Best for what?–reading 2018

urs and booksI love hearing about people’s favorite books, and regularly shop and read from lists published everywhere every December. I’ve even written a short discussion of my favorite genre books in 2018, to appear in Strange Horizons‘ annual roundup a few days from now.

But I’m skeptical of these lists, too: “best” for whom, when, and why? For what purpose? I’ve found no single critic out there who shares all of my own tastes and obsessions, even though I’m part of a demographic heavily represented in literary journalism. What makes a book powerful is partly latent in the text, but is also contingent on circumstances. Even for one reader, the stories or voices that feel most necessary can vary from day to day. There’s no value-neutral, objective “best” out there.

I can certainly name the poetry books that most wowed me this fall, that I kept wanting to share: If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins by Terrance Hayes, and, a little belatedly, Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang. Does that make them the best? It means they’re really good, for sure.

But I also bought poetry books for friends, marking a few poems for each that I thought would especially appeal. Asghar and Chang were on that list, but so was Ada Limón’s The Carrying, which I also remembered loving–and as I reread it, the book gained even more force. Some books grow over time. Does that make Limón’s book the best, even if a December reviewer barely has enough perspective to see it? Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment by Alessandra Lynch worked like that for me, earlier this year. On first encounter, I felt frustrated by how the poems skirted the central subject–rape–but the successive readings you have to do for a reviewing assignment changed my reaction to profound admiration. And while I just read Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art, I can say it’s almost unbearably powerful, and maybe you should read it wearing oven mitts–where does THAT criterion go in the rankings? Really, I liked or loved almost all of the poetry collections I read in 2019 (listed below, excluding things I didn’t like enough to finish)–but I have no idea which will mean most to me five years from now.

Honestly, much that I read last winter is pretty hazy. On the novel side, I remember being deeply affected by Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing and thinking the prose beautiful. I feel similarly about Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, which I read just this week, although the book’s sad irresolution disturbs me. There were several other novels I couldn’t put down–that inspired hours of intense delight. But Richard Powers’ Overstory, a massive tome that struck me in June as being a little clunky in a few passages, seems so far to have changed my brain the most. I mean, I’ve always loved trees–isn’t that practically a requirement of poethood?–but they loom larger now, more deeply rooted in my imagination, more prone to overshadow those little humans flickering around their boles. If a not-quite-perfect book alters how a human sees the world, might it not be the best for, say, trees?

Well, what do I know, really? I read a lot, but I’ve consumed the tiniest fraction of this year’s output (and fewer novels than usual, perhaps because I spent much of the summer revising my own). Happy New Year, and go read something from this list, or somebody else’s, because they’re all partial. In any case, bruit what you love. We all need a variety of angles to make sense of a landscape.

POETRY

1/2 Allak, Keine Angst* (poet I met in England)

1/2 Driskell, Next Door to the Dead (met through AWP)

1/3 Winn, Alma Almanac* (Barrow Street press mate)

1/4 Adair-Hodges, Let’s All Die Happy* (reviews)

1/5 Fisher-Wirth, Mississippi* (friend and writer I admire)

1/6 Young, Ardency (teaching), and reread 5/6 for another class

1/9 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (teaching)

1/15 Forche, The Country Between Us (teaching)

1/20 Lynch, Daylily Called it a Dangerous Moment* (for review)

1/28 Cooley, Breach (teaching)

2/2 Dungy, Trophic Cascade* (reviews)

2/9 Chen, When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List of Further Possibilities* (reviews)

2/16 Gay, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude (teaching)

2/25 Trethewey, Thrall (teaching)

2/27 Kaur, Milk and Honey (recommendations)

2/27 Mahato, In Between (recommendation)

3/3 Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (AWP prep)

3/3 Schwaner, Wind Intervals (local poet)

3/6 Smith, Good Bones* (AWP prep)

3/14 Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (teaching)

3/17 Bell, Ornament* (teaching)

3/23 Taylor, Work & Days (prepping for campus visit)

3/25 Taylor, Forage House (teaching)

3/31 Igloria, Haori (prepping for campus visit)

4/1 Igloria, The Buddha Wonders If She’s Having a Mid-Life Crisis (“)

4/14 Givhan, Protection Spell (author I admire)

4/23 Reagler, Teeth & Teeth* (friend)

4/23 Keen, Milk Glass Mermaid (friend, rereading)

4/28 De la Paz, Post Subject (friend, also scouting for teaching)

4/29 Smith, Wade in the Water* (poet long admired)

5/7 Van Clief-Stefanon, Black Swan (reread for teaching)

5/8 Howe, Magdalene* (NBA finalist 2017)

5/10 Santos, Square Inch Hours* (NBA finalist 2017)

5/10 Miller, Women Disturbing the Peace* (friend)

5/15 Erin Belieu, Slant Six (picked up at AWP)

5/22 Emerson, Claude Before Time and Space* (fandom)

6/6 Tavila-Borsheim, Love Poems* (picked up at conference)

6/6 Robinson, A Cruise in Rare Waters (by a friend)

6/6 Hancock, The Open Gate (local writer)

6/10 Kindred, Says the Forest to the Girl* (friend)

6/21 Eusuf, Not Elegy but Eros* (met at a conference)

6/21 Meng, Bridled* (review)

6/24 Chang, Barbie Chang (word of mouth)

7/5 Banka, You don’t scare me (“met” her virtually)

7/11 Joseph, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman* (fandom)

7/22 Kildegaard, Course* (fandom)

7/29 Daye, River Hymns* (recommended by a friend)

7/29 Williams and Humberstone, ed, Over the Line: Intro to Poetry Comics (research)

7/30 Hayden, Collected Poems (teaching prep)

7/31 Coleman, ed., Words of Protest, Words of Freedom (teaching prep)

9/11 Ginsberg, Howl (reread for class)

9/25 Plath, Ariel (reread for class)

10/12 Limon, The Carrying* (fandom)

10/13 Hayes, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin* (fandom)

10/15 Bishop, Questions of Travel (reread for class)

10/17 Bishop, Geography III (reread for class)

10/18 Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings* (fandom)

10/19 Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville (reread for class)

11/11 de la Paz, Requiem for the Orchard (reread for class)

11/17 Gay and Nezhukumatathil, Lace & Pyrite* (fandom)

12/10 Ostriker, Waiting for the Light (former teacher)

12/18 Asghar, If They Come For Us* (reviews and word of mouth)

12/19 Reed, Indecency* (Pulitzer)

12/20 Stallings, Like* (reviews)

12/20 Taylor and Roberts, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle* (I’m in it)

12/20 Senechal de la Roche, Winter Light* (colleague)

12/23 Vorreyer, Every Love Story Is an Apocalypse Story (review)

12/27 Meitner, Holy Moly Carry Me* (fandom)

12/29 Smith, Incendiary Art* (fandom)

  

FICTION

2/10 Hill, Heart-Shaped Box (word of mouth)

2/18 Strout, Burgess Boys (friend’s rec)

3/4  Ward, Sing Unburied Sing* (prizes/ reviews)

3? Albert, The Hazel Wood* (review in NYT)

5/3 Locke, Bluebird* (NYT mention)

5/20 Due, The Good House* (NYT mention)

5/23 Robinson, Shaman (fandom)

5/29 Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain (had somehow never read it)

6/2 Powers, Overstory* (reviews)

6/8 King, Outsider* (fandom)

6/? LaValle, Changeling (reviews)

7/8 Weber, Still Life with Monkey* (fandom)

7/18 Shaffer, Hope Never Dies* (what the hell)

7/20 O’Callaghan, The Dead House* (NYT review)

7/25 Hummel, Still Lives* (like her poems)

8/19 Walsh, Ghosted* (audiobook, from review of book)

9/5 Makkai, The Great Believers* (general fandom)

10/5 Galbraith, Lethal White* (general fandom)

10/7 Carter, The Bloody Chamber (reread for class)

10/16 Jones, Mongrels (reread for class)

11/11 Adcock, The Completionist* (audiobook, from review of book)

11/17 Schoffstall, Half-Witch* (review)

11/18 King, Elevation* (fandom)

12/1 Novey, Those Who Knew (book club)

12/8 French, Witch Elm* (review)

12/25 Meijer, North Wood* (gift)

12/26 Edugyan, Washington Black* (gift)

12/27 Moore, Ghostographs* (review)

 

NONFICTION

1/2 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons (references in other books)

2/2 Adichie, We Should All be Feminists (word of mouth)

4/22 Fennelly, Heating & Cooling (word of mouth, teaching possibility)

5/? Brownell (for teaching/ research)

7/5 Cleland, Mastering suspense, structure, and plot (for research)

7/6 Moore, Flash Nonfiction (for teaching)

7/9 Percy, Thrill Me (research)

7/12 Nelson, Bluets (reputation)

7/13 Connors, Salmon Matters (by a friend)

12/16 Tsvetaeva, Letter to the Amazon (recommended by daughter)

*=published within the last year or so

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5 Comments on “Best for what?–reading 2018

  1. Appreciate this so much. “Best” is, at best, partial, as you say. And dependent on the thousand reflections and refractions of our own eye (and ear/mind/heart/body). So, yes, let’s all spread rumors of what has changed us, what has enlarged us, what remains and what re-visions.

    To that end, I’ll offer the work of Arthur Sze, whose poetry has transformed my understanding and experience of “poetry,” and has catalyzed my own writing this past year.

    Who knows were 2019 will lead, but we’ve got lots of great company for the journey!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Poet Bloggers Revival Digest: Week 52 – Via Negativa

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