Elegies and Evictions: 2016’s Best Books

By Kurt Wenzel

“The North Water”
by Ian McGuire

A blood-and-guts adventure story about a doomed whaling ship as it heads toward the North Pole. Comparisons to the works of Conrad and Melville are only half true; stylistically Mr. McGuire is a much sparer writer and much friendlier to the modern reader. But the way he explores themes of good and evil by putting men in extreme situations is right in line with the great 19th-century adventure writers. 

This is not a book for the squeamish: The author pours on more gore than an episode of “The Walking Dead.” It is, however, a swift, relentless thrill ride, and probably the best book of fiction published this year. (Henry Holt, $27)


by Affinity Konar

A deeply troubling and moving novel about Pearl and Stasha, two sisters who are placed in the “Zoo” at Auschwitz, the laboratory where Josef Mengele conducted his experiments. There they submit to Mengele’s tests with the promise that their mother and grandmother will get better treatment from the Nazis. 

Ms. Konar’s lyrical style mitigates some of the material’s grimness, and surprisingly there is plenty of light in this novel of darkness. The rare book that manages to be both harrowing and beautiful. (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, $27)


“American Heiress”
by Jeffery Toobin

If you are around my age, you remember those startling television images as a child — the woman in the trench coat moving through a bank holding a machine gun. It became even more startling when you learned that this woman was an heiress to the greatest publishing fortune in American history. Was Patty Hearst coerced into participating in revolutionary activities, or was she acting of her own volition?

Uncovering new documents, Mr. Toobin lets readers decide for themselves, though never fails to keep the pages turning with this riveting account of wealth, privilege, and revolution in what was one of the biggest news stories of the 1970s. (Doubleday, $28.95)


“Hillbilly Elegy”
by J.D. Vance

Mr. Vance’s memoir, about the pain and tribulation of a Rust Belt family, is being touted as the book to help liberals understand Donald Trump’s election victory. Pulling no punches, Mr. Vance chronicles his own family’s life of poverty, violence, alcoholism, and occasional joy. That Mr. Vance himself somehow escaped doom seems a miracle (a cousin pushed him to join the Marines, and from there he attended Ohio State and Yale Law School). 

But the author’s prognosis is dispiriting: A mixture of tribalism, sloth, drug addiction, and antigovernment sentiment, he contends, makes for a cycle of depression and disappointment not likely to be transformed by brash campaign promises. (Harper, $27.99)


“Before the Fall”
by Noah Hawley

It’s just not fair that the author Noah Hawley is also an accomplished screenwriter and producer, with credits that include television shows like “Fargo” and “Bones.” “Before the Fall” is the best thriller of the year, even if it is not a traditional nail-biter. There is a breathtaking prologue in which after a plane crash a man with a broken arm saves a young boy by swimming 10 miles to safety off Long Island Sound. However, as the writer begins to unravel the mystery of who sabotaged the plane, he eschews the usual thrills and chills of lesser books. Instead he aims his focus on the three great American subjects: fame, media, and money. 

The ending isn’t exactly revelatory; the real surprise may be just how good a fiction writer Mr. Hawley is — there are moments when his prose can remind you of midcareer Don DeLillo. (Grand Central, $26)


“Everybody Behaves Badly”
by Lesley M.M. Blume

A biography focusing on the most romantic period of Ernest Hemingway’s life, when he was part of Parisian cafe society, running with the bulls, and formulating his first masterpiece, “The Sun Also Rises.” There are all the familiar stories, including Hemingway’s epic drinking, bullying, and monastic dedication to his craft. But what is fascinating here is Hemingway’s cynical approach to ambition, doing whatever it costs to become both a great and famous writer. With a nearly Machiavellian eye for success, the “good and true” Hem seemed more than willing to forgo friendships or pit people against one another as it suited his purposes.

And for all this, Ms. Blume still makes her subject somehow sympathetic; she chronicles a man of outsized charisma and gusto for life who still fascinates us despite his faults. (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27)


“The Nix”
by Nathan Hill

A story about a failed novelist and college professor who reunites with the mother who abandoned him as a child. Sound less than exciting? Mr. Hill’s writing makes it all worthwhile. In fact, as the protagonist digs into his mother’s past, so does the author dig into America. There are dizzying asides about education, self-entitlement, media, the counterculture, gaming addiction, American sanctimony, and so on, and all articulated in a variety of styles. 

At times Mr. Hill can even resemble the late David Foster Wallace — just when you think he has written himself into a corner, he comes out the other side, winded, but having completely won you over. (Knopf, $27.95) 


“The Underground Railroad”
by Colson Whitehead 

A story of slavery that reimagines the Underground Railroad as real instead of metaphorical. It must be said that this novel — which won this year’s National Book Award for fiction — has disappointed some readers with its uneven narrative trajectory. Momentum is often stalled as Mr. Whitehead employs his elaborate set pieces in an attempt to reconceive history. For all its avant-garde touches, however, Mr. Whitehead manages to anchor the emotional heart of the story with Cora, the runaway slave girl trying desperately to get to the North. She’s a heroine worth rooting for. (Doubleday, $26.95)


“At the Existentialist Cafe”
by Sarah Bakewell

You hear the word “existential” being used nearly everywhere these days, especially by television pundits and political journalists (“America is facing an existential crisis . . .”). This may have something to do with the surprise success of Ms. Bakewell’s book, which put the word back into the modern lexicon. Existentialism was the philosophy that tried to make sense of the world following the Holocaust and the advent of the atom bomb, and the author follows its evolution from the postwar Parisian cafes to the contemporary era.

Ms. Bakewell gives the reader colorful portraits of the philosophy’s progenitors and thankfully isn’t above a little gossip here and there to lighten the intellectual load. (Other Press, $25)


by Matthew Desmond

Mr. Desmond offers a bleak account of the housing meltdown of 2008 and 2009. The setting is Milwaukee, though it could be almost any other American city, as job loss and predatory lending ravage the lives of the poor and lower middle class. With exhaustive research, the author focuses on a number of families as they face eviction, chronicling the fear and humiliation of losing one’s home. (There is revenge, too, as some tenants decide to go down with a fight.)

The author avoids overt political assertions, though the subtext is obvious: A winner-take-all economy is destroying our country. (Crown, $28)

Kurt Wenzel is a novelist who lives in Springs.