The Grey Album by Kevin Young
Like Duke Ellington’s fabled, Harlem-bound A Train, Kevin Young’s ambitious, exhilarating The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness propels us across a panorama of African American history, creativity, and struggle, with a lightning-brisk brilliance and purpose. Young goes far beyond just being a documentarian of American Black identity–he shows us how Black identity is indispensable to American culture. As a work of literary and cultural criticism and scholarship, it’s so vibrant, purposive, dexterous, wide-ranging, and rife with quotable insights, that it’s just exhilarating—an immense, all-out joy to read:
“How many underground railroads of meaning are there, unacknowledged, left just beneath the surface?”
When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz
This stunning, impressive debut poetry collection functions as a kaleidoscopic portrait of Mojave reservation life, as well as a richly allusive and metaphorical, an utterly candid and ingenious lament for a sibling ravaged by a crystal meth addiction: an able and indelible portrait of a Native American family coping with one wayward member’s penchant for crime and drug abuse:
“This is no cultivated haven. This is the earth riddled with a brother. The furrows are mountains. Waves of sand and we are ships wrecked. What’s left of a fleet of one hundred shadows shattered and bleached . . . This is no garden. This is my brother and I need a shovel to love him.”
—“A Brother Named Gethsemane”
Our Lady of the Ruins by Traci Brimhall
Protean, commanding, visionary, Our Lady of the Ruins unfolds with a propulsive, prophetic intensity that rivets the reader from the first lines, where the poet invites us to envision a burning piano as an emblem of a epoch when “half the world ends and the other half continues.” With a sweeping, investigative intelligence and intrepid imagination, the poet limns this gutted universe (the poems resemble tense fever-bulletins from an apocalypse) by enriching the poems with luminous and unnerving details (“a deer licking salt from a lynched man’s palm”). The poet’s piercing, imperative sense of this powerfully rendered dystopia is never merely abject or despairing, for Our Lady of the Ruins offers something more profound and mysterious than a hot jeremiad or a pressing gospel; it allows us to savor the beauty, ambiguity, and contradiction that keen-eyed poetry can yield. Carolyn Forché chose this fearlessly sibylline, panoramic work, in which violence and calm, cruelty and tenderness are alloyed, for the Barnard Women’s Prize, and rightly so: it a salient, worthy, and astonishing second book.
“We know the journey to God is a fatal one.
It isn’t even God we’re looking for.
We want to ride the horse of the past backward
through time to first wounds, laughter and milk,
but instead we drink from the beginnings of rivers.”
Gun Dealers’ Daughter by Gina Apostol
Gina Apostol is a high-spirited stylist and her unflagging verbal energy propels this ornate novel about a pampered Filipina who falls in with earnest student revolutionaries. Along the way, the reader is given easy-to-absorb helpings of Filipino politics and history. Apostol’s language is audaciously lush and acrobatic, gossipy and protean, a perfect match for her worldly but vulnerable protagonist, Sol, a half-hearted dissident: “Memory is deception. There’s a pall under which intentions lie, gross as an astrologer’s ball.”
American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar
Ayad Aktar won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I feel his fiction is also notable. American Dervish is a consistently readable and engaging, emotionally potent first novel about a Pakistani-American teenager’s coming of age in Reagan-era Milwaukee. Its stirring depiction of tense, at times tragic religious and cultural clashes, as well as harsh anti-Semitism and domestic abuse in the Muslim-American community is unforced, candid, and compassionate. The decision to embrace or reject one’s family and religious/cultural heritage, and the search for faith and authentic connection to God are rich and significant threads woven into in this lively, family-centered work. The characters (especially Auntie Mina, a remarkable, forward-thinking, yet victimized woman) are vibrant and keenly drawn.
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