In December of 2018, in preparation for the publication of my first book, Sabrina & Corina, I quit my job as an office manager in Denver and organized a national book tour (with a couple stop offs in Canada along the way). Sabrina & Corina was born out of a decade of writing, countless rejections, and years of uncertainty. I was both excited for and afraid of what lay on the other side of publication, and I knew I had to do everything in my power to honor the book I had written. In the span of eight months, I traveled to over 20 cities and small towns, and I gave readings at places like universities, high schools, community centers, book stores, literary festivals, public libraries, art galleries, and more. All this is to say, in 2019 I spent long hours in the air, reading books. I read books by my debut peers. I reread many of my old favorites. I read books I found in Little Free Libraries. I read books abandoned in hotel lobbies. I read books gifted to me, wrapped in red bows.
In 2019, I took pleasure in reading new short story collections. I was charmed, delighted, and challenged by the power of the stories in Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s The Heads of the Colored People. I loved the connection to place, Houston in particular, and the natural readability of Bryan Washington’s Lot. Beth Piatote’s The Beadworkers dazzled me with voice, dreamscapes, the reverence for ancestors and land.
As for novels, in Santa Fe, N.M., on a rooftop patio with adobe walls, sipping a bright green margarita, I was blown away by the robust storytelling in Inland by Tea Obreht. During a family vacation in Breckenridge, Colo., I took my father’s advice and read the exquisitely written On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.
For a piece in Bustle, I revisited The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and was reminded of reading this masterwork for the first time in high school, the lingering pleasures of feeling seen on the page, 15 years later. In preparation for my conversation with Julia Alvarez for her NEA Big Read event in Denver, I reread In the Time of the Butterflies and was reminded of the power in her storytelling, the intricacies of her plot, the force behind the Mirabal sisters.
In 2019, I read memoirs, too, and I found myself staying up late into the night thinking about Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. It’s beautifully haunting and structurally gripping, providing an important look into loneliness and so much more. I also read a memoir from 1996, Drinking: A Love Story by the late Caroline Knapp, which I fished out of a free library in Golden, Colo., while I was on a walk one summer evening. I finished the book that night, and I thought a lot about my own relationship to alcohol and the vulnerability of Knapp’s voice.
And then there were the poets. I saw Tommy Pico perform at the 2019 Bay Area Book Festival, and I was blown away as he read from Junk. His latest, Feed, kept me company this fall and reminded me of how bighearted and wide-ranging both language and the imagination can be. I adored the crisp and somber Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love by Keith S. Wilson. And during the summer in Los Angeles, I nearly teared up at Yesika Salgado’s signing table after reading her Hermosa.
It was a beautiful year for books, and I was so honored to read these transformative words. Thank you to their authors.
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Poet Tommy Pico spoke to Joseph Osmundson for the New York Review of Books about therapy, the New Native American Renaissance, and the language of food, among other things. Pico also discusses the concept of being a poem, referring to the line “Shall I be a poem for you?” from his latest book, Feed. “I’m definitely a poem for my parents,” he says. “You know that Langston Hughes quote about a dream deferred? That’s me to them. They wanted to be poets. But they didn’t come up in a time when that was possible for them. And they had responsibilities, and they had kids, which is not something you’re gonna catch me doing.”
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Carmen Maria Machado, Tommy Pico, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Malcolm Tariq, Daniel José Older, and more—that are publishing this week.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In the Dream House: “In this haunting memoir, National Book Award–finalist Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) discusses the mental and physical abuse she was subjected to by her girlfriend. The book is divided into short, piercing chapters, in which Machado refers to the victimized version of herself as ‘you.’ (‘I thought you died, but writing this, I’m not sure you did.’) Machado discusses meeting the girlfriend (her first) in Iowa City, where Machado was getting her MFA. She masterfully, slowly introduces unease and dread as the relationship unfolds. The girlfriend turns threatening if Machado doesn’t immediately return her calls, starts pointless fights, and inflicts physical discomfort on Machado (squeezing her arm for no reason, for instance). The hostile environment turns utterly oppressive, yet Machado stays, becoming further disoriented by someone who inflicts harm one minute and declares her love the next. Machado interestingly weaves in cultural references (to movies like 1944’s Gaslight and 1984’s Carmen) as she considers portrayals of abuse. She points out that queer women endure abuse in their relationships just as heterosexual women do, and queer abusers shouldn’t be protected: ‘We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented.’ The author eventually leaves her toxic relationship behind, but scars remain. Machado has written an affecting, chilling memoir about domestic abuse.”
Feed by Tommy Pico
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Feed: “In the riveting fourth installment of Pico’s imaginative tetralogy, food, music, sex, and the void serve as means to reveal and dissect the speaker’s interior life. Stepping outside of his alter ego persona, Teebs, to wonder about the possibility of a ‘true self,’ Pico resists the obvious narrative and claims that Teebs, perhaps, is more real than himself. The speaker declares himself a ‘recipe’ made of the ingredients of his past and his family, defined by the intergenerational trauma of Native American genocide and displacement. His Native identity is both an albatross and an amulet of protection: ‘My spirits surround me like a cloud of disapproving aunties, keeping most of you at bay.’ Amid the purposeful cacophony and confusion the poet throws at the reader, exacerbated by a lack of punctuation and erratic changes in line length, there are moments of stunning beauty: ‘What a better time than in the face / of spring and the spring / ephemerals—a bloom / so / short / it puts the fleet in ‘fleeting feeling.’ Readers familiar with Pico’s work will find continuity from previous volumes; the poet’s present concerns and ongoing obsessions are proffered in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness format that is actually meticulously well-organized. New readers, as well, can easily dive in.”
On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Swift Horses: “Pufahl’s powerful debut follows two brothers just back from the Korean War and the woman from Kansas who loves them both. Muriel agrees to marry Lee not long after he and his brother, Julius, step off their ship in Long Beach, but it’s Julius with whom she finds a haunting affinity. When he disappears, both Muriel and Lee live for word from him again. Muriel and Julius are gamblers; Muriel overhears horse betting tips from men who drink at the Heyday Lounge in San Diego where she works. Muriel wins enough at the Del Mar racetrack to buy her husband the lot on which he builds their dream house. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Julius falls in love with Henry, a tender card cheat who’s run out of town. Desperate to find him, Julius returns to his brother’s house, steals money from Muriel, and goes in search of him. Muriel, in turn, searches for Julius, and finds herself instead. SoCal’s illicit gay joints, Mexico, and memories of Kansas are finely wrought, though by the time Muriel discovers that the mystery Julius represents actually resides deep inside her own self, Pufahl’s gorgeous metaphors and heartbreaking revelations may make readers feel like less is more. Peopled by singular characters and suffused with a keen sense of time and place, Pufahl’s debut casts a fascinating spell. This melancholy story will show up in the dreams of those whose heartstrings it has tugged.”
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Space Invaders: “This standout debut from Chilean author Fernández dexterously tells the story of a group of Chilean friends haunted by the absence of their old classmate and friend, Estrella González, who left their school as they grew up during the Pinochet dictatorship. Years later, the friends all remember Estrella differently. Fuenzalida remembers her voice; Maldonado dreams about the letters Estrella sent to her (three of which are in the text); Riquelme remembers going to Estrella’s house to play Space Invaders and witnessing Estrella’s father, a high-ranking officer for Pinochet, remove his wooden prosthetic hand after he got home from work. The narrative eventually winds its way to revealing what happened to Estrella. Fernández’s masterstroke is her remarkable structure: the novella is related in fragments that drift and remain unreliable, which evokes the pervasive fear and uncertainty of life under Pinochet. ‘Time isn’t straightforward, it mixes everything up, shuffles the dead, merges them, separates them out again…. Whether we were there or not is no longer clear…. we’re left with traces of the dream, like the vestiges of a doomed naval battle.’ Fernández’s outstanding novel explores the nature of memory and dreams, and how after a certain point, they become indistinguishable.”
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Revisioners: “Sexton (A Kind of Freedom) returns with this excellent story of a New Orleans family’s ascent from slavery to freedom, paying poetic tribute to their fearlessness and a ‘mind magic’ that fixes the present, sees into the future, and calls out from the past. In alternating chapters, two women tell their haunting, frightening, and ultimately uplifting stories: Ava, a mixed-race single mom struggling to establish a career and raise a teenage son in 2017, and her great-great-grandmother Josephine, a former slave who in 1924 proudly runs the family farm. Ava’s decision to be the caregiver for her rich white grandmother, Martha, as she slips into dementia will trigger disturbing premonitions for her own cancer-stricken mother, a doula named Gladys. Josephine’s story focuses largely on her struggle to turn over management of the family farm to a son intent on standing up to the Klan—and a troubling interaction with a shy white neighbor who seeks out Josephine’s rumored powers to get pregnant and appease an abusive husband. A chilling plot twist reveals the insidious racial divide that stretches through the generations, but it’s the larger message that’s so timely. ‘Ain’t no use in hate,’ Josephine’s mother advises. ‘Whatever you trying to get away from, hate just binds you to it.’ This novel is both powerful and full of hope.”
Heed the Hollow by Malcolm Tariq
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Heed the Hollow: “Winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Tariq’s daring debut explores the intersection of black, queer, and Southern identity through the concept of ‘bottom,’ both as a sexual role and a position in the social hierarchy. The conceit is often playful, as in the repeated phrase ‘Malcolm Tariq’s Black Bottom,’ which is woven throughout the collection: ‘His Tastykake / cake / His Doublicious Kandy Kake / cake cake / the bounce/ of his Little Debbie / cake.’ More often, this concept makes erotic submission continuous with historical traumas, torquing familiar expressions: ‘Take this moan as historical rendering, / my downward-facing sigh. Thy rod / and thy staff they come for me.’ Charting a journey from Savannah to Michigan, Tariq’s confessionalism can be direct, as in the title poem (‘I take my own pills as I once learned / to sign for my mother’s birth / control. Preventative measures’), or suggestively and wittily oblique: ‘He’s never had / a black man. I’ve never had myself.’” Readers of Robin Coste Lewis will appreciate Tariq’s archival erasures, while Natasha Trethewey fans will appreciate a journey to South Carolina’s ‘Ellis Island of Slavery,’ where ‘baby strollers and casual dog walks/ file before a single marquee meant to hold/ place for history.’ Reckoning with historical atrocities and making use of a variety of formal gestures, Tariq triumphs in creating his distinctive brand of blues.”
The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Book of Lost Saints: “A ghost of the Cuban revolution haunts the pages of this vivid and emotional literary fantasy from Older (Shadowhouse Fall). Marisol Aragones died after Castro gained power and the Cuban revolution turned sour, but she can’t remember how or why. Now a disembodied spirit in early-2000s New Jersey, with only a tenuous foothold in the land of the living, her one hope for piecing together her past is through her nephew, Ramon. Marisol spends her days observing—and criticizing—Ramon’s work as a hospital security guard and DJ and his hopeless feelings for his no-strings-attached fling, Aliceana Mendoza. At night, she infiltrates his dreams to give him visions of what little she remembers of her life during the revolution. These dreams send Ramon on a quest to uncover long-buried family secrets, dragging a difficult truth from his mother and traveling with Aliceana to Cuba, where the resistance works against the government in secret. Older’s descriptions of Cuba, both past and present, are thoroughly transportive. This moving story of family and freedom is sure to captivate readers.”