Staff Picks 2016: Helen

I'm officially a Librairie D+Q old-timer: this is my fifth Best of the Year list! (If you're interested in a retrospective, you can read the past editions here: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.) This year, due to spending less time at the store and more time on other projects, I've read less than usual; however, that doesn't mean I don't have an unreasonable amount of recommendations for you all! Here are my top 10 books of 2016 (with a bonus, because of course), in alphabetical order:

Beverly (Nick Drnaso)
Beverly was a real Drawn & Quarterly standout for me this year, probably because it satisfies my love of short fiction, depressing character studies, and the mundane made horrifying. Drnaso's soothing pastels and pillowy shapes belie the bleak circumstances of these subtly intertwined stories. Disturbing family dynamics, emotional manipulation, and suburban angst abound. Worth rereading a few times, so as not to miss the many visual and textual details.

Laid Waste (Julia Gfrörer)
The much-anticipated follow-up to 2013's Black is the Color, Laid Waste is just as witty and doom-ridden as its predecessor. Agnès is a young widow in a plague-cursed medieval city, who seems strangely immune to the disease that slowly takes everyone around her. Gfrörer doesn't shy away from ugliness or horror, and her dense line drawings perfectly convey the decay and despair of a community felled by pestilence. Despite her hopeless surroundings and circumstances, Agnès is still open to a newfound connection with a widower and fellow survivor (at least for now). A love story for our own apocalyptic times.

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (Sarah Glidden)
Glidden, an American cartoonist, accompanies two good friends, both experienced independent journalists, on a trip through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, in hopes of documenting their attempts to learn about the effects of the Iraq war on people in the region, particularly refugees. Complicating the trip is the presence of a childhood friend and former American Marine, whose viewpoint is often troubling and uncomfortable for the other three, particularly when they are trying to connect with the people they meet. All members of the travel group must question the implications of their American identities and figure out how they can respond to their country's disastrous foreign policy. Glidden's watercolours are observant and often beautiful, recalling the work of Rutu Modan.

After Nothing Comes (Aidan Koch)
I can't get enough of Aidan Koch's work these days. After Nothing Comes, published in the spring by Koyama Press, is a selection of her zines, from between 2008 and 2014. I am drawn to her work the way I was drawn to Seiichi Hayashi's Red Colored Elegy (Drawn & Quarterly); both artists are experts at portraying a fleeting gesture, and at subtracting elements until only the most necessary parts of an image remain. Fittingly, Koch recently did an illustrated version of Lydia Davis' short story "How Difficult" for the Paris Review. I couldn't think of a better match.

The Vegetarian (Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith)
The English translation of this captivating South Korean novel won this year's Man Booker International Prize. This dark, absorbing novel is narrated by three distinct voices: the conservative, abusive husband of the titular vegetarian,Yeong-hye—a seemingly ordinary woman whose decision to become a vegetarian is just a preliminary sign of her resistance to the violent human world; Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, whose obsession with her leads to an erotic, unsettling overlap of art and life; and finally, Yeong-hye's concerned sister, who helplessly watches her sister distance herself from the living in hopes of becoming something else entirely.

Hot Milk (Deborah Levy)
Sofia Papastergiadis has accompanied her mother, Rose, to Almería, in southern Spain, in order for Rose to be treated at a special clinic for a variety of undiagnosed symptoms. Sofia, an anthropologist by training, has been Rose’s frustrated caretaker since she was a child, and struggles to find the thread of her own life. Manoeuvring between the heat-cracked desert and the oily, jellyfish-filled sea, she attempts to push her life forward by trying on new behaviours, including stealing fish and pursuing a mysterious girl. This is no breezy beach read, as some have assumed from the cover, but rather a clear-eyed examination of dependence, illness, and obsession, which turns the concept of "coming-of-age" on its head.

Seeing Red (Lina Meruane, translated by Megan McDowell)
I’m always excited to see what Dallas literary translation press Deep Vellum comes out with, so I snatched this one up the moment it came in. I read it in March, and have returned to it several times since then. Lina Meruane, celebrated Chilean writer, writes with visceral intensity and a relentless energy that lays bare the violence of the everyday. Her protagonist, a young Chilean navigating life in New York, suddenly loses her sight due to a rare condition, and her ensuing obsession with the eye(ball)s of others, her travels back to her family in Chile, and her Kafkaesque experiences with the medical world are at once nightmarish and grippingly realistic.

Ways to Disappear (Idra Novey)
A translator's book about a translator: more action-packed than you might expect! Novey’s first novel is at once a mystery, a meditation on translation and the plight of the translator, and a full-on adventure-romance romp. It follows Emma, unglamourous white American translator of the beloved and enigmatic Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda—who has unaccountably climbed into a tree and disappeared. What begins as an attempt to track down “her” author morphs into a transformational journey for Emma, as she contends with Yagoda’s two adult children, her gambling debts, her unfinished manuscript, her knack for absurdity and her stubborn unwillingness to reappear.

Virus Tropical (Powerpaola, translated by Jamie Richards)
Powerpaola, who currently lives and works in Buenos Aires, brings us the story of her childhood and adolescence in Peru and Colombia, starting with her mother’s pregnancy, which was mistaken by several doctors for a “tropical virus.” The youngest of three sisters, she grows up surrounded mainly by women, blossoming from a timid child into an adventurous teen. Powerpaola’s drawings are gorgeous, particularly the title pages for each chapter, which perfectly convey the uproar and hilarity of her young life. English-speaking readers are very lucky to have this translated edition from 2dcloud!

Look: Poems (Solmaz Sharif)
The most overtly political poetry I have read in a long time. Read and admired, to the extent of being completely bowled over by it. Sharif’s project began as a single poem in which she repurposed and recontextualized terms from the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, and slowly developed into this gutting, ferocious, and unexpectedly intimate work. In “Desired Appreciation,” she writes: “Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties:/All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:/American and diplomatic.” No longer.

BONUS: The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (ed. Jesmyn Ward)
I have not read all the way through this star-studded collection yet, but I wanted to include it in my top picks because of how necessary it feels to read black writers—always, but probably even more urgently at this particular moment. Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped: A Memoir) edited (and contributed to) this anthology; she curated it as a contemporary response to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, still all too necessary in an era of both covert and overt anti-black racism, and ongoing white entitlement, rage, and violence. Some highlights so far: the poet Kevin Young responds to white attempts to literally don blackness; poet, essayist, playwright, and recent MacArthur "genius grant" recipient Claudia Rankine grapples with the (in)visibility of black death in America;  Kiese Laymonwhom I google on the regular lest I miss a single one of his online pieces, writes about his love for both his grandmama and for Outkast, and how this has shaped his writing; and Ward herself does an online test to get familiar with her complex genealogy, embracing all of its intricacies while staunchly maintaining her black American identity.

Honourable mentions:

Panther (Brecht Evens, translated by Michele Hutchinson and Laura Watkinson); Wendy's Revenge (Walter K. Scott)

Wreck and Order (Hannah Tennant-Moore); Umami (Laia Jufresa, translated by Sophie Hughes); Margaret the First (Danielle Dutton)


3 Summers (Lisa Robertson); The Revolutionaries Try Again (Mauro Javier Cardenas); Extracting the Stones of Madness (Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert); Calamities (Renee Gladman); Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir (Kai Cheng Thom); Float (Anne Carson); Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (Frances Wilson); Swing Time (Zadie Smith)

Happy reading, everyone!

Don't forget to check out my erudite colleagues' Best of 2016 lists as well:
Les choix de Julie
Benjamin's Picks

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