My Favorite Books of Poetry Read in 2017

I read more poetry in 2017 than probably any year prior—over 60 volumes—and it’s a good thing I did, because I could barely keep up with all the outstanding verse being published today (while simultaneously trying to catch up on some great collections I missed or that were before my time).

IMG_6971.JPGIt’s easy to say we’re living in a “golden age” of anything, and it’s almost become hackneyed at this point to do so. But it’s extremely hard to argue that we’re not living through something unbelievable in the world of poetry right now. Everywhere you look, from huge publishing houses to tiny indies that put out a couple of titles a year, there is a staggering amount of good poetry being written, full stop. And in a major way it’s young, diverse voices that are setting the bar so high. Nearly every contest announcement comes with celebrationfinally so-and-so poet has a collection coming out!because, frankly, the way poetry publishing works today seems to be unable to keep up with how many books are out there that deserve to be shown to the world in a big way. Just look at the finalist and semifinalist lists for any of those contests or open reading periods: there’s another half-dozen (at least) manuscripts and poets that are no doubt deserving of the prize as well, but only one can win (though maybe a couple of runners-up will also get published).

This is, of course, an amazingly good thing for the poetry world and all the parts of our culture that poetry touches. It does, however, make any “best of” or “favorites” lists seem incomplete at best, as for every book of poetry one reads there’s likely three or four more worthwhile also published that year that we’ll never get to. But, I’d like to put in a few words about the following 15, not because they are the best poetry published in the past year or so (only one of these books is more than a couple years old, but I read them all in 2017), because in no way can I claim to be able to make that judgment, but rather the collections that spoke to me most this year out of what I did read, and which I wholeheartedly recommend others to check out.

So it’s best to look at these books (and their accompanying mini-reviews) as, more than anything, recommendations from me to you. You have a bounty of great poetry to choose from for your next read, and I think you should consider one or more of these 15.

(And yes, 15, not the traditional ten. It was hard enough cutting it down that far, so allow me this small cheat!)

In alphabetical order by last name, my favorite poetry books that I read in 2017 are:

 

Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (Alice James Books)

akbar“I drank an entire language / and flung tar at whatever moved.” Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf is so rich that summing it up simply is beyond impossible, but this passage gets at something in the core of this remarkable collection: the insight of someone who is willing to freeze indulgence, lack, and longing in their tracks and give us time to examine them. Here is a body broken, reassembled, stress-tested, and placed under a thousand different lights. Here is the poet examining what it means to hunger, what it is to be full, and how our desires can inflict both on us simultaneously.

The poems in Akbar’s debut full-length collection sing with a music that loops, charges, stutters, and echoes; the poet is at home in various syntaxes and tones, but they all hearken back to an author listening to his body and bringing it to page with the tools a poet has. In this way, even in its original tongue, the book feels like a translation. Something describable and discernible by our senses, but coming from a place beyond language. Kaveh’s best gift (of which he has many) is the willingness to listen, and transcribe for us these desires and states of mind that are so fundamental to the human existence they feel like they are eternal, an ongoing source of energy transmuted into word and page.

“The boat I am building / will never be done” are the final words of the book, and after the experience in these 89 pages they ring true; Akbar and his poetry are perpetually growing, changing, adapting, and it is our own good fortune to be given a glimpse at the imperfectness of a human being present in their body in the world.

 

Fanny Says by Nickole Brown (BOA Editions)

brownWhat a beautiful book. Poems and prose all focusing on (or even in the voice of) Brown’s grandmother, the collection does an incredible job of building out Fanny’s personality, life, and relationship to the speaker. I truly felt like I got a glimpse of the real Fanny, and that through Brown’s careful eye and attention to detail—especially diction (the words in this book are dripping with character and heft)—I know her better than I know most people in my life. What a love letter to a family member, one that celebrates their history and the way they shaped those who live beyond them, without glossing over the harder edges people can be built upon. A stunning book that is, and I don’t say this kind of thing lightly at all, bursting with love. And it is a total privilege that we as readers can experience it.

 

Remains by Jesús Castillo (McSweeney’s)

castillo

Through a persistent, generous eye and voice, Jesús Castillo pulls together an exciting and touching lyric of modern life. The passages are self-contained but explode with wit and color. The regularly-spaced stanzas that make up Remains become windows on a train, a clear and stunning image that is replaced with yet another, and another, each time we blink.

 

 

Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

changVictoria Chang’s Barbie Chang is a terrific, carefully crafted collection of poems concerned largely with the social nuances and pressures of fitting in with those in your peer and age groups. These concerns are complicated by the dynamics of race and social status (one poem describes the titular character trying to appear not to associate with other Asian people in order to fit in with her coworkers), as well as being a mother who is trying to safely shepherd her young daughter into a world she is still trying to successfully navigate. And all the while, simultaneously dealing with ailing parents.

Desire and acceptance, shown through love, social relationships, economic symbols, and family structures, power these poems and it seems that this yearning is what animates the lines to jump from track to track syntactically. Bereft of punctuation, this book shows Chang to be a master of pacing, as the poems double back or jump forward, loop and echo and play solely on their constituent parts, unaided by punctuation or most modes of enjambment (the lines for most of the book follow a strict length pattern). I don’t know of another poet writing in English who can do more in a single line than Victoria Chang; each poem is layered with intricate connections between words, lines, sounds, and images, that add to the narrative and emotions on display. It makes this book a joy to read.

 

Equilibrium by Tiana Clark (Bull City Press)

clarkEquilibrium is a book that is concerned with economy, which is to say that it is constantly aware of finitude; material, spiritual, emotional, familial, the finitude of our lives themselves. The speaker describes growing up learning to navigate a world where balance is illusory and decisions must be made on where one should focus their limited amount of energies and care. Coming of age in an environment that predetermines so much about someone before they can have a say—religion, race, class—the speaker in Clark’s poems is learning on the fly, open to the small miracles of life while discovering the need to protect oneself from a world, and a society, that is regularly unfair, and in these image-rich, musical poems the reader is brought along for the journey.

 

River Hymns by Tyree Daye (American Poetry Review/Copper Canyon Press)

daye.jpg“I dream mostly in floods.”

—from “A List of Waters”

And the images in Daye’s debut collection do flood. A bounty of them fills these poems as the speaker navigates family history, poverty, love, superstition, and the landscape of small town North Carolina. There are moments in this book that are genuinely breathtaking—often it’s an image, given (as Gabrielle Calvocoressi says in the books introduction) to us in a perspective no poet has been able to before, making us see what we never could. Sometimes its the deft handling of line, rhythm, and syntax that make these poems charge from one obsession to the next, full of passion, longing and life. Whatever it is, it’s miraculous, and it all adds up to a stunning debut. Can’t wait for more by this poet.

 

Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing (Haymarket Books)

ewingThis is a gorgeous collection of poems, prose, and visual art. Ewing’s incandescent verse infuses magic into the reality, the joys and struggles, of black womanhood and girlhood in America, in a way that is reminiscent of Márquez and Ferré’s utilization of the “fantastic” but buoyed and infused with her unique voice.

Here is comfort and fear, here is love, Prince, and shea butter, alongside acts of racial insensitivity that the mind inserts a new narrative into upon recollection. That is one of the guiding forces of Ewing’s poems, that illumination of the past, the insertion of new elements into the moments that combine to make up our lives, as a way of trying to alter the curve of our narrative, the spine that we stand on today. A beautiful collection, made with every sign of passion and dedication that a reader can hope for.

 

Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

gluck

There’s a kind of clarity I’ve always enjoyed in Glück’s poetry, and that’s pronounced in this collection. Her voice, while still as assured, confident, and powerful as before, is quieter—urgent in the way one might whisper when talking about difficult subjects. And Glück here takes on death and family and solitude (and the many intersections between each) with a calm poise and the ability to make an image so sharp it stings the reader.

 

 

Soft Focus by Sarah Jean Grimm (Metatron)

grimmSarah Jean Grimm’s debut collection is alive with energy that radiates outward through the speakers’ every emotion and thought. Uncomfortable, yearning, content, confident, violent—the mode and tone keep transforming but the energy stays locked in the poems’ cores throughout this collection.

Grimm also is a master of the off-hand remark as poetic device; some of the most impactful lines and images are delivered in a casual or even disinterested tone that, by virtue of such a tone, sneak under the reader’s guard and implant in their conscious, to keep echoing. This is a beautiful, tense book of poems.

 

The Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn (W. W. Norton)

hahn.jpgThe oldest book on this list by far (published in 2006, but as mentioned never made its way through my eyeballs until 2017). The Narrow Road to the Interior is a lush and stunning meeting of traditional and new, both in form (borrowing older Japanese poem forms like tanka and zuihitsu and bringing the styling of the modern prose poem to their framework) and content (the poems could not be accused of being anything other than grounded in the present, but still carry echoes of the groundbreaking first female Japanese authors). Kimiko Hahn’s collection is playful, articulate, fragmented, and honest, taking on subjects like life in NYC after 9/11, motherhood, language, romances, and more, and how these all intersect. Indeed, the fragmented zuihitsu form lends itself well to the conflation of disparate subjects, all coalescing within the author.

 

Ha Ha Ha Thump by Amorak Huey (Sundress Publications)

huey

Packed with music, humor, insight, and lush imagery, the underlying current that propels this book is the speakers’ wonderment at the absurdity of the everyday. Huey shows readers alternatingly outlandish and banal situations, and the human looking for meaning within each. Inventive, genuinely emotional, and most importantly, a blast to read.

 

 

 

Human Achievements by Lauren Hunter (Birds, LLC)

hunterLauren Hunter’s debut collection so beautifully mirrors the act of living as a young adult in an adolescent 21st century that is fracturing so fast those who don’t already have a hold are hard-pressed to hang on.

The lines in Human Achievement move with an assured confusion reflecting this, boldly proclaiming incompleteness or difficulty into a labyrinth that absorbs the sound and shifts its walls again. Permeating all of the poems is a profound longing that offers many concerns—whether they be in the emotional, racial, gendered, or intellectual realms—as it tries to manifest the human at its center into a world that may or may not be compatible with such close attention. “i too, dream / of where i am as where i’m supposed to be.”

There is a humor, a vulnerability, and a careful eye here that make these poems a joy to read and to hear them walk through you as a reader; I won’t be forgetting this brilliant book any time soon.

 

Daughterrarium by Sheila McMullin (Cleveland State University Poetry Center)

mcmullinThere is a visceral, thundering force behind these poems’ careful composure. McMullin has carefully wound together, and then unwound, complex poems that veer and stutter and pop with every line and stanza. Alternatively, if they’re quiet, there’s a reason for it. The poet has demonstrated considerable control even as voice charges through the poems toward their conclusions.

Daughterrarium examines a kind of rage that feels as fragile as it does constraining; that is to say, a rage that stems from the reality of having a body in a world where it can be hurt and can hurt others. In the core of this anger is a pain that comes from caring, and from optimism that is being tested; the speakers never come off as needlessly sarcastic or cruel or even hopeless, but rather engaged in what many of us experience as a daily struggle of getting through life and holding on to our reasons for doing so. This is a promising debut from a poet who brings emotion to the fore without sacrificing the tools and texture poetry is capable of; if it’s not on a list of best first poetry books in 2017, that list might be a little bit suspect.

 

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (Graywolf Press)

smith.pngWhere to start? Danez Smith is one of the most remarkable poets writing today. Don’t Call Us Dead is as good as I expected, and somehow better; fierce, loving poems full of anger, despair, and at times—crucially—hope. Smith writes clearly and musically, forcefully. He does not hide his thoughts through a veneer of irony, but goes at his subjects with an intensity that expands our capacity for feeling.

The poems in Don’t Call Us Dead seem a nexus of our endless overlapping cultural layers and concerns: racism, violence (particularly toward black persons), stereotype, and the simple difficulty of love in a society that has not truly made the strides it likes to think it has toward the gay community. Smith speaks passionately for those he cares about (and often those he doesn’t; there’s a graciousness in here even when facing some of the ugliest aspects of our country), and laments a world that is so broken as to create these problems that must be overcome simply for folks to live in it. His poems are aware of where they exist in space and time, yet destined to live beyond this moment; in each elegy is hope stretching to everyone it can reach, and its hard not to be affected reading his work:

“tonight, prisons turn to tulips / & prisoner means ‘one who dances in a yellow field.’ // tonight, let everyone be their own lord.”

If you’re looking for poetry that speaks to the world in 2017, and also shows some of the finest that the medium of poetry has come to offer, look no further.

 

The Road In is Not the Same Road Out by Karen Solie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

solieHow had I not read Karen Solie before this year? This book is remarkable, a kind of electricity in the hand and mind. I am so enamored of Solie’s voice, the playfulness that threads these huge, far-reaching poems together. The poet has done an amazing job of encapsulating the modern experience, of the sense of momentum with no outlet for that energy, of excess that creates a hollowness, of a human yearning that we keep trying to name but evades us. Her willingness to tackle the eternal within the contemporary is something I admire in her work, and wish I saw more of in others’; the poems here are so tethered to the real world you can see them growing behind the jars on your counter, or in the gaps in a mall parking lot.

“‪When I think of it‬
‪all my atoms are past-due notices‬
‪but with the option to consolidate‬
‪as one large debt.”‬

—from “The Living Option”

 

 

IMG_6971.JPG

Advertisements

My Top Games of 2017

While my foremost passion remains poetry and literature, in the last couple of years I’ve gotten more and more into what video games can bring as both an artistic medium and on a purely entertainment basis. It was a big hobby of mine as a child, and coming back to it has been a lot of fun, and not only for nostalgia purposes (though certainly that’s part of it)—it’s been exciting to see how the form has grown over time.

And while 2017 was a banner year for awful crap overall (beating out 2016 for that honor, a trend that doesn’t look likely to end just yet), it was, as anyone in the games industry will tell you, one of the most remarkable years for gaming, ever. From historic franchises stepping up with major releases to out-of-nowhere games put out by tiny independent developers, the quality out there was crazy high—which made this list exceptionally difficult to narrow it down to.

Even still, like with my other lists this year (fiction and nonfiction books yesterday, and poetry tomorrow), I’m cheating a bit and choosing my top 15 instead of the traditional ten. Unlike the other lists, though, I’m ranking them in order of my favorites. It feels much more natural to do that with games than with books; I wonder if that’s because such a list or ranking would feel so much more like a personal statement about the creator, whereas since games need multiple, sometimes dozens or even hundreds, of people to create, it feels a little more impersonal? Who knows.

As always, this list may not be definitive—I don’t play games for a living, I have to sneak them into my spare time!—but these are the games that really knocked my socks off this year.

 

15. Tacoma (Fullbright, Xbox One/PC)

tacomaThankfully, Fullbright didn’t just try to do “Gone Home in Space” with this one; if GH was an investigation of interior spaces, Tacoma widens the scope without losing its sharp eye. Commentary on everything from technology to climate change to socioeconomics and consumerism was a surprise for a game that is, on its surface, about exploring the lives and relationships of the six people stationed on a (now abandoned) space station—even more surprising is that it works.

The game has something to say without beating you  over the head with it. And while some awkward pacing/mechanical issues make learning the ins and outs of the game a little less intuitive than it could have been, those complaints are very minor. Tacoma is a tacoma2.jpgwell-written, engaging story, it’s well voice-acted, and has layers upon layers for players who want to take the time to poke around the station and its ghostly inhabitants. You get what you put into Tacoma; you can do the bare minimum, see the immediate situation of these crewmembers, and then be done with your character’s mission—or you can spend the time to dig in and piece together more. This is a game that rewards curiosity and careful attention.

 

14. Life is Strange: Before the Storm (Deck Nine, PS4/Xbox One/PC)

lis1A prequel to Life is Strange (which ranked very high on my list last year), Before the Storm earns its existence in a sea of often superfluous prequels and sequels by focusing on building out the characters and relationships that come to bear on the original, while still doing a great job to stand on its own.

Chloe was always more interesting than the more neutral, blank-slate Max of the original LiS. Getting the chance to walk in her shoes is instantly more interesting than being the likable if bland Max, and lets you explore being an angsty, lost teen in a way that feels genuine. Good for both new visitors to Arcadia Bay as well as newbies to the series, BtS takes the established formula, gives it a remix, a coat of polish, and undoes some of the more annoying quirks of the original (some being the operative word here; there are still a handful of glitches and unintended quirks to be found, and some of the animations can be cringeworthy, though overall steps are in the right direction here).

lis3There are standout scenes—an in-game Dungeons and Dragons session in Episode 1 and a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the second, but the core of the story is the development of the relationship between Chloe and Rachel. The latter being almost a mythic, off-screen presence in the original series, Deck Nine had their work cut out for them making her a fully fleshed-out person, and they hit the nail on the head doing so while justifying the way she was portrayed originally.

lis2Before the Storm features a quieter finale than the original LiS, which is probably what a lot of people wanted to begin with. It’s a satisfying conclusion as well—until the last 10-second post-credits clip that is so wildly unnecessary, out of place in this prequel (even if there is a reason in the broader LiS context), on-the-nose, and deflating. I won’t spoil, but I simply could have done without that quick moment—it doesn’t ruin the game, and overall it’s a small blip in a great series, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my disappointment with the final moments.

 

13. Metroid: Samus Returns (MercurySteam/Nintendo EPD, 3DS)

metroidExactly what we’d been wanting for awhile, a new, solid Metroid platformer, with secrets, exploration, and power-ups galore. Surprisingly, combat is center stage here, and is the most fun it’s ever been in a 2D Metroid, in part due to new counter and angling mechanics but also due to the movement being faster and more fluid than before. Nothing groundbreaking here, but solid, reliable fun, and a fitting swan song (it would seem) to the 3DS.

 

12. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory, PS4/PC)

hellbladeWith a researched, engrossing take on psychosis, historical depictions and views on mental illness, and Nordic lore, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a unique game that really pushes what the medium can do in the realm of experiential art.

It’s the first time I’ve ever found myself noting how well audio was used in a game—beyond background music and sound effects, noise in Hellblade is used in many novel ways, everything from puzzle solving to fighting a boss in the darkness, and importantly, surrounding the player (provided one is wearing headphones as recommended) with the cacophony of voices the titular character must push through on her way into literal Hell. These voices are the backbone of this resonant game, alternatingly worrying, screaming, goading, encouraging, sneering, questioning. They carry the player through what are otherwise bleak, lonely landscapes as the history of Senua, her lost lover (who she is hellblade2hacking and slashing here way into hell to save—how good it is to see such a badass role fall to a woman, though credit where credit is due as to my knowledge Nordic countries had a history of woman warriors before most other peoples), and her illness unfolds.

It’s also one of the most visually-polished games I’ve ever played, which lends itself well to not only the atmosphere but also the challenges of the game, as attention to detail (and indeed, the larger themes of the story itself) comes down to perspective.

 

11. Splatoon 2 (Nintendo EPD, Switch)

splatoon.jpgOnly Jet Set Radio has ever gotten more points in my book for straight-up coolness. The funny, charming world of Splatoon and its denizens makes for a lighthearted, fun coating around what is at its core a finely-tuned action title that blends shooting and platforming into a unique concoction that feels right in a way that only Nintendo can pull off. This second iteration of the franchise does everything the first did, just a little better, and adds a few new wrinkles; the Salmon Run horde mode is some of the most hectic fun I’ve had playing games in quite awhile.

 

10. Steamworld Dig 2 (Image & Form, Switch/PS4/PC/Mac/Vita)

steamworld.jpgImage & Form Games did a wonderful job with this one; a simple concept (take a left-to-right platformer, tilt it 90 degrees clockwise) that they expanded on since the first one, and really did just about everything right this time. Everything you do in the game feels good: there are platforming challenges that can be tough but not unfairly so, and the progression loops make the game very satisfying to play. Add some striking, bright visuals and a good sense of humor and you have a platformer that is just a plain blast to play.

 

9. Sonic Mania (PagodaWest Games/Headcannon, Switch/PS4/Xbox One/PC)

sonic.jpgWay more fun than it has any right to be. The developers have somehow made a game that feels not like the originals did (go back and play them now, they’re clunkier than you think) but like how we remember them playing. Sonic Mania gets the balance of speed and exploration just right, and straddles the line between homage to earlier Sonic games and something new; its innovations are smart and accumulative, as they didn’t reinvent the wheel here but rather smoothed its edges.

 

8. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (MachineGames, PS4/Xbox One/PC/Switch)

wolfenstein2A smartly written game that does a lot to reflect the anxieties, vulnerabilities, and realities of America in 2017. While it definitely trades in over-the-top-ness (a handful of moments of this game come to mind that I won’t spoil here), the details of the game and its environment subtly do a lot of work indicting the complicity (particularly white complicity) we could reasonably expect in the hypothetical of a Nazi-controlled, post-WWII America.

You can rush through the game, blasting away at Nazis and their robot warriors (I said it was over the top) and get the top layer of the story, but spending some time poking around the details and interactions peppered throughout and you can see a lot more. For one example, wandering through the streets during a Nazi parade in Roswell you can follow two in-regalia klansmen out and about, and watch their interaction with a Nazi soldier. Turns out, more that just benefitting from a Nazi rule by default, the Klan was wolfensteingiven power to oversee the transition of power in the “American Territories” after Germany won the war.

It’s good when a game, like any piece of art, has something to say; that’s a given, but games moreso than any medium are often excused from this aspect (no doubt because they can still provide quite a bit of entertainment value otherwise). Especially in 2017, given what we’ve seen start to form in the last couple years, a lot of the little things in Wolfenstein II ring true or at least set off warning bells for those paying attention.

As for the rest of the game, the mechanics of progression feel fine, moving and climbing and shooting is acceptable (not the best out there now but far from the worst), but the big thing hampering the game is a handful of level layouts that are abysmal. I’m talking wolfenstein3maddeningly vague, poorly thought out environments that more than once I spent quite a bit of time running around in trying to find how to move on, only to realize an easy-to-miss door or opening was somewhere where I needed to backtrack to a little bit. Outside of that though, a lot to enjoy here. You get the insane stunts and high-octane, hellishly masculine action (although the game should be given credit for a roster of pretty badass women in the mix) one might look for in a big-budget, no-brain action flick—the cutscenes are well constructed, as a cinematic quality pervades many scenes and the dialogue is well above average—plus enough smart, intricate world-building and socially aware moments to lodge in your brain for some time, and for good reason.

 

7.  Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall, PS4/Xbox One/PC/Mobile)

nitwWith writing that can pull off spot-on humor and genuine empathy, Night in the Woods has maybe the most realized, fleshed out characters I’ve come across in a game, and certainly in a relatively short one. The themes of NitW—small town working class America, ennui, purpose, religion, mental illness, omnipresent debt—all perfectly, deftly capture a particular moment in our culture, a culture that can’t help but be largely defined by the economic realities surrounding it.

I adored these characters and the brief but meaningful adventures we as players are given with them. The dialogue is whip-smart and the visuals are gorgeous. But most of all, the willingness of the game to delve into serious, deep topics without getting preachy or losing the game’s sardonic edge is a huge achievement, and is a big part of what makes it so memorable.

 

6. Resident Evil 7 (Capcom, PS4/Xbox One/PC)

re7Extremely well executed. Unsettling, terrifying, exciting. The first person perspective really helps sell the horror, and the pacing of both the game’s mechanics/action and narrative are pitch-perfect. The ending boss is a little underwhelming and the penultimate act off-campus drags a little bit, but that’s really all I can think of to conceivably hold against this game. It’s original, detailed, and fully realized. Probably the best horror game I’ve ever played.

 

5. Kentucky Route Zero (Acts I – IV) (Cardboard Computer, PC)

(Okay, so this one didn’t come out in 2017—the five-part series put out installment number four in 2016, and the final chapter is slated for 2018, but I did play it for the first time this year, so I’m counting it.) 

krzI can’t get over how weird, poignant, and haunting this game is. The narrative moves further into the surreal and deepens throughout the acts, calling into question narrator reliability, memory, imagination, and space; and it does so with poetry that moves at your touch as you explore the debt of living from a number of angles.

KRZ has some of the most stunning settings I’ve seen, and it pulls them off with a somewhat minimal visual style that cleverly plays with detail and symbolism (indeed, a number of elements of magical realism, and also allusions to authors like Márquez and Beckett are scattered throughout). The ways of moving, even in the overworld, disrupt expectations and, like the rest of the game, regularly delightful and invite reflection and rumination. I’m surprised at nearly every turn.

 

4. Cuphead (StudioMDHR, Xbox One/PC)

cupheadCome for some of the most stunning, hand-drawn animation you’ve ever seen, stay for the challenge that both respects your time and makes progress and failure both feel natural and rewarding. The product of a small team spending years getting this thing right, it’s fantastic to see such a passion project nailed so squarely and then receive a fittingly warm welcome. Even as a player who does not normally go for the run-and-gun style games, Cuphead had me hooked late into the evening, wanting to take just one or two more runs at a boss because I can feel myself getting closer and closer to surmounting its unique challenge.

 

3. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo EPD, Switch)

mario.jpgSuper Mario Odyssey is comprised of one thousand little moments of joy, so carefully placed around these expertly-designed environments that what would be a chore for nearly any other game (collecting those thousand little tokens) is a genuine pleasure and drives the game onward.

Plenty of new ideas added to the Mario series here, and plenty of homages to the history of that series, but in both cases even the very basic movements in this game, traversing landscapes and overcoming enemies, is immensely fun. It’s hard to find a single flaw in the game that isn’t just nitpicky; it’s that well done.

 

1 (Tie). What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, PS4/Xbox One/PC)

edith finch.jpg​What Remains of Edith Finch is a narrative game that takes everything generally working for the genre—namely, engrossing stories and well-realized aesthetics—and ups the ante with constant surprises that take every shape the medium will allow, including the very way the player interacts with (controls) the game.

The game relishes language, and it shows in both visual representation and crisp, engaging writing. Telling not just one story, but a bouquet of them that all converge at the nexus of a shared bloodline, Edith Finch is not afraid to linger in quiet moments, let edith finch2.pngthe details of the game and the house do some of the lifting And that house is packed with items and dialogue to fill out these characters’ storylines—this really is the natural successor to Gone Home in fulfilling the promise of a genre that that game helped define.

But the game is also not afraid to be bombastic, stylish, and loud; and when these moments hit they resonate through the quiet moments outside of the memories that are the game’s “levels”: essentially, playable short stories.

Indeed, it’s these stories, each told in a unique tone and play style, that delivers the edith finch3.jpgheavy blows of the game’s emotional thrust, and—without spoiling any, because really, there’s genuine pleasure in discovering them as they happen—they are genuinely surprising even though you know what’s going to happen to the characters, since you’re replaying the last day of each of these characters’ lives. This sense of surprise permeates the game and makes it a moving and memorable experience that feels like it’s living up to the artistic potential of the medium. It’s going to be a long time before I stop thinking about this game.

 

1 (Tie). The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD, Switch) 

zeldaHonestly, I’m not sure what I can say about this game that hasn’t already been said a million times on the internet about how spectacular and delightful this game is. Even for folks who don’t count themselves “gamers,” knowledge of this game has almost certainly permeated your consciousness through cultural/social media osmosis. In part, that’s due to Nintendo’s new console, the Switch, hitting the right note—being able to play the same games on your TV as in a handheld (and swapping seamlessly between the two) has people falling back in to the hobby, and has led to the console selling like mad. Breath of the Wild is a perfect example of the kind of deep, thorough game that is now suddenly more accessible via the platform’s unique properties.

But mostly, it’s because Breath of the Wild is a lovingly built toolbox-and-permission-slip-all-at-once for players: it drops you in its universe and says, “Figure it out.” And it’s a joy zelda2to do so, to discover all the ways you can manipulate the world around you and interact with just about everything to achieve your goals in any way you see fit, as well as to simply explore the world Nintendo created here. There is a mind-boggling amount of things to do in this version of Hyrule, and almost none of it is traditional filler (“Collect a bunch of these to inflate the game time!”). It’s an open world you actually want to poke around in, play in with your interesting abilities and the learn about the way the world interacts with itself—it really does feel like the land in this game is breathing, alive, and that the player can tap into just a little bit of this raw power.

zelda3From the first time you climb a mountain, just to see if you can and that it’s not a piece of set dressing, and look out at Hyrule to decide your next move, the sheer amount of possibility that you can feel at your fingertips is intoxicating. Breath of the Wild is challenging when it needs to be, and the more rewarding for it: though you’ll have to work for it, every question you ask the game—”Can I do this?” “What if I…” “I wonder if…”—comes back as a joyous “Yes.”

 

Honorable mentions:

Anatomy, A Normal Lost Phone, Dear Esther, Destiny 2, Little Nightmares, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Oxenfree, Rime, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment

 

Games that might’ve made the list if I had gotten around to them:

Battle Chef Brigade, Gorgoa, Horizon Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata, Prey

 

Favorite Fiction/Nonfiction Books Read in 2017

While I’m more often reading poetry than anything else (see the post coming this Thursday), I do make an effort to keep my reading list varied, to bring in as many fresh approaches/ideas as possible. Memoirs, novels, essays, graphic novels, and detailed nonfiction takes on a variety of topics; if it’s well-written, and it’s interesting, I’m there. Especially if it tries something new with the page or the language, something a lot of the books on the list below exhibit.

IMG_6969.JPG

In making this list and looking at the stack of fiction compared to nonfiction I’d read through this year, it was interesting to see how much more the nonfiction side spoke to me this year. That’s not to say I didn’t care for the fiction; Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake is one of my favorite novels in at least the last five years, for example. But more than just an evolution of my personal tastes (though that certainly accounts in part), I think it’s a reflection of the current cultural climate around us. Partly because many of us are looking for works to help make sense of how we got to this particular American moment (Snyder’s On Tyranny breaks authoritarianism down pretty concretely, Butler’s Parable of the Sower is astoundingly relevant 24 years after its publication, and Kim’s Without You, There is No Us looks at the way information is controlled and seeded in North Korean elite, with a shocking number of parallels to our own brand of nationalism back home), but also because it feels more important than ever to engage with the world around us. To learn and see what’s out there even as forces in our country do their best to distort what we see and think.

Although, sometimes I still need to simply laugh my ass off (see Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life).

So these are my favorite 15 nonfiction and fiction (so, basically everything but poetry) books I read in 2017. They’re not necessarily ones published this year (most were not, and a couple are quite a few years old), but they’re what I read January through December 2017 that stood out the most to me, and that I think you should check out.

In alphabetical order by last name, my favorites of 2017 are:

 

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (Four Walls Eight Windows)

ButlerHard to believe this came out 24 years ago; Butler’s sharp eye foresaw many of the problems we face now, or are about to face: the staggering wealth divide, a resurgence of racism and tribalism in the face of economic downturn, weather extremes due to global climate change…albeit we aren’t as far along the road to ruin as is depicted in the novel, all the seeds shown sprouting there have already been sown in our real world. Someone said that, despite the spike in sales of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 following the latest turn in our politics, The Parable of the Sower is the dystopian novel closest to our present and near future, and it’s hard to argue that. This is a bleak, precise, and genuinely felt warning to us all.

 

It’s Just Nerves by Kelly Davio (Squares and Rebels)

DavioKelly Davio has written an incredibly important book. In an intensely visible internet age where racism, sexism, and homophobia are being called out more clearly than ever before, the conversation on ableism and ways we as a society, knowingly or not, exclude or otherwise try to make invisible those with disabilities has not been taken up with the same intensity (indeed, as if to confirm this in the most on-the-nose way possible, my browser has red-underlined “ableism” as I write this review). Why is this?

It’s Just Nerves tackles the many ways our understanding of disability and the ways we act toward disabled persons are sorely lacking. From a staggering level of ignorance about the difficulties those with visible or invisible disabilities face to the rise of radical political factions in the U.S., Europe, and beyond, Davio places readers in a variety of contexts that anyone can appreciate and, hopefully, understand better how they can be true allies and help dismantle the systems that are stacked so heavily against those who live with disabilities. Her arguments are clear, well-researched, and built from an emotional core that gives them weight and fire.

Underpinning many of these essays on how disability factors into the healthcare system, pop culture, and more, as well as a number of memoir-like sections that are written with a poet’s attention to detail and musical language, is the same basic foundation on which the socially conscious are building their attacks on the structure of racism, sexism, and homophobia: the “default” person in the Western imagination is white, male, straight, and without disability, and thus anyone who does not conform to these categories is considered “other.” And the power of “we” and “us” vs. the “other” is the fuel that keeps discriminatory policies and structures self-sustained. With works like It’s Just Nerves shedding light on the world from a perspective that is sorely missing in our broader cultural discussions, the groundwork is continuing to be laid for meaningful and lasting change toward real equality and care for one another—if we make sure to hear and share voices like Davio’s.

 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Knopf)

Egan.jpgA carefully threaded series of stories and lives that weave an image of how we are built—or undone—by our passions, our callings, and our responsibilities; and how these things react to the passing of time. Everything in this book seems so perfectly placed and executed, it almost baffles the mind to think it came from one person’s imagination.

Also: There is a chapter in this book presented in PowerPoint slides, which is also one of the best stretches of storytelling I’ve read in awhile. A Visit from the Goon Squad is most impressive when it takes the reader to places they have no idea they’re being led—and lets them get just comfortable enough there before taking it away and moving on to the next perspective.

 

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books)

Hartnett

This is a wonderful, sad, remarkable book. It’s also clever, engaging, funny, and tender. Rabbit Cake deals with loss, love, family, and inter-/independence in a way that never felt hackneyed. It’s all as weird in here as it is in real life.

I might have teared up for the last 20 pages. I heard someone say this is funniest sad story they’ve read, and that sounds about right. Go read this book, now.

 

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby (Vintage)

Irby.jpg

Just damn funny. Samantha Irby has an ironic and tonal sensibility that manages to hit the perfect note at an unbelievable ratio. Is it possible to read something breathlessly? If so, I did that for this book. Irby is vulnerable, wry, and bombastic in the best possible way, and these essays have a stream of consciousness quality to them that feels so vital to our age.

 

 

Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim (Crown)

kimThis is a tense, insightful book that gives readers a glimpse into one of the most secretive corners of the most secretive country in the world. In Kim’s hands, the youth growing up among the North Korean elite are shown to be not unlike the youth in the rest of the world, still compassionate and curious and eager to discover the world, but stunted in their growth thanks to a society that gives them next to no opportunities to attend to those emotions.

Knowing that she could be sentenced to a work camp, or worse, for her act of going undercover as a missionary teacher at a university for Pyongyang’s elite, makes the experiences described during her stays through most of 2011 all the more harrowing—every conversation and action she took was probably being recorded and scrutinized, and she describes the effects of needing to constantly monitor yourself as truly exhausting.

Given our current political moment, the way the N. Korean regime holds on to power through essentially orchestrating a nationwide cult of worship toward a supposedly infallible leader (and his line), and tightly controlling what knowledge and disinformation reaches the citizenry, should be studied as a warning: it is the same tactic that is being attempted by elements of our radical politics here at home.

Clearly-written, with wisdom from her almost unfathomable experience well-distilled into these pages, this is a gripping read that I recommend highly.

 

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (Riverhead Books)

lockwood.jpgFull of Lockwood’s trademark wit and cutting insight, something interesting happens as a reader, familiar with her irreverent poetry, experiences Priestdaddy: it becomes clear the actual reverence Lockwood has for the art of faith and its intersection with both the human body and language.

Chapters volley from searingly-funny anecdotes of growing up in a religious Midwestern sphere (and returning to live with her parents for a time as an adult) to poignant, moving ruminations on the nature of faith, collectives, influence, art, politics, identity, childhood, and unexplained Rags that appear in bathroom sinks as if summoned as an inscrutable message from the Lord himself. Highly recommended for both those looking for a crisply-written memoir with an emotional and intellectual bent and those who like religiously-themed sex jokes.

 

Here by Richard McGuire (Hamish Hamilton)

McGuire

This graphic novel is phenomenal. McGuire takes an interesting concept and knocks it out of the park. The way he translates visual space into story and recurrence is nothing short of magic; this book feels like it was perfected in a laboratory so as to be able to know which neurons in our brains it needs to light up and which it knows we will fill in on our own. Writing about Here feels ineffective at best, it’s the kind of art that really needs to be experienced as so much of what it does goes beyond language.

 

Bluets by Maggie Nelson (Wave Books)

nelson.jpg

 

Bluets is full of blistering language and fierceness of mind; Nelson’s analytic- and aesthetically-driven missives are as unique as they are stunning. Unlike anything else out there.

 

 

 

The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap (Fence Books)

rankine-loffreda-king capThis should be required reading; a diverse group of poets and writers discuss how race is approached or avoided in our work, in our lives, and the areas where they intersect. A frank discussion on “whiteness” and how it manifests, erases, or frames so many interactions and expectations, and what we can do to move away from the “whiteness-as-default” mindset in writing and in life, as well as do a better job supporting and listening to non-white persons. An impressive roster of writers and thinkers on a crucial topic.

 

King of the World by David Remnick (Vintage)

remnick

Remnick does a terrific job laying out the significance of Muhammad Ali’s rise and career, politically, racially, and in the sports world, with incredibly detailed reporting and terrific writing. He shows Ali in a light that is fair but also not overly flattering (his flaws and contradictions are on display here), and provides a nuanced discussion of Liston, Patterson, and the boxing world in general during its heyday. A great read for sports fans and otherwise.

 

 

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins (Bantam Books)

robbins

Just, wow. I have no idea how Robbins manages to thread so many themes and images and ideas so tightly and satisfyingly together, but this is the second book I’ve read of his and I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered writing that is more joyous, unabashed, and plain fun.

Robbins is a sap who can carve one hell of a sentence. Still Life with Woodpecker reads like a love letter to one specific sensation of life, and revels in dancing with it.

 

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier (Harper)

schreier.jpgSchreier takes us inside the stories of some of the biggest or most interesting video games of the last decade. His well-researched, thorough writing on the many forces at play when a game is coming together (or failing to) will give readers a new appreciation for the interactive medium, and the people who make them.

Blood, Sweat and Pixels is written in a way that even those who aren’t avid gamers can follow and appreciate, with enough detail and good storytelling that even those well-versed in these genres and games will enjoy the trip through crunch time, technical snafus, economic and cultural changes, and more. All of the chaos that must be wrangled into an impeccable product for the most picky consumer imaginable is portrayed here, enjoyable and eye-opening.

 

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones)

shelleyFar different than what I expected, which says a lot about how Frankenstein’s monster has been altered in the landscape of popular culture since this book debuted 200 (!) years ago. But the prose is lush, gorgeous, and eloquent, and the multiple layers of remove the story is told through well echo the themes of craft, ambition, distance from creation, reportage, and responsibility that the book is concerned with. I read this in a feverish haze, and unlike many classics I’ve read because one should read them at least once, I plan to return to it with pleasure in the future.

 

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books/Crown)

snyderIn this slim volume, Snyder breaks down the tactics and goals of authoritarian regimes, shows how they reflect in our present, and offers suggestions on preventing fascism from further flowering.

An important read, and one we should all send to certain people in our lives who seem to be enabling this kind of future, or at least, don’t see it coming (though, as the book makes the point of demonstrating, these are often one in the same).