American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin Poets)

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A Year in Reading: Ed Simon

My reading year was interrupted by the caesura of an interstate move, as we traded in lobster rolls for Maryland blue crabs, Legal Seafood for Ben’s Chili Bowl, Leonard Bernstein for Duke Ellington, and the shadow of Harvard University Memorial Hall for that of the Capitol dome. Don’t take the last sentence as an obnoxious humble-brag; I didn’t attend Harvard, though I often caught the T near there, as now I regularly commute underneath the Capitol South Metro Station, and that proximity to my “betters” is enough for me to fart a bit higher than my posterior. Now that I’m a proud denizen of the District, as us locals apparently call it, I’m not just a citizen who is constitutionally prohibited from voting for my own congresspeople, but also a resident of America’s unheralded literary capital.

Where else have Americans so often fervently oriented both their dreams and increasingly nightmares? What other hundred square miles (well, with a bite taken out of the bottom of it) has so clearly mapped onto the geography of national aspirations? Who doesn’t basically know the shape of the Mall, the look of the Lincoln Memorial, the feel of the White House? New York is the only other city I’ve lived in to give the same sense of spatial “fame-overload,” as perambulations take you by any number of structures so iconic in their import that you can’t help but develop a continual vertigo.

As with my retrospective last year, I’m going to limit my consideration of books read in 2019 to those I’ve taken out from my local library, whether near Cambridge or in Capitol Hill (also, support your local library). In the interests of dutiful fairness, I’m not mentioning any of the exceptional books that I already reviewed this year. I’m also making one alteration; previously I limited myself to focusing only on novels. This year, with the logic that our social reality is as disturbing and surrealistic as any fabulist gothic, I’ve decided to make an exception for one class of nonfiction by including books on politics. Chief among these was the gorgeous Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain. Justly celebrated for his brilliant novel Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, which smashed American idols from militarism to sports-obsession with a deft empathy (not an attribute often associated with smashing), Beautiful Country Burn Again heralds Fountain’s return to journalism.

Since the 2016 election, certain elite publications have taken to reading the tea-leaves of American malaise, going on what some wags have terms “red-neck safaris” so as to better understand the sentiments of those of us who originally come from “flyover country.” Texas-born Fountain understands that the reality is often far more complicated, and he provides a distressing, heart-breaking, poignant month-by-month reading of the election that saw nascent authoritarianism sweep into Washington. “2016 was the year all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest,” Fountain writes, “Screens, memes, fake news, Twitter storms, Russian hackers, pussy grabbers, Hillary’s emails, war, the wall, the wolf call of the alt-right, ‘hand’ size, lies upon lies upon lies and moneymoneymoney—the more money, the more likes, is this politics’ iron rule?—they all combined for a billion-dollar stink of an election.”

Disorienting as well as disturbing to read the account of recent history which all of us lived. Fountain has somehow defamiliarized it, however, and the rhetoric of retrospective history strikes us in its sheer nightmarish surrealism. Turning to historical and economic analyses, but filtered through the consciousness of a poet, Fountain’s account isn’t that of other classic campaign works like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72 or Matt Taibbi’s Spanking the Donkey. Fountain isn’t embedded with any campaign; he doesn’t eat barbecue at Iowa state fairs or whoopie pies in New Hampshire. He’s an observer like the rest of us, and somehow Beautiful Country Burn Again is all the more powerful because of it.

William Carlos Williams wrote that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” If I can stretch my amendment that allowed for political non-fiction to include poetry as an example therein, holding to the position that poetry may not be factual in the same way as journalism, but it is often more truthful, than the most powerful book on current events that I read this year was Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

Because Hayes, currently a professor at New York University and the poetry editor at The New York Times Magazine, was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon when I got my Masters there, I sometimes like to pretend that I actually know him, though the extent of our discourse was me saying hello to him once on the winding, red-bricked stairwell of Baker Hall. Hayes had a mohawk then; the haircut has changed, but in the meantime, he’s gotten a National Book Critics Circle Award, the TS Elliot Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and a Macarthur Fellowship. No doubt he’ll one day soon (deservedly) get a position as the Library of Congress’ national Poet Laurette of the United States. When I pretended to know Hayes, he was simply a brilliant poet, but since then he’s announced himself as a potentially canonical one. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin was in part Hayes’s reaction to the election of you-know-who, but more than that it’s his grappling as a black man with America’s legacy of violent institutional racism. Writing in a poetic form that goes back to Petrarch and defined by Wyatt, Surrey, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, Hayes intones, “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” If it’s true that “Poetry is news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound once claimed, then American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin has distressingly been news for a long time, in 1619, in 1776, in 1860, in 1960, in 2019.

So upside down is our current moment that politics must of course be explored by that engine of empathy which literary critics long ago deigned to call the “Novel.” Some of these considerations are in the form of historical fiction, some through the vagaries of science fiction, but if poetry like Hayes’s is at one pole of human expression then surely the very opposite must be that of dry, government report. That’s the genre chosen by the political scientist Jeffrey Lewis, who moonlights as director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Lewis’s first “novel” is the surprisingly engaging and pants-shittingly terrifying The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. Borrowing the form, feel, and language of actual governmental documents from the “Warren Commission,” the “9/11 Commission Report”, and the “Mueller Report,” Lewis imagines a series of miscalculations, blunders, strategic missteps, and plain political idiocy (in part due to you-know-who) that leads to a brief nuclear exchange that sees the destruction of Seoul, Tokyo, Yokohama, and the virtual obliteration of North Korea. Added to such horror are the detonation of nuclear warheads over Honolulu, Palm Beach (Mar-a-Lago is a target), Manhattan, and northern Virginia when a missile intended for Washington is a few miles off course. Lewis writes with eerie and prescient verisimilitude that “We present this final report and the recommendations that flow from it mindful that our nation is more divided than ever before, particularly over the question of responsibility for the chain of events that led to the first use of nuclear weapons in more than eight decades—and their first use against the United States of America.” Evoking other examples of “official document” fiction, from Robert Sobel’s textbook from a parallel universe For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga and Max Brooks’s pastiche of Studs Terkel’s reporting World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Lewis novel is among one of the most disturbing I read this year, in part because of its dispassionate, objective tone.

Speculative fiction was also the chosen genre for Leni Zumas’s startling, upsetting, and unnervingly realistic Red Clocks. Yet another representative example of a novel written as part of our ongoing golden age of feminist science fiction, Zumas joins Naomi Alderman, Louise Erdrich and (of course) Margaret Atwood in examining trends regarding reactionary gender relations, reproductive rights, and institutional misogyny by extrapolating out from our current moment to a possible (and believable) near-future. Red Clocks is science fiction for a post-Kavanaugh era, taking place sometime in the next decade or so after Roe v. Wade has been overturned, LGBTQ and single Americans have been denied the right to adopt, and creeping theocratic logic infects even the liberal environs of the Pacific Northwest where the novel is set. The novel is focalized through four major characters: a single high-school teacher and historian approaching middle-age who wants a child but is infertile and is running up against the government’s bans on IVF and adoption by the unmarried; her pregnant teenage student who wants to get an abortion; the wife of one of the teacher’s colleagues who finds herself in a stultifying marriage; and a local midwife with witchy affectations who runs afoul of the increasingly draconian state. One of the strengths of Red Clocks is how deftly it shows the lie that pro-choice politics are anti-pregnancy, and how what lies at the center of any defense of reproductive rights is the freedom to make the best decision for yourself. At the core of Red Clocks is the conviction that women must have their right to bodily autonomy be recognized, and that we don’t have to be living in Gilead to admit that things can get just a little bit worse every day.

If Zumas imagines a not-so-distant future to explore her political themes, then Joshua Furst takes us to the not-so-distant past in Revolutionaries. Evoking recent novels such as Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Furst’s second novel is arguably part of a trend of millennial writers attracted to the political radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, while refusing to simply embrace the mythology of the Woodstock Generation as being the primogeniture of all that is just and free. Revolutionaries is narrated by Fred (ne “Freedom”) Snyder, the put-upon, manipulated, emotionally abused, and often ignored son of notorious countercultural radical Lenny Snyder.

“Call me Fred,” the narrator says, “I hate Freedom. That’s some crap Lenny dreamed up to keep people like you talking about him.” If Revolutionaries were in need of a subtitle, I’d suggest “OK Boomer.” Snyder is a not-so-thinly veiled version of Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party (or Yippies), jailed member of the Chicago Seven, and arguably the anarchic spiritual ancestor of the Dirtbag Left. As with Hoffman, Snyder organizes trollish pranks against the establishment, such as raining dollar bills down on the New York Stock Exchange to demonstrate the petty greed of the brokers who scramble after literal change, or in his demonstration against the Pentagon in which a group of warlocks and witches attempts to levitate the massive structure. He’s idealistic, utopian, and committed to freedom, equality, and justice. Snyder is also occasionally cruel, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and unequivocally a terrible father. Revolutionaries neither condemns nor celebrates Snyder, taking him with all of his complexities while asking how any radical is able to be committed equally to both family and their movement.

Recent political history was also the theme of Jennifer duBois’s The Spectators, and as with Furst she excavates the previous decades to give intimations of what the genealogy of our current age might be. The Spectators isn’t interested in hippie hagiography and its discontents, however, preferring rather to toggle between the gritty, dystopian world of New York City in the ’70s when the Bronx was burning and Gerald Ford proverbially told the five boroughs that they could drop dead, and the belle epoque of the mid-’90s when Americans took their first hit of mass marketed infotainment. DuBois’s central, mysterious, almost Gatsby-esque character is Matthew Miller (born Mathias Milgrom), who in the 1993 present of the novel is the host of a day-time talk-show with shades of Jerry Springer. Before his current iteration of peddling shock television—all baby-daddy reveals and Satan-worshiping teens encouraged to brawl in front of a live studio audience—Miller was an idealistic city councilman in New York between the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS pandemic. His ex-lover Semi recollects that Miller “radiated a subtle electricity—something slight and untraceable that kinectified the air around him—and it was easy to mistake this, then, for the particular dynamism of compassion.” Like the actual Springer, Miller was an idealistic, progressive, crusading politician; unlike the actual Springer he was also a closeted gay man. The Spectators’ attention shifts between Semi in the ’70s and ’80s and his publicist Cel in the ’90s, their two stories converging in the novel’s present as Miller faces a reckoning after it has been revealed that a midwestern school shooter was a fan of his show. DuBois writes with a tremendous humanity, a novelistic consciousness whereby she almost magically occupies with equal aplomb both the experience of young gay men on the Lower East Side in the early ’70s and an anxious career woman who grew up dirt-poor in New England. Within The Spectators something else emerges, a portrait of a nation obsessed with violence, spectacle, and ratings, but where sometimes there may still be something noble, since “compassion took work, he always said, and anyone who told you otherwise wasn’t really trying to be good at it.”

Furst and duBois have written historical fiction of a kind, but they’re just two examples of what’s been a growing crescendo of excellent examples of that often-forlorn genre. Like all of the genres that are too often condescended to or ghettoized, historical fiction has been critically disparaged, passed over as the purview of petticoats and carriages. Yet the last few years have seen an explosion of the form, from Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of New York to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. What these titles share is a sense of playfulness within the dungeon that is history, as well as a reverential imitation of the often-labyrinthine prose of the 18th and 19th centuries. Such historical fiction isn’t written as a palliative for the contemporary moment, but rather as an excavation of our fallen, modern age.

Edward Carey’s achingly melancholic Little takes as its subject Marie Grosholtz, an 18th-century Alsatian peasant girl adopted by an esteemed physician who mentors her in the art and science of making realistic wax sculptures of humans. Marie’s autobiography, exemplary and talented as she is, is still from the perspective of one of us commoners, even as she Zelig-like intersects with the great personages and events of her age. Brief appearances of Enlightenment luminaries punctuate Little (as do Carey’s own delightful line drawings), including cameos by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, Diderot, and Marat, Napoleon and Josephine (and the latter’s pug), and by the very end, as if to demonstrate the sheer scope of her life, a young writer named Charles Dickens. So begins her account that “In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761…was born a certain undersized baby.” By the conclusion of Little, Marie is known by her married name of Madame Tussaud, and while her children encourage her to embrace a new technology invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, she believes that nothing as ephemeral as photography can replace the warm fleshiness of molded wax.

Across the English Channel from France, and Imogen Hermes Gower describes a fantastic 18th-century world marked by exploration, trade, and mystery, but also by exploitation and cruelty, in her humane and beautiful The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. Gower’s maximalist door-stopper of a book tells the tale of Jonah Hancock, comfortable merchant and member of London’s rising bourgeoise, who finds himself in possession of a “mermaid” brought back by one of his sailors from the sundry regions of the globe. Hancock’s London is no less enraptured by spectacle than Matthew Miller’s New York, and so the “mermaid” becomes the linchpin of various schemes, even while the bumbling, good-nature, and fundamentally conservative financier finds himself falling in love with Angelica Neal, a courtesan and adept student of the School of Venus, as if a character right out of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. London in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is described by Gower with almost supernatural precision, “The white-sailed ships strain upon it, and the watermen have gathered their bravado to steer their little crafts away from the bank and race across the current… the winking glass of the Southwark melon farms; the customs house, the tiered spire of St Bride’s the milling square of Seven Dials, and eventually… Soho.” A mermaid of sorts does eventually arrive in Jonah and Angelica’s life, but she is neither symbol nor synecdoche, metaphor or metonymy, but something else, with the whiff of ineffability about her.

Across the Atlantic Ocean from Great Britain, and Esi Edugyan imagines a different 18th-century world, though perhaps no less wondrous, even if similarly marked by exploitation and cruelty in her equally humane and beautiful Washington Black. Since her stunning debut Half-Blood Blues, which imagines the fate of a biracial jazz musician living through the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, the Canadian novelist has become one of the most lyrical interpreters of race, identity, and the troubled legacies of history. Washington Black arrives as one of the greatest fictional accounts of slavery’s too-oft ignored role in the establishment of the “New World,” recalling both Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, if choosing to hew away from those books’ parodic sentiments towards a more baroque, quasi-magical realism.

Edugyan’s titular George Washington Black is born enslaved on the Caribbean island of Barbados, witness to the unspeakable cruelties of a sugar plantation overseen by a British master. When Washington is indentured to the master’s brother, an aspiring scientist with an interest in hot-air balloon transportation, as well as being a secret abolitionist, it provides him with a means of acquiring his freedom, which propels the narrative of Edugyan’s ingenious picaresque. Washington, in a manner that made him more deserving of his name than the man whom his master had ironically christened him after, was “of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith that the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.” Washington Black, never content to obscure the evils which marked the emergence of the modern world, also revels in the wide-roaming nature of freedom itself. Edugyan takes her characters from Barbados to Virginia, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, west Africa, the Sahara, and even an aquarium which Washington constructs in London (perhaps Jonah’s mermaid could live there). Throughout Washington Black a tension is brilliantly held: ours is a fallen world which sometimes can still produce such wonders.    

Taking place during the same time period as Washington Black, but a few thousand miles north of sweltering Barbados, is Carys Davies’s minimalist novella West. Pennsylvania farmer Cy Bellman reads an account of giant fossilized bones discovered on the Kentucky frontier, and though the recent accounts of Lewis and Clarke returning from the west tell no tale of massive monsters roaming the American plains and mountains, the gentle widower assumes some remnant of the megafauna must still live beyond the horizon, and so compelled by an obsessive sense of wonder he journeys to find them.

“He paced about every half hour, he took the folded paper from his shirt pocket and smoothed it flat on top of the table and read it again: there no illustrations, but in his mind they resembled a ruined church, or a shipwreck of stone—the monstrous bones, the prodigious tusks, uncovered where they lay, sunk in the salty Kentucky mud,” Davies writes. Bellman’s heart is set on both his dead wife, and the dinosaurs he imagines foraging in a fantastic American west, but he leaves his daughter behind with a long-suffering sister, the young girl both pining for her father’s affections and struggling to survive her approaching adolescence in a young nation not amenable to any weakness. West alternates between the accounts of young Bess, and Cy and his teenage Indian guide as they fruitlessly search for the creatures. As a British author, Davies has an ear for American weirdness that can sometimes elude domestic novelists, and West functions as a parable of lost innocence in the era of bunkum, of medicine shows and tent revivals. Davies writes with the clarity of a fairy-tale, but West never reduces its visceral characters to the level of mere allegory.

Sharma Shields tells tale of a different loss of American innocence, not the terra incognita of Manifest Destiny and all that was projected onto an already occupied west, but what the United States did with that land and by proxy all of humanity well into the twentieth-century. Set in the same Pacific Northwest country as Red Clocks, Shields’s novel takes us to the most pertinent Year Zero in human history of 1945, when the United States first unleashed the power of matter, when atomic fission possibly set the world towards the inevitable tragedy of nuclear annihilation. The Cassandra is Shields’s retelling of the ancient Greek myth about a woman condemned to prophesize the future, but to never be believed by those in power.

In Shields’s novel, the role of the oracular Sibylline is played by Mildred Groves, a secretary at the Hanford Research Center on Washington’s Columbia River, an instrumental laboratory in the Manhattan Project. Mildred is preternaturally odd, prone to strange trances, visions, and fits, and with a heartbreaking ability to charitably misinterpret her family’s abuse in a benevolent light, as a means of preserving her fractured psyche. One of the most engaging narrators I encountered in my past year of reading, Mildred is simultaneously innocent and terrifying; Shields performs a deft alchemy that makes her protagonist seem both unreliable and omniscient. The Cassandra is at its heart a book about violence in all of its myriad forms—the violence of the natural world, the violence of emotional abuse, sexual violence, and the annihilating nuclear violence to end all violence. In prose that recalls Patmos, Shields intersperses the narratives with Mildred’s terrifying visions, of “dark forests, wild dogs, long-clawed hags, cottages with candy-coated exteriors belying menacing contents: cages, skeletal remains, a hot stove reeking of burnt flesh, cutting boards strewed with bloodied fingers.” With language that owes so much to the vocabulary of nightmare, The Cassandra is commensurate with the bottled violence of potential nuclear holocaust. What makes the novel all the more terrifying is when you realize that Mildred’s visions are of an event that has yet to happen.

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s titular protagonist in Daisy Jones & the Six is a radically different kind of oracle from Mildred Groves, but an oracle all the same. Reid’s novel is a brilliant and ridiculously entertaining account of a fictional rock band in the ’70s with shades of Fleetwood Mac, with the beautiful, troubled, brilliant Daisy Jones a stand-in for Stevie Nicks, who has “got an incredible voice that she doesn’t cultivate, never takes a lesson.” Written as if it were the transcripts of an MTV Behind the Music-style documentary, Reid’s characters include bandmates, roadies, producers, and family, switching off between perspectives and dramatizing the variability of memory, with effects both poignant and funny. All of the rock and roll stations of the cross are visited—the combustive bandmates, the groupies, the addictions, and the inevitable rehab—but the result is anything but cliched, rather reminding us why we don’t change the dial when something from Rumors comes on the classic rock dial.

The overall effect of Daisy Jones & the Six recalls classic rock journalism, such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Reid’s obvious encyclopedic knowledge of the singer-songwriter tradition of that decade, combined with her love of musicians like Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, Carol Kane and so on, creates the uncanny familiarity where you almost remember the music of Daisy Jones as if it were real. In a gambit that almost seems like bragging about her incredible talent, Reid includes as an appendix the lyrics to every song on Daisy Jones & the Six’s seminal album. “When you look in the mirror / Take stock of your soul / And when you hear my voice, remember / You ruined me whole.” Just like the white-winged dove you’d swear you heard that track before. To reduce Daisy Jones & the Six to being a mere roman a clef about Stevie Nicks would be an error, because what Reid provides is nothing less than history from an alternative universe, a collaborative, polyvocal, multitudinous rock epic—it’s an experimental masterpiece.  

Ottessa Moshfegh explores self-destruction as well, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation which reads a little as if Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground were written by a terminally depressed, beautiful, wealthy Gen-X orphan living in New York at the turn of the millennium. Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator lives in an Upper East Side penthouse, and ostensibly works as an assistant for a gallery owner downtown, but her days are spent endlessly watching the same discount VHS tapes over and over and moldering away in her hermetically sealed apartment. My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s protagonist reads like an Aubrey Plaza character scripted by Albert Camus, and part of the novel’s freshness and misanthropic joy comes from encountering a woman who embodies all of the existential ennui of those masculine characters of twentieth-century modernism.

Rather than a French Algerian smoking in a café or a Russian dissident wondering what the meaning of life is, Moshfegh’s narrator is a Columbia graduate with model good looks who is able to be as much of an antisocial anti-hero as Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger. “I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks.” Her narrator suffers from an almost terminal case of sleep irregularity, between insomnia and somnolence, culminating in a performance art piece that in the hands of a lesser author could read as parody, but in Moshfegh’s novel becomes a metaphysical exploration. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by giving us a woman who can behave as badly as a man, has its own type of transgressive power. But to reduce it to a Ghostbusters reboot of a J.G. Ballard novel is to miss that My Year of Rest and Relaxation, not in spite of but because of the jaded affect, is a potent novel about depression and grief.

Cofounder of the site N+1 and brother to the LGBTQ activist, political commentator, and Russian dissident Masha Gessen, Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country explores the chimerical Russia of the last decade. The novel is categorizable among the same tradition that led to fiction by first-generation Russian immigrants to the United States who arrived right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, such as in Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutants Handbook or Ellen Litman’s The Last Chicken in America. Gessen’s novel is similar to those precursors in that the nation actually under scrutiny in the title is arguably the United States. A Terrible Country focuses on New York comparative literature graduate student Andrei Kaplan, who has absconded to the Moscow of his youth as dissertation funding begins to dry up, ostensibly to assist his shady oligarch-adjacent brother Dima in the care of their grandmother with dementia.

“My parents and my brother and I left the Soviet Union in 1981,” Andrei says, “I was six and Dima was sixteen, and that made all the difference. I became an American, whereas Dima remained essentially Russian.” The differences between those two cultures, as with Shteyngart and Litman’s writing, is the tension of A Terrible Country; the novel reading as a sort of fictional companion piece to journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s chilling Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Set during the 2008 financial collapse, Gessen’s novel traces the gloaming period between the dawn of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the current midnight of Vladimir Putin. In A Terrible Country Putin’s regime is not yet exactly a “regime,” the authoritarian tendencies of the former KGB officer still tangibly “Western” if you’re drunk and squinting, but one of the things Gessen does so well is dramatize the myopia of the individual before history. “I pictured myself protesting the Putin regime in the morning, playing hockey in the afternoon, and keeping my grandmother company in the evening,” Andrei says, though of course the reality of history is that it rarely keeps to our neat schedules.

No novel from the past few years quite so clearly provides a map of the terrain of national divisions, and what it means to simply try and lives life for yourself and your family in light of those divisions, as much as Lydia Kiesling’s first novel The Golden State. Former editor for The Millions, Kiesling’s novel is an engaging, empathetic, and honest exploration of the stresses of motherhood, professional life, family, and regional identity. Much to the benefit of this beautiful novel, The Golden State relegates current events to the role that they actually play in our lives, as a distant vibrational hum, even when those events can and do have profound personal effects on us. New mother Daphne is a low-level administrator for an Islamic studies program at a school that appears very much like UC-Berkeley, while her Turkish husband has been denied reentry into the United States after harassment by the Department of Homeland Security. While her husband attempts to disentangle his visa situation (while Daphne wonders how hard he is really trying), she absconds with her daughter Honey from San Francisco to her grandparent’s former home of Altavista located deep within the dusty, brown interior of the state. The Golden State explores a California not often revealed to outsiders; it’s not the brie and merlot set of the Bay area, nor the quinoa and avocado bowl folks of L.A., but a different place entirely, accessed through “nearly four hundred miles of road, leading up to the high desert.”

Altavista bears more similarity to Idaho or Nevada than Palo Alto or Malibu, a place beyond the “top of Donner Pass and some kind of geological divide, [where] suddenly the forest are gone and the land is brown and stretching out for miles and miles.” Daphne’s interactions with the locals, specifically a woman named Cindy who is a leader in a quixotic secession movement not dissimilar to right-wing survivalist militias, provides a perspective on national splits more potent than the typical “bubble” discourse favored by the aforementioned major newspapers. The Golden State is the most accurate portrayal of the red-state/blue-state dichotomy published since the election of you-know-who, and all without mentioning you-know-who. Kiesling’s portrayal of that split never pretends it isn’t real, there is no rapprochement or understanding with Cindy, but there is an awareness that none of us are as sheltered as the New York Times editorial page pretends. A denizen of San Francisco can be totally aware of what lay off 400 miles down the road. What’s even more crucial in Kiesling’s novel is the wisdom that politics is always personal, that more than what appears on 24-hour news it’s expressed in the fear of a wife waiting for her husband’s safe-return, or in a mother’s tender love for her daughter.

For reasons not even totally clear to myself, I’d always thought that successful, local restaurants providing accessible food to a large number of people could be material for a great American tragedy. When I lived in small-town eastern Pennsylvania, there was a regional chain of restaurants, only three or four of them, owned by these Greek brothers. The food was basically Applebee’s redux, but I was obsessed with the chain, not least of which because I thought there must be so much drama between the siblings; who got to manage which restaurants, vying for the affection of their immigrant parents, even arguing over the composition of the slick, laminated menus—for so much depends on the jalapeño poppers. Lillian Li basically wrote that novel for me, transposed from the Lehigh Valley to suburban Washington, D.C., with a sports bar replaced with a once high-end Chinese restaurant undergoing increasingly hard times.

Complicated family arrangements are at the heart of Li’s engrossing Number One Chinese Restaurant, a novel which peels back the jade-green curtain at the institution which is the mid-century Chinese-American eatery to provide an epic narrated by a chorus. Manager Jimmy Han, prodigal son of the Beijing Duck House, hopes to close the restaurant down in favor of opening an elegant, hipper location on the Potomac waterfront, but he’s set between the machinations of his perfectionist, professional brother Johnny, his calculating mother, and the underworld figure “Uncle” Pang whose investments had saved the restaurant since its founding. Johnny’s restaurant, to his disdain, is a place of “gaudy, overstuffed décor,” defined by a “deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lightning, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers.” Rockville, Maryland’s Beijing Duck House is the sort of restaurant omnipresent at one time, the affordable, quasi-sophisticated repository of Yankified Mandarin cuisine, all chop suey, and egg foo young, moo goo gai pan, and of course the crispy, greasy, delicious duck which gives the establishment its name. Li interrogates questions of ethnic identity and food, class and food, and family drama and food.  What elevates Number One Chinese Restaurant to greatness is that Li never forgets the humanity of these characters, from the long-repressed love of the elderly kitchen staff to Johnny’s vices and hubris.

Patrick deWitt knows that family is complicated in French Exit: A Tragedy of Manners, which bears less similarity to Number One Chinese Restaurant than it does a novelization of Charles Addams’s The New Yorker cartoons, or as if a Wes Anderson movie produced by Tim Burton. Author of the under-heralded (though filmed!) post-modern western The Sisters Brothers, deWitt is a master minimalist for whom every comma is cutting, every semicolon a scythe. French Exit initially takes place in a seemingly timeless Upper East Side, all jackets with crests and loafers, inhabited by the wealthy widow Frances Price, a “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone” and her adult son Malcolm, “looking his usual broody and unkempt self,” who become Parisian expats after their wealth evaporates. Joining the Prices is Frances’s cat Small Frank, whom she (correctly) maintains is the reincarnation of her despised husband. Frances would seem to be a role made for Jessica Walter, even as Wikipedia dutifully informs me that Michelle Pfeiffer has been cast in the adaptation being developed by deWitt himself. French Exit is a delicious mint-flavored green-pastel macaron of a novel, with just a hint of sweet arsenic.   

A benefit to being a nonfiction essayist reading and reviewing novels is that there is a degree or personal distance that you can affect to avoid pangs of professional jealousy which sometimes accompany reading great writing, and which any honest scribbler would have to cop to. When I read something as tender as The Golden State, as astute as A Terrible Country, as innovative as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or as wondrous as Washington Black, I can console my envious conscience with the mantra that “Well, I’m not a novelist.” With K. Chess’s mind-blowing, psychedelic Famous Men Who Never Lived I can’t quite do that, because her narrative conceit is so brilliant, it’s so good, that I can’t help feeling jealousy at having not conceived of the story first.

Famous Men Who Never Lived gives account of Hel and Vikram, two refugees from a parallel universe who alongside thousands of others are in exile in our own reality (or at least a version which seems nearly similar) after their world was destroyed, living in a New York City that diverged in the earliest years of the twentieth-century. These refugees between universes remembered their “world history… the rumors about forced labor at America Unida’s hidden education camps, about what the Power Brothers in Ceylon had done in the jungles to city-dwelling elites. And she’d remembered the KomSos clearing the shtetls of the Pale from east to west.” As with those dislocated by history in her world, Hel and Vikram are dislocated from the very idea of history itself, where you must “Leave what you own behind.” The result is a novel with not just a clever science fiction conceit, but also one which is a moving meditation on loss and dislocation. Hel comes to believe that the point of divergence involved Ezra Sleight, who died in childhood in our universe but grew to be a popular science fiction author in her and Vikram’s reality, with the later an expert on his The Pyronauts. Chess’s ingenious nesting stories recall Emily St. John Mandel’s similar speculative fiction masterpiece Station Eleven, with Famous Men Who Never Lived giving voice to the dislocations of exile, whether in our world or between our worlds. What Chess accomplishes is nothing less than a demonstration of how literature creates new universes, while expressing that which is consistent for humans regardless of which reality we may be living in.  

On American Sonnets

In 1994, Wanda Coleman published American Sonnets, full of sonnets (14 lines, 10 syllables) that—among other things—don’t rhyme. The sonnets in Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018) pay tribute to Coleman, and continue her project of experimentation with an old, often revered form. For Slate, Stephanie Burt writes about Hayes, American sonnets, and confinement: “Lyric poetry—the poet imagines—works by finding words for someone’s passions, which could also be your own: it can get you out of your one situation, your one body, your one life, though it will not literally free you from a literal jail.” Hayes’s sonnets may intentionally evoke feelings of confinement or discomfort in us, but they also contain the potential to lead toward liberation.

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced



The National Book Critics Circle announced their 2018 Award Finalists, and the winners of three awards: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

The finalists include 31 writers across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism. Here are the finalists separated by genre:

Fiction:
Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the Man Booker Prize)
Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau (translated by Linda Coverdale)
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

Nonfiction:
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (part of our 2018 Great Book Preview)
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler
God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright

Biography:
Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos
Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown
Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang
The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy

Autobiography:
The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story by Richard Beard
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung
What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood by Rigoberto Gonzalez
Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home by Nora Krug
Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Poetry:
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (read our review)
The Carrying by Ada Limón (found in our August 2018 Must-Read Poetry list)
Holy Moly Carry Me by Erika Meitner
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Asymmetry by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanagh)

Criticism:
Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 by Robert Christgau
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt
To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight by Terrance Hayes
The Reckonings: Essays by Lacy M. Johnson
Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith (found in our February 2018 Monthly Book Preview)

Here are the winners of the three stand-alone awards: Arte Público Press won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for their contributions to book culture. Maureen Corrigan won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Tommy Orange’s There There won the John Leonard Prize for a first book in any genre. (Read Orange’s 2018 Year in Reading entry).

The winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on March 14, 2019.

A Year in Reading: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Often it seems everything is terrible, but it is essential, I think, to remember the magic all around us. I recently did a talk in which the brilliant Mychal Denzel Smith reminded us that, “There can be no revolution without joy.” Here are some of the books that made me feel joy and wonder and hurt and left me feeling reminded of the magic in the world.

Red Clocks, by Lemi Zumas, is a stunning novel of women in a far too imaginable America, one where abortion has been made illegal. The different narrators feel in perfect concert with each other and it feels like an essential read right now.

Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi, is another piece of fiction that is totally unlike anything I’ve ever read. It is the kind of book that will save lives in the legitimacy it lends to existences so often neglected in Western thought. The novel accumulates a kind of epic energy as we learn to understand just how much we don’t understand.

There’s There There, by Tommy Orange—have you heard of it? Of course you have. ’Cause it’s amazing. As is Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson, a collection of stories so smart and funny I will teach them for years to come.

Marcus Wicker’s Silencer, Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Chris Kennedy’s Clues from the Animal Kingdom, Wendy Chen’s Unearthings and Grady Chambers’s North American Stadiums were some poetry collections that shook me all the way through.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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A Year in Reading: Donald Quist

I started 2018 homeless. I don’t want that to sound more dramatic than it is. I had shelter—cycling between futons, backseats, guest beds, and floors—thanks to the kindness of friends and family. I also had work, eking by without health insurance as a college adjunct, getting paid $1,800 per course for the entire semester. Things are better now. I’m ending the year with my own space, less scarcity, and more books read. Over the last 12 months, I struggled to parse my obligations to writing when it so often felt ill-suited to help myself or anyone else. In the times when I’m stunned by financial challenges or tragedies both foreign and domestic, there is a moment of doubt; a fear that, at this point in my life, at this moment in our collective history, participating in literary discourse is pointless, even irresponsible.

I wrestle with the practicality of addressing disparities with stories. In 2018, I had reason to ask, What does art, what does writing, do? And what does one owe their craft? And how might pursuing a life of art fulfill, or complicate, what one owes others?

These questions led me through some of my favorite books this year. Accepting that art does not exist outside of context, independent of rhetorical situations, the narratives that affected me the most this year are the ones I could most easily tie to the framework of my own experience. The 12 books below helped me read myself in the midst of confusion. These texts provided answers to some of my doubt; they helped me. I selected quotes emblematic of each narrative and its role in my life this year. When I collected these passages together, I noticed a unifying theme joining them in conversation with one another. I hope to contribute to that conversation. In writing, I hope my voice carries to someone who might need it.

1.
We Are Proud to Present A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, between the Years 1884 – 1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury (Bloomsbury)

“…And tell us your version / of everything when it isn’t even about you.”

(Scene: “Process”)

2.
The Secret Life of a Black Aspie: A Memoir by Anand Prahlad (University of Alaska Press)

“People don’t know it, but they are forests and cities of sounds. Of colors and scents. And each forest and each city has its own patterns. […] These patterns are my time, like your time is clocks, hours, and minutes. Seconds and years, and decades and months. My time is the pattern the patterns make.”

3.
Pacha by Nick Hilbourn (Kattywompus Press)

“Like most people,

I’ve fallen down before a mirror

to worship the absence of things, to pray

to the images in my mind. Meaning, being the fragile compass,

I imagine lives somewhere else, in a well that seduces

with the promise of a rope and provides just enough water to survive.”

(from “The Holy Maggots”)

4.
Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls (New Directions)

“And a world is not art.”

 

5.
Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures by Yvan Alagbe (New York Review Comics)

“At the moment I am a shadow. I come in the name of pain, to sharpen my song, the tongue that bleeds.”

6.
Humanity by Ai Weiwei, edited by Larry Warsh (Princeton University Press)

“The West does not want to accept its responsibility. There are going to be millions of Africans fleeing war. The population is growing, it’s going to double, there will be more famine, more wars, and more refugees. This is not just about Syria. Are Western leaders hoping that the problem will just resolve itself?”

7.
The Linden Tree by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews (New Directions)

“…turn back to the past. Not as nostalgia or history, but in a constructive, optimistic, spirit.”

 

8.
Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed (Scribner)

“It occurred to me that I was borrowing from these systems: Religion, Philosophy, Music, Science, and Painting, and building 1 of my own composed of their elements. […] I had patched something together out of my procedure and the way I taught myself became my style, my art, my process.”

9.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin)

“I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold

While your better selves watch from the bleachers.”

10.
Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña, edited and translated by Rosa Alcala (Ugly Duckling Press)

“One day I suggested to my desk mate that we change the world. ‘How?’ he asked. By talking, I told him. ‘But how can a conversation change the world?’” (from “The Conversationalists”)

11.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead)

“It’s just, I’m stuck. I can see the story perfectly, but sometimes it’s hard to move forward.”

 

12.
Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire, translated by Theo Cuffe (Penguin)

“‘All this is indispensable’ […] While he was reasoning thus, the sky darkened, the winds blew from the four corners of the earth, and their ship was assailed by the most terrible storm…”

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Ada Limón

It seems like the years get longer and longer at this moment in time. Remember when we thought 2017 was a long year? And this year? How do we count the hours as they elongate in the world’s strange suffering. What helped me navigate the world most this year (and every year?) was books. While I travel constantly and I’m often on the road or in an airport, it was living with a variety of other voices that helped me to feel grounded, less isolated.

I read a great deal, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. Like most writers, my desk and nightstand are full of books on the to-read pile. Still, I not only read, I also listened to audiobooks. I was drawn to work that spoke to me in that moment, work that was recommended and passed on to me by dear pals. Lists are always impossible and I hate to leave anyone out, but I am going to do my best to be truthful here. These are the books that I adored, that moved me, that I would pass on to anyone. I read widely so my list covers fiction, non-fiction, young adult, and my beloved poetry.

In terms of novels, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend really blew me away for numerous reasons, but I was struck by the sheer power of her sentences, her eviscerating eye, and how she was able to meld both canine and human grief in a way that left me devastated. Tommy Orange’s There There had me deeply disturbed and enthralled, not only for the characters and cultural veracity, but because I think he’s an incredible master of time. I also adored Hannah Pittard’s Visible Empire for the intense, witty, and complex characters. I admit that I didn’t read a ton of young adult fiction this year, but I loved Carrie Fountain’s I Am Not Missing.

I read a few surprisingly good memoirs this year and my favorites would have to be Heavy by Kiese Laymon for the way it surrenders to self-incrimination and how the book is truly a love letter to both his mother and himself. Of course Gregory Pardlo’s Air Traffic was exceptionally well written and gave us a deep look into toxic masculinity and the pitfalls of the ego. Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries was brutal and stunning and honest in a way that felt necessary. I’d also like mention Letters from Max by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo. This is a book of letters between two artist friends before Max’s untimely death. It’s sublime.

Now, poetry is my heart’s blood, so this category is tough because I love so many poets that are writing today. I thought José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal was a powerful debut that was as ruckus as it was artful, as was Raquel Salas Rivera’s lo terciario/ the tertiary. Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water was breathtaking. Wonderland by Matthew Dickman was such a keen exploration of whiteness and the poems are revelatory. Tiana Clark’s book I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood delivers a lesson on excavating the body and its history. Eye Level by Jenny Xie is a high wire act that deserves attention. I was floored by the relentlessness of Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky. Forrest Gander’s Be With left me depleted by grief and lifted by song. Mary Karr’s Tropic of Squalor was hard-bitten and fierce. Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin is a triumph and a mindfuck all at once. If You Have to Go by Katie Ford is a unique and surreal book about heartbreak. Justin Phillip Reed’s debut Indecency made me stand up and applaud. Another favorite of mine this year is the New Poets of Native Nations anthology edited by Heid E. Erdrich. There are so many more that I love, but I will stop there before this turns into a memoir all its own.

Just a few I’m excited about for next year: Ross Gay’s Book of Delights and Dorianne Laux’s Only as the Day Is Long.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

2018 National Book Awards Finalists Announced

The National Book Foundation announced the National Book Award finalists today on Buzzfeed News’ AM to DM. Each category – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people’s literature, and (the newest one) translated literature – has been narrowed down from the longlist ten to the finalist five. The awards will be revealed in New York City and online on November 14.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all five categories with bonus links where available:

Fiction:

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (Our interview with Brinkley; Brinkley’s 2017 Year in Reading)
Florida by Lauren Groff (Our review; The Millions interview with Groff)
Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson (Featured in our February Book Preview)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (Our interview with Makkai)
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Nunez’s 2010 Year in Reading)

Nonfiction:

The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation by Colin G. Calloway
American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh (Smarsh’s 2017 Year in Reading)
The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler

Poetry: 

Wobble by Rae Armantrout
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Our review)
Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen
Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed
Eye Level by Jenny Xie (ft. in our April Must-Read Poetry preview)

Translated Literature:

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi; translated by Tina Kover (Featured in our 2018 Great Book Preview)
Love by Hanne Ørstavik;  translated by Martin Aitken
Trick by Domenico Starnone; translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (An essay on learning new languages)
The Emissary by Yoko Tawada; translated by Margaret Mitsutani (Tawada’s 2017 Year in Reading)
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk; translated by Jennifer Croft (Our review2018 Man Booker International Prize)

Young People’s Literature:

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin (Our three-part conversation from 2009 with Anderson)
The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor
The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

2018 National Book Awards Longlists Announced

And just like that book award season is back! The National Book Foundation announced the National Book Award longlist this week on the New Yorker’s Page Turner section. Each containing ten books, the five longlists are fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people’s literature, and, the newly minted, translated literature. The five-title shortlists will be announced on October 10th and the awards will be revealed in New York City (and streamed online) on November 14.

Some fun facts about these nominees:

The Fiction list only contains one previous nominee (Lauren Groff).
All of the Nonfiction nominees are first-time contenders for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
The Poetry list include one previous winner (Terrance Hayes), one previous finalist (Rae Armantrout), and eight first-time nominees—three of which are for debut collections (Diana Khoi Nguyen, Justin Phillip Reed, and Jenny Xie).
2018 is the first year of the Translated Literature category so all nominees are first-time contenders for this award.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all five categories with bonus links where available:

Fiction:

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (Our interview with Brinkley; Brinkley’s 2017 Year in Reading)
Gun Love by Jennifer Clement
Florida by Lauren Groff (Our review; The Millions interview with Groff)
The Boatbuilder by Daniel Gumbiner
Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson (Featured in our February Book Preview)
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Jones’s 2017 Year in Reading)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (Our interview with Makkai)
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Nunez’s 2010 Year in Reading)
There There by Tommy Orange (Featured in our June Book Preview)
Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Featured in our April Book Preview)

Nonfiction:

One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson
The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation by Colin G. Calloway
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll
Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War by Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple
American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson
The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh (Smarsh’s 2017 Year in Reading)
Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit
The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler


Poetry: 

Wobble by Rae Armantrout
feeld by Jos Charles (ft. in our August Must-Read Poetry preview)
Be With by Forrest Gander
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Our review)
Museum of the Americas by J. Michael Martinez
Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen
Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed
lo terciario / the tertiary by Raquel Salas Rivera
Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey
Eye Level by Jenny Xie (ft. in our April Must-Read Poetry preview)


Translated Literature:

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi; translated by Tina Kover (Featured in our 2018 Great Book Preview)
Comemadre by Roque Larraquy; translated by Heather Cleary (Featured in our Second-Half 2018 Great Book Preview)
The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail; translated by Max Weiss and Dunya Mikhail
One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan; translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
Love by Hanne Ørstavik;  translated by Martin Aitken
Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life by Gunnhild Øyehaug; translated by Kari Dickson
Trick by Domenico Starnone; translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (An essay on learning new languages)
The Emissary by Yoko Tawada; translated by Margaret Mitsutani (Tawada’s 2017 Year in Reading)
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk; translated by Jennifer Croft (Our review2018 Man Booker International Prize)
Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya; translated by Anya Migdal


Young People’s Literature:

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin (Our three-part conversation from 2009 with Anderson)
We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss
The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor
The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam by Elizabeth Partridge
What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper


A Hole in Time: On Terrance Hayes’s ‘American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin’

1. 

A few days past, I stepped into my town’s city council chambers to a sea of “Make America Great Again” hats and signs against “illegal aliens.” The council was meeting to decide whether the city would, in a largely symbolic gesture, oppose the idea of the Sanctuary City bill and sign onto the amicus brief suing the state.

One after one after one, men and women stood at the podium facing the council, donning red hats, draped in American flags, and snarled abuses about criminality and violence, about illegal aliens and rapists—the same vitriolic language espoused by the president. Those in favor of the bill were outnumbered, and a gentleman in the seat next to me would regularly turn to my mother and I to record our reactions to the vitriol—my mother, being a hijabi, was an easy target. If eyes are the window into the soul, and racism is a malignancy within it, those windows showed very clearly what was in front of us; I refuse to believe that the council members did not see it. As the night wore on, one line kept returning to me from Terrance Hayes, sitting at the edge of my tongue, that I wanted to yell: “May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.” It sat in my mouth, and I wished I could let it fly.

2.

In a section of The Diary of a Bad Year called “On the Curse,” J.M. Coetzee meditates on how the fear of a curse is very integral to American literature, becoming in fact the central theme of Faulkner: “The theft of land from the Indians or the rape of slave women comes back in unforeseen form, generations later, to haunt the oppressor.” This idea of a curse, a uniquely American curse, is an anxiety reflected even earlier in Nathaniel Hawthorne:
I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent and ask pardon of heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer as their representative hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back would argue to exist—may now be henceforth removed.
Even from D.H. Lawrence: “One day the demons of America must be placated, the ghosts must be appeased, the spirit of place atoned for. Then the true passionate love for American soil will appear. As yet, there is too much menace in the landscape.” A question: the ghosts of whom?

By this point, it may be redundant to claim that the idea of an American curse is integrally bound up with race, with the machinery of its violence, and the way it occurs in any contemplation of whiteness. Now read:
America, you just wanted change is all, a return
To the kind of awe experienced after beholding a reign
Of gold. A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection
Of your own. You share a fantasy with Trinidad
James, who said, “Gold all in my chain, gold all in my ring,
Gold all in my watch” & if you know what I’m talking
About, your gold is the yellow of “Lemonade” by Gucci
Mane: “Yellow rims, yellow big booty, yellow bones,
Yellow Lambs, yellow MP’s, yellow watch.” Like no
Culture before us, we relate the way the descendants
Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists.
May your restlessness come at last to rest, constituents
Of Midas. I wish you the opposite of what Neruda said
Of lemons. May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.
3.

Terrance Hayes, recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award, the National Book Award, and a litany of other prizes, is one of the most gifted poets working in our language. His new book, a short volume of sonnets, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, is a gift in a fraught moment. These sonnets, existential, political, personal, retain a moral ferocity and urgency that propels that entire cycle forward.  

These are not Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnets, but what ought to be called Colemanian sonnets after Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman, whose improvisational free jazz approach to sonnets is the starting point for these poems. Hayes builds upon this conceptual framework for an idea of an “American Sonnet.” Absurd, pun-filled, shocking and ironic, there is a freedom in these poems that comes marching forward in the same way Coleman’s poems still measure toward a common formal language. Hayes’ voice is level, and his penchant for formal experimentation—which led him to creating his own formal conventions in Lighthead and Hip Logic (such as the Pecha Kucha)—find him immediately at home. What I am trying to say is that if poems are a house, and sonnets are gothic architecture, then Terrance Hayes is our Antoni Gaudí.

However, more than an architect, Hayes is an alchemist whose poems can turn gold into copper or a house into a prison:
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow
Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed
These poems are acutely aware of the literary tradition Hayes works in, with as many references to James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, to Derek Walcott and Langston Hughes, wrestling with the implications of blackness and literary tradition. Hayes’ inhabits the deeply troubling historical moment. But these poems are timeless, by which I mean these sonnets annihilate any difference between past and future.

A motif that appears regularly in these poems is the term, “There never was a black male hysteria.” He explains in his notes, “Many years ago the poet Anthony Butts told me he was writing a book called Male Hysteria…alas, the book never came to be.” In a book unwritten, there is neither future nor past—only the possibilities of both. These poems puncture a hole in time, fragmenting a grief, a rage, a rebellion, an irony so deep that one can only call them blue. These poems are true; they were true before they were written and will be true in whatever future we are slouching toward.

Sitting in those council chambers, in front of this racism unmasked and parading as political theater, those lines sat on my tongue, and I wish—oh, how deeply I wish—I could have turned and said to each and every one of them, “May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.” I got home quite late that night but pored over these sonnets again and again, as if they were gospel.

Must-Read Poetry: June 2018

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in June.

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes
“I wanted to have my form and explode it too,” said Wanda Coleman of sonnets. Hayes names her with gratitude in this book. Athletic, punchy, sardonic, and swift, Hayes delivers his sonnets with a smirk—and also some sadness. Penned during the administration of the “failed landlord,” his poems are immediate, and though they are all titled the same as the book, they are varied. “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” Our feelings and our fears bound in the box of a sonnet. “I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart. / Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough / To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.” We get the sense Hayes absolutely loves poetry, and yet: “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues.” Poems, especially sonnets, suffocate. “My problem was I’d decided to make myself / A poem. It made me sweat in private selfishly. / It made me bleed, bleep & weep for health.” There’s blood in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, but Hayes reminds us: “Still, I speak for the dead. You will never assassinate my ghosts.”

The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward
A memoir in verse, powered by the strains of family separation, sexuality, and dreams. Daley-Ward grew up West Indian and West African in largely white Chorley, England—where her grandparents raised her in the Seventh-day Adventist faith. She longs for her mother’s love—“Mummy was soft. Warm-milk soft / and everything written in our paperworlds/ made hot, small sense”—but her mother needs to work nights, so she falls into a world of stern faith and high expectations. Grandma “is short and round, always cleaning the house to perfection.” Granddad “is ever so particular.” He “spends an hour deliberately washing his face and trimming his beard each night after dinner. His copper shaving kit is gleaming, his routine precious.” Their love is strict, and she wishes to be with her mother again. Daley-Ward is also beginning to be noticed for her appearance: by men, by teachers, by women. She knows from both Disney and the Song of Solomon that “beauty makes people stay…beauty makes people listen to you.” She loses control over her body, as she is photographed and judged and coveted. The Terrible unfolds as a verse drama: a feverish tale of the perils of modeling, of how our bodies get away from us. A reminder: “You may not run away from the thing that you are / because it comes and comes and comes as sure as you / breathe.”

The Body Ghost by Joseph Lease
“You can play self-consciousness, the way you can play the violin or the cello. Sincerity, for me, is emotion made actual. As Creeley said, a primary language—a rollercoaster ride, not a description of a rollercoaster ride.” Joseph Lease’s description of his poetic technique is doubly accurate: It captures his own mode and method but also makes clear his connection to Robert Creeley. Perhaps possession is the better term, borrowing Susan Stewart’s idea of how there is a haunting of meter, rhythm, and feeling to lyric poetry that transcends the poet’s own hand. Lease’s poems, centered and evenly spaced, feel strangely eternal. There are peculiar and precise phrasings here like “the elegies / are taking off their clothes,” capturing the feeling of arising from mourning, but Lease’s most powerful poetic touch is his recursive energy. Lines and words overlap, their meaning turning as if they are a water wheel: “one story—the boy and the wren—the / wren and the night—the face in the / house—your lips slip the night—your / face slips your eyes—your eyes slip / your yes—love like flying—.” Esoteric in its essence, Lease’s poetry is flesh without the bone, a welcome, curious escape.

Of Marriage by Nicole Cooley
The routes and ruts and rewards of marriage live in Cooley’s new book. “Marriage,” she writes, “over and over a re-telling. A dress to wear for days on end. A dress to shuck off, stuff under the bed.” Her long lines feel like stabs of perseverance: “When we fight. I make and unmake the bed, fold on the sheets with small blue flowers / in the shapes of stars to imitate the sky, unmake a space for us to slide inside.” In Cooley’s vision of marriage, memories are constant. The present is a reel of the past. To be married is to be bonded: “We’re roped // We’re stitched // with loose, looped yarn. We’re threaded. We’re the quilt still / unfinished, unbacked, unraveling, batting loosening.” Her play with language doesn’t neuter the word, nor does it diminish the beauty and surprise of its gift. Of Marriage moves from humor to sentiment, as in “Marriage, the Museum of Papermaking”: “Last glass case: here is a card composed of small dark windows. // Look into the stereoscope to see the future: / the light was cool and loose that day. My hands on your back. // Our old selves still unlocatable, written and crossed out.”

Her Mouth as Souvenir by Heather June Gibbons
“Etched into each fallen leaf is a diagram of a bare tree.” A line such as that, direct and new, sits me up—and Her Mouth as Souvenir is filled with similar precision. From “Event”: “During the flood, I was robbed / in the church parking lot. / The monofilament bobbed / to the surface, but not before // I saw myself facedown in the river. / Before we lost our phone chargers, / but after the excommunication.” Confusion, corralled for the reader: “You used to think those lights / were signal mirrors flashed // by angels until you learned / they were just protein particles / suspended in the vitreous.” A little strange, a little surreal, these poems are moments of struggle. Some scenes exist without resolution. A sequence of love poems offers a little salve without salvation. The narrator of “Origami” laments, “I can pinpoint the exact moment / I become boring, but only in retrospect.” She thinks of other people, other windows—like the one an astronomer looks out, how “turbulence / makes stars shiver and wink.” Her poems often bound from place to space and back again, as in “Do Not Leave This Box,” which begins with a warning to avoid “heat and sunlight,” moves to a stockroom, where a woman “unbinds the plastic-bound / boxes from pallets that arrive in trucks,” the type of boxes that were “expertly assembled / in the Zhejiang Province.” There, a world away but connected by cardboard, a woman’s hidden ornamental boxes under her mattress: “On the lid of the smallest / is a woodcut of a crane, for luck.”

Stranger on Earth by Richard Jones
Gentle, conversational, introspective: Jones’s biographical, narrative poems exist without artifice and pretense. In “The Biscuit Tin,” he recalls his father’s Kodachrome slides: “I remember him sitting in the dark / behind the projector, the beam of light / shooting across the room, / the white screen filling with image after image, / the sound of locks opening.” Among an “audience of ghosts,” his father explains the photos. A genuine, earnest sense of wonder permeates Stranger on Earth. Melancholy and moving, “The Hidden Meadow” tells the story of how a boy would lie in high grass and “disappear completely.” There, “I made sorrow’s shape.” Jones is the type of poet to send readers outside, or even to look within ourselves for emotions that we’ve taken for granted. In “Nocturne,” “when the children / have gone to bed,” his wife sits at the piano and plays Satie, “the melody / a serene flowering / so quietly intense, / so lucidly palpable / the children in their beds / hold their breath.” A calming poet of family and feeling and optimism.

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