In 2017, I was living in Madrid, going to Poland, the homeland, and then moving back to the states, home. I tried to cram as much literature in from these places to make me feel like I was getting enough of them, preloading the literary culture in my head to understand the demographics and topographies. The best six books I read represent a handful of places and cultures, often nuanced down to modern social themes like race and sexual identity, even anticipating oppressive futures.
Beowulf, interpreted by Santiago García and David Rubin
The first is a classic of classics, the first text in the English language but with a contemporary twist: translated in Spanish and inks and color to deliver a timeless interpretation. García and Rubin restore the moribund Beowulf, illustrating grotesque monsters and delicately lifting the ancient text into speech bubbles.
While it may seem easy to put any text into comic form, García and Rubin employ master’s comic techniques to add depth and merit reread value. Creative, atypical panel structures and the boldness to run scenes over pairing pages elevate this from the genre-damned title of “comic” to a level of literature. Even Rubin’s unique artistic style and monster design should cause us to return to and rethink this classroom classic, but this time in refreshing perception.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now, Ryan Van Meter
We are often ignorant in the face of greatness. A timid professor at my alma mater, hesitant to mention his own craft, shames me into regretting all follies in front of him. While very conventional in writing (apart from employing a 2nd person narrator or heavy anaphora), his essays cause your heart to bleed as if all wounds were fresh.
Often set in a homophobic Midwest, Van Meter’s nonfiction challenges us to view modern masculinity, sexuality, and attractiveness in new ways. His subtle pen causes you to hang on words for double-entendres or microscopic nuances that shows the true chips and flaws in any character, himself included.
He writes the truest truth, strangely. Sentiments we know or moments that we have all had, appear unearthed and excavated from ourselves on the page. There are often moments where I pause reading, must reread the previous sentence, and arrive at jealousy for not writing those words of things that I have known my whole life.
Story of Your Life, Ted Chiang
I admit to a flaw: if I see a book being made into movie, I see a quality, or a question of quality, that excites me into exploring the original text. While exploding in cinemas as Arrival, by Denis Villeneuve with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, I sought out the original text from Chiang’s science fiction short story collection, Story of Your Life and Others. While the collection and other stories deserve further address, the eponymous novella stood out leagues apart from anything I was reading at the time.
Chiang, a technical writer, tells the story directly, often not delicately, giving his science fiction an objective and scientific bluntness. In Story of Your Life, when extraterrestrials descend and attempt to communicate with us, his protagonist, a linguistics expert, must decipher and navigate the conversations. Along the typical sci-fi trope of alien contact v. government/military interaction, Chiang takes the high road by not delving into “what if’s” or Independence Day moments, but shoots for big ideas, layering multiple concepts on top of his stories and characters, such as a linguistics professor who cannot communicate well with her family over to how language frames thinking. For Chiang, the simple threads are at the heart of his intricately woven stories.
Imperium, Ryszard Kapuściński
Not many people can name Polish artists. In fact, it’s hard for Americans to name a Polish anything apart from the slur and that family on your block. Kapuściński has all but flown under the American radar, a household name in Poland, writing modern classics from all over the world.
Imperium reveals a land of mystery and historical intrigue, countries and former countries under Soviet control. Spanning twenty-five years, Kapuściński writes of a Russifying Caucasus in the sixties and the fallout in the nineties after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He rides the Trans-Siberian and gets lost in Moscow. He shows the fist of Russian Communism that wrung the lands dry. Only appearing briefly in his own texts, he is a secret hero, turning adventure to literature.
His word, though I read it translated, strikes with clarity and beauty. His portrayal of culture and people is honest and often kind, but he is not reserved on telling the blunt truth. Reading Kapuściński makes me wish I spoke better Polish to read the text first-hand, if not to read the first essay “Pińsk,” a story of his hometown under the falling fist of Russia, bartering Soviet leader badges like trading cards (Stalin like Charizard) and the high turnover of teachers in a town slowly disappearing, the beautiful tragedy that is Kapuściński’s childhood.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Warsan Shire
I don’t think I could have picked a better poet to start reading poetry. Poetry is never about solving a puzzle nor understanding the text entirely (as to why so many prefer to avoid it), but in under forty pages, Shire creates a stronger narrative than most novelists do. Each poem stands independently, shimmering, but in tandem the cohesion builds up to further greatness.
Shire is a fantastic wordsmith. She often speaks plainly, but deeply, causing us to see new sides of words that have always been in our mouths. Born in Kenya to Somali parents and raised in the UK, she writes about race, immigration, refugees, womanhood, learning the English language, and family, along with the way it crumbles. There is a lot of heavy lifting in her few pages, for words placed so precisely. “I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes, on my face they are still together” is only the prologue, the teaser, to Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, a poetry collection I have reread, loaned, and sought back out from friends so I can savor again.
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
2017 has been a popular year for Nazis, appearing prominently in American political discourse and in storytelling, as their contemporary descendants as white supremacists. In fact, we may be on the edge of a Nazi burnout, which have always been our favorite pulp supervillains, the allegorical “all-evil” that Cold War Soviets have tried to be on par with in our American narratives with for decades. The Man in the High Castle has enjoyed the luxury of the greatest villain, but also a TV series revival by Amazon (though everything is now being serialized into multi-season shows and this one really could be just a one season act, cutting out the long staring out the window (ever so popular in today’s TV scripts)).
Whereas many of Dick’s ideas are large in scale, often absurd at times, his mastery of craft comes through on zooming in on characters, in media res on day-to-day life, the mundane life of a normal human in these new unfamiliar worlds, employed in much of his other writing. We witness (and are so lucky to receive) multiple characters, from the incognito Jewish factory worker to the ex-wife to the antique shop owner to the Japanese trade official in San Francisco to fill in the tiers of life in post-war United States where axis have won and divided our lands.
The story could go nuclear or the route of espionage between the deteriorating relations of Japan on the west coast and Germany on the east, but Dick quietly centers his novel around a fictional book, a book where the Allies had won instead, that gives hope to many of the characters wrapped up in oppressive times. Philip K. Dick, through the honest characters under the rules of his big ideas might be the most under-appreciated genius of the twentieth century, and The Man in the High Castle is often regarded as his finest, best written work.
This year I also marveled at the literary sci-fi worlds of Get in Trouble by Kelly Link and Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu, the latter who makes use of experimental storytelling devices, like troubleshooting your desires or categorizing everything in life. Teju Cole caused me to think about the art of photography and its subtleties in Known and Strange Things while Jean-Philippe Toussaint caused me to think about myself and my interactions as a foreigner in Self-Portrait Abroad. I dipped into Thailand seeing American influences and masculinity in Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap and yet again in Poland, but seeing the tug of the capitalist West and the communist East, all under the unreliable eyes of a drug-induced Snow White, Russian Red by Dorota Masłowska. Finally, in melancholy and loneliness, I moved to Portland with my literary soulmate of the moment Ocean Vuong, soothing my loneliness after night shifts and long bus rides home in Night Sky with Exit Wounds.