Saturday, February 3, 2024

Favorite Books of 2023

Once again I cull from the books I read this year to find my favorites.

Acting Class, by Nick Drnaso (graphic novel)
Wonderfull creepy, like his other books Sabrina and Beverly, but the ambiguity in this one is what you are left with after finishing it, which adds to the creepiness and sense of dislocation. Acting classes do sometimes blur the lines between fiction and reality, but actors know how to distinguish between the two. The poor saps in this book are all looking for something to do on a Wednesday night and are troubled people to begin with. Are these acting classes a part of a larger cult? Maybe. I like how Drnaso weaves in and out of real (acting class) and unreal (where the improvs “take place”) when the students are performing improvs. The lines get blurry toward the end.

Beta Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse, by Tom Kaczynski (graphic stories)
Thought-provoking and, most important, entertaining graphic stories about scenarios depicting that the future is now. The artist is extremely erudite and loves to mess around with notions of capitalism and environmentalism. A must-read for all comics lovers and philosophers. Came with a signed print, plus a hand-drawn, signed comic on the front folio: “Enjoy the ongoing apocalypse.”

Blah Blah Blah, by Juliette Collet (graphic memoir)
(#1) A young woman draws cartoons about her sexuality. She is unabashedly slutty, but she also worries why she is the way she is: classic cartoon zine stuff, which I always like. The tabloid size is perfect for this because the characters have large heads and a lot can fit on a page. It was fun to read and look at. Even the lettering was creative. ¶ (#2) A young woman’s cartoon collages about her sexual relationships with men and her chats with girlfriends. It is brash and honest, and it comes with a two-sided foldout poster. I am very interested in seeing where she takes us next!

Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma (short stories)
A stunning collection by an author who has total control of her craft. There is a playfulness that permeates these stories: language and magic realism but not distractingly. Just strange enough to make things more interesting. I love how all the endings are left as cliffhangers.

A Bright Room Called Day, by Tony Kushner (play)
Tony Kushner was an incredible and provocative playwright before Angels in America. This play, written during the Reagan Era, is perfect for today as it expresses the same dread for encroaching and present fascism that is the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century. Chilling, especially because the lead character, a two-bit actress, does nothing and watches as Hitler rises while her friends fight or flee.

Brother & Sister Enter the Forest, by Richard Mirabella (novel)
In prose that Hemingway would have loved, the author conjures a world where victims do not want to be victims but don’t have the tools and language to extract themselves out of the muck and mire. I cared for all of these somewhat unlikeable characters, especially Justin (brother) and Willa (sister), the two main characters whose complicated relationship is constantly tested. Powerful, but never maudlin. It is told out of sequence, which is perfect in that it mimics Justin’s damaged mind.

Desperate Pleasures, by M. S. Harkness (graphic novel)
I especially loved the way the artist employs manga style, allowing the detail of the characters’ drawings to change based on emotions and exploring past memories. One moment made me gasp: the main character pictures herself as a stand-up comic and lets loose that her father molested her repeatedly, and then continues with her feelings and the story as every audience member leaves one by one—except for her estranged mom, who tells her she loves her. Wow.

Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, by James Hannaham (novel)
A modern-day Ulysses with the backdrop of The Odyssey. I really dug this book and Hannaham’s writing. A trans woman’s odyssey after being paroled is the focus, and Fort Greene is the neighborhood. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a trans Black-Latinx woman looking for a job after being incarcerated for twenty years, but Hannaham managed to reel me in, and I could not put this down. The stream of consciousness is smack dab in the middle of third-person sentences, and I loved the originality. A lot of humor, too, which I appreciated wholeheartedly.

The Drowned and the Saved, by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (nonfiction)
This book should be required reading. Levi survived Auschwitz and in this philosophical and unapologetic meditation, he probes why the German people, among others, did not help the sufferers, trying to understand why they participated and who is complicit. Chilling and brilliant. Never forget.

Enter Talking, by Joan Rivers (memoir)
I have always loved listening to Joan Rivers. She was the queen of timing, and the more provocative she was, the better. This memoir focused on her obsession to become a respected performer, which happened one night in 1964 when she appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. That opened every door for her. She had always been erudite and aways out to please, but when she stopped trying to please everyone else and started to please herself, that’s when thing gelled. Your truth is what matters.

Flop Sweat, by Lance Ward (graphic memoir)
(#1) I first read Ward’s work in The Best American Comics 2016. His work was chosen by guest editor Roz Chast (both have very distinct, somewhat simplistic, cartooning styles). Ward is like sincere Chast, and that is a big compliment. He is so open about his life and he questions everything. It’s actually a breath of fresh air, and I look forward to reading the next Flop Sweat. ¶ (#2) This issue jumps around so much, with “Interesting Tidbits” interrupting the flow. Albeit, Ward always comes back to the main point: the start of his addiction. You always feel for the main character because he writes his emotions and feelings so well. It is engaging, and I look forward to the third issue. ¶ (#3) Lance is the king of second chances after a cocaine addiction and robbery land him in jail for two weeks. He gets to go back to high school and graduates! The only seemingly loving relationship he has is with his younger sister. Poor Lance. He is such a remarkable storyteller. The way he sets up how much he loves his father’s parents and then how they disown him on Christmas is heartbreaking. ¶ (#4) In this issue, although the timeline bounces around, Lance makes it clear that his family has no interest in him and want him gone, pretty much. Ward then, for the second half, introduces a mystery: How did Lance end up in a psych ward, losing his memory for over a fortnight? This is compelling stuff, and I love how simple he keeps the drawings, but always expressive and energetic.

H Day, by Renée French (graphic novel)
A wordless graphic double story about the artist’s migraines and an ant invasion, told metaphorically side by side, in gorgeous graphite. Upsetting to say the least. The release I felt at the end was a much needed balm.

In the Future, We Are Dead, by Eva Müller (graphic memoir)
Honest and provocative, this collection of graphic story memoirs are drawn using black, red, and blue pencils and have a haunting, magical quality. I totally dug this work about a subject very few of us deal with on a real level.

Inappropriate, by Gabrielle Bell (graphic stories)
Appropriately titled (the cover drew me in instantaneously). All are mostly character driven, which I like. The anthropomorphic comics made me howl. I’ll never look at Little Red Riding Hood the same way again. Not a weak one in the bunch of twenty-five. More, more, more, please!

Killing and Dying, by Adrian Tomine (graphic stories)
Six extremely well-written and rendered comics stories from a new master. Most are about people down on their luck who have, well, issues. I first read the title story in Best American Comics 2016 and loved it. The author is superb at dialogue. After I finish a Tomine book, I want to read another.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson (short stories)
This posthumous collection of short stories brims with death, but there is a humanity in his writing that makes you crave more. Five longish stories, all gems, especially the last and longest one “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” which evokes Elvis and 9/11, teaching and conspiracy theory. This was my fourth Denis Johnson book.

The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, by John Birdsall (biography)
An in-depth portrait of America’s most famous culinary expert, written by a James Beard Award–winning writer. Birdsall really brings out the queerness of Beard and reveals a lot of the warts in Beard’s life. The writing was cogent and wonderfully lush at times, especially in the early times of Beard’s life in and around Gearhart Park in Oregon. But ultimately this is a sad tale of someone reaching for the ring who never felt as though he got it.

Marry Me a Little, by Rob Kirby (graphic memoir)
A simple story about a gay marriage told in simple drawings, this emotionally and funny graphic memoir moved me deeply. At first I wondered about the splotches of mostly red and blue smudged throughout the drawings, but at some point you see the master plan in action—they really work! Kirby is a great storyteller, and his drawings reflect that. Excellent. I wish it were longer!

Monsters, by Claire Dederer (nonfiction)
Steve (my man) and I are always asking the question: “Can we love the art by someone who is a monster?” The author tells us it’s complicated. We cannot separate the artist’s biography from their art—it’s impossible. So we have to find a way to discuss, and eventually live with, this dilemma. I love Dederer’s writing: her style, her approach, her examples (including herself). A provocative and essential read.

Mr. Lightbulb, by Wojtek Wawszczyk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (graphic novel)
A fantastical tale about sacrifice and coming into one’s own when one accepts oneself as one learns to help others. I loved the thick- and thin-lined, inked cartooning: ragged and rough and energetic, perfect for this tale.

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters: Book One, by Emil Ferris (graphic memoir)
Brilliant is not a good enough word to describe this graphic novel. Many of these ballpoint and ink drawings are stunning works of art in themselves, and so detailed; others are roughly drawn but still propel the story. It’s smart and transgressive, and I can’t wait for Book Two!

Nicosia in Dark and Light, by Thodoris Tzalavras (photography)
A remarkably powerful book of photographs showing decaying interiors along the Green Line in Cyprus’s capital. Haunting and brilliant representation of light and shadow and texture. Came with a limited edition zine by Ioanna Mavrou called “On Your Fiftieth Anniversary.”

Orlando, by Virginia Woolf (novel)
Gender-bending Orlando becomes a women halfway through this novel that has very little plot, but so much happens. It’s as if Woolf were writing about the history of England and society, especially its writers, as Orlando lives for centuries, from the Elizabethan Age up to the present (1928). Gorgeous writing. So much interiority within as the title character tries to figure out the meaning of life. At the end, idealized love seems to triumph.

The Parrot and the Igloo, by David Lipsky (nonfiction)
Superb research in this book about the history of global-warming denial. I will forever be angered by our elected Congress members and presidents who over the years chose capitalism and who fueled the egos of the deniers, thus dooming humanity. This should be required reading and should be translated into every single language on this doomed planet.

Pascin, by Joann Sfar, translated by Edward Gauvin (graphic novel)
Refreshingly dirty and inked in a manner concomitant. Some would have called Jules Pascin morally degenerate; others, genius. I liked how the comics author rendered him and others differently depending on the mood but always using ink (and sometimes ink wash) to create the tableaux. Wry humor!

Paying for It, by Chester Brown (graphic memoir)
The cartooning is straightforward, and the characters’ expressions never change (we never see the prostitutes’ faces), the dialogue is pretty flat and polemical, but all this combined works magic. I learned so much about the ins and outs of the business, from the moment Chet starts seeing the ladies, then, as the decade progresses, how he sees only one; but also I learned what most people think about prostitution (not positive at all). Brown provides a positive counterpoint: he does not subscribe to romantic love so he has sex exclusively with prostitutes. The book ends with a series of appendices to provide historical and social context, plus endnotes to further convey his feelings and knowledge. I looked forward to reading this every time I picked it up. Even though there are many panels showing him fucking or getting a blow job or hand job, this was not a prurient experience.

Punks, by John Keene (poetry)
Poems about being black, being gay, language, black history, some extremely powerful, some erudite, some wordplayful. My favorite sections were “Playland,” “The Lost World, ” “Dark to Themselves,” and “Words.” After reading most of the relatable ones, ones I could understand in one reading, I thought, “If I were a poet, this is the poetry I would like to write.”

Ruined by Reading, by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (nonfiction)
What a delightful book on the phenomenology of reading. I found myself agreeing with her a lot, and also feeling like I was walking in her shoes regarding books and everything associated with them. We read as children to please adults; we read as adults to please ourselves. Good writers develop a language all their own.

Six Hundred and Seventy-Six Apparitions of Killoffer, by Killoffer (graphic novel)
Perverse and magnificent. A French artist explores self-loathing, narcissism, and misogyny, while visiting Montreal. His imagination runs wild as he multiplies and wreaks havoc on himself and those around him. disturbing and beautiful. Solipsism at its finest.

Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse (graphic novel)
One of the best graphic novels ever—a wonder to behold. Racism and homophobia in the early ’60s are brought to the fore in this emotional saga of the Deep South. The characters are all multidimensional and at times say the wrong thing, especially Toland, out narrator. It was quite an emotional journey for me, as I empathized with so many of these people. The hash work to render shading is nonpareil. This should be required reading in high schools and colleges.

The Sweetness of Water, by Nathan Harris (novel)
I so loved this page-turner and deep character study of people in a rural Georgia town right after the emancipation. Poetic, but not overly so, with plot twists that are earned and sometimes unexpected. How does a first novel achieve such thrilling greatness?

They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, with Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (illustrator) (graphic memoir)
The art is straightforward, but the storytelling packs a lot into these 200 pages. George Takei is an American icon and his story is for all ages. It is essential reading and should be taught in schools. Unfortunately we do not learn from history as our collective memories span only minutes, it seems. I love how it ends with Justice Sotomayor being the voice of reason and compassion.

Timebends, by Arthur Miller (memoir)
Yes, Marilyn comes up a lot in this memoir, and also all the plays, but the thrust of it is political, or psychopolitical, and I learned a lot about how politics and the times shape us and all the decisions we make, and that even when confronted with reality, or the “truth,” we sometimes try to maintain our old beliefs and shibboleths. And although the writing was at times opaque, I still give it a hearty thumbs-up because of its honesty (except for not revealing he has a son with Down Syndrome). It ends with him beleiveing that everyone is conected, even to the trees!

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin (novel)
I know very little about gaming, having only played as a boy and copyedited one novel, with it as subject matter, as an adult. I became enraptured by the creation of these games in this novel, and their creators, and enjoyed the storytelling and plotting. What does it mean to be in love but not lovers with someone? These characters are afraid of love and commitment and it takes them decades to sort out their issues. The chapter that takes place in a live pioneer game was beautifully handled. The final scene was lovely and perfect.

Tongues of Fire, by Seán Hewitt (poetry)
A heartfelt and beautiful meditation on nature and love and the poet’s father, who recently passed. From Two Reflections, poem ii: “It is only where the darkness travels that we picture depth, the silt and the truth of it.” Honestly, I was not expecting the poems of death and decay surroundings father, but they were the best parts.

Uncomfortably Happily, by Yeon-sik Hong, translated by Hellen Jo (graphic memoir)
A most excellent graphic memoir that can be used as a “what to do, what not to do” for those considering moving from the city to a more bucolic setting. I grew to love the main characters and there pets. I covet their garden and admire their gumption. Also, a keen meditation on art, self-expression, and art mentoring. I dissolved when the husband realizes that he has been mentoring his wife all wrong after she's the one who wins a huge prize!) Highly recommended!

Who Is Rich?, by Matthew Klam (novel)
What drew me to this satire was the premise: a well-known cartoonist who hasn’t published a book in years after his initial success is teaching at a summer art camp for a long weekend. Rich, our narrator, makes you feel uncomfortable the way he talks about his family and friends and Amy, the superrich woman he is having an affair with—and that is a good thing. It ends on a slightly sour note, which seems right for this novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it got me thinking about my life and its direction or lack thereof. Highly recommended for people who need a poking.

Witness, by Jamel Brinkley (short stories)
Another brilliant collection of short stories by one of my favorite writers. Every story was pretty much spot-on and perfect. I had read the last story before, in The Paris Review, and it gutted me the same way it did when I first read it. He writes so precisely but not in a terse way. Everything leads to a well-deserved and sometimes unsettling conclusion. I did not have a favorite story; they all lit up both sides of my brain.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Favorite Books of 2022

A few years ago I decided to read my books in order of a set of genres, with categories such as short stories, novel, memoir, queer, general nonfiction, new release, and more. One of my favorite categories is random (it’s the last one on my list of twelve). Because I have all my books on an Excel spreadsheet I export from Libib, a site for those who want to catalog their home libraries, I let my computer choose the random book.

Last year I stuck to my twelve categories, but I also read a lot of graphic novels and books about art at the same time, as I am a big fan.

Here are some of my favorite books I read in 2022, and the notes I took after reading each of them.

32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics, by Adrian Tomine (comics zines)
This artist-writer was brilliant at age seventeen, when he began these Optic Nerve zines. I love when he writes and renders a female protagonist. He played around with style in lettering and rendering over these four years. There was not a clunky issue among the seven, and I truly enjoyed the experience traveling back to the early nineties.

Afterparties, by Anthony Veasna So (short stories)
Nine remarkable short stories come to life in this late author’s collection. Every single one is magic. I even choked up reading the acknowledgments. What a gift this writer had.

Belonging, by Nora Krug (graphic memoir)
Heimat, or belonging, is a sense of loss one feels for one’s place or home. The author boldly tried to discover things about her family’s past during Nazi Germany so that she can understand and hopefully heal. The drawings—in pencil, colored pencil, marker, and collage—are spectacularly rendered to fit this story, and the writing is cogent and almost like a mystery. Excellent, loving, probing, moving.

Block Print for Beginners, by Elise Young (art technique)
Much better than I initially thought. Although the author is a novice, she packs a lot into the book and it is all very helpful—every little tip and trick is limned for the beginner to feel more comfortable approaching all the aspects of this art form. Her thick cardboard registration is something I will definitely try for multicolor prints.

The Book Tour, by Andi Watson (graphic novel)
A polite man’s book tour goes awry when the police start to suspect him of murder. Shades of Kafka abound in this graphic novel about a man whose book sells only because he has been suspected of murder and has signed a confession under false pretenses. The cartooning is simple; the dialogue, complex. I’m glad I sat down with this.

The Bradley of Him, by Connor Willumsen (graphic novel)
In this mesmerizing graphic novel, the runner is on a journey but not really one of self-awareness. He seems to be a famous person staying at a Las Vegas hotel. Is it supposed to be Bradley Cooper, who just won an Oscar playing Lance Armstrong, or is it Murray, the superwealthy alter-ego? The images are all rendered in graphite pencil, and the words seem to be in marker. There is linearity, but it is always being called into question with possible flashbacks (or are they fantasies?). All in all, I dug it and really grooved on the style.

Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York, by Samuel R. Delany, illustrated by Mia Wolff (graphic memoir)
A relationship is exquisitely illustrated in ink and lovingly written. I savored every word and explored every image. This memoir upturns all expectations about love, desire, homelessness, and friendship. And the author and his man are still together!

Companion Piece, by Ali Smith (novel)
After reading Ali Smith’s glorious four seasons novels, I felt I had to read this, her latest. Also glorious. She captures the zeitgeist to a tee by juxtaposing the current pandemic against the 17th-century plague. Magical and genius. Her wordplay is infectious. Some loose ends, but I did not mind a bit.

Dis-similarities, by Craig J Calhoun (art)
What a fantastic book of art photography by this estimable artist. Reality-bending images allow you to see things askew. Beautiful, with a thoughtful and provocative artist’s statement wending its way throughout.

The Domesticated Afterlife, by Scott Finch (graphic novel)
The definition of original. I can’t say I understood it completely, but I understood it well enough to really dig this graphic novel about submission and spirituality. Our vulpine hero, Enaid, accepts a Faustian bargain to become domesticated in order to eat and sleep freely without care, but the bargain is not what it seemed like from the beginning. My god, what a world Finch creates. Truly one of a kind. Sui generis.

Elizabeth and Monty, by Charles Casillo (biography)
This account of their relationship is thorough, insightful, and generally well written. The author focuses on the psychology of his subjects, and this pays off in a huge way: it gives the book a sense of characterization, which is paramount in biographies. I learned so much. And his use of amalgamating quotations from other sources works to his advantage to help paint a complete picture. Very moving.

Falling Water, by John Koethe (poetry)
These poems about loneliness and feelings of displacement in middle age in an indifferent world reverberate strongly. I underlined so much that I felt attuned with, and they put me in a mood of uncertainty, which is what I think the poems are written to do. Philosophical and also heartfelt. The final poem, “Falling Water,” is the longest and encompasses life in a matter of pages. “Morning in America” resonates strongly, politically especially, today.

The Follies of Richard Wadsworth and Streakers, by Nick Maandag (graphic novellas)
Three graphic novellas: The Follies of Richard Farnsworth, Night School, The Disciple. The first was the best, but all of them have a wackiness and challenge political correctness in such a funny way: these characters cannot help themselves because they are so driven by lust. I really dig his work. ¶ Streakers is a hilarious graphic short story about a club for streakers. The three men currently involved are all working-class guys who are a bit creepy, but somehow Maandag makes us care for them. I love the renderings of body hair and genitals. Lovely pen and ink work.

Francis Bacon, by A. E. Bethea (graphic essays)
Francis Bacon is just the jumping-off point for this comic in which the artist/author philosophizes about their position in this world. They will mention something on one page, such as the moon, and riff on the moon landing on the next page. The drawings are jagged and febrile. A wonderful juxtaposition against the poetic and philosophical texts. I was smitten.

Gateway to the Moon, by Mary Morris (novel)
I love Morris’s writing: the five senses exploited to their fullest, characters fully developed who conjure instant faces in your mind, and plot devices that keep you turning the page. In 1992 small-town New Mexico, its denizens have had family there for over 400 years who do not eat pork and light candles every Friday. We trace the family from 1492 to the present to learn why. Breathtaking.

Index Cards, by Moira Davey (essays)
These interconnected essays seem desultory in their telling, but that is on purpose, allowing a cumulative effect that took my breath away at times. I feel a kinship with the author, especially in her essay “The Problem of Reading,” of what to read and the dilemma in choosing one’s next book to read. I love how reading and writing are forever linked, and how she quotes famous and not-so-famous authors regarding the subject. So many connections here, and she writes about those connections as though she read my mind.

The Journey, by Indira Ganesan (novel)
The word and world building are exquisite in this compact gem. Such a visual, sensual writer. I underlined many phrases and passages.

The Man without Talent, by Yoshiharu Tsuge, translated by Ryan Holmberg (graphic novel)
I could not out this down and read it in one sitting. Tsuge is a master of pen and ink, and he knows how to tell a story and use flashback and manga-style reactions. The ending made me laugh—so fitting—as the main character does not recognize he is like all those men without money (but he really does have talent!).

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman (graphic novels)
The first book, A Survivor’s Tale, was a devastating and emotional retelling of his father’s time during World War II. The narrative is meta, and works perfectly: the son in the present asking the father about his experiences, all while dealing with his father and his father wife’s matrimonial problems. ¶ Part II, And Here My Troubles Begin, is probably the best graphic novel ever written. The author struggles with his father’s story of surviving the Holocaust while dealing with his father’s old age and infirmities, and inner turmoil. The love/hate relationship between the two is what makes this brilliant. Also included is a chapbook/pamphlet of earlier works that inspired Maus.

My Dead Book, by Nate Lippens (novel)
Good things come in small packages. A novella about a hustler looking back on his life, remembering the dead who once breathed life into his world. Unsentimental, quietly philosophical, and lovingly told. I underlined and starred so many passages!

Pangs of Love, by David Wong Louie (short stories)
These stories pretty much keep you guessing till the end, where everything comes to gather not in a crystalline moment of understanding but in waves of increasing understanding. “Inheritance,” the last story, was deep, oh so deep, and excellent. Not all the stories are about the Chinese-American Experience; Louie was a writer first, and a man writing about his people, it seems, second. He could not be pigeon-holed: so many of the stories seems to emanate from different places. I remember buying this thirty years ago because one of the stories had a gay character. Only one. But I am so glad I bought it and had the chance to soak up the author’s talent.

Peculiar Heritage, by DeMisty D. Bellinger (poetry)
I loved this poetry collection. It is written by a Black woman who puts herself, her body, her mind in the bodies of other Black women, some of them slaves escaping to the north, as in her group of poems called Lunar Journey. These poems question everything—especially imbalance in our society—and are just magnificent and moving on many levels.

Please Continue, by Frank Basloe (play)
Remarkable and stunning play about the Milgram experiments at Yale in the early sixties. These scenes are interwoven with another storyline about a young teenager girls rape by a multitude of Yale men. It is unsettling and perfect. Themes of culpability and forgiveness abound.

The Pleasure of the Text, by Sami Alwani (graphic stories)
Anticapitalist cartooning at its finest: erudite, self-effacing, perpetually questioning, erotic, mundane, all using different styles and media but focusing on the artist–writer, as a dog! Brilliant!

Prayer to Saint Therese, by Alabaster Pizzo (graphic novella)
This is a beautifully written and thought-out graphic novella about the future (2040), the narrator an expat in Amsterdam, and how she seeks connection and meaning but is afraid of the things she wants. At its core, it’s about how bleak yet hopeful every moment is.

Rusty Brown, by Chris Ware (graphic novel)
This sad opus about unfulfilled lives is quite a journey, twenty years in the making. I was moved by all the characters, and all the little details in their hardscrabble lives make this opus soar. I so look forward to part two.

Staring at the Sun, by Julian Barnes (novel)
This book moved me on many levels: emotionally, philosophically, as literature. A woman who lives to be 100 questions her life from the moment her uncle gives her bulbs when she is ten, telling her that they will grow into flowers, but they are in fact golf tees. Fear, bravery, success, the meaning of life, the uncertainty of god and afterlife, the follow of religion, suicide—all and more are explored fully in only 197 pages. Barnes is a brilliant writer.

They’re Going to Love You, by Meg Howrey (novel)
Another stellar novel by Howrey, and this time she returns to the milieu of ballet. A family drama that runs very deep and bounces around in time. I was spellbound by her narrator’s interiority and would have underlined half the passages in the book if I had read with a highlighter. All the characters are indelibly imprinted in my mind. I wept several times at the beauty of the passages; from the joy, longing, pain, and forgiveness; and especially from Carlisle’s self-discoveries she makes along the way. This should be required reading.

Tooth Box, by Jenny Irish (poetry)
These prose poems pack gigantic punches. Girlhood, dislocation, the feeling of not belonging or fitting in, women and their relationship with their bodies—I was mesmerized. So much in thirty-one poems. The last line of “Wolves” made me gasp and nod.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Favorite Books of 2021

For every book I read, I read with the intention of falling in love with it. It would be silly to say this happens all the time, but it happens more often than not. The books in the list that follows were standouts this year, and I did fall in love many times. Also, this was the year I added lots of graphic novels and memoirs to my reading list. Cheers!

All the Way to the Tigers, by Mary Morris (memoir)
A memoir that bounces back and forth in time, from the moment the author broke her ankle in seven places to the time she spent in India, searching for an encounter with a tiger. In between she recalls troubling times with her mother and how, as her ankle started to heal, she tried to heal her relationship with her not-so-motherly mother. It’s quite a page-turner, and Morris knows how to describe everything using all the senses. Love her writing. It’s also about privilege and understanding how injustice permeates all our lives regardless of status.

Am I Alone Here?, by Peter Orner (essays)
I thoroughly enjoyed these short essays (felt like a new genre). He is painfully, sometimes brutally, honest when he relates books and the stories he’s read to his own life. The ones about his dad left me breathless. Middle-aged never felt so relatable.

Appleseed, by Matt Bell (novel)
Ambitious in its scope and agenda, this novel is unlike anything I’ve read before: magical, mythological, radical, genre bending. One of the main characters is a faun, so that sets the stage right there. Bell’s writing allows for this (although he loves to repeat himself in different ways, but that is part of the fabric of this novel). Fascinating that the most human and fully realized character is C, remade 433 times and now “living” one thousand years in the future. The will to live is strong. Humanity cannot fix the climate mistakes made. But life will go on.

Beverly, by Nick Drnaso (graphic stories)
Six creepy interlocked stories about the banality of evil, white middle-class anxiety, and racism. Nick Drnaso sure knows how to write dialogue and shape a story. You can feel the seeds of his next work, Sabrina, being planted in this collection. Riveting. His simplistic style fits the dialogue and storylines to a tee.

The Cranes Dance, by Meg Howrey (novel)
Another robust novel from Howrey. She writes about performance so cleverly and emotionally. I loved this one because of the world it presents: ballet. The author was a great ballerina and actor, and she combines the two here. A novel about finding oneself when you’ve been strapped to a sibling your whole life. I could have read hundreds of more pages of this.

Days without End, by Sebastian Barry (novel)
This novel is magical. The writing is poetry, both epic and personal. Thomas, a starving teen Irish immigrant, befriends another lost boy, an American named John Cole, and the two fight wars and make love together. My favorite line: “And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.” Thomas identifies more comfortably as a woman, and feels more at home in women’s clothing, having had a revelation after seeing the berdache during one of their campaigns. Spoiler alert: I love a happy ending. So much love for this book.

I Contain Multitudes, by Ed Yong (science)
You can’t help but think about your own body and what microbes are lurking within when reading this book. The author is a terrific writer and really makes his point without using too much scientific jargon. His tone is appealing and refreshing. This is the kind of science book I love. And I learned so much. It seems revolutionary.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (memoir)
A great American book written by a great American writer. I first learned about her when I was young but never read the entire book. So I got this copy and started savoring every word, then started gulping toward the end. Every word was chosen with love, pain, erudition, and emotion. Once, I sat next to her at a bar in Princeton. I wish I had the balls to buy her a round, but I was poor. But I like to think that the light emanating from her seeped into my body and made me a better thinker.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, by Mannie Murphy (graphic memoir)
What a brilliant approach to writing about the growth of white nationalism in Portland from an artist who limits their palette to black and gray watercolor on cheap student-ruled elementary school paper. Perfect read for the times in which we live.

If I Had Two Wings, by Randall Kenan (short stories)
The best stories are at the beginning and end of this collection of ten, some containing magic realism, all lively and filled with characters on the brink of self-discovery and catharsis, usually with a gay male in his later forties or fifties. It’s such a pity that the author died the month this published. It is a book filled with surprises.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, by Adrian Tomine (graphic memoir)
This memoir is written and drawn classically. Each scenario starts with joy and hope and ends with the cartoonist being put in his place or undermined. It is a classic and funny device and works perfectly for this graphic memoir, which ends with the idea for the cartoonist to write a graphic memoir. A circle.

Lot, by Bryan Washington (short stories)
Characters on the brink of self-revelation and self-determination struggle to find their places in a world that is hostile. Is love possible? All the stories take place in Houston, and as a white reader I was definitely the other, which always fascinates me and makes me turn the page even more. The whole point of reading is to feel the experiences of the characters, and when they don’t look like you or patronize the same places or do the same things, you learn more about yourself through learning about otherness and oppression. There was not one bad apple in the bunch. You get used to his nonuse of quotation marks. I would definitely read his novel.

Love and Other Poems, by Alex Dimitrov (poetry)
A paean to the comforting and smothering city of New York. A young gay man’s musings on life, love, death, the City, and the Cosmos. He cries a lot and it is cathartic. Lots of meta narration. The last poem, written during three cab rides on an iPhone, is stupendous.

Monkey Bay, by Elaine Ford (novel)
I waited thirty-two years to read the now-yellowing pages of this short but mighty novel about the denizens of a north Maine coastal town living hardscrabble lives. Love and honesty seem impossible, but this character study packs a powerful punch. Maine slang! The cover seems a little too eighties cozy. So I was not expecting the fall-to-winter landscapes Elaine Ford so brilliantly captures. The cover must represent that impossible thing we all strive to obtain, which wends its way through Monkey Bay like a venomous snake.

Montana Diary, by Whit Taylor (graphic memoir)
In simple yet multilayered renderings, the author explores what it means to be a person of color while exploring big sky country. We learn about York, a slave who traveled with Lewis and Clark, and about the Native Americans who still live on the land of their ancestors. Subtle and at times breathtaking.

The Office of Historical Corrections, by Danielle Evans (short stories)
Resplendent writing, every story a diamond. The author acknowledges the zeitgeist by fictionalizing current events about race and self-determination and societal acceptance. I loved this and want to read more by her.

Packing My Library, by Alberto Manguel (essays)
Some short books are perfect, such as this one. The author had to pack up his library after collecting books for twenty years (a lifetime, really). He moves to NYC, then back to Argentina, where he becomes the head of the National Library. His personal accounts of growing up and his books and library are interspersed between philosophical digressions reacting to the personal counts. I felt a kinship. The last essay was magnificent, about what libraries are for and why we need them on a national and universal level. Reading makes us more empathetic and less selfish.

Pastel & Pen: Travels in Europe, by Carol M. Cram, art by Gregg Simpson (essays and art)
Lovely juxtaposition of Carol’s writing and Gregg’s abstract art. Many of the essays share negative stories, but they add to the fun. One of them, about Carol’s great-grandfather, made me cry. Some made my laugh out loud. I envy their gumption to live abroad for weeks and months to pursue their arts.

Pencil Revolution, by Johnny Gamber (zines)
A monthly zine from the man who first started a pencil blog of the same name. Who knew that pencils were an inexhaustible topic? I’ve always loved pencils and have over a thousand in my and Steve’s collection. Johnny juxtaposes seriousness and his wry sense of humor to make a point (pun intended).

Persepolis and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, by Marjane Satrapi (graphic memoirs)
This graphic memoir is excellent: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. A girl grows up in war-torn Iran before and during the Shah’s reign in the 70s. At times it’s harrowing, but what makes it truly special is the wry humor that I welcomed with open arms. Can’t wait to read the sequel. ¶ Sometimes the sequel is better than the first iteration. Don’t get me wrong: I adored Persepolis, but Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return is richer and digs deeper; our heroine grows up before our eyes and is exposed to more cruelties in our ugly world.

Paul at Home, by Michel Rabagliati (graphic novel)
This graphic novel about a fiftysomething Montrealer really spoke to me. Paul is not having a good time as his world around him and his body seem to fall apart. I cringed at times, but I also was deeply moved by not only the words but the images and metaphors. A slap in the face, but funny. I want to read the earlier works in this series.

Pittsburgh and Pompeii, by Frank Santoro (graphic memoir and graphic novel)
From the first image I was in awe of this memoir about growing up in Pittsburgh with parents who divorced once the grandparents moved to Las Vegas. The narrator/artist tries to figure out what happened and why, tracing everything back to his grandparents and how they handled the rift between the families. The art is simple and colorful but with intense perspective. I tried to figure out what kind of paper he used for the main panels and think it is a velum or tracing paper, as it appears the images come through in a faded quality on the other side. Brilliant! ¶ I love Frank Santoro’s work because you see the process along with the storytelling. In one shade, ash-brown red, he captures the feeling of people living their lives when disaster strikes. Very moving and loving portrayal of an artist’s apprentice and his lady embracing as the ash descends. I think Santoro based these on actual lovers found, who turned out to be two men!

The Queen of Tuesday, by Darin Strauss (novel)
The author’s hybrid novel/memoir sparkles and pops with scintillating language and characters in search of more than life is throwing them. Bebop tempi reverberate throughout the pages. We are privy to so much inner life that Lucille Ball became a real person for me. I love his writing.

Shakespeare Our Contemporary, by Jan Kott (theatre essays)
A deep dive into the plays of Shakespeare, Kott posits that we need to look at modern life in order to understand the Elizabethan world and stage of Shakespeare if we want to get it right. I loved his observations and innately have felt many of them, especially in my handling of the endings of Romeo and Juliet and What You Will, or Twelfth Night. I like how he explains how the post-Elizabethan theatre and how directors now fall into traps, rendering the plays something other than what Shakespeare had intended.

Summer, by Ali Smith (novel)
How I adored this novel and the series it is a part of. This edition unites many of the characters in the prior books and captures the zeitgeist to a tee. I love the author's writing and what makes her juices flow. I will have to read more of her work.

Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski (novel)
A slim and compelling novel about ultimately standing up for what you believe in in order to maintain your sanity and identity. A young gay man falls in love in 1980 pre–martial law Poland only to come to terms with hypocrisy and the lack of self-determination. Written in a formal manner, in the second person (to his ex lover), and that seemed the right tone. I think this would make a riveting miniseries. I love how he describes the songs that are playing without having to rely on the lyrics and the reader’s knowing them. I always try to convey this to writers whose work I am editing. Looking forward to more by him.

This Is Paradise, by Kristiana Kahakauwila (short stories)
One of the best short story collections I have ever read. There is so much heart and humanity among these six longish stories. Each one moved me in its own way. The last story, “The Old Paniolo Way,” is masterful in its depiction of Big Island life and accretion of isolation and longing for acceptance with the main gay character. I will never forget this one.

The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard (novel)
I wept at the end when I figured out what happened based on earlier narration. What an original story about love, but mainly about self-determination (sovereign power). The last forty pages I read through apace because everything that had been set up was finally being revealed. Many times as I read this, I thought, How can Hazzard get away with writing like this? But she did, and it was a beautiful, emotional ride.

The Unreality of Memory, by Elisa Gabbert (essays)
Brilliant, powerful essays about how we react to and deal with disasters and other life-changing events. Gabbert's erudition and turns of phrase are commanding, and quite frankly a joy to read. This book is all about paradoxes. I dug it!

Whatsa Paintoonist?, by Jerry Moriarty (graphic memoir)
The layers upon layers of narrative beautifully show how artists create and why they make choices they do. I loved how Moriarty includes ink sketches for his main narrative, and watercolor sketches for his layout, and then his final paintings for each section of the book. I must learn more about this artist I have a deep fondness for.

Year of the Rabbit, by Tian Veasna (graphic memoir)
I was so moved by the images in this harrowing and hectic graphic memoir about the author’s family’s experiences living through the Khmer Rouge. A difficult read but filled with love and hope. Very timely.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Favorite Books of 2020

These books stood out for me in 2020. Here are the notes I wrote after finishing each one. (It was difficult to start reading fiction again after lockdown, but after reading some memoirs and nonfiction, I was able to get back to reading novels and short stories. Whew!)

The Art of Noticing, by Rob Walker (personal growth)
Lots of inspired and inspiring ideas here to jump-start your creativity, many of which I have been employing over the years. A balm during difficult times.

Blind Spot, by Teju Cole (essays and photographs)
This collection is a beautiful meditation on how pictures and place trigger memories, sensations, and connections with other places, ideas, and forms. I felt I was in the hands of a caring and loving world guide. It is brilliant. A must-read.

Cleanness, by Garth Greenwell (short stories)
The last story, “An Evening Out,” ends perfectly, with a gesture that sums up this golden book. I felt like the dog Mama, in the narrator’s arms, feeling treated to something so pure and loving. First-person narration doesn’t get any better.

Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky (poetry)
Wow. I was blown away by the first poem in this book: it distilled America down to its current essence, and it’s grim, because we are satisfied consumers. What follows is a parable about State oppression and protest—a rally cry for the fuckedupedness that’s happening right now as the GOP continues to impose its menace. Do read this! Find the beauty.

Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith (poetry)
A deep and upsetting and elegiac collection of poems by the brilliant poet. Should be required reading, especially the opening poem, “summer, somewhere.”

Fiskadoro, by Denis Johnson (novel)
I love Johnson’ writing: a tour de force of language and storytelling set in postapocalyptic Key West, where survivors and progeny of nuclear war try to create meaning in their new world. The beauty in his sentences slowed down my reading and made me sigh and mark passages.

500 Handmade Books Volume 2, curated by Julie Chen (art)
What a source of inspiration! So many ideas now bouncing around in my head for book-making ideas. I have been wanting to make a book for over thirty years. It’s time.

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson (novel)
I love this book. I saw the movie Housekeeping over thirty years ago, but nothing prepared me for the beauty and poetry of this word conjurer’s novel. One of the best novels I’ve read. Is it too soon to reread it? (All hashtags are rendered useless and reductive.)

In Awe, by Scott Heim (novel)
I was blown away by the poetry in the writing in this deep, deep character study. Everyday objects and nature are personified, as if each thing has a spirit and will. The last fifty pages set my heart apace: so much beauty in agony. Macabre, but truly about how one survives abuse and creates a sense of family and love where none exist.

Inside/Out, by Joseph Osmundson (memoir)
It took a lot of courage to write this brief but powerful memoir about his psychologically abusive relationship. Many of us have been through what he experienced; it’s hard to break free but so liberating and empowering once the strings are cut.

Just Kids: Illustrated Edition, by Patti Smith (memoir)
I read this nine years ago and loved it deeply. I remember her emerging in the ’70s and was captivated by her androgyny and voice. I would stare at her photos at the record store. In the ’80s I became enraptured by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs.

Later, by Paul Lisicky (memoir)
This is a memoir of place and contagion, a deep study of the self, as a gay man navigates life, love, and AIDS in Provincetown (a main character) during the early ’90s. I love Lisicky’s writing, his ability to keenly analyze every breath, every glance. This man is not afraid to hold a mirror up to himself. He navigates his own queerness through a lens of disease and self-worth. The writing is brilliant at times, probing the microaggressions that others impose on us and we impose on ourselves. Communication is never easy. For older queers, it is a long journey to know/love thyself.

My Struggle: Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgaard (fiction/memoir)
I brought this longest and final My Struggle with me to Hawaii. Read the last words upon touchdown in NYC. This memoir/novel of ideas and searching for authenticity moved me on so many levels. The Hitler section is riveting. Knausgaard integrates his own life and past with Hitler’s life story. He deals with his wife’s mania and learns to find love. I was fascinated the whole time. Moving. A man grows up. Grateful to have read all six books. Defies genre.

On Writing: Tenth Anniversary Edition, by Stephen King (craft of writing)
I liked this so much. Very practical. He is definitely not boring. He is a writer for the people, but he does not abase himself. He also is not trying to be a writer he is not. I like his turns of phrase and his potty mouth at times. His advice is practical and he tells is like it is: not everyone can be a great—or even good—writer. The memoir portions interspersed were terrific! Time to read another of his novels. Perhaps Christine, but Misery keeps calling.

Runaway, by Alice Munro (short stories)
I identified with so many of the main characters in this collection of longish short stories of people dissatisfied with the status quo and what is expected of them. Each story a lifetime of searching for something “other,” “better,” “truthful,” “fulfilling.” Deep. What a probing and gifted writer.

Spring, by Ali Smith (novel)
Ah, spring. In which a girl tries to aid detainees interred in horrible conditions in the UK while the world stands around watching. Another brilliant novel from Ali Smith. This one will get your dander up. I love Smith’s style. It’s all her own and bloody readably good. And the novel is told out of time, which is wonderfully jarring at times.

Telling Stories, by Lee Martin (craft of writing)
Attention fiction writers and memoirists. Have you read this remarkable book? Martin’s insight into writing has inspired me to start short story writing again. The exercises—to energize your writing and get you back on track while providing examples for literature and his own writing—work wonders if you are stuck. Time to lift myself out of the muck and into the light.

The Urban Sketching Handbook: Understanding Perspective, by Stephanie Bower (art technique)
Helpful for the newbie, a refresher for the skilled. I tried a perspective drawing using this book; it helped. I was actually gobsmacked by how much it helped!

The Written Word, by Martin Puchner (nonfiction)
What a delightful journey through the history of foundational texts, such as The Iliad, The Epic of Gilgamesh, holy scriptures, The Tale of Genji, One Thousand and One Nights, Popol Vuh, The Communist Manifesto, The Epic of Sunjata, and Omeros. Fun and scholarly. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Favorite Books of 2019

These books stood out for me in 2019. Here are the notes I wrote after finishing each one.

After the Blue Hour, by John Rechy (novel)
This is a thrilling, paranoic, meta 200-page slow burn that I could not put down. I dig his style.

All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva (short stories)
Characters on seemingly impossible journeys, some magically realistic, and at times frightening. The writing is straightforward in the way a fable is, both in words and how the story unfolds. Reminds me of Carmen Maria Machado, but politer. I am drawn to these.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones (novel)
Shades of gray abound in this tale of young marriage and wrongful incarceration. Emotional complexity is an understatement. No easy answers. Stunning.

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, by Charles Baxter (craft of writing)
So well written. He is a master of providing cogent examples of his theses and statements. I learned a ton and hope to apply some concepts to my own writing. I also want to read many of the books he uses for examples.

Bed-Stuy Is Burning, by Brian Platzer (novel)
A page-turner that makes you think it will be about the injustice of gentrification, told as a cautionary tale, but it turns out that the leads are like the Macbeths. Almost like a satire. Fascinating cultural dissection.

Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, by Venita Blackburn (short stories)
A mixture of very short and long stories, but those that are longer and have a more straightforward narrative are quite magical. Characters having to make the better of bad decisions. Most of the characters are black, living in Arizona. From different walks of life. Thwarts expectations.

Block Print Magic, by Emily Louise Howard (art technique)
Much inspiration found in this book, especially technique: multifold booklets, multiple colors.

The Book, by Keith Houston (nonfiction)
Well researched, excellent scholarship. The book in all its forms, from papyrus to parchment to paper (and pixels). It inspires me to make my own book.

The Book of Men, by Dorianne Laux (poetry)
These relatable poems made me pause and contemplate each. Existential but not metaphorical. The poet is pretty direct. The narrator/voice looks back to a working-class past. I look forward to reading these poems again. Provocative cover!

Close to the Knives, by David Wojnarowicz (essays/memoir)
I am overcome by how much I identify with the author’s words. This book has left me shook but oh so woke. How little has changed in the twenty-eight years since its publication. O Saint David, the sage, the warrior, the martyr for us all.

Courting Mr. Lincoln, by Louis Bayard (historical fiction)
Quiet story of unspoken desire between Abraham Lincoln and his bedmate, Joshua Speed. Then there’s Mary Todd, who tries to understand Lincoln as others help her to woo him. No sex occurs in the tale, just frustrated desire. The author paints lots of period details, which enhances the characters’ situations. The wit these people toss about is infectious.

Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer (grammar)
Who knew grammar could be hilarious? Well, I did. I felt a kinship with him. I only disagreed with him twice: for example, he allows colons to be dropped in the middle of a sentence. But to each their own. Highly recommended, especially for those in the know.

Fashion Climbing, by Bill Cunningham (memoir)
Charming memoir by the fashion writer and milliner. I love it when he grandstands. He is Mr. Joie de Vivre, always looking on the bright side! 

Furious Hours, by Casey Cep (nonfiction/true crime)
A biography of three people: murderer, lawyer, writer. Harper Lee is the focus of the second half. Penetrating writing. Thrilling nonfiction. The author explores her subjects microscopically and with verve. Capote seems to be a strong influence, hence Lee.

Girl in a Band, by Kim Gordon (memoir)
Fun read. She is fair regarding her breakup. I felt a certain connection with her and her views about art, and her sensitivity.

Greek to Me, by Mary Norris (memoir/grammar)
Delightful memoir about the author’s fascination with Greece, its language and alphabet, and the origin of words. Funny too. I love her easy, breezy style.

Hungry, by Jeff Gordinier (nonfiction)
I have admired Jeff’s writing for over thirty years. It’s like butter in all its forms: sometimes clarified, sometimes compound, always delicious. His chronicle of an obsessed chef and how Redzepi’s restlessness and search for new flavors saved him from his middle age is a page-turner. His metaphors, similes, and word combos—plus references to music—make me smile a lot while I read. My face hurts.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote (nonfiction novel)
One of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Capote’s language is thoroughly evocative: images, some gruesome, danced around in my mind every minute I was reading it. A truly American tragedy made famous by one of the best American writers.

In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado (memoir)
This memoir is written in a new form, almost like lit crit with short chapters marked by telling titles. The author dissects the story of her domestic emotional and psychological abuse by her lover, clearly a fucked-up monster. Like a horror story, it unfolded with anticipatory dread. Brilliant!

I Remember, by Joe Brainard (memoir)
The list of remembered seeming banalities becomes a litany of a young gay man’s life. Remarkable stream-of-consciousness quality.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell (history)
A fun, sometimes witty presentation of the young Frenchman who enchanted Washington. As a result, I learned more about the Revolutionary War. She brings in comparisons to today’s events, which helps put things in perspective.

Last Night in Nuuk, by Niviaq Korneliussen (novel)
A novel about coming out from a queer writer from Greenland. It’s powerful reading, about five characters negotiating love and loneliness. It reminded me of being closeted and yearning for touch.

Linocut for Artists & Designers, by Nick Morley (art technique)
Comprehensive. Inspires me mucho. This is the book that made me believe in myself as a printmaker.

Love Stories, by Jonathan Ned Katz (history)
Erudition is top-notch. Exceptional scholarship. Readable and relatable. The author focuses on the words men-loving men used to describe themselves and their feelings. Whitman and Symonds are the focus. I learned so much!

Mastering Colored Pencil, by Lisa Dinhofer (art technique)
Indispensable. All your questions are answered, as well as those you didn’t know you had.

Mountain Language, by Harold Pinter (play)
Reread on 12/20/19. Still chilling and very upsetting. Fuck totalitarian bullshit. Resist.

My Private Property, by Mary Ruefle (essays)
I connected with these (she is in her fifties) and she writes about whatever is on her mind. The title essay about shrunken heads is perfect. I wish the collection were a little longer. 

Nanopedia, by Charles Jensen (poetry)
These prose poems capture the zeitgeist to a tee. A nanopedia is a reference book with tiny entries. “Identity Theft” hit me in the gut. I love all the titles, as they relate to current topics and coinages.

No Straight Lines, edited by Justin Hall (comics)
Comprehensive, funny, serious, diverse. I got a lot of great ideas from this collection of queer cartoons.

Notes from the Larder, by Nigel Slater (cookbook)
A joyous celebration of ingredients throughout the year. This cookbook memoir instills in you the power to create something delicious from whatever is in the larder.

Nothing to Declare, by Mary Morris (travel memoir)
A woman travels alone in early-eighties Mexico and Central America and records her observations and encounters. At times moving, the descriptions invoke all the senses vividly. (The smells made gag a little.) She is not sentimental, which I appreciated greatly. There’s a streak of magical realism that runs through it. I cried at the end.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong (novel)
Some beautiful poetry among the prose making metaphorical connections. This sad tale of Vietnamese immigrants in Hartford and first love butting up against notions of masculinity is quite painful. I would like to read his book of poetry.

On the Move, by Oliver Sacks (memoir)
A memoir about the late doctor’s books and peripatetic life. This is a perfect place to start for those who heave never read Sacks. He seemed to be a charming man. I now want to read all his other books.

The Optimistic Decade, by Heather Abel (novel)
One of the best opening paragraphs ever, pitting idealism against the fucked-up world of capitalism in the eighties. The main characters are indelibly rendered—all flawed, all seeking something beyond their grasp. Looking forward to more by the author.

The People We Hate at the Wedding, by Grant Ginder (novel)
This book took me by surprise: yes, funny and bitchy at times, but it was very serious. The characters are all caught in secrets and misunderstandings. Even though they appear as unlikable, they crave connection deep down. Even the minor characters were three dimensional.

A Recent Martyr, by Valerie Martin (novel)
The plane landed, and I burst into tears as I read one of the final chapters. The plague is rampant as a trio of people encounter one another. Eros and Thanatos dance a slow pas de deux in this character-driven novel set in New Orleans where devotion and sex bleed into one. Brilliant. Moving.

Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso (graphic novel)
This book homes in on the zeitgeist: crazy motherfuckers who cling to conspiracy theories who eventually kill. This is the creepiest book I’ve ever read; the banality of the dialogue among the blandly drawn, greige-tone characters add to the overall chill. Also reminded me of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Second Empire, by Richie Hofmann (poetry)
Utterly relatable. Seemingly everyday events and vistas are seen through the lens of time, uniting other ages with our own. Beautiful language. I could envision every word as each poem unfolded.

The Secret Lives of Color, by Kassia St. Clair (nonfiction)
The author explores historical colors with stories about their provenance. Delightful. Her style is breezy yet erudite, with a splash of cheek.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward (novel)
A novel set in bayou Mississippi about ghosts, addiction, death, and sixth sense, with a road trip and images of brutal murders and abuse. It’s a lot to take, but the author works magic with her language and storytelling. Essentially a mother-and-son story, told from both points of view, plus a ghost’s. The claustrophobia and nausea I felt during the road-trip section made me realize how great this book is.

The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick (craft of writing)
Insightful, helpful, and direct, this book shows by example how you can be a better memoirist. Know who you are in the context of what you’re writing.

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller (novel)
Propulsive storytelling that humanizes the tale of Achilles and his companion Patroclus. Their love is unbreakable. Miller writes ostensibly about the nature of love and the things we do for it, unless honor and revenge get in the way.

Sour Heart, by Jenny Zhang (short stories)
I loved this collection of seven long stories about the relationships between daughters and immigrant mothers from China, living in Queens. Funny, brutal, tender—all in the lightly interconnected tales of self-discovery and surviving through hardship. Remarkable voice and vision.

Splendiferous Speech, by Rosemarie Ostler (grammar and history)
What a fun book. Americanisms began with the introduction of Algonquian words (my favorite). I enjoy the author’s easy way with a turn of phrase. For the word nerd in all of us.

Stephen Florida, by Gabe Habash (novel)
Reality and possible psychosis are sometimes indistinguishable in this tale about a collegiate wrestler obsessed with winning. I shook reading some of the wrestling passages because I was so in his mind. Excellent debut. Good scary!

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr (biography)
Six hundred pages pages of in-depth analysis of Williams’s plays and his relationships with others and himself. Seconal and alcohol combined creates paranoid delusions, which Williams was no stranger to (Bob Fosse, as well). This biography deals with the good and the bad and the ugly equally. It has inspired me to read as many Williams plays as I can.

Too Much Is Not Enough, by Andrew Rannells (memoir)
This was a fun read. The voice in the book is the same as the voice in real life. Go after your dreams, motherfuckers! 

Volcano, by Garrett Hongo (memoir)
This book moved me on many levels: remembering the Big Island—seeing it through the author’s eyes—was a trip. So poetic, so vivid. And his struggle with finding a sense of identity as he searches for the ghosts of his ancestors in Volcano. I now want to read his poetry.

When Brooklyn Was Queer, by Hugh Ryan (history)
Brilliant and thorough scholarship, my former office mate wrote a kickass history of queer Brooklyn. It gets better with each chapter. This book is sure to be cited in the future. He uses the word fuck once, and brilliantly.

White Dancing Elephants, by Chaya Bhuvaneswar (short stories)
Excellent, probing short stories that do not pull punches. “Orange Popsicles” and “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” left me shaking. The stories expose scars and battle wounds we normally wish were hidden by bandages. Beautiful, painful truths.

Winter, by Ali Smith (novel)
Puns and politics abound in this post-Brexit novel about a British family quite estranged, and strange. I loved it. And the author’s style.

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston (memoir)
I read part of this in college for a women’s studies class and then bought the whole book. I read it only recently and have never read anything like it. Speechless. Breathtakingly painful and beautiful. The criticism of it is fascinating and telling.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Favorite Books of 2018

These books stood out for me in 2018. Here are the notes I wrote after finishing each one.

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos (memoir)
Haunting in a deep and loving way. The author reveals things about herself that are hidden in us all. What a generous book, written from the heart and mind. An original voice and great American book.

All in the Family by Courtney LeBlanc (poetry)
The metaphors of family bonds and family strife are heartfelt and utterly relatable.

All Strangers Are Kin by Zora O’Neill (travel memoir and language)
What a treat. As the author travels through disparate Arabic, Muslim countries to learn the various dialects and connect with the real people, she discovers how universal humanity is, despite our differences. I relished her love of Arabic and her constant battle between her Apollonian and Dionysian sides.

The Amoeba Game by Tara Skurtu (poetry)
I felt an immediate connection to these lovingly written poems about family, religion, and homeland. I look forward to more from this poet!

Autumn by Ali Smith (novel)
A quiet story of a twenty-year friendship between an elderly gay man and his young female neighbor, considered the first Brexit novel. Written in an idiosyncratic style that works magic. Inspired and touching.

Brass by Xenet Aliu (novel)
A mother-daughter novel written from both perspectives in two time periods. Loved the wry sarcasm and the women’s stubborn willfulness. The solo birthing scene made my heart race.

City of Night by John Rechy (novel)
Written in 1963, this novel broke ground in its frank depiction of hustlers and drag queens, and trans people across the country. Philosophical at times with sublime language. I adored every word, many of which are still slung by queers today.

Dirty Work by Larry Brown (novel)
Two men, disfigured in a VA hospital, share stories of their hard lives. Not all maudlin, though. Powerfully told through both their points of view, in dialect. The ending is hallucinatory and haunting.

The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis (novel)
A frank, short novel about a young gay man escaping his oppressive heteronormative life in Picardy, northern France. Stellar storytelling.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (novel)
Metafictional novel about the nature of friendship and suicide amid the writing milieu and a big dog. The author examines every aspect of her life, talking to her dead friend and the Great Dane he left to her. So satisfying.

Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast (memoir comic)
A love letter to NYC, the greatest city in the world. Wry, shrewd. I’ve always been a big fan of her work.

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara (novel)
A lovingly told tale of friendship and family among the denizens of the House of Xtravaganza. The characters are fully fleshed and you can’t help but feel for them at every moment. The injected Spanglish was perfect for authenticity.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (essays)
These essays force you to face your demons and kill the golem that has been keeping you from being the writer you were meant to be. Very inspiring.

IRL by Tommy Pico (poetry)
The poem straggles between the worlds of the poet’s ancestry/life on the res and as a gay man with an iPhone in NYC. It’s a beautiful struggle both linguistically and culturally.

Jelly Roll by Kevin Young (poetry)
Musical poems that truly sing: the musicality of the lines of love and loss had me making up tunes in my head. The short poems speak volumes; the longer ones, lifetimes.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (novel)
Beautiful, shrewd, and funny. A fifty-year-old gay novelist traverses the globe to avoid the wedding of his ex. Echoes of The Odyssey throughout. The final message: love.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (novel)
Everything about this novel—the exceptional storytelling of intertwined lives, the indelible prortraits of characters going through major internal changes, the expert plotting and backstories and future revelations—left me breathless.

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (short stories)
Every story vibrates with humanity; the author writes lifetimes in each tale, and the characters resonate beyond the stories. One of the best collections.

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson (novel)
What a trip! The slave trade is the background to this novel about an ex-slave unwittingly boarding an illegal slave trade ship in New Orleans. High-seas high jinks ensues. At times philosophical, other times revolting and metaphysical. This novel defies genre. Every page brims with the unexpected.

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin (short stories)
One of my favorite collections of all time. These are dark tales. The stories’ intimacies and characters’ inner lives made me gasp and sigh and smile and cry. It will haunt me (in a good way) forever.

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim (novel)
One of the best novels I’ve ever read. The author’s use of simile and metaphor is perfection, every word and image relating to the accretion of dread the story projects. No tears, no mea culpas. Refreshing in its frankness. A great American novel.

Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve by Ben Blatt (statistics)
A fun read. The author, through statistics, proves that -ly adverb use diminishes a novel on several levels.

Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution by Stephen S. Mills (poetry)
This book is in two parts, in two centuries, about two redheads: a devout eighteenth-century woman’s dalliance with suicide by proxy and a twentieth-century unabashedly sexual gay man’s brush with vandalism and the law. Powerful stuff about those who question societal norms.

Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen (poetry)
Upsetting. Pulls no punches, but not brutal. The poet deals with issues related to his mother, body size, creativity, and immigrants. Fascinating.

Now I Sit Me Down by Witold Rybczynski (history and design)
Reading this history of the chair and its designs throughout the ages has changed me forever. I will never look at or experience one so casually anymore. Love the author’s writing and erudition.

Orphic Paris by Henri Cole (memoir)
A loving paean to Paris, the city of poets, and beauty and flowers. A slim book overflowing with a master’s insight in to the tangible and he intangible, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, friendship and solitude. And, ultimately, love.

Paul by Howard Brenton (play)
The story of Saul’s conversion told as a spin-doctor tale. I couldn’t get enough of this. The playwright is a great writer. He knows how to write from both sides while still maintaining his liberal stance.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor (novel)
Paul can change himself into a woman in this Gen-X nineties picaresque bildungsroman. Wry, insightful—a fascinating distillation of gender and fucking. So relatable to queers of my generation.

The Pencil Perfect by Caroline Weaver (history)
The author organizes the book thoughtfully—by pencil brand/family history, then by a pencil’s aspects. A fun read. I learned so much! The illustrations by Oriana Fenwick are gorgeous—nonpareil.

The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco (memoir)
The poet laureate writes about his childhood and teen years in Miami. I felt a strong kinship: never feeling like you fit in because of the Closet. The last two pages made me weep.

Razzle Dazzle by Kevin Boyd Grubb (biography)
The life of Bob Fosse, with many words from his friends and colleagues. Reading it makes you want to watch all his movies and wish you had seen the stage work. I’ve always felt an affinity for his work, especially his choreography.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (novel)
A chilling tale that takes place in the near future of America, when women no longer have reproductive rights. The narratives of these indomitable women are a balm of hope during this fucked-up time.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (novel)
An unabashedly, unapologetically told coming-of-age romp. Loved it!

Severance by Ling Ma (novel)
This zombie apocalypse reads as a satire and indictment of American consumerism and capitalism (the death of NYC) and how everything is tainted to the point of lifeless monotony. Scary and funny, sharp and unsettling. Wry. A page-turner.

Shady Characters by Keith Houston (nonfiction)
The grammar geek in me loved this thoroughly researched and fun, well-written guide to the history of obscure or strange punctuation, like the pilcrow and interrobang.

Some Hell by Patrick Nathan (novel)
Redoubtable and stunning debut novel of a teenage boy coming to grips (or not) with his dad’s suicide. A harrowing tale of Eros and Thanatos dancing a dangerous and breathtaking pas de deux. I did not foresee that ending! I will never forget this book.

The Songs of Trees by David George Haskell (nature and science)
The author is a poet and scientist, a lover of trees. The central thesis revolves around the connectivity of all organisms. Profound, liberal, moving. I’ve always adored trees. Now I understand more of my own connection to all living things.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (novel)
A modern tragedy, and what an indictment of our times. Slim yet packs powerful punches. Beckettian in that we must go on, even after we are ravaged by the horrors of injustice and heartbreak. The deliberate bad punctuation drove me a little batty. But, then again, reading Pride and Prejudice did the same.

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard (essays)
The author grew up an only child with parents who always seemed to be searching for something, resulting in Christian Science faith and Amway. Very personal and well researched. Excellent long essays that read quickly.

Sweet and Low by Nick White (short stories)
Provocative characters fill these Mississippi tales with unexpected outcomes. The gay characters woven into them fit perfectly among its denizens: Queers act funny and are a part of the social fabric. Just don’t talk directly about them. I can’t wait to read more from this writer!

Tango by Justin Vivian Bond (memoir)
A short but honest memoir of the author’s childhood sex life, growing up closeted and confused, learning to hide and be hypervigilant. Slightly scattered, which mimic’s their ADD, but effective. I wish I were their friend growing up.

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins (essays)
The author is unabashedly frank but never vulgar or trendy. Here is an intellectual’s foray into the intersectionality of being black, a feminist, and female. Her letter to Michelle Obama is golden. I have been taught and learned so much.

Twentieth-Century Boy by Duncan Hannah (memoir)
A wild and name-dropping ride through the seventies and early-eighties New York art, music, and literary scenes. The author is very literate and engaging. I read this so quickly, devouring his language. I like his figurative art too.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (essays)
The author is a true curmudgeon, and I laughed my ass off while reading it on the subway. I also felt for her, as she comes from quite a broken family. One of those books that should be required reading. I also love her pet cat as an antagonistic character.

We’ve Already Gone This Far by Patrick Dacey (short stories)
Excellent collection that explores in thirteen interrelated stories vivid characters mired by their sad and sometimes humorous existential crises. The last story, ending the collection in full circle, gutted me.

World’s End by T. Coraghessan Boyle (novel)
A page-turner about the battle between generations of capitalists and patriots versus communists and the underdog laborer. No one wins. The perniciousness of patriotism is exposed. Timely.

You Must Remember This by Michael Bazzett (poetry)
Loved the wordplay! These poems take unexpected, slightly macabre turns and forced me to interact with them on not just an intellectual but a visceral level.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

I read a lot of books in 2017 (you can see the list in the right-hand column if you view in web version). I like to vary the genre, so I have developed a list and usually read books in the following order:

  • short stories
  • grammar/writing/books about books
  • novel
  • general nonfiction
  • play/theatre
  • classic (at least forty years old)
  • queer
  • literary magazine/journal
  • memoir
  • new release
  • poetry
  • random (I let the computer decide)

(Yes, I am a like that. It’s a constant battle between my Apollonian and Dionysian natures.)

The plays and the books of poetry usually take a day to read (for instance, poet Major Jackson’s excellent book Roll Deep), but there are some thick books which take a little longer, such as one of my favorite novels, Tim Murphy’s Christodora. I keep a record of every book I read, including the date on which I finish it and a few musings regarding my overall impressions. Here are ones that stood out for me over the year, in alphabetical order by title. (Note that not all of these books were published in 2017.)

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay (essays)
She tells it real. Trenchant. Better to be a “bad” feminist, says she, than no feminist at all. Recommended reading for everyone.

Bluets, by Maggie Nelson (essays)
Musings that are abstract and philosophical, honest and personal, and corporeal and spiritual about the color blue. Each paragraph is numbered and, even if it’s one sentence, states its case. Lots of through lines held together deftly, as characters appear and reappear, challenging her, loving her, and bringing her closer to her understanding blue.

Boy Erased, by Garrard Conley (memoir)
A young evangelical man grapples with his homosexuality, family, and the ex-gay movement insanity. Sensual writing. A loving memoir about self-loathing. Conley does not play the blame game; he made the decision to go into therapy and the decision to leave.

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen W. Hawking (science)
I understood about 70 percent; a few equations, which he eschewed, could have helped. Nevertheless, it blew my mind. I finally understand time as a fourth dimension. The book is twenty-nine years old, so a lot has changed. I’ll have to do some research.

The Business of Fancydancing, by Sherman Alexie (poetry and stories)
Alexie’s poetry is relatable, funny, and magical. He feels that the reservation is no longer his home, but he always returns. Lots of seeds planted here that sprout in his later work.

Christodora, by Tim Murphy (novel)
Indelible characters, multigenerational and multi-socioeconomic, spanning thirty years in this story of New Yorkers. Drugs of all kinds and activism, both political and personal, tie all the story lines together. A page-turner.

Dubliners, by James Joyce (short stories)
Mostly sad slices of life about people who feel trapped. Written over a hundred years ago, but feels very modern. I liked it much more than I thought: I remember having read some of them when I was much younger, but they did not affect me as much then. Joyce wrote this before writing his stream-of-consciousness fiction.

The Earth Avails, by Mark Wunderlich (poetry)
The land, the heavens, the animals—all interwoven in gorgeous litanies.

Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick (memoir)
One of the best memoirs I have read. A mother’s ruinous notion of romantic love versus her daughter’s struggle not to turn into her mother. Poetic but precise, loving and scolding, it is what it is (said with a Yiddish accent).

Fitting Ends and Other Stories, by Dan Chaon (short stories)
Pre-Internet stories about young men who are lost in the world. I felt a certain kinship with many of them.

The Forest Unseen, by David George Haskell (nature and science)
Learned so much about forest ecology and human beings’ relationship to nature. Thoughtful and insightful. A model book. Loved it all.

Founding Grammars, by Rosemarie Ostler (history)
An in-depth look at the history of grammar books in America. Intriguing because their writers were often so bitchy to one another. Ostler’s research is impeccable and easy to follow.

God in Pink, by Hasan Namir
The Islam-gay struggle is explored. This at times brutal short novel reads a little like a screenplay. But the story, characters, and otherworldliness elevate it. The reversal is done really well.

Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado (short stories)
Masterful, sensual, haunting stories, with dollops of magical realism. Frightening, at times. “The Husband Stitch” ends with one of the saddest sentences I’ve ever read. A punch to the gut.

How They Were Found, by Matt Bell (short stories)
These are disturbing tales—retellings of fables with otherworldly modern-day twists. Haunting.

The Jazz Palace, by Mary Morris (novel)
Truly memorable characters help shape this story of musicians and club owners in Jazz Age Chicago. Sad lives of Jewish and Black habitués that find redemption in the end. The five senses get fully rolled out, which made me feel as if I were part of its fabric. The first and last paragraphs should be taught in writing class. The first ten pages are unforgettable, showing how peace can turn to tragedy in a heartbeat.

Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson (short stories)
Johnson blends reality and drug reality seamlessly—a master of this. Redemption is hinted at, in the last story. I really like his style.

Kid Champion, by Thomas Babe (play)
The fleeting fuckedupedness of fame. Babe was a great playwright. Meaty roles. An American tragedy.

Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith (poetry)
Relatable and topical: Bowie, father's death (he worked on Hubble), space, God, the future planet. All interwoven. I will return to some of these again.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (novel)
A truly original novel. Existential, touching, funny, heartbreaking.

Miss Lonleyhearts & The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West
The character descriptions are beyond vivid. Actions are a little mysterious at times, but ultimately I was okay with that because West is capturing the human condition in all of its mercurial emotional zigs and zags. Extremely frank for its time (1930s).

No One Can Pronounce My Name, by Rakesh Satyal (novel)
I fell in love with all the characters. Great novel, mixing humor with pathos. I love how all the disparate stories come together—and (spoiler alert) the happy ending.

The One You Get, by Jason Tougaw (memoir)
Lovingly written memoir interweaving a frank coming-of-age story amid hippie dysfunction, with neuroscience mixed in (for the layperson). I felt a rush and blush of so much recognition.

Party of One, by Dave Holmes (memoir)
An extremely funny (wry), honest, and at times touching, sad-sack memoir by the gay Gen Xer MTV VJ. He slept through most of 9/11 (as I had done) and doesn’t suffer fools. The title did not become completely apparent until the very end after he realizes he only has to be himself and not feel like he needs to belong to a group that in all honesty doesn’t deserve him as a member.

The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee (novel)
The sheer breadth of the tale telling is a marvel. The plotting was operatic as were the characters. Rich in period details. The lack of emotion evinced by the main character is intentional: she has no real speaking voice for she is a woman trapped in a man’s society. She does not want to be defined that way. She is no crybaby.

Roll Deep, by Major Jackson (poetry)
I was overwhelmed by the beauty and scope of the language. So many riches, like “Aubade,” a poem of love and companionship. “Reverse Voyage”—Wow.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (novel)
The plot is told out of time from multiple third-person points of view, spanning decades. A pandemic wipes out most of humanity. Probing questions about life and death, our responsibilities as human beings, how art can transform us. The first few chapters are thrilling.

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante (novel)
I read this in six days, which truly is a record. Such a page-turner!

Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl (memoir)
She has always been a great writer, and her memoir of her early years proves delectable. With recipes!

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (novel)
A short novel l that ends with a visceral punch. Achebe shows how a native man's life can be reduced to a mere paragraph in the mind of a colonialist. Powerful.

Transitory, by Tobias Carroll (short stories)
The Shadows of ghosts darken these characters’ lives as they ruminate their places in the world: I’m a middle-aged misfit; how do I fit in, or does it really matter? Existential, musings, alcoholism.

The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey (novel)
Three astronauts prepare for a journey to Mars by taking part in a long, long simulation. Very deep. Explores the relationship between the self and the perception of the self; human v. simulation; what is real? I learned so much about myself (and about the science of space, too).

What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell (novel)
The world-weary landscape of Bulgaria is seen through the eyes of an American teacher. I learned how to write a novel by reading this and did not realize that till I was finished. It broke my heart and should be required reading.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah (short stories)
These stories blew me away. Fierce young women, mostly at sea, trying to find their identities in a patriarchal world. Magical, original, and, most important, entertaining.

Word by Word, by Kory Stamper (nonfiction and grammar)
Stamper comes across as erudite, wry, obdurate, yet always fair and in a way moral. I would love to be in her shoes, at her job with Merriam-Webster.