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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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jami Attenberg, Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne, Hisham Matar, Silvina Ocampo, Robert Pinsky, and more—that are publishing this week.
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All This Could Be Yours: “A patriarch’s death strains a family’s already fraught relationships in this dazzling novel from Attenberg (All Grown Up). Shady real estate developer Victor Tuchman suffers a heart attack in New Orleans and is rushed to the hospital. During his final, lingering day, his family mentally rehashes key moments of his life in hopes of understanding the man they are losing. His wife, Barbra, still annoyed about leaving their Connecticut mansion, occupies herself with obsessive walking while remembering Victor’s quick transition from shy suitor to abusive tyrant. His daughter, Alex, flies in from Chicago, desperate to know the truth about Victor’s criminal past, and begrudges her mother’s insistence she let it go and make peace. Victor’s son Gary, who is in Los Angeles to jump-start his career in the movies, avoids answering calls from the family and intentionally misses his flight. Gary’s wife, Twyla, slips into a nervous breakdown during a cosmetic shopping spree, slowly revealing the true root of her distress. As Victor fades, the family’s dysfunction comes to light and they make drastic choices about their future. Attenberg excels at revealing rich interior lives—not only for her main cast, but also for cameo characters—in direct, lucid prose. This is a delectable family saga.”
The Beadworkers by Beth Piatote
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Beadworkers: “Piatote’s debut collection mixes poetry, verse, and prose to form an impressive reflection on the lives of modern Native Americans. Piatote, a Nez Perce enrolled with the Colville Confederated Tribes, fits much nuance and profundity into stories that often reflect on the ways in which contemporary mainstream American culture continues to erase the identities and traditions of indigenous groups. In ‘Beading Lesson,’ the narrator teaches a girl how to make traditional beaded earrings, noting how fewer and fewer people have been learning the skill in recent years. In ‘wIndin!,’ two friends work on a piece of political art, a board game that comments on systemic oppression of Native Americans throughout history. A woman reunites with an old friend and considers the ways their relationship to each other and their families have changed in ‘Katydid.’ The most impressive and longest, ‘Antikoni,’ is a reimagining of Antigone, complete with a chorus of Aunties. In Piatote’s version, Antikoni strives to rescue the remains of her ancestors from the museum where they have been interred by the ‘White Coats’ and ‘White Gloves’—’We were born into this suffering. That our own/ blood would be divided/ from us, that our mourning could never come to an/ end, for it can never/ properly begin.’ The Nez Perce language is featured throughout the verse passages, and Piatote includes many explanatory footnotes. This beautiful collection announces Piatote as a writer to watch.”
Initiated by Amanda Yates Garcia
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Initiated: “Garcia, self-proclaimed ‘Oracle of Los Angeles,’ shares the series of initiations that led to her practice as a professional witch, writer, and healer in her superb debut. Raised in Northern California, Garcia was introduced to the feminist practice of Goddess magic by her mother, but she rejected those teachings for years. After experiencing horrific abuse at the hands of a family member, she left home at 16 for San Francisco, drifted to Europe, then landed in Los Angeles to chase her dream of being an artist. Garcia realizes that, like magic, art made ‘the things we imagine visible to us; it pulls them into material reality and changes the way we experience the world.’ Throughout her travels, she experiences visions that lead her thoughts back to witchcraft. Then, following a stint in grad school, she performs an official witch ceremony on her 30th birthday with members of her L.A. community and realizes ‘nothing could give me the satisfaction of witchcraft.’ She also reveals times of personal ‘darkness,’ such as working as a stripper and pursuing toxic relationships, crediting witchcraft for helping her escape: ‘The moment you stop seeing yourself as a supplicant and start seeing yourself as a participant, a coconspirator, an agent, that shift marks the moment you become a witch.’ Effortlessly weaving Goddess myths from diverse cultures with her own life story, Garcia’s reverent, powerful work will encourage readers to forge their own values and join in her ‘re-enchantment’ of the world.”
The Promise by Silvina Ocampo
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Promise: “This haunting and vital final work from Ocampo (1903–1993), her only novel, is about a woman’s life flashing before her eyes when she’s stranded in the ocean. The nameless narrator has fallen off a ship, and as she floats, her mind takes over, presenting a flotilla of real and imagined memories about the people in her life in the form of a version of the book she promises herself she’ll finish. The book’s main thread is a woman, Irene, and a man, Leandro, with whom both Irene and the narrator get involved. But the fluid narrative also encompasses brief snapshots of a murder mystery, the narrator’s grandmother’s eye doctor (‘In profile, his intent rabbit face was not as kind as it was head-on.’), her hairdresser, her ballerina neighbor, and the fruit vendor to whom her brother was attracted as a boy (‘it was a fruit relationship, perhaps symbolizing sex’). The narrator’s potent, dynamic voice yields countless memorable lines and observations: ‘The only advantage of being a child is that time is doubly wide, like upholstery fabric’; ‘What is falling in love, anyway? Letting go of disgust, of fear, letting go of everything.’ But the book’s true power is its depiction of the strength of the mind (‘what I imagine becomes real, more real than reality’) and the necessity of storytelling, which for the narrator is literally staving off death: ‘I told stories to death so that it would spare my life.’ Ocampo’s portrait of one woman’s interior life is forceful and full of hope.”