Happy New Year, friends! I hope 2020 is off to a great start for you and your loved ones. I’ve been under the weather all year, but as they say, no place to go but up!
Anyway, as the clock hit midnight on New Years Eve and our neighbors ignited all manner of fireworks, I was journaling about 2019, a year of new beginnings for me: a new MFA degree, a new home in Salt Lake City, a new job, a new marriage, and—lest I forget—3 new broken bones. While all that was happening, planned or otherwise, I also squeezed in the time to read 39 new books.
Every December and January teem with lists: “Best of” and “Most Anticipated” and “___ of the Year,” etc. I was intrigued by a new take on these lists by Claire Schwartz, a poet I follow on Twitter:
How lovely! No need to rank books by whatever measuring stick you slap the word “best” onto, just what books lived with me and I with them in 2019. And as I looked over the books I read in 2019, the twists and turns my year took in and through them began to emerge.
Below I’ve organized books by the month in which I finished them. I hope you’ll consider spending time in 2020 with any that strike your fancy.
January: You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior by Carolina Ebeid (Noemi Press, 2016)
At this point of 2019, I was in full-blown master’s thesis writing mode. As part of our MFA theses, my cohort and I had to write annotated bibliographies including books and other works that were somehow relevant to our own manuscripts. I knew that You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior was one of my friend and fellow Colorado State MFA poet Kristin Macintyre’s favorite books. And Carolina Ebeid is also in Colorado, where she is pursuing her PhD at the University of Denver, so I’d seen her around at various events. (She has an impeccable, colorful sense of style!) This is her first book, and Noemi is a terrific small, independent press.
For my annotated bibliography, I’d been focusing on heady philosophical and historical texts—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Emmanuel Levinas, a tome on the history and invention of the mirror—and You Ask Me to Talk about the Interior presented a softer, more intimate way of seeing.
On page 55, Ebeid’s prose poem “Punctum / The Transom” reads in part: “a woman wants her eyes to be windows into the soul, but no one looks in…. Now… there’s a tall window, & above it a second window facing heavenward, & what if you won’t give me heaven?… Can I say it out loud? The poem is that window, and you, the reader, the beautiful friend looking out.” Vulnerability and intimacy require a “you,” someone who gazes at you and into whatever it is that you’ve choose to reveal. Reading You Ask Me to Talk about the Interior gave me a new lens through which to consider the intimate relationship between poet and reader.
February: The Book of Delights by Ross Gay (Algonquin Books, 2019)
I read this book of essays as soon as it was released in February. Ross Gay had traveled to Fort Collins, Colorado in 2018 to give a public reading. He also visited one of my graduate classes, where he shared with us a few excerpts from The Book of Delights before it was published. I loved Gay’s 2015 poetry collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and one of the first poems I shared with the undergraduate students in my introduction to creative writing class I was teaching at Colorado State was Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact,” a powerful look at Eric Garner’s life and death at the hands of police. I also interned at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina while I was a student at the University of North Carolina many years ago, so I was particularly happy to see them publish Gay’s first essay collection.
These micro-essays nearly burst from the page with so much delightful energy. It was just the book I needed while wading through the Trump presidency, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, school shootings, and all other manner of bad news weighing down my world. Here is one of my favorite passages from page 76 of The Book of Delights:
Do you ever think of yourself, late to your meeting or peed your pants some or sent the private e-mail to the group or burned the soup or ordered your cortado with your fly down or snot on your face or opened your umbrella in the bakery, as the cutest little thing?
This book is teeming with these moments of gentleness, tenderness, humor, and forgiveness. Reading it is an exquisite and thought-provoking refreshment.
March: Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness by Amy Irvine (Torrey House Press, 2018)
This slender nonfiction volume serves as a much-needed feminist and climate crisis-aware retort to Edward Abbey’s classic Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, the pied piper of the call-of-the-wild genre. Knowing that I was soon to be moving to Salt Lake City, Utah, I figured I’d better steep myself in such Utah-based literature. (Torrey House Press, a wonderful independent and environmentally focused publisher, is based in SLC, too.) Little did I know that I’d soon be working full time for the region’s preeminent land conservation nonprofit, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance! (Fun fact: Amy Irvine, the author, used to work for SUWA, too!)
I read this book while dreaming of all the many desert adventures that awaited me as a Utah resident, and as someone who’d recently written a paper on ecofeminism as an inheritance, in part, of transcendentalism (think Thoreau and Emerson). Ecofeminism presents a pragmatic model for how to deal with our global environmental crisis across cultural, ideological, class, racial, and gender divisions, and the call for community that Desert Cabal makes in this regard is an extremely relevant and powerful one as we look to leaders like Greta Thunberg to unite us toward lifesaving action.
April: Seasons: Desert Sketches by Ellen Meloy (Torrey House Press, 2019)
Another one that I read just as it was released, and another Torrey House Press title! This book of short essays’ first incarnation was actually as a series of radio stories that Meloy recorded for NPR Utah before she passed away in 2004.
The thing that most strikes me about Meloy’s writing—so much so that I just finished reading her Pulitzer Prize-nominated book The Anthropology of Turquoise over Christmas—is how she tempers and balances her luscious prose describing nature with incisively witty humor. I actually wrote about this in my review of Seasons for 15 Bytes, Utah’s online art magazine:
In “Animal News,” she begins one paragraph, “Westerners live closer to wildlife than most people.” I nod and underline the sentence, recalling instances of tourists approaching moose for selfies and even putting a baby bison in the back of their rental car in Yellowstone. “I would never do such a thing,” I revel in believing. Meloy continues, “When we see an elk we know if it is right side up. We know the difference between a coyote and a poodle.” Well, she got me. But there’s so much delight here—Right side up! A poodle! I’m tickled by the absurdity, and I find myself laughing at my own hubris.
Ellen Meloy’s Seasons was another prescient choice given my soon-to-be nonprofit career. I’ve already quoted her at least once in my work at SUWA!
May: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, translated from German by Jane Billinghurst (Greystone Books, 2015)
I started reading this nonfiction book back in December of 2018, then had to shelve it again until I finished writing and defending my thesis. I mainly wanted to learn more information about trees and how they live and function, but I found myself surprised by and pleased with Wohlleben’s nearly ecstatic tone. A life spent in forests was clearly his dharma, and it was his delight to share these lessons and stories with lucky readers.
Reading The Hidden Life of Trees also felt like a call to visit Pando, the largest known aspen clone, located in southern Utah (pictured here with Matt wandering through the underbrush). It is estimated to be 80,000 years old, and, at over 100 acres, is the most massive living being in the world. Pando means “I spread out” in Latin; I like to think of that “I” as a noun rather than a pronoun. I made my pilgrimage to Pando in early October, when her leaves were loose and golden.
Also, fun fact: the author’s last name, Wohlleben, translates to “well-living” in English!
June: Nightingale by Paisley Rekdal (Copper Canyon Press, 2019)
I am so glad I came across this poetry collection when I did. Paisley Rekdal is Utah’s Poet Laureate, and she lives in Salt Lake City, so I was looking to Nightingale in part as an introduction to contemporary Utah poetry. I wasn’t expecting this book to be a model of how to process trauma in poetry and what that could look like.
Since I was done with my master’s thesis by the time I began reading Nightingale, I was sad that I couldn’t include it as an entry in my annotated bibliography. I wanted so much to write about it and process the effect it had had on me, so I wrote a review of it for Colorado Review instead.
Just a few of the lessons I gleaned from Nightingale: “transformation is not simply progression, but fragmentation,” “the key to any transformative experience [is] voicing it,” and that healing can be the reaching of one’s voice across the cracks that such fragmentation generates.
July: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2013)
I was reading Braiding Sweetgrass just as summer was coming into full bloom in Salt Lake City: leafed-out aspen and tall stalks of hyssop up the canyons, the edges of golden petals of arrowleaf balsamroot bitten by frost at hilltops. Boone and Matt and I were going on hikes several times a week, trailing creeks overflowing their beds.
This nonfiction text is a modern classic. Kimmerer is a botanist who specializes in mosses and teaches at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She writes and speaks about indigenous models for environmental stewardship. In November, I would hear her speak at the downtown Salt Lake City library, where she implored us to consider, “What kind of ancestors do you want to be?” But back in July, when I finished reading this book, I had only heard her speak on an NPR program called On Being. In her 2016 interview with Krista Tippett, Kimmerer said, “I just think that ‘Why is the world so beautiful?’ is a question that we all ought to be embracing.”
Braiding Sweetgrass asks this question again and again, and asks us all to consider cultivating a more reciprocal relationship with nature. What can each of us give in return for everything that we have received?
August: Atlas of Poetic Botany by Francis Hallé, translated from French by Erik Butler (MIT Press, 2018)
I ordered this book as a birthday gift for my little sister, Libby, who just earned her bachelor’s degree in horticulture. I’d read about it somewhere online and thought its eccentric illustrations (drawn by hand by the author) and explorations of extraordinary and unusual plant species would be perfect for her. I didn’t expect to read the whole book when I opened it, but it reads quickly, and did I mention the cute illustrations?
Hallé is a botany professor and has spent his career visiting rainforests around the globe to revel in and study up close their most fascinating flora. Not unlike Wohlleben’s work in The Hidden Life of Trees, Hallé’s exuberance for his life’s work leaps from the page, but this time in the form of attentive illustrations and prose.
Because I since shipped the volume to Libby, I can’t reference the book as I write this, but this lovely Atlas Obscura article features some of the artwork and discusses some of the most interesting specimens from the book.
September: Erou by Maya Phillips (Four Way Books, 2019)
I was thinking a lot about family during the month of September, the last month of summer, since Matt’s and my wedding was on the 14th. Erou, Maya Phillips’s first poetry collection, also orbits around the center of family.
In the book, the speaker’s (the “I” character’s) father dies unexpectedly, and too young. The speaker then has to reckon with who her father was—to the expanding circles of her, her family, and the world.
In my review of Erou for Colorado Review, which you can read online here, I talk about how my favorite poems from the book are the ones that imagine a life for the speaker’s father even after death, envisioning his return somehow. I have never lost a parent, but I’ve watched my parents both lose their mothers in the past few years. At our wedding reception, Matt and I displayed photos of all our close family members who had passed away—grandparents and aunts and uncles. I often thought about my grandmothers while I was planning our wedding, what they would have liked and appreciated about it, what questions I would have asked them during the planning process. This is how a loss reverberates; each new experience without our loved ones is its own new loss.
October: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (Graywolf, 2019)
This is one of the most astonishing poetry collections I’ve read to date. Kaminsky, who is hard of hearing himself, writes here about a town in Soviet-occupied Ukraine whose residents adopt a makeshift sign language in order to evade and resist the Soviet occupation.
The townspeople also begin to feign deafness after a deaf boy is shot to death by a soldier in public. Interspersed throughout the poems are symbols depicting two hands pronouncing a word or phrase, which appears below, in this town’s invention of sign language.
The poem “We Lived Happily during the War,” which has been circulating social media since the US’s assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, begins:
And when they bombed other people’s houses we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
Deaf Republic demonstrates that our world is one in which the word atrocity continues to fall on deaf ears.
November: Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse by Anne Carson (Vintage, 1999)
This is one of those books I felt bad about not having already read, and graduate school made me feel that way even more. I’d heard it was a work of genius, and I had no doubt of that given some of Carson’s other books I’d read for class. (Also “The Glass Essay!” Amazing.)
In November we were starting to see snow in Salt Lake City, and I was beginning to wrap up my final revisions to my first poetry manuscript, a book-length prose poem. Autobiography of Red is also a prose poem at book-length scale. It tells the story of a mythological monster-boy as he grows up in a world reminiscent of but different from ours. Its scope reminded me of Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette (1996), which inspired a poem of mine, “Girl Descends Asunder,” that’s due to appear in print in Black Warrior Review soon.
At the beginning of my graduate studies, I was somewhat bored with narrative poetry. Novels and short stories and essays are already narrative; why should a poem bother when it has so many more tools available to it? But when I began encountering poems and hybrid poetry/essay texts that incorporated elements of narrative and story while challenging and subverting them, like Autobiography of Red, they ignited my excitement about the narrative poetic form and what all it could hold.
December: Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston (W. W. Norton & Co., 2019)
I picked up this book for its subtitle, “Finding Hope in the High Country,” to be a balm to my news-weary soul. I also realized that I had yet to read an actual book by Pam Houston, so it was another guilt-driven read, at least to begin with.
I heard Pam Houston talk about this book and her writing process at a conference earlier in 2019. She’d read aloud a passage about seeing migrating narwhals in the arctic, a miraculous event and one that’s exceedingly rare to have witnessed. The room took on a sacred atmosphere while she read. I also knew that Houston lives on a rural ranch somewhere near Aspen, Colorado—”High Country” indeed. Naturally, the dog butt on the cover really sealed the deal.
Deep Creek reminded me of the great healing powers a good memoir wields, much like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, or Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Houston’s abusive and difficult upbringing gives her a distinct appreciation for the companionship and honest-to-goodness majesty of animals (see the aforementioned dog butt). She is able to appreciate her survival instincts for how far they’ve brought her while also critiquing them without falling into a shame spiral, something I’d happily read more memoirs to bear witness to.
I’m confident 2020 will be another year of good books, and my first year in a few where I won’t be reading toward a degree, so I’ll have more flexibility to read whatever I want. I am so grateful to be living in a time of such spectacular art and literature. Thank you to every artist for the necessary work you do, and for making me feel less alone.
Love to all ♥