WHEREAS: Poems

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Must-Read Poetry: July 2018

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in July.

A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires
A book worthy of pondering—“how to find myself / when a self is so small”—Spires offers so many questions and considerations, yet they all return to our fleeting existences. “If my heart were scoured, / if my soul were remade / into a new and shining garment, / then would I have to die? // Lord, if perfection is death, / let me stay here / a little while longer, / spotted and stained.” In “The Road”: “A life: pared to the bone / Think of a room with no / chair, no bed.” Spires puts us in these monastic spaces where, like her narrator, we “sit on a black square / in a patch of light. / In my mind, I sit there.” When we sit inside ourselves, soon we sit everywhere, including out on the road. Spires’s narrator sees where “a few souls, gray as time, / stand in a patch of shade, / their arms held out.” There’s a need for poetry that is intensely, perhaps even messily, invested in the present moment as it unfolds; there’s also a need for poetry that feels transcendent, inward. There’s health in that for the reader, for the writer. “As one grows older, / there should be fewer / and fewer words to say,” Spires writes. This is a book of listening and contemplation. It does not ignore the outside world, but it gives readers a way to survive it. Poems like “Small as a Seed”—an appropriately Franciscan structured work from a poet raised Catholic—are welcome salves: “In everything, its opposite. / In terror, calm. / In joy, attendant sorrow. / In the sun’s ascendancy, its downfall. / In darkness, light not yet apprehended. // At night in bed, I fear the falling off. / Though falling, I will rise. / I fear. Fall arriving now. / In any word so small, the world. / In the world I walk in, a wild wood.”

New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich
In her introduction to this important volume, Erdrich quotes Dean Rader’s observation that “a comprehensive anthology of Indigenous American poetry has not been published since 1988.” Erdrich reminds us that in addition to this critical absence, there has also been erasure—“Native American-themed poetry by non-Natives” has “overwritten our identities in ways that confuse young people who are already at risk and struggling to forge an identity.” A small sampling of the excellent work here: Tacey M. Atsitty’s “Hole Through the Rock”: “But within my whorl, you are winged: doubled and pure, / like the coupling of pebbles in storm water. These enduring // glances from wind on pane say you can see plainly the part / of me you miss.” Selections from Layli Long Soldier’s moving collection, WHEREAS. From Tommy Pico’s IRL: “I / don’t have the option / of keeping my God / alive by keeping her name / secret b/c the word for her / is gone.” Craig Santos Perez’s masterful ruptures of language in “(First Trimester),” where the narrator’s partner feels their child’s first kick, that “embryo / of hope.” They think about fragments and pieces, organic and otherwise: “they say plastic is the perfect creation / because it never dies.” He thinks: “i wish my daughter was made // of plastic so that she will survive [our] wasteful / hands.” And then there’s Natalie Diaz, who will stop you, sit you right up: “Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent. / O, mine efficient country.”

Smudgy and Lossy by John Myers
This debut by Myers unfolds as if it is in a Samuel Palmer painting: a moonlit field, blurry and dizzy at the right moments. Smudgy and Lossy, the two main characters in the book, are friends and lovers. They sometimes seem to have bodies; elsewhere, they drift through the book as referents. There’s a mystical, wondrous touch to Myers’s verse: “In the house I grew up in I always drew / where the windows were in the walls // because I didn’t trust that I would be / otherwise held.” In this pastoral world, dreams and reality share borders and sometimes overlap. “A butterfly found cold, its wings caked into the dirt” and “Lossy’s never bored watching mail carriers, their feet in the rain”—such lines are offered to the reader like passing thoughts. He often returns to the relationship between Smudgy and Lossy: “Sound requires a medium. / I put my back to you to / resonate and I can’t tell, does / this apply? You are hardly / affected no matter where / we share a tether.” His poems surprise us: They capture a world we’ve seen yet slightly transformed: “The light on the curve of one’s wrist like a nest of velvet ants.”

The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik (translated by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander)
These are the first English translations of Pizarnik’s French poems, written from 1960-1964 and from 1970-1971. The collection includes images of her draft pages, now held at Princeton. Enrique Vila-Matas has written of how Pizarnik “liked illusory or artful nights,” and those incantatory rhythms particularly fuel these poems. “All night I hear the voice of someone seeking me. All night you abandon me slowly.” In the night, “Silence is temptation and promise.” The narrator is plagued by her longing; “I check the wind for you. You’re not a cry. But I check the wind for you.” To read Pizarnik is to inhabit her melancholic world, a world of recursive, enabling lines, where “my language is the priestess.”

Trickster Feminism by Anne Waldman
“I am a poet, bard, scop, minnesinger, trobairitz who is driven by sound and the possibilities for vocal expression, the mouthing of text as well as intentionality or dance on the page.” Waldman has always been interested in the poetry of performance, but never purely in artifice: “There’s a numbness in our culture to the continuing horrors of genocide…How, as a poet, do you take that on? How can the outrage really penetrate you into a state of compassion?” Trickster Feminism answers that question through a series of prose poems, litanies, and meditations; “what does the trickster say / kinetic or / clown / or / hiding so as in retreat”—for Waldman, the trickster is among us, sometimes within us. “Resistance. Had to resist. Ward off. Deflect. Exorcise. Defy. Apotropaic experiments to shift tone & anger.” This book is a call: “Take back founding myth of Americas: evil of the Feminine.” “This is a whisper,” Waldman writes, “enough of whisper to / rise up rise up and wiser, streets of the world.”

Purgatorio translated by W.S. Merwin
“I am invisible I am untouchable / and empty / nomad live with me / be my eyes / my tongue and my hands / my sleep and my rising / out of chaos / come and be given.” Those lines from The Essential W.S. Merwin arose while reading his translation of Dante’s masterwork. “The poem that survives the receding particulars of a given age and place soon becomes a shifting kaleidoscope of perceptions, each of them in turn provisional and subject to time and change,” Merwin writes in the foreword. He is in awe of Dante, and humbled by this assignment—a worthy caretaker. Merwin reminds us that out of Dante’s three sections, “only Purgatory happens on the earth, as our lives do, with our feet on the ground, crossing a beach, climbing a mountain.” It is also the realm of hope “as it is experienced nowhere else in the poem, for there is none in Hell, and Paradise is fulfillment itself.” The tactile, raw nature of our visceral world, and the longing for something more: a poetic duality that Merwin captures in each canto. “When we had come to a place where the dew / fends off the sun, there where it dries / hardly at all because of the sea breeze // my master spread out both his hands and laid them / gently upon the grass, and I who / understood what he intended to do // leaned toward him my cheeks with their tear stains / and he made visible once again / all that color of mind which Hell had hidden.” In Merwin’s Purgatorio, the mire of Hell is never far away—but neither is the salvation of Paradise.

2017 National Book Critics Circle Award Winners


The 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award winners were announced tonight in New York City. Along with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, which were announced in January, the winners in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Criticism, Autobiography, and Biography were all presented.

This year’s recipients of the National Book Critics Circle Awards are:

Fiction
Improvement by Joan Silber (Silber’s a Year in Reading alum)

Nonfiction
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald

Poetry
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Recommended by our own Nick Ripatrazone)

Criticism
You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano

Autobiography
Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China by Xiaolu Guo

Biography
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

NBCC Announces 2017 Finalists

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The National Book Critics Circle announced their 2017 Award Finalists, and the winners of three awards: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

The finalists include 30 writers across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism. Here are the finalists separated by genre:

Fiction:
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (The Millions’ review)
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Improvement by Joan Silber
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Read our interview with Ward)

Nonfiction:
Gulf: The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald
The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Read our 2017 interview with Gessen)
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford

Biography:
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon
The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel
Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman
Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times by Kenneth Whyte

Autobiography:
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
The Girl From the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China by Xiaolu Guo

Poetry:
Fourth Person Singular by Nuar Alsadir
Earthling by James Longenbach
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Recommended by Contributing Editor Nick Ripatrazone)
The Darkness of Snow by Frank Ormsby
Directions for Use by Ana Ristović

Criticism:
You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat
Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History by Camille Dungy
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli (Review)
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News by Kevin Young (Read Young’s Year in Reading)

For the three stand along awards, here are the winners: John McPhee won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to letters and book culture, exploration of widely varying topics, and mentorship of young writers and journalists. Author and critic Charles Finch won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. The John Leonard Prize—for a first book in any genre—went to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

The winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 15, 2018.

A Year in Reading: Jamel Brinkley

2017 has been another year of transition for me. After living in Madison, Wisc., for only a year, I moved out to California. It’s been strange and a little unsettling to move farther and farther away from my family and friends in New York. I’ve also felt anxious because teaching duties in Madison and Iowa City, a fairly demanding new job I’ve taken on to pay the bills, and edits for my forthcoming debut story collection have kept me from writing any new fiction. And then, of course, there’s been the nightmarish daily assault of Donald Trump, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, gun violence… The list goes on.

Thank goodness for independent bookstores! A Room of One’s Own, Skylight Books, Eso Won Books, and The Last Bookstore helped new cities feel more like home. Greenlight Bookstore and Prairie Lights Books have been priority stops whenever I dipped back to Brooklyn or Iowa City. Thank goodness for books. Here are some that have ushered me through a challenging year:

A People on the Cover by Glenn Ligon

The Mountain by Paul Yoon

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison

A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma

Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews

The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón

The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera

WHEREAS by Layli Long Soldier

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar

New People by Danzy Senna

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey

Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill

House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

Afterland by Mai Der Vang

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing by Margot Livesey

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora

Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

Bestiary by Donika Kelly

Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Play Dead by francine j. harris

Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Patrick Nathan

On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it.

Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death.

In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.”

Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism.

If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices.

And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Kaveh Akbar

It’s been a long 2017. So much of being a poet as I understand it is about maintaining a permeability to wonder, and that’s been difficult work in a year spent in the long shadow of a fascistic regime, a year in which the earth has grown increasingly desperate in its attempts to warn us about the damage we’re doing to it.

The (perhaps feeble ((but noble))) balm—a year of books, richer than any I can recall. It’s like the world of poetry knew we’d need it to rise up and carry us, to orient us toward our livable tomorrows. Poets are watchers, wonderers. And they have the magical ability to make us realer than we can make ourselves. Elizabeth Alexander writes: “We are of interest to one another, are we not?” I like thinking of poems as little empathy tablets, granting us access to (and compassion for) lived experiences unlike any we’ll ever know firsthand.

Here are some new books (mostly poetry, listed in no particular order) from the past year that have helped me wander and wonder from one day into the next:

Frank Bidart – Half-Light

Anaïs Duplan – Mount Carmel & the Blood of Parnassus

Marwa Helal – I Am Made to Leave I Am Made to Return

Traci Brimhall – Saudade

Layli Long Soldier – Whereas

Rachel McKibbens – blud

Sahar Muradi – [Gates]

Steph Burt – Advice from the Lights

Maggie Smith – Good Bones

Cait Weiss Orcutt – Valleyspeak

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Nicole Tong – How to Prove a Theory

Craig Morgan Teicher – The Trembling Answers

Nicole Sealey – Ordinary Beast

Danez Smith – Don’t Call Us Dead

sam sax – Madness

Javier Zamora – Unaccompanied

Marcus Wicker – Silencer

Alex Dimitrov – Together and By Ourselves

Ruth Awad – Set to Music a Wildfire

Bill Knott – Selected Poems

William Brewer – I Know Your Kind

Morgan Parker – There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé

Carl Phillips – Wild Is the Wind

Marie Howe – Magdalene

Ghayath Almadhoun – Adrenalin

Patricia Smith – Incendiary Arts

Tyree Daye – River Hymns

Gabrielle Calvocoressi – Rocket Fantastic

Mai Der Vang – Afterland

Sarah Browning – Killing Summer

Alessandra Lynch – Daylily Called it a Dangerous Moment

Chen Chen – When I Grow Up I Want to Be A List of Further Possibilities

Adrian Matejka – Map to the Stars

Finn Menzies – Brilliant Odyssey Don’t Yearn

Eve L. Ewing – Electric Arches

Shane McCrae – In the Language of My Captor

Ghassan Zaqtan (trans. by Fady Joudah) – The Silence that Remains

Franny Choi – Death By Sex Machine

Laura Kasischke – Where Now: New and Selected Poems

Subject to Change: Trans Poetry & Conversation

Megan Stielstra – The Wrong Way to Save Your Life

Hanif Abdurraqib – They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

Melissa Febos – Abandon Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates – We Were Eight Years in Power

Alissa Nutting – Made for Love

Roxane Gay – Hunger

Kevin Young – Bunk

Wendy Xu – Phrasis

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

2017 John Leonard Prize Finalists Announced

The finalists for the John Leonard Prize — for a first book in any genre — were announced by the National Book Critics Circle. This year’s finalists are Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Julie Buntin’s Marlena, Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose, Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling. The winner will be announced in January. Pair with: Buntin’s 2017 Year in Reading entry.

A Year in Reading: Louise Erdrich

Maybe I would characterize 2016 as a movie car chase, and 2017 as the reveal where all of us anonymous motorists who got side-swiped, flipped, forced off bridges and into concrete abutments, rise out of the wreckage yelling for real. My list is composed of books to read to your fellow travelers as you sit, shaken but alive, beneath a tree. You will need a moment before setting out to put an end to the damn movie and fix the world.

Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy by Melvin Konner
This year was a promotional campaign for this book.  The writer is a professor in the Program of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University.  His conclusions give me, well, hope.  Let me simply quote from the introduction: “Sex scandals, financial corruption, and violence are all overwhelmingly male.  This is not, I will argue, mainly because men happened to be in charge and had the chance to do these things.  It is mainly because they are men.  And the motives and inclinations that led them into positions where they could abuse power are the same ones that long enabled them to keep women out.  But this is over.”

So say we all.

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
Using the language of the colonizer to talk about what it means to be colonized, Long Soldier takes us down some rough roads.  But also there are strands of sheer delight—her devotion to meticulous emotional description, sharp irony, and perfectly recapped incident make this a book to carry through your day.  I would open it when waiting for, say, a tire to be fixed, or in a clinic waiting room.  Never disappointed.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
I wish the title was The World Without Some of Us, but the idea is a great thought experiment.  What would earth be like if we all disappeared (let’s just say instantaneously and without foreknowledge or pain).  I know, still not a cheerful thought, but oddly I found real comfort in this altogether humane and fascinating tour of a planet that has shrugged off all human presence.  This book made me long to visit the places Weisman visits in his quest for natural antiquity.  As Weisman’s premise looks increasingly possible with news of this year’s record carbon spew, I read it with increased gravity.  This is a wise and beautiful book.

Her Body and Other Parties  by Carmen Maria Machado
Remember all of the scary stories from your preteen days and then add every gory movie you have watched since then and sift this into the brain of a masterful young writer.  Machado’s writing is full of repressed physical energy and the raw juice of annihilating female fury.  The body is the subject, the culprit, the innocent.  Standard accessories like ribbons become frightful.  She does unimaginable things with a prom dress.  But these stories are also funny—which really made me uneasy—because I could hear in my laugh that same squawk a tiny dog makes in moments of duress.

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
Maybe it is that the economic nomads Bruder writes about, people who live in cars and RVs and follow jobs that make my bones ache just to think about them, have the most remarkably upbeat personalities.  Maybe it’s because I feel like I know or could be any one of them.  Maybe it is because many are drawn to my hometown neck of the Red River and work the sugar beet harvest in a cold dusty wind that I know well.  This is an important book.  Bruder writes about economic refugees who downsize from regular houses into minivans, downsize from regular jobs with benefits into utter uncertainty.  They refuse to be apathetic about life, but their treatment at the hands of pittance wage employers like Amazon (free OTC painkillers for elderly warehouse workers) is brutal.  The book is a calmly stated chronicle of devastation.  But told as as story after story, it is also a riveting collection of tales about irresistible people—quirky, valiant people who deserve respect and a decent life.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
I did a lot of driving this year and Sherman’s book—furious, compelling, beautiful, and horrifying by turns—took my daughter and I through North Dakota and then up to Canada.  Because Alexie is a masterful storyteller, champion slam poet, and truly great improv performer, this audiobook is one of the best I’ve ever listened to.  No bells and whistles and production—just raw Sherman—sometimes breaking into tears, sometimes making us cry.  Sherman had brain surgery and I think he is the first in the world to make it laugh-out-loud funny.  That’s the other thing that is tremendously valuable—funny gets you through a lot.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

2017 National Book Award Finalists Announced

It’s officially fall, so that means it’s officially book award season, and nothing marks its advent like naming the National Book Award finalists. Winners will be announced in New York City on November 15.

The short list is headlined by Jesmyn Ward, whose Sing, Unburied, Sing appeared in two recent essays on our site. Four of the five Fiction finalists made appearances 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:

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman (excerpt)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (excerpt; A Most Anticipated Book)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (People Without a Home: On Min Jin Lee’s PachinkoA Most Anticipated Book)
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado (A Most Anticipated Book)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Literature’s Inherited Trauma: On Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, SingSearching for Complexity: Motherhood in FictionA Most Anticipated Book)

Nonfiction:

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (excerpt)
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald (excerpt)
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Surviving Trump: Masha Gessen Wants You to Remember the Future)
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (excerpt)
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean (Surviving Koch: Nancy MacLean Wants You to Ignore Donald Trump)

Poetry:

Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart (The Poet and the Movie Star: An Evening with Frank Bidart and James Franco)
The Book of Endings by Leslie Harrison
WHEREAS by Layli Long Soldier (Start With These Five New Books of Poetry)
In the Language of My Captor by Shane McCrae
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems by Danez Smith (The Nu-Audacity School of Poetry)

Young People’s Literature:

What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold
Far from the Tree by Robin Benway (excerpt)
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez (excerpt)
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia (excerpt)
American Street by Ibi Zoboi (excerpt)

2017 National Book Award Longlists Unveiled

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 4, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 15.

The fiction list includes an eclectic mix and features eight women, including Jennifer Egan for her long-awaited new novel.

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.

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

Fiction:

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman(excerpt)
The King Is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcón 
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (excerpt)
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Egan’s Year in Reading)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (excerpt)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (People Without a Home: On Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko)
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado 
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (excerpt)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (“Haunted by Ghosts: The Millions Interviews Jesmyn Ward“, “Literature’s Inherited Trauma: On Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing“)
Barren Island by Carol Zoref

Nonfiction:

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (excerpt)
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald (excerpt)
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr. (excerpt)
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (read our interview with Gessen)
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I. by David Grann (excerpt)
No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein (excerpt)
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean (read our interview with MacLean)
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (excerpt)
The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson (excerpt)
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young

Poetry:

Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
The Book of Endings by Leslie Harrison
Magdalene by Marie Howe
Where Now: New and Selected Poems by Laura Kasischke
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Nick Ripatrazone on Layli Long Soldier)
In the Language of My Captor by Shane McCrae
Square Inch Hours by Sherod Santos
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (Nick Ripatrazone on Danez Smith; excerpt)
Afterland by Mai Der Vang

Young People’s Literature:

What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold
Far from the Tree by Robin Benway
All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (excerpt)
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Start With These Five New Books of Poetry

You should buy new books of poetry. Sure, there are novels and memoirs that are worth your money, but don’t be averse to verse. Show libraries your love, but buy poetry. Buy poetry for escape and for inscape. Buy poetry to pause the world, to hide from it, to consider all its hues and microscopic wonders. Buy poetry because poets deserve to get paid. Buy poetry and leave copies on your kitchen table. Buy poetry and read it aloud — to yourself, to someone you love, to someone who loves you but hates poetry. Buy poetry to learn what it means to be surprised and stirred by words.

Start with these five new books.

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
“At school they learned that Black people happened.” Parker’s gifted poems shift and pivot. In “The President Has Never Said the Word Black,” she writes: “What kind of bodies are movable / and feasts. What color are visions. // When he opens his mouth / a chameleon is inside, starving.” True to the collection’s title, Beyoncé’s presence is present — she calls Lady Gaga “Tonight   I make a name for you.” She listens “for prophecies / from my daughter’s sticky mouth” and tells her “Never give them / what they want, when they want it.” She prepares a will: “A vigil will be held in memory of / a prime evening / sweating like ice in a glass.” And there’s other gems like “Another Another Autumn in New York,” when the narrator smirks “I will not be attending the party / tonight, because I am / microwaving multiple Lean Cuisines / and watching Wife Swap.” She smokes, eats a whole box of cupcakes, steps on leaves: [I] “confuse the meanings / of castle and slum, exotic / and erotic,” and “breathe dried honeysuckle / and hope. I live somewhere / imaginary.” So many sweet and sour lines here. One of my favorites comes from “Delicate and Jumpy:” “Soon a beer-colored sky will sneak / up behind the fence. I toss my hair / to the street without permission.”

American Purgatory by Rebecca Gayle Howell
Every once in a while, poetry needs to say to novels: I’ve been around longer, and I can tell stories better. Howell’s the kind of poet who can announce the apocalypse in a whisper. American Purgatory is set in some charred near-future that looks increasingly like our present, where “persons are held to service and labor.” Where “dust here is big,” and people “work a whore’s hours, but care less.” I love how Howell yokes the mythic with the muddy: “Everything dies, I tell him an old lover said that / to me each night. Slade rises to bend backward, / his hand on his hip, his eyes open straight to the sun.” Howell documents a diseased, dehydrated world through three characters, whose dreams are like threnodies. “From a distance the brushfire looked like veins crossing, / a flame’s thin arm, like electric wires, like Christmas”– lines that loosen the reader into one character’s dream of “two diamondbacks, a cross / of tails bent to the motion of a lock.” What can they — we — do in a world like this? “Above us / geese charge / north on abacus wires strung tight to — what. What sky / are we held by? Who counts our sins.”

Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
In 2009, then-President Obama signed a resolution “To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.” The resolution contains a litany of sentences that begin “whereas,” and ends with a disclaimer that “Nothing in this Joint Resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” The resolution was signed in silence. There was no announcement. No ceremony. Long Soldier was angered by the mode and method of the apology, and wrote a book in response to it. Whereas is a poetic document of force, an indictment of bureaucratic language that makes violence passive. She begins a section of “whereas” poems with the statement that she is a citizen of the United States and the Oglala Lakota Nation, and “in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” She begins: “Whereas when offered an apology I watch each movement the shoulders / high or folding, tilt of the head both eyes down or straight through / me, I listen for cracks in knuckles or in the word choice, what is it / that I want? To feel and mind you I feel from the senses — I read / each muscle, I ask the strength of the gesture to move like a poem.” Long Soldier’s book is diverse in form and function, a beautiful work of book art that needs to be held and museum-shown.

Fair Sun by Susan Barba
Paging through Barba’s collection, I first opened to “Marathon,” the penultimate poem in the book, and was instantly hooked. “Only the moon over Soldier’s Field Road sees us depart, / quiet until the sun apocalyptic above the hospital / jars us into words at river’s bend, electric pink / feedback feathering the water.” Rare is the pitch-perfect running poem, but Barba captures this New England moment: “Human / technicolor snakes and schoolbuses perambulate / the park and idly limber in preparation to go west.” Barba’s poetry settles on the tongue. “How Should We Live Our Lives?” is a poem worthy of framing. The first stanza follows the title’s question with another: “With love / and trepidation / sign our letters?” More questions follow, before we realize this is an internal conversation that reaches the air: “Daughter, / as you grow up I / will grow old, / a fact that shocks / you, even at age three.” The narrator laments “Love has no part in this.” Barba is masterful at finding the shine in disparate moments: “Yellow coldness, puddles in the mud. / The brush of winter waiting for the sky to dry.” A book to read, and re-read.

Blackacre by Monica Youn
“The Greeks / had it wrong: / catastrophe // is not a downturn, / not a fall / from grace.” Instead, it is the “sudden /terrible // elevation of / a single point— / one dot // on the topography / of a life.” Youn effortlessly shifts between many forms in Blackacre, but I find myself returning to her columnar poems that careen forward like freshly sharpened arrows. Her sense of poetic lines is keen and clean; her work feels sculpted. And then she stops a reader in her tracks with prose-poems like “Desideratum:” “But what is it that you want?” We are placed in a high-school parking lot, the humidity visible like “sluggish cellophane ripples, epoxy threatening to go solid.” A truck starts, with rope “knotted to its tow hitch,” and that rope “begins to play out, uncoiling, looping, unlooping itself …hissing in widening arcs across the tarmac.” You — audience, reader — “find yourself lurching after it, staggering,” hoping to grab it. Afraid “what that rough plastic rope would do to your hands, what the sudden jerk would do to your shoulder joints, whether, once having grabbed hold, you would ever be able to let go.” I can’t think of a better metaphor for poetry. Poems are a dangerous invitation, but if we can grab hold of the language, we are caught. We are changed.

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