One of the best feelings is picking up a new book, particularly one that’s been anxiously awaited. Every year brings an onslaught of new talent and beauty in literature, and this year was no exception. With 2015 drawing to a close, we asked our staff and mentorship community what their favorite books of the year were, and they answered.
Jessica Zhang, 2015 Summer Mentee
Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
If there were proof of the existence of heaven, it would be the experience of reading Rowan Ricardo Phillip’s gorgeous second oeuvre. How we define heaven tells us what we idealize, what we strive for and what we yearn for; in that way, Heaven–both the concept and the collection–raises a mirror to our deepest natures. “Mirror for the Mirror” gives its name to two separate poems. Though sharing the same structure and narrative, one calls heaven “a continent of light, called Paradise,” and the other calls it a starry night “unreeling and unreals like Paradise.” Phillips draws from this dichotomy and others throughout the book. Imagery of snow-covered landscapes or balmy ocean shores, allusions to boyhood memories or Homer and Shakespeare, day and night or hell and heaven: opposites are, after all, merely reverse images of each other, so which reflection is the real heaven? “the Kingdom of Heaven… the mute light, mute church, mute choice” says the second-to-last poem; “the lake of light. The bed like inner thigh / Of empyrean buttermilk and gold,” says the last. If you don’t read heaven for its dialogue, read it for Phillips’s lyricism. Read it for its aural swells and iterations that reflect and refract within the house of mirrors contained between Heaven‘s covers–it’s the closest to literary heaven you can get.
Aidan Forster, Blog Editor
The Uses of the Body by Deborah Landau
Deborah Landau’s collection The Uses of the Body is positively beautiful. You know that moment when you read something really good, something that really strikes you or resonates with you and makes you close the book and look out a window for a second and it feels like lots of tiny bees are swarming in your stomach, or you’re slowly filling up with water? I felt this way reading the entirety of this collection. Her poems, which range from biting to solemn to sexy, are full of a physical and emotional urgency the likes of which I’ve rarely seen. Landau manages to see the body as something she inhabits and to look at it from the outside, straight in the face, and tell us with simple yet striking language what she sees: “The uses of the body. Rinse, repeat. / To make another body.” Throughout the collection, she explores marriage, motherhood, sexuality, and domesticity with intensity and honesty. Read this book to discover the beginning of things, the end of things, the fumbling-in-the-dark, sex-and-love-and-lack-thereof middle.
Brynne Rebele-Henry, Feminist Friday Contributor
Tender Data by Monica McClure
Tender Data is quite possibly the most brilliant, gritty, bratty book that I’ve read this year. Every word is like an antique fish knife, diaphanous but still metal, sharp to the touch. McClure’s poetry is reminiscent of a burlesque show, all the glitter and shards of broken glass that explodes out of her work, every word a piece of shrapnel. Take “Petocha,” for instance: “Virginity is $$$ / in a vintage velvet pouch.” And, from “Adderall”: “I would do addy over cocaine any day / Let’s take a long ride on the A train snorting / orange crush time release beads.” Tender Data takes the language of girlhood and distorts it until it shatters into a million tiny stars.
Rebecca Gyllenhaal, Prose Reader
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
I first heard of The Wake when a couple of my linguist friends posted about it on Facebook, all of them eager to get their hands on a copy. With a little research, it became obvious why—The Wake is written in what author Paul Kingsnorth calls a “shadow tongue,” an adaptation of Old English that has been made accessible to the modern reader. Kingsnorth claims that “To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.” At first, the language can seem daunting—take the first paragraph, for example: “the night was clere thought i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still.” But Kingsnorth’s biggest accomplishment is not his invented language—rather, it is his ability to make us forget it in only a handful of pages. I was rapidly drawn into the tumultuous story of Buccmaster of Holland, a proud, possibly unhinged English landowner determined to drive the Franks out of England in 1066. The Wake has everything—one-eyed wolves, ancient gods, green men, hallucinations, warrior monks, gruesome violence, pagans vs. Christians, delusions of grandeur, eleventh century dick jokes—and can fit comfortably within a multitude of genres—apocalyptic fiction, historical novel, war memoir, psychological thriller, revenge tall, comedy of errors, elegy. Best of all is that The Wake is surprising until the very last page—quite a feat considering we’ve known how the Norman conquest goes for the last thousand years or so.
Garrett Biggs, Prose Editor
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
Much has been said about the way The Story of My Teeth was written (super abridged version: Luiselli wrote it in installments for the workers at a Jumex factory in Mexico City), but what has been lost through the discussion about her writing process is the fact that Valeria Luiselli has crafted not just a first, but a second masterpiece. And she did it in back-to-back years. Faces in the Crowd, her debut novel, was my favorite book of 2014, as well. It tells the fiercely original story of a mother in Mexico City reflecting on her past as a translator in New York, as her voice intermingles with the poet Gilberto Owen, and they become interchangeable. Faces in the Crowd is quiet meditation on the porosity of time and borders. But whereas this work was notable for its introversion, The Story of My Teeth is diametrically opposed in its bombast. While Faces in the Crowd was about the melding of identities, The Story of My Teeth is an absurd character study of Gustavo “Highway” Sanchez, the self-proclaimed “greatest auctioneer in the world.” He is a man with a voice so distinct, it could be mistaken for no one else, and the careful work that Luiselli spends developing his speaking patterns pays off. The Story of My Teeth is the type of literature we need more of today: it is a wildly entertaining story that manages to be intellectual while completely unpretentious. What begins as a man wearing Marilyn Monroe’s teeth turns out to be an excavation on the value of art. What begins as an auctioneer reciting Japanese turns into something of an elegy.
Peter LaBerge, Editor-in-Chief
Paradise, Indiana by Bruce Snider
I’m cheating, because this collection was published in 2012—but Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana might just be my favorite poetry collection I’ve read this year. I read it this year for an independent study I did of contemporary American poetry. Its lyric twists and turns expose the fragile, haunting beauty of queer experience nestled within Midwestern adolescence in a way that could reduce anyone—let alone emotionally-fragile poets—to a pool of emotions and poems-to-be-written. If you’ve got tissues left over from the release of Adele’s album, you should probably get them out, though beyond the sadness there is an undeniable energy to Paradise, Indiana that renders it a worthy read no matter who you are.