Books I Loved in 2016

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 big-kids

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 unabashed

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 edited by Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić 

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

Advertisements

Impressions of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle

(Source: Borrowed from Roommate KH’s collection. Recommended by poet friend NI.)

 

 

Reading Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle was one of the of few times I had visited to the literary source material after having seen its film adaptation. It also happened to be one of the rarer times when I had some doubts about whether the book would be as enjoyable as the movie since typically, I’m the douche bag bitching about all the ways the movie got it wrong. It wasn’t until two years ago that I caught the Hayao Miyazaki adaptation and despite it not reaching the level of his original properties like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, its strange cast of characters and beautiful magical world took hold of me for its run time. Only a few months ago did I learn that it had been based on a late 80’s children’s fantasy novel by Jones who’s apparently the beezneez in fantasy literature.

With some trepidation, I took the plunge over the past week. Not only was I wary due to my enjoyment of the movie version, but also because reading children’s fantasy these days often just reminds me of how much more pessimistic I am than when I was a kid still hoping to someday become a mutant, the cool X-men kind and not the horribly disfigured real type. Additionally, children’s fantasy so often seems to rely on set tropes that leave little more for surprise, and therefore often just feel like a ploy to get cash from parents’ wallets once the most recent trendy trilogy gets released.
Therefore it was a great treat to read Jones’ novel, and discover much more nuanced characters than the ones that appear in Miyazaki’s version. Howl, already an asshole in much of the adaptation, rarely has moments where it’s evident that despite his flaws, he’s the guy we should be rooting for. Even more jarring in her depiction is Sophie, the eldest of three daughters who’s magically aged by the Witch of the West. Rather than an innocent figure, Sophie often acts in selfish ways that feel more authentic while remaining a constant source of humorous irritation for Howl. Of the main characters, I think only Calcifer pales in comparison to his film adaptation, his grumpy disposition rarely played for laughs in the same way as the movie without compensating for it in other ways. Continue reading “Impressions of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle”

Impressions of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Clay

Source: Borrowed from Matt D during last week’s game night.

 

 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of those books that I had been wanting to read for a couple years, but due its length (a little under 650 pages) I could never muster the courage to plunge into it. This despite knowing that even if I didn’t enjoy it on an artistic basis, I’d get a kick out of reading a bit of the early years of comic books. And while it was great to read chapters about the main character Joe Kavalier saving Salvador Dali from drowning or Sam Clay cavorting with Stan Lee, Orson Welles and other 20th century artistic legends, I was taken by how much I enjoyed reading about Joe and Sam’s personal journeys such as the creation of their first, and most widely regarded, superhero The Escapist, and their individual attempts at escaping from lifelong issues.

            Joe Kavalier may be one of my favorite contemporary literary characters, a guy marked by tragedy like one of his own heroes and one who’s personality feels distinct from anything else I’ve read. A Jewish refugee from Prague, Chabon makes Kavalier’s life one that’s always interesting to follow even when the magician/artist/one man Jewish militia becomes embittered by the fate of his family who he’s forced to leave behind. Although not as remarkable as his cousin, perhaps due to his lack of gumption for much of the novel, Sam Clay embodies the workhorse writer that the comic industry so often took advantage of in its early years, becoming more interesting as the novel progresses and Sam gains further complexity. Continue reading “Impressions of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Clay”

Impressions of Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha  

(Spoiler Alert: Small children spend a lot of time torturing each another)

 

 

One of my favorite anecdotes to tell about when I was a kid (or more of a kid) is the time my younger cousin choked me with the chord of an N64 control. Growing up, my cousin, who was and remains two years younger than me, excelled at everything. He was better than me actually at everything, including basketball, school, character and later women and friendships. Zoom in on one day when he and I were playing Mario Tennis. For once I thought I might win, yet he somehow managed to ace me in the last game, which pissed me off enough that I hit him or what passed for hitting at that age, and we exchanged a few hits before I ended up facedown on the ground with a game control cord around my neck for what I’m sure was only seconds, but felt like the last few seconds. Soon enough he loosened the chord and I glared at him before we went back to playing. The most pathetic morsel of this tale though is that my cousin had recently broken his arm and had still managed to kick my ass both virtually and physically with one working arm while the other rest stiffly in one of those fiberglass cast.

            I say this all because reading Irish author Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha sent me on more trips down memory lane than any book I’ve recently read. Although separated by decades and the Atlantic, the story of Paddy Clarke and his Barrytown friends felt like my own growing up in Belize although the terrain my cousins and I traversed was far smaller than Paddy’s, but made up for it in being much wilder. While Paddy and his ever-changing group of friends stole from local grocers and burned each other in ritual ceremonies of their own design, my cousins and I collected tiny crabs that would do battle and pelted each other with cocoa plums often to a point where our skin bruised from repeat hits. Continue reading “Impressions of Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha  “

Impressions of Khaled Hosseini’s And The Mountains Echoed  

(Spoiler Alert: The Mountains Don’t Echo Merrily)

 

I can often determine whether I love a book if they’re great enough to evoke an intense emotional response from me in public. With writers like George Saunders and Steve Almond, I become maniacal in my laughter on a bus or in front of Moreland, only stopping to laugh so that I can get to their next moment of tragic hilarity. And although I sometimes feel self conscious about those laughing fits, they’re far eclipsed by the potential discomfort of publicly weeping while reading a book like the time I read the latter half of Edwidge Danticat’s Breathe, Eyes, Memory in a Woodland mall, crying over the suicide of the main character’s mother while the woman nearby me passed out sesame chicken samples to upper middle class Texans who were taking a break from scoring some Bermuda shorts. While the frequency of such occurrences have lessened to some extent over the years, perhaps because I’m less surprised by how tragic things can turn out for decent folks, I knew when I received Khaled Hosseini’s latest book in the mail that it would be a cry-inducer.

Fortunately, I had the foresight to read the book mostly at home at the chair I bought exclusively for reading purposes or in my room when I should have gone to bed, but one more chapter seemed too promising to pass up. During those early readings, I felt a little cold towards the story. It starts out with a character telling an Afghan folktale to his children while on their trek to Kabul from their small town of Shadbagh about a being that takes children away, and right then you can tell that things are not going to turn out well for one or both of the children being told the story. Although I enjoyed the tale, and Hosseini’s delivery of it through the character as he stops once in a while to comfort or scold his children, I was wary that Hosseini may have be going too on the nose with it because soon after the five-year old daughter, Pari, is sold off to a wealthy couple that lives in Kabul, setting up the goal for Pari and her older brother Abdullah, with whom several characters remark she shares an intensely close bond, reunion by the book’s end.

However, I feel now like I was being a pessimistic jerk in that early portion of the book because Hosseini goes on to tell the story of their reunion in a circuitous manner that rarely features either sibling. Instead, each chapter focuses on a different character associated to the siblings in one form or another. One chapter is written as a long letter from the siblings’ uncle Nabi, the executor of Pari’s sale and perhaps even more of a narrative focal point than either sibling, where he describes the circumstances leading to and following that event, making Nabi not only a sympathetic figure but also one of the most endearing characters as we learn that his actions are a result of intense longing for one of his employers. Continue reading “Impressions of Khaled Hosseini’s And The Mountains Echoed  “

Impressions of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque

(Spoiler Alert: Lots of mopey intellectual sad men i.e. literati in this one)

This book taught me that you could lose whatever minor happiness you’ve acquired at any point in your life. In Dublinesque, a Spanish novel translated by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey, we find the protagonist Riba two years into his retirement from publishing and newly sober but bored to the point of constant philosophizing and conspiring. Fact is in terms of ‘action’ that occurs in this novel there’s not very much. Most, including himself, would say he thinks far too much even for an intellectual. He thinks about his life in the past tense as though it’s already at an end despite the presence of his vibrant wife Celia whose budding Buddhism adds to Riba’s ever piling woes, and a small group of friends that provide amble support to the apathetic only child.

Taken at face value, Riba has done quite well for himself so far in life. He has fulfilled his early dreams of becoming a publisher (however poorly it ended), and had the opportunity to fully imbed himself in the life of the literary elite while also precariously maintaining his relationship with his overly patient wife and parents. Yet Riba shows the reader that new desires always come up to take the place of the ones we’ve fulfilled and, in his case, the call to live in New York and reside in the city that he views as the center of the world drives him every morning. Additionally, he obsesses in several ways over his waning stature among Barcelona’s literary community, resulting in what he constantly refers to as his hikikomori tendencies, which involve days spent in front of the computer Googling himself til he’s raw, and otherwise sleeping.

Not much leaping in this book.

The major thrust of the novel, his prophesized trip to Dublin, occurs only as a result of Riba’s fear of having nothing to share with his parents during his weekly visits to their house. Unable to find anything interesting to say about his most recent trip for a literary conference, having spent most of it concocting his own literary theory of the novel before burning it in effigy for all other lost literary theories, Riba tells his parents he’s going to Dublin for Bloomsday as a first step in making what he and his fellow literary journeymen keep calling the English Leap, which he hopes will invigorate him enough to finally make his move to New York, and start the next part of his life.

This book handles alcoholism so well throughout in that it makes an interesting case as to why people depend on alcohol to be what they consider their best or most outgoing selves. Now sober, Riba suffers Continue reading “Impressions of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque”

Impressions of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad

(Spoiler Alert: Life is Tough, Get Your Rocks Off While You Can)

If you’ve read my recent posts, you’ll know that I took a break last week as a result of dealing with final papers and grading. However, worry no longer about my sanity, as I have made it through my first term of grad school relatively unscathed, which I’ve been assured is a triumph of its own.

To celebrate I did what any good li’l English Major does, I started a new book unattached to any curriculum with [a] glass[es] of red wine. Unlike most weeks though, where I normally settle on a book at random either from my unread books at home or available through the OSU Library system, the books I’m reading over my too-short winter break have been fussed and argued over in a little digital notebook on my laptop’s Dashboard. First up on the list is the aforementioned A Visit From The Goon Squad, a book I had wanted to read since I heard about it after it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Described to me as a book about contemporary rock music by some unknown source, I figured I’d save it for whenever I needed a reprieve from Chaucer and company. However, I decided to break the glass early on this one not only because I’ve heard it mentioned with increased frequency in the past few months, but also because I have not been listening to new music with the intensity I did a year ago [an effect of both the all-consuming nature of grad school coupled with my new anti-piracy stance] and felt it could help excite me again about what it is about music that always made hunting for it so enjoyable.

Nearing the end of the book this had not yet happened. In fact, at several points up until then, the book seems to affirm that that type of passion for anything (lovers, spouses, music and other art) inevitably cools to a point beyond which even the mightiest of microwaves can hope to reheat it. Egan manages to restate this idea again and again in interesting ways through her use of multiple points of view and leaps about the timeline, intersecting her characters’ stories in an organic way that many vignette films and books could learn from. Egan seems to trusts her readers to understand the ways these stories interlock without ever explicitly stating the ways they interconnect or providing clear indicators at the beginning of chapters that reveal the sequence of events. Instead, she trusts that through her writing we’ll be able to sort out the age and place of characters, and in a time where we’ve externalized much of our memory, Egan forces her readers to retain the world of her story in our mind’s through the book’s entirety. My favorite part of the book were the moments where Egan would create a marvelous, but brief description of a character who is only mentioned then brought back several chapters later as a focal point of the overriding narrative.

Continue reading “Impressions of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad”

Impressions of Jack Handey’s Stench of Honolulu

(I read an advanced copy of this book so it may be much better. Maybe)

At some point over the summer this book found its way onto the book Wishlist I kept on Amazon before my affair with Goodreads became public knowledge. I figured I’d read it at some point many years down the line when I’d see it at a friend’s house and flip through the first few pages before asking to borrow it- one of the top 5 reasons for having friends in the first place. However, the gods saw fit that I should get to labor through this novella much earlier than that when an hour’s week at local Corvallis bookstore Grassroots Music and Books scored me this among a couple other books, including the most recent Amy Tan and a Margaret Atwood essay collection.

 

My plan was to read Handey’s novella over the past week since it was short and a bunch of deadlines were coming toward me with lightning speed. Then I’d wrap it up and gift it to a friend who I know really enjoys Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts writings and SNL segments. Now I don’t think that’s going to happen. In fact, for the first time ever, I get what motivates people into book burning. Continue reading “Impressions of Jack Handey’s Stench of Honolulu”

Impressions of Richard Russo’s Straight Man

(Spoiler alert! Characters’ Perspectives Change.)

https://soundcloud.com/illusiveness/make-it-hot-feat-goyama-rex

 

 

I first became familiar with the ‘campus novel’ sub genre from a Gulf Coast blog that defended its existence, refuting the claim that they were merely self-indulgent stories written by writers who held cushy professorships and had lost all familiarity with anything in the world other than life in the Academy. To a guy who was still mainlining fantasy and sci-fi, I was quick to agree with the blogger’s dissenters. After all, who wants to read about the trials of an English Professor when you can read about alien planets and deus ex machinas disguised as techno-babble?

Richard Russo Straight Man

Even after having embraced the notion of the literary novel, I still had no interest in reading one of these campus novels until one of my Comp professors mentioned a few, including Russo’s, in a discussion about our own Malamud whose campus novel supposed based on his experience at OSU mocked his contemporaries at a time when Skill and Drills still primarily evoked thoughts of grammar rather than early 2000’s rap videos. Of all the novels he mentioned, I decided to read Russo’s since he stated he was a funny writer and I could do with some funny writing while at the same time checking out if this campus novel thing had anything going for it. Continue reading “Impressions of Richard Russo’s Straight Man”

Impressions of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

(Read this book and avoid spoilers at all cost)

https://soundcloud.com/nelly_kate/blue-badges

 

[I’m doing a micro-thesis project for an Intro to Grad Studies course. Still uncertain about what the whole rhet/comp thing really involves, I figured I’d do something about Oscar Wao and the role of ‘genres’ in it. I had already read it before and loved it immensely. Therefore these are my impressions of my second read-through still love it since I could not conceivably squeeze in another novel in a week where I had to grade papers..]

I first found Oscar Wao in my senior year at the University of Houston. At that point, I had had just about enough of reading dead white men. Having read a selection from Drown in class earlier that semester and enjoyed it, I tracked down a copy of Wao at Half-Price Books ingested it like scripture. My love of the book is of such intensity that when Díaz visited Houston and I asked him during his Q&A about MFA programs, his response changed my life and resulted in me dedicating myself to ‘creative writing’ anew outside of the academy.

Oscar Wao is the story of Oscar de León, an immigrant kid from the Dominican Republic (DR) who can’t seem to catch a break thanks to his weight and love of the genres, or possibly because of a fuku placed on Oscar’s family by DR’s Sauron, Trujillo. More than just Oscar’s story though, Wao is about the Dominican Republic’s time under and following Trujillo’s rule and the families that were driven out of the DR and cast into the trafficky rages of Nueba Yol.

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

When trying to figure out what it is about this story that pushes me to hyperbole whenever it comes up in conversation, I keep returning to Díaz masterful ability to simultaneously portray DR and its inhabitants as both beautiful and insane. He avoids easy sentimentality and is critical of the stereotypes surrounding minority American culture, even the good ones, as in when Oscar sister, Lola, extols “We colored folks talk plenty of shit about loving our children but we really don’t. She exhaled. We don’t, we don’t, we don’t” (35). Continue reading “Impressions of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”