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29 Books We Couldn’t Put Down This Year

From stunning poetry and illuminating nonfiction to heart-wrenching novels.

Posted on December 11, 2020, at 10:19 a.m. ET

Fiction

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (Harper)

Harper, Carrie Allen

Elizabeth Wetmore's weighty, affecting debut takes place in 1970s Odessa, Texas, a beautiful but dismal oil town plagued by racism and misogyny that’s only heightened by the roughnecks passing through. At the center is Glory, a 14-year-old Mexican girl who survives a brutal rape by Dale, a roughneck who leaves her for dead. The impact of this horrific event radiates through the community as it gears up for a trial against Dale: There’s the very pregnant Mary Rose, whose porch Glory escapes to; Corinne, the widow whose late husband watched Glory get into Dale's car and is haunted by their failure to stop her; Debra Ann, Corinne's young, plucky neighbor who befriends a vet experiencing homelessness; and Ginny, Debra Ann’s mom, who's left her daughter and husband to find a life of her own. It's through the perspectives of these women and girls that we watch the drama unfold in a town dead set on privileging a white rapist over a Mexican child. Wetmore’s characters are so rich, her prose so masterful, that it's hard to believe Valentine is a debut. —Arianna Rebolini

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Cleanness by Garth Greenwell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, William J. Adams

In this gorgeous follow-up to 2016’s What Belongs to You, we once again spend some time with an unnamed American high school teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria. There’s never much plot in Greenwell’s fiction, but that doesn’t matter. It’s Greenwell’s sentences that are the main attraction. His ability to write sex scenes that are deeply revealing and erotic and tender and illuminating is simply unmatched. Fall in love with his keen ear for language. —Tomi Obaro

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Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang (Ecco)

Ecco, Alana Davis

Jing Jing is 24 years old and trying to figure out who she is. She’s bored at her job as a tech reporter, dismissed and underpaid as a young Chinese American woman, and when her long-term boyfriend announces he’s moving to Ithaca, New York, to attend grad school, she decides to go with him in hopes of achieving her own fresh start. But as Jing Jing contends with a town full of mostly white neighbors preoccupied with proving they’re “good liberals,” and starts spending time researching the history of Chinese women and interracial relationships in the US, she begins to explore her relationship with her own history and identity, questioning where her boyfriend fits into it. Her journey shifts as she moves from place to place — San Francisco, then Ithaca, then China — and Chang follows her in prose that flows so gracefully across themes of millennial ennui, capitalist disillusionment, immigration, love, and sacrifice. —A.R.

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The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Harper)

Harper

Few books electrify me the way Cook’s surreal short story collection Man v. Nature did, but her debut novel — which continues her exploration of the interplay between nature and civilization — has done it again. In a too-familiar version of our world, Bea is desperate to leave the heavily polluted City, whose air is slowly killing her 5-year-old daughter, Agnes. When a study calls for volunteers to move to the last nature area on earth, the Wilderness State, there’s no question — they’re ready to go. What begins as a group of 20 dwindles over the years (they’ve lost track of time) as the Community struggles to survive in an environment that doesn’t care if they live or die. The emotional core of the story is the relationship between Bea and Agnes, whose perspectives drive the narrative. It’s a damning piece of horror cli-fi, but it’s also a gripping and profound examination of love and sacrifice. —A.R.

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Read an excerpt from The New Wilderness.

The World Doesn't Work That Way, But It Could by Yxta Maya Murray (University of Nevada Press)

University of Nevada Press, Andrew Brown

Each short story in Murray’s fearless and revelatory collection begins with an epigraph — one or more excerpts from news items, speeches, and published research from the past five years that orient the reader in the precise moment Murray is about to just eviscerate. The collection opens with quotes from two stories about Trump — one about his speech notoriously referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists, the other about Univision’s subsequent cancellation of the Miss USA telecast — and then launches into a heartbreaking story about the real-world implications of these events, following a pageant coach and her Black and Latina client, whose accent and “trailer park” personality are liabilities in her pursuit of the crown. Murray is creative in form: She tackles gentrification through an imagined Zillow listing for the Boyle Heights, California, art space that was met with aggressive opposition in 2016; she calls out the misogyny within the US judicial system via a rough draft of a letter of recommendation to Judge Alex Kozinski. In this way, Murray makes it impossible for readers to maintain the shelter of distance from politics, forcing us beyond quote-unquote neutral reporting and into the humanity that exists in its omissions. It is absolutely essential reading. —A.R.

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The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk (Erewhon)

Erewhon, Mike Tan of Mike Tan Photography

When I was deep in my pandemic reading slump and couldn’t seem to focus on anything for longer than a page or two, it was fantasy that pulled me back to attention. And C.L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain is everything I love about the genre that made me fall in love with reading 30-odd years ago. It follows Beatrice Clayborn, a plucky young woman whose dreams of becoming an official Magus are threatened by her duties — she needs to be married off to save her family from financial ruin, but doing so means she will be forced to block her innate magical powers as a way of protecting her unborn children. Determined to become a Magus before it’s too late, Beatrice seeks out a powerful grimoire, finding herself entangled with a rival sorcerer, that rival’s devastatingly charming brother, and a stubborn spirit who pushes Beatrice toward him. It’s romantic, suspenseful, and utterly dreamy. —A.R.

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The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha (Tin House)

Tin House, Alexandra Beha

Sam Waxworth is a data journalist and staunch believer in the idea that everything in life is knowable and quantifiable. After successfully predicting the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, he’s offered a job as a columnist for a cushy magazine, and he’s quickly assigned a profile of Frank Doyle — a disgraced opinion columnist who covered both politics and baseball. But Sam likes Frank more than he expects to, and his previously very neat life philosophy gets muckier as he comes to know Frank’s family — his wife, Kit, whose family-run investment bank is failing; his son, Eddie, who’s just returned from a tour in Iraq; and his daughter, Margo, an academic who’d rather be a poet. Beha’s third novel is a masterful interplay of big, fraught themes of privilege, race, wealth, and ethics. —A.R.

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Read an excerpt from The Index of Self-Destructive Acts.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Grove Press)

Grove Press, Clive Smith

Stuart’s vivid, sweeping novel tells the story of young Hugh "Shuggie" Bain in 1980s–early ‘90s Glasgow, a city struggling with the closure of its mines and the resulting widespread unemployment. He and his mother, Agnes, live in rundown public housing; Agnes is beautiful and loving but often incapacitated by her alcoholism; Shuggie worships her but is often the caretaker. Theirs is a beautiful and tragic bond. Shuggie’s father, neighbors, and peers ridicule him for being different — he’s “no right,” they say in the book’s Scottish dialect — but he doesn't understand what makes him different or why such difference is bad. Agnes sees and loves and defends who is: a child who doesn't yet have the language or models to recognize his queerness. Stuart, who spent 12 years creating this masterpiece, draws a vivid picture of working-class Glasgow, clearly evoking the smells and sounds and textures of Shuggie's bleak corner of the city, inviting us into this complicated but tender family — not only Agnes and Shuggie, but also Shuggie's brother, Leek, who wants to be an artist but knows it's impractical; his sister, Catherine, who marries young and follows her husband to a job in South Africa; and his estranged father and namesake. —A.R.

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His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie (Algonquin)

Algonquin, Sylvernus Darku (Team Black Image Studio)

Perhaps my favorite fall fiction came from Peace Adzo Medie, whose debut novel is, at its core, a story that kept me tied to the page, told in masterful, seamless prose. It follows Afi Tekple, a seamstress in training from a small town in Ghana who marries a wealthy man at the request of his mother. She barely knows Elikem Ganyo, but his mother — who took Afi and her own mother in after Afi’s father died over 10 years ago — is hoping Afi will be able to convince Elikem to leave the woman he’s currently living with (also the mother of his child). But this marriage isn’t what Afi is expecting, and when she realizes her new husband won’t be part of her daily life in her new swanky Accra apartment, she decides to take advantage of the comforts made possible by her sudden and substantial rise in status, exploring her independence and ambition amid the backdrop of the city’s young elites. Medie depicts a vivid and dazzling Accra, and it’s impossible not to root for Afi as she finds her footing within it. —A.R

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Life Events by Karolina Waclawiak (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Rosson Crow

Disclosure: Karolina is our boss, but even still, her meditative novel about waiting for a loved one to die is deeply moving. Evelyn is a 37-year-old woman on the brink of divorce with a drinking problem, grappling with her father’s imminent death. She decides to join a death doula support group and learns what it means to really let go. While the subject matter is undoubtedly dark, this novel is a ruminative, incredibly moving reflection on the impossible heartbreak of waiting for a loved one to die. Impossible to read without crying. —T.O.

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Read "What My Mother Didn't Talk About."

Luster by Raven Leilani (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

No book I read this year made me laugh, cringe, and marvel in equal measure more than this debut by the extremely talented Raven Leilani. Edie, a Black millennial toiling at a dead-end publishing job with aspirations to paint professionally finds herself in a complicated living arrangement with Eric, a married white man she’s dating, Rebecca, his grimly determined coroner wife, and their adopted Black daughter Akila. It’s Leilani’s writing that’s the real treat here though — her prose is exacting, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at once. I can’t recommend Luster enough. —T.O.

Find it at Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

Read "If You Like Normal People, You'll Love Luster"

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann (Little, Brown and Company)

Little, Brown and Company, Stephanie Pfaender

Hofmann's expertly crafted debut follows Bernd Zeiger, a state security officer in East Germany, over the course of one bewildering day: Nov. 9, 1989, the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernd wakes feeling disoriented. He finds himself losing minutes here and there, convinced a mysterious illness is weakening either his mind or his body, but likely both; he's haunted by memories of a man his team tortured 25 years ago; he's paranoid, which is ironic since his claim to fame is having written the titular Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, a how-to guide for gaslighting. At the center of all of this is Lara, a young server who’s gone missing — and Bernd, convinced everything will make sense when he finds her, sets off on a rescue mission, following one cryptic clue after another. Reading this book in 2020, a year defined by disinformation run rampant, was, to put it bluntly, a trip. But I loved every absurd and unpredictable minute of it. —A.R.

Find it at Bookshop, Target, or Amazon.

The Awkward Black Man by Walter Mosley (Grove Press)

Grove Press, Marcia E Wilson

Walter Mosley is a master of fiction, perhaps best known for his Easy Rawlins detective series, but his dexterity spans genres from literary fiction to science fiction to young adult. In these 17 dynamic stories, Mosley turns his attention to the underdog — the guy who can’t catch a break but also can’t stop hoping for one. In “The Good News Is,” a heavyset man is thrilled to be losing weight for the first time in his adult life, until he finds out it’s from cancer. In “Pet Fly,” a lonely and overqualified mailroom worker thinks he’s made a new friend, perhaps even a romantic interest, in a receptionist, but his overtures are met with bewildering cruelty. Often these men do see a sudden bit of luck, but the source is so random and unexpected that it feels ironic and anticlimactic — a promotion when what you were hoping for was companionship. These stories tap into the vulnerability and indignity of the human condition, but also its remarkable, even irrational, commitment to hope. —A.R.

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Read “Breath” from The Awkward Black Man.

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell (Vintage)

Vintage, Dan Hawk

It’s (depressingly) fitting that Russell’s Sleep Donation — a dystopian novella originally released in 2014, in digital format only — would be published in paperback for the first time this year. It follows Trish Edgewater, a top recruiter of sleep donors in a world ravaged by a quickly spreading, little understood, excruciating insomnia pandemic. But Trish (whose sister died of the plague before sleep donation was available) starts to lose faith in the mission of Slumber Corps, her employer, when she's asked to continuously collect from a baby discovered to be a universal donor, at the same time as another donor's infectious nightmare wreaks havoc around the world. It's a tense but captivating read, eerie in its prescience: It's impossible not to think of the pandemic we’re currently living through as Russell chronicles the progression of the disease — the initial skepticism followed by widespread death followed by backlash against those working to cure it. But it's also an almost philosophical meditation on dreams and consciousness, and a moving examination of love, grief, empathy. —A.R.

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Read "Karen Russell Wishes Her Dystopian Novella Didn't Feel So Close To Reality."

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth (William Morrow)

William Morrow, Chris Mongeau

Listening to the Plain Bad Heroines audiobook, narrated by Xe Sands, was perhaps the most fun I had as a reader in 2020 — a whopping 19 hours and I still wanted more. The queer horror novel centers on the Brookhants School for Girls, a Rhode Island boarding school that’s infamous for the grisly deaths of three of its students at the turn of the 20th century. One woman connects those three girls, as well as their young principal: Mary MacLane, whose controversial memoir is passed among them, and in whom they see reflections of their own queerness. In the current timeline, Mary is present still, now as the source of fascination for Merritt Emmons, whose book about Brookhants is being turned into a movie, and the two young women who will star in it. Our narrator is wryly self-aware and a full-fledged character, breaking the fourth wall early and often, and leading us through the intricate, tangled histories of each of these women. It’s creepy, romantic, hilarious, and a mighty celebration of women who refuse to follow the rules. —A.R.

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The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (West Virginia University Press)

West Virginia University Press, Vanessa German

My ability to finish books took a nosedive this fall, but this exquisite short story collection was one of the few books I managed to read greedily in one sitting. There’s a deep ache of familiarity I felt when reading about these Black women, from the closeted Eula in the bittersweet first story of the same name to the exuberantly boisterous half sisters in “Dear Sister.” The two-parent-two-kid home that is the mythical ideal in so many bad church sermons is nowhere to be found in these stories, which makes the tensions between these women’s desires and what the church has taught them that much more poignant. —T.O.

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Read "Eula" from The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.

Zigzags by Kamala Puligandla (Not a Cult)

Not a Cult, Lara Kaur

Puligandla’s debut is quiet and contemplative, a tender story about Aneesha, a young writer who’s feeling unfulfilled and disillusioned after her first year working toward her MFA in LA and so decides to spend the summer in Chicago, her former (short-lived) hometown she can’t stop thinking about. There she crashes with her old flame, Whitney, whose life is now barely recognizable, dominated by a full-time job and serious boyfriend. Puligandla, editor-in-chief of Autostraddle, follows Aneesha as she reconnects with the circle of friends who were, at one point, everything to her — but as they hop from bar to party, from beach to lunch, she confronts the fact that inevitably hits every twentysomething: as lives and priorities change, relationships shift. It’s an insightful and evocative exploration of love, community, identity, and the clumsy work of trying to make sense of it all. —A.R.

Find it at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers (Unnamed Press)

Unnamed Press, Clayton Cubitt

A Certain Hunger cuts right to the chase: We meet our ice-cold narrator, food critic Dorothy Daniels, as she flirts with a stranger at a bar, and by the end of the short first chapter, she's murdered him with an ice pick to the neck. It's a bloody scene described in precise, evocative detail, recounted with a complete lack of feeling. In this way, author Chelsea G. Summers sets the tone for the novel as a whole — you know what you're in for (well, almost) and you're excited to get there. Dorothy's story, which she's writing from prison, is a hedonistic journey that begins as soon as she sets out on her own for college and quickly realizes she's different from the men who surround her — indeed, she suspects, she’s far superior. What follows is a dark, provocative, and wholly incomparable account of sex, food, and other indulgences, marred by just one regret: getting caught. —A.R.

Find it at Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (Riverhead Books)

Riverhead Books, Beowulf Sheehan

From the dark humor of “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” to the gutting conclusion of the title story, Evans’ short stories are full of richly textured Black women. In “Boys Goes to Jupiter,” a young white college student doubles down on a decision to use Confederate flag imagery, at the risk of alienating everyone around her. In “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” a genius male artist apologizes to the women in his life, referred to only by their relationships to him from the High School Sweetheart to the Longsuffering Ex-wife to the Soon-to-Be Shortsuffering Second Ex-wife. But it’s the title story, a novella, that really shows Evans’ capabilities. A Black woman living and working in gentrifying Washington, DC, embarks on a mysterious historical mission that brings dredges up old wounds both personal and national. It’s a remarkable follow-up to 2010’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. —T.O.

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Nonfiction

Mill Town: Reckoning With What Remains by Kerri Arsenault (St. Martin's Press)

St. Martin's Press, Erik Madigan Heck

Twenty years after Arsenault left her hometown of Mexico, Maine, she returns for her grandfather’s funeral and stumbles into a conspiracy of decadeslong corruption. What begins as an investigation into her family history shifts when the unofficial local historian directs her to a vital story she and her late husband had tried for years to release to the public, with little success: that the paper mill had long been releasing carcinogenic chemicals into the air and water; that, as a result, residents were succumbing to cancer at such an inordinate rate that the town became known as “Cancer Valley”; and that the mill and local government worked in tandem to keep this information hidden. It’s a heartfelt ode to her home and the people who inhabit it, and a damning exposé of the forces that profit from its devastation. —A.R.

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World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Milkweed Editions)

Milkweed Editions, Caroline Beffa

Reading World of Wonders, it’s clear that Nezhukumatathil is a poet. These essays sing with joy and longing — each focusing on a different natural wonder, all connected by the thread of Nezhukumatathil’s curiosity and her identification with the world’s beautiful oddities. In bits and pieces, we learn about a chaotic childhood spent moving around the country for her parents’ jobs, among white classmates who made certain she understood she wasn’t like them. We learn about her life by learning about the creatures that helped her survive or understand it — how the axolotl’s smile can be deployed when “a white girl tells you what your brown skin can and cannot wear,” how the touch-me-not plant protects itself. It’s a heartwarming, poignant, and often funny collection, enlivened by Fumi Nakamura’s dreamy illustrations. —A.R.

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How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker (Mad Creek Books)

Mad Creek Books, Brenda Molife

Professor Jerald Walker teaches creative writing at Emerson College, and it's clear in this outstanding, inventive book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. These essays seamlessly blend cultural critique with personal reflection; they are equally visceral and shrewd, often funny, never dry. There's a necessary balance in Walker's exploration of the Black male experience in the US, which he pinpoints at the border of anger and humor. He tackles life in academia, family and relationships, healthcare, writing, and disability, and the ways in which his Blackness informs his experiences in each arena. It's an accessible, thought-provoking, vibrant read. —A.R.

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Random House, Meghann Riepenhoff

On March 27, 1964, the very young state of Alaska was struck by what is still the most powerful earthquake in American history, and Anchorage — a city that had been a beacon of progress in this new frontier, a manifestation of its residents’ optimism — was literally torn apart. This Is Chance! is the riveting account of the following three days — the resilience and resourcefulness of a town that hadn’t yet established a system or infrastructure to handle such an emergency, and the bravery of Genie Chance, an ambitious and underestimated radio reporter whose impromptu three-day broadcast became the beating heart of a community struggling to survive. It’s a beautifully wrought and profoundly joyful story of compassion and perseverance. —A.R.

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Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

One World, Beowulf Sheehan

In a year that has been marked by overt anti-Asian discrimination, thanks to a lot of early misinformation about the coronavirus, Hong’s Minor Feelings, which came out in February, is a preternaturally timely and thoughtful essay collection. In a series of roving pieces ranging from her experiences growing up in LA in the aftermath of the 1992 riots to an obituary of sorts for the late poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha — raped and murdered at just 31— Hong writes with great nuance about what it means to be “Asian American,” while acknowledging the inherent vagueness of such a broad term. Minor Feelings immediately feels in conversation with other works by poets-turned-breakout prose writers like Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine. And judging by their enthusiastic blurbs, these writers agree. —T.O.

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Read an excerpt from Minor Feelings.

Penguin Press, Nina Subin

Do you love history, language, whimsy, and nerds? In other words, do you love crossword puzzles? If so, you will adore poet Adrienne Raphel’s ode to crosswords and the people who love them. With illuminating research and charming first-person reporting, Raphel explores the obsession shared by so many, looking at where it came from and how it became a cultural staple, and offering an immersive and purely delightful reading experience. —A.R.

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Poetry

Every Day We Get More Illegal by Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights Publishing)

City Lights, Courtesy of the publisher

From 2015 to 2017, Juan Felipe Herrera was the United States Poet Laureate — the first Latino to be appointed — and throughout those two years, while traveling the country and reflecting upon the experience shortly after, he wrote about the lives and struggles of Latin American immigrants he encountered. Those poems became Every Day We Get More Illegal, which reads as both a condemnation of America's sins, and a plea for it to recognize them. In "You Just Don't Talk About It" — a powerful, emotional, and breathtaking litany of America's abuses against immigrants while benefiting from their labor — Herrera grabs your face and won't let you look away: "you don't care about the trans teens the taste of acid the taste of plutonium about the nugget of larva of decay in our milk and juice and you don't care about the pesticide skin of uncle Timoteo hauling Mendota cotton and melons on the hammer lane of 99," he writes. It's a perfect encapsulation of much of the collection, which is furious, evocative, and urgent, until, with a sort of quiet peace, Herrera opens the book up to his hope for a better, kinder future, and graciously invites the reader into his vision of it. —A.R.

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Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Graywolf Press)

Diaz, who is queer, Mojave, and Latinx, touches upon these hallmarks of her identity in this collection, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in poetry. As I wrote back in March, Poems like “Top Ten Reasons Indians Are Good at Basketball” (one reason: “When Indian ballers sweat, we emit a perfume of tortillas and Pine-Sol floor cleaner that works like a potion to disorient our opponents and make them forget their plays”) live alongside poems mourning the decimation of her Native heritage (“Manhattan Is a Lenape Word”). The result is a collection that refuses easy sentiments and is all the more effective for its nuance and range.” —T.O.

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Negotiations by Destiny O. Birdsong (Tin House)

Tin House, Hunter Armistead

Birdsong’s debut is radiant and vital, touching on violence, oppression, and misogynoir. Birdsong collapses time, weaving in moments from throughout American history with her lived experience, never letting the reader take comfort in a misguided idea about progress. (“the ancestors / never had it so good // maybe / the children // will,” she writes in “i too sing america”) Her anger throbs at some points (“I hope everything you touch is infested the way you think ghettos are”) and simmers at others (“My rapist once said he didn’t need anything from me,” starts the first of multiple poems outlining scenes of unhappy domesticity with her rapist), but her impact never wanes. It’s a collection best read slowly, and then again. —A.R.

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W. W. Norton, Karen Kuehn

This stunning, extensive anthology showcases the wide-ranging poetry of Indigenous peoples of North America. The collection is divided into five sections organized by geographic location, each one opening with a powerful introduction from renowned poets, placing the poetry and region in its historical, political, and cultural context. Featuring work that spans centuries — from oral literature of the 17th century to modern experimentation; including writers like Heid E. Erdrich, Layli Long Soldier, Natalie Diaz, Jake Skeets, and more — this powerful tome is an essential addition to every home library. —A.R.

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