2020 Faves & Raves from the Adroit Staff
This past year was strange in so many ways, but especially for authors of new books. The book tour hopscotch of literary festivals, readings series, and neighborhood bookstores disappeared initially, before returning robustly online. The happy news is that book sales have been strong, as people are reading through the pandemic. But the ability to discover new books or new authors in the wild by browsing your local bookstore, overhearing someone on the subway or in a coffee shop discussing a book, or seeing someone on a flight next to you engrossed in a book has gone, for now. So, we asked our staff at Adroit to share some of their favorite reads from this past year. Happy reading!
~ Heidi Seaborn, Executive Editor
Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo (Four Way Books)
One of my favorite books from 2020 is John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books). I’d studied and even taught some poems from it before the book came out (namely, the absolute master class on writing that is “Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds”), so it was a thrill to see them here again, as part of this book. Another stunner is “Dolores, Maybe,” a devastating and intimate act of wrestling with memory, guilt, mourning…it cannot be paraphrased. It’s rare that I feel, as a reader, so personally invited into the world of a poem as I do here. These two poems are worth the price of the book, as far as I’m concerned (plus the sequence of sonnets—a nuanced reflection on, among other things, systemic racism and police violence, which should be required reading in schools). Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry has a little bit of everything: politics, desire, experimentation with form, music, narrative, lyric, vulnerability, muscle. The entire book is so charged, and there’s so much to learn here.
~ Chelsea Bunn, Poetry Reader
Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party by Chessy Normile (Copper Canyon Press)
The poems in Chessy Normile’s Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party teach us that humor doesn’t have to occlude seriousness—it can frame it. She proves that the decadent—“…I became / a shallow bowl of strawberry milk / riding a fictional boat through a very real storm”—can sharpen the edges of the lyrical—“You stood still, gentle as a rock / sinking to the bottom of a lake, and I thought, / When we die, may that someone lift us purposefully as that”—through contrast, and leave them both more striking for it. This book has taught me so much about how (and why) I want to write. I doubt I’ll ever stop learning from it. This text was one of the best debuts I’ve ever read.
~ Lloyd Wallace, poetry reader
A House is a Body: Stories by Shruti Swamy (Algonquin Books)
These stories have a gorgeous, haunted quality and the writing is by turns fierce and lovely. Young mothers, struggling couples, and women grappling with the fallout of all manner of violence wander, stalk, and rage-march their way through these pages. Some stories take place in India, others in the U.S., and there is a clear sense of place as experienced through a quiet, watchful eye.
~ Amy Lyons, Prose Reader
The Nightfields by Joanna Klink (Penguin Books)
Another in a line of bracing, elegant collections, The Nightfields by Joanna Klink is a guiding star in times heavy with loss, grief, and isolation. I first encountered Klink’s work in a writing workshop years ago, and I have been rapt with her delicate, precise lines since then. Like Klink’s other collections, the natural world is ever-present in The Nightfields and serves to illustrate the forces that render our lives—and the lives of those dear to us—brief, as in the opening poem: “All the days you have / ever breathed are swallows / shooting between trees.” The heart of the collection is restless and at times forlorn, as we witness a speaker grappling with a “compasslessness” that brings them to sobering revelation: “Having woken many days I still / can’t account for / myself.” The poem “New Year” is flanked by pages containing a symbol that resembles ellipses, a silence, a grand pause to usher in the collection’s second act, which is masterfully encompassed in these lines: “…we concede a thousandfold / and feel, harder than land itself, / a complicity for everything we did not see / or comprehend.” The Nightfields delivers readers to the metaphysical realm by the end, where “lakes sway with your chest,” where “we were the presence that became at last no color,” and where we say “welcome and farewell” to our transitory lives. The Nightfields is a pilgrimage to temporal and cosmic unity that readers will find remarkably moving.
~ Maison Horton, Poetry Reader
Now It’s Dark by Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan University Press)
More than any collection I read in 2020, Gizzi’s latest reads like a book of spells. The incantations within feel meant to be read aloud, forwards and backwards, over and over again. The attention Gizzi pays to each syllable of each word of each line is evident in every poem; each reads like a tightly packed camellia blossom, languidly unfurling, dropping, decaying, re-seeding, and finally popping back out of the earth. Consider these lines from “Sunshine”: “Of what. Was wing. / Was bright all afternoon. // Was nothing / more than / collapsing into / the crisp March / late-winter air. // This sheaf of light. / It doesn’t help.” Then, later, in the same poem: “Sometimes / there is a poem / and says my life. // Says what. Says Wing.” The collections’ crowning achievement is “Marigold & Cable,” a longer poem which absolutely mesmerizes, particularly when read slowly, out loud, to a cat, for example. “O silk, O air, / speak softly / in the blankety / almost now, / to be triaged / in the whorl, / see it tranquil, / joyful, merging…” Here, as throughout this collection, Gizzi seems to pluck each word from an aeolian ether, and has mastered the art of placing them in combinations that almost create an ASMR-like experience; soothing, yet deftly slicing through the noise of life.
~ Caleb Nichols, Poetry Reader
Guillotine by Eduardo Corral (Graywolf Press)
Reader, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t drawn to this book by its cover, which features an antiquitous male figure, posing and displaying his generous hindquarters. My goodness. Thankfully the contents of Corral’s second collection, Guillotine, proved an excellent match for such an alluring package (really, the book should win best-designed poetry book of the year—round of applause to designer Carlos Esparza and artist Felipe Baeza). This is a book of longing, of pain, of hunger, of thirst, of desperation. Deserts, both real and metaphorical, loom large, dusty and merciless. The body, almost always a focal point in these poems, is pierced, is parched, is rendered so vulnerably and honestly that I felt myself needing to take a break at times, to look away from the blinding, hot glare of Corral’s images. But this collection rewards steadfastness, even as it can be difficult to witness the speaker’s pain. Here and there, the landscape is relieved by seeming mirages of beauty, the force of which is made clearer by the baseline suffering happening in the rest of the text. A favorite line of mine, from Sentence: “gently he hammers gold into a sentence gently / the sentence enters me.”
~ Caleb Nichols, Poetry Reader
Death Magazine by Matthew Haigh (Salt Publishing)
Matthew Haigh, an emerging queer poet from the United Kingdom, has a knack for pressing together the innocuous and the oblique. The effect of this, evident throughout his collection Death Magazine, is the blossoming of several shades of strange, new flowers; these poems, which often feel like abstract collages pasted together from magazines as disparate as Better Homes & Gardens and 90s queer staple XY, are masterfully cut, arranged, and glued into position. From collection opener “Do You Even Lift Bro,” which successfully positions images of gyms, slugs, dirt, semen, and Ripley from the Aliens series into a clever pastiche, to the minimal, laser-focused, delicate sensibility of “Vintage Barbie Chest of Drawers,” which carefully meditates on the speaker’s childhood predilection for all things miniature, the poems in this collection weave together the synthetic and the organic to create a uniquely queer ecology that is wild, novel, and ultimately, satisfying.
~ Caleb Nichols, Poetry Reader
Weather by Jenny Offill (Knopf)
Occasionally a book rattles you so deeply that the rhythms of your brain change. Diagrams of your neuropathways, you think, would look identical to those of the author’s sentences. You see a bird, have a funny thought about it, and later wonder if it existed on your walk or on the page. Maybe the book is getting to you; maybe you’ve always had thoughts like these, and you’re only now noticing them.
For me, this year, that book was Weather. Offill’s narrator, Lizzie, is a lapsed grad student and librarian whose cataloguing of her world is both patient and scatterbrained, profound and bathetic. Better than any other novel I’ve read, its short-winded prose captures the distracted cadence (weather, maybe?) of contemporary consciousness: the interconnection of all beings brushes up against mysterious knee pain, and grocery lists rub shoulders with existential dread. When Lizzie begins answering the letters addressed to Hell and High Water, the prepper-oriented podcast run by her former mentor, Offill’s inventive style is well poised to track Lizzie’s descent into doomsday panic.
For a book so preoccupied with anthropogenic ravages, Weather includes few statistics or forecasts. Lizzie starts out as an average human we can recognize ourselves in. She feels powerless in the face of late capitalism, as I imagine most of us do; for her, as for us, “climate change” seems too trite an utterance, failing to capture the juxtaposition of global disaster and relatively unaltered middle-class life. Lizzie’s anxiety and our intrigue build through accretion so subliminal it seems geologic—one can almost sense tectonic plates shifting, whales singing, cold fronts amassing behind every section break.
And I haven’t even mentioned that this is a book about love. Love, and as Offill puts it, an “obligatory note of hope.” Hope? In this climate? Sign me up.
~ Lukas Bacho, prose reader
The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman (Little, Brown and Company)
In September, after a disappointing summer, but before the deepest wells of election and pandemic anxiety had yet been tapped, came this beautiful middle-grade book. Kate, who doesn’t much like trains, gets a real, working steam engine as an eleventh birthday present from her mysterious uncle. It is an answer to her deep desire to have an adventure. Her adventure, especially when read aloud to bored, Zoom-drained kids, was exactly right for our house-bound family.
“This is it. Real life is being interesting for a change,” Kate’s uncle says early on. It’s a statement full of promise and risk. Kate and her younger brother, Tom, along with a cast of talking animals, journey on a well-apportioned, intelligent train, that goes almost anywhere to deliver its passengers to their destinations. It’s enchanting.
The Silver Arrow is a story that both reinvigorates my imagination and reminds me why the real world deserves our love and care and protection. In the chapter entitled “Trees,” Kate asks a forest what it would like in exchange for providing firewood, and the response and the description that followed, gave me a sense of peace that lasted until November.
Lev Grossman is best known for The Magicians, novels about disaffected, dean’s list magicians dealing with depression and the search for a meaningful life in a dystopian Narnia. I love those books, but it will be years before I will share them with my kids. The Silver Arrow contains the same intelligence and attention to the emotional states of its much younger characters as The Magicians and captures precisely the yearning for adventure, for meaning, and for a wider world that draws this reader to fantasy.
~ Timothy Thomas McNeely, poetry reader
I Hold A Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg (FSG)
I read most of I Hold A Wolf by the Ears’s stories in one sitting half past midnight, as one does with ghost stories. Which fits, because van den Berg’s stories do feel like they were written with psychological horror as its foundation. They inhabit liminal spaces and unsettled moments, unnamable fears, small shifts in the environment that emerge without visible causes. But her ghosts form such a banal part of her characters’ lives that they fade into the wallpaper. Her characters know they’re in crisis but can’t let themselves look it in the face.
For some, the sense that there’s a “good” life they’ve failed to reach—as wife, as mother, as working woman—manifests as moving into another woman’s life. Others sleepwalk, lest they wake to face the brutal force gaslighting them from all sides. Others die, or watch others die, or have to piece together the truth of someone else’s death. Meanwhile, the banal violence of our political reality—the Kavanaugh hearings, random acts of violence against women, the soul-crushing weight of the gig economy and economic precarity—keeps pressing in, telling us what we can and can’t believe.
Really, the existential horror at the heart of I Hold A Wolf is that our vision can—and often should be—doubted. Our selves are mutable and flawed; our visions more compromised than we want to believe. And yet for a woman in America, doubt is everywhere. Doubt is violent.
It was easy, but also awful, to read these stories in the middle of the night. Because I knew those horrors. They live in my wallpaper too.
~ Katherine Xiong, prose reader
World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Milkweed Editions)
One of the most gorgeous books I have read this year is Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s essay collection World of Wonders. Each essay centers around a wonder from nature, ranging from narwhals to monsoons to dragon fruit. And each wonder is richly rendered—filled with lyrical prose woven with personal stories of coming-of-age, motherhood, and more. The writing is alive, and it is truly living. It celebrates the world while also sharing wisdom. It is sincere and artful at the same time.
I have been a longtime fan of Nezhukumatathil’s poetry. The first book I ever read from her was Oceanic (Copper Canyon Press, 2018), which I picked up while I was in high school. Her poems and the vibrant worlds they create have been an inspiration to me. This new essay collection does not disappoint. It is both precise and imaginative in the way it depicts nature. Fumi Mini Nakamura provides beautiful illustrations throughout the whole book. Most of all, I love the love this book exudes. It reminds me of growing up and what it means to live in the world with joy.
I’m going to leave this off with a quote from one of the book’s brilliant essays, “Firefly”: “They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say: I am still here, you are still here, I am still here, you are still here, I am, you are, over and over again.”
~ Jieyan Wang, prose reader
Temporary by Hilary Leichter (Coffee House Press)
In Hilary Leichter’s debut novel Temporary, the protagonist is a nameless, nondescript young woman who serves as a temp worker for anything and everything—quite literally. From filling in for the Chairman of the Board at Major Corp (a major corporation, of course) to swabbing the deck as a replacement pirate on a ship, the narrator slips in and out of increasingly surreal, dreamlike assignments, all the while pining for what other Temporaries refer to as “the steadiness,” which has eluded her maternal line for generations. The search for permanent employment becomes an existential quest as well as a critique of late capitalism.
While the book’s slim length and succinct chapters remind one of its thematic preoccupation with impermanence, Temporary also offers the exact respite one might be looking for in our current moment of frayed attention spans and near-constant fatigue. Leichter’s prose is (appropriately . . . or inappropriately?) gig-economical—the words taking double assignments, working overtime to maintain a balance of punny hilarity and profound sadness—but the story remains eminently readable and entertaining. You can read Temporary as I did, savoring its absurd imagery and precise language like you would the last Ferrero Rocher in your office’s snack pantry, or you can devour the story in one sitting. Either way, Leichter’s crisp language and energetic wordplay are a pick-me-up. For these reasons (and for the litany of unforgettable temp placements), Temporary has a permanent spot in my stack of 2020 favorites.
~Delia Davis, prose reader