I like narratives that break rules: narratives that blur genre classifications, subvert traditional tropes, and/or use language in new and surprising ways. While I am first and foremost a prose reader—I tend to gravitate towards contemporary literary fiction and creative nonfiction, especially— I am also increasingly interested in poetry and have a particular soft spot for lyrical prose.
There are books that attempt to dress up the world's ugliness, and then there are books like Luster that stare straight into this ugliness and distill it to its white-hot crystallized core. Luster did not comfort me so much as stun me, each sentence a vibrant palette whose colors bled into my hands and will leave behind a long-lasting stain.
This book should be required reading for anyone interested in creative nonfiction, the essay form, or language's ability to unmoor and delight (in other words: you, if you're reading this staff pick). Editors Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton use the image of a woven basket to guide the shape of this collection of contemporary Native voices—voices that have been historically and systematically left out of the creative nonfiction canon and its associated celebration of form. The result is an incandescent testament to the essay as "exquisite vessel": one that, as Washuta and Warburton write in the Introduction, "evidences the delicate balance of beauty and pain."
Jordan Kisner writes of the Celtic concept of "thin places" in this collection's titular essay. In these spaces, she notes, boundaries "between you and not-you, real and unreal, worldly and otherworldly, fall away." While the subjects of this essay vary widely in focus and scope—she writes of a nascent experimental surgical treatment for mental illness; of the work of medical examiners and what this reveals about our "cultural aversion" to death; of the "opulent" and deeply fraught Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball in Laredo, Texas—each is propelled by Kisner's grasping for the liminal. It is as if, in each essay, Kisner is turning a piece of worn clothing inside-out, pulling on its seams until they split open, revealing, in the process, the tenuousness of the boundaries around which we construct our lives, our relationships, our selves.
In his book of poetry The Year of Blue Water, Yanyi writes, "It comforts me to write letters: they remind me that there is someone listening on the other end." I think about this idea—writing as communion, writing as reaching, writing as listening—as I think, now, about E.J. Koh's arresting memoir, The Magical Language of Others. In part, the connection is obvious: Koh structures this book around several letters she received (and, later, translated from Korean into English) from her mother during a prolonged period of transatlantic separation. But in a larger and more urgent sense, this entire book can be read as Koh's reply: to her mother, to readers, to daughters, to mothers, to history itself. How do we reckon with a past we can never, as Koh admits, "claim to know" fully? How do we inhabit languages anyway? How do we acknowledge the limits of language—the ways in which it can both "open you...[and] allow you to close"—without diluting its singular ability to enable us to see, to love, to forgive? To let go?
In its depiction of a marriage in the process of falling apart, Fleishman is in Trouble masterfully emphasizes the ways in which marriage is akin to a fragile, insular ecosystem that, once broken apart, warps those involved so completely that even past-tense narrative dissolves ("Did she orchestrate the entire history of their lives just to get a divorce?" Toby Fleishman wonders. "Or wait. Unless. Unless unless unless unless unless unless unless.") Further, in her portrayal of this particular marriage, Brodesser-Akner unsettles broader social mores with a deftness and humor and humanness that makes this book very, very hard to put down. (If nothing else, read this book for its ending: I won't spoil anything, but I will say that it was maybe the most satisfying of any novel I've recently encountered.)
Garth Greenwell is often praised for his ability to write about the particularities of desire, of sex, of the ways we want and need. Probably you do not need me to tell you that all of this is true (read the blurbs). As I read Cleanness—his follow-up novel to the equally-arresting What Belongs to You—I was struck, too, by the thought that Greenwell's skill lies in his portrayal of the underpinnings of desire. The familiar cliché of lust-like-fire is applicable, here—but in Greenwell's hands, the flames lick clean, consume, reveal to us the architecture of ourselves and demand that we not look away.
If you've read Her Body and Other Parties, you're already aware of Carmen Maria Machado's particular ability to turn the familiar inside out. In the Dream House is no exception: it is at once a memoir, a portrayal of an abusive relationship, and a recalibration of a literary canon founded upon silence, upon marginalization of stories of queerness and queer domestic abuse. Through a series of linked fragments, Machado builds a foundation, here, for a new archive—and she does so in prose that is characteristically dazzling, sharp, haunting. As she writes in the Prologue: "I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound."
I do not know if it is possible to like Clarice Lispector, simply and without fear. But I do know that it is possible to read a single Lispector sentence and find yourself tangled up inside of it for what you know, immediately and inexplicably, will be the rest of your literate life. I could try to explain the way that Clarice reassembles familiar components of language to create something at once recognizable and arrestingly off-kilter, or the way that all of her characters seem poised on the precipice of becoming undone by the simple fact of their own existence, but I don't know that any of these descriptions come particularly close to capturing the way that it feels to read (and I could choose any sentence, here, any fragment my finger landed upon in these six-hundred-plus pages): "...And as if it were a butterfly, Ana caught the instant between her fingers before it was never hers again."
This collection of essays by New Yorker staff writer and cultural critic Jia Tolentino is, perhaps, one of the best contemporary essay collections I've ever read— and one I already feel sure I'll revisit continually. While these essays are wide-ranging in scope, each similarly seeks to examine the reverberations of modern-day life: the conveniences we rely upon, the technology we pour ourselves into, the cultural tropes we don like group-think masks. Reading this collection felt like watching Tolentino build a scaffolding for thoughts I didn't know I had, only to watch these same structures topple under the weight of her unflagging capacity for examining the boundaries of her own complicity. As Tolentino notes in the Introduction: "I wanted to see the way I would see in a mirror. It's possible I painted an elaborate mural instead."
Kathryn Scanlan composed Aug 9 — Fog from a diary she salvaged from an estate sale. A five-year diary, to be precise, kept by an eighty-six year old woman from Illinois. (Scanlan: "The diary has become something like kin— a relation who is also me, myself.") The fragments that make up this book— I hesitate to call them passages or even sentences— are, at once, banal and stunning, words arranged like slippery windows into a life we can only see in smudged silhouette. This book is a quiet and surprising testament to the power of the specific, of the tiny details that accumulate to form a life.
If I were to reduce this gorgeous memoir-in-pieces to a short synopsis, I'd start by saying that it is about mental illness—specifically, schizophrenia, a "shapeless thief" that shaped the lives of both Marin Sardy's mother and brother. But this is not a smoothed-over story of illness and recovery. Rather, Sardy actively eschews smoothness, choosing instead to reach into the past and hold each of its sharp fragments to the light. In the process, she raises myriad crucial questions: how do our social structures repeatedly fail those with mental illness? How do we talk about mental illness, how do we understand it? And in what ways does mental illness perhaps expose the very tenuousness of our perceptions of reality itself?
Admittedly, I was reluctant to succumb to the Sally Rooney hype. (Maybe I knew, all along, that if I did I'd tumble headfirst into a low-level Rooney obsession.) But then a copy of Normal People fell into my lap and I started reading and I
knew,after hours had passed and I couldn't put the book down and all I could think about when I finally did was how badly I wanted to be reading it again, that I was a goner. (I felt like a kid again, sneaking books into bed long after lights-out, except this time there was much more emotional turmoil involved.) Rooney writes characters—their quirks, their complicated and often-contradictory desires—better than nearly any other contemporary novelist I've encountered. And for thisI say: succumb to the hype.
Reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter for the first time felt something like standing underneath a hot summer sun for so long that everything else starts to fall away: your sense of time, self, connection to others. I guess what I mean by this is that this novel, which is set in a Depression-era Southern town where it always seems to be hot, even in the middle of the winter, struck me precisely because it feels at once eerily timely and wholly apart from time. And against this backdrop, Carson McCullers crafts characters who are shot through with a shared sort of restless searching that manages not to connect them but, instead, to drive them further apart. (Hilton Als: “Talking does not make a difference, McCullers seems to say in this book. We are all in our own cells, writing messages to the world which that world cannot read.”) This is not an uplifting novel. It is, however, a gorgeous one, an aching portrayal of the ways in which we fumble for connection even when we fail, press forward into the future even when the sun is so heavy against our eyes that we can no longer see.
I hesitate to say too much about this book. I worry that any attempt I make to describe its particular magic will only reduce it, flatten it, get it wrong. So I will say, instead, only this: poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, knocked the wind out of me with every page, and it is a strong contender for my favorite novel of the year thus far. Read it. Re-read it. Gift it to a friend and insist that they read it, too. (Why is it always the books that I love the most that I find the most impossible to describe?)
How to Do Nothing is a far cry from the concrete guide to self-actualization that its title may suggest. Rather, in this ambitiously interdisciplinary book— Odell weaves in references ranging from the literary to the philosophical to the scientific— Jenny Odell lays the foundation for a dismantling of the very systems of understanding that traditionally define the self within a hyper-capitalist society in which productivity reigns supreme. And Odell makes clear that the stakes for wresting our attention back transcend our individual well-being; that, rather, a recalibration of attention— a “refusal-in-place,” as she calls it— may be the most powerful tool we can access to reclaim our humanity and, crucially, our planet. This is not a perfect book— it is fundamentally messy, a sort of extended essay with brief, but necessary, I think, lapses into abstract idealism— but it nonetheless prompted me to re-evaluate the ways in which I interact with the world around me. And for that, I can't recommend it enough.
This is, maybe, my all-time favorite memoir. On a sentence level, Lockwood's prose, for lack of a better word, melts on the page (this is, after all, a poet's memoir). And on a story level, Priestdaddy offers a stunningly nuanced and compassionate portrait of the often-absurd web of relationships that constitute a family, and the indelible impressions these relationships leave on our identities. And in case all of this is not enough to convince you to read this book: Lockwood is really, really funny. (Follow her on Twitter if you don't believe me!)
Imagine a strip club modeled after a Möbius strip—a topological surface with only one side, only one edge—where you can commune with your dead over cocktails: this is the MSCOG, the central image that binds this electric, hilarious, and devastating poetry collection together. And pulsing underneath all of these poems is the insistent question: how does grief bind us together, even as it splits us apart? (And when, furthermore, must we let it go?)
These stories are dark, otherworldly, and brim with a sharp-edged sort of magic that is guaranteed to dislodge something in you. Machado is a brilliant writer, and these stories open up new windows into reality, new possibilities for the short story form.
I came to this collection by way of Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things. I knew nothing of Tranströmer’s role as one of the preeminent Swedish poets of the 20th century; nothing of the slow, careful way that his poems unfurl. But this collection—which was translated and includes a wonderful introduction by Robert Bly—has quickly become one of my most beloved poetry collections. For reading Tranströmer’s poetry feels like what I imagine (successful) meditation must feel like: a step outside of myself, a quiet immersion in a world so textured and delicate that I’m delivered, paradoxically, back to myself—whole, human, eyes open.
Nettel braids together two vastly disparate perspectives in this quiet and unassuming novel. Nettel’s matter-of-fact prose, translated from its original Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, belies the weight of each word. For the novel’s driving strength is, perhaps, its striking clarity, its precise and poignant depiction of the ways in which our lives intersect with others’—and, however briefly these intersections may endure, the indelible impressions they leave upon us.
“A word, placed on her tongue, became flesh. One night it was almost morning, I could almost see her, every sentence a necklace she was pulling out of her mouth, tangled in smoke.” These stories embed themselves in you like splinters of glass in your skin. May Lan Tan creates whole worlds in the span of a few pages: worlds that are, in turns, finely-wrought and funny and devastating in their specificity, their humanness, their honesty, their sparkling, smoky vividness. I want to live inside of these stories.