Updated: Jan 30
Hi all. Kat here.
We’ve reached that point of the year where people are making lists. All sorts. From hyped-up best of lists of poetry collections and novels that made an impact this year, to the own personal tallies we make of the books we’ve spent time via platforms like Goodreads or The Storygraph, to Spotify Wrapped. So now we have what you’ve all been waiting for. MY contribution.
I thought for today’s blog post, I’d do mini-reviews of all the books I read this year. This is not an exhaustive list: there are books I have yet to read in the last few weeks of the year, and I’m aiming to do monthly round ups in the new year about books I’ve been reading more consistently. We’ll see how that goes then. But in the meantime, here are some books, and my personal opinions about them.
#1- Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno Garcia
I really wanted to like this book. It has an interesting premise, and based on Silvia Moreno Garcia’s other work, I was eager to dive into this one. Maite, the main character, was incredibly selfish and unlikeable, extremely judgemental and holier-than-thou when all she does is imagine a life like the ones in the love comics she reads during her job. There was nothing that made this book’s reader root for her. Elvis’ chapters, on the other hand, were extremely compelling, and his and Maite’s paths crossing, when it did happen, brought out a side of Maite I wish we as readers saw earlier. There were pacing issues too, way too slow and then way too fast. A solid 3 out of 5 stars.
#2- Path of Totality by Niina Pollari
This book broke me apart. Having received an ARC of it on NetGalley, I’m going to just paste my review of it below:
In Niina Pollari’s “Path of Totality,” grief is, as the title suggests, total and unsparing. The book itself is the black drag of grief, the aftereffect of a child leaving the earth well before their time. The poems are pure and eviscerating, even to a reader like me who has never undergone that particular pain.
Pollari executes the lyricism of grief deftly; these poems about grief are also poems about New York geography, about coffee shops. Even as she warns the reader to bite back their questions in the poem “White Blood Cells,” there’s still that undercurrent of pleading with the reader to acknowledge that loss in the same poem: “Before you say anything, I can feel your question leaving your body and coming toward me like an odor that you release. It walks up to my door. It kicks over my talisman with its soft feet.” And then: “I practice saying “Yes, I have a daughter.” But when I open my mouth, something else starts to come out. I suck it back in. I hope nobody will ever ask, but then I hope someone asks. I hope more than anything.”
Other readers have already pointed to Pollari’s generosity in sharing her experience and letting the reader inside an incredibly devastating chapter of her life, but I will reiterate it. These poems are raw, a live wire in the best, most heartbreaking way. This was my first time reading anything by Pollari, but rest assured, it will not be the last.
5 out of 5 stars.
#3- Apology for Want by Mary Jo Bang
Mary Jo Bang is too smart for me. That’s about it. 4 out of 5 stars.
#4- The Orchard by David Hopen
The Orchard is one of those rare, transportive books. It makes you think, but more than that, it makes you reflect. You don’t have to be Jewish to understand the philosophical and religious background of the book, but I’m sure it only enhances the experience. The descriptions of tenderness between boys coming of age and how incredibly fragile the position of outsider is are perhaps the book’s greatest strengths. It’s a beautiful tour de force. At times, however, you get the impression Hopen is showing off a bit too much; he’s very smart and obviously introspective, which comes through in his writing, but I would call it his double edged sword. 4 out of 5 stars.
#5- Makeshift Cathedral by Peter LaBerge
A beautiful meditation on queer desire. I’ve been an admirer of Peter’s work for ages, but hadn’t picked up either of his chapbooks, so when I was at AWP in Philly this past March I jumped at the chance. It didn’t disappoint, but we all have our obsessions and I’m interested in seeing more variety from him in the future. 4 out of 5 stars.
#6- Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes by Nicky Beer
I’m usually not a huge fan of books that employ pop culture/famous people/cultural icons as backdrops for their poetics, not out of a dislike of those things, not at all, but because I’m more drawn to other styles, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that this book blew me out of the water. From poems about Dolly Parton and Marlene Dietrich to Law & Order, there exists a beautiful cohesion between allusions, form, and content. This book cemented my love of Beer’s poetics and makes her a poet to watch and learn from time and time again.4 out of 5 stars.
#7- Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon
I really liked this book; having only surface level knowledge of Wendy Wasserstein’s life, only knowing some crucial details about her from her plays, it was lovely to really immerse myself in this biography. The writing is well done yet accessible, and it makes me want to write my own plays. Perfect for the theater kid in your life. 4 out of 5 stars.
#8- Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Glorious, time-traveling trickery. I might be slightly biased here; I’ve been a huge fan of Emily St. John Mandel’s work for a long time now, and was very much anticipating this one. Station Eleven is my comfort novel, one that I’ve read six or seven times now, in hospital beds, in moments of duress when I need a shot of hope to keep me going. Sea of Tranquility is the novel that I’ll come back to for its wit and humanity. It’s a novel I wish I could read for the first time again and again. It’s a book full of wonder and life, noir on the moon and connection. Go out and get it. You won’t be disappointed. 5 out of 5 stars.
#9- My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Book #2 that makes me want to write plays this year—I guess you know where my writing ambitions are heading in the new year. This is an inspiring text, one that takes us through the life of Hudes, a genius playwright and musician. This is a text that scoots over and makes sure there’s a seat for you: everyone is invited to the table, and Hudes proves to be an excellent teacher in what artists have to do to make their art: be unapologetically themselves. I’ve already broken its spine from how many times I’ve come back to sit at its feet. An easy 5 out of 5 stars.
#10- Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman
A really interesting theatrical take on tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (which I was entrenched in during the spring thanks to an Ovid and Shakespeare class.) More effective when you see it performed. I read along as I watched a production on YouTube. 4 out of 5 stars.
#11- Body Work by Melissa Febos
I want to read everything Melissa Febos writes. I would read that woman’s grocery lists if she let me. Febos is a powerhouse writer, which is evident to anyone who’s had the good fortune of reading her work: her essay collections and memoirs are gorgeous and complex, and this book, a craft book for creative nonfiction, has already helped me immensely as I branch out into new and exciting genres. I loved this book so much I taught its first essay, “In Praise of Navel Gazing” to my writing and rhetoric students on our first day of class. Several of my students picked up a copy of their own accord, and it remains one of my proudest memories to date: that it resonated with them enough to seek out, and that’s what I admire so much about Melissa’s work. She seeks out the taboo, the secret, and shines a spotlight directly on them, questions them, and in turn, helps us see ourselves better. Melissa, if you ever want eyes on your grocery lists, come find me. 5 out of 5 stars.
#12- Memorial Drive by Natasha Tretheway
This was my first time reading anything other than Tretheway’s poetry, and woof. What a memoir. Based around the experience of her mother’s tragic murder at the hands of her stepfather, Tretheway’s grief and rage is the backdrop of this beautiful book, which explores the relationship Tretheway had with her mother while growing up biracial in Mississippi. A devastating, heartbreaking read. 4 out of 5 stars.
#13- Smile by Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl is easily one of my favorite poets and playwrights; one of my fondest memories from my time in college theater was rolling around on the floor during an audition for her play “Eurydice” as one of the stones. Did I get the part? No I did not, but did it matter? Nope. Everything Ruhl writes is rooted in the heart, and in praise, and this book is no different. It deals with loss, yes—after giving birth, the left side of Ruhl’s face was paralyzed due to Bell’s Palsy—but also deals with finding oneself, and about the journey towards discovering spirituality and motherhood and being a woman, being a wife. Ruhl is Whitmanesque in all her multitudes, and it’s such a pleasure we get to witness them. 4 out of 5 stars.
#15- We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman
Okay. So here are the sparknotes of this one: a playwright really makes a mess and exiles herself to Los Angeles to try and pick up the pieces of her shattered reputation and ends up in cahoots with the filmmaker next door who’s a little too invested in the dramatization of a girl Fight Club. It plays with our ideas of what’s real and what’s fake for sure, and Silverman has a delicious turn of phrase at times, but the inciting incident, when revealed, wasn’t all that dramatic, not as earth-shattering as the book wants us to believe. It was enjoyable, and definitely one I’m glad I read, but a 3.5 out of 5 stars all around.
#16- The Mothers by Leila Chatti and Dorianne Laux
Here’s another book where I would read the grocery lists of these authors if they let me. Leila, Dorianne (the writer says, as if they know these people personally,) I adore you and your writing, please let’s be friends. This beautiful collaborative chapbook is one of my favorites, and one I’m glad I hunt down at AWP in March. I’m actually writing an essay on Laux’s tangible images of the mother vs. Chatti’s images of theoretical motherhood in the spring for my graduate program, and I couldn’t be more excited. The poems are earnest, raw, urgent, and lyrical, and it’s one I will return to again and again. 5 out of 5 stars.
#18- A Dangerous Place by Chelsea B. DesAustels
I think this collection is very smart. It knows what it’s doing with duality: as a child is growing within the speaker, so to is a cancer that threatens the life their family has created. With poems about motherhood, illness, children, and the profound intimacy of love, DesAustels is a poet to watch. I can’t wait to see more. 4 out of 5 stars.
#19- Cut the Lights by Micaela Walley
There aren’t a lot of books that deal with the special ache of losing family, and in Walley’s work, we find a balm. Her words are soothing and traffic in the kingdom of memory: we find poems of loss juxtaposed with poems of love towards the speaker’s husband, poems about bugs and birds. Walley is dexterous and playful, and is someone you should keep an eye out for in future; you can thank me later. 5 out of 5 stars.
#21- The Portrait of a Mirror by A. Natasha Joukovsky
Four unhappy people in unhappy marriages who also have a lot of opinions about art cheat on each other with each other. Entertaining, and definitely a smart retelling of the Narcissus myth, but not something I really anticipate coming back to again. 3 out of 5 stars.
#22- Holy Moly Carry Me by Erika Meitner
A thoughtful and timely collection about motherhood, guns, religion, race, and more. 4 out of 5 stars.
#23- Raptus by Joanna Klink
Half the time I have no idea what Klink is talking about, but her lyricism makes me not care that I don’t understand. Her work gets at something deeply felt and deeply human, and I eat it up every time. 5 out of 5 stars.
#24- All the Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran
I really like Tran’s work, always have, but some of the poems in this collection I felt relied too much on floral language. The hydra form, however, is a stroke of genius, and I’m very interested to see what they’ll write next. 4 out of 5 stars.
#25- Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral
This is a deft, heavy book, full of gorgeous lyrics and immersive narrative work. The first poem I still have in my head, the lines “The dark slept in the small / of his back. The back of his knees: pale music.” Corral’s detailwork, his metaphors, are something I wish I had more of in my poetry, his compassion and clear voice something I aspire to in all my writing generally. Very solid 4 our of 5 stars.
#26- The Temple by Michael Bazzett
This was my first exposure to Michael Bazzett’s work, and what an introduction. I say this with all the good things implied: the poems are sometimes cinematic and sweeping, but also become narrowly focused. They’re kaleidoscopic and spiritual, and I really want to get my hands on a copy of The Echo Chamber and Bazzett’s other works now. 4 out of 5 stars.
#27- The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Read Batuman’s book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, and then maybe read this one. This is an okay book, with an okay premise and an okay execution. I didn’t love it, I didn’t think it matched the hype, but it wasn’t terrible either. It seemed to me terribly mundane: a college girl going about her business, getting into questionable situationships, and trying, in vain, to figure the world out. The end realization was not revelatory, it being that she was (spoiler alert) still naive about the world and her place in it. It could have been stated earlier, and Batuman could’ve shaved a hundred pages off of the book, and it would had the same emotional impact. I prefer Batuman’s nonfiction. Her writing is sharp in this, but to what end? Solid 3 out of 5 stars.
#28- Black Ballad by Afua Ansong
Ansong weaves music and family history, West Africa and the United States together in this lovely chapbook. This was my first time reading anything by Ansong, but it won’t be the last. 4 out of 5 stars.
#30- The Hurting Kind by Ada Limón
Limón is one of those poets that I have a deep and abiding love for, and her love and respect for the natural world and for human relationships are on full display in her latest book, The Hurting Kind. Do I think The Carrying had more emotional heft? Yes. Did I still think this book was lovely and cohesive and well thought out? Also yes. Queen Ada. 4 out of 5 stars.
#31- red by Chase Berggrun
A masterpiece of erasure poetry, taking a microscopic lens to womanhood, blood, gender roles, and the gothic. I have lent out my copy more times than I can count. Run, don’t walk. 5 out of 5 stars.
#33- Girls that Never Die by Safia Elhillo
Elhillo is a beautiful writer, but some of these poems definitely read as filler. The book could have been slimed down and it would have been more effective, but her turn of phrase is exact and her imagery immaculate. I will continue to read everything she writes and do so happily. One of the best poets writing today. 4 out of 5 stars.
#34- Late Wife by Claudia Emerson
I have a memory associated with this collection that now seems to work to its detriment. I read it to a person I no longer speak to on the long drive over Lake Pontchartrain leaving New Orleans, hot summer sun on my face and nothing but sky and water around me. This collection was easily one of my favorites this year. I picked it up at random from the Barnes & Noble in Metairie on a mission to acquire the next book in this list, Civil Service by Claire Schwartz, and liked the opening poem enough to purchase. I’m very glad I did. Emerson is a poet of the landscape, but also of the interior mind of a marriage and simultaneously a poet of loss, but ventriloquized loss (the last section of the book being sonnets addressed to the speaker’s new husband’s late wife *roll credits*) Beautiful, stirring, and oddly fitting for reading to someone you no longer have a romantic relationship with. Would highly recommend it with a very easy 5 out of 5 stars given.
#35- Civil Service by Claire Schwartz
Schwartz is a very interesting poet, and I looked forward to this collection for a long time, even going on a bit of a road trip to find it. It was worth it and more. With poems about censors and dictators and accountants as well as long lyric ruminations on memory and loneliness, Civil Service is brilliant and cutting and whip smart. I want to live inside Schwartz’s mind forever. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
#36- Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Cloud Atlas did it first, and Cloud Atlas did it better. But this is still a very enjoyable book, and a bonafide love letter to libraries and the transformative power of literature. Very heartwarming. 3 out of 5.
#37- Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo
This was a lovely memoir that brought Harjo’s wisdom front and center with joy and respect and reverence for her life and the people that inhabit it. Solid 4 out of 5 stars.
#38- The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz
This was such a compelling character study of a wealthy and complex American family in decline, and then it went and totally screwed itself in the last 100 pages with a revelation about a side character that had more sway over the storyline that it should’ve. The end result completely changed the narrative the author had spent some 200 pages building, and really upset the experience of reading the book for me. I wish it were different: if Korelitz had expanded that revelation to be a more gradual thing rather than a surprise twist, it could have definitely worked. However, it felt shoehorned in. This is so bittersweet because I LOVED The Plot and was eagerly awaiting this book. Damn. 3 stars.
#39- Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej
I really enjoyed this book, and having had the chance to listen to Songsiridej talk about the experience writing it while visiting us at Syracuse for our reading series, it was that much more illuminating. The book takes on issues of art, race, queerness, and desire, and does so in a way that speaks to the magnetic pull of attraction and jealousy, both between lovers and between good friends. I think Annie’s the villain. I’m just going to say it. 4 stars.
#40- Frankenstein: the 1818 Text by Mary Shelley
Nothing beats Frankenstein, period. A masterclass on hubris, guilt, envy, and depression. 5 stars.
#41- Model of a City in Civil War by Adam Day
I picked this up on a whim at the used bookstore: it grabbed my attention immediately with its electric yellow cover studded with action figures, and even more so with the poetry inside. The poems are taut and scenic, populated by women who sling the arms of their enemies over their crotches and the dead, who “smile and rise from swimming / pools or stand at attention / on stamps.” Unknown to me, and delightful. 5 stars.
#42- Second Empire by Richie Hoffman
Stunning, lyrical poems on desire and landscape. 5 stars.
#43- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
One of the great things about my horror class this term was that it exposed me to more work from writers I love. One such icon of the genre was Shirley Jackson, a writer I’ve loved for a while from books like Hangsaman and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but, ironically enough, I hadn’t read The Haunting of Hill House. It was a story rich in symbolism, and Jackson’s use of motif was repetitive without being overstated. Where some writers make you feel like you’re being hit over the head with meaning, Jackson uses it sparingly, and it works that much better. Give me a cup of stars any day. 3.5 stars.
#44- A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib
We tackled this masterwork in my literature of salvation and catastrophe class, and oh boy, what a treat. Abdurraqib’s lyricism is second to none, and I can’t wait for the next toe he dips into the genre. This book operated like a series of concentric circles, a variety of sequences that moved seamlessly together to create a document that will have resonance for years to come. From poems about flowers to race to electricity to loneliness, there’s something for everyone in A Fortune for Your Disaster. Go and check it out for yourself. 5 stars.
#45- The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
An interesting take on Lovecraftian horror. 3 stars.
#46- Translations of the Gospels Back Into Tongues by C.D Wright
Lyric and heady and gorgeously rendered. 5 stars.
#47- Horsepower by Joy Priest
This was a book I read for my literature of salvation and catastrophe, and I’m so glad it was brought into the syllabus. Priest is a poet who understands torque, elegance, and structure, and brings them all together to create powerful poems that have weight and resonance. With the motif of horses galloping throughout the text, one might wonder if it runs the risk at times of becoming cliche. I’m happy to report it does not: every turn is a delightful surprise, one of risk and place and belonging. Very happy to award it 4.5 stars. And I hear she’s working on another manuscript, and the poems I’ve been seeing from that project on the web are divine. Keep an eye out!
#48- Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953
A gift from a dear friend that really gives the reader an in-depth look at Plath’s young life when she held a guest editorship during the summer that inspired The Bell Jar. Very interesting. 3.5 stars.
#49- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
This book was 5 stars at the beginning and steadily declined with each new story. Definitely the crowning piece of the collection is the first one: a gloriously rich retelling of Bluebeard. I underlined ¾ of the story and came back to it after reading the rest of the collection. The rest of the collection isn’t bad, but it isn’t as remarkable as that first one. Hard to beat perfection. Overall, 4 stars.
#50- Best Barbarian by Roger Reeves
It’s easy to see why this book was shortlisted for the National Book Award in poetry this year. It goes from the literary to the social landscape like a pendulum swinging back and forth: with precision and metronomical rhythm. With poems about jazz and Grendel and police brutality, Reeves’ full poetic talents are on display. 5 stars.
#51- No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
In my eyes, this is a short story that wished on a star to become a real book. The premise of it is so compelling, but it’s unbalanced. I got tired of part 1 very early on after about thirty pages: we get it, life in the portal is a panopticon where people say very silly things that get them massive amounts of attention, we understand that. We don’t need 120 odd pages of the same emotions being played out again and again. And then part 2 is where the emotional intensity is at its peak and the action finally starts to pick up, but it does so in the last 50 pages. This book pats itself on the back too much for being hybrid that it forgets to develop the plot and the emotional stakes until it reads as an afterthought. I liked it! I wish it had been more thought-out. 3 stars.
#52- Dearly Departed by Hayley Bowen
Hayley Bowen’s debut chapbook is a masterclass in poetry of the body and more than that, the body in motion through landscape. She is insightful without being preachy, emotional without being cliche, and deals with impermanence with a keen eye and a bold pen. She is a brilliant writer, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. 5 stars.
#53- Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis
The ecopoetics and the focus on fairytale in Francis’ Forest Primeval are for sure the highlights of this collection. A book populated by nightjars and wolves, persona poems and pastorals, Francis is a master of giving voice to the voiceless and delighting in wildness. I had the privilege of hearing Francis read her work as part of Syracuse’s reading series this semester, and I can’t wait for her next feat of greatness, due out next year. 4.5 stars.
#54-Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
What an odd book. Odd, wormy, and altogether difficult. Not unenjoyable, however. 3 stars.
So, there's my little list. Stay tuned for more reviews coming in the next few weeks as I'll finally have time to read. Happy reading, friends.