I wanted to write something to cap off the year and share with friends, so thought a list of favorite books would work. Not all these books were released in 2016— new comics releases were where my focus was at—but they’re all works that I not only enjoyed but influenced some new way of thinking or being in the world. . I think articulating that for myself was important, and I hope that if you check one out of these, they can move you to being more of yourself too.
The books are listed in no particular order, and the ones at the end that I didn’t write about are equally loved, but not elaborated on because I wanted to do something else with my day than indulge more feelings on books. (Bonus: a short playlist of sounds I find myself in)
Sphinx by Anné Garréta
I found this book on one of those Instagram accounts that posts awesome photos of books. The cover of the Deep Vellum edition drew me immediately and I marked it on my to-read list. A short novel, Sphinx had a profound impact on me for its unique exploration of intimacy as well as the self-imposed craft restraints under which the book was composed, which you should avoid learning about before reading for full effect. This book was also a favorite for its depiction of Parisian danceclub life from the perspective of someone who doesn’t dig the scene, but is in it day after day. I copied out several passages of this that articulated my own feelings on religion, community, love and kindness. In Garréta, I found a kindred spirit, which makes me excited to read Deep Vellum‘s release of her novel Not One Day also translated by Emma Ramadan whose ‘Translator’s Notes’ at the end of Sphinx provide some thoughtful insight to the work required to translate Garréta’s novel. Along with the Star By My Head, this work helped me better recognize the important work done by these translators and the difficult artistic and ethical choices they make to make these texts accessible to an English-reading audience.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
This year was really difficult to navigate for a lot of people, including me. However, like others who got to read Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, I got to laugh for good chunks of it. A story of a black man in an Los Angeles county city that no longer exists, Beatty’s novel is one of the most biting satires I’ve read in my short life. However, at no point does this book seem interested in demonizing any particular group and instead takes to tasks all of us for our varying complicities with racism in the United States. Every time I saw someone reading this book around Syracuse, I’d start smiling over a passage I loved like the bus party for a modern-day slave that ends at the beach. Gave a copy of this one to my Dad for Christmas. Here’s hoping he sees what’s so funny about it.
Big Kids by Michael De Forge
A friend told me earlier this year that she had been finding fewer favorite books recently. That’s when I told her about Big Kids, a book I had recently read and adored and another of Michael De Forge’s comic releases made in an ongoing effort to show the rest of the world how limitless his creativity is (at least in my opinion). I bought my copy in a comics store during my first visit to Boston, MA while checking out potential PhD programs, and had my cousin and his then girlfriend/now wife indulge me in the delightful photo here. Initially set in a reality seemingly like our own, the book soon morphs once its main character becomes a tree and realizes that everyone is actually either a tree or twig with only trees knowing about this dichotomy. I first encountered De Forge in The Believer Magazine’s comic section a few years ago, then read his bizzare work Ant Colony. Big Kids expands my love for De Forge with colors that simultaneously sicken and enrapture, and dialogue that captures much of the callousness of adolescence. A tiny book that taught me a lot about managing the scope of a story, blending form with content, and how trees have sex in a pool.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
My amazing poet friend and former housemate Alana Folsom was one of my most valued poetry pushers this past year. Sharing bookshelves with her, I read works from Frank Bidart, Franny Choi, Ada Limon, Ocean Vuong, and Richard Silken, but none made me want to write more than Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. Although like many writers, I entered the medium through poems intended to woo or save me money at Mother’s Day, I left poetry aside for a couple years once I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I still don’t really know what I’m doing now, but reading Gay made me feel better able to be myself on the page. I love life. It’s been very good to me, and Gay showed me how this gratitude for everyday objects and occurrences can be just as vital and authentic a source of inspiration as the tragedy and misery that propels the writing of many others. I read this book on a hike through the Bald Hill area of Corvallis, Oregon on a clear spring afternoon. Alone, I read these poems aloud on trails and got dizzy from the lovesickness I felt for them.
Mind MGMT by Matt Kindt
Mind MGMT has gotten a lot of coverage within comics circles ever since its first issue was released 2012, and I wanted to check it out since then. However, with ongoing comics sometimes I feel incapable of taking the chance to jump on even if the story has only just left the dock. Now collected in 6 beautiful hardcover volumes, I checked them out from the Onondogaga county and Syracuse University library systems throughout the first term of my PhD.
Mind bender gets thrown around a lot to describe works of art that are difficult or complicated to parse through, but Mind MGMT is the first of those sorts for me that becomes increasingly complicated while maintaining total clarity. A tale with telepathy, government conspiracy, and global trotting, Mind MGMT is at its core a story of how individuals can change the world in collaboration with others. It sounds corny, I know, but at the end of this book I wept. Not for sadness, but for having felt empowered by a comic to be a better agent of localized change. A story that transfixed me composed in an art form I love inspired me to try harder to be human. Is there anything more you can want from art?
Unpleasant Design is a book I first heard about on the wonderful 99% Invisible podcast. A book of writings on urban design by a variety of writers of differing expertise (designers, activists, artists, scholars), Unpleasant Design showed me the ways that people shape their material reality (park benches, bus stops, intersections) to make them unpleasant for groups that the public wants to keep at the margins—the homeless, drug users, teenagers, and non-human animals. As a rhetorician interested in aesthetics and environmental sustainability, this book awakened me to the fact that urban design is never neutral, and made me better able to see human intent in the design of cities. I got a new lens to see how persuasion occurs in the world, and to better love a comfortable park bench whose design/designer invites me to sit or lie for hours overlooking a trail and a stream.
Let me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello
I tell a story sometimes at parties about singing along to the Arctic Monkeys 505 once when driving home from a night out. Curious, I decided to record myself starting on the chorus and played it back once the song was through. What I heard was a nasal whine so unlike what I thought it would be that I decided there to stop singing out loud around others. Years after, I started singing to myself sans recorder—on walks, washing dishes, in the shower, knowing that I would never impress anyone with my voice. That unexplored curiosity about voice made me excited to read Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat after meeting her during my time at Oregon State University. Having listened to a recording of her essay ‘Teach Me Tonight’ on Frank Sinatra’s instructional singing book, I knew that Passarello would be able to articulate for me the pure joy of voice through her obsessions with vocal idols throughout the ages. A hilarious book, Passarello’s essays made me want to scream, warble, groan, and enjoy the sounds of others made in love, pain, and mania.
An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler
The Star By My Head: Poets from Sweden edited by Malena Mörling
Someone Please Have Sex With Me by Gina Wynbrandt
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
The Vision by Tom King (Writer), Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Illustrator), Jordie Bellaire (Colorist), Mike del Mundo (Cover Artist), Clayton Cowles (Letterer)
Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Narratives by Robert Petersen