LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

Top Spring Indie Poetry: Exciting New Works for National Poetry Month and Beyond

Ali, Abdul. Trouble Sleeping. New Issues: Western Michigan Univ. 2015. 74p. ISBN 9781936970322. pap. $15. POETRY

Ali’s opening poem places us energetically in a troublesleeping41415hard-edged, urban present: “Begin with a location: brick, spray paint bottles/ & you have vivid, block-lettered murals.” But throughout this brisk, punchy first collection, history sweeps in: “my mind backpedals to a different time/ I hear different voices slave voices/ I am master & the slave.” We get fragments of personal history, too, from swimming lessons to “a nation Def Jammed” (from “In Nineteen Eighty-Four”). Edgy, yes, but also heartfelt and well rounded, even as the New York City subway roars by.

Balakian, Peter. Ozone Journal. Univ. of Chicago. (Phoenix Poets). 2015. 72p. ISBN 9780226207032. pap. $18. POETRY

Distinguished poet Balakian also authored the best-selling The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, so it’s no surprise that the 54-section title poem at this book’s heart recalls excavating the bones of Armenian genocide victims in 2009 Syria. But the poem seamlessly shifts to memories of a perfectly rendered New York, of jazz and John Cage, single parenthood and a relative’s death from AIDS, and throughout we see how experiences converge (“Walking the boardwalk in January past Atlantic City Hall,/…you smell the grilled cevapi…of Sarajevo”), how we are all containers of the past.

Blake, Sarah. Mr. West. Wesleyan Univ. 2015. 128p. ISBN 9780819575173. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780819575180. POETRY

Poems about Kayne West? Written while the poet is pregnant? It’s an unusual project, but not one that turns into biography or hagiography or even a memoir of obsession. Saturnalia Books editor Blake instead reveals how celebrities enfold and inform us, how they can become markers in our most personal moments (“I wonder if Kayne knows that these girls are experimenting. As with/ rum” she says of a younger sister and her possibly mean friends). Sometimes we think, “Now that’s a stretch”—and sometimes that’s exactly the point.

Dawn, Amber. Where the Words End and My Body Begins. Arsenal Pulp. Apr. 2015. 96p. ISBN 9781551525839. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781551525846. POETRY

wordsend41415Dawn’s Vancouver Book Award–winning How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir and Lambda Literary Award–winning first novel, Sub Rosa, build naturally to this autobiographical first collection. In your face yet tightly, beautifully crafted, it uses the glosa, a 15th-century Spanish form, as it moves through hard-bitten high school years (“our after-school program was Alcoholics Anonymous”), depression, stripping and hustling, sex and sexuality, to tough love with tough women and a deep relationship with queer writers from Gertrude Stein to Adrienne Rich. A bravura performance—and insightful if scary reading for poetry lovers and more.

redstarDonovan, Gregory. Torn from the Sun. Red Hen. Apr. 2015. 112p. ISBN 9781597093262. pap. $18.95. POETRY

Senior editor of the online journal Blackbird, Donovan displays a near conversational tone that belies extraordinary craft, creating poems all the more striking for contrasting unsettling content with susurrating, polished calm. Here’s John Coltrane “on the edge/ of a red morning, …breathing in the cool/ wind that pours over his shoulders,” making it “through song after song, coming back to kill him one more time.” The best moments show the real world transfigured, as ravens (“small shrugs/in long black coats”) become “the ideas of ravens [slipping] onto air/ …out into the mind’s eye to stall and dip.” For all readers.

Eaton, C. Violet. Some Habits. Omnidawn. Apr. 2015. 72p. ISBN 9781632430045. pap. $17.95. POETRY

Winner of the Omnidawn Open, ­Eaton’s first full-length book presents a series of prose poems cum letters offering physically and emotionally rich meditations from a speaker seeking to connect: “I can call us complicit, or I can sit here on the porch and worry on us, hard. Neither thing is there. The hum is there.” And what a hum. Shunning descriptive excess for the concrete (“Nimbus borne up, loud like a filament. A jay. Wasp”), this work reads like a Joseph Cornell box come alive.

Elkins, Ansel. Blue Yodel. Yale Univ. (Younger Poets). Apr. 2015. 88p. ISBN 9780300210026. pap. $18. POETRY

Profoundly disquieting landscapes, artlessly realized, mark this Yale Series of Younger Poets prize winner. The sun vanishes, leaving “My people in the streets, calling. Their drowned faces.” After “a brutal, feral laugh/ spooks the mules,” a black child is found horribly lynched. A woman’s life shrinks down, her braid cut and even the mare gone, when her daughter disappears and “not even her ghost has returned.” In one standout poem, a girl with antlers tells her reflection, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made,” but mostly Elkins pointedly makes us face how close we are to wolf, how close we are to bone.

Fishman, Lisa. 24 Pages and Other Poems. Wave. Apr. 2015. 96p. ISBN 9781940696096. $25. pap. 9781940696102. $18. POETRY

Readers of this latest from Fishman (Flower Cart) immediately sense how much she wants us to “JUST LOOK” at the world, how particular her own observational skills are (“yet try/ to posit as turning// the river the swimmer can// daylight”), and how, as we scrape against the world, “change it some/ is synonym for love.” Her impacted images and dissociated lines might be a bit heady for all but the most adventuresome poetry readers, but they make for luscious, exciting reading.

Griffiths, Rachel Eliza. Lighting the Shadow. Four Way. Apr. 2015. 136p. ISBN 9781935536574. pap. $15.95. POETRY

lightingtheshadow41415Griffiths, whose intensive Mule & Pear won the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, here tracks a woman’s journey through trauma, both personal and larger. There’s an almost shrieking sense of loss and pain (“spine broken into bone silence”), which Griffiths manages to sustain even as it rattles the reader. And what finally sustains, however bitingly, is memory: “My memory/ was a painted mast, filled/ with the inviolate breath/ of what history can/ blow apart.” Not just for African American poetry collections.

Hagan, Ellen. Hemisphere. Triquarterly: Northwestern Univ. Apr. 2015. 96p. ISBN 9780810130807. pap. $16.95. POETRY

Immersed in the radiant immediacy of child bearing (“Because you were pulled from me./ …Because, to be vomited on is to be a mother), Hagan (Crowned) also connects deeply to her heritage (“I am standing on skulls—…with all my ancestors’ names scratched/ in & it is holy”). Thus we see that time doesn’t so much stretch out but circle us in, as reflected in a beautifully compressed language (“be the peacock & the treble, be/ the tremor & the starved”) that doesn’t so much capture as intensify.

redstarJackson, Angela. It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time. Triquarterly: Northwestern Univ. 2015. 144p. ISBN 9780810130517. pap. $18.95. POETRY

From the earliest slaves to the Great Migration to contemporary violence (“They make a noose/ For the moon. …Be careful, Black boy,” from a poem dedicated to Trayvon Martin), this work by National Book Award finalist Jackson offers the epic sweep of African American history. Personal moments—a mother’s “blue print” for her daughter, a father’s love “so fierce and tender”—are stitched into the fabric, but the overwhelming sense is of community, of “old men and women who pinned a piece/ of their hopes on me.”

Kwasny, Melissa. Pictograph. Milkweed. Apr. 2015. 80p. ISBN 9781571314628. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781571319081. POETRY

Award-winning poet Kwasny (The Nine Senses) makes us look, really look, at the ancient pictograph and petroglyph sites near her Montana home, which she describes in lush but exacting detail while reminding us that we’re but “a thumbprint in the cliff.” These prose poems then keep opening up into discussions of light and sight, death and aging (“What is form but the reining in of desire”), loneliness and solitude, and “blackbirds falling right out of the skies while we lobby for still more concealed weapons.” Beautifully coherent and immensely satisfying.

redstarLandau, Deborah. The Uses of the Body. Copper Canyon. Apr. 2015. 80p. ISBN 9781556594816. pap. $16. POETRY

usesofthebody41415As freshly immediate as ever, award-winning poet Landau (The Last Usable Chair) reveals that “the uses of the body are manifold,” moving in four sections with a roughly chronological feel from wedding parties to flabby bodies around the pool to the realization “But we already did everything”—all with an underlying sense of urgency: “Life please explain.” As Landau explores her physical self and her sexuality, she’s tart, witty, fluid, direct, and brutally honest, and her work can be appreciated by any reader.

Macari, Anne Marie. Red Deer. Persea. Apr. 2015. 80p. ISBN 9780892554560. pap. $15.95. POETRY

So many poets cavort in meadows, but James Dickey Prize winner Macari takes us underground to damp, dark caves adorned with prehistoric art. She doesn’t just entertain with descriptions of hunched bison and red deer but offers a journey into self—“I stayed/ in darkness, stayed till// the winding sheet began to come// undone around me, all of me/ loosening”—that is also a journey into art making. Thus does she identify with, and draw us into, humankind’s very first acts of creation. An illuminating read.

Rohrer, Matthew. Surrounded by Friends. Wave. Apr. 2015. 112p. ISBN 9781940696027. $25; pap. ISBN 9781940696034. $18. POETRY

Says Rohrer (Destroyer and Preserver) of a painting by Paolo Caliari (i.e., Veronese), “I think there is/ a kind of attention I can pay this painting/ that Paolo can feel,” and that kind of attention is evident throughout this collection of small, transparent, beautifully unfussy moments. From finding a child’s lost drawing to contending with a teasing grandfather, these moments are never freighted with outsize emotion (a tack too many poets take) but unfold as lived. Lucid work from a poet heard on NPR.

redstarWillis, Elizabeth. Alive: New and Selected Poems. New York Review Books. Apr. 2015. 208p. ISBN 9781590178645. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9781590178652. POETRY

alive41415The recipient of multiple honors (e.g., the National Poetry Series, a Guggenheim), Willis offers the penetrating musings and sometimes fragmented syntax of a contemporary Emily Dickinson but can feel like a spirited surrealist (“Though my heart were a pear tree/ threaded with fire/ Lion you leapt through me/ like fineness in the boundary gene”). Starting stringently and getting richer with cultural and political references as it proceeds, this Selected offers gems from five collections and culminates in a dozen new or uncollected pieces. Grab it.

Ye Chun. Lantern Puzzle. Tupelo. 2015. 78p. ISBN 9781936797530. pap. $16.95. POETRY

As she moves from her native Chinese to English (she’s published one novel in Chinese and the poetry collection Travel Over Water), Ye Chun moves from one world to another, from dragon boats, amulets, and “white flowers [hung] on bones/ rustling” to migrant workers and the Pacific Ocean, which “shovels coals in the distance.” She blends them elegantly, creating a voice all her own, visually vibrant yet cleanly, perfectly sifted. Winner of the Tupelo Press First/Second Book Award.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.