Everyone else is doing it!
As 2017 begins, I decided to look back at the books, movies, TV shows, and games I enjoyed in 2016 and share my favorites; it was a fun exercise thinking about all of these again, and also I figure people are always looking for recommendations, so it couldn’t hurt to put the word out once more for these particular titles that really moved me.
First post: books! Since poetry is my area of expertise, I wrote a bit more about each of those titles, and lumped every other genre into one category following.
[NB: Not all of these were released in 2016, but I read them this year. We all have to-read piles miles high, we’re all trying to catch up on books our friends have recommended, old classics, authors who we discovered in a journal—it would be limiting to keep this to just the books released in 2016.]
Admit One: An American Scrapbook, by Martha Collins
Essential reading in the political climate of today, Collins’ Admit One is unsettling but a necessary reminder that some of the worst traits of humanity, and of America in particular, are not far behind in our rear-view mirror, certainly not far enough that we can afford to take our eyes off of them now. Maybe it was just the way 2016 shaped out, or maybe it was because of this book, but the threads of the poisonous views on race and genetics that this book illuminates were clearer to see in the public in recent months; this book is a good reminder that we must be wary of such influences when they go unchecked in our society.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay
I just finished this one the other day, but I’m still reeling. This might be my go-to “give this book to people who say they don’t read poetry” from now on. It’s that stunning, that beautiful, that musical and infectious. Gay’s pure joy and keen senses and, well, endless gratitude makes for such an amazing read. I felt more alive reading this book, and certainly grateful that it exists.
Unpeopled Eden, by Rigoberto González
Devastating and beautiful. I believe this is the oldest book on the poetry side of this list (though it came out in late 2013, so not by much), but it is no less relevant for 2016, or the year we’re entering. González writes with such compassion and force, this book is a small dynamo of empathy and witness. “No papers necessary to cross / the cemetery.”
Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe
There was a ton of buzz around this book after it won multiple prizes (most notably the 2015 T.S. Eliot Prize), and reading it, it wasn’t hard to see why. Howe’s verse is syllable-perfect, carefully constructed and has diamond-sharp insight. It also achieves a balance of focus between inward and outward concerns that so few collections are able to attain.
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, by Kim Kyung Ju
I Am a Season is imbued with a surrealism that bleeds into the very sentences. Kim Kyung Ju’s collection is poetry that indulges is image, syntax, song, but is beholden to none of them. It flies; every time the reader tries to nail it down and get a good look, it struggles free and takes off again. Challenging in the best way.
I Don’t Know Do You, by Roberto Montes
My goodness—the amount of energy and intuitive power of this verse could power a mid-sized US state for the better part of a decade. Montes is a master of the carefully fluid thought–each moment bleeds into the next in ways that are unexpected and yet are grounded in our logic and our associative abilities as readers. Indeed, this collection reads like a love letter to the poetry reader. Pick it up.
Odes, by Sharon Olds
One of the first poets I fell in love with, this book is Olds at her best: playful, smart, life-affirming, and unwilling to look away from anything, good or bad. In the past her poems have sung in a way that was expertly crafted and restrained (as most poems must be), but here she really holds nothing back (perfect for the style of the ode). Side note: my aesthetic in 2017 is going to be “Sharon Olds making fart jokes,” like in “Wild Ode.”
Contradictions in the Design, by Matthew Olzmann
Few poets consistently create work that pulses with energy and passes that energy on to the reader; Olzmann is one of those poets, and I am reminded of why I love poetry every time I encounter his work. His latest collection is full of wonder and wit, tenderness and unexpected moments.
Look, by Solmaz Sharif
Crucial reading for everyone today; Solmaz Sharif’s Look is a much needed interrogation of euphemism and the violence it hides in today’s society. This is a book that disrupts, fervently and effectively. The poems within are allergic to complacency and linguistic hypnosis; they constantly reach, inquire, prod, and wonder—sometimes with force—and refuse to allow the reader to be lulled into the sense that everything is okay in the world. [I had many thoughts about this outstanding book; you can see my full review at The Rumpus here.]
The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, by Maggie Smith
Many have likely been introduced to Maggie via her poem-gone-viral, “Good Bones” (which I also call “2016 for the Optimist”), but Smith’s sense of building a collection is just as good as her sense for a single poem; The Well Speaks is haunting and beautiful. It feels old and new all at once.
Also terrific reads: A Sunny Place with Adequate Water by Mary Biddinger; The Trouble Ball by Martín Espada; Digest by Gregory Pardlo; Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo; In the Kettle, the Shriek by Hannah Stephenson; Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
Mostly Void, Partially Stars/The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe, by Joseph Fink/Jeffrey Cranor (Night Vale Episodes, volumes 1 & 2)
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (no, I really had never read this before)
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
What If?, by Randall Munroe
Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World, by Laurence Scott
Maus, by Art Spiegelman
Once I Was Cool, by Megan Stielstra
Also great: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline; The Ticking is the Bomb, by Nick Flynn; So Much for that Winter by Dorthe Nors; Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg