Daily Arts best books of 2019
Everyone had distinct experiences in 2019, and The Michigan Daily Book Review has put together the best works it experienced throughout the year. Accounting for the differences in everyone’s 2019 experiences, these works range from novels to poetry collections to graphic novels and come from authors originating from Ohio to Ukraine. Enjoy.
— Andrew Pluta, Daily Book Review Editor
“Deaf Republic” by Ilya Kaminsky
The deaf republic in Ilya Kaminsky’s poetry collection of the same name is not collectively hard-of-hearing; its citizens are deaf by choice. They are living in a fictional, seemingly Soviet-era town under harsh military rule. In protest of a sergeant’s shooting of a young boy, they refuse to hear the soldiers’ commands, existing in silence instead. Kaminsky, who lost most of his hearing at age four, not only shatters our conception of deafness, but our hearts, too, at the heights cruelty and sacrifice reach under oppressive regimes. He also shatters our illusions of what civic responsibility and political protest mean, and all — most notably — without making speeches, or filling the emptiness with sheer noise.
He does so more inventively than any writer in recent memory. “Deaf Republic” could be described as a play in verse, straddling the genres with elegance. On various pages, illustrations of hands signing a word in the townspeople’s improvised sign language accompany the text, taking up the same protest as the citizens of the story. In one of the most unexpected elements from the collection (which, as you can see, is saying a lot), Kaminsky makes brilliant use of puppets, as the townspeople put on shows to satirize the absurdity of their oppressed lives.
“At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?” Kaminsky writes, in one of his most resonant lines. You can hear a similar echo at the conclusion of Kaminsky’s work, when he shifts into the present-day United States where he now lives, and indicts our passivity toward the police killings taking place on our own soil, day in, day out. It’s literature that doesn’t exempt you from its implications — the best, most urgent kind.
— Julianna Morano, Managing Arts Editor
“Ohio” by Stephen Markley
The continental Midwest is a landscape so bleak and sore that it’s usually difficult to write about — in most fiction it’s a place to escape from, or else it’s just plain depressing (think Eugenides, Franzen). In “Ohio,” Stephen Markley understands that this is the Midwest, with all of its blandness and forgotten-America rust. He doesn’t shy away from it. He doesn’t gloss over the dirty parts. Rather, he centers his entire novel on the dim Midwest — in this case, New Canaan, Ohio — and lets it live for itself. Ohio isn’t such a setting or a title. It’s the very lifeline of Markley’s freshman novel, sewn deep into the gut of every character and propelling every action taken.
“Ohio” is most striking for its capacity to capture agrestic, patriotic small-town America not in a single frame, but in an evolving, cinema-like fashion. The story feels encompassing, spanning decades of social change and decline while feeling dangerously fresh. Markely writes both accurately and unabashedly about the crisis of identity and social immobility facing places like New Canaan, though not in a manner that feels moralizing. The books themes are never overwrought. Instead, “Ohio” is merely a depiction: a raw, thrilling exposition of what much of America looks like, thinks and talks about; and at times, it is a tale that sickens more than it remedies.
— John Decker, Managing Arts Editor
“Normal People” by Sally Rooney
“Normal People” proves Sally Rooney is not a one-hit-wonder with “Conversations With Friends.” Rooney extends the psychological undertone of “Conversation With Friends” until it reaches that precarious line of discomfort in “Normal People.” On the surface, “Normal People” tells a simple romance between two people with diverging socio-economic classes. Marianne is an intensely private girl, unpopular among her classmates but from an affluent background. Conner is the complete opposite — popular and handsome but struggling to get by. Somewhat embarrassed by Marianne, Conner conceals their romance from their classmates. Conner’s selfish decision as a high-schooler sparks the deeply complex relationship with Marianne that prevails until the very end of the novel. “Normal People” is the perfect romance novel for people that hate romance. “Normal People’s” introduction seems familiar enough: boy meets girl, boy and girl have a conflict. But Rooney quickly subverts the traditional plotline with her emphasis on the various obstacles outside Conner and Marianne’s bubble, making it impossible to foresee the customary “happily-ever-after” ending. Rooney’s subtle Marxist and feminist critique and ability to capture the imperfections of the human psyche allow “Normal People” to break the boundaries of “romance” and fill the space of brilliance. While it’s hard to idealize Marianne and Conner, their aptly human flaws make it easy to fall in love with them. Nearly a year later, I find my thoughts veering to “Normal People” and the ways that I, too, am a flawed human.
— Sarah Salman, Daily Arts Writer
“Fix Her Up (Hot & Hammered)” by Tessa Bailey
Delightfully steamy and funny, Tessa Bailey’s “Fix Her Up” is the perfect novel to read if you need a palette cleanser. “Fix Her Up” follows two characters, Georgette Castle and Travis Ford. Georgette Castle has harbored a deeply intense crush on Travis Ford since, well, forever. Travis Ford, meanwhile, has always viewed her as his best friend’s little sister: someone to look after, but not someone to develop feelings for per se. While Georgette has been rooted in her small-town of Port Jefferson with her career as a clown, Travis Ford has been revered all over the nation as major league baseball’s hottest rookie. That is, until, Travis gets injured. As their paths collide, Georgette gradually realizes that she must take control of her future, whether it be by standing up to her dismissive family or by wooing Travis. Travis also recognizes that his self-worth is not merely his prematurely halted baseball career and that the people who were truly most important to him might’ve been under his nose all along. Bailey’s “Fix Her Up” includes plenty of romantic staples, including a heady scene with the “other woman” and the “innocent” heroine with the prolific playboy, but those tropes are handled with care. Bailey thoughtfully resolves angsty misunderstandings with communication and even subverts the common idealization of the “playboy” hero by addressing society’s constraining concept of masculinity. “Fix Her Up” has the ability to yoke a myriad of emotions, tears, laughter and those elusive twinges of “it-hurts-so-good!” It's not just a chick-lit, but a funny, romantic and deeply touching novel about discovering your full-potential, independent from anyone else.
— Sarah Salman, Daily Arts Writer
“The Crying Book” by Heather Cristle
I love crying. It's one of my top three favorite physical activities. So when the Goodreads algorithm suggested this book to me, I grew a little nervous about exactly how closely the FBI agent living inside of my computer has been paying attention lately. But regardless of how this book fell into my hands, it quickly became one of my all-time favorites.
Heather Cristle is a poet who is also a self-proclaimed crying enthusiast. In “The Crying Book,” she explores tears and the role they fill in gender, history, race and art. Part memoir, part historical and cultural analysis, this novel touches on subjects that are personal to Cristle — suicide, pregnancy, depression — and also universal. The way she unfurls her prose is slow, interweaving and, much like the act of crying, left me feeling vulnerable and gutted in the best way. The ideas she explores in her novel are presented in such palpable and beautiful terms that I can remember where I was and what I was doing when I was reading any part of the novel. I read about how Cristle delved into the world of Amazon reviews for crying plastic dolls while eating a solitary dinner in the Whole Foods food court. I bookmarked a passage describing the way tears look in the absence of gravity as I absentmindedly stroked my cat's head, right on the bald spot between his eyes.
If you have ever cried at least once in the span of your entire life, this book is also for you.
— Jo Chang, Books Senior Arts Editor
“Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso
There is something unsettling about the artwork in Nick Drnaso's graphic novel “Sabrina,” which follows the aftermath of the disappearance and anonymous murder of the titular young woman. It strays from the use of bright colors and details, opting for simple geometric figures and a muted color palette that is reminiscent of a coloring book for a child with a limited range of drawing utensils. Characters mill around with facial expressions devoid of much personalization and feeling — even during the most morbid scenes, the characters’ simple facial expressions reveal nothing about the terror behind them. For a novel that explores brutal violence, misogyny and isolation, this over-simplicity and lack of visible human emotions creates an atmosphere that is deeply unsettling. The effect is something similar to being the object of the steady gaze of a wild animal or, say, a small child, and not knowing exactly when they plan on springing upon you with unrepressed fury — but living in constant dread knowing that something horrible is coming, wondering not if but when.
“Sabrina” will leave you feeling uncomfortable and disturbed, but also in awe of the way Nick Drnaso is able to capture the essence of loss and pose a commentary on human interactions in the modern world so subtly and succinctly.
— Jo Chang, Books Senior Arts Editor
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” is the coming-of-age story of a young Vietnamese boy raised in Connecticut by his immigrant mother and grandmother. As a poet and a novelist, Vuong writes his book like e a poem without line breaks — on every page, there is a sentence, description or turn of phrase that is striking in some way. His prose is accessible yet masterful as he weaves his poetic language easily into the narrative form. It reads like a confession about every aspect of his identity. Vuong’s words seem almost necessary to get off his chest as he recounts in strange and beautiful ways how it feels to be a first-generation immigrant, to come to terms with sexuality, to fall in love and to lose those you love. His book is incredibly relevant to the past year, touching on issues like homophobia, immigration, addiction, the opioid epidemic and losing friends to overdoses. But he also touches on timeless questions, making the reader see them in a new light: how PTSD can pass through generations, how a war can affect people and places decades after its end, what it means to be American, how it feels to fall in love, how it feels to lose someone and what it means to create art. However, it would be wrong to recommend this book without a warning that you may not want to read it in a public place — be ready to cry. Rendered in Vuong’s dexterous prose, though, the pain has a point. This is a book that leaves the reader pondering long after its covers are closed. It's not a book one can easily forget.
— Emilia Ferrante, Daily Arts Writer
“Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann
Sometime in September, it seemed like everyone was suddenly aware of Lucy Ellmann. Her seventh novel, the nearly thousand-page “Ducks, Newburyport,” immediately put her on the radar of both mainstream magazine writers and my bookish friends, who were immediately curious about the enormous orange book I was reading.
Its eyebrow-raising, formal experimentation and intent, burning focus on a middle-aged woman’s internal monologue was enough to get several bemused, vaguely admiring articles published about it in advance of its release. Is it really that long? Is it really just one sentence? It has a feeling of importance surrounding it in a way that could feel a bit contrived — it’s a novel whose form seems to be well-suited for “this is everything” headlines.
The thing is, the book is both better and more unusual than its press might imply. It’s a reading experience like no other — jarring and immersive all at once. If it seems sometimes like the novel as a form has stalled out or retrenched, expending itself in 150-page books with dreamy forms and no quotation marks, Ellmann makes the case for a wholly different approach to the novel — a medium free-associative and playful as it is incisive, as political as it is demanding.
—Emily Yang, Daily Arts Writer
“Glass, Irony and God” by Anne Carson
When writers or poets try to “push boundaries” in form, all too often the result is a work that screams, “hey, let’s make this as different and confusing as possible and hope no one realizes that it’s actually just bad.” I’m being a little facetious, but I will immediately stop taking any writer seriously who breaks conventions for the sole sake of breaking conventions. Anne Carson is not one of these writers. “Glass, Irony and God” takes plenty of liberties with form and does so with purpose. The book’s first poem, “The Glass Essay,” is an exploration of self — encompassing all the ambiguity surrounding the word — focusing on what makes this exploration particularly problematic for women. The clearly poetic prose is interlaced with lines of academic commentary on Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” in which Bronte’s work is described as being produced “in a grip,” as an uncontrolled outburst, an outpouring of emotion and other gendered criticisms that undermine her autonomy. Carson uses this allusion in parallel with more poetic lines to demonstrate how her expression of self may be misrepresented or dismissed as the ramblings of a hysterical woman. The poem serves as a demand for legitimacy that women are seldom universally given.
The poems that follow are shorter, but equally well crafted. The book ends with an essay (an actual essay, not an experimental essay-poem combo) entitled “The Gender of Sound.” In it she breaks down many unexamined assumptions about sound and voice, and how the female voice has historically been used in strange ways as a justification of oppression. She also writes on how the discourse around “self-control” roots itself in misogynistic thinking. The book as a whole is a captivating exploration of the self in the broadest sense of the term through a feminist lens.
— Sejjad Alkhalby, Daily Arts Writer
“Bodega” by Su Hwang
Two of the best feelings one can experience are perfect antonyms. One is the notion of creating a work or doing an action in a manner that does not replicate anything of the past. Yet sometimes, it can be just as fulfilling to be informed that, to some capacity, you are simply not that special — someone has gone through your experiences and felt your feelings. Su Hwang masterfully deals with both extremes in her eloquently innovative poetry collection “Bodega.”
Without staying loyal to any one poetic structure or form, Hwang highlights her feeling of inability to stay loyal to her own roots as she grew up in America, so far from her Korean heritage. At the same time, Hwang knows that no matter how far she inadvertently wanders from her origins, she will never arrive at a true American identity. Not in the way she is perceived, and certainly not in the way she perceives the world. This is the struggle of so many products of immigrant households. It is not always an urgent concern as life must go on, and Hwang represents this by sprinkling these internal battles among childhood memories and notable times spent peoplewatching. But this feeling is always there. Even when it is shoved to the back of one’s mind, every moment that he or she spends in a land differing from that of his or her heritage is a moment in cultural purgatory — moving away from old customs but never fully towards the new. Hwang captures this moment, which really is every moment, in a manner that is incomparably beautiful and eerily accurate.
— Andrew Pluta, Daily Book Review Editor