Best Books of 2017

The year is almost over and it’s time to revisit some of my favorite reads of the year. As with any list, this is not as extensive/inclusive/comprehensive as I’d like it to be, but having to do other things besides reading severely cuts into the amount of time I can spend inside books (if you have any leads on a gig that pays you to read whatever you want, get at me). In any case, this was a fantastic year. I made a list of best crime reads and one of best horror books, but some of the best books were in the enormous interstitial space between genres. Anyway, here are some books I hope didn’t fly under your radar:

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano. I was ready for this to be great, and it was, but the pain and violence in its pages blew me away. This is a narrative about loss, guilt, and surviving, but the way Catalano builds his vignettes allows him to show the minutiae of everyday living and the sharp edges of every failure.

Absolutely Golden by D. Foy. Funny, satirical, smart, and packed with snappy dialogue and characters that are at once cartoonish and too real, this is a book that, much like Patricide did last year, proves that Foy is one of the best in the business and perhaps one of the most electric voices in contemporary literary fiction.

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman. I met Tatiana when we read together at Malvern Books in Austin in late 2017. She read a chunk of this and it blew me away. I got the book that same night. Imagine your favorite philosopher deconstructing weird relationships while trying to simultaneously make you cringe in recognition and laugh at yourself. Well, this is what that philosopher would write. A short, powerful read that I will soon be reviewing here in its entirety, this was a blast of fresh air.

Itzá by Rios de la Luz. This short book destroys patriarchal notions of silence, abuse, and growth. Rios de la Luz wrote about a family of water brujas and in the process redefined bilingual bruja literature. This is a timely, heartfelt book that celebrates womanhood in a way that makes it necessary reading for every gender.

Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister. With Trump in the White House, this novel is more than an entertaining look at the dangers of unchecked religion and politics. Yeah, call this one a warning that should be read by all. It’s also very entertaining and a superb addition to the impressive Stalking Horse Press catalog.

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown. I don’t want to imagine the amount of research that went into this book. However, I’m really happy that Brown did it, and that he turned everything he learned into a novel of interwoven narratives that is a celebration of a river, of people, and of language. This was so stunning that Brown immediately joined the ranks of “buy everything he publishes authors” before I’d reach the tenth chapter.

Human Trees by Matthew Revert. If Nicolas Winding Refn, Quentin Tarantino, and David Lynch collaborated on a film, the resulting piece of cinema would probably approximate the style of Revert’s prose. Weird? Yup. Smart? Very. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It seems Revert can do it all, and this is his best so far.

In The River by Jeremy Robert Johnson. The simple story of a father and son going fishing somehow morphs into a soul-shattering tale of anxiety, loss, and vengeance wrapped in a surreal narrative about the things that can keep a person between this world and the next. Johnson is a maestro of the weird and one of the best writers in bizarro, crime, and horror, but this one erases all of those genres and makes him simply one of the best.

The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan. A slice of Americana through the McClanahan lens. Devastating and hilarious. Too real to be fiction and too well written to be true. Original, raw, and honest. Every new McClanahan books offers something special, and this one might be his best yet.

In the Distance by Hernán Díaz. This is the perfect marriage of adventure and literary fiction. The sprawling narrative covers an entire lifetime of traveling and growing, and it always stays fresh and exciting. At times cruel and depressing, but always a pleasure to read. I hope we see much more Díaz in translation soon.

Beneath the Spanish by Victor Hernández Cruz. Read the introduction and you’ll be sold on the entire book. Multiculturalism is fertile ground for poetry, and Hernández Cruz is an expert at feeding that space with his biography and knowledge and then extracting touching, rich poems and short pieces that dance between poetry, flash fiction, and memoir.

Some other outstanding books I read this year:

Dumbheart / Stupidface by Cooper Wilhelm

Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools by Peter Markus

Something to Do With Self-Hate by Brian Alan Ellis

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi



[REVIEW] The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi


Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017


Chiwan Choi’s The Yellow House is one of those rare poetry collections that simultaneously serves as a manifesto of Otherness, a heartfelt and brutally honest journal of the most crucial moments of the poet’s life, and a celebration of the feelings, moments, and places that great poetry can invoke even when the writing itself is rooted in earthy, memory-tinged simplicity. As if that wasn’t enough, the collection is also an enjoyable recounting of how Choi found himself; a surprisingly cinematic series of vignettes that present the reader with loss, love, desire, friendship, family, and the city of Los Angeles.

The Yellow House opens with a simple three-line declaration that manages to set the mood for the rest of the collection while also proving themselves contradictory:

i chose poetry
over honesty
then lived this unremarkable life.

On one hand, Choi lets us know that there was a point in the journey of his life where a decision had to be made, and poetry won. However, the second line attempts to extract honesty from the process, and the poems that follow it prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Choi’s writing is very personal and honest. Furthermore, the word unremarkable is the exact opposite of what’s presented in this collection; poems filled with the agonies of every coming-of-age tale, the magic of a childhood spent navigating different cultures, and nights spent in a massive, violent, strange city that tends to become part of those who spend enough time in it. After reading the book, coming back to those three lines is crucial because they reveal the playful man behind the poems and let us know that we were on a sad, humorous, carefully constructed trip from the very first page.

Choi’s style is a mixture of sincere sharing and words being used to deal with certain memories. However, more important than his approachable, enjoyable style is the vulnerability Choi brings to the page. From dealing with death to plucking pieces of life that were happening in 1980, Choi treats his subjects and his writing with the same openness, and that candor translates into beautiful poetry:

this is stupid and emotional
and not poetic at all,
but life is so weird and beautiful
and i can’t tell whether it’s slipping away
or if it’s drowning me.
i can’t get out of bed
and if there was skin next to me
i would bury all the feelings in it
to some 80s soundtrack
like a non-stop loop
of the best of the church.

There is a yellow house in The Yellow House, and its appearances are just one of the many elements of cohesion that make this a very complete collection. The other cohesive elements are love, loss, memory, dreams, the role of parents, and the equal importance of things said and things left unsaid. Ultimately, the beauty of The Yellow House is that is personal and universal, and that allows the reader to recognize Choi for what he is: a survivor who’s seen many things, a son, and a man concerned with recognizing the things that came before and made him who he is now:

on the porch
drinking barley tea so my legs won’t fail
(that’s what mother says)
and, for a moment,
looking at my hand.
it is still.
sometimes it shakes,
sometimes it holds
the world.

On the most basic level, The Yellow House works because it is, simply put, beautiful poetry. Devastatingly beautiful. However, for those who care about the details of the genre, Choi also demonstrates a unique understanding of the way blank space can affect his message as well as a sense of rhythm that gives his work a particular flavor. These last elements make this collection a must read for fans of language and poetry and a superb addition to the Civil Coping Mechanisms catalog, which already includes some of the best contemporary poetry collections: There Should be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Lady Be Good by Lauren Hilger, and The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke, to name a few.