Presenting the AGNI Masthead’s Reading Recommendations for 2021
An event took place during my childhood in rural northeast India with punishing regularity: load shedding, or as it’s more commonly known in the United States, power outages. It was especially bothersome at night. The darkness, which canceled the words on your school notebook or the peas your mother supposedly needed to have shelled in a hurry. That lone mosquito, which had been whining a solo, now a symphony attacking you from all directions. The Oscar ceiling fan grinding to a halt, leaving sweat to gather at every crevice. And so, on the lucky occasion when some benevolent elder was present and proffered a story, you seized it as the lifesaving distraction.
“Thaina mamangda”—once upon a time, in Manipuri—were the first words. If it was my Inechoubi (eldest aunt) Lakhimi or Ibok (grandmother) Pasotlei, there was another familiar element: the offering would be—almost unfailingly—the same folk tale about a gang of clever monkeys who sweet-talked an elderly couple into planting cooked, ready-made yams that they plundered at night and made a fine feast of. And yet, no matter how many times I’d heard the story, I entered the transaction—surrendering my present reality to another’s words—without resistance. Because it helped me forget the darkness. Because, somehow, it infiltrated the darkness, and then me, so that everything in the frame of the telling—the elder’s droning voice; the “adugagi?” (“And then . . .?”), which meant Pay attention, a twist is coming; the mosquitoes and sweat—became a universe unto itself, a place where I knew (because I’d heard it who knows how many times) exactly what was coming after the next adugagi and therefore felt safe, in control.
I remembered those childhood nights often in 2020, the annus horribilis about which I cannot express any more original thoughts. I tried—almost every day, often failing—to reenter that transaction, now through the good fortune of owning books, a true privilege. I am one of those literary-evangelist types who will tell you that literature—reading it, writing it—saved my life. And this year I read as though to save it all over again.
Across and beyond the nation, many members of our editorial staff did the same, for their own reasons, I’m sure. Loss, disrupted lives, disappointment, fear, rage, [fill in the blank]: these things touched us, too. And so, as we enter a new year—to twist Borges’s words a little—we at AGNI hope that the future has a greater reality than our present hope. We share with you, beloved friends and readers, this small literary gift: a list made up of a couple of books that we each read and loved in 2020.
It may not be much by some measures. But it’s our way of saying, Regardless of what comes after the next “And then…,” we are fumbling forward together.
—Grace Singh Smith, Blog Editor
Julia Brown, Fiction Editor | Houston, Texas
- Now in the Not Quite Dark by Dana Johnson: I am drawn back repeatedly to this 2016 collection, to marvel at its sharply observed depictions set in a gentrifying Los Angeles. Johnson digs skillfully at the complexities and loneliness of modern life. These stories haunt.
- The Loser by Thomas Bernhard: Friendship and jealousy, music-making and Thanatos: I first read The Loser last November, and something of its fractious, obsessed narrator has stayed with me. In this funny, sad book, Bernhard gives exuberant voice to the agita of stunted ambition.
Jessica Q. Stark, Assistant Poetry Editor | Jacksonville, Florida
- Upend by Claire Meuschke: This stunning poetry debut navigates the archived immigration trial of Hong On, a biracial Native Alaskan Chinese man, during the years of the Chinese Exclusion Act. As someone who also can’t resist fusing archival research and poetry, I love this hybrid text for helping to unearth, upend every piece of U.S. history that’s been kept silent and still.
- Plunder by Dorsey Craft: Another debut that knocked me back, Craft’s collection breathes life, eats dirt, and answers to no one but the persona of the pirate Anne Bonny. I admire how deftly this collection (re)animates ghosts that speak to female portraiture, its jagged bodies, and the sea.
Alan Chazaro, Assistant Poetry Editor | San Pablo, California
- An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres: This hit me hard. As a fellow Californian Mexican American who grew up riding around in Mustang 5.0’s and putting on boxing gloves in a backyard, everything about this book felt like a real portrayal for those of us who were raised outside of the academic classroom and inside the graffiti-covered tunnels behind our houses after school. This book has all of that masculine energy—and more—but what makes it sing for me is how tenderly and compassionately it looks at the people who come in and out of our lives, and how that ultimately leaves us incomplete, in search of ourselves.
- Thrown in the Throat by Benjamin Garcia (an AGNI contributor!): A stunning 2020 debut collection from an unabashedly queer Latinx perspective, which will sit in your body and in your thoughts long after you close its pages. It traces the history (both personal and social) of how we grow into our different selves, and how our constant morphing changes the way we interact with our world and, particularly, our mothers. It is painful and humorous, uplifting and terrifying, and comes from the deepest truth that only a poet’s mouth can hold about where we come from, and who we are becoming.
Amber Caron, Assistant Fiction Editor | Logan, Utah
- Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley: An extraordinary essay about the movement of time after the sudden death of a grown son. In a year of sudden deaths and warped time, this was the book I needed most.
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: I read this back in January and have been pushing it on others ever since. A coming-of-age story. A love story. A family story. A war story. A difficult read, full of pain and sadness, but the prose is astonishingly redemptive.
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Poetry Editor | Imnizaska (a homeland of the Dakota Nation, occupied by Saint Paul, Minnesota)
- Yi Sang: Selected Works by Yi Sang, edited by Don Mee Choi, translated by Jack Jung, Don Mee Choi, Sawako Nakayasu, and Joyelle McSweeney: This masterful translation of the preeminent Korean modernist poet’s essential works is the book that I’ve been waiting decades for. I will return to it again and again to be nourished and provoked whenever my imagination feels pinched.
- Little Big Bully by Heid Erdrich: A vital editor and poet of several collections, Erdrich’s latest title is a restless and formally innovative, lyrical reckoning with settler colonialism’s gendered violence.
Sven Birkerts, Coeditor | Arlington, Massachusetts
- Berta Isla and his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias: Something in the movement and strange pulse of his digressions…Marias is definitely in the “look at it long enough and it becomes interesting” school of writing.
- The Jukebox and Other Essays by Peter Handke: Came upon this after many years, opened to sample, and found him there at my shoulder, reflecting wisely on the mysteries and the paths we follow through our private existences.
- Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad. The compressions of thought and memory that are released in the course of a day’s sad wandering. . .
Esteban Rodríguez, Assistant Poetry Editor | Austin, Texas
- Horsepower by Joy Priest: Priest’s debut collection is a powerful meditation on memory, place, identity, and the array of narratives that situate the speaker at the center of an ever-changing world.
- As Far As You Know by A. F. Moritz: Moritz’s twentieth collection explores the themes that shape its two sections, “Terrorism” and “Poetry.” What results is a highly lyrical and engaging book that illuminates the nuances of history, nature, poetry, social consciousness, and the way our interactions with the world can be both devastating and triumphant.
Mary O’Donoghue, Fiction Editor | Tuscaloosa, Alabama
- Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat (Two Dollar Radio, 2020): Among the books I most admired this year. Alzayat was born in Damascus; her sentences move from Syria to Florida to New York, and they move generationally, traumatically, and truthfully through the long wretchedness of racial violence and war.
- Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (& Other Stories, 2015): A re-reading might sometimes constitute a first-time reading. This is the case for me with Herrera’s novella. I have taught this book twice and read it several times. I remain stunned, nearly punch-drunk, by how this text imbricates the urgent concerns of migrant life and death with the weight of mythology and the afterlife.
Rachel Mennies, Reviews Editor | Chicago, Illinois
- Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty: This debut collection trains a formally gifted (see: triple sestina), grief-forged lens onto life after domestic violence and the death of a sibling—a book somehow both immense and pin-focused, outrageously beautiful and profoundly devastating, all at once. When it’s safe to do so again, I fully intend to stop strangers on the street to tell them how much reading this book has changed me. Chakraborty is AGNI‘s former longtime poetry editor and a current contributing editor; we first met in the 236 Bay State Road basement, over a decade ago somehow…
- The Falls by Emily Mohn-Slate: In her debut book, Mohn-Slate, an AGNI contributor and dear friend, writes with her whole body about early motherhood and the double-sided coin of marriage and divorce. My favorite poems in the series are the speaker’s epistles to Charlotte Mew, the often-overlooked British poet whom Mohn-Slate resurrects for frank conversations about loss, mental illness, and how to write it all down.
Ariel Courage, Assistant Fiction Editor | Brooklyn, New York
- Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson: Time moved at a surreal pace in 2020, a year of turmoil and tragedy. I’ve read Anniversaries before, but returned to it this year because of the way it layers the granular, ordinary, day-by-day passage of time over the backdrop of sweeping historical events.
- Oreo by Fran Ross: An oldie, but you’d hardly know it from its inventive and modern play with language. A quirky satire that prods at the sleeping beast of what’s wrong with America.
Effie Sapuridis, Social Media Manager | _London, Ontario, Canada _
- The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune: An enchanting, fantastical, and lovely novel about found families and community.
- **Kindred **by Octavia Butler: My first Octavia Butler and I’m not sure why I waited so long. Jarring and powerful. I would recommend it to anyone.
Cynthia Ayeza, Assistant to the Blog Editor | Brookline, Massachusetts
- House of Stone by Novuyo Rhosa Tshuma: Skillfully written and humorous in part, this novel set in Zimbabwe captures the country’s complex history as well as the nature of personal histories and how they evolve, sometimes deliberately adjusted to fit our circumstances.
- Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: An impeccable telling of parts of Uganda’s history. What I found most intriguing as a Ugandan is Makumbi’s portrayal of mental illness—schizophrenia, depression—and how these conditions are passed down as curses from one generation to the next.
Ben Black, Assistant Fiction Editor | San Jose, California
- Essays One by Lydia Davis: For writers out there—this is a treasure trove of advice, lessons, models, and practice. Davis delights (in her calm, exacting way) in the details: words and their meanings, their origins, the ways they dance around each other as you shuffle their order in a sentence. A master class in the art of writing.
- The Laws of the Skies by Gregoire Courtois: I almost hesitate to recommend this—it’s so cruel, visceral, and disturbing. But I can’t get Courtois’s story of a doomed kindergarten camping trip out of my head. The narrator grips you tightly from the first page on—he is in control: the horrors are laid out in gut-wrenching clarity, and you’re not allowed to look away. More: you are complicit in the horror. It’s gasp-inducing, exhilarating, profound._ _
Ruben Quesada, Poetry Editor | Chicago, Illinois
- Atlas T by D. A. Powell (Rescue Press, 2020): This is a chapbook-length collection of prose poems by one of the most innovative and celebrated poets of our time. The proceeds from this chapbook benefit Youth Speaks, a San Francisco–based organization that offers free arts and civic-engagement education to youth with limited access.
- In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché (Penguin Press, 2020): From one of the most important poets writing today, this collection resonates with a quietude and meditative observation of history and the horrors of the world. Bleak, yet incantatory, these poems witness the tragedy of communities too often forgotten or held at a distance.
Grace Singh Smith, Blog Editor | Santa Monica, California
- Miguel Hernandez, selected and translated by Don Share (NYRB, 2013): I found a strange comfort this year in this selection of poems by Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez, some devastating and unsettling, others hopeful. Almost all reach deep into your soul and turn you inside out. Hernandez was condemned to death after the defeat of the Republic; he died in prison, where he’d continued to write until the very end. If you’ve never read Hernandez, start with “The Lullaby of the Onion.” It will break your heart.
- The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (Penguin Books, 1980): On the surface, this novel (a modern epic with a capital E) glitters with oft-repeated themes—migration, unrequited and unsatisfying love—but for me, Hazzard’s greatest accomplishment lies in how the intricate plot, crackly prose, and memorable characters subordinate themselves to a grand metaphorical scheme (much as they do in Lolita). Think Henry James—except you won’t need ginormous doses of caffeine. I’ll want to reread this in years to come because Hazzard’s masterpiece holds truths so layered I’m sure to discover new facets each time.
William Pierce, Coeditor**|** Boston, Massachusetts
- Cleanness by Garth Greenwell: Greenwell’s sentences, which I’d rank among the best, are intimate and immediate; ripe with pain, adjustment, and vulnerability. In these stories, we walk with a single narrator through worlds that are not his own. The key note is displacement, whether involuntary or chosen. When Greenwell writes sex—always between men, often transgressive—the scenes can feel erotica-sexy even while they explore the harms and sometimes false hopes embedded in our lust.
- The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois: What I expected, and got, turning to Du Bois, was a powerful intellect laying out, among other things, the history of white duplicity and retreat following the years of racial-justice work after the Civil War. He writes in this same persuasive mode about Black education and mentorship also, recounting the healthy ferment at Atlanta University in passages that remind me of Ta-Nehisi Coates on “The Mecca.” What I did not expect, though, was a master of the personal essay, a writer who—entering now as a kind of reporter, now as a rural teacher seeking out his grown students—turns a lens on particular Black Americans of the late nineteenth century. The resulting glimpses feel rare to me, and less embellished than many others: precious early photographs. His anti-Semitism is the mar on the plate.