The uncategorizable, the mongrel, the hybrid, the impure: I don’t consciously say I’m looking for any of those traits when I pick up a book, but I get excited by any piece of art that makes itself up on its own terms, that says no in its quiet (or loud) way to the call of obedience and conformity. I think all of the books on my list say no, as if that no were an affirmation, and I’m sure that’s why I’ll keep going back to them not just in the present, but 10 years from now.
While many contemporary novels restrict themselves to a tight focus, Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway gives itself permission to sprawl. Its characters come and go, live and die, lace together in startling, unexpected ways. Its sentences ring with insight and dark charm. Entire paragraphs feel like song, even those spotlighting a minor character—see the page featuring the woman who adopts wild animals and takes them into her bed. The thing is, there are no minor characters in McCracken’s work, and that notion is central to her vision: Everyone has a face, a body, a longing. I can’t think of a book that’s as queer, even if its queerness isn’t out front and center. Who would we be if we allowed ourselves to see that our closest ties aren’t blood ties but chosen? How would history change if we de-centered procreation as the measure of time and interconnectedness? The novel enacts those questions with increasing urgency and takes us to a place where the character we’ve known the longest doesn’t simply stop, but re-invents himself once more.
Speaking of things queer, some of the freshest books of 2019 have come from queer writers. I’m thinking of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. Sentence by sentence, these books are alert and alive, written with exacting description and a musical ear. Most importantly, they take queerness into their structure. They refuse chronology as the only way to tell an immersive story. Instead, these are stories of moving minds, minds at work, as they try to shuck off the old narratives that want to shoehorn us into sameness and oblivion. For that, and more, I love these books the way I would love a person.
Finally? Poets. We must not ever forget the poets, those beautiful monsters. Source of all things good, at least when it comes to the word. Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, C.D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum, Toi Derricotte’s I, Dorianne Laux’s Only as the Day Is Long, Carmen Gimenez Smith’s Be Recorder.
This year has been a blur of landscape from the window of a bullet train. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, came out in February to critical acclaim and it’s been a whirlwind. Even before the novel’s official entrance, from August 2018 I was one of five debut authors managing the Debutante Ball blog until this fall. I’ve met people all over the country and heard from readers all over the world—it’s been a waking dream. I feel part of a vibrant writing community. Reading is not just a guilty pleasure, but an essential part of being a writer; I’m delighted to have had a chance to read so many books that have thrilled me and inspired me this year.
One of my favorites has been Mira Jacob’s memoir, Good Talk. This funny yet poignant comic-book is brilliant in its scope of tackling racism and identity in America. I’ve reread this one a few times. I loved Soniah Kamal’s debut novel, Unmarriageable, which is Pride and Prejudice retold and set in Pakistan, Jean Kwok’s literary thriller Searching for Sylvie Lee, Grace Talusan’s memoir of being an immigrant in America, The Body Papers, Chelene Knight’s hybrid memoir about all of the places she lived in Vancouver as a child, Dear Current Occupant, Yangsze Choo’s historical novel The Night Tiger, Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s speculative and satirical We Cast A Shadow, and Julia Phillips’s debut sparked by the disappearance of two girls, Disappearing Earth.
I’ve loved having the opportunity to support other authors’ works, through debut authors blog and by serving as a contest judge and writing endorsements for books that will be out in the next year, including: Carole Stivers’s sci-fi thriller The Mother Code in the not-too-distant-future America and Jayant Kaikini’s invaluable stories of Mumbai in No Presents Please and of course, Zeyn Joukhadar’s big second novel that combines history, art, mystery and the life of a trans Syrian-American, The Thirty Names of Night.
It was a pleasure to read Anita Felicelli’s surreal legal thriller Chimerica and be in conversation with her this year. I marveled at my colleague Debutante Ball bloggers’ novels—K.A. Doore’s The Perfect Assassin, Layne Fargo’s Temper, Martine Fournier Watson’s The Dream Peddler, and Stephanie Jimenez’s They Could Have Named Her Anything—and had a fun evening recently interviewing Stephanie in California. I was honored be a co-editor for a mixed-genre anthology Graffiti that was wholly produced by writers of color.
It was wonderful to read Cinelle Barnes’s second book, a collection of essays, Malaya, and Amanda Goldblatt’s beautiful debut Hard Mouth and Ma Jian’s China Dream. Though each book was vastly different, what drew me in, in each case, was the beautiful use of language.
I thoroughly enjoyed Tope Folarin’s debut novel of immigration and being other in America, A Particular Kind of Black Man, and Mitchell S. Jackson’s memoir Survival Math. I could not put down Jeanine Capo Crucet’s book of essays, My Time Among the Whites, Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s novels The Evolution of Love and Running Wild, Casey Cep’s nonfiction book of Harper Lee and the story the Pulitzer Prize winner ultimately didn’t tell, Furious Hours.
I’m slowly reading (so it won’t be over!) Colson Whitehead’s heart-thumping story of reform school in Nickel Boys and Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, a stunning immigration story told in a hybrid epistolary form, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
2019 has been a fantastic year for poetry: loved, loved, loved Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Tina Chang’s Hybrida, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima :: Limón and Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for Your Disaster. And I loved Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, which casts new light into her seminal long-ago book of poetry, The Country Between Us.
By the time you read this I will have finished reading Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s POV, The Forest of Enchantments, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s page-turner The Revisioners, Rene Denfeld’s The Butterfly Girl, and Meg Waite Clayton’s novel about the World War II Kindertransport, The Last Train to London.
All that follows is the product of serendipity. Almost every book I read this year came to me through some unexpected channel—blurb requests, books picked up at random in literary festivals. Every year I set out with a plan, a list of upcoming releases to look out for, classics to catch up on. And every year, thankfully, I fail.
Here is the best of the accidental rabbit holes into which I
climbed this year, the accidental lives I briefly lived.
The book I’ve thought about the most this year is a novel called A Luminous Republic by Andrés Barba. It takes place in a small city called San Cristóbal, where one day a group of 32 children, seemingly feral and speaking their own secret language, arrive. Slowly they begin to sow terror among the residents, and the municipal government goes to greater and greater lengths to hunt them down. If Lord of the Flies charted the ugliness that follows societal collapse, A Luminous Republic charts the chaos of societal tyranny, what happens when human beings abdicate their humanity.
A few months ago, a publisher sent me a copy of a novel called They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears, by Johannes Anyuru. Upon reading the synopsis—amidst a terror attack, one of the Islamic extremists has a change of heart—I was prepared to hate it. I’ve read a lot of “reluctant terrorist” novels and almost all of them descend into lazy, often racist cliché. But this is something else entirely—a mind-bending thing, wandering across alternate futures and playing with time and space in ways I didn’t expect at all. It’s much more a novel about belonging and nativism than terrorism, and is the most original piece of writing I read this year.
A few people recommended to me the tiny Japanese novel Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, describing it as a kind of comic gem. It’s the story of a woman who works in a convenience store because, well, the routine is a welcome respite from the machinations of the rest of the social world, a world she doesn’t understand or want any part of. But upon reading it, I was left with the same sensation I had after reading A Confederacy of Dunces—this novel billed as a laugh riot is in reality a story about a deep and crushing loneliness, about the ways in which the world is a supremely difficult place for many of us to navigate. It’s a marvelous story, but what’s comic about it masks something much darker.
Two of the best novels I read this year were debuts. Little Gods by Meng Jin opens with a woman giving birth in a Beijing hospital on the night of the Tiananmen Square massacre. What follows is a slow-burn unveiling of what happened to the woman, her husband, and her child in the years that followed. It is a masterfully crafted story about the gravity of the past, that unceasing pull toward a thing at once hidden and all encompassing. Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn opens with a 7-year-old boy falling off a cruise ship and into the shark-infested waters below, only for the sharks to carry him to safety. It is the first sign of the strange magic that lives within Nainoa Flores, the magic with which he and his family will have to contend. Washburn’s novel is an exceptional meditation on otherness, belonging, the ravages of poverty, and the many meanings of family. Both of these books come out early next year and both deserve all the attention I suspect they’ll soon be getting.
I read a lot of marvelous poetry this year, beginning with Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. It’s a book about war, and I’ve read a lot of books about war, but few as capable of mining that gray space where resistance and cowardice intersect. In Kaminsky’s work there is, amidst the violent oppression of wartime, room for love, lust, self-interest, self-sabotage—room for so much humanness, so much life. Quarrels by Eve Joseph is a stunning piece of literary beauty and whimsy—it begins with a train coming to a stop too suddenly, and all the babies lifting out of their carriages and into the arms of strangers. Every vignette moves in entirely unexpected directions, every page in this way reading like a strange and wonderful secret. I Become a Delight to My Enemies by Sara Peters—which cannot be described as either poetry or prose, but rather an experimental thing somewhere in between—is something like a dark mirror of Joseph’s work. Told in vignettes, the story takes place in an unnamed town where the women residents are subjected to grotesque and surreal cruelty. Much like Quarrels, it’s a book that has gotten almost no attention in the United States, and really should have. Finally, there is Invasive Species by Marwa Helal, a collection largely concerned with what it means to exist between cultures, between nations, a hyphenated American, and contains one of the most memorable lines I read this year: “they will say: show, don’t tell / but that assumes most people can see.”
A few weeks ago, a galley of Garth Greenwell’s new short story collection, Cleanness, arrived at my door, and I inhaled it. Greenwell is, pound for pound, my favorite writer working in the English language right now, and his debut novel, What Belongs to You, is my pick for novel of the decade. The stories in Cleanness are each a masterpiece. There is no pretension here, no dishonesty—be the subject matter sex or joy or vulnerability or the many meanings and consequences of human proximity. It’s difficult to explain just how much depth there is to Greenwell’s writing; suffice it to say there are things he accomplishes, emotional destinations he reaches in the course of a sentence that many other writers can’t get to over the course of a whole novel.
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The National Book Foundation announced the National Book Award finalists today. Each category—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people’s literature, and translated literature—has been narrowed down from the longlist 10 to the shortlist five. While many of the finalists have made the NBA shortlist before, none of them have won of a National Book Award in these categories.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all five categories, with bonus links where available:
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (Read our 2019 interview with Choi)
Sabrina & Corinas by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Read a profile of James)
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Read Lalami’s 2018 Year in Reading entry)
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer
Solitary by Albert Woodfox with Leslie George
The Tradition by Jericho Brown (Read an excerpt from Brown’s collection)
“I”: New and Selected Poems by Toi Derricotte (Read our 2019 interview with Derricotte)
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (Featured in March’s Must-Read Poetry roundup)
Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith (Read an excerpt from Smith’s collection)
Sight Lines by Arthur Sze
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet (Read our review)
The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Crossing by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby
1919: The Year That Changed America by Martin W. Sandler
Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in March.
Tap Out by Edgar Kunz
A whirlwind debut. Stories of sclerotic lives told in wrought images, Kunz arrives with real poetic talent. In the first poem, “After the Hurricane,” the narrator’s father sleeps in a van by the Connecticut River, where he “can see the Costco // parking lot through the trees.” Estranged from his wife, he’s hit bottom, scraping sustenance from kidney bean cans and tuna tins. “Wrinkled plastic piss bottles line the dash.” Kunz pulls us into his poems and keeps us there through crisp detail. The narrator’s father returns often, as in “Natick”: “Silence we passed back and forth between us, like a joke.” In the car, father holds his hand—“Nail beds packed with grease. / Knuckles more scar // than skin”—to his son’s, tells the boy he has piano hands. The son “was ashamed, and hid them in the pockets of my coat.” That shame evolves into poems like “Close,” when the narrator’s father, fresh off a work shift and a little drunk, teaches his son how to drive. “We meet / at the end of the loaded bed, exhaust / and brakelight pooling around our knees.” (A hint: trust poets who show back to you the images you’ve seen in glimpses and tucked in the back of your mind.) The son loves the father; he hates the father. Tap Out lives in a bittersweet world, and does so well, but there’s also fine touches here: a mother who has had enough, a son who sees beauty in loss, and in “Farmsitting,” a narrator who, in order to fall asleep, “counted / the measures ticked out // in the porcelain tub, slow drip / to keep the pipes from freezing.”
The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy
To call a collection both
ambitious and pleasant is hopefully not an unacceptable paradox—it feels like
the right description for Shaughnessy’s fifth book of poems. Her book is
ambitious in concept and structure—a dystopian world in which the COO
(Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords), fresh off cute YouTube videos, “took over
every computer, grid and control center”—and capable of melodic sweetness: “I
am a self-cleaning animal and my children were born glistening under all the
soft tree leaves, breathing.” Woven into the book’s speculative moments are
glimpses of motherhood from this world: a six-year-old girl named Simone who
thinks time is “unknowable,” and a boy, Cal, of whom she thinks incessantly. In
“Nest,” the narrator is “in a cabin up in the New Hampshire / woods, in order
to write.” Cal, “coughing and gagging,” probably from allergies, possibly from
something else, is home with her husband. She wonders: “Why am I up here /
writing in the woods when my family needs me / if all I’m doing is failing to
kill innocent wasps / and writing this, this poem I’ll never really finish.” It
is her full-throated poems about Cal that meander among her wild experiments in
syntax, epistolary, and lists that make The
Octopus Museum a breakthrough book.
The Last Visit by Chad Abushanab
“The Factory,” a terse,
dizzying poem, appears early in this fantastic debut. “Husks in shadows just
outside of town: / a rusted mess, a postindustrial tomb.” Here “men with bloody
lungs keep / coughing up clots like overripe berries. / Their wives beside them
pretend to be asleep, / imagine different endings to their stories.” The Last Visit teems with distressing
images, offered with fury and skill. In one poem that introduces the book’s
major theme, a narrator wonders about his abusive father: “what made your
cruelties grow / unwieldy.” He stares at portraits for hours, seeking an
explanation, and then remembers, in another poem, how his mother would bring
him to a store “to pick / some cheap toys” after each family fight. “She wore /
green bruises below her eyes. / Her split lip kept her dabbing blood / with
Kleenex—a poppy flowered rag.” The narrator and siblings dig “through crates of
army men,” who they’d line up on their bedroom windowsill. They’d chosen maimed
soldiers who “could not raise their voices despite / their mortal wounds, their
missing limbs.” The Last Visit is
peppered with poignant, curtal ghazals, including: “When my father left for
good, we were living in the desert. / I wouldn’t cry for him. My eyes became a
desert.” Horrors real and cinematic blend together, as in poems like “A Haunted
House,” “Halloween,” “Drive-In,” and “Poem Begun in a West Texas Corn Maze”: “I
listen for children shouting through the dried- / up stalks, but all I hear are
whispers and crows, / what few remain.”
Scared Violent Like Horses by John McCarthy
“I’m becoming a prayer / I
never said for myself.” McCarthy’s book of Midwestern threnodies begins in
image and ends in solemnity. In the first poem, the narrator’s pickup truck
spews smoke from the engine. Under the trunk, he finds that a “mangled cat mats
the crankshaft and fan belt, / fur-shredded and soaked.” It’s a morbid scene,
unfolding as rain pounds the street, a shower that seems constant that year. “Switchgrass
quivers in every direction. / It’s raining, and I don’t have anywhere to leave.”
These poems are filled with a “lost boy” who is meticulous in his observations
of the staid world surrounding him. The August sun burns everyone, including
his “sweating” mother, who “has stuffed pie tins behind our porch lights // to
keep the robins from nesting.” She is stuck in her house as this boy is stuck
in this middle world, an only child left to his imagination. He thinks himself
a scarecrow, who “pretends // that his reflection is his brother or that all
the puddles together / are a group of siblings that understand his strange
body.” McCarthy’s poems are profluent stories—a joy to marvel at this skill,
impressive considering the book’s bleak landscape.
Forest with Castanets by Diane Mehta
A beautiful book. “My
America is half blessed, halfway to exuberance” Mehta ends one poem, her lines replete
with sorrow and mysticism. “Elegy: A Jewish Death” begins “My moon-walking
mother flies sideways in the yard. / Black fences spike and spiral to contain
her.” There’s a levitation to her lines, leading to the first section’s
conclusion: “She shadows me, a rococo menorah, / arms holding prayers up,
pulling light around me.” Mehta traces the gentle and eccentric routes of spirituality,
with an emphasis on spirit: “She
exits my longing, shifts // like the sea at dawn into simpler / things I’d like
to believe will find me later.” She centers the book with fifteen “Unholy
Sonnets,” with lovelorn, savvy lines: “Ravaged, unredeemable, I melt into my
feet / Murderously myself. I long for peace but (admit it) / Laser cut and
polish grief.” Prose is tucked among her verse—I hope more poets follow her
lead, and be generous with genre—making Forest
with Castanets a uniquely arranged collection. In “Sex & Sensibility,”
she considers the anniversary of death and divorce, and the frayed
relationships that follow. She thinks about the struggle for rediscovery: “I
had a married self, a mother self, and a sexual self, but I had no ‘alone’ self
and thus no creative self.” She’s a talented essayist, and the hopeful conclusion
of her second essay leans into more poems, starting with “Churchgoing”: “If
love is divine then what am I / when they are so full of love / excelling? I
believe in showing up. / The sermon starts.” She concludes: “These open-hearted
beaches are so pure they choke me. / I prefer the cold, hard pews and visitor
seating. / I prefer to be deranged and read these pretty prayers / as evil in
my feet taps out a little more universe.”
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Kaminsky, on moving
between and among tongues: “What’s important are those little thefts between
languages, those strange angles of looking at another literature, ‘slant’
moments in speech, oddities, the music of oddities.” Kaminsky’s second
book—which I suspect will be spoken about for years to come—is curved with
beautiful oddities of phrase (even the book’s Dramatis Personae, in describing
the townspeople, includes a phrase about how “on balconies, the wind fondles
laundry lines”). A play in verse, a novel in verse, collective pain in
verse—classifications are unnecessary here, as Kaminsky’s book is at its soul a
story. Although public assemblies are prohibited when occupying forces “march
into town,” the people of Vasenka perform puppet shows. Petya, a deaf boy who is
front and center, sneezes, and draws the military attention. Reprimanded, the
boy spits at a Sergeant, setting the rest of the book in motion. The entire
town becomes silent. Unable to hear, they search for themselves. In one poem: “You are alive, I whisper to myself, therefore something in you listens.” Soon,
an inability to hear becomes an ability to see: “our men, once frightened,
bound to their beds, now stand up like human masts— / deafness passes through
us like a police whistle.” Deaf Republic is
a book of transcendence. See a lullaby: “Little daughter / rainwater // snow
and branches protect you.” See an elegy: “Six
words, / Lord: // please ease / of song // my tongue.” “If there is no
argument inside my work,” Kaminsky has said in an interview, “my work is
worthless. For several reasons, there is only one thing I demand from my own
lines, or from any poetry I love—I want to read it and to have a sense of
having lived. I want to find a texture of life in the lines.” Deaf Republic arrives, textured and