Voyage of the Sable Venus: and Other Poems

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A Year in Reading: Natalie Baszile

I’m a huge Charlie Rose fan.  I DVR his show and watch it in the evenings while I eat chocolate pudding. I love Rose’s interview style — engaged but relaxed; the hint of North Carolina accent, and the fact that when the camera pans back too far, I can see his New Balance sneakers. There’s something about that dark set that comforts me. No fake skyline, no news crawl along the bottom of the screen. Just a black backdrop and two glasses of water on the big oak table.  Last March, Rose interviewed author David Payne, whose new memoir, Barfoot to Avalon, had just been released.  I’d never heard of David Payne.  But I leaned forward when Rose mentioned that David Payne was known for his long, meandering sentences. I love a lyrical, beautifully crafted sentence that takes me on a journey, and by the time Payne finished reading the opening pages of chapter one, the scene where he and his younger brother pack up Payne’s Vermont house and load the last of his possessions into the rented U-Haul so Payne can drive to North Carolina to salvage his marriage, I’d set down my chocolate pudding and found the book on Amazon.  They were out of stock. The next morning, I headed to my local bookstore to see if they had any copies.  No luck, the clerk said. They’d sold out. He offered to order a copy, but it was backordered from the publisher and wouldn’t be in for a week. I had to have that book. So, I downloaded the audio version and listened for the entire six-hour drive to Los Angeles the next day and for the entire six-hour drive back. I didn’t stop food. I didn’t stop to pee. I just stared through the windshield and gripped the steering wheel, carried along the twisting path of Payne’s wrenching narrative of alcoholism and generations of family dysfunction. Payne is indeed the master of the long sentence, but also of the extended metaphor, time and space. By the time I got back to San Francisco, my dashboard light was blinking. I had less than a mile’s worth of gas left in my tank.  When my hard cover arrived, I sat down with a cup of tea and started at page one.  I already knew the story, but now I needed to absorb it. That’s how good this book is.

I’m a sucker for Annie Proulx. Have been since The Shipping News.  I once trekked downtown through a thunderstorm to hear her speak, and couldn’t stop my hand from quivering when I asked her to sign my book.  Her latest novel, Barkskins, is a masterpiece, but hasn’t, in my opinion, received the attention it deserves. Weighing in at a whopping 713 pages, it’s a delicious doorstop of a historical novel, perfect for long winter nights.  Spanning 300 years, it chronicles the lives of two penniless Frenchman, who arrive in 17th-century Canada, known then as New France, and their descendants, and their travels across North America, Europe, China, and New Zealand.  Like Proulx, I’m a huge believer in bond between character and place. Place is character and character is place. The two go hand in hand.  The first paragraph of Barkskins reads, “In the twilight they passed bloody Tadoussac, Kebec and Trois-Rivieres and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement…Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur…Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impressions of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimitable wilderness.”  What else do you need to know?

I spent a lot of 2016 feeling outraged.  Too many black bodies killed. Too much intolerance and fear, too many acquittals, too little justice.  Three books helped me maintain my sanity as I struggled to make sense of these strange and discouraging times.  First up, Robin Coste Lewis’s award-winning book of poetry Voyage of the Sable Venus. Readers should be prepared to be crushed by the sheer accumulation of images of the black female figure as Lewis chronicles their appearance in centuries of Western art. Slowly, the narrative takes shape and we’re left to both ponder what it means to be a black and female, celebrated and objectified.  Next, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book of such brutality and clarity that when I finished, for 20 minutes, all I could do was stare out the window. Whitehead draws chilling parallels between the antebellum South and modern American life as he chronicles Cora’s escape from her Georgia plantation to the north. No surprise it won the National Book Award.  When I finished Underground Railroad, I picked up Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Where Whitehead examines slavery from a historical vantage point, Winters imagines how slavery might work today.  The novel’s conceit is that the Civil War was never fought.  Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he could take office and slavery has been contained to four Southern states known as “The Hard Four,” Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and a unified Carolina. No spoilers here. All I’ll say is read the first chapter and see how you feel.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Last year my mother died. Often, my habit and love for reading felt unbearable and foreign. Other weeks it was reading alone that comforted me. It was all I wanted to do, all I was capable of doing, because all I wanted was to live inside of sentences, stanzas, stories. I didn’t and couldn’t go out there, the world was glaring in its surface of sameness, but books were ultimately part of the company that drew me out of a space that was dangerous, expanding in its withdrawal and silence.

In 2015, I also had a book of my own published. And, honestly, it was difficult to navigate a space that suddenly felt inarticulate to me. Kind friends and kind strangers alike sent me specific titles regarding grief. I also consumed books where grief, loss, rebirth, and death were implicit, distilled, expanded into unbelievable landscapes I hadn’t seen or understood as clearly before, in the surreal afterlife of my mother’s absence.

One of the best books I read last year and have returned to more than once is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. The book left me speechless in its love, grace, and dignity. Reading that book gave me hope that I too could survive and celebrate life itself. Alexander’s book gave me hope and I picked up Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side. I also returned to Toi Derricotte’s The Undertaker’s Daughter.

Being on the road on tour for my own book, I often filled my suitcase with more books than clothing. Everything I wore was mostly black so I didn’t think or care about clothes at all. But I cared about books and knew there were certain books I needed to have with me should I wake up, inconsolable, in a hotel room on the other side of the country. And so, many books crossed state lines, their spines shifting in mile-high altitudes and time zones. I wrangled slim volumes of poetry into my camera bag, which was stuffed with lenses, notebooks, and a watercolor set.

I began thinking of books and geography, literally and psychically. I considered how landscapes affected my mood and how, of course, a voracious grief devoured everything. Sometimes I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t remember names of favorites characters or the way those characters in those books had once made me feel, so I’d go back and reread them. And, in my travels, I often looked out for marvelous independent bookstores where I would then pick up more books, often shipping them back to Brooklyn when I realized I’d be charged at the airport for being over the weight restrictions.

While working on a photography project in Oxford, Miss., last summer I reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Eudora Welty’s On Writing. I’d also carried around Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems, edited by Kevin Young, because I was working on photographs about black women’s bodies, identities, and the presence and interruption of landscape in terms of blackness.

This journey made me pick up a second or third copy of Roger Reeves’s King Me because I ended up driving down to Money, Miss., and further into the Delta. King Me made me go searching for Jean Toomer’s Cane and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston’s grace and excellence sent me back, gratefully, into the words of Henry Dumas, Langston Hughes, and Robert Hayden.

While I was in Portland, I caught up with Matthew Dickman but was so shy about meeting him I forgot to ask him to sign the hardcover of Mayakovsky’s Revolver I’d stashed in my rental car. And when I traveled down to Santa Fe to teach at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), I dove again into Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song and read Jessica Jacobs’s Pelvis with Distance because I was in Georgia O’Keeffe country. I’m still working through O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s letters, My Faraway One, and made some serious dents in it this year.

I’ve opened up Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra and placed those two near each other, like constellations, in my reading stack. Speaking of women artists, I reread the Diary of Frida Kahlo and Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida Kahlo because I curated the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry Walk for the New York Botanical Garden’s astonishing exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Art Garden Life.” Lucky for me, I got to spend lots and lots of time with the poetry of Octavio Paz, one of my favorites!

A dear friend just sent me a copy of Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze. Literally, I’ve been hiding out in my house to devour it in one sitting, which obviously led to a second sitting so I could read the entire book aloud. But I had to leave my house eventually, so Levis has been riding the subways with me. We’re great company for each other.

Reading Levis, of course, made me pick up Philip Levine’s What Work Is again and that somehow made me pull out W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Jack Gilbert. When I journeyed to Vermont for the Brattleboro Festival, I cried at a moving tribute for Galway Kinnell and that made me buy another copy of The Book of Nightmares, which made me stay up all night in my hotel room reading aloud, remembering once how I’d been fortunate enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with Kinnell and so many other poets like Cornelius Eady and Marilyn Nelson and Martín Espada. And I think it was over 90 degrees out and Bill Murray walked across that day with us too.  Anyway, Kinnell pushed me toward Seamus Heaney and Czesław Miłosz. Throw in Tomas Tranströmer and Amiri Baraka’s SOS: 1961 – 2013, and somehow eventually I’m holding Federico García Lorca, who is always near, and whose words also travel with me on trains, planes, and dreams.

When I read poetry I’ll sometimes take down several poets who may or may not be speaking clearly to one another in some tone or mood or style. It helps me hear each of them even more clearly.

Finally, I think, if there’s time, the last two things I hope to read (again) before 2016 arrives will be Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

As I sit here looking at the bookshelves crammed with new books, I simply sigh in joy and think, too, of the stacks of books at my visual art studio nearby. This year I’m a reader for something for PEN, which means in the last months I’ve read over 50 books by writers of color, including poetry, fiction, and non fiction. Thinking just of that list alone, there are far too many books this year for me to include here. How wonderful! We’re all better for it!

So, here, quickly, are some more titles, both old and new, that changed me, whether by their grief, their beauty, their joy, their violence, their ambition, their desire, their imagination, their history, or future, but always, by their truth and courage:

Ross Gay, Unabashed Catalogues of Gratitude
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; Lighthead
Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus
Jack Gilbert, Collected
Carl Phillips, Reconnaissance
Nicholas Wong, Crevasse
Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval
Kyle Dargan, Honest Engine
Nick Flynn, My Feelings
Tonya M. Foster, A Swarm of Bees in High Court
Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn
Jonathan Moody, Olympic Butter Gold
Margo Jefferson, Negroland
Chris Abani, Song for Night
Rick Barot, Chord
Major Jackson, Roll Deep
Yesenia Montilla, The Pink Box
Randall Horton, Hook
Parneshia Jones, Vessel
Ellen Hagan, Hemisphere
Yusef Komunyakaa, The Emperor of Water Clocks
Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl
Michael Klein, When I Was a Twin
Patti Smith, M Train
Marie Cardinal, The Words to Say It
Dawn Lundy Martin, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life
Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud
Paul Beatty, The Sellout
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Lila
Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
Marie Mockett, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye
Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel
Naomi Jackson, The Star Side of Bird Hill
Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Angela Flournoy

In January I vowed to purchase and read as much poetry as I read fiction. I traveled more this year than ever before, mostly in support of my novel, and poetry became a way to keep good words on my person without lugging around a heavy hardcover. For a fiction writer like me, who loves clause-heavy sentences and a good, chunky paragraph, poetry reminds me that every word and every sound can and should be considered. The poetry I read, in the order acquired:

Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine
Blue Yodel, by Ansel Elkins
Hemming the Water, by Yona Harvey
Gabriel, by Edward Hirsch
How to Be Drawn, by Terrance Hayes
[Insert] Boy, by Danez Smith
Boy With Thorn, by Rickey Laurentiis
Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis
Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limón

An unexpected and wonderful thing happened as a result of putting my first book out this year: I read a good amount of 2015 releases. It usually takes me a while to learn about new books, and longer still to read them, but there’s only so many times you can see your book alongside other good-looking ones in bookstores and in the press before you pick them up and see what’s what.

Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon
Diamond Head, by Cecily Wong
Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, by Julie Iromuanya
Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea
The Star Side of Bird Hill, by Naomi Jackson
Bright Lines, by Tanwi Nandini Islam
The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

2015 National Book Award Winners Announced

The 2015 National Book Award winners were announced last night in New York City. The big prize for Fiction went to Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson, who is racking up the hardware after his prior book, the novel The Orphan Master’s Son, won the Pulitzer. Fortune Smiles is a collection of stories, making it two years in a row that a collection has won the NBA for fiction. As we noted in our second-half preview, this collection “of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’ echoes [Johnson’s] early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.”

The Nonfiction award was yet another honor for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s lyrical open letter to his son, Between the World and Me. The book has sat atop our Top Ten list for a few months now, and Sonya Chung dissected some of the reaction to the book in her persuasive essay in August. In September, we noted (with relief) this year’s unusually diverse nonfiction longlist.

The Poetry award was won by Robin Coste Lewis for Voyage of the Sable Venus. The winner in the Young People’s Literature category was Neal Shusterman for Challenger Deep.

 

Bonus Links: Earlier in the year we dove into both the Shortlist and the Longlist to share excerpts and reviews where available.

2015 National Book Award Shortlists Released

Book award season is peaking along with the autumn leaves as the National Book Award shortlists have been released in four categories. These have been whittled down from last month’s longlists, and the winners will be announced in New York City on November 18.

You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction shortlist here first, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

Refund by Karen E. Bender (“For What Purpose”)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book’s opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)

Nonfiction:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (“We Know Less Than We Think We Do”)
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt)
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt)
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt)
Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light)

Poetry:

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem)
How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem)
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem)
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things)
Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem)

Young People’s Literature:

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt)
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt)
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt)
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt)
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)

2015 National Book Award Longlists Released

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Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 14, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 18.

The fiction list seems especially varied this year and includes many newcomers. Alongside highly touted books by Hanya Yanagihara, Lauren Groff, and Adam Johnson. Are “newcomers” like Bill Clegg, Angela Flournoy, and Nell Zink. It’s a great time to be a reader.

You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, of course, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews.

In the other categories, after last year’s male-dominated Non-Fiction longlist, female authors have captured seven of the spots this year.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball (Ball’s Year in Reading, 2009)
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (exerpt)
Refund by Karen E. Bender (“For What Purpose”)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book’s opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt)
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (excerpt (pdf))
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction, Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)
Mislaid by Nell Zink

Nonfiction:

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett (interview and excerpt)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (“We Know Less Than We Think We Do”)
Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes (excerpt)
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt)
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt)
Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore (essay)
Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti (excerpt)
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt)
Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light)
Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White (excerpt)

Poetry:

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem)
Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler (excerpt)
A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems, 1994-2014 by Marilyn Hacker (the title poem)
How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem)
The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield (poem)
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem)
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things)
Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem)
Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips (poem)
Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts by Lawrence Raab (poem)

Young People’s Literature:

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (excerpt)
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt)
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (excerpt)
This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt)
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon (excerpt)
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt)
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt)
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)

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