The concept of a “best books” list isn’t, well, novel but we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask the writers and readers of Hugo House what kept them turning pages this year. What couldn’t they put down? What gripped them with “why-didn’t-I-write-that” jealous? What inspired them to pick up a pen and get writing? Your 2017 reading list below.
Hardly War by Don Mee Choi
Hardly War is an experiential book; in this way, it is a book full of texture. And what is history if not layered, fragmented, textured, fraught? In “Woe Are You?” she writes: ‘It was hardly war, the hardliest of wars. Hardly, hardly. It occurred to me that this particular war was hardly war because of kids, more kids, those poor kids. The kids were hungry until we GIs fed them.’ Choi invokes the ghosts of war through acts of repetition; the book uses artifacts from Choi’s father, a photographer during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
In her essay “Darkness – Translation – Migration,” which I also return to, Choi speaks of the intensity of translation, her close connection to Kim Hyesoon, and gathering darkness: ‘Like rats, children can be happy in darkness. But the biggest darkness of all was the midnight curfew. I didn’t know the curfew was a curfew till my family escaped from it in 1972 and landed in Hong Kong. That’s how big the darkness was.’ Darkness blooms. Please also read The Morning News is Exciting, Choi’s first book.
—Jane Wong, teaching The Sounds of Poetry
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
My favorite book of 2016 is On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It’s a great example of what John Gardner calls ‘the dream of the novel’: Kerouac stays—and keeps us in—the dream. I don’t know how he does it over so many pages and so many miles. It’s full of energy, understatement, and humor. It’s also a study in finding just the right name for the character: Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty, Remi Boncoeur, Galatea Dunkel, Bull Lee, Roland Major, Babe Rawlins…
—Jeff Bender, teaching Short-Short Stories & Vignettes
Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them by Paula Meehan
I really enjoyed Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them by Paula Meehan, a collection of the lectures that she gave as Poetry Chair of Ireland. The short book reminds us of why poetry connects with readers and how imaginative vision intersects with our living in the world.
—Tod Marshall, teaching Poetry of Place
Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Sharma won the 2016 Dublin Literary Award for this book.
The narrator’s voice alone breaks your heart, even before you get to the plot. Then, you’re devastated, in the way we want to be devastated by books. Family Life tells the story of a young Indian boy whose immigrant family is torn apart when his brother has a terrible accident. This is a quiet book that’s written with such control that the reader can hardly bear it.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane
An Irish friend recommended this novel to me and it’s become one of my favorites. It’s a coming-of-age story set in Derry, Northern Ireland, near where the Protestant and Roman Catholic territories border each other. The lyrical voice draws you in, beautifully weaving together a child’s memories, the landscape, Irish ghost and fairy stories, family secrets, and the mystery of a family and community betrayal. The graceful way Deane illuminates the political conflict (“the troubles”—from the partition of Ireland in the 1920s to a violent battle in Derry in 1971) through personal stories, particular community relationships and family lives, is masterful.
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo
While teaching at the writing conference in San Miguel de Allende in February, I heard C.M. Mayo read the first paragraphs of her novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, and was enchanted by the omniscient voice. I began reading the book while sitting in the sun in the courtyard of my friend’s casa in San Miguel, under a lemon tree studded with fruit, and was immediately captured by both the lyric, playful language and the fascinating window into a period of history I knew little about…Mayo can write from any character’s point of view, leaping around in gorgeous prose that mirrors the sensibility of the particular character whose mind she inhabits…The story ranges from Washington D.C. to Trieste to Paris over a few years. I love historical novels that immerse me in their time period (other favorites this year: Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies) but what I most appreciate about Mayo is her fluid, dexterous use of omniscience, a writing technique, once common, now sadly virtually absent (both Chee and Mantel use a close first person POV), which I sincerely wish to learn.
—Waverly Fitzgerald, teaching Reading and Writing for Novelists
H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald stood out for the symmetry of the writer’s sentences, the breadth of research, and the unflinching exploration of human-wildlife relationships.
—Gail Folkins, teaching Writing About the Environment
Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link
I’ve been following Kelly Link’s work for years, and every time she published a new story in a magazine I have to immediately stop what I’m doing and read it. Her stories have this unique quality of seeming to exist both in and outside of this world, bending the limits of literary and genre fiction while exploring the stranger side of human experience. I highly recommend “The Summer People” and “The New Boyfriend” from Get in Trouble.
—Ruth Joffre, teaching Crafting an Ending
Ideas Are All Around by Philip C. Stead
I came across this 2016 picture book while preparing for my Anti-Workshop class, and was smitten with the mixed-media illustration and the quiet but attentive narrative about a writer searching his surroundings for stories. It’s a sense-of-wonder-activator for readers of all ages.
Bonus reads for the grown-up fiction/nonfiction readers/peacekeepers/dreamers on your list: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.
A Woman of Property by Robyn Schiff
Over the past few years, an incremental delight of mine has been following the poems from Robyn Schiff’s most recent volume, A Woman of Property, as they have appeared online. Above all, I admire the levels of observation in Schiff’s poems: of decorum, of neighbors, of the nation, of consumption, of the self. When Schiff writes, “Be careful backing up, / black truck” I sense a distinctly contemporary dread: being witness to the moment presaging calamity while recognizing the necessity, if not the means, of action. The poems hesitate — not in ineffectualness — but in thought. As described in “A Hearing”: “So you’re saying / you grew a wall of weeds intentionally? What / do you mean ‘grew’? I did not do anything.” Throughout, the poems take nothing for granted, and in that reckoning, find meaningfulness in all experience, whether commercial, historical, or mundane. As Schiff writes in the book’s final poem, “The Houselights,” which travels from Wallace Stevens to Macbeth to Sputnik: “She was bored sometimes and / sometimes shot through with energy / of such force she thinks she’s God.”
—Bill Carty, teaching Winter Poetry Workshop
And four final picks!
This has been a year of research for me mostly. I’m looking forward to a holiday break with an advance copy of Roxane Gay’s new work, Difficult Women.
These books have been necessary this year, and since I moved to Canada part-time, I’ve also been listening to the stellar Massey Lectures.
- Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching by Crystal Nicole Feimster
- The Unconscious Civilization by John Ralston Saul
- Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
—Sonya Lea, teaching Burning Down the House