This year seemed to be a mix of historical fiction to tell us just how we got here, and terrifying slowpocalypse hellscapes to remind us just where we are, and where we’re headed. In between, I found the time for some diverse reads, story collections to make you sing, and poems to make your heart hurt.
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
is right up at the top of my list. Throughout the year, this one has stuck with me. It’s a tough nut to crack if you are not into history and theater and all those other glorious things that make me who I am, but. It’s worth cracking. In Paris in 1882, the celebrated opera soprano Lilliet Berne — who is really a Minnesota farmtown orphan whose name is never revealed to us—is approached with the proposal to star in her own opera. But as the proposal unwinds, we find the opera is the story of her secret past that only three people know. Who told it? Who betrayed her? Could it be all she ever wanted, or a trap? And through it all is a story of sadness, loneliness, beauty, pride, feminism, and epic secrets drenched in exquisite, well-researched detail.
8th Street Power & Light by Eric Shonkwiler
is the other book to get on your TBR list this year. A hefty voice for the Midwest and climate change’s disastrous outcomes, Shonkwiler takes on droughts, periapocalyptic towns starting over from scratch, slavery, corporations-as-government, and so much more in his Orwellian follow-up to his debut Above All Men. In an abandoned Midwestern city, Samuel Parrish works for 8th Street Power & Light — equal parts government, gang, and power company. But in between his gray-area vigilante justice and making a mess of things with his best friend’s girl, Samuel uncovers a secret that threatens to put the city back in the dark.
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
is pure poetry. Light on plot, it is more of a sonnet of language and pure enjoyment and haunting mesmerism than a straightforward novel. It dramatizes the life of Margaret Cavendish, the shy, gifted, eccentric, and unconventional 17th-century Duchess who wrote volumes of poems, philosophy, feminist plays, and utopian scifi at a time when ‘being a writer’ was not an option open to women. Through absolutely gorgeous poetic language, Dutton weaves this tale of feminism and a life well-lived before its time.
Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein
This dark and moody collection of literary scifi short stories comes far too close to home. With robots for children, fake memories implanted in your brain, virtual reality lives lived inside computer rooms and screen goggles, and grass being a precious commodity, Weinstein’s stories reveal the dark (and darkly funny) side of technology, and explore everything from child loss to feelings for inanimate things to climate change to societal pecking orders. It’s some of the best scifi I have ever read, and it will shake you up.
The Girl Wakes by Carmen Lau
Yes, I was the editor who co-selected this book for our press to publish, and here is why you should definitely read it: Bursting with dark, unique, retrofitted feminist fairytales, this book is every woman’s coming-of-age story within stories — and as effed up as real life really is. It tackles issues like social structure, women’s roles, overburdening men and parents, and all in that flat fairytale tone that could upend anything at any moment — burn down a house; eat your brother; watch someone shrink into sugar; make the sky snow on command, feel acids eating away at you inside the wolf’s belly. Lau’s prose is spot-on, and her imagination in the storytelling is otherworldly.
Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
is what might happen if Cormac McCarthy wrote a romance novel. A budding, would-be-innocent teenage love forms amid the brutal, horrific backdrop of the Civil War and Sherman’s March to the Sea. There’s an amazing horse, tons of blood and gore, and a cast of memorable characters straight out of a backwoods diary. Full of rich detail and thick, poetic prose, it’s one of those books that you can truly visualize and experience (with a few tears), even though the plot is very simple. Spoiler alert: Tears. (Read my review at The Rumpus.)
The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard
I could not get enough of this book. A well-researched novel that explores the relationship between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, and how intense it really was between them. I never thought I’d be saying, “I swear to bejeezus if Hawthorne and Melville don’t kiss, I’ll …” but, well, it’s that intense. Totally funny and uppity with the elitist humor of the time, and full of laugh-out-loud literary jokes and wry wit, this book is just an all-around joy. I went from chuckling to crying in a matter of paragraphs. Very recommended for the (open-minded!) highbrow literary lover in your life.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
is one of those uncomfortable, but necessary, books that you should be reading this year. Greenidge’s voice is straightforward and sharp as a tack, and the story — part history lesson/part social awareness/part WTF is wrong with this family — will get under your skin and crawl there. The book is a lovely examination of language, sexuality/orientation, racism (especially casual, polite racism, which is the creepiest kind), and the history of eugenics. A black family who knows sign language is brought to a research study to teach ASL to a chimpanzee, Charlie Freeman, at an institution with a questionable background of Tuskegee-like eugenics experiments. We get both the history and the aftermath in startling, discomfiting juxtaposition. (Read my review at Electric Literature.)
Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
Yapa’s prose style is no-holds-barred, in-your-face, and sharp. The voice is powerful and fresh, and the story hasn’t been told a thousand times — all of this makes Yapa’s debut a killer one. Set against the heated conflict of Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests, scrappy Victor sets out to sell weed to the 50k protestors in the streets, and soon finds himself in the throngs of violence — and just one of the seven people the novel follows whose lives all change in the course of one afternoon. Yapa uses his own world-traveling experience and his father’s Sri Lankan background to infuse true life into this story that tests the very limits of rage, humanity, and compassion.
We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey
is both a PTSD veteran’s dream and worst nightmare. Shedding light on the horrors of contemporary wars, veteran Lindsey gives multiple perspectives of returning soldiers’ lives crumbling, barely hanging on, and sometimes almost getting there. It’s horrifying, sad, and often hopeful, but above all, it gives you insight into the psyche and traumas of deployment through fresh eyes that see no glory in it. One of my favorite things about this book is that many, if not most, of the perspectives are from female soldiers — a viewpoint that gets so often overlooked in war stories. Lindsey gives them a voice equally strong and painful and necessary.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
is on everyone’s list, I know, I know, but it’s pretty good. It’s a difficult, uncomfortable read. The prose dances around; the pronouns sometimes leave you guessing who’s doing the action; and it jumps seamlessly between what is happening and what has already happened in the story, so you sometimes don’t know which is which, but it’s one of those necessary reads that takes an old idea and makes it fresh again. The crux of the book is that the Underground Railroad is literally a railroad underground. Without deep explanation or physics, you just go with it, and it takes you into this world stunningly detailed with racist grotesqueries, godawful people, horrific laws rooted in historical truth, and some folks so saintly good beyond anything required of them that they make you believe there is something better in this world. It blurs fact and fiction so effortlessly that you’d think there really were an underground railroad (In fact, “Was the Underground Railroad really underground?” was one of the biggest Google searches right after the book came out.) It seems particularly apposite for our current times, all the more sad and scary as we move forward … like we’re moving backward.
Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar
is a fabulous collection of short stories with heart. It follows various Arab women as they love, lose, laugh, cry, bring down the moon, stand their ground, question everything they knew, and learn who they truly are. It tackles some hard questions, mixes the fantastical and surreal in with the very realistic, and will make you think twice about how you act with others. Beautifully written in very flat prose, like classic fairytales, but with a heart that makes you see each woman as a woman, through all the ups and downs. A highly recommended read for our current times.
Blood Song by Michael Schmeltzer
I will admit: I read a good deal of poetry — I mean, a ton of it, and a lot of it for my job as an editor — and the majority of it moves me very little. But sometimes, there is a poet who can strike the right chord and make you remember why poetry is important in this world, why we need to share it and read it and memorize it and read it again. Schmeltzer is one of those poets. As a person, his heart is two sizes too big, and as a poet, his heart is pure and vital. Read this, and tell me you didn’t just die a little inside, then smile at the beauty of it. That’s this whole collection.
The Voyager Record: A Transmission by Anthony Michael Morena
is also great poetry, and not just because it is on a topic I love: science, yay! It talks about the 1977 spacebound gold-plated phonograph record of 27 songs, 118 images, and greetings in 55 languages meant to summarize all life on our planet, adapted by Morena in hybrid elements of poetry, flash fiction, and essay. The collection gives hope to humanity, encompasses the whole human race in fragments, and cuts across all the billions of miles to say that we don’t have the answers yet; we need more time; we need to hear a reply. It’s a beautiful message for the ages, and entwined in it all is the love story of scientist and record co-creator Carl Sagan falling in love with his future lifelong partner during the creation of the transmission, the biggest real-life metaphor of all.
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church
Since we’re on the subject of science and humanity, I can segue nicely into this wonderful book. A true tale of feminism and love in all its oddities and disappointments, Church’s debut novel sweeps from WWII-era Chicago into the deserts of New Mexico following the driven Meridian Wallace, a woman ornithologist trapped within the sexist occupational confines of the age. The book examines the strangulating eras of the 1940s and 50s, and what it meant for women to pave the way for future women in the sciences for generations to come.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
is a sorrowful, yet hope-sprinkled, tale of ghost stories come to life. Two late-teens orphans from a cultish ‘religious’ backwoods ‘orphanage’ grow into charlatans who commune with the dead to take people’s money, until they are faced with confronting death in a real way themselves. The story focuses largely on two separate women from two separate times, joining together on a journey to follow a common thread and unveil secrets across the miles and miles. It’s a tale of communication, love overcoming odds, true friendship that lasts through the layers of space, and an examination of the culture, religion, and fundamentalist cults of the Adirondacks in a frightening way that asks whether one can ever truly believe in the unseen.
Sing the Song by Meredith Alling
This slim collection of stories glows with dreamlike surprise. It’s funny and daring, strange and mesmerizing. Alling’s command of language is constantly fresh, and the book builds and builds into ever-explosive modern, uncategorizable storytelling. An ancient ham crawls out from a sewer to tell fortunes; a lone blonde comes to a party for redheads. Just consistently surprising, like all good stories should be.
The Women by Ashley Farmer
is one of those entirely underrated collections that everyone should be talking about. It’s a collage of what it means to be a woman — personally, universally, to the opposite sex, to the world, in our places in the world — artily retold from gathered snippets of Google Search results about women. The words come alive as fragments of other people’s stories, good and bad, reformed into something raw and uniquely personal, uniquely Farmer’s own, but also yours and mine. It’s pertinent, modern, pieces of our age, an elegy to the suppression of a sex, and a testament to the power of women to overcome all odds.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
is a posthumous collection of never-before-published stories from a poignant writer, activist, artist, playwright, and filmmaker. Collins, who died in 1988 at age 46, was the first black woman to produce a feature-length film, and her stories read like monologues, art direction, scene design, and shots set up with film crews. She has an incredible way with descriptions that makes them both bare as stage directions and alive as inner thoughts. It’s often humorous, dark, and right on the money in terms of showing the parallels of racism between the 60s, when most of the book was written, and today, with racism as rampant as ever.
How to Speak Midwestern by Edward McClelland
So, yes, I’m Midwestern, so, yes, this speaks to me. Full of all sorts of weird Midwesternisms, this book might not be a powerful punch-packer in terms of the Underground Railroads and Sport of Kingses out there, but it’s a fun read, with interesting research. I’m always down for any good examination of language and mannerisms, and this one is an ‘oh, for fun!’ addition to that queue.