Editor’s Note: We’ve been looking forward to the release of Omar El Akkad’s new book, American War (available April 4), so we were thrilled when he offered to share some of his favorite reads from the past year. Enjoy!
My reading list this year has been wildly varied, in large part because one of the chief perks of loitering on the outskirts of the publishing industry is the ability to swipe advance copies of upcoming novels. Having no self-discipline when it comes to such matters, I have, in the past few months, nabbed every book I could get my hands on.
These are ten of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. Some are older titles I stumbled on serendipitously, but most are either newly released or will be coming out soon.
Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad
Iran’s stunningly gifted poet died too young, at 32. But in her brief career she breathed life into the country’s modernist movement, eschewing a long tradition of poetic conservatism in favor of frank explorations of sexuality and powerful indictments of bureaucratic oppression. Sin is a beautiful cross-section of her work, and translator Sholeh Wolpe does an outstanding job of keeping the fire of the original text alight.
Ernest Hemingway: A Biography by Mary V. Dearborn
Regardless how you feel about Hemingway’s work, Mary Dearborn’s fascinating new biography is an enthralling chronicle of the writer’s life. The book presents an intimate, immensely well-researched portrait of a man who, capable of immense acts of literary and personal grandeur, eventually falls prey to his own myth-making. This book is set to hit shelves May 16.
Spoils by Brian Van Reet
Ironically, given the title of my debut novel, I honestly don’t like war stories that much – or at least not ones about contemporary wars. But Spoils is the rare exception. Set in Iraq and telling the dual stories of a captured U.S. soldier and a disillusioned jihadist, it’s a wondrously nuanced book. Van Reet offers none of the bang-bang breathlessness that so often accompanies contemporary descriptions of war. Instead, there is something deeply human here – a story concerned first and foremost with the souls of those who find themselves protagonists in history’s darkest chapters. This book is set to hit shelves April 18.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
I’ve told everyone I know about this book ever since I read an advance copy a few months ago. Hamid’s gorgeous, dreamlike novel about a young couple caught up in the undertow of the world’s refugee crisis is a small masterpiece. Sometimes surreal, sometimes brutal, it is the kind of novel that’s quiet in the loudest possible way, and one of those very few books I finished in a single sitting.
Proxies: Essays Near Knowing by Brian Blanchfield
My British publisher sent me this collection of micro-essays over Christmas and I absolutely loved Blanchfield’s writing. For every essay, Blanchfield picks a topic and writes from memory, not allowing himself to consult any resource but his own mind. The end of the book is a long appendix of corrections he discovered after the fact. The conceit sounds like a gimmick but what results is an ethereal thing, an amalgam of essay and poem. The writing swings from deeply abstract and philosophical to direct and raw, from explorations of the poem and the self to recollections of growing up poor and gay in the South. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
They Die Strangers by Mohammad Abdul-Wali
I found this tiny collection of short stories while looking for translated Yemeni fiction and it’s been stuck in my head for a while. Abdul-Wali’s stories – some of them just a couple of pages long – are concerned almost exclusively with exile. His characters are mostly Yemeni-born, but for reasons of finance or self-preservation find themselves forced to emigrate. The stories offer an interesting glimpse of a culture massively underrepresented in English-language literature, but also a universal longing for home.
Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir, by Julie Salverson
A few months ago, my former creative writing teacher sent me a note telling me about one of her colleagues who’d written a story about an aboriginal community in Canada that discovered that the uranium ore mined on their land was used to develop the first atomic weapons. That description alone was enough to get me to pick up the book, but there’s so much more in Salverson’s work. It’s a meditation – often deeply personal – on trauma, belonging and the painful but necessary work of bearing witness.
Dothead: Poems, by Amit Majmudar
Technically, I read this collection late last year, but I had to include it because there’s a ferocity and fearlessness to Majmudar’s work that I find mesmerizing. The poems’ subject matter ranges from schoolyard jibes to warfare to the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is so much wit and imagination and playfulness in these poems, and even the most surface-level reading elicits joy. But what I love most about this collection is its implicit refusal, in exploring the consequences of otherness, to be passive or polite.
See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt
Schmidt’s fictional re-telling of a real-life nineteenth-century axe-murder is wild and wildly original. Every other sentence turns on a phrase or description the likes of which I’ve not seen in any other piece of writing. And in Lizzie Borden, charged with killing her father and stepmother but ultimately acquitted, Schmidt creates one of the most maddening characters I’ve read in a long time – a sociopath of disturbing zealotry. I’m not sure it reflects well on me to say this about a novel that deals with a gruesome double-murder, but I had a lot of fun reading this book.
No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, by Khaled Khalifa
The best book I’ve read this year, and perhaps in many years, No Knives tells the story of a single Syrian family struggling to withstand the pressures of an oppressive government and the kind of suffocating society such governments often produce. Covering more than 40 years and dozens of characters, it’s not an easy read. But what Khalifa does in this book is nothing short of miraculous. He gets at the heart of what it means to be repressed, to want desperately for joy but to be denied it.