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, through no initiative or orchestration of my own, I read in twos. I realize this only now, picking out from a hasty reading ledger those books I liked or kept thinking about, and it’s not like I read the twos consecutively, more that little symmetries keep making themselves known as I look back, titles pairing off into smaller dialogues, gonzo breakout sessions with improvised themes. I didn’t read more this year but I read longer, with a better attention span, this being the first year in almost 10 that I read more to read than to keep up with publishing, so maybe this is always happening and I just started noticing. I also have a brain that’s unrepentantly hungry for patterns, so who knows.
But for instance: the bookends of my reading year were The Tradition by Jericho Brown and The Shore by Chris Nealon. The latter is a book of likably freewheeling, breezily erudite “poem-essays,” which is a fair if dampening description; the former is a book of fucking poems, orderly and solemn and very robustly beautiful without any undue ornateness. Brown is formally exacting, yet the depth of feeling in his poems is breathtaking, at times literally; they’re at once messy, wounded and lusty and scared and prideful, and sublimely still, composed. Nealon is an anarchic writer-thinker flirting with the politics of anarchism, but I find a fully formed existential moment in his “tepid intellectual watchfulness,” as he puts it, a visceral anxiety no less visceral for the fact that his only move is to articulate it, piecemeal. Both feel something’s not right in the present, know some things have been profoundly wrong for a long time, and though they sense this at different distances from their lives and bodies they inhabit it equally fully, make it equally person-sized and real. Also The Tradition debuts a fixed form Brown calls the duplex, and it is perfect.
The Organs of Sense is the first novel and second dazzling book by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, a teutonically involuted, toweringly philosophical novel that is by some weird alchemy more fun for being teutonically involuted and toweringly philosophical. It pulls you painstakingly along into a telescoping nest of relations of conversations of recollections of revelations of remarkable psychological extravagance, and all the while the story—Leibniz goes in 1666 to visit an eyeless astronomer, is the elevator pitch—is so engaging and fanciful and sweet, and Sachs’s comic timing so dead-on, that all you see is the timeless folly of people being people. It’s like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine in that respect, except where that novel burrows deep into a single instant this one expands outward into the cosmos, or a seventeenth-century conception of it. I found The Organs of Sense paired well with Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, published in 2017, another engrossingly human tableau bound in a vaguely forbidding formal armature. (Oh! Telescoping. Just got that. You win again, Sachs.) The armature in this case is a staccato accumulation of run-on monologues that dilate breathlessly on the smallest sensory minutiae; the book’s magic is that this makes it thrillingly lifelike, thrillingly like life uninterrupted, somehow like swimming in a bloodstream. My grandmother, who as a rule brooks no experimentalist literary impulse, told me weeks after reading it that she was still thinking about the one passage that’s like ten pages of disquisition about pouring concrete.
Nina Leger’s Mise en pieces is a patient, thoughtful novel about a woman named Jeanne who keeps a memory palace of strangers’ dicks. The title (cleverly translated by Laura Francis as The Collection) means to cut into pieces but also to install in rooms, as art in a museum, and Leger writes with a kind of curatorial dispassion—but what she puts on display is the received logic of The Novel, structurally and sexually, dissecting and redistributing it into bigger or smaller boxes, objectifying it in the very way we were expecting it to objectify Jeanne. It’s brilliantly subversive but always more curious than militant. I also read a lot of Valérie Mréjen this year, in unwitting anticipation of her English debut, Black Forest in Katie Shireen Assef’s translation. The first thing I sat down with was Liste rose, a series of personal ads assembled from names cut out of a phone book, which turned out to be a good model for the way she works: even in more direct forms of storytelling—about a non-start romance, for instance, or about parents and children—her method is decoupage, fragmentation, intimate and clinical in alternating measure. Black Forest drifts intuitively from memory to fantasy to supposition, sifting through the deaths of loved ones and acquaintances and people in anecdotes and people on Six Feet Under in a way that’s at once cold and sparkling with life. I’m not calling it a memory palace of deaths, but I’m not not.
I reread Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station early this year—still find it extraordinary, still not wild about how much Adam Gordon reminds me of me—and inhaled a friend’s galley of The Topeka School over a summer weekend. It excites me to watch Lerner at work, processing the present at a rhythm that feels authentically like thought, and even as he widens his scope to include more zeitgeist, more history, more dimensions in his characters and their relationships, I’m spellbound by his knack for the fundamentally introspective work of airing their reasonings and neuroses and inner negotiations, which seem rational and sympathetic until you realize—eventually for me, I assume very quickly for lots of people—that maybe their shit’s been part of the problem all along. I would have called Lerner unmatched in his ability to pull this off compassionately before I read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble (also over a weekend, also a friend’s advance copy): a plottier, smaller-scoped novel that nonetheless ends up being an even-handed, piercingly wise referendum on love and marriage and sex and gender. Both books experiment gently with shifting perspective, Topeka deliberately and Fleishman more sinuously, and both feel like classically ambitious attempts to get at the crux of a knotty modern predicament, in this case the meaning and function of masculinity. I’ll be revisiting both, slower, down the line.
After not reading it for several years mostly because I thought the title was boring, I read Marie Chaix’s 1974 memoir-novel Les Lauriers du lac de Constance, then promptly reread it in Harry Mathews’s translation, The Laurels of Lake Constance, just to keep the spell going. Chaix makes Lerner’s and Brodesser-Akner’s perspective jumps look elementary, darting between voices and tenses sometimes from one sentence to the next, not out of formal showiness but to grapple with the multitouch impact of World War 2, and her father’s collaborationist career, on her family. (She herself was born in 1942, and comes into the story as a narrator maybe a third of the way in.) I no longer remember which prepared me for which—as I said, it’s a hasty ledger—but I recognized the same sly chameleonic interiority in Morgan Parker’s second poetry collection, Magical Negro, which tracks a sleepless mind’s path through a world of “Dylann Roof, Burger King, Urban Outfitters.” Parker’s is the cooler, nimbler voice—she sows devastating punchlines like landmines throughout her poems, while Chaix’s prose holds you pitilessly in the moment—but both model, unflinchingly, what it’s like to experience history as a simultaneously abstract and personal affliction. Parker: “And nothing rises up. And horror is a verb.”
I love environmental disaster movies and have an above-average tolerance for immersive theatre experiences, so reading David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth in Paris during a record heatwave—“so intense that a weather map of France looks like a screaming heat skull of death,” according to a Business Insider headline—a headline!—felt about right. His work in synthesizing a massive body of scientific research is admirable; his willingness to lean into its monumentally terrifying conclusions, to use fear and alarm in a way scientists can’t or won’t, is crucial. Some time around then I also read Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis’s Rap on Trial, which expands on the excellent work the authors have been doing separately for over a decade cataloguing and decrying the harrowing trend of rap lyrics being admitted as evidence in U.S. criminal cases. May both books shake something loose, though I realize our failing to address the first issue will eventually render the second moot.
Everything about Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems, a diaphanous little volume whose content is most expediently described as “silkworm giving a TED talk,” is strange and lapidary, right down to the obscurely troubling six-word description of how it was initially created: “written nanoscale on clear silk film.” There’s precedent for this kind of exploit—see for instance Christian Bök’s xenotext experiment, which encodes a short poem “into the genome of an unkillable bacterium”—but Bervin, whose previous works include erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Nets) and a sumptuous facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s envelope drafts (The Gorgeous Nothings), is concerned more with materiality than with spectacle. As the difference in titular textures suggests, Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book is mostly what Silk Poems is not: gritty, folksy, squalid and chatty, sexy and gross, aimed with care and craftsmanship at something earthlier and more astral at once. I came away from both feeling better in tune with the intangible, by way of the utterly tactile.
What else? I was grateful for Damon Young’s essay collection What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker and Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk, both supremely lucid, good-natured but unsparing inquiries into how race, which is to say racism, gets inside your head to make you question how successfully, how convincingly, you’re inhabiting a pigeonhole you didn’t opt into in the first place. I was enchanted by Max Porter’s Lanny and Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier, both of which wrap inventive thickets of idiom and fragment around affecting tales of parenthood and loss. I took a difficult journey with Jeannie Vanasco as she navigates the deceptively prosaic semantic aftermath of sexual assault in Things We Didn’t Talk about When I Was a Girl, and another one with Irma Pelatan, in L’Odeur de chlore, as she maps her body cathexis against a childhood spent swimming in a municipal pool designed according to Le Corbusier’s Modulor scale. Janelle Shane’s futuristic op-ed about feral scooters is hands down the 1300-word sci-fi novel of the year, and—since I’m not about to abandon the pairs conceit this close to the end—the last great thing I read as of this writing was Émilie Faure’s interview, in the biennial high-art review Mémoire Universelle, with world jigsaw-puzzle champion Sophie de Goncourt. She’s a magistrate by day who can put together a 500-piece puzzle in 40 minutes, a pastime which requires, she says with an irresistible lack of guile, “neither agility nor precision. A piece fits, or it doesn’t.”
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.
Each year begins with a post-midnight call from my parents. I expect such a call this coming year, but it will be sans one parent. Perhaps when my father calls, my grieving mind will play one of those mean tricks it’s been playing since March, and for a hopeful half-second I’ll wait for Mom to come on the line with her buoyant voice full of new year’s wishes.
Last January, she wished that all my hopes and dreams surrounding my forthcoming short story collection would become real for me. She knew that my hopes and dreams—the ones that don’t involve my family members alive and prospering—are all tied up in the books I’m writing. This also means, by extension, all my hopes and dreams are tied to the books I’m reading. And what greater signifier of our eventual end is there than a TBR pile? How it mocks and taunts. How its very existence is a reminder that reading all the books one desires to read is a project no human can even possibly come close to completing.
When I think of the books I read this year, I can’t help but think of the books my mother never got a chance to read. I think of the shifting stack of books on her nightstand. I believe they are still there as if in memorial to her reading life. My mother loved the prolific romance novelist, Beverly Jenkins. Surely there were many of her novels my mother missed. I’ve never read a romance novel, know little of the genre, but after my mother passed, I took a Beverly Jenkins novel from my parents’ basement shelf, to read, but also as something tangible of her to hold since I can no longer hold her hand, but I have yet to open it.
For Christmas last year, my father bought my mother Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, but in her illness, I don’t believe she ever got a chance to read it. And there is my own book that I taunted her with in galley form. Look it exists! Hold it, but please don’t read! I didn’t want her to see the typos of the galley, to have to turn the inferior flimsy paper. The pictures are blurry in the galley and would, I knew, look better in the finished copy. I was in the midst of making small, but consequential sentence-level changes. My child had put on his clothes, but he had not yet washed his face nor combed his hair.
The final version, I told her, would be here in a few weeks. She didn’t have a few weeks. Yes, Ma, many good things did happen with my book, many of those dreams did become true, but because you are not here it all means less. I wonder if she would have enjoyed my book. She would have complained about the profanity. She would have smirked, and shaken her head at the book’s fantastical conceits and said, I don’t know where you get this wild imagination. It’s not so wild though. I want an imagination so wild it conjures her at will. That’s the sort of fantasy life afforded only to the characters in the stories we tell.
Speaking of the stories we tell, I’ve been telling myself and others that I was reading Ocean Vuong’s excellent novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous before and after my mother passed. In my recollection, as my mother faded I was comforted by the relationship between Little Dog, the main character, and his mother. I have strong memories of sitting on my bed the morning after my mother’s passing using the poetry of the prose to heal my grief-scarred mind. That memory can’t possibly be true. I picked up Vuong’s book at the AWP conference more than a week after my mother died. What’s true though is how beautifully at peace the novel made me feel when I had little but the tumult of sadness.
I don’t keep a log of my reading and haven’t for many years; though I did in the years I tried and failed to read one hundred books. I will forget some. Others, possibly belong to the previous year. My TBR pile grows. But I’m ending the year as I began it, with Maurice Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow. I read it out of excitement and anticipation early in the year and now, I read it as a professor eager to share a good book with his students. I bought my niece a copy of Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams so we could read together. And we traded e-mails about the plot twists, the characters and the general joys of the narrative. Similarly, my son and I read Jason Reynolds’s Look Both Ways and found ourselves lost in laughter. Alongside my wife, I ready Kiese Laymon’s Heavy—honesty in black, carefully laid.
Because short stories make my world go around: Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man (begun in 2018, I believe); Ivelisse Rodriguez’s Love War Stories; Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls; Bryan Washington’s Lot; Mickey Hess’s The Novelist and the Rapper (also his A Guest in the House of Hip-Hop) and ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Poetry likewise makes my world revolve, but in the opposite direction: Kwame Dawes’s City of Bones; Jericho Brown’s world-shaking The Tradition; Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast; Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon and his earlier Bastards of the Reagan Era (the cover of Felon is white and Bastards is black, and the books are like that, night and day; read them together and watch a whole world build around you). I read the autobiographies of William Wells Brown, a formerly enslaved man who went on to write several slave narratives, and I wept for the pressure white supremacy and the peculiar institution put on an individual, the way it made him write his tragedies as comedy to entertain indifferent white people. Jess Row’s White Flights redefined many of my assumptions about how race works in white fiction.
I served as a judge for the Tournament of Books and read Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages, Lydia Kiesling’s Golden State, Michael Odaajte’s Warlight and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s (hilarious) My Sister the Serial Killer. When Toni Morrison passed in the summer, I was reading her essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, and like nearly each time I’ve read a work by Morrison, I left elevated by the intellect of the author. This time though I also left with a great sadness—my mother was gone and the woman who is a literary mother to so many of us had likewise left the earth.
I love references, how they operate like conversational shorthand. When I describe the main character of The Invitation as “a store-brand Chris Stapleton,” I feel clever and efficient. If brevity is the soul of wit, then references are the bees of conversation, pollinating subjects by imbuing them with meaning from someplace else. Of course, the trouble with references is how they rely on a shared cultural vocabulary, and what’s double is that often my most apt referents are obscure. For better and more often worse, I forge ahead. (Oh, to hell with universality!) I watch Raising Arizona and ask my wife, “is that John C. Reilly on a motorcycle?” She thinks I’m serious. I say my 4-month-old daughter’s flailing arms remind me of Joe Cocker and my friend humors me with a closed lip smile, but I doubt his familiarity with “Space Captain.” After reading a profile in the New Yorker, I tell my coworker that Poo-Pourri’s founder seems like “a cross between Tony Robbins and Aldous Huxley,” and from her expression I know I’ve failed.
“Sick reference, bro,” says Jonah Hill in This Is the End, just before high-fiving Jay Baruchel. “Your references are out of control; everyone knows that.” (Oh, to always hit the mark!) Yet how deceptively difficult: to connect two far-flung details takes skill, but to correctly guess beforehand that both details are known by your peers…Reader, that’s genius. All year, I’ve drawn parallels and blasted them out like buckshot, unsure if most will stick. I’ve bridged gaps ignorant of whether people know what lies on the other side. I say things like, “Tolstoy is to Sunset Boulevard as Dostoevsky is to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” and I want people to understand not only the antic madness of the latter, but also that I obviously prefer Dostoevsky. Alas, when I’ve done so in person, I’ve mostly misfired. When I’ve done so on Twitter, I’ve earned modest faves. Maybe here I’ll do better.
In the recognition of patterns, the world is enriched. In the recognition of too many, things get weird. One of my neighborhood’s dividing lines is Falls Road. To the east lies a hip neighborhood filled with artists and yuppies. To the west is what my realtor calls “little West Virginia.” Farther outside of Baltimore is a place called Dundalk, which some say is lousy with “waterbillies.” How uncanny, then, to sit on my porch reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s superb Say Nothing, in which Falls Road bisects the Catholic and Protestant sides of Belfast, and in which gun runners go on the lam in nearby Dundalk, County Louth.
Native Baltimorean Adrienne Rich wrote of “that estranged intensity / where [man’s] mind forages alone,” and I think of that when my references don’t work. I also thought of it when, midway through her Selected Poems: 1950-2012, I read “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” set in the American southwest—chiefly because it reminded me of another book, the best one I read all year. “This is the desert where missiles are planted like corns,” Rich wrote of an area near New Mexico, and voila, there I was, foraging alone in my recollection of Joshua Wheeler’s Acid West.
Maybe I like Wheeler’s essays so much because they, too, are stuffed with references. His essays position New Mexico as the spoke of the weirdest wheel on earth, just as Sam Anderson’s Boom Town positioned Oklahoma City as the country’s microcosmic center. Both books demonstrate there’s no such thing as insignificant detail; all seeds blossom in time. “When you encounter something seemingly meaningless, you can accept the numbness of it or ache for profundity,” Wheeler wrote. “I tend toward the ache.” (Hear hear.) Wheeler’s book has the additional allure of dwelling on one of my fascinations: maudlin drinking. (His acknowledgements page shouts out four different dive bars.) “I don’t want her money,” Wheeler wrote about his grandmother, who tried to offer him some. “I’d only waste it at the bar, trying to drink myself into the future.” That line sounds straight out of The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing’s spectacular noir novel, which like Wheeler’s book punctuates many of its drunken asides with the phrase, “Well, all right.”
Speaking of alcohol, Hamm’s had a big year with me. There it was in Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism, which I wish the Coen Brothers would adapt. There it was again in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, being sold cheaper in an Arizona bar than at the Crest Cafe from A Woman Under the Influence. While watching the latter film I thought, I’ve read Lucia Berlin before.
Frank Bidart wrote, “there is a beast within you // that can drink till it is // sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.” In Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban’s protagonist says, “I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.” To thirst endlessly and to flirt with oblivion: these are the impulses pulling men together in Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, the second-best book I read this year. (Those themes also power Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, which I read last year but need to shout out again.)
Sometimes I observe superficial patterns, and other times I observe something deeper. Reading Jia Tolentino’s “Ecstasy” essay in Trick Mirror, which is about church, that eponymous drug, Houston, and DJ Screw, I wished I was back in school so I could write about it being “in conversation with” the first story in Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah, which is about church, that same drug again, Miami, and Celia Cruz. Reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science, which was sublime, I thought a lot about the android personae in Janelle Monae’s first album, which was as well. Reading Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” in Orange World, the third-best book I read this year, I thought not only of its inspiration, a photograph by Andrew Moore, but also of how that fondness for twisters is echoed by lines in “Tornado Season” from Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana: “I wanted to be carried— / green sky, sudden hail—with everything / I knew: blue spruce, white pine, the grey- / shingled bars of Whitley County, face / of the barber and his sharpened razor, / Marie at the Waffle House, Beau / Tucker over mufflers in his shop.” Come to think of it, 80% of the reason I bought Colette Arrand’s chapbook The Future is Here and Everything Must be Destroyed was because its cover referenced Waffle House. I’m glad I did it, and you should do the same.
Other times I observe patterns that are thematic. I think the moss hunter in Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory belongs in the canon of workplace weirdos alongside the levitating accountant in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the psychotic closet-dwelling scientist in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the dude with the “bee-beard” in that story from Ryan Boudinot’s The Littlest Hitler, the obvious scammers skulking about Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, and frankly everybody in Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods. From now on, when I mention this specific sub-canon, you’ll get the reference.
Elsewhere constellations were mapped by sheer happenstance. It was serendipity that my daughter, born about a week ahead of schedule, arrived one day after I watched Eraserhead, the world’s worst movie to view in those circumstances. Not two weeks prior, I’d finished Ironweed, which bears the same mantle among books. Fortunately, before both I’d read three books that, in their open dealings with its associated anxiousness, actually braced me for the realities of parenthood. Many reviewers have remarked on the titular story in Karen Russell’s Orange World being a parable of motherhood, but similar themes actually coarse through the entire book. In fact, the most affecting treatment of fatherhood I’ve ever read was in the tornado story I just referenced above. Also, while I enjoyed Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State and Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything enormously when I read them months before, it was not until those first weeks home with my new daughter that their powers were revealed. This is why I tell people now: whether you’re expecting or not, these books are outstanding. They will whisper to you down the road.
Most of the references that occur to me elude easy explanation, making them impossible to drop in casual conversation. Suffice it to say that, in one story in particular, Taeko Kōno’s Toddler-Hunting gives off big Takashi Miike vibes. Suffice it to say that the best sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men would rival the best sections of John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country were it not for Agee’s leering horniness. Suffice it to say that the narrator in Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known reminds me of Sideshow Bob in a good way. (Writing to Selma Bouvier from prison: “Your latest letter caused a riot in the maximum security wing of my heart.”). Suffice it to say that when I read Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, I was struck by the line, “A bore at home, he transformed in the city. // What’s yours at home is a wolf in my city” because it made me think about how in life most men are Kevin Finnerty while in their minds most men are Tony Soprano in Las Vegas. Suffice it to say, suffice it to say, suffice it to say…
“No one ever came to my door in searching – / for you, no one, except for you -,” wrote Canisia Lubrin in Voodoo Hypothesis. There’s a recursive desire to move inward, to burrow, to coil like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. When I tell you this line haunts me as much as the one on the second page of Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, I mean it, and I want you to know them both automatically; I don’t want to explain them further. “Some people say history moves in a spiral,” wrote Ocean Vuong in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a novel which deliberately lacks conflict. Of all these forms, Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral Explode has much to say, because Alison’s book is one that identifies patterns, that draws upon references to do so. It was the fourth-best book I read this year. In college, she read us a story about the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Every day I wonder about the threshold of commonality required to make casual references, because every day I read references to supposedly canonical things I fail to grasp. These can be low-brow: if you’ve ever referred to Saved by the Bell, you’ve lost me, because I’ve never seen it. Ditto pro wrestling. These can also be high-brow: Few allusions to Greek philosophers work on me; I don’t know enough Shakespeare to get most mentions of him. Still, I possess references you cannot possibly know. Before beating USC, Vince Young said he warmed up to a chopped and screwed version of T.I.’s “Tha King.” That’s stuck with me since tenth grade. It’s been my warm-up song since—for everything, even pumpkin picking. There are some things we never lose. You might say Twitter is a project of crowdsourced reference-making: the most basic and universal observations go viral because they are the most widely understood, while deeper cultural in-jokes amuse only niche audiences—if that—even when their connections work much better. All of us are in our own orbits with the world, each viewing but one face of the cultural sphere. The one I see will always be different from yours, but damned if I won’t try to show it to you.
At the local brewery some months ago, I sat next to a guy in a Mississippi State quarter-zip while he waited to fill his Mississippi State-branded growler. (We were nowhere near Mississippi.) The speakers played Vampire Weekend. I put down The Last Whalers because I got distracted by reality: my coworker is the sister of Mississippi State’s basketball coach, and Ezra Koenig quoted my stepbrother in our high school yearbook. (Life’s rich pageant!) Who could read about Lamalerans at a time like that? As always, who can think of anything but that line from Brian Phillips’s outstanding collection Impossible Owls, the fifth-best book of my year: “What overwhelms is not the meaninglessness of the universe but the coexistence of an apparent meaninglessness with the astonishing interconnectedness of everything.”
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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 April.
Lauren K. Alleyne
There’s not a page in Honeyfish untouched by grace and grief. In
“How to Watch Your Son Die”: “His name // will become a strange music / in the
foreign instrument of your voice.” The masterful “Killed Boy, Beautiful World”
sings and stings: “How ruthless with beauty / the world seems, clouds /
tumbling in streams of white, / the sky dappled, then clear, / then blotted
with rain; the news / of death and more death.” And yet: “you want to hold on
to it, / this life that breaks you again / and again.” Viscerally real poems
invoked to Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice live next to poems of metaphor, as
with “The Pain Fair”: “The opening act is breaking / all manner of things open:
/ wishes, bones, hearts, glass / eyes, brains.” The crowd applauds “politely:
we know / this is nothing impressive.” Next, the magician commands from the
crowd “first heartaches, first betrayals, / they resound like phantom /
symphonies, notes swelling / our chests like air into balloons.” A unique
talent, Alleyne’s skilled lines levitate with something more: passion, grace,
and a willingness to ask questions that linger. “Heaven?” ends with one such
unanswered question: “How many angels weep / when a black girl is torn / into
wings?” An excellent book.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown
“I mean, don’t you want
God / To want you? Don’t you dream / Of someone with wings taking you / Up?” Brown
has a preternatural sense of pacing, which I suspect is one reason why he’s one
of the most commanding of contemporary poets. Gravity in verse goes a long way,
and Brown’s lines feel well-worn, fully-thought, complete. From “As a Human
Being”: “There is the happiness you have / And the happiness you deserve. /
They sit apart from each other / The way you and your mother / Sat on opposite
sides of the sofa / After an ambulance came to take / Your father away.”
Effortless, we know, is never really without effort, but Brown’s flowing lines
are still worth commending—poems moving from God and gifts to the detritus of
our plans and pains. In “Foreday in the Morning,” the narrator thinks of his
mother, who “grew morning glories that spilled onto the walkway toward her
porch,” and told him “I could have whatever I worked for.” Her faith in the
world came from God, but the narrator is “ashamed of America / And confounded
by God.” Haunted by God, possibly, though Brown’s narrators often find faith
elsewhere: “Some people need religion. Me? / I’ve got my long black hair. I
twist / The roots and braid it tight.” A book pierced by a devotion to desire, The Tradition is a powerful
collection—an affirmation of love. “I thought then / Of holding you / As a
political act,” the narrator says in “Stand.” “I / May as well have / Held
Hawk Parable by Tyler Mills
We really don’t spend a
lot of our lives looking up—the sun steals our sight, or we might trip over our
own feet—though Mills’s new book might send readers outside to stare and wonder
how bombs have soiled the sky. A rather ominous endnote, “My grandfather’s
possible involvement in the Nagasaki mission has remained a mystery,” helps
frame this book, stitched together by anecdote, folklore, blurry memory, rumor,
and archival reels. Many of Mills’s narrators are shocked by the sky; in “Exposure,”
“I was hanging the baby’s diapers on the balcony / when I noticed / a
multicolored parachute / floating in the sky.” Hell might burn below our feet,
but there’s a devilish tinge to what falls from above—and Hawk Parable tells a recursive story of how atomic tests reel on an
infinite loop. In one poem, the narrator thinks of the Enewetak Atoll tests: “I
swallow vomit after watching // the island wart into an orange bulb. Just
before, / birds glanced off the shimmering water.” Three-quarters of the way
through the collection, Mills detours into prose poems that are associative and
essayistic—another mode in her attempt at reconciliation with the past. Her
frequent return to test sites in the book is apt, as if we are asked to
consider the steps necessary toward destruction: methodical, meticulous, messy
“What I want is a permanent
figure / I want a marker here to separate / The Time Before from The Time Now.”
The first section of Skaja’s debut ends with a poem of exile: self-imposed,
absolutely necessary, freeing. She quotes a crisp line by Lucie Brock-Broido—“After
Pennsylvania, I couldn’t breathe”—concluding a first quarter of the book that
sketches Philadelphia in terms of struggle and suffocation. The narrator of
these poems is smothered by an abusive man and the city’s “hot pavement.” The
book’s second section, titled “Girl Saints,” is a scream of freedom. They’ve
had enough. “Our hands bled. We saw Rorschach blood in our wounds, Pietà in egg
yolks.” Women “bled on our white clothes—we bore them redly // to the table.” “Girl
Saints,” the lead and titular poem of the section, arrives like an anthem. Other
poems, like “Dear Emily,” are whispers to the past: “Easy to disown the girl
you were / at 23: fluffed dove-gray / & bridal, eyes up, prim bird claws /
pink on the brute arm / of your first wreck.” There’s everything in this strong
debut, including the occasional reminder: “I need to remember how to be a body,
more than a chalk outline filled in with cedar shavings, doubt.”
The Experiment of the Tropics by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil
Ypil’s observant poems are
direct and eye-opening. Often a single line creates a gap in the narrative that
allows us to step inside and wonder. “The nature of a city depends on the
direction its people are moving. In the morning, towards. By evening, away.”
Later in “The Nature of the City,” a profoundly lucid prose poem, he continues:
“It takes bringing something into the heart of a city then back out into its
tributaries, to raise the price of one’s possessions. This principle applies to
one’s hopes and desires as it does to chickens and vegetables.” A later poem
with the same title offers a new perspective: “The nature of a city depends on
the combination of views it could be seen from: by high noon or night, by
backstreet or avenue.” Ypil’s lines carry the authority of aphorism without
ever feeling pedantic. His stories are gentle and clear, as in “The History of
Towns”: “The history of towns is always / the history of looking back.” By the
time you’re done contemplating the truth of an early line, Ypil offers another
accuracy: “A family is only as good as the father / who is gone.”
Herod’s Dispensations by Harry Clifton
Dublin-born Clifton, who
has left and returned to his home country several times in his life, creates a
feeling of inevitability in this new collection. He has called form in poetry “emotional
mathematics—the need to resolve something inside that is chaotic before it does
damage,” and even his open lines in Herod’s
Dispensations feel gently tense. He is wracked, and wrecked, by God. “I
never belonged in my father’s house,” he writes in “Endgame,” “His unread Bible
on the shelf / My silent coming of age.” He thinks of the Beckett play as he
spends “a Sunday afternoon / Without God,” thinking about “Those who can never
do themselves in, / Those who can never pray.” He finds curious kin in the
Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, “who would hang by his own rope / of
Catholic heresy.” The narrator, himself a “soul-abandoned body,” thinks the
controversial priest a brother, who “died, a pastor without flock / In a New York
room—anathema, frozen out.” They are both “Gnostic, heretic.” Yet the narrator
can’t help but hum the tune of that old religion, in “Death’s Door”: “Christ,
the weight of that coffin.” He’s tired. “Please, can I die now? Tired, I
straighten up / The whole of life behind me.”
Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Jericho Brown from his new book, The Tradition. In one piece, Brown synthesizes everything I love about his poetry: tightly-rendered scenes, graceful yet smooth control over syntax and lines, and a spiritual sense that focuses on the struggles of faith. “Suffocated myself handsome” is such an original, claustrophobic line—Brown sells us on his first lines, and his storytelling talent reverberates throughout The Tradition. “We pray,” he writes, “Unaware of prayer.” Such is life.
Though I have not shined shoes for it,Have not suffocated myself handsomeIn a tight, bright tie, Sunday comesTo me again as it did in childhood.
We few left who listen to the radio leaveOurselves available to surprise. We prayUnaware of prayer. We are an ugly people.
Forgive me, I do not wish to singLike Tramaine Hawkins, but Lord if I couldBecome the note she belts halfway intoThe fifth minute of “The Potter’s House”
When black vocabulary heralds home-Made belief: For any kind of havoc, there isDeliverance! She means that even after I am
Not listening. I am not a saintBecause I keep trying to be a sound, something You will rememberOnce you’ve lived enough not to believe in heaven.
Copyright 2019 by Copper Canyon Press. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Copper Canyon Press.