil of the American South. His story follows an enslaved woman named Cora in flight from a plantation in Georgia. Whitehead's novel bows to other great African-American writers from Harriet Jacobs to Ralph Ellison, who've chronicled similar journeys. Yet even in doing so, Whitehead's "Underground Railroad" is one of a kind.
Two other terrific novels this year also confronted slavery. "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi was the best debut novel I read. It's a vivid multigenerational family saga that opens in 18th-century Ghana with a depiction of the slave trade among Africans. "Underground Airlines" by Ben H. Winters approaches the topic of slavery through the genres of alternative history and noir suspense. Winter's novel is set in a present time where the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists on corporate plantations in some Southern states called the Hard Four.
Jonathan Safran Foer's "Here I Am" is also set in the present. It's a thick novel about a marriage and family falling apart, a personal disaster paralleled on a grand scale by a devastating earthquake in the Middle East. "The Wonder" by Emma Donoghue is just that - a wonder of a story about religious delusion and self-denial set in 19th-century Ireland.
Like her 2010 breakout novel "Room," which was also a film, "The Wonder" is set in a confined space. But these small rooms of Donoghue's teem with drama and great moral questions. Olivia Laing also writes about small rooms in her arresting hybrid work of memoir, biography and criticism called "The Lonely City."
Laing investigates the connection between loneliness and creativity in the work of artists like Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol. For most of her life, Eleanor Roosevelt battled bouts of depression which she called her Griselda moods that stemmed from her lonely childhood. In the third and final volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's grand biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Cook chronicles how Eleanor nevertheless contained her personal demons to push for New Deal programs and civil rights, even as FDR's attention was claimed by the war.
Another woman who wasn't afraid of a good fight is the subject of one of this year's most compelling biographies. "Eyes On The Street" by Robert Kanigel traces the life of Jane Jacobs, the writer and activist who fought Robert Moses's plan to build an expressway through the heart of Lower Manhattan. Jacobs also wrote "The Death And Life Of Great American Cities," one of the classic books about New York.
Two memoirs complete my list of the year's best. Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run" is a lyrical and self-aware spin on the essential American story of the kid from nowhere who grows up to become somebody, in this case The Boss. About holding onto his roots, Springsteen says, I didn't want to erase, escape, forget or reject. I wanted to understand. No one you have ever been and no place you have ever gone ever leaves you. The new parts of you simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride.
Most of us move forward in denial that the ride will someday end. But neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was caught up short at the age of 36 by a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. His posthumously-published memoir "When Breath Becomes Air" is by turns a raw and elegant inquiry into the meaning of it all in the face of death. Several times he quotes the famous Samuel Beckett line I can't go on. I'll go on. His memoir is in part Kalanithi's own way of going on. That's a qualified kind of miracle that books make possible.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find all of Maureen's year-end recommendations at freshair.npr.org. And to browse more than 300 titles recommended by NPR staff and critics, visit the Book Concierge at npr.org/bestbooks.
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