In addition to being a long-time bookseller, Stephanie is a poet. She reads mostly poetry and short works of fiction, primarily works in translation. The world is huge, and she finds "smaller" pieces of literature and those written in languages other than English best make the giant world as strange and new as it should feel every day.
If you've never heard of the Australian case involving the deaths of children Jai, Tyler, and Bailey Farquharson, you need to read this book (skip the foreword and don't look the case up online). In 2005 the three little boys drowned after their father's car veered off the road and into a dam. Robert Farquharson survived the crash and soon faced murder charges. Helen Garner attended the trial, and THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF is her haunting report from the field. She includes herself in the complex story, and I felt like I was sitting next to her in court. I can't stop thinking about the families and how grief can make animals of us all.
JJJJJerome Ellis's ASTER OF CEREMONIES is a breathtaking achievement. In this interdisciplinary work, the poet/musician/artist grows a textual field where dysfluent speech (eg, a stutter, stammer, Tourette's) might bloom and flourish. Ellis also interrogates the intersections of disabled speech, Blackness, and music--all of this amid a celebration of plants (that Ellis calls "elders"), which is particularly moving given all the ways we as humans are killing the planet. This book ultimately left me silent, which made me think of how Ellis writes that their stutter isn't a repetition of sound so much as an offering of silence--for both Ellis and anyone else involved in that moment of speech. What a holy offering this book is.
While the translators chose "Decapitated," I like to think of this book as "Beheaded" Poetry because, well, in English "head" has phallic connotations, and this sassy book that revolves around gay male experience is more dick pun than statement on state violence, though there's plenty of both. In DECAPITATED POETRY, published in 1995, Ko-hua Chen, the first openly gay poet in Taiwan, both called to his queer community and also called out the heterosexual world. For example, the most famous poem herein, "The Necessity of Bestiality," is a brilliant sendup of the oft-used ridiculous argument that "allowing" homosexuality leads to bestiality. I laughed so much while reading this book, but there's also lots of tender eroticism and a suite of eerily prescient sci-fi poems.
If you're picking this up because it's called UP YOUR ASS, you just need to read it. It's exactly what you think it is, and you'll also never guess what the experience of reading this play that revolves around a queer, anarchist sex worker is actually like. Valerie Solanas famously tried to murder Andy Warhol after he failed to produce this play (she was then diagnosed with schizophrenia), and that historical tidbit might be why some choose to read this work. But you should really read it because it's a vulgar, hilarious, absurd and astute take-down of misogyny and hetero-patriarchy from a radical feminist icon intent on destroying men.
I’d never heard of Joyce Mansour (1928-86), a Surrealist raised in Cairo in a family of Jewish-Syrian descent, who later lived in exile in Paris. At 15 her mother died; Mansour married at 18, only for her husband to die 6 months later. These twin wounds led to Mansour’s first poems, which no one has ever seen, as they were improvised screams in the bath. Poet Joyelle McSweeney says the poems collected here are “like emeralds held so tightly they bite the flesh,” and she’s right. Rage and desire flood these pages, where “the world is a shitting bird” and a lover “sucks on her agony.” I’m grateful for this introduction to Mansour and for lines like “She who prunes the sky with her carnivorous thighs.”
In his debut work of prose, poet Shane McCrae tries to remember, again and again, the facts of his childhood. At age 3 his white supremacist grandparents kidnapped him from his Black father and threatened his mother into keeping their secret. They spent years lying to McCrae and subjecting him to violences he still cannot wholly recall. And while this memoir centers on these facts, its actual work is more in its sentences than any sort of "plot." McCrae's recursive sentences, many of them run-ons, do the incredible work of enacting how a traumatized brain can function. If you experienced dissociation or depersonalization as a child (and are in a space now to safely read about such things), I just can't recommend this book enough.
POR SIEMPRE is a collaboration between Phoenix-based photographer Antonio Salazar and critically acclaimed poet José Olivarez. Salazar's warm photographs capture intimacy thriving in, as he says, the Latina/o/Latiné/Latinx community. These two artists succeed in the often-difficult realm of poetry-photography collaboration in part because Olivarez's poem immediately declares itself as such, rather than attempting to obscure the relationship between the text and the photographs or, worse, pretending captions are poetry. "The poem is tired of art that doesn't bounce," Olivarez writes. "SUV art / that leaves from one forgettable location and arrives nowhere in particular." As Naiomy M. Guerrero writes in the foreword, POR SIEMPRE is a "careful dance of nostalgia and imagining a future."
A great thing about this novel narrated by a queer mountain lion who lives somewhere in sight of the Hollywood sign is that it exists for your devouring. OPEN THROAT is a quick, muscular read made of animal perception and more heart than I thought possible when I first read the synopsis. It's also hilarious, despite the huge scary realities it tackles, like the climate crisis and humanity's other violences. Just trust me, ok? I love this mountain lion and their voice so so so much, and you will, too.
I just whole-heart love this dude; he's that strange/familiar. Endless giant thanks to editors Sam Ladkin & Luke Roberts and publisher Nightboat for gifting us a book of poems by the singular Mark Hyatt, who took the literacy he earned at 20 and arrow-ran with it for his left years. Hyatt (1940-1972) had a life easily abbreviated: poor, mom-dead at 5, drug-addicted, electro-shock-subjected, queer, Romani, jailed-at-times. But also Mark-ed by his self and the joy-frustration of language. What a beautiful gift his life. And the friends who knew to keep hold of his written words so we could splash in them: "How about fucking life silly / just for fuck's sake." How about it, Mark, to thank you and thank all your loves.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every great poet has that *one* book that’s absolutely and specifically meant for you. Yes, you. Kim Hyesoon is a great poet; your perfectly-you Kim Hyesoon book is just waiting for you to hold it. Maybe it’s PHANTOM PAIN WINGS, a book of bird-speak, winged ventriloquism, death as flying through a living sky, life as a sky worthy of its dead birds. Kim Hyesoon is a *genius*. Just read her and weep: “I’m a woman who pisses a toothed sunset under my skirt / After I finish pissing, I insert a full moon / between my thighs and coddle it.” (Absolutely gigantic thanks to Don Mee Choi, a brilliant poet who brilliantly and tirelessly translates Kim Hyesoon’s work into English).
One of the two entwined stories in the delightful and darkly funny novella IN THE ACT by Rachel Ingalls is a little LARS AND THE REAL GIRL and the other is a little WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?—if you remove the emotional growth in LARS and most of the violence in WHO’S AFRAID. And if you add a singular sense of humor that provokes straight-up cackles. This wonderful little book made me howl. What a scary, accurate, hilarious portrait of the absurdity of human desire and the fantasy of domestic bliss.
The voice here walks a tightrope; more accurately, she finds herself born walking a tightrope and refuses to let circumstance kill her, even if she dies. The voice in GIRLS THAT NEVER DIE exists on a line someone else pulled taut--between countries, languages, cultures, genders, violences--and turns that tension into the fiercest songs. "Everyone thinks I am a little girl," Elhillo writes, "& still they hunt me, still they show their teeth. / I am so tired, I am one thousand years old. / One thousand years older when touched." This book is testimony you need to witness, particularly if you're a girl or woman with more than one mother tongue.
In our first meeting, the best psychiatrist I ever had saw from my file that I'm a poet and so offered up his favorite poem of all time: Yusef Komunyakaa's "Ode to the Maggot." Turn to page 35 of this book to fall in love with it. I remember being shocked that my new doctor read poetry at all, let alone Komunyakaa. Despite winning a Pulitzer, Komunyakaa is criminally underrated. Perhaps that's due to racism or perhaps it's his unflinching looks at various traumatic human experiences; whatever the reason, Komunyakaa's verse should be read and known by every reader who loves poetry.
Ostensibly the story is the unsolved murder of an other-worldly high-school beauty, a young woman bludgeoned and dumped in a garden. You think it's a slow burn but then you realize the flame you've fixated on is just one of innumerable flames that join to constitute the structure fire building around you. LEMON by Kwon Yeo-sun, translated by Janet Hong, is a lot of things, but it's primarily a lovely, horrific short novel about the crime of being born a person. PS: I will never think of lemons or eggs the same again after reading this slim and stunning mystery.
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If you like Phoebe Bridgers, this is the book for you. Vogue asked Bridgers for a book someone should read over the holidays, and she said, "THE SEAPLANE ON FINAL APPROACH by Rebecca Rukeyser. I just ripped through it." SEAPLANE is, as The Telegraph said, about “how desire ruins everything,” & Mira, an astute teenager working on an Alaskan island, has a feverish want for the knife’s edge of desire. But her coworkers at a remote lodge have their own desires, & the ruin looms large as the bears on Lavender Island. With Mira as our guide, we watch & wait for the climax, reveling in what might come.
Hale’s SLENDERMAN is gentle & harrowing & horrifying & matter-of-fact. It’s well-researched & beautifully written (“Even nature looked upset.”). It’s also Morgan’s story: In 2014 12-year-olds Morgan & Anissa plotted the murder of their 12-year-old friend Payton, with Morgan then stabbing her 19 times & the girls leaving her for dead. Payton survived & the girls confessed to trying to kill her to appease Slenderman, an Internet horror character. Hale tells the tale but with an important focus on Morgan’s early-onset schizophrenia & the perpetrators moving through the adult justice system. I can’t stop thinking about this excellent, upsetting book.
John Lee Clark’s debut is somehow both ambitious & deceptively effortless, engaged equally with intense play & the kind of assured focus that allows a poet’s voice to take the lead. Clark, who is DeafBlind, experiments with forms & translations related to Braille, sign language, & Protactile, a language of touch. The results are stunning, whether the tone of a given poem is angry or hilarious, the subject scholarly or quotidian. “Can’t I pick my nose,” he writes, “without it being a miracle?” Don’t miss out on this wonderful book.
In fewer than 100 pages, Evelio Rosero's narrator completely immerses us in their strange world where society is split into two groups: the naked and the clothed. The naked ones, like the narrator, live crammed inside a single house, shunned and tortured by the clothed ones who live freely in the outside world. The clothed ones control every aspect of life as a naked one, and the narrator, mostly hidden inside a wardrobe in the house, slowly discovers the strength--and love--required to finally rebel. Somewhere between satire and parable, STRANGER TO THE MOON is a gruesome and beautiful book.
Anthologies are great for readers interested in poetry but unsure where to start; you can read a wide variety of poets and figure out which you're drawn to or what kinds of poems you like, and then you're empowered to seek out other poetry books. If that sounds like what you need, I highly recommend 100 Poems to Break Your Heart by poet Edward Hirsch. The poems span from Wordsworth in 1815 to Meena Alexander in 2018, giving you a great selection of canonical and contemporary poets. And Hirsch's writing that accompanies each poem gives you the option of learning more about the given poet and poem.
With just his second book, Roger Reeves proves himself one of the best poets publishing in the United States. His precise poems seem timeless, and I think it has something to do with his devotion to the lyric tradition and lyric imagination. Reeves's speakers gather up pieces of so many influences and reference points--Baldwin, Beyonce, Alice Coltrane, Dante, Drake, Virgil--as if to point to how one's voice is never one voice. The world makes us, and, as is often the case in these poems, it unmakes us, too. With particular brutality, the poems point out, if you're a Black American. I love these vigorous and vulnerable poems, their sorrows and their joys, and I bet you will, too.
Dogs! Dogs in the snow! Dogs wearing neon booties! Happy dogs running in the sun! Sled dogs playing in a cranberry bog! Dog bleps and dog butts and dogs being goofballs! Dogs named after beans and after board games, dogs named for explorers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters! Dogs that completed the Iditarod *and* like wearing hot pink onesies! DOGS ON THE TRAIL features the well-loved and well-cared-for dogs from the BraverMountain mushing team in Wisconsin in all their photographic glory, as the human leaders of the team--wife and husband Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain--invite you to learn the basics of their sport.
One of the best poetry collections published in 2021, WINTER PHOENIX by Sophia Terazawa is astonishing. In her debut full-length book, Terazawa mines testimony about war crimes committed in the Vietnam War for language and reckoning in the absence of justice or reason. The book's heartbreaking refrain--"why did you just stand there and say nothing?"--morphs throughout the poems and wounds anew each time it appears. We learn to expect the refrain, but damn if it doesn't still surprise and hurt given its horror. Terazawa's diction, syntax, and images are stunning, and I'm shocked this profound book hasn't received more attention.
SHAPESHIFTER lives up to its name. Alice Paalen Rahon's poems swerve and morph, yielding surreal, painterly afterimages: "at last night seized by the throat / stopped laughing." I find myself rereading this book less for any individual poem than for a chance to re-experience individual turns of phrase, lines, or images somehow still buzzing around in my brain, like a "sky forever haunted / by the comet's endless dresses."
Do you like your fiction more language than plot? Do you like questions more than answers? What would happen if the past dialed your number in the middle of the night? Whose voice would speak through your phone? Do you know how to get to Hell? When can we leave? A DOOR BEHIND A DOOR by Yelena Moskovich is a strange little novel that will satisfy those readers looking for hypnotic language and image amid life's (and death's) unanswerable questions. And if that's not enough to convince you to give it a whirl, did I mention it features a talking dog?
This poetry anthology, recommended for ages 12 to 18, is aimed at "girls becoming themselves," and I highly recommend it for any middle- or high-schooler interested in poetry. It's thoughtfully curated with regard to both subject matter and the poets represented: U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo; Pulitzer winners Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, and Natalie Diaz; and legends of the canon including Lucille Clifton appear alongside emerging superstars like Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Tarfia Faizullah, and Franny Choi. The poets here have diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, and I'm particularly thrilled with the variety of transgender experience included. This anthology is both an unintimidating introduction to how much poetry can offer readers and also a welcoming chorus of voices coming of age.
If you're looking for a fantastic cookbook that will also make you laugh and cry, you need Grand Dishes in your life. The book preserves stories and beloved recipes from grandmothers around the world, and the stories are as entertaining and moving as the recipes are delicious. My two favorite meals from Grand Dishes so far are Nonna Fina's Sicilian pasta with sardines and Abuela Gloria's ajiaco, a Colombian soup featuring five kinds of potatoes, corn on the cob, and chicken. The book is composed with so much love and reverence for food, conversation, and women's history--a perfect gift for all those who cherish the kitchen as the heart of the home.