Spotlight: Joe Milazzo's Best of 2016

We're updating our shelves with our curator's lists for 2016, and we're pleased to deliver our favorite books one contributor at a time. Next up, it's Joe Milazzo, Bookseller Emeritus at Deep Vellum Books. Joes's interests span the literary world and we're always amazed at his picks each month. (And if you haven't picked up your copy of The Habiliments or Crepuscule with Nellie, you should drop everything you're doing, visit Deep Vellum, and immediately start reading these two from our very own Joe Milazzo.)

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing by Brian Blanchfield (Nightboat)

Brian Blanchfield, a Whiting Award-winner for 2016, takes a unique approach to constraint-based writing in this collection of essays. Simply by beginning with what he remembers or thinks he knows about a particular topic, he follows the thread of his own associations, never giving in to the temptation to consult the Internet for verification or correct himself, until he reacheswhat he terms "an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability." The truths he is able to dig up at theses sites, however, are never less that startling, not to mention devastatingly poignant.  

Look by Solmaz Sharif (Greywolf)

What does violence do to language, how is language infected with that violence, and how does language perpetuate violence? Solmaz Sharif's debut collection employs "words and phrases lifted from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms" as it tries to answer these and other questions and simultaneously resist the answers it uncovers. The poems here are sometimes brittle, often estranging, but always emotionally engaged and engaging. Look was named a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award in poetry. 

Hardly War by Don Mee Choi (Wave Books)

Don Mee Choi is a Korean-born, America-based poet and translator who first came to many readers' notice for her heroic work in discovering English that's equal to Kim Hyesoon's visionary poetry. This is the second book Choi has published of her own verse, and it pushes the formal boundaries of what poetry can both contain and convey. Experimental as it may be, Hardly War is still is rooted in the intimacies of her own family and personal experience as a displaced person. As she writes, this is a book of "geopolitical poetics. It involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded.”

Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams (Tin House)

This book is the first collection to appear in over 10 years from "quite possibly America’s best living writer of short stories” (according to NPR). In a series of brilliant, acerbic vignettes in which the divine and the mundane collide and commingle, Williams reminds us how much fiction really is the art of the possible.

Bandit: A Daughter's Memoir by Molly Brodak (Grove)

Molly Brodak's father was worse than a rascal. He was a criminal, and served seven years for 11 counts of bank robbery in the mid-90s. This clear-eyed, oddly lyrical memoir reckons with the presence and influence of this complicated, charismatic and doomed man in one woman's life. But it is also the story of how storytelling itself is often vital to our achieving a sense of who we are. But that means accepting some truths we'd prefer not to acknowledge. To Brodak's great credit, she’s not afraid to go there, and to take us along with her.

IRL by Tommy Pico (Birds LLC)

Birds LLC, which is based partly out of Austin, has over the past 5 years, earned a reputation for being one of the more consistently adventurous of American's small poetry publishers. Tommy Pico's IRL is a great argument for why we need presses like Birds LLC that are willing to advocate for a promote literature that might not otherwise reach a national audience. (And Tommy Pico was profiled by the New Yorker this year thanks the buzz surrounding IRL.) Their own description of this comical, magical and surprisingly urgent book speaks for itself in this regard. "IRL is a sweaty, summertime poem composed like a long text message, rooted in the epic tradition of A.R. Ammons, ancient Kumeyaay Bird Songs, and Beyoncé's visual albums. It follows Teebs, a reservation-born, queer NDN weirdo, trying to figure out his impulses/desires/history in the midst of Brooklyn rooftops, privacy in the age of the Internet, street harassment, suicide, boys boys boys, literature, colonialism, religion, leaving one's 20s, and a love/hate relationship with English.”

The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas (Coffee House Press)

It seems that agents and editors are constantly on the look out for the next Bolano, or the new David Foster Wallace. But the small press world may havefound him in the person of this Ecuadorian novelist. The subjects and themes of this novel will no doubt be familiar to may readers of South American literature: dictatorship, exile, the problems of being an artist in times of upheaval. But The Revolutionaries Try Again is original in its textures. Cardenas juxtaposes the austerity politics of Ecuador's "lost decade" with a style that is defiantly wayward and maximalist. Sentences sprawl into paragraphs, characters disappear and reappear without warning, and one entire section of the book remains "untranslated" from the Spanish. This is a challenging book, on par with notoriously difficult titles like Gaddis' The Recognitions or McElroy's Women and Men, but it's one that repays whatever efforts readers are willing to dedicate to it.

Gap Gardening: Selected Poems by Rosmarie Waldrop (New Directions)

It's hard to believe, but this is the first career-spanning retrospective for Rosmarie Waldrop. She is of one of the our leading experimental poets and belongs in any discussion of our most important independent publishers courtesy of her work operating Burning Deck Press. (Her partner, husband Keith, is also a fantastic poet and accomplished visual artists in his own right.) Waldrop verses and prose poems are wide-ranging (polymathic?), endlessly inventive, and Dickinson-ian in their incisiveness. Throughout it all, though, she reveals her unwavering commitment to music and rhythm. As smart as these poems are, we still have to feel them to catch what and how they mean. Luckily, the invitation to do so is right there on the page.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Two Lines Press)

This is the first of Noll's works to be translated into English. Noll is one of Brazil's most important living writers. This novel bears something of a resemblance to Cesar Aira's apparently improvised caprices, and, like many of Aira's books, it can be consumed pretty much in one sitting. Where Aira prioritizes delight, however, Noll is out to unsettle reader. (In fact, the opening pages of this book evoke the films of Michael Haneke as much as they do any literary predecessors I can recall.) This unique mediation on time, history, and the privileged actors who claim that history is made by and through is puzzling in the best possible sense of that word. Quiet Creature on the Corner is not so much a mystery as it is a confrontation with the frightening banality of the unexplained.

The Attraction of Things by Roger Lewinter (New Directions)

Lewinter carries forward the traditions of the French nouveau roman, but also pushes the new novel's fascination with the world's surfaces and superstructures into a new sort of rapture. Anyone passionate about the sentence as a medium for expression will find much to surrender to in Lewinter's lovely, delicate-yet-resilient, neo-baroque prose.

Catch up on additional 2016 favorites from other contributors here.