I love sharing what I love. It should come as no surprise that I relish the thought of books-as-medicine, and if you’ve got an ill of the heart, I’ve got a reading recommendation to treat you.
To clarify, that is less about appropriating a metaphor and more toward speaking about the power of books in my own life: they’ve saved me, time and again. Stories are powerful. Language (and the gaps of it) is important.
2019 was the year I moved away from meeting an arbitrary “# of books read” goal (more on that here). Instead, I read what I felt called to read. This meant dipping in and out of essay collections. It meant devouring a novel. It meant abandoning books that didn’t quite grasp my interest. Of course, it also means I have stack of books at my bedside, and I am not-so-productively working my way through all of them.
With that said, I read some amazing books this year. (I list essays I read and loved here, if you’re inclined.) Here were some I loved the most.
Five Plots, by Erica Trabold (nonfiction / lyric essays)
“Trabold is a poet’s essayist, with a poet’s eye for craft at the sentence level. But Trabold is also an essayist’s essayist, tucking meaning inside the construction of each piece for the intrepid reader. In Five Plots, the “five plots” could easily be dismissed as a reference to the literal five pieces included in Trabold’s slim book, but while contemplating the essays, the reader finds herself thinking about many different ways to interpret an event, the many coexisting storylines which weave together into a memory. One is always highlighted when disclosing a story, but Trabold is reminding the reader that there are concurrent narratives occurring—she is only telling one, the one she wants to tell.” | Review in The Rumpus
Heavy, by Kiese Laymon (nonfiction / memoir)
“Kiese Laymon started his new memoir, “Heavy,” with every intention of writing what his mother would have wanted — something profoundly uplifting and profoundly dishonest, something that did “that old black work of pandering” to American myths and white people’s expectations. His mother, a professor of political science, taught him that you need to lie as a matter of course and, ultimately, to survive; honesty could get a black boy growing up in Jackson, Miss., not just hurt but killed. He wanted to do what she wanted. But then he didn’t.” | Review in the New York Times
The Book of X, by Sarah Rose Etter (novel)
“In Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, we enter a world technically altered but emotionally the same as ours. We follow the life of Cassie, a girl born with a knotted torso, a rare and hereditary (fictional) condition in women. Cassie tries to navigate adolescent obsession with a traumatically different body from her peers. Meanwhile, her mother, also knotted, offers her rocks to suck on to quell her appetite, and her father mines meat from their family-owned quarry. When she moves out on her own, Cassie tries to navigate adult life with a knotted body, and later, without. Her experience is punctuated by visions she has of a slightly altered world from her own, though not so altered that she’s able to see herself, even there, with real companionship.” | Interview in Electric Literature
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T Kira Madden (nonfiction / memoir)
“The tribe of fatherless girls that make up T Kira Madden’s titular chapter are three high school friends bonded by loss, lust, recklessness and love. But the tribe extends much further, shape-shifting throughout the memoir from youthful friendships to romantic partners, from a nuclear family to a revision of that family history. Though the tribe expands, Madden’s devoted, imperfect relationships with girls and women form the centrifugal force around which her story spins. This is a fearless debut that carries as much tenderness as pain. The author never shrinks from putting herself back into the world after every hurt, and we are lucky for it.” | Review in the New York Times
The Word Pretty, by Elisa Gabbert (nonfiction / essays / criticism)
“In this collection of brief essays, Gabbert, who is also a poet, draws inspiration for her musings from subjects like group selfies and the psychology of dreams and YouTube videos “designed specifically to make people cry.” She makes points about consumerism, self-image and the optimization of happiness.” | Review in the New York Times
Ongoingness, by Sarah Manguso (nonfiction)
“Joining the canon of insightful meta-diarists is Sarah Manguso with Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) — a collection of fragmentary, piercing meditations on time, memory, the nature of the self, and the sometimes glorious, sometimes harrowing endeavor of filling each moment with maximum aliveness while simultaneously celebrating its presence and grieving its passage.” | Review in Brain Pickings
Goodbye, Sweet Girl, by Kelly Sundberg (nonfiction / memoir)
“In 2014, Guernica published an essay by Kelly Sundberg warmly titled, “It Will Look Like A Sunset,” a piece that was then included in Best American Essays 2015, tucked in between luminaries Rebecca Solnit, Zadie Smith, and Meghan Daum. Spare and compact, this story by relative newcomer Sundberg rattled readers in its pointed juxtaposition of pleasure and pain.
Sundberg published two other essays on domestic violence in 2014—“The Sharp Point in the Middle,” a prismatic reflection on youth, assertion, and ownership, and “Goodbye, Sweet Girl,” an ode to the women who heal and grieve together. Weaving these themes together and expanding to preface the life she lived before she met the man who abused her, Sundberg’s memoir has a familiar title, Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival.” | Review in Los Angeles Review
The Skinned Bird, by Chelsea Biondolillo (nonfiction / essays)
“Chelsea Biondolillo is a Portland-based writer whose research and fascination with winged things has taken her all over the world. Her debut essay collection, The Skinned Bird (Kernpunkt Press), uses Biondolillo’s expertise as a springboard toward deeper explorations of a living planet, of human connection, of everyday realities like disappointment and grief. In the midst of Arizona monsoons and the drizzly rains of the Pacific Northwest, settings that uniquely highlight the beauty and brutality of the natural world, Biondolillo encounters bird and after bird—which is to say, Biondolillo encounters herself. In each personal essay, The Skinned Bird peels back the layers of what it means to be human, often through unconventional means: the insides of a dead bird, migration routes, weather patterns, decades of a grandmother’s bird logs. This collection gets to the heart of what I’ve come to understand as Biondolillo’s most poignant inquiry: How do we live, how do we carry on, when we know all that we know? When we realize we know nothing at all?” | Erica Trabold’s introduction, in her interview with Biondolillo in Bomb Magazine
The Crying Book, by Heather Christle (nonfiction / lyric narrative)
“This communicative aspect of crying is one of the trickier notions that Christle wrestles with in her peculiar and indelible book. She’s fully aware that tears aren’t always to be trusted, even though they can come unbidden and unwanted — the reflexive byproduct of overwhelming emotion. She conveys her beliefs and suspicions in discrete paragraphs of text, quoting lines of poetry, personal correspondence, psychological studies. (Writers like Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso are distinguished practitioners of the form.) Some sections are as short as a sentence; almost all open up new possibilities for inquiry: ‘I believe in ending sentences with a preposition in order to give the ideas a way out.'” | Review in the New York Times
Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood (nonfiction / memoir)
“It’s always a treat when a great poet is also an apt writer of regular sentences. Patricia Lockwood, who you should follow on Twitter immediately, is especially good at it, imbuing every sentence with propelling meaning, a clever turn of phrase, or both. In her memoir, Lockwood recalls growing up in Missouri as a deviant among four siblings with a paranoid mother and a prog rock guitar playing father who also happens to be one of a small handful of married Catholic priests. Every character is crafted to the point of seeming almost cartoonish, but it’s nearly impossible to look away from this portrayal of a surreal youth (and adulthood, TBH).” | List in Thrillist
Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion (novel)
“The novel is about 31-year old Maria Wyeth, who is confined in a psychiatric hospital. It is from her point of view, mostly, that we learn in fragments the details of the journey that led her here: her divorce from her filmmaker husband Carter Lang, the fragility of her four-year old daughter Kate, the abortion Carter forces her to have. While these plot details (and others) are important, it’s the incredibly glinty way the book unfolds, sentence by sentence, that makes it something you just can’t shrug off after reading.” | Interview with writer Nicholas Rombes on Didion’s novel in Electric Literature. (I also wrote a little bit about it here.)