Kushner proves without a doubt that she is:
a) one of the greatest American writers/essayists/thinkers b) has lived at least three whole lives while the rest of us manage just the one and, c) may be the coolest [pick your expletive of choice, lord knows she isn't shy in applying them] on the planet. Essays on illegal and terrifically dangerous motorcycle races, literary icons like Duras and Lispector, prison abolitionists, old cars and films, and her past work-life in bars fill these pages. The range is ridiculous and always arresting.
My favorite novel of 2021 (so far). A brilliant excoriation of academia, particularly humanities-centric colleges in otherwise podunk towns. has a ton to say about Jewish identity as landlocked in said American hinterlands. Everyone here comes off as irritating in the best possible way and by that I mean their terribleness and/or insufferable qualities are played for laughs. Cohen is a ridiculously talented writer and I have no idea why he doesn't sell waaay more books. Also, best subtitle of the decade?
Tore through this novel like a consumptive fever tearing through a 12th-century orphanage. This is the first Groff I've ever encountered so I have no frame of reference but she's clearly a literary powerhouse and her prose is beastly when it isn't delicate or quietly beautiful. This is the story of Marie de France, a child of rape with royal, some say magical blood, who is so ungainly as to be unfit for marriage, so she's sent to an abbey where she turns a starving colony of misfits into a powerful collection of warrior nuns. This story is as radiant as one of Marie's holy visions. Pure ecstatic joy.
What an extraordinary novel. This is the story of Dune, the child of activists, who watches as her home city of Detroit becomes a tomb. A mysterious illness is killing Black people, turning them into crying statues incapable of moving or eating or interacting any longer. They simply refuse to move or eat and thus slowly die. Dune chronicles those afflicted as the hospitals fill up and people either have nowhere to go or nobody to look after them. She scavenges and forages in vacant lots and community gardens and abandoned hardware stores to stay alive as the city empties out. A heartbreaking, empathetic look at hope, action, mourning, and community.
Transit books' Undelivered Lectures series is my new favorite. This volume finds Mariana Oliver ruminating upon migrations. My favorite bit (though each tightly crafted essay is wonderful) is where Oliver unpacks the German word 'Heimweh' which is sort of like nostalgia except with a bitterness attached? Specifically, a pain felt for home, except that home doesn't exist anymore and maybe never did in the first place. her writing is beautiful and lyrical and Julia Sanches's translation is crisp and frank. loved this one.
Guanzon's debut novel is an evisceration of the American Dream, insofar as it ever applied to those born poor or in the margins of society. A meticulous rumination of debt, the protagonist of the ironically-titled Abundance, a man named Henry, struggles with what is owed to family, friends, coworkers, and those he loves. Touching upon many of the scourges that have plagued the U.S. for decades, Guanzon's bleak but gorgeous portrait of poverty shows how addiction and the eviction crisis are consuming the working class and minority communities from the inside out. I say gorgeous because there are precious glimpses of joy which make the crushing monotony of worrying over how to fill the gas tank all the more heartbreaking. And I haven't even got to touch upon Guanzon's ingenious chapter divisions which, rather than following a progressive numeration, are headed by the amount of money in Henry's pocket. A must-read new American classic.
There is a special place in heaven for the genre of short story collections centered around a single town and its charming inhabitants. People from My Neighborhood is like Winesburg, Ohio, except set in a Japanese town and riddled with Wes Anderson-esque miscreants. The stories are rapid-fire and super short, rarely more than 2-3 pages, but snowball, building upon each other until you feel like you live in the neighborhood. Kawakami's sense of humor is the best thing since Barthelme, alternatingly bitter and warm.
Me: *holds new not-for-children picture book up excitedly* "Look at this gorgeous book!" Coworker: *smiles enthusiastically while looking at the cover* *smile slowly falls* "That mouse is going to die, isn't it." I'm happy to report that the beautiful white mouse is on a great many of this amazing book's pages. The story of this first entry in Enchanted Lion's new line of picture books is based on a common Balearic tale and the books are actually printed in Madrid. There's too much to like about this brilliant work to list here, suffice to say it is very very good.
My favorite poetry collection of 2021. I have a very difficult time discussing poems or articulating why they 'do it' for me but Popular Longing is pitch-perfect. A combination of funny-dark and morbid-light that just works.
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A debut novel from a powerful voice. I Will Die in a Foreign Land is a political novel about protests and the things we have to do to make the world livable, even if it wreaks havoc on our personal lives. This text feels alive as it is interspersed with historical snippets. Heavy with loss, Pickhart's book feels deeply sad, even as it aspires toward hope. This novel is for everyone who has ever thrown it all on the line with no assurance that things will work out.
I don't pretend to understand the sum total of all of the mighty work Sorrowland accomplishes but this novel is, quite simply, a literary upheaval. The story rests uneasily within genres and should reside just as uneasily within readers. Anti-racist, eco-critical, gothic, queer, and utterly brilliant. Much of this towering achievement rests on the shoulders of young Vern, the novel's protagonist and one of the most memorable fictional creations I have ever had the fortune to meet. A complicated character to put things mildly, Vern is a conduit through which so many fascinating and disturbing things flow including, quite literally, the history of racist violence suffered and perpetrated by hundreds if not thousands. If that doesn't make sense, well, just trust me and read what is destined to be one of the most powerful publications of this or any year.
Baltasar's debut novel, after ten collections of poetry, has a razor-sharp wit and an observational eye that picks apart life's abundant absurdities. The title Permafrost, a manifestation of the protagonist's disdain for contemporary society and the coping mechanisms we all use to tamp down the intensity of life, is at the same time a shield and a sword. Marginalized by her sexuality, her introversion, her lack of interest in work, the protagonist consistently wards lovers and family away while at the same time savaging them with a wry, stream-of-consciousness narration. Sanches's translation effectively reproduces the lyricism inherent in every sentence and maintains the black humor and inescapable fatalism of the original Catalan. This is a remarkable debut and proof positive the poets make the best novelists.