On the first day of 2017 I finished The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I was in Tokyo, and still believed that Donald Trump would be impeached, that someone (who?) was going to call bullshit, that we would get a second chance. Stone Diaries follows Daisy Goodwill from birth to the end of her life, and infuses even the minute details of her existence—recipes, letters, addresses—with poignancy and grace. Reading it felt like an antidote to the way women had been undermined by the election results. The ending delivered me so fully into the world that the hours I lived after closing the book have the clarity of something written—the watery sunlight, the moment, in a crowd of hundreds at Meiji Shrine, I realized that the policemen were not carrying guns. Months later, on tour in Michigan, I mentioned the novel to a Canadian friend, how much I loved it, how profoundly it made me want to write. I hated that book, he said. I had to read it in school.
My friend is a sensitive reader, and yes I know this reaction isn’t fair, but I remember looking at him and thinking, would you have still hated it, if it were about a man?
In 2017, years of work come to fruition all at once. My first novel came out. Two books I edited, and love and admire deeply—Exes by Max Winter, and Large Animals by Jess Arndt—were published. Catapult’s creative writing program doubled its classes offerings. Something about all of that, or maybe it was the news, or maybe it was getting off Zoloft and going back on it, or maybe trying to keep my head above water at work while promoting a book, or maybe it’s that I got a little obsessed with my Goodreads reviews—I don’t know. Internally, I suffered a small collapse. It’s not a very interesting story—and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a non-problem. I finally got to hold so much of what I’d been fighting for in my hands, and in response, that inner voice, the most sacred part of me, went quiet. All year, I’ve been trying to wake my voice back up. I’m still trying. I throw books at the silence, and it helps. If you’re feeling quiet, too, in the face of the world right now, consider the titles below a prescription.
I’m tired of men, so I won’t talk about what they wrote in 2017, not even the books by them that I loved. Instead, a partial list of books I read by women, most released into the estranging darkness of this year, many of them debuts. The ones that made me laugh (and in a few cases, also cry): Rachel Khong’s glorious Goodbye Vitamin, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, Edan Lepucki’s Woman No 17, Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Weike Wang’s Chemistry.
The ones that haunt me still: Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, Angelica Baker’s Our Little Racket, Kristen Radtke’s breathtaking Imagine Wanting Only Wanting This, Josephine Rowe’s A Loving, Faithful Animal, Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming to Save Us, Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow, Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark.
As a writer, I found something to envy in every single one of these books; as a reader, I was simply grateful.
There were others, too. I read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, in Bruges, after a photoshoot that embarrassed me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I developed some kind of aspirational writer crush on Danzy Senna after an event in Martha’s Vineyard and read New People in an exhilarating two-day burst; I’m reading Caucasia now. I had never been to Belgium before, never been to Martha’s Vineyard—how strange to be welcomed to these places thanks to a book I wrote when I was a different person. I spent a lot of this year feeling like a liar. I picked up Sallie Tisdale’s Violation, on a recommendation from Chloe Caldwell, and am shocked that we don’t talk about her more—her essay on abortion, “Fetus Dreams,” should be taught in schools. I didn’t read as much nonfiction as I normally do, but particularly loved The Middlepause by the infinitely wise Marina Benjamin, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. I read What Happened, by Hillary Clinton, on my phone during my commute. Poetry-wise, I was stunned by Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone. I read Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce three times, and returned to Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, a gift from my friend Steph Opitz, again and again—as if both books were lifelines, which, I suppose, they are.
I am forgetting things. Forgetting books I loved—I’ll look at this later and want to shake myself. Just now, I’m remembering that this is the year I had an affair with wry, elegant Anita Brookner, that I read Iris Murdoch because my husband made me and he was right, that I returned to Wuthering Heights because of an assignment and found it maddening and melodramatic and irresistible. I read Jean Rhys—Good Morning, Midnight—for the second time in a hotel bathtub in London, drinking wine. I decided I couldn’t write a prep school novel after reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, because she did it better than any of us ever will. I received my first blurb requests and resisted the urge to write back to the editors, to the authors, asking, are you sure? There are some good, good books coming next year—by writers like Meaghan O’Connell, Lucy Tan, Zulema Summerfield, Jana Casale, Rachel Lyon, Danielle Lazarin.
I’ve spent my entire career employed by bookstores or indie presses or nonprofits devoted to indie presses, and yet I read very little by small presses in 2017, which I hadn’t realized until just this moment. An assignment for the rest of the year. That, and reading the things I bought and never got to—Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; American Street by Ibi Zoboi.
So, where to end? When I think of what I read in 2017, the work by women that inspired and motivated and moved me, there’s one book I haven’t mentioned yet. Over and over again, I read Nicole Chung’s forthcoming memoir, All You Can Ever Know, watching it evolve from proposal, to partial, to the honest and vulnerable and vital book it is now—both the chronicle of Nicole’s own adoption, and a larger story about identity and family. It is many things—but above all else, it’s a fierce and urgent story by a woman whose voice we need.
Something to throw at the silence, I think. Something for 2018.
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Here are eight must-read books of poetry publishing in September.
Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar
Akbar’s poems are liminal rides, earnest and authentic considerations of what it truly means to exist in this world. In “Do You Speak Persian?”, the narrator attempts to remember his native tongue, but admits he has “been so careless” with those early words. There’s the sweet texture of grief in Akbar’s poems—how “stars / separated by billions of miles, light travelling years // to die in the back of the eye. // Is there a vocabulary for this—one to make dailiness amplify / and not diminish wonder?”
I love a poet who can talk of the stars and soot, who brings God to the ground without losing a burning sense of awe. This debut begins with a sharp line from W.H. Auden about addiction, and channels that earlier poet’s sense of grandness. Isn’t that one of the purest goals of poetry—to justify our breaths? To recognize that we matter? “Sometimes / you have to march all the way to Galilee / or the literal foot of God himself before you realize / you’ve already passed the place where / you were supposed to die.”
How necessary and refreshing to see a poet truly wrestle with tradition and affirmation. In “Learning to Pray,” the narrator watches his father kneel on a janamaz. “Occasionally / he’d glance over at my clumsy mirroring, // my too-big Packers t-shirt / and pebble-red shorts, / and smile a little, despite himself.” The boy looks at his father, “his whole form / marbled in light,” and “ached to be so beautiful.” Lines later in the book—“I live in the gulf / between what I’ve been given / and what I’ve received”—suggest a poet willing to do the hard work of self-examination, and finding the ambiguity of verse to be the perfect vessel. A gorgeous debut collection.
Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing
This book is a complicated love letter to Chicago, the memory of a girl’s dreams of magic while riding her bike block to block. Ewing’s book feels like late ’60s/early ’70s poetic mash-ups, when poets pushed to stretch the page, manipulate margins, break free (I love how some of these poems, particularly memories of racism experienced during youth, break into handwriting halfway-through, as if we can follow her sigh from machine to hand, mystical dreams where those who spew hate transfigure in some form of cosmic justice). “The work of the poet is not unlike the work of being black. / Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory, / the plenitude of joy and questions and delights and curiosities.” Other days, “you wonder if exile would be too lonely.”
Ewing’s poems often return to the theme of a creation story, a re-imagining of her place in a world where others have tried to claim her. “How I Arrived” offers a litany of births: “in flight from a war for my own holy self, / clinging to a steamship” and “I fell out of the dirt.” Electric Arches reminds me that magic is made of asphalt and chain-link fences, the lives we painfully live in our childhoods where imagination offers us bodily escape. “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went On Then” is tucked near the end of the book, a good spot because it contains an entire world, full of Ewing’s long but controlled lines. If you’ve ever lived a minute in a city, Electric Arches will make you nostalgic for those tight spaces—not nostalgic because your city is her Chicago, but because she’s so adept at pulling us back to our wide-eyed youths. “Sing, muse, of the science teacher / looking wearily at the stack of ungraded projects / leaning against the back wall.” Ewing sings of Javonte’s “new glasses, / their black frames and golden hinges.” Of Bo, moving a mop, “the pungent, alkaline smell of the water / and the slap when the fibers hit the floor.” The principal, whose door reads “Children Are My Business.” Where are they now? “Tell, muse, of the siren that called their joy sparse and their love vacant. / Tell of the wind that scattered them.”
Silencer by Marcus Wicker
Wicker is a virtuoso of poetic control: line, phrase, stanza. His range stuns, going from Tupac to God to the Charleston church massacre to how it feels when a drunk, older, white writer patronizes him: “You throw certain folks a rope / & they turn into cowboys.” He can be funny in poems like “In Defense of Ballin’ on a Budget,” and then painfully honest, as when a woman at a party says he’s “just so well spoken” or a waiter at a diner says “Sir, you ever been told you sound like Bryant Gumbel?” He thinks: “I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade— / a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath / my skin.”
It’s difficult to not weep at the world Wicker eulogizes. “The world changes,” one poem begins, before ending like this: “No hoods / but neighbors. Just us. All of us left / with the age-old problem of how best to / love each other.” But then I land on a poem like “Plea to My Jealous Heart,” and I’m given hope in a whisper: “What’s funny is that you think I can stop praying . . . I want to look in your face & live this beautifully always. / O metacarpal, proximal, o distal phalange, all-powerful finger / in a breastplate, touch me light as a feather, please, jog in place.” In Silencer, we can hear the sighs in his smirks, the lament in his loves, the desire for something more.
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
This book demands to be heard. Zamora begins with “To Abuelita Neli,” part apology, part affirmation. “I can’t go back and return. / There’s no path to papers.” His old friends think “I’m a coconut: / brown on the outside, white inside,” and to that he says, “Abuelita, please / forgive me, but tell them they don’t know shit.”
The tension between two homes, two selves permeates this book, and births gorgeous lines: “Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb / will clean your beard of salt, and if I touch your volcanic face, / kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.”
In “Cassette Tape,” Zamora documents the struggle of Salvadoran immigration. Twenty people are packed in each boat for the 18-hour trip to Oaxaca. “Vomit and gasoline keep us up.” A masterful poem with multiple mixes, it is a torrent of self-doubt. “You don’t need more than food, / a roof, and clothes on your back,” he hears. You always need more.
I keep returning to “Instructions for My Funeral,” intoned strong: “Don’t burn me in no steel furnace, burn me / in Abuelita’s garden.” “Please, no priests, no crosses, no flowers.” Instead, put his machete-cut bones in a flask, “Blast music / dress to impress. Please be drunk / [miss work y pisen otra vez].” Finally, “forget me / and let me drift.”
Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward
The perfect title for a book that looks for that hard place between the will and the flesh. Bone contains long narrative poems that trace a narrator’s detachment from her Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, and bittersweet, truncated poems like “Wine:” “It’s never too late to be wise. / See how your spirit has been / fermenting.” Bone reminds us that we are born or bred into certain worlds, and because we can’t escape them, we can never truly escape ourselves.
“Women who were brought up devout / and fearful / get stirred, like anyone else.” Even if the soul is willing, love turns us weak. “Some of us love badly,” she writes, because love “Turns wine to poison. Behaves poorly / in restaurants.” Love soured is still sweet, still strong: “Three years / and I can’t undo the problem of your scent.” Love “is never a / slither, never a little / it is a full serving / it is much / too much and real / never pretty or clean.”
And yet. “If I’m entirely honest,” one narrator says, “I want to stay with you all afternoon / evening, night, and tomorrow,” pressed close “until I don’t know if the sweat on my / chest is yours or mine or ours.” Bone is a bounty of passionate and pained lines, narrators whose hearts have been turned, twisted, and sometimes stomped, but who remain open and willing—because how else could we live?
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
“if you press your ear to the dirt / you can hear it hum, not like it’s filled // with beetles & other low gods / but like a tongue rot with gospel // & other glories.” Smith is viscerally powerful line to line, conjuring a collection that begins midsummer “somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown / as rye play the dozens & ball, jump // in the air & stay there.” This is the world slowed down, lit up, a place where lives are always in danger, where “we say our own names when we pray.”
In “dear white america,” Smith calls for a new freedom and faith, because “i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.” He’s tired of the half-promises, “equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & I just don’t see race.” Smith’s book is like poetic rapture; one poem, “litany with blood all over,” is like a typographic psychotropic, a mind-spinning event that needs to be experienced mid-book, not here in preview. Read Don’t Call Us Dead start to finish, and if your breath takes a beat, that’s the point: Smith is here to call us out, wake us up, tear us down to what is raw.
Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey
“You hear the high-pitched yowls of strays / fighting for scraps tossed from a kitchen window. / They sound like children you might have had. / Had you wanted children.” Sealey’s poems are sources of graceful disorientation; I can never predict where they will end, but I’m in awe of her route. Ordinary Beast reveals our tenuous states of existence: “My mother asks / whether I’d want to live forever. / ‘I’d get bored,’ I tell her. ‘But,’ she says, / ‘there’s so much to do,’ meaning / she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.”
I was stopped often by Sealey’s pronounced lines, as in the cleverly arranged “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You,” lines culled from various poems to create a harmonious, elegiac whole: “Dying is simple— // the body relaxes inside // hysterical light // as someone drafts an elegy // in a body too much alive. // Love is like this; // not a heartbeat, but a moan.”
Ordinary Beast is finely encapsulated in the concluding lines to “In Igboland:” “The West in me wants the mansion / to last. The African knows it cannot. // Every thing aspires to one / degradation or another. I want / to learn how to make something / holy, then walk away.”
This book spans from 1952’s A Mask for Janus to “Wish,” a poem from 2017, made of three perfect lines that I won’t spoil here (spend time with this collection and be offered that final poem as a wink, a dessert). Merwin’s an exquisite poet with a nearly unmatched career in the contemporary poetry world—how he perfectly shifts from short poems mapped with ethereal lines, to experimental work like “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field”—so I don’t need to sing general praises here. Instead, I’ll share a few poems that particularly stirred me.
The humility and curiosity of “On the Subject of Poetry:” “I speak of him, Father, because he is / There with this hands in his pockets, in the end / Of the garden listening to the turning / Wheel that is not there, but it is the world, / Father, that I do not understand.”
When, in “Learning a Dead Language,” the narrator becomes a mentor, telling us, “There is nothing for you to say. You must / Learn first to listen.” Merwin’s verse, I think, is beautifully optimistic, crafted with the hope that we are connected by souls or by words, or by some mixture: “To understand / The least thing fully you would have to perceive / The whole grammar in all its accidence.”
He often reaches the calm, almost otherworldly perception of W.B. Yeats (think “Politics”) in “No Believer:” “Still not believing in age I wake / to find myself older than I can understand / with most of my life in a fragment / that only I remember.” Poetry should bring us to that other place and plane, as with these affirming lines from “The River of Bees:” “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.”