"Poetry is probably my deepest love, even if I do gadabout more with the likes of fiction and philosophy. No matter what I read, I tend to be most interested in how a writer is using language -- what they do with words and the spaces between them. There is, I find, often more poetry shacked up in the paragraphs of prose than at its home in verse. I love a good story as much anyone, but more importantly still are the worlds created in the telling of that story. One result of this is that I tend to err on the side of reading slowest the books I value the most."
Olio is unlike anything else I've ever read. How often does a person get to say that? Tyehimba Jess' second book is a mash-up of sonnet, song, and story, and neither the fiction nor fact of American history looks the same again. A celebration of the works, lives, and defiance of African American artists and musicians who suffered (then and today) minstrelizing stereotypes. Olio is an education and encyclopedia. -- Brad J.
Sudden Death is going to be a revelation for a whole lot of people this year. (It was already my favorite book of 2016 when I read an advance copy in 2015!)
We are in the midst of a new golden age of Mexican literature, and Sudden Death has opened even more audacious paths for this most cosmopolitan storytelling. To retell the plot does the novel very little service -- which isn't to say it is plot-less or even particularly difficult to follow. Rather, it is tightly wound (not unlike the balls used in the epic duel of a tennis match that functions simultaneously as the novel's centerpiece and frame) and bounds expertly between centuries from Old World to New.
Sudden Death is, at its core, a very angry book - specifically, at the insipid successes of the world's colonizers - but it is an anger born of play and the censure of comedy. The bad guy may always win in the end, Enrigue seems resigned to say, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the losers' little victories along the way. -- Brad J.
Adored by the titanic likes of Octavio Paz, Roberto Bolaño, and Julio Cortazar, amongst many others, it is something of a mystery why Alejandra Pizarnik has remained largely unknown in the United States. If you’ve been privy to her for as long as you can remember and cherish your private holding of her as you might any rare treasure, I apologize. For these poems, quite simply, must be experienced.
(Another due apology: to the friends who have been receiving, during the darkest parts of the evening, text-messaged photos of her poems, with attending exclamation marks in lieu of sufficient commentary.)
There is a prismatic quality to Pizarnik’s language. Her poems are often simple, in the most immediate sense. Each resembles to me a discrete solid thing — as though you might reach through the page and touch it, as one might a stone. But in her tragic pursuit, by way of poetry, of a silence that can only ever be put into language, we find a stone that refracts light in unexpected ways.
Similarly, though the comparisons between Pizarnik and Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath seem concrete and helpful pegs for our understanding, something happens as we read — our Anglo eyes darting to the Spanish, mouthing her words alongside their translation. We are exposed to (and perhaps by) Pizarnik’s sense of a profound (because it is shared) betrayal that is an indelible part of the human experience. Her ultimate vision is a dark one, to be sure. But by the light of her brilliant language we see something in the dark that is not of the dark. So we keep reading, knowing full well it could be but a trick of the eyes. -- Brad J.
Not quite poems. Not quite essays. C.D. Wright's final collection before her untimely death earlier this year is a fitting farewell for -- and arguably even introduction to -- a poet who defied formal identification. In the course of saluting the likes of Robert Creeley, Jean Valentine, and William Carlos Williams, and meanderingly reflecting on her time spent in Mexico and with those who have lost lifetimes in prison, Wright gives us a master-class in modern American poetry. Fans of Mary Ruefle's underground classic, Madness, Rack, and Honey, should take special note. -- Brad J.
Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing with Feathers defies genre and expectation. Despite being defiantly unique, it feels instantly at home. Its emotional heights never sink to maudlin depths, which makes even the most surprising turns feel somehow familiar. A quiet book that keeps you awake at night—like grief, like a cheeky Crow. Porter’s debut is rich with poetry and heart. Literary readers will be talking about this one for a while. -- Brad J.
With black and brown bodies being felled daily -- from Cleveland to Ferguson, Baltimore to Oakland -- by an assortment of institutional and systemic forces shrugging off protest when they are not stamping it out, the stories of these lives, or ones like them, are the stuff of histories untold by History. John Keene's magnificent collection of stories/novellas reads like an epic novel chronicling the colonized's defiant desire for justice and the slave's multiform attempts at retribution. These lives that matter . . . matter, and in Keene's hand spin the controlling narrative of History differently. The result is (I decided midway through 2016) my favorite fiction of 2015. -- Brad
Seiobo There Below remains one of the most mystifyingly great novels I've read in a over a decade. Krasznahorkai is half-hypnotist and half-sorcerer, and he pulls off audacious, seemingly pretentious maneuvers like 20-page sentences in such a way that you quickly lose sight of the audacity and find yourself instead wherever he damn well wants you. In some chapters, this means you're struck dumb; others, smiling ruefully; and still others, close to tears for reasons you can't quite articulate. "What's it about, though, Brad?" you're wondering. Neither a straightforward, plot-driven novel, nor a short story collection, it's maybe best to think of Seiobo There Below as a collection of moments -- set in places as far-flung as a Buddhist monastery in Japan to the medieval workshops and modern-day museums of Italy to the mysterious fortress/palace Alhambra. In each, Krasznahorkai reflects on the possibility of beauty existing in a world seemingly unfit for it, and what it means when we get a glimpse. Seiobo There Below repeatedly rehearses, with a precision usually reserved for microscopes and mathematics, how this looks -- and I could not look away. The adventurous reader will be challenged and rewarded. -- Brad J.