the Möbius Strip Club of Grief, by bianca stone
In The Möbius Strip Club of Grief, Bianca Stone moves like Dante through an imagined underworld: a club where the “the dead don’t want your tips. They just/ want you to listen to their poems.” Stone guides the reader along the strip club’s meandering halls, each poem leading somewhere unexpected, somewhere inevitable, exploring loss and grief through the burlesque, through Emily Dickinson, through feminist text, through birdsong. The afterlife that she creates —original and evocative in its imagining —resolves itself into an elegy for Stone’s grandmother, Ruth, whose presence rings throughout the collection. The collection’s title is inspired in part by her grandmother’s poem, “The Möbius Strip of Grief,” and Stone explores the relationship between the generations of women in her family, turning her eye from grandmother, to daughter, to “the gentle climate of mothers.” Moments of joy and conflict are layered over one another in a palimpsest of grief. Stone’s verse is immediate and accessible —here, the dead are just beyond our fingertips, and grief’s a reason for gratitude.
Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi
Ada is born the daughter of a human, the daughter of a god, and the vessel of ogbanje. Although the novel opens with her birth and follows her through childhood, this narrative isn’t concerned with telling a linear story. It focuses instead on the story of spiritual self-knowing, the cracks and fissures, the symmetry and splintering. Because Ada is also others, the narrative splits into chapters, some narrated by a “We,” some by Asughara, and some by Ada herself—each with their separate ideas and interpretations of events. The bulk of the story is spent in Ada’s early adult years, after a traumatic experience initiates the birth of a new voice within her—Asughara. Where Ada is quiet and religiously troubled, Asughara steps in to protect her, by using her body for sex and power. What follows is a long dialogue between these two voices within one body as they struggle to understand one another, and to reconcile their separate existences in the heart-darkness and betrayals of the world around them, moving from Umuahia to Virginia to Brooklyn.
What is stunning about Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel Freshwater is its bold, unwavering testament to the queer body. It opens doors to an identity that is inherently metaphysical, that cannot be neatly boxed into a hegemonic culture. Emezi writes with palpable urgency her testament to being and braving a body that resists Western binaries and scientific analysis, and that sometimes resists its own being. Freshwater brings us to these uncomfortable, bodiless spaces, reminding us that “the space between life and death is resurrection. It has a smell like a broken mango leaf, sharp, sticking to the inner rind of our skin.”
love, by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Martin Aitken
Hanne Ørstavik’s Love follows eight-year-old Jon and his mother Vibeke as each wanders the night in a cold, snowy village in northern Norway. From the first page, Ørstavik’s understated prose and sparse dialogue trace a relationship between mother and son that is as dry and powdery as Jon’s failed snowballs. As the novel flits effortlessly between these two points of view, the reader is swept up in two separate egos, each on a muted quest for the human connections they are unable to accept from each other.
Ørstavik is at her most striking when capturing the spirit of inexperience: Jon’s quiet acceptance of the world around him and his unselfconscious interactions with it, as when he puts a whole cookie in his mouth “and tries to suck it soft without breaking it,” offer a sweet genuineness to the novel. But what feels natural and sympathetic in the son gets twisted in the mother: with a thousand “maybe"s and “must be"s, she explores justifications for peoples’ behavior in a desperate and immature attempt to provoke intimacy between herself and others. In Love, the disingenuous folds into the organic as if into a batter; the novel feels constantly on the verge of something irrevocable. This tension lingers like cigarette smoke in the cold, ultimately bringing Vibeke and Jon together again at the end of the night, but further apart than either of them ever fully realize. Martin Aitken is to be applauded for so conscientiously bringing this soft-spoken, full-hearted novel into the English language.
red winter, by Anneli furmark, translated by Hanna Strömberg
In Anneli Furmark’s latest, social democrat Siv has fallen in love with Ulrik, a Maoist many years her junior. Like the bitter winter air that writes itself on their faces, the affair casts an icy glow on all it touches, namely Siv’s family and Ulrik’s political position; as a member of Sweden’s communist party in the late seventies, Ulrik is meant to convert social democrats like Siv rather than fall for them and risk revealing party secrets.
Unfolding in tense, careful prose and shadowy blue and orange watercolors, Siv and Ulrik’s story is equal parts cold—the endless winter, Siv’s pull away from her husband and children, the desolation both she and Ulrik are pushing against—and inviting, due in large part to Furmark’s keen ability to access the deeply interior and the expansive, the majestic, sometimes simultaneously. In one such scene, Siv’s daughter Marita wades serenely through a golden forest of thawing snow; in another, Siv muses on loneliness as her world is shown from above, a bird’s eye study in blue and black squares, circles, and curves.
Yet for all its magnificent stillness, Red Winter howls with unease. The question—is it possible for Siv and Ulrik to be together?—nests inside their relationship, waits for them around corners like an unwelcome stranger. There it is during an unexpected run-in on the sidewalk, as Siv whisks her daughter along and Ulrik attempts to sell party newspapers; there it is, too, in the unrelenting eyes of Ulrik’s party boss; there it is, once more, in the eyes of one thickly-bearded communist who leers at them from Ulrik’s bedside. “Can you take that picture down?” Siv says. “Marx?” Ulrik responds. “Why?”
Underscoring this tension is Furmark’s clever use of red—red books scream their political weight against the muted blues of the communist party’s local headquarters; cherry-bright stripes and plaids weave their way through the characters’ sweaters. Even the matching red tea kettles (one at Siv’s home, one at the party headquarters) burn with pressure. Though the twin kettles never appear in the same place, Furmark has made it easy to imagine them whistling to one another across town, two notes of lovesick, impossible brightness in the freezing dark.
goddess of democracy, by henry wei leung
Henry Wei Leung’s collection, Goddess of Democracy: an occupy lyric, explores the complications inherent in freedom and protest, focusing in particular on the 2014 Umbrella protests in Hong Kong. The collection, selected by Cathy Park Hong for the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize, begins with a startling encounter with a dead body in “Preamble: Room for Cadavers.” Here, it becomes clear that there are no easy answers; the body is person and object, erased person and everyone, facing the risk of dissolving at any moment. The Goddess of Democracy, a plaster replica of a statue, haunts these pages in various states of decay and neglect, acting as a symbol for a protest that had no headquarters but that moved around and was in some ways invisible—in the very air. The danger inherent in protest becomes even more palpable when the Goddess disappears or goes silent unexpectedly. And at the same time, we are asked to question the very ideals being fought for: “What if freedom just means shopping?”
The collection’s third section is made up of prose pieces that help explain, give context, and ruminate in a way that requires an outpouring of words: “It is possible that none of us have the right to live as we do . . . So thank you for standing alone. For your misunderstanding, for your pained cry. For this dust of words, for the longing to be at all, for we are all afraid in the end.” These words situate the Umbrella protests in a history of protest without simplifying, and broaden the reader’s view. Leung implicates readers and absolves them in the same poem; while the collection speaks about a particular protest, it also speaks to the individual. Indeed, the collection is dedicated: “for your freedom.”
virgin, by Analicia Sotelo
Analicia Sotelo’s stunning first full-length collection Virgin, selected by Ross Gay as the winner of the Jake Adam York prize, explores the layered and intersecting roles of Sotelo's Latinx speaker: daughter, lover, and writer. Sotelo’s book is situated in a hybrid space of autobiographical retelling, retold with ample license and penchant for art. There are no pretenses here or self-idealization when the speaker announces: “We’re all performing our bruises,” and the reader digs deeper for her directness. The speaker works towards self-realization and self-preservation from a micro and macro level, not only interested in the personal, the familial, but also issues of colonization and assimilation: “Out here, where the sand is so white, / so Westernized, how could I not / sink into it / & burn with questions / like what am I doing here”? Sotelo’s speaker is all at once chatty, pulling the reader close: “A man walks into my kitchen in athletic shorts. / That’s the joke—a man, in my kitchen,” and staggeringly mythic: “Now I have three heads: one / for speech, one for sex, // and one for second-guessing” and it is this reeling dance with her reader that allows Sotelo’s collection to move between low and highbrow subjects, to include poems about barbeques, Giorgio de Chirico, and Greek mythology and never lose speed. Without exception, Virgin is a must-read—and a delightfully gripping way to start poetry in 2018.
in every moment we are still alive, by TOM MALMQUIST, Translated by Henning Koch
When Tom, the narrator of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive, learns that his wife Karin has an incurable illness, he is abruptly confronted with the meaning of family and grief as his life unravels. Though it would be easy to explore such subject matter in ways that feel overwrought and saturated with emotion, debut author Tom Malmquist steers away from sentimentality through prose that renders events objectively, allowing his readers to experience the whirlwind of tragedy without any superfluous details. Malmquist’s syntax is clean, sparsely punctuated, often times minimalist in its style, yet ambitious in its vision, and its effect is urgency on the page: “I look up: first I see the oxygen tube, light blue, looking like part of a toy as it hangs down between Karin’s oxygen mask and the respirator, which makes a recurring crunching sound as it synchronises with Karin’s rising and sinking chest. . .” Sentences like this one, in addition to the relatively long paragraphs found throughout the book, give readers the sense that they, like Tom, do not have much room to breathe as they learn the complexities of both Karin’s illness and the struggles of being a single father in mourning. And as Malmquist jumps back in time, allowing readers to see what Tom and Karin’s life was like before her illness, Tom’s flaws become apparent; his volatile personality complicates the reader’s understanding of his relationships with both Karin and his immediate family. Ultimately, both these jumps in time and Malmquist’s incisive prose paint a full and complex portrait of a man overwhelmed, and the transformation he endures as he becomes a father.
heartland, by Ana Simo
In Ana Simo’s debut novel Heartland, the excruciating collapse of our barely-recognizable society is dwarfed by the frenetic musings of the novel’s protagonist. So paranoid and magniloquent is the novel’s narrator that the large-scale political upheaval underscoring the story seems almost inconsequential. Instead, readers are drawn into a complicated web of spurned love and lethal revenge as the narrator wrestles with ghosts from her past: family, “friends,” former lovers. The failed writer-turned-grifter never names herself as she narrates with an irreverence that is at once hilarious and unsettling; every stroke of linguistic dexterity is matched with something gritty, even crude, resulting in a register that is as complex as the interpersonal dramas pervading the novel.
Set largely in the hyper-wealthy suburban ghost town of Elmira (and the peripheral Shangri-La, home to Elmira’s lower and working class), Heartland queers the world and the self through the eyes of someone whose definition of truth and justice is in constant flux. With language and at times uncomfortably close critical observation, the novel seems to ask: how far can we dissociate from what we know and expect? How strange can we make ourselves to ourselves? Of her own reflection, the narrator says, “The bathroom mirror showed a naked female of the human species emerging from a sulfurous cloud…This was the person known as I.” So does the entire novel distort the typical, the easy, and the comfortable. No observation is low stakes; instead, the reader must constantly ask, breathlessly, feverishly: wait, wait, what exactly am I looking at, here?
Missives from the green campaign, by david armstrong
Missives from the Green Campaign provides glimpses of a world in which the purpose of war is environmental preservation. While many of the rituals of army life remain the same, from hazing to the power dynamics of an authoritarian hierarchy, the conceptual twist of the chapbook is that each soldier must nurture a plant whose survival is intrinsic to his own. The first-person narrator’s drive to nourish is sometimes more destructive than helpful, leading him to adopt a hapless comrade and amateur philosopher, Hershel, who struggles with the rigidity of military life.
David Armstrong shorts world-building and character development in favor of exclusionary details and inventive language. Lying in their bunks at night, the narrator says of Hershel: “I heard him shift on his cot in the darkness, saw out of the corner of my eye the moon-grown obscurities of his rumpled blanket reforming.” The story’s dialogue and cultural associations best convey the wistfulness of its reflections, while the frequent use of blank space, created by truncated chapters and minimalist scene descriptions, amplifies the somber mood. Subtle moments carry much of the story’s emotional weight, as when one chapter ends, “I kept my lily hidden, safe, in the darkness near my heart.”
kitaro's strange Adventures, by Shigeru Mizuki
In Kitaro’s Strange Adventures, the fourth installment of Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitaro series, we follow a community of supernatural but benign entities known as yokai through a selection of adventures from the larger GeGeGe no Kitaro narrative. These stories portray something like a commensalism between humans and yokai, with rat spirits, anthropomorphized eyeballs, flying cloth creatures, and many other elements of Japanese folklore fighting malicious demons on behalf of mankind—though mankind is not always thankful (or even aware) of Kitaro and co.’s efforts.
Kitaro’s Strange Adventures easily juxtaposes dry (and at times irreverent) humor with grim elements of horror and myth: on one page, the nebulously “good” Nezumi Otoko knocks himself out with the fumes from his own vengeful flatulence; a few pages later, Kitaro squares off with the joy-devouring Iyami in his eerie forest home, a porous mushroom-shape stilted on tall, gnarled roots. Mizuki’s art enacts this juxtaposition, too, through the parallel of his jovial characters and dark landscapes, such as the seemingly innocuous Kitaro traversing dark, thickly shaded mountain ranges to the rhythmic “clip-clop” of his iconic sandals.
Each story tells a tale of community effort rather than individual heroism. Though Kitaro is referred to as the “protector of the innocent,” he is rarely able to overcome evil on his own. Only by fighting alongside his yokai friends and family can Kitaro take down the many threats that come his way—a practice, possibly, that proximal human societies would do well to emulate.
Silk Poems, by Jen Bervin
Jen Bervin’s collection Silk Poems makes up one component of her larger three-part project that explores the compatibility of silk and tissues of the body through biology, culture, and linguistic imaginings. Each of her poems appears in all caps, centered on the page, and with absent punctuation, which lends itself to a blurring between discrete words and a sense of fluidity with regard to their meaning. Silk Poems moves through complexities. There isn’t a single way to read Bervin’s collection. In one reading, the mother silkworm represents resilience: “SOSHE / SPITS // AND MOVES / HERWAYOUT // A BATTERING / RAMBREAKING // THREADSWITHTHETENSILE / STRENGTHOFSTEEL // ANDREMARKABLE / ELASTICITY” and in another, the book as a whole becomes a meditation on time. Each poem uses couplets, mirroring the duality of this work. The speaker of Bervin’s poem acts as both sage and comic, exploring the text and the textile, the sense of the union of the silkworm and the poet: "AREYOUSURPRISED / IQUOTEAPOET // DONTBE / WEINVENTEDLANGUAGE.” Reflecting Bervin’s project as an interdisciplinary one—where she consulted and researched across many fields—Silk Poems asks to be read through various lenses, so its reader can return to it again and again for a newly charmed and deeper understanding.
palaces, by simon jacobs
Simon Jacobs’ debut novel Palaces explores a disturbed punk’s experience in a post-apocalyptically uninhabited world, specifically the mansions of the wealthy, where lavish expense is coupled with a disdain for preservation. The novel’s intentionally confused logistics demand that the reader disregard conventions of time and plot. The first-person narrator, John, is a feverish young drifter who constructs his own narrative arcs in search of true feeling, sometimes at the expense of his partner, Joey, who is addressed throughout as “you.” John and Joey occupy the homes and thus the lives of the rich but even in this surreal, depopulated landscape, are unable to escape the strictures of class: “We’ve had no shortage of luxury bathrooms since we left the city, but the fact remains that we are bodies left to starve in someone else’s finery.”
The novel’s coming-to-awareness of gender and class can be read against Joel Thomas Hynes’ We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night, another story of counterculture and the consequences of systemic power. John’s antiestablishment impulses, at times infused with dark humor, are predominantly guided by a strange sort of déjà vu that amplifies the horror of denial and violence. The tone lingers between nostalgia for the worlds we build and dread of the worlds we inhabit. Palaces is about the desecration of our trust in society and in each other, and the coping mechanisms we invent to live with these losses, because, as John says, “There never was any going home.”
EMPTY SET, by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Translated by Christina macsweeney
Empty Set is a marvel of form; Verónica Gerber Bicecci charts her narrator (also Verónica)’s struggle through a maze of confounding relationships with diagrammatic renderings of the same, offering a visual perspective on her subject that perfectly captures a young woman’s desperate search for connection and meaning in life’s looming trivialities. In short, pithy bursts, she offers up details of interactions with lovers, family, animals, and the dead, and everywhere she finds incomprehensible clues to a mystery whose very nature is itself unknown: the rings in trees, the gifts her cat brings her through the window, email chains, uncrackable codes in abstract paintings. Through Observation Reports, drawings, and bold strokes, Verónica attempts to organize “a set emptying out little by little. Disordered fragments. Correction: shards,” into linear narrative.
Though Empty Set may reduce Verónica’s world to labels and diagrams, the novel is anything but reductionist. Consistently innovative and heartrendingly reflective, Bicecci provides a satisfying slice-of-life story despite leaving so much unanswered. From the dropped pronouns in Christina MacSweeney’s artful translation to the mysterious absence of Verónica’s mother, we learn that “the things we can’t see don’t hide themselves in the shades of gray, or in the white or black, but on the fine line separating those two totalities.” Here is a reluctant testament to the fact that beginnings and ends are never as streamlined as we would like them to be; life is riddled with false starts and false summits, and exists only in the border lines that must be drawn to become visible.
Witch Wife, BY Kiki Petrosino
Like a water witch running a dowsing rod over the dirt, the poems of Kiki Petrosino’s third collection measure out the angles of the world’s curves, finding them in the speaker’s thigh gap, the fins of seahorses, or at Jantar Mantar, a gigantic Indian sundial that “curves away into slices of egg.” In “Political Poem,” the speaker teases through various incantations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “arc of the moral universe,” through the “arc of green fireworks in spring” to the arc of her own spine until “bodies, berries, beaks, barns” are all collapsing toward justice.
Unfolding over four sections—each sprinkled with villanelles and other crackling formal quirks—Witch Wife deftly slides back and forth between the humorous and the devastating, between the guttural and the cosmic, between the conditions of America and the particularities of the speaker’s own body. The body is “runny custard . . . with its buried corkscrew of hate.” The body is “botched,” is prophesied to have “a good belly for twins.” Motherhood, for the speaker a subject of yearning, fear, and revulsion, is a tension at the collection’s heart. In “Ghosts,” one of many poems in this collection haunted by the ghost of Anne Sexton, mothers “wear the moonrise like lace.”
On top of it all, Witch Wife is tremendously, darkly funny. In the afterlife, the speaker’s exes “rise up from their Mazdas & adorn themselves in denim.” Certain to make many ‘best of’ lists for poetry this year, Witch Wife is not one to be missed.
I KNOW YOUR KIND, BY WILLIAM BREWER
Set in Oxyana—a nickname given to the author’s hometown of Oceana, West Virginia—William Brewer’s first full-length collection opens with a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “‘I know your kind,’ he said. ‘What’s wrong with you is wrong all the way through you.’”
Indeed, Brewer begins in I Know Your Kind the work of unraveling assumptions about addiction and about the people of Oceana. The book, which was chosen by Ada Limón for the National Poetry Series, moves through cycles of detox, overdose, resolution, withdrawal, relapse, death, and grief, taking readers through the steps as it shines a light on addiction from a wide range of perspectives. In the opening poem, Brewer paints a typical day in this town: “Not Hog Hill where Massey Energy / dumped cinder, the gray waste / between breaths, poisoned trees / black like charred bones / where we burned cars while girls / wrote our death dates on our palms / with their tongues…” In voices that are manic and breathless, lucid and gut-wrenching, Brewer reminds us that change can be possible, but might be very hard to come by in a place like this.
MYCOLOGY, BY JOAN WILKING
Joan Wilking’s Mycology is a thriving ecosystem. In this keenly imagined and fully realized novella, the winner of Curbside Splendor’s Second Annual Wild Onion Novella Contest, the lives of three characters—blue eyed, golden haired Luca, a handsome young man grappling with his past; clever, introspective Charlotte, a career driven photographer; and Martin, a successful composer and burgeoning mycologist trapped in a failing relationship—flourish separately and then together as they weather the expected (their artistic careers, their romances, their past selves…) and the unforeseen: the height of the AIDS epidemic in America.
Like the oak tree that falls at the opening of the book, spawning the growth of poisonous mushrooms, the characters’ interrelationships spawn resilience and temptation. In short, vivid chapters Luca, Charlotte, and Martin are pushed and tested by loss, indecision, curiosity, and memory; they emerge, over the course of the novella, as luminous and real people, each as bright and raw as the red of a scarlet cup mushroom. Wilking’s sharp prose and striking images brim with life and reflect back her characters (she describes for instance, “a pine tree, still standing, split and charred by a lightning strike”) even as her plot burns and poisons, creating for readers a field guide for not only how to find chanterelles but how to fight one’s way through adult life and its curveballs. Indeed, Wilking’s fine book is an ideal read for anyone looking to study not only the natural world, but the mycology of the human mind: the lethal, the surprising, the wondrous.
The Cataracts, BY Raymond McDaniel
At the heart of Raymond McDaniel’s fourth book of poetry, The Cataracts, is sight and its opposites—blindness, reflections, distortions of light and dark. McDaniel is a poet of great intellect and wit who thrives on opposites; no sooner are we invited to answer questions of philosophy, metaphysics, politics, or spirituality, than we are reminded that this world is one of multiplicity and paradox—that staring directly into the sun will blind us, and therefore we must gaze at “never the thing itself and always its reflection.”
The scope of the subject matter here is as wide as the multitudes that these poems suggest. Poems about X-Men, Star Trek, and Micronauts are placed alongside poems about unjust landlords (spelled “Land-Lords, to make strange the relation between the former and the latter”), fighting on the beach, and “the sighted Audrey Hepburn” as “the blind protagonist” in the film Wait Until Dark.
“Humans are different, and not,” the poet writes in “This is Going to Hurt,” suggesting the impossibilities this book grapples with: whether we are predators or prey, whether we are different than we were in the past, whether we might ever answer these or any other questions with certainty. “One way to be in error is to assume that what there is to know / requires that one merely look around,” McDaniel writes elsewhere in this collection. Yet this gripping book never gives up hope that we might find answers to the existential questions that it simultaneously believes unanswerable. And with McDaniel’s keen insight, we just might.
The Mannequin Makers, BY Craig Cliff
Colton Kemp, window dresser in Marumaru, New Zealand, owes everything to his wife Louisa; when she dies giving birth to twins, he loses not only his inspiration, but his ability to connect with the world. Sixteen years later, it’s 1918, and he has raised his children to be living mannequins; as such they captivate the townspeople, particularly Kemp’s talented rival, a mute known only as The Carpenter. What follows is the slow-burning fallout of impulse, as characters stumble blindly through their own illusions, some searching for, some staunchly refusing “the simple connections…screaming out to be made.” As the twins’ innocence and their father’s egomania lead to ever-more devastating complications, we get swept up in a tale of secrets and survival that spans a generation, revealing little by little the lengths to which we will go to protect ourselves from the truth.
In Craig Cliff’s world everything breathes, from floorboards that “rumbled like an empty stomach,” to a figurehead so lifelike she is given lines of dialogue. He dresses loneliness in its most dramatic garb, lacing it with vice, virtue, and dispassion, and casting it all in the gnawing shadow of grief: for lost loved ones, for rash decisions, for the isolation that comes with victimhood. In The Mannequin Makers Cliff molds his narrative with tools as various and original as The Carpenter’s, ultimately revealing just how easy it can be to mistake living flesh for carved wood, daydreams for reality, and silence for unpardonable guilt.
Of Silence and Song, BY Dan Beachy-Quick
In Of Silence and Song, Dan Beachy-Quick presents meditations, essays, and other snippets: images, fragments, poems. The book’s pages are haunted by writers of the past, mostly poets, whose words mingle with Beachy-Quick’s own. He touches books they have touched, examines their minds by reading their journals, visits their houses to walks their steps, always looking to learn from them, “As the old masters who, to learn proportion and figure, drew studies of the masters before them, so poets in antiquity used to return to themes explored by those before them, truing their song by the measure of others’ singing.”
From the New Horizons probe at the edge of the solar system, to paleolithic cave paintings, with plenty of conversations with his daughter in between, Beachy-Quick covers a wide array of subjects with deft strokes, holding up both silence and song, both day and night, to examine their paradox. He measures the depth of knowledge by admitting what is unknown, struggles to express ideas that defy language, and searches for the boundaries of a poem on a page: “Sometimes I think it can be heard in no other way, that song—the one you cannot sing. And then I think, you can put your ear against anything, any made-thing, and hear that supernal vibration that is paradise, I mean the wind speaking, I mean the actual poem, the un-making one, the un-made one we can only glimpse by the making of our own.”
THE BOOK OF FORMATION, BY ross simonini
Ross Simonini’s The Book of Formation deftly interrogates how we become who we are. The book examines two charismatic talk-show hosts, Mayah and Masha Isle, who popularize a philosophy known as the “personality movement,” which represses both personalities and memories in exchange for new ones. Through interviews with Masha conducted by an anonymous journalist-narrator and intermittent sections of prose, the book scrutinizes the ethics of the movement as both Mayah and Masha prey on their gullible followers, and later allow their practices to take ominous turns. Though the narrator is skeptical of the movement at first, his fascination with it intensifies as his health deteriorates. As doctor after doctor is unable to properly diagnose him, he finds himself seeing the movement in a new light, and eventually chooses to partake in it.
The novel pivots between moments of hilarity and the bizarre as Masha adopts new personalities, becoming an infamous cultural figure who suffers from borderline megalomania. At its core, the world Simonini crafts is riddled with believers who mirror America’s present state of vulnerability, and susceptibility to being coaxed by grandiose figures. Ultimately, this original and thought-provoking debut questions whether our obsession with how we as Americans portray ourselves is problematic or inherently human.
Bunk, BY Kevin Young
In Bunk, Kevin Young pursues a timely examination of the hoax in American culture. He characterizes the hoax—a phenomenon idolized by literary icons such as Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville and popularized by P.T. Barnum—as distinctly American, birthed by nation building and the urge to create a shared mythology. With wry humor, Young analyzes moments when folks got the wool pulled over their eyes without protest, building to an argument that makes this book unique: the theory that effective hoaxes, the ones that take hold in the public imagination and proliferate, are rooted in racial stereotypes, exoticism, and societal divisions, exploiting them for fame and fortune.
Young marks the early era of the United States as the Age of Imposture, but transitions to what he describes as our current Age of Euphemism, where the acts of misspeaking and misrepresenting culminate in a kind of willful forgetting, and an assertion that truth is, in fact, irrelevant. With terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts,” our current climate is the ultimate aggregation of the hoaxes that Young documents. The purpose of Bunk seems to be to remind us that, at this point, we have two choices—accept the world we’ve built or begin to exercise truth again, slowly, relearning this skill before its importance is wholly forgotten.
A Beautiful Young Woman, BY Julían López, translated by Samuel Rutter
In Julían López’s English language debut, A Beautiful Young Woman, the narrator tells the story of sharing the Buenos Aires apartment of his youth with his young mother, a vivacious woman who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. At the time, Argentina was under the control of a dictatorship. This book is meditative, driven by images that flow one to the next and seem to follow the logic of dreams. Like the nature of recollection, the narrative is sensual, recursive, and sometimes pointedly inaccurate. Readers that enjoy lingering in a story’s physical details will absolutely love this book.
The present of the story is not firmly grounded in boyhood or manhood, but straddles both, channeling early sexual revelations through the language of a fully awakened man. The narrator remembers a mother who is trapped in the era when she disappeared. She is pensive and larger than life, frequently brooding about the apartment, answering strange phone calls, and then leaving urgently, only to return hours later seeming more relaxed, “more of a woman” (23).
Throughout the book, eroticism ignores taboo. The narrator’s childhood took place in a world of doting women. His encounters with other children are few and far between, but frequent are encounters with pineapple fizz, peppermint liqueur, and Delifrú, and even more frequent are sightings of glossy hair, large bosoms, and flushed women’s faces.
A Beautiful Young Woman is written for readers who are comfortable with ambiguity, who are not in a hurry and do not need things to be explicit, who enjoy complex systems of metaphor, with shifting objects playing roles that themselves shift. It’s written for readers who especially appreciate when a writer can—in the medium of long and beautiful sentences—reveal to them the idiosyncrasies of their own minds.
Dead Girls, BY Emily Geminder
Emily Geminder’s debut collection, Dead Girls and Other Stories chases ghosts, some otherworldly, others internal. Geminder offers a distinctly female perspective, often through a collective, yet sharply personal narrator. History pulls along the underside of these stories, both individual and global, deepening her world and connecting her themes across time and circumstance. “History only looks heavy and solid,” she tells us in “Choreograph.” “In fact, it won’t ever stay still.” In “Phnom Penh,” four female reporters come to Cambodia “to replace a dead girl,” each of them believing that they are her, that they will share her fate. Set amidst the distant aftermath of the Cambodian genocide, the narrator of “Coming To” explores connections between experiences of female fear, lost consciousness and spiritual possession. “Something inside me has come dislodged,” the narrator tells us after one of many fainting spells. “The ghost on my chest comes and goes.” In the titular “Dead Girls,” a young reporter attempts to gain a sense of safety by taking a workshop on human dissection. She struggles to write about global murders of women and girls, while her own sexual assault still haunts her body and feeling of self.
Geminder has an ability to give her words life, to render her themes experiential. Characters discuss a fragile connection to gravity, and at times we are the ones who come untethered. Ghosts flit through each story and we as the readers are left haunted. In a way, these stories themselves are ghosts, they burrow into the mind and endure.
Thousands, BY Lightsey Darst
Reading Lightsey Darst’s third book of poems, Thousands, is not unlike devling into a diary. In dividing her poems into five sections, each demarcated by date and place, Darst creates for her readers the feeling of well-crafted journal entries, not only in form but in content. As the book progresses, we see the advancement of a finely-wrought emotional trajectory peppered with a menagerie of modern content: books and articles the speaker plans to read, quotes she overhears in coffee shops.
The subject matter of the poems spans everything from unfulfilling employment to sex and relationships; from moving across the country to current events. With entries that vary in their poignant beginnings (“Dear Bernadette,” “dear spirit,” “ Dear why and dearer winter, /dear how and dearer hour,”) the author addresses and readdresses issues that feel extremely personal and confessional, yet also uniquely universal. As they carve their way through this markedly contemporary landscape, Darst’s readers will likely have trouble separating the dreams, desires, and fears the speaker expresses from their own—the text of these poems is everything you might catch yourself thinking, and everything you might hope someone else could share with you.
Augury, BY Eric Pankey
Augury, Eric Pankey’s thirteenth collection of poetry, employs precise nature imagery to perform its own divinations. These poems seem to exist in an alternate reality, where magic unfolds next to the mundane and the past blurs with the present and future. Here, magic and faith become interchangeable, as “We abandon magic for faith, faith for science, / for which magic / seems an apt substitute.” Pankey bravely abandons certainty, and instead embraces the quest for knowledge. His poems are filled with serpents, owls, and other familiars, which act as guides. He searches nature for the truth, calling on all the sciences to try to explain “theories on the flight of birds / the motion of waves, perspective / and optics; pages embossed / with rosemary leaves, a beetle’s / wing-husks,” but in the end acknowledges that such truth is ultimately unknowable, embracing the mystery of what science can’t explain: “Memory, like a net, is more negative space than positive.”
PROMISE AT DAWN, BY ROMAIn GARY
Promise at Dawn is, above all else, a son’s love-letter to his mother. In this compelling and humorous memoir, Romain Gary lavishes attention and affection on the woman who went through Herculean efforts to provide for him in the years preceding the Second World War. As the two fled west from Lithuania to France – Gary’s adopted homeland and a place his mother spoke of “as other mothers speak to their children of Snow White and Puss in Boots” – his mother supported them and always provided “that daily miracle,” a beefsteak for his lunch while she went without. Proclaiming him destined to become a great artist, his mother encouraged Gary to design a “pen name worthy of the masterpieces which the world was to receive” from him. Gary took these words to heart. In fact, John Markham Beach was one of Gary’s several pseudonyms, and the memoir itself is self-translated.
In his prose, Gary gives us an honest portrait—he bares himself to his readers, exposing his doubts and his faults as well as his kind and intimate acts, what he calls his true “great services to humanity:” rescuing an exhausted hummingbird trapped in his apartment, fulfilling a promise to tell the “famous and the great of the world” the story of Mr. Piekielny, a peasant of Vilna. But time and again, Gary comes back to his mother’s love. He muses that perhaps “it is wrong to have been loved so much so young, so early. At the dawn of life, you thus acquire a bad habit, the worst habit there is: the habit of being loved.” This habit—of being so intensely loved and expected to succeed— becomes the driving force of Gary’s life: why he writes, why he joined the military, why he strove to become the ambassador of France. Gary’s love and gratitude are clear; here we see him giving thanks.
Houses of Ravicka, BY Renee Gladman
The newest addition to Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series, Houses of Ravicka is an effortless waltz between dream and reality. This surreal, three-part novel begins with the story of Jakobi, the gender-flickering comptroller of Ravicka whose job it is to find no. 96, an elusive house in the district of Skülburg that lies on a “parallel geoscog referential” to its chimerical twin, house no. 32 in cit Mohaly. Though not an easy journey (Jakobi is, by turns, anxious, lonely, hungry, and vexed, in part one, and distracted in part two by long-lost friend Hematois), it’s a wildly rewarding one for readers. In prose that is funny, elegant, and highly original (among the words Gladman invents: gurentij, tij, pareis), Gladman grants us access to new parts of Ravicka, a place that is equal parts city-state and “strange, unknown body that seemed to be in conversation with its inhabitants and seemed to believe direct communication was possible.”
In part three, the text both advances the plot and hovers just above it, becoming a poetic meditation on what it means to see, to be seen, and to create in Ravickian architectures of time and space. Ultimately, it is the tension between these more cerebral flights and the mundane—more so than plot or language—that moves Houses of Ravicka forward: the way Gladman’s keen sense of the ordinary (Jakobi enjoys lamb for lunch, discusses tea with a colleague) rubs up against the wonderfully imaginative (twin pairs of houses that move, and act as guides to one another) and even the philosophical. All of these levels (the quotidian, the abstract, the speculative…), Gladman is telling us, are not only worlds we inhabit, but invitations; each of them is an architecture we must care for, must grapple with, must construct.
Incest, BY Christine Angot, Translated by Tess Lewis
Christine Angot’s Incest depicts a whirlpool of suffering. Here, the reader is inextricably pulled into a vortex of lust, violence, and incest, into a world where the tragedy of love is having “your own self torn away,” where the lines between father, lover, daughter, water lily, and dog become blurred and confused. With a raw and frenzied form and an unabashed honesty which blurs the line between fiction and autobiography, Angot presents an earnest attempt at self-analysis through writing. After all, the narrator argues, “writing is a kind of rampart against insanity.” In Incest, it becomes a tool with which to wrestle with and untangle issues of family, mental health, and sexuality in light of the narrator’s recent, passionate lesbian affair and the echoes of her incestuous relationship with her father.
The exquisite frenzy of the novel is captured masterfully in Tess Lewis’ translation, which preserves not just the passion and the mania of Angot’s narrator, but her wit and her wordplay as well. Lewis has managed to get inside the narrator’s head and translate her essence and energy, as well as her words, perfectly into English.
THEY CAN't KILL US UNTIL THEY KILL US, BY Hanif Abdurraqib
Following two chapbooks and one full length book of poetry, Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a collection of essays unabashedly invested in emotion. From his candid admiration for Carly Rae Jepson—the “most honest pop musician working”—in “Carly Rae Jepson Loves You Back,” to his exploration of fatalism in early 2000s’ emo and scene culture in “Death Becomes You: My Chemical Romance and Ten Years of The Black Parade,” Abdurraqib’s essays strike like the voice of a friend in the settled silence of a communal bonfire. These essays are about music, sports, blackness, place, kinship, loss, and more—and in all of them, Hanif Abdurraqib is present, not just as writer, but as a feeling-breathing-loving body bearing witness to all of the events that occur therein.
Abdurraqib’s form ranges from lyric to journalistic, and he often weds the two to create a voice that both informs and affects. In an essay on folk punk and substance abuse and small town Midwestern malaise, he writes, “& the headline said ‘WE WILL NOT LET THIS DESTROY US’ & above it is a picture of a mother pulling her young daughter’s frail body close to her chest…& in her eyes she is daring all the devils of hell to come & take what is hers.” What we learn about loss and catharsis in this essay (and many essays), then, is underscored by imagery, gritty and unflinching. These essays resonate because of their vulnerability, their ability to speak readers into a landscape of heartache while refusing to abandon them there.
Gospel of Regicide, BY Eunsong Kim
Eunsong Kim’s debut collection of poetry, Gospel of Regicide, celebrates the traitor situated against systems of power and whiteness—in two parts. In her first section, “Regicide,” Kim quickly gives way to the problems of the deeply rooted narrative. “They are a collection,” she tells us, “of revisions upon revision that roam my / memory which means they / are utter lies and my only foundation.” As her poems unfold, she writes and unwrites stories of love, of Christianity, of money, of POC and assimilation. Her language, form, and the scope of her speaker shift in resistance to the currency of the cage, captor, and category, and while Kim’s work resists outside naming, it is without question a collection named for the killing of kings. The speaker’s ability to thrive depends on his dethroning. The desire for regicide is given in the voice of the traitor, the betrayer—the Judas in all her subversive refusals. In her collection’s final section, “The Gospel,” there is no patience for meaningless good intentions. She demands more urgency, more action, more eradication. Get “committed to the fundamental destruction” and above all, pay attention; Kim’s written us a creed “to divest destroy revolt” and whatever we take from this book, may we heed her gospel, “treachery is not a moment / but a lifetime commitment,” and unwrite our part.
Moonbath, By Yanick Lahens, Translated by Emily Gogolak
Moonbath follows the Haitian community of Anse Bleue through generations of political and personal turmoil. The novel, narrated in collective first person, is propelled by the alternately bleak and redemptive stories of the Lafleur family, whose children come of age under tyranny. In a time when men are rewarded for viciousness, matriarch Ermancia teaches her daughter to trust in silence, to never betray the “quiet lands that man never penetrated, except with the ignorance of a conqueror.” In this world, Lahens tells us, power resides with the wealthy and corrupt but also in dreams and the invisible. Religion, nature, and human existence are inextricable in a community desolated by the erasure and abuse of its most vulnerable members.
The novel’s compelling momentum in the first half devolves into frenetic pacing in the second, while its real poignancy lies in the reveries of its narrators, who find precious a world often darkly shrouded. The novel’s mythic atmosphere is enhanced by Lahens’ meditations on personified nature, and Emily Gogolak’s translation preserves a bare and moving voice throughout: “Only later did we see death spread over us like a frightful sun.” The community finds refuge in the redemptive power of the unseen, which gives voice to the voiceless, in this life or the next.
Ars Botanica, By Tim TaRANTO
Tim Taranto’s heart-sick, heart-healing memoir Ars Botanica invites us into pages where grief and love are pressed and dried like wildflowers. Part epistolary and part field book, the memoir is a space for Taranto to chronicle a specific period of time in his life, beginning with his diagnosis of alopecia and rediscovery of sense of self. The book centers around a lost love, layering both the sunlit romance of the early days and the mourning of break-up with equal reverence. The catalyst for both the book and the end of the relationship is a terminated pregnancy, which Taranto writes to as “Catalpa,” grieving what could have been while creating joy around the worthiness of living in love.
Subject matter so tense could easily become emotionally burdened, but Taranto allows the reader generous breath with descriptions of plants and mushrooms discovered, teas brewed, flowers observed. Furthermore, Taranto’s letters lead him to gentle meditations on art and religion, friendship and mental wellness, as he explores Iowa and travels away. Late in the book, he muses, “The experience of having someone understand you, to see the reflections of your hopes in another, to bear witness to the bright pith of another’s being, those are the events in nature that can neither be heightened or diminished through words.” This willingness to admit limitations and to try anyway is exactly what makes Ars Botanica so compelling. Taranto’s prose honors the most fractured, unknowable parts of life.
The Doll's Alphabet, By Camilla Grudova
The Doll’s Alphabet, Camilla Grudova’s debut short story collection, splits open a dollhouse of domestic life and allows us to examine the magical dystopian interior. Characters are beset by complications of poverty and want in grotesque, haunting ways. In “Rhinoceros”, a woman searches for inspiration for her artist husband in a zoo where animals are seemingly extinct, in “The Mouse Queen” a mother must provide for her twins after abandonment by a husband who accused her of having sex with ancient pagan gods, and in “Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead” a couple wrestles with moving in together after society forces them to get roommates. Unlike many dystopian settings, Grudova does not focus on the mechanics of how society operates in a macro sense, other than reminding us that food is scarce, spaces are crowded, and, as a poster says in “Waxy”—“Do Not Let Your Man Loiter.” Instead, she concentrates her efforts on creating chilling scenes of sickness and starvation within the domestic space, deformed babies and transgressive bodies emerging from the pages in consequence.
In many ways, each story is like peering into a little house. Sewing machines, tinned meats, rodents, works by Ovid and Tchaikovsky—these are the objects that litter the floors of these stories, and they seem to demand attention. But Grudova’s images also offer strange glimpses into human interiority, giving shape to unknown emotions. In “Agata’s Machine,” a character describes a bride’s armpit as “the place where the body leaves its imprint on fabric most intensely, those pathetic, damp, and silent mouths of the heart.” Grudova offers us a long look at the mouths of the heart, perhaps even inviting our own.
Catapult, By Emily Fridlund
Catapult, Emily Fridlund’s follow-up to her debut novel, History of Wolves, is a collection of stories that pulse and push. Selected by Ben Marcus as winner of the Mary McCarthy prize in short fiction, these eleven stories investigate desire, exploring the spaces between love and obsession, affection and fixation, disdain and apathy. With sharp prose and dark humor, Fridlund exposes characters yearning, and often failing, to connect, to break free. In “Marco Polo”, a husband obsesses over his wife’s abnormal sleep pattern, imagining a lover in the next room with her while he lies awake in bed, his mind “scraped open, empty.” The narrator of “Here, Still,” preserves a longstanding friendship out of guilt; “It is the same,” she tells us, “as being in love.” In “Lock Jaw,” Craig tries to maintain the status quo in the face of his wife’s sickness, pacifying her worries about the future of their family, “feeling with a pang just how easy it is to agree to things when you know they’re temporary.”
The characters in Catapult throw themselves at the elastic borders of their lives, sometimes punching a hole, sometimes rebounding. Fridlund keenly observes the scrapes of the everyday, recasting these narratives with new, vividly drawn characters that surprise and disturb.
The Smoke of Horses, By Charles Rafferty
The Smoke of Horses, Charles Rafferty’s twelfth work of poetry, includes 56 prose poems that initially seem self-contained, but soon enter into a larger conversation with one another through repetition, reappearance, and meditations on particular images. Images of birds watching lovers kiss, Magellan, and plastic grocery bags purposefully litter the poems and in each appearance, the meaning of image itself is renegotiated and rearranged in a way that nudges the reader to further excavate how images inform our connection to human history, past and present.
In Rafferty’s poems, a shared world exists, one seen in “Antique,” when the speaker states, “Even now, I’m told, every breath I draw some atoms that Jesus once breathed, and a little bit more of them from Hitler and Reagan.” The logic of each image haunts the speaker, and, in turn, the reader; though single images are often exhaled until they become unrecognizable, their lineage remains nonetheless traceable, a move which Rafferty invites the reader to participate in through poems such as “Catena.” “If you look hard enough,” Rafferty says, “you can see how da Vinci made Pollock inevitable. It has never been otherwise. We share 15% of our genes with mustard grass. You can see how a swamp becomes coal and then stack exhaust and finally a melting continent.”
IN The Distance, By Hernan Diaz
The musical prose of Hernan Diaz’s debut novel In the Distance is as rich and surprising as the quest that the novel’s protagonist, Håkan Söderström, embarks on through the volatile American West. After unforeseen circumstances send Håkan from Sweden to Gold Rush era San Francisco, he finds himself alone, destitute, and facing a vast language barrier. Among swindlers and bandits, he journeys through barren deserts, salt flats, and expanses of mountains in search of his brother, and, along the way, becomes infamous.
Though it successfully mines many elements of a classic western novel, In the Distance is far more than a western. The meticulous care with which Diaz has clearly crafted each sentence proves he is a highly versatile author, one who is virtually limitless in scope. In this novel, one of the most captivating aspects of his prose is his skillful rendering of the utter confusion that Håkan often experiences while threatened and spoken to in English. This confusion enhances the plot and amplifies the mystery of the bizarre, life-threatening situations Håkan encounters, while simultaneously heightening what’s at stake for him. In a similar fashion, Håkan’s limited range of speech emphasizes his solitude and individuality, and at times even threatens his sanity. Ultimately, it is a combination of nuanced characters like Håkan and finely-tuned, lyrical prose that enables Diaz to wildly succeed here in humanizing an often mythologized time in history.
Beyond the RiCE Fields, by Naivo, translated by Allison M. Charette
Beyond the Rice Fields, the first Malagasy novel to be translated into English, tells the story of Tsito, a slave boy, and Fara, his master’s daughter, as they grow up under the shadow of 19th-century colonialism. Their lives, both together and apart, deliver elements of a classic love story, yet beyond the couple’s whispered promises, Naivo’s unflinching realism leaves no room for such idealized tenderness. Tsito and Fara exist in a divided Madagascar, in which Western culture and Malagasy tradition each seek to maintain a foothold among the people. As a new sovereign enacts violent measures to quell the growing threat of Christianity, the country is thrown into chaos — entire families are brought to trial, clans are massacred, and suspicion is everywhere. In its emotionally detached renderings of industrialization and its honest portrayal of individuals watching helplessly as their country turns against itself, the book is as much a commentary on the ruthlessness of colonial-era indifference as it is a primer in the universality of the human experience. And as the characters fall victim to the indiscriminate paranoia that fuels national politics, hope and despair rise and fall like a sine wave, pulled from its axis by the force of competing faiths. In Beyond the Rice Fields, the turn of each page is the flip of a playing card; as the conflict builds, Tsito and Fara’s fate becomes increasingly more precarious, and we find ourselves praying alongside those standing trial: “We ask that the outcome be favorable. We ask that the verdict be just.”
The Glass Eye, by Jeannie Vanasco
Jeannie Vanasco’s memoir The Glass Eye weaves together stories of grief, obsession, and mental illness in an account of self-exploration that acts as an on-again, off-again commentary on the genre of memoir itself. The text centers on a daughter grieving the loss of her father, whom she promised a book. Parallel to this loss is the author’s struggle with mental illness — diagnosis, hospital stays, re-diagnosis, balancing medication, etc. — as she navigates finishing her college degree, entering the workforce and subsequent graduate programs, while also maintaining relationships with her mother, come-and-go friends and boyfriends, employers, and her own research. It is this research into the dead half-sister with whom Vanasco shares a name that serves as another critical throughline, a product of Vanasco’s grief and mental illness, and sometimes also, a cause.
This text succeeds primarily in its capacity to document grief and complicated family history as they relate to the individual. The author’s plea, implicit and explicit, is that the memoir be enough to honor the memory of her father, while recognizing the inherent futility of that task. Though the intersection of the author’s own mania with the extensive catalogue of her writing process will appeal particularly to those in the writing community, Vanasco’s memoir is valuable reading for anyone who has ever tried to create something. Artists of all stripes will see that it is, in fact, Vanasco’s tireless self-awareness of her own role (as memoirist, as careful practitioner of her craft) that allows The Glass Eye to function as a fruitful addition to the genre.
Advice from the lights, by StephANIE Burt
Stephanie Burt intermingles narratives of youth, female selfhood, memory, uncertainty, and the curiosities of animal life in Advice from the Lights. Burt’s fourth book challenges the reader to look more deeply at the everyday (both a flashlight and hermit crab are meticulously examined in this collection) and to seek humor in human experience—at one point, a group of intersex people rob a store after sucking liquid tranquilizer off a businessman’s nipples. These and other accounts prompt the reader to “be/a child, or be like a child,” and to think critically about contemporary culture, politics, and language. Ultimately, though, Burt is interested in selfhood, in the ways we each make decisions, take (or don’t take) accountability for our actions, and grapple with intimacy. This preoccupation with intimacy is perhaps best displayed in the titular advice from the lights: “You will want for nothing,” Burt tells us, “and you will never be heard.”
Some Say The Lark, by Jennifer Chang
Jennifer Chang’s second book, Some Say the Lark, exists in a state of constant movement. Chang expertly guides the reader through streets, forests, trains, bare fields; always searching, writing against loneliness. It is through this restlessness that Chang finds connection: to the natural world, to the city, to family members and loved ones, to history. Surprising and intimate, by turns both tender and fierce, this book offers readers a glimpse into the inner turmoil of navigating life after loss.
These lyric poems are spare and tender, invoking familiar worlds with evocative strangeness. Chang’s natural landscapes—rendered with stark imagery—create the emotional landscape, a state of being in which the tendency is to note absences (“No more birds,” she says, “trace the coast”) while simultaneously solving for ways to fill them: “In winter / you have to know the bark to know the tree, / you have to look hard and not doubt / the spine and bole.” The resiliency and faith Chang strives for makes these poems important in a world too often resigned to despair.
This collection offers poetry as a pathway toward hope and forgiveness, a way of communing with something greater, asking, “What does it even mean to write a poem?” and answering, “It means today / I’m correcting my mistakes. / It means I don’t want to be lonely.” Offering bright red birds among cold and bare winter scenery, this collection resonates with longing.
The Kites, by Romain Gary, Translated by MIRANDA RICHMOND MOUILLOT
Set at the outbreak of World War II, The Kites is the story of Ludo, a young man living in a small town in Normandy, gifted with an eidetic memory and hopelessly in love with a Polish aristocrat named Lila. Ludo lives with his uncle, one Ambrose Fleury, a man who dedicates his life to crafting intricate and beautiful kites, renowned throughout France. As battle spreads across Europe, Ludo and Lila are separated, and the protagonist finds himself enmeshed in the burgeoning Resistance movement. Told in airy prose as graceful and billowing as Fleury’s own creations, The Kites regales the reader with a complex tale of love, madness, struggle, and a nation desperate to hang on to its cultural heritage in the face of an all-consuming totalitarian regime. Though the characters are awash with emotions and quirks that make them feel like real human beings, they retain a grandiose, literary aspect, worthy of the likes of Proust or Gide. And if Romain Gary is the master kitemaker, Miranda Richmond Mouillot is the skillful flyer of Gary’s work in English translation; she has a keen sense for when the text is best served by sticking close to the original French, and when it should soar away into new and beautiful constructions.
Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado
In Her Body and Other Parties, debut author Carmen Maria Machado skillfully interrogates the female form and all that lies beneath it. Machado’s powerful collection explores not only female bodies and their sartorial trappings (a mysterious ribbon that must always be tied round a wife’s neck, lavish prom dresses haunted by the ghosts of women who have faded away), but the desires and fears that live under our skin, under our bone marrow, even; the subconscious spaces that we ourselves are often unwilling to probe. The protagonists of her stories relentlessly plumb the depths of desire, loneliness, artistry, and memory, and in so doing become a defense of the human capacity for depth and resilience.
Machado is also interested in getting under the skin of a story, in finding new, often macabre life between the stitches of conventional narratives. In “Especially Heinous,” she expands the cast of Law & Order: SVU to include doppelganger adversaries of Benson and Stabler, as well as tortured ghosts of girls-with-bells-for-eyes who plead with Benson to help them. Throughout the collection, Machado makes clear that the women who live through this story and others are not without scars—they are bruised and exhausted, haunted and confused, yet strong in their ability to self-examine; they have looked at themselves head-on and have not looked away, which for Machado is the ultimate strength. Declares the writer-narrator of “The Resident,” after leaving an artists’ colony, “Many people live and die without ever confronting themselves in the darkness. Pray that one day, you will spin around at the water’s edge, lean over, and be able to count yourself among the lucky.”
AlL Soul Parts Returned, BY Bruce BEasley
All Soul Parts Returned, Bruce Beasley’s eighth book of poetry, includes 25 poems that put many different texts in conversation. The collection opens with a whirlwind of fragments from philosophy, religious practice, and ritual that prepare the reader for Beasley’s poetic retrieval of “soul parts,” or the pieces of the soul dismembered when the self is scattered. For Beasley, it is in the search for these soul parts where the human spirit and the spirit of the poet find and realize themselves, and, in turn, seek to claim these soul parts back.
Though packed with lyrical heat and intensity, Beasley’s poems are patient, willing to explore anything from a word to a philosophical statement to a shamanistic ritual. From reflections on The Purpose Driven Life through the lens of Arthur Schopenhauer to observations of a child conducting an experiment for biology class in his kitchen, the poems are simultaneously meditative and energized—says Beasley: “What do you think the poet is trying / and trying and trying not to say / when he calls his son from geometry-fume into the kitchen / and splatters into a pan already smoking on the stove.”
Throughout the collection, Beasley reminds his readers of the poet’s constant temptation to claim a soul part, a poem, or even a word before the process of exploration, experimentation, and the final shaping of language is complete. In a similar fashion, this book warrants multiple returns; it will open up and teach the reader new ways to engage it with each sit-down.
Calling a Wolf a WolF, BY Kaveh Akbar
Calling a Wolf a Wolf—the long awaited full-length debut from poet Kaveh Akbar, recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship and founding editor of Divedapper—comes at the reader “like a ram charging a mirror.” A book surrounded with so much anticipation runs the risk of disappointing but here the poet continues to demonstrate his deep, critical understanding of what it means to “struggle/not to die, to not drink or smoke or snort anything/that might return me to combustibility.” His lines surge with the energy that he fights to restrain while never spilling over into excess. In the logic of this powerfully rendered world, things are not what they are, but rather what they seem—the moon is a pale cabbage rose, a lover is plucked from the poet’s mouth like an apple seed. Objects are more vivid, more real in these poems than their earthly analogues. “It is difficult,” as Akbar notes, “telling the size of something/when it’s right above you”—but for the careful reader, this debut is too large to miss.
Across the China Sea, BY Gaute Heivoll, Translated BY Nadia Christensen
Gaute Heivoll’s newest novel to appear in English tightly examines the nature of family through wonderfully quiet, spare prose. Beginning with the documents certifying the adoption of his five siblings, each of whom struggles with mental health issues, Heivoll’s nameless narrator uses the objects he finds in his deceased parents’ home as a medium to reach out into the textures of the past. As he uncovers item after item, a sense of strangeness begins to permeate them. The narrator can’t remember writing a number of letters he finds addressed to his siblings, and yet in reading them he says that he has “a feeling that the letters were written to me.” Using these objects as a guide, the narrator navigates his past and explores the ambiguities of how family, by blood or by obligation, comes to be. Translated with great lyricism and restraint, Across the China Sea unravels the largeness of history into the tragedies and triumphs of an unconventional family, desperate to hold itself together even as it is tossed about like a bottle at sea.
The Green Hand And Other Stories, BY nIcole Claveloux, Translated BY Donald Nicholson-Smith
The Green Hand and Other Stories is a collection of visually arresting comics by Nicole Claveloux in their first English language printing. These comics, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, lead readers on a bizarre journey through the imagination to encounter talking vegetables, murderous grandmothers, and bumbling bureaucracy. Through the absurdist tales Claveloux manages to touch on remarkably astute explorations of darker human emotions while maintaining a sense of gallows humor. From the vegetable who would like to be a panther, but is too filled with his own feelings of inadequacy and anxiety to achieve his dreams, to the pessimistic bird who suffers such jealousy of the serenity of a potted plant that he viciously kills it, these comics unveil each character’s psyche with the ruthlessness of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, complete with unexpected anatomical details.
An innovator in the use of expressive color in comics, Claveloux’s illustrations are equally compelling whether they appear in psychedelic color or understated black and white. Together, they offer readers an escape from the ordinary into a visionary, artistic dreamscape.
Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, BY Eka Kurniawan, Translated BY Annie TuckeR
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is a story of rage and desire. Like the high-speed trucks its characters race through the night, Eka Kurniawan’s newest book revs and throttles through brief passages propelled by the lusty energy of teenager Ajo Kawir and his best friend Gecko. Over the course of the novel, the two friends evolve from adolescent boys enchanted by the women of their Javanese village to young men, bruised and tired from fighting but ready to keep throwing punches. For these characters, fighting is a path to honor, retribution, and love—a way to prove they’re worthy of the girls they’ve been watching and wanting for years.
And yet, Vengeance is more than the male gaze. Asks Ajo Kawir towards the end of the novel, “You think women are just things, that you can buy at the Tanah Abang market?” Kurniawan’s answer is a resounding, finely drawn no. His female characters respond to an unfair society—one in which they are objectified, assaulted, violated, often by the very authority figures who are supposed to protect them—with madness and palpable rage. The most explicit example is young schoolgirl Iteung, who begins lessons at a martial arts academy after being sexually assaulted by a teacher. By the end of the book, Iteung has learned to fight back—she is not only mother and wife, but experienced killer, headed to jail for two vigilante murders. We leave her and her husband Ajo Kawir in the same place he and Gecko began: happy to have each other in a complicated, unforgiving world.
FEVERLAND, BY Alex Lemon
Feverland is a memoir written in essays and lyrical fragments. This book is written like a shattered mirror, each shard reflecting different light on the author, forcing the viewer to piece things together, to read with care. At the core are two central stories of trauma: sexual abuse during Lemon’s childhood and physical deterioration during his young adulthood. But Lemon’s experimental memoir, though darkly wrought, is soaked in grace. In writing about days of drug addiction and alcoholism to hospitalization, the fear of being touched to cheating on partners, Lemon exhibits a sharp self-awareness and self-compassion that makes this memoir full of hope for all of us and for “the heart overripe…the heart always raw. The heart churning…the heart aflame.”
Lemon’s voice as poet provides the perfect counterpoint to the intelligent, fact-laden content of some of the essays, which is presented as a hive of interconnected knowledge. In the essay “Heartdusting” he transitions swiftly from John Wayne to stomach cancer, from androgynous names to Quaker Oats, from Wilford Brimley to cockfighting to Bruce Dern’s 1981 movie Tattoo, from tattoos to Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease to the meat industry, from Vaishnava Bauls to Lazzaro Spallanzani. But the heart of the book is soul searching, questioning. Feverland asks us “how long to learn you are not behind the steering wheel but still you are driving the ambulance” and reminds us of the dizzying joy of forward momentum.
Kiss Me Someone, BY Karen Shepard
At first glance, the women of Karen Shepard’s Kiss Me Someone seem linked by a sisterhood of the execrable. These stories often focus on the underbelly of sexuality and the way it touches or complicates other aspects of life. In “Fire Horse” the narrator winds through a neglected childhood that led to incestuous encounters, in “Girls Only” a group of bridesmaids are still haunted by a gang rape they failed to prevent, and in “Kiss Me Someone” a wife brings an ex-lover into her home to encounter her family. But the narrators themselves—sometimes a single woman and sometimes a group—refuse to let their stories descend into pathos. Despite being victims of men and mothers and a complicated, unfair society; despite the tragedy of a stillborn child; despite the dangers of men in strange cars, these women observe their own lives with grit and autonomy. Shepard elevates stereotypes of lost girls into breathing, loving beings. In “Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When” the protagonist observes “…we can mourn the flawed; we can, and we do.” For Shepard, we not only mourn the flawed, but celebrate them by necessity.
While StanDing In Line for Death, BY CAConrad
CAConrad’s ninth book, While Standing in Line for Death, is an intimate account of Conrad’s grief as he exists in a world years after the rape and murder of his boyfriend, Earth. It takes the reader on a psychic journey through his suffering in 18 (Soma)tic rituals. Each section opens with a somatic exercise, given as a short essay, followed by the poems born from it. In contrast to these structured prose accounts, his poems lack normative markers; capitalization, punctuation, or justified lines and appear as curvy and sharp, free-floating shapes in the middle of the page, out the mouth of the mystic, in perfect complement. In generous transparency, Conrad maps out his (Soma)tic rituals—says, here is my pain and see what I do with it. Through poetry he maintains an impossible connection to his stolen Earth, “poets can still reach into murk for it […] I want you to start writing / poems in the land for the dead.” But these poems are not only a deep wet wail—they rage, and the loss of Earth gives way to the country’s hate. Conrad knows all too well, as this poem’s title suggests, “Dear TC Tolbert As Long As We Live We Win,” that his daily survival is protest in a country that wishes him dead, wishes him silent. At its hilt, this book exposes the little tolerance America has for the queer, the abject, and the mystical forces that Conrad and his poetry call home, and not only does it refuse to apologize, this book reclaims loss, all bruised and defiant experiences, and makes them a testament.
SEEING PEOPLE OFF, BY Jana Beňová, translated by Janet Livingstone
Seeing People Off is the story of a town, its inhabitants, and the way time ceases to exist for them. Or perhaps it’s the story of a couple, or how art gets made—or doesn’t. Like a wheel, Jana Beňová’s novel rotates, turning on its head in a melange of voices that meander through the strange and sometimes suffocating neighborhood of Petržalka. But to say that Beňová’s prose (as translated by Janet Livingstone) meanders is inaccurate; it’s more that it bounces through a fragmented narrative in ways that are both unexpected and beautifully resonant. The many moments of profound sadness are wisely cut by a sardonic underbite that keeps the writing sharp, fresh, constantly renewed.
At the book’s core is young couple Ian and Elza, working to produce art as they navigate consumer culture, identity, obsession, and post-socialist life in Bratislava. Though their story often feels fractured and lonely, Beňová is, in the end, more interested in the ways the characters are connected, acting as fragments of a single consciousness. She is particularly skilled at exploring how our bodies can move and break down together. “Their bodies fused to the midpoint,” she says in describing Ian and Elza, “...blooming like the sepal of a flower...Slow and thick like blood. Like slim, graceful snakes. They danced passionately and wildly. They danced as if they were samping on something underground. Some lost image, a dead couple, each other.”
IRRADIATED CITIES, by Mariko Nagai
Coming off 2014’s young adult verse novel Dust of Eden, Nagai’s newest is a book of contrasts and contradictions. At once prose poem and essay, Irradiated Cities is a diffusion of images and sounds surrounding Japan’s nuclear history. Intermingled with Nagai’s own photography, each section of this book struggles to reconcile before and after, the past with the future. As Nagai writes: “it is always beautiful on a catastrophic day: it is beautiful because the before is beautiful & the after dreadful.” In Irradiated Cities, though, it is not our ability to accept the after that harms us, but our inability to realize that we still have not reached it, that in the great stages of a nuclear disaster we, that is, both Japan and all of us, are still in the last stages of the before.
From the New World (Poems 1976-2014), by Jorie Graham
“… It is a tender / maneuver, hands making and unmaking promises,” Jorie Graham writes in her poem, “The Visible World.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard professor rarely dips into the personal circumstances of her speaker in these mysterious poems, instead focusing on what the eye can see: “If I look carefully, there in my hand, if I / break it apart without / crumbling: husks, mossy beginnings and endings, ruffled / airy loam-bits, / and the greasy silks of clay crushing the pinerot in… / Erasure.” Graham continually returns her reader to the present in the natural world, shifting her vast poems mythically, biblically, and philosophically. Graham’s deft touch feels both believable and impossible at the same time, drawing me to turn the page back and back again to experience the slow unfolding of each poem. From the New World drew me in wonder by wonder and left me a little breathless, thinking both, I could never do that, and, Let me try.
Proprietary, by Randall Mann
Proprietary, Randall Mann’s fourth collection of poetry, is a vividly honest exploration of Mann’s experiences and ruminations on gay life in contemporary America. With a sparse lyricism and striking formalism, Mann has created a collection that is unique while still paying homage to his predecessors, poets like Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin, and John Berryman. At times funny, elegiac, and brutal, these poems move effortlessly between concerns. Mann’s command of formal elements is impressive: a sonnet dense with imagery of addiction and pornography is followed by a perfectly metered, four-lined, iambic tetrameter, a sort of amuse-bouche before the longer, more rambling free-verse piece that follows. Each poem builds upon the last. Mann layers themes of sexuality, addiction, and nostalgia, but punctuates these with moments of levity and wit, like when, in a poem about a middle school mock-debate, he rhymes ray-gun with Ronald Reagan. Here, Mann has crafted a collection that is brutal and funny, poignant and honest in equal measure.
Silent Stones, Selected Poems of Melih Cevdet AndaY, Translated by Sidney Wade and Efe Murad
Poet Sidney Wade, working with translator Efe Murad, received the 2015 Meral Divitci Prize for Turkish Poetry in Translation for Silent Stones, Selected Poems of Melih Cevdet Anday. The poetry selected for translation here seems to aim for what is often seen as the historical legacy of Turkish culture: to serve as a bridge between East and West. The translators dedicate the largest portion of this collection—some 70 pages—to Anday's colloquial and meditative free verse, easily accessible to readers of contemporary Western poetry and deftly translated by a poet whose particular voice seems almost too pronounced. While certain moments shine, particularly in the translators' ear for sound: “Hallucinatory rites bubble red-hot / On the sea, and the sun-rain glints," the real strength of this collection emerges in Anday's homage to the formal elegance of Turkish folk poetry and early Eastern poetics. When Anday writes of being "scattered like barleycorns on the road," readers familiar with pre-Islamic Arabic poetry will immediately recall Imru'l-Qays' line about the delicate beauty of a gazelle's dung "scattered like peppercorns" on the desert path. Later, in "A Poem in the Manner of Karacaoğlan," Anday draws upon the Eastern poetics of celestial bodies to describe a lost lover: "There were seven kinds of flowers in her hair / I saw the morning star, I saw the Pleiades." At such a critical moment in U.S. and world history, these poems offer "the sound of an historical wrist, of resistance" to those "deaf as a diamond.”
The Taxidermist's Cut, by Rajiv Mohabir
Taxidermy is the practice of taking a body, removing its essential parts and filling it was sawdust or scraps to make it appear whole again, alive almost. Rajiv Mohabir deconstructs this practice in his first book The Taxidermist’s Cut, using it as a lens to mesmerizing effect. Through the imagery of taxidermy, Mohabir grapples with family disapproval and hostility for his heritage, a culture obsessed with classification, his own self-destructive tendencies and the many layers of identity. Details of gruesome dissection are placed beside moments of affection and sexual awakening. Birds attain a mythical importance in this collection for the way they are objectified, caught and displayed, but also for the way they care for their young—abandoning them when touched by unfamiliar hands. “How will this child survive being cast out / or abandoned for what he cannot change?” Mohabir’s erasure poems shave and re-stitch a guide to taxidermy to demonstrate the violence of taking parts for the whole, asking readers to strip off their skin and step into another’s.
Not One Day, by Anne Garréta, Translated by Emma Ramadan
As a concession to her readers and an attempt to perhaps better understand herself, Anne Garréta decided to dedicate a period of time every day to writing about a woman whom she has loved.
This informs the framework of Not One Day (an abbreviation of “Not one day without a woman”), in which Garréta recounts, alphabetically, anecdotes and peccadilloes about the women she’s known and loved, women who have frustrated and bored her and sometimes even loved her in return. Garréta is no stranger to the Continental penchant for intertextuality. Passionate trysts live comfortably next to meditations on Flaubert in the modern age, while throughout she places her life under the microscope and subjects herself to unflinching scrutiny.
This intense literary scrutiny is ultimately what drives Not One Day, for the project remains unfinished. Garréta holds the French desire for confessional novels and the literary subject in contempt and questions her reasons for writing these glimpses into her past in the first place. “Irony alone is damning,” she concludes, and this meta-cynicism allows her novella to transcend itself, for the reader cannot help but feel a deep empathy for Garréta, as she lays herself bare and then wonders at the point of it all. The ideal of the form remains even after the spirit has collapsed on itself.
Not One Day is a wonderfully written (and translated), erudite book that captures a mysterious emotion that hovers somewhere on the borders of nostalgia, melancholy, and longing.
Wait Till You See Me Dance, by Deb Olin Unferth
Deb Olin Unferth’s collection Wait Till You See Me Dance is filled with tender moments. Unferth finds the beauty, love and truth in the quotidian. In “The Vice President of Pretzels” a woman marks the changes in time by noting recipe changes in her favorite snack. In “Pet” a woman takes care of her sister’s children’s turtles, out of a sense of begrudged yet honest duty. She thinks “Well, God did put us in charge of things, right?” then “What was God thinking?” Unferth consistently does in only a few hundred words what many try to do with thousands. When the weight of these small atrocities add up, Unferth reminds us that when you are approaching the cliff that will “surely claim your life,” take a step back and “another step, and a few more, until you find you are on a path walking the other way.”
Animals Strike Curious Poses, by Elena Passarello
At first glance, the intricate design and formidable scope of Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses suggest a medieval bestiary, a roving compendium of sixteen essays that begins in the days of the woolly mammoth and ends in the modern moment: one in which we keep animals in zoos and as pets, render them illustrated cartoons, and push towards “de-extinction” and even “re-wilding,” the process of “making new beasts to tread on the bones of what are not quite their ancestors.” On display are well-observed interactions between man and beast rendered in sparkling prose. Passarello's tone ranges from witty to elegiac to the sweetly piquant, as in the essay on Mozart and his beloved starling. “This wasn’t just schön,” Passarello writes, “it was game recognizing game! It’s difficult to imagine a more priceless moment: one of the greatest thinkers in history bonding with a bird brain.”
Drawing on John Berger’s seminal text “Why Look at Animals?” in her essay on Lancelot, the baby goat-turned-circus unicorn who kept her spellbound as a child, Passarello wonders what remains of the human/animal relationship in the post-post-industrial era. If man and animal rarely meet as they used to in nature and an awareness of the fact that they are rarely meeting in this way has begun to fade, “[W]hat happens,” she asks, “when a person is born after the mess we were in circa ‘Why Look at Animals?’ What happens when she begins not just forming herself, but finding herself among a sham menagerie?” At stake, it seems, are not only the fates of the animals, but the ways we humans now see and define ourselves through them. Again speaking of Lancelot, her beloved faux-unicorn, Passarello observes, “There’s a distinct possibility that every time I write about an animal, I am only writing about him—which might also mean, horrifyingly, that I’m only writing about myself.”
You Ask ME To Talk About the Interior, by Carolina Ebeid
You Ask Me To Talk About The Interior, Carolina Ebeid’s debut collection of poetry, forces readers to take care with the otherwise subconscious action of observation. In examining objects, ideas, and relationships, Ebeid raises questions about authenticity: what, if anything, is the “real version” of something, and what happens when one tries to access that “real version” through words?
One of the conceptual refrains Ebeid utilizes in the book is that of punctum, which she ties to Ronald Barthes’ Camera Lucida. She explains punctum as “the object/image within a photograph that leaps out and punctures the viewer.” There are five poems in the text that follow the “Punctum/ ” titular format, and each of these poems appears in the form of a prose-poem. In an interview with The Poetry Society of America, she stated that these poems are in conversation with a NYT photo of a Palestinian man throwing a rock. Knowing this, and while putting into practice the kind of careful observation exemplified by the speakers in Ebeid’s poems, readers are tasked with the delightful process of destabilizing the idea of an image, both in visual art and literature.
Ebeid’s inquiries are as exquisitely image-rich as they are intellectually stimulating—and sometimes, she even couples these questions with answers. To the ancient anxiety regarding what literature can actually do, Ebeid responds (in “Punctum/Sawing a Woman in Half”):
“Poetry contains revolutionary power.”
The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings, by Juan Rulfo, Translated by Douglas J. Weatherford
Expertly translated by Douglas J. Weatherford, who includes a helpful, historical introduction grounding what is an intentionally ungrounded novel, The Golden Cockerel is accompanied by a smattering of shorter texts—fragments of screenplays, novels, travel narratives, letters and notebooks that paint a fuller picture of Rulfo the writer, chosen in close consultation with Víctor Jiménez, director of the Fundación Juan Rulfo, and members of the Rulfo family.
Rulfo’s lesser known second novel does not disappoint. Though less polished and composed of longer sentences than his other work, it can be equally bleak and often, as spare. It is perhaps revealing that an early title for the novel was De la nada a la nada (From Nothing to Nothing). Coffins mark major plot points.
None of Rulfo’s hardscrabble characters are let off the hook here. Not Dionisio Pinzón, rags to riches cockfighter and gambler who falls victim to his greed and ultimately loses it all in one final fever dream of Paco, one of the many mid-century games of chance popular in the rural townships the novel explores. His wife, Bernarda Cutiño, fares no better. A tramposa and roving singer, she succumbs to alcohol-induced asphyxia in the novel’s unforgettable final scene, as cunning in its deployment of silence and depictions of desolation as anything in The Plain In Flames or Pedro Páramo. The novel closes with Bernarda, their child, left to wander the cockfighting circuit in a self-imposed exile, singing the same songs as her mother, searching for solace she will likely never find. This is, after all, Rulfo’s Mexico, where neither justice nor peace come easy, if at all.
Sunshine State, by Sarah Gerard
Sarah Gerard is a writer who is willing to examine her own discomfort. In her devastatingly clear, self-possessed memoir in essays, Sunshine State, Gerard provides a balance of the public and the personal. The author examines her parents’ encounters with the pyramid-scheme Amway; the origins of Unity Church, an offshoot of the Scientology movement; and the creation and fall of Florida’s Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. Gerard also maps her own emotional landscape, detailing her mother’s career as an advocate for victims of sexual assault; Gerard’s own coming-of-age in Florida; and the deterioration of one of Gerard’s own young best-friendships. Sunshine State is all about coming to terms with the places and people that form us, acknowledging their every detail. In reading these poignant essays, you'll find yourself turning inward to examine yourself as Gerard turned inward to examine herself—and as she turned outward to examine Florida and its people, you'll turn outward as well. “It’s important to remember that uncomfortable feelings can’t actually hurt us,” writes Sarah Gerard. In Sunshine State, Gerard’s clarity has contributed to the creation of her exquisite book.
Atlantic Hotel, by João Gilberto Noll, translated by Adam Morris
Early in Atlantic Hotel, an unnamed narrator recounts a dream: “Nothing was in black and white,” he recalls, “Almost everything was a shade of gold, but with pink splotches.” Though he means to capture only his dream here, the narrator might well be describing Atlantic Hotel as a whole. Written by João Gilberto Noll in 1989 and newly translated by Adam Morris, Hotel is a slender, surreal journey through a hazy, serpentine Brazil, in which life is lived moment to moment and fluidity—not just of identity but of reality itself—is the name of the game. At the heart of a journey peppered with sex, death, and near-constant instability lies the narrator’s compulsive need to switch personas (he is, in turn, an alcoholic in need of treatment, a fading soap opera star, a priest); this need is an addicting, elusive force that ensnares the reader even as it heightens the mystery of the narrator’s true self. In the end, it seems, this mystery is precisely Noll’s point–“We have so much time to guess so many things,” his narrator tells us, and he’s right: why confine ourselves to a single identity, or story, when in truth we are filled with so many?
A Spare Life, by Lidija Dimkovska, Translated by Christina E. Kramer
A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska follows the saga of two Macedonian conjoined twins from childhood through young adulthood during the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the Bosnian war. The narrator, Zlata, tells her individual story as both distinct and inseparable from her sister Srebra’s: “When we pulled our hair back into ponytails, the spot where our heads were joined was visible right above my left ear and her right. The skin passed from one to the other. There was no scar, nothing. Our temples drifted into each other’s like desert sand.”
Dimkovska’s novel makes the reader privy to the experience of being subtly yet markedly different. “We were not invalids. We were not blind, not autistic; we didn’t have Down syndrome. We ‘only’ had conjoined heads that didn’t immediately strike the eye. It was only after the fifth second they saw it, when our heads moved in unison in the same direction, and our bodies, always leaning to one side or the other, were pulled by gravity, gravity which in our case, was always off-balance.” The novel offers insight into a life lived outside of social norms in a very poor country, and into the simple humanity—its grievous flaws and occasional miracle—that inhabits even unimaginable circumstances.
In Christina E. Kramer’s deft translation, Dimkovska’s intensely personal writing betrays that brew of attraction and loathing which often permeates intimate landscapes and the coming-of-age transition from the all-encompassing world of family and childhood into the broader realization of the limitations of one’s own individual experience. Personal and political attachments both sustain and confine the twins’ development, and the allure of separation eventually propels them and their society toward irrevocable alterations.
Best Worst American, bY Juan Martinez
Juan Martinez’s Best Worst American is a set of subtly connected, hilariously smart stories that present a chaotic, absurd, yet strikingly familiar world. Martinez’s universe is filled with guitar players who are “three credits short from a marine-biology degree,” men in pinstriped suits who can “make household pets talk for brief periods of time,” and nine-year-old girls who pretend to be orphans while they work at the razor blade factory.
Each story builds on the last, crescendoing with the title story, and forcing the reader to consider the impact of their seemingly insignificant choices in a sea of cultural phenomena. In 2017, Martinez’ ridiculous sense of humor strikes a nerve. And how could anyone not love a book filled with Lorenzo Lamas jokes?
Glaxo, bY Hernán Ronsino, Translated by Samuel Rutter
Transfixing from the start, Hernán Ronsino’s English-language debut, Glaxo, is a murder-mystery, though it’s the sort that lets the reader assemble the clues. Set deep in the Argentine Pampa in a town where “the trains stop coming,” we are privy to the testimony of four men across time, old friends and enemies who have betrayed and abandoned one another, sold out, done time, and fallen in love with the same woman.
Not only the atmosphere of the town, but the architecture of the sentences feel complicit in the secrets at the center of this story, each phrase like a clean, white bone in a skeleton. “The cane field no longer exists, they’ve cleared it completely, and where the tracks once were, now there’s a new road, a link road, which looks more like a closed wound. It’s a road that looks like the memory of a wound in the earth that won’t heal.”
One of the great pleasures of this book, beyond watching the gears of plot and perspective click intricately into place, is jumping from head to head, the voices of Vardemann, Bicho Souza, Miguelito Barrios and Folcada rendered in all their idiosyncratic and distinctive charm by Samuel Rutter’s elegant translation.
Says Miguelito Barrios: “I don’t agree with those who, when they choose a way to die, prefer not knowing, or hope that death takes them in their sleep, or doesn’t make them suffer, as if death weren’t a consequence of the life that one chose to live.” This is also the bleak, satisfying logic of Glaxo, a book that is as much about the relativity of guilt as what drives men to murder in the first place.
House Of LORDS AND COMMONS, by Ishion Hutchinson
Even the title of Hutchinson’s second collection gives his readers a hint at its litanous plurality: House of Lords and Commons. Many kinds of bodies govern between the covers of this book, and they are only very rarely singular. In its pages, memory multiplies as readers shuttle back and forth in time; a man hangs a bag of oranges from the limbs of a tree, then the oranges multiply in the stanza, reappearing as a dreamt orchard, then in the name of a whole coast.
Sounds, too, multiply. The book is beautifully studded with alliteration that keeps the language high, and Hutchinson is masterful at burying rhymes (sometimes mid-line), so one could almost glaze over the way, for example, “pillars” recalls “dollars” a line earlier.
Hutchinson focuses not so much on community as on crowd. Mosquitoes, otherwise innocuous, swarm. In “Fitzy and The Revolution,” a mass of unpaid cane cutters move angrily through town, becoming a vaguely threatening “they.” In “The Wanderer,” the sea takes on “10,000 voices / arched into one, shaking the mountain clouds down / into mist.”
There are many characters in this book, and while each one is distinct, they are almost never alone. “Punishment” opens with “all the dead eyes of the dead / on portraits” which look down at a figure who becomes (along with the speaker) one of two central figures in the poem, each of whom intently examines the other. These poems seem to be the fruit of a mind deeply conscious of the gaze of others, and of the poet’s own gaze.
Perhaps this pressure to re-examine, this refusal to take a singular view, is why Hutchinson writes, in a later poem, “I don’t know who us is” – an attitude that quietly undermines the threat of the crowd.
Chronicle of the Murdered House, by Lúcio Cardoso, Translated By Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson
Open the cover of Chronicle of the Murdered House and you’ll find a map of the Chácara, the estate of the proud, yet fading Meneses family. Beside the kitchen is Uncle Timóteo’s bedroom, where he dresses up in sequin gowns and drinks himself into a stupor. Down the hall is André’s room, where he awaits his mother in the dark, consumed by longing. Outside are the sprawling gardens; the Pavilion lined with violets planted by Alberto, the love-struck gardener.
Lúcio Cardoso confines his readers almost exclusively to the rooms of the Chácara, and guides them carefully through its most shadowy corridors, revealing the inner lives of its tormented inhabitants along the way. Their confessions, which appear in the form of letters, diary entries and doctor’s reports (to name a few), are all fixated on the same subject: her.
“That woman can make one doubt everything, even reality,” Valdo Meneses says of his wife Nina, the vivacious young woman who arrives from Rio de Janeiro, suitcases of extravagant dresses in hand. Her mere presence invades every corner of the house and her sensuality soon threatens to destroy the patriarchal tradition that the Meneses, for generations, have so desperately clung to.
In moments as unconventional as it must have been to the Brazilian literati of the late 1950s, Cardoso’s daring novel— now translated into English thanks to Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson—is filled with characters who, through their moral transgressions, are forced to encounter their darker (and perhaps truer) selves.
Landscape with Headless Mama, by Jennifer Givhan
In her debut collection Landscape with Headless Mama, Jennifer Givhan creates a compassionate, though occasionally frightening, portrait in which “Mama,” she tells us in the opening poem, “was the lynchpin— / I’m still turning & turning the screw.” From that first poem on, Givhan’s potent blend of myth, magic, and shadowy, Southwestern imagery speaks in a language of twinned loss: first for the mother, who loses her chance at a university education via pregnancy, then for the daughter, whose miscarriages are surreally interpreted, reflected on, and mourned over in the book’s third section.
But there is joy, too, when the speaker becomes a mother, and here, the depth of Givhan’s collection distinguishes itself. Like the screw “turning & turning” in the opening poem, the fundamental questions of the collection shift and change, interlocking into a complex and satisfying whole— “What’s living / without getting lost?” yields, finally, to “how does one extract the violent bone?” But perhaps the most central of these is the question Givhan asks in the very first poem: “How can I turn away?” The answer is: Givhan doesn’t.
Guest reviewed by Emily Rose Cole.
Cattle of the Lord, by Rosa Alice Branco, translated by Alexis Levitin
In Cattle of the Lord, Rosa Alice Branco turns snuffling cows, the flight of birds, and the darkening fields into striking psalms. Branco’s poems, expertly translated by Alexis Levitin, take the quotidian and hold a magnifying glass to it: ruminating on breakfast, a “soft-boiled egg, spotless porcelain, spoon / in its place;” on a snail, advancing “with tenacity / so time may raise its kingdom with the slime.” Through these reveries, examinations and moments of dark humor, Branco explores a complex relationship with God. A speaker asks, “Lord how much compassion will it take for you / to be godfather at the Sunday barbecue?” Yet elsewhere, the speaker is comforted after the death of her pet bird, saved “with that very love with which Thou died us.”
Thus it is with a deft lyricism and eye for the contradictions inherent in our daily rituals that Branco exalts and questions her religion.
Blood of the Dawn, by Claudia Salazar Jiménez, translated by Elizabeth Bryer
How do you write the unspeakable? This question drives Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s debut novel, Blood of the Dawn, as it explores how three Peruvian women weather “the time of fear” brought on by the Shining Path’s military insurgency. Melanie, a frustrated socialite, captures the horrors of guerrilla warfare through a camera lens. Modesta, a country woman, watches her loved ones killed by communists, while Marcela, rechristened Marta, joins the Party, seduced by its offer of power previously out of reach to her as a woman.
Jiménez’s frequent shifts in scene, tense, and perspective reflect the relentless insecurity wrought by Shining Path’s guerrilla tactics and terrorist acts. As translator Elizabeth Bryer notes in her afterword, Jiménez’s resistance to conventional sentence structure is itself an affirmation that language can be a “means of articulating systems of domination, patriarchy among them.” English-speaking readers will appreciate the ways in which Bryer’s translation preserves each woman’s unique cadence, reminding us that tragedy is experienced on a individual level, even as it ravages an entire country. What’s more, Bryer’s decision not to gloss all Quechua words offers English-speaking readers a more direct sense of a culture, landscape, and people in crisis as their country is gutted from the inside.
Trysting, by Emmanuelle Pagano, Translated By Jennifer Higgins & Sophie Lewis
Trysting is that rare treat—a book that feels new and old, wise and playful, particular and universal. Emmanuelle Pagano’s first book to appear in English, translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, is a topical examination of intimacy—a collection of scenes, reveries, aphorisms and revelations between lovers.
The segments can be brief and arresting: “My memory of him is the stretched skin of a drum. At the slightest touch, it vibrates and resounds.” Or more beguiling, elusive, extended: “I went to the clinic to catch his soul and bring it back home. I had string with me to lead it. A great big ball of thick string.” From couples of all genders and sexualities, each page presents meet cutes, partings, foibles, quirks, grievances and turn-ons. A woman, cold in a church, slips into a forgotten coat, still warm, only to encounter its owner. A man bemoans his lover’s residence in a house cut off from civilization at high tide. A woman insinuates herself into a stranger’s life by making him believe he has amnesia. A woman leaves her lover to marry her best friend’s widow in order to help raise his child. A woman confesses her enjoyment at plucking her lover’s back hair. A man fails to object to his girlfriend’s departure, but grieves by killing her cat.
Without a traditional approach to characters or plot, the book’s momentum comes from the tautness of language and the inherent tension between pairs. Pagano’s miniature narratives accumulate, yet the effect is distillation.
The Revolutionaries Try again, by Mauro Javier Cardenas
Mauro Javier Cardenas’ first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again is a lesson in wave-particle duality, the ability of literature (when at its best, and here, it is) to embody multiple states simultaneously. Cardenas’ prose moves like light, undulating yet precise. Long, elegant sentences are riddled with sharp images, like the row of “wincing footwear” two lovers navigate as they leave an orchestra mid-performance, or the “bloom of ruffles” on an expat’s shirt at his San Francisco farewell party, or the “rattle of a can in a long trail of cans” of a city bus navigating the steep hillside of the “canned city” of Guayaquil, Ecuador, where much of the novel takes place. As wonderful as Cardenas’ images are, it's the curvature and musicality of his sentences unfurling that carry the novel, their coiled energy as they explore the fates of the individual and the state, and how each shapes the other. Above all, Cardenas mercilessly explores just how we are to be human in a world of destitution and injustice. For lovers of Cortázar, Bolaño and Woolf, for aficionados of the political novel, and for students of what the future of the novel might look like, The Revolutionaries Try Again is required reading.
The Babysitter at Rest, by Jen George
Reading Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest is like having a heart-to-heart with the most bizarre babysitter you can imagine—a sly representative of a world that seems at first to be like yours but, upon inspection, reveals itself to be tinged with more weirdness, more darkness, and considerably more sex. Over the course of the five stories in her first published collection, George builds worlds that are strange but not unrecognizable. The central inhabitants of these worlds, namely women on the cusp of adulthood, struggle with aging, appearance, work/life balance, and motherhood, all while wondering how they stack up against those around them.
The most immediate escape George’s women have is frequent, unfettered sex, often with older men in positions of relative power. A second recompense is art, and the moments where George’s women translate themselves creatively are some of the highest points in the collection. In "Take Care of Me Forever," a dying protagonist paints imagined babies on her body; in the title story, the married mother of a child doomed to be a baby forever fills her courtyard with self-portraits that evoke Elsa Lanchester as Frankenstein’s bride. For these women, art is freedom, a way out (if only temporarily), from the pressure and judgment that comes as much from friends, lovers, and colleagues as it does from within. As George’s eponymous babysitter muses, “It’s a tremendous relief when attempting to make something.”
The Invisibility Cloak By Ge Fei, translated by Canaan Morse
Ge Fei’s first novel to appear in English depicts contemporary Beijing through the eyes of Mr. Cui, a hapless divorcè whose job making stereo systems for the elite and wealthy puts him in constant contact with the upper echelons of society. Meanwhile his apartment—on loan from his sister, who is looking for any excuse to kick him out—has a large crack in the den which has been haphazardly repaired with duct tape, the result of settling soil creating intolerable stress on the walls, described by the super as a "global problem." The Beijing in these pages is an unforgiving world in which faith in others is a liability, yet when each of Cui’s setbacks is offset by an act of good, the reader is offered glimmers of hope. The prose in this spare novel, “…sounds like it’s coming through a fog . . . like a mist—thin and gauzy. Soft and indistinct.” The end of The Invisibility Cloak has an unmistakably Murakamian mood, as though reality has blurred at the edges. As one character remarks, “If you tried to live every single detail of your life with perfect clarity, you surely wouldn’t make it through the first day. Try to be perfect, and where’s the fun?”
House of Sugar, House of Stone, By Emily Pérez
Pérez’s first full-length collection pulls no punches in her unflinching examination of the complicated emotional landscape of the family. Pérez weaves, in the rhythmic voice of a woman casting a spell, dark fairy-tales wherein each family member is, by turns, the witch or the wolf. Deceptively sweet-sounding, this book trades in doubt, damage and danger. In poems like “To The Artist’s Child” and “We Cannot Sleep Alone” Pérez examines the potential abandonment of self that women face in choosing to become mothers. The poem “We Wanted More,” unites the voices of two parents addressing their children:
“…we wanted time to do the things we loved
and even things we didn’t love but felt we had to do…”
This poem resolves itself not in reassurance, but in a resignation that feels much more true: “Now look at us, too occupied to bother.” Moments of honesty like this one mark this spell-studded first collection – a necessary re-navigation of that traditional family narrative.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter
Max Porter’s first book is slim, potent and delightfully difficult to classify. In language that is sharp, strange, witty, tender, occasionally obscene and always surprising, Porter tells the story of a man grieving his wife, boys grieving their mother, and a Crow who arrives in the wake of their loss, to act as “friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.”
Poetic in its emotional compactness, Grief is the Thing with Feathers contains the breadth of a narrative arc, as well as a trinity of distinct, intimate voices. Impressions, more than scenes, are expertly conjured and deployed. When Dad feels guilty at his lack of patience for the orbiting mourners, he reasons: “She would approve, because we were always over-analytical, cynical, probably disloyal, puzzled. Dinner party post-mortem bitches with kind intentions. Hypocrites. Friends.” Meanwhile, the boys cope, play, grow-up: “We pissed on the seat. We never shut drawers. We did these things to miss her, to keep wanting her.” And through it all, the Crow as commentator: “I find humans dull except in grief... motherless children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest.”
In its fresh, frank rendering of a family tragedy and its aftermath, Grief is the Things with Feathers allows us to be both human and crow—we suffer the misery and humor of survival through man and boys, but we also get to revel in the dark, cathartic pleasure of raiding such a nest.
play dead, by francine j. harris
Though Harris’ second collection, play dead, frequently gazes into the domestic sphere, home, in these poems, is almost never a safe space. Under Harris’ gaze, the whole world becomes a kaleidoscope of dangers, rich and vivid and often beautiful, though blood-soaked. Harris’ poems shift and tumble, images and actions cascading one on top of another, repeating and doubling (even tripling) down in a kind of fixated revision, as if revisiting the site of a trauma in order to heal. The image of the saw that appears in the poem “woodshop” (“…that is not the way the saw should move…”) resurfaces in repetition as the past tense of “see” a few pages later in “lights in the room” and then again as part of a magician’s act in “the comedian” (“She makes the face of a woman who just felt the saw”).
This obsessive revision appears between poems (as in the sequence of numbered suicide notes, with gaps in the numbering that suggest unknown limits), and also within individual poems, as when, in the poem “canvas,” the addressed “you” erases and repeatedly redraws figures as if by compulsion. This book itself compels the reader to revisit, repeatedly, to pick up and turn the kaleidoscope again.
LOOK, by Solmaz Sharif
Solmaz Sharif begins her first collection, LOOK, with the line: “It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me. / Exquisite.” As its unifying conceit, Sharif takes the 2007 Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms and weaves the declassified language of the United States Department of Defense into her poems, highlighting the absurd and grotesque ways language can be used to conceal, mock, control and subvert, just as it can be repurposed to unmask, dignify and communicate.
look—(*) in mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence.
The titular poem ends: “Let it matter what you call a thing. / Let it be the exquisite face for at least 16 seconds. / Let me LOOK at you. / Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.”
Each of Sharif’s poems stand alone. They glitter with sharp edges—shards of memory and black humor that wink at the reader—while the darker barbs are addressed to the more sinister, lumbering powers that are always listening in (“I say Hello NSA when I place a call / : somewhere a file details my sexual habits / : some tribunal may read it all back to me”). Still, the effect of the book as a whole is something to behold. LOOK is bold in both its indictments and intimacies. It lets neither the reader, nor the political establishment off the hook.
Quiet Creature on the Corner, by João Gilberto Noll, translated by Adam Morris
Reading Quiet Creature on the Corner feels like floating, or even racing, through a fever-dream. In it, the narrator rapes his young neighbor, then is inexplicably freed from prison to write poems and live out his life in a country manor. João Gilberto Noll’s prose, translated into English by Adam Morris, complements its subject, evincing a surrealism viscerally rooted in realism.
Time passes strangely in this book, and is often only tangentially related to reality. For instance, the narrator is nineteen at the beginning of the novella, yet he seems to pass almost a lifetime as the husband of the girl he raped – only to wake from the vision as a man, bearded and hospitalized, surrounded by reams of poetry.
At the clinic, he finds a “horrible bug beneath the stove. It could have been a spider but it looked more like a hangman.” Noll’s prose is often like this, the blurring of spider and hangman appropriate, even inevitable. In his translation, Morris manages to retain the strangeness of the prose – the visions, the odd chronology – while maintaining its accessibility and urgency.
The book may be read in one sitting, but it lingers in the mind. “Poor everyone,” the narrator says, “who had such a heavy burden.” Noll and Morris make this burden one we are happy to bear.
My Feelings, by Nick Flynn
For Nick Flynn fans, the title of his newest collection may feel gleefully inevitable. What else could it be named but My Feelings? Few poets in recent memory have mined the battlefields of adolescence and family history as well or as candidly as Nick Flynn—this collection is no exception.
With three memoirs to his name, the content treads familiar territory, but My Feelings recasts these events through a lens of intense self-awareness and humor. In “Put the Load on Me,” Flynn writes: “Earlier, a deer stood by the side of the road / Deciding whether or not to kill me. I cannot / blame her, I cannot blame anyone—many / animals were hurt in the production of this book / just as many trees were hurt & all / the clouds.”
In a collection that draws largely on his personal life and the recent passing of his father, Flynn avoids solipsism by looking outward—“Open any book / & the cloud above you bursts into / flame, you know this & yet nothing / stops you, the sky stuck to the end of your finger / as you point to it.”
Scrapper, by Matt Bell
In Scrapper, Matt Bell asks readers to take a long, hard at look at our destructive capabilities as humans—our ability to dismantle civilizations, cities, our fellow man, our own flesh. Bell sets much of his story in Detroit, presented as a wasteland from some dystopian future, yet redolent with contemporary resonances. Kelly, the Scrapper, is torn between the man he could be and the man he probably is, constantly fighting each version of himself, past and future.
By invoking George Zimmerman, Guantánamo and Chernobyl, Bell signals his interest in depicting not only the crumbling of a once-major American metropolis, but the crumbling of our larger humanity—not in some dystopian future, but in the present. From Scrapper we get the unsettling, pervasive feeling “that in darkness…anything might happen next, that this was the beginning of something new, a lasting unknown.”