Best of 2021 - Benjamin

December 17, 2021

Best of 2021 - Benjamin

Throughout these exacting and bewildering twelve months, I've been grateful to be accompanied by a rich crop of books—books that have been both buoying and propulsive, books that have kept me up and kept me going. 

This is my fifth year-end list for the bookstore. If you'd like a backward glance: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016.

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Good Arabs, The

Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch

Swinging from post-explosion Beirut to a Parc-Extension balcony in summer, the verse and prose poems in The Good Arabs ground the reader in place,...

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How To Wash a Heart

Bhanu Kapil

Bhanu Kapil's extraordinary and original work been published in the U.S. over the last two decades to create what she calls in Ban en...

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Pilgrim Bell

Kaveh Akbar

Kaveh Akbar’s exquisite, highly anticipated follow-up toCalling a Wolf a WolfWith formal virtuosity and ruthless precision, Kaveh Akbar’s second collection takes its readers on...

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A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure

Hoa Nguyen

Hoa Nguyen’s latest collection is a poetic meditation on historical, personal, and cultural pressures pre- and post-“Fall-of-Saigon” and comprises a verse biography on her...

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Letters in a Bruised Cosmos

Liz Howard

The latest from the author of the Griffin Poetry Prize Award-winning collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent.I have to believe my account will...

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The Good Arabs follows up from knot body (Metatron Press, 2020), Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch's debut collection of poems. Their second book expands and deepens their engagement with the troubled relationship between language and intimacy, formal uptakes of intersectional identity, and the inside-out/outside-in exchange between the personal and the political.

I have admired Bhanu Kapil for a long time, and came to her latest publication needing a book that would grab hold of my brain and give it a good rattle. How to Wash a Heart delivered. Here, Kapil interrogates the charged relationship between an immigrant guest and her white, middle-class host, taking up difficult and often unanswerable lines up inquiry regarding spaces that are outwardly inclusive to minority presences yet inwardly hostile and untenable. It's a momentous collection of poems that demands to be read swiftly, reread slowly, and puzzled over long after.

I've been anticipating Pilgrim Bell ever since we had the pleasure of hosting Kaveh Akbar for an evening of poetry back in 2019. If you ever have the chance to see him read his work in person, do not pass it up; Akbar is a magnetic performer. These poems wonder, sing, and contort in ways that—in short—really do it for me.

Wave Books have a catalogue nonpareil, and my pick-of-the-bunch for this year is A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure by Hoa Nguyen. Here, the Toronto-based poet recalls and inquires into the life of her mother, a stunt motorcyclist in an all-women Vietnamese circus troupe.

It was never going to be easy to follow up on her 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize winning debut collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent (M&S, 2015), but with Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, Liz Howard has managed to both extend her ongoing occupations with the brain, the language of both Western and Indigenous astrophysics, and anti-colonial modes of critique and lyricism, as well as take off in daring new directions. "As a child sometimes / I would receive a flick / to the centre of my / forehead. A flick / to the skin above / the skull bone / that houses / the frontal pole / a site in concert / with other structures / that is said to synthesize / the present tense / I experience as me" ("Brain Mapping"). 

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City of Belgium

Brecht Evens

AN EXQUISITELY DRAWN EXPLORATION OF THREE LOST SOULS' EMOTIONAL TERRAIN As night falls in the City of Belgium, three strangers in their late twenties - a...

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Julia Gfrorer

A vision-impaired, Victorian spinster in need of primitive cataract surgery has little time for herself between needing to take care of her demanding, unstable,...

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Heaven No Hell

Michael Deforge

"One of the most inventive and prolific cartoonists working today." - Vulture In the past ten years, Michael DeForge has released eleven books. While...

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Weng Pixin

A five-generation family history told through what is seen and heard, if not said Let?s Not Talk Anymore weaves together five generations of women...

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I had read Brecht Evens' masterful graphic novel when it was first released in French (Les Rigoles, Acte Suds, 2018), and was eager to revisit his chimeric neon nightscape in its new English translation (handled with care and skill by the author himself). The thing I find most extraordinary about The City of Belgium is Evens' nonhierarchical depiction of physical and metaphysical presence, rendering minds and memories and sentiments as tangibly and vividly as bodies and objects in his barrooms, back alleys, and beachfronts.

I love Julia Gfrörer's gnostic, creaturely graphic novels—including Black is the Color (Fantagraphics, 2013) and Laid Waste (Fantagraphics, 2016)—and Vision is another absorbing gothic work from the young American author and illustrator. She pronounces it "gruh fare," if you were wondering.

Michael Deforge is seriously prolific. Heaven No Hell assembles an inner circle of his best short works, and let me tell you: it's a high bar. My favourite is "Smothered Mate," wherein chess positions morph into horrifying biomorphic shapes in the mind of an ex-competitive chess player

Let's Not Talk Anymore by Weng Pixin is vast in scope yet intricate, tender, and particular in execution. Tracing five lives up a matrilineal tree—the great-grandmother, the grandmother, the mother, the narrator, and the narrator's imaginary daughter—Pixin zeroes in on miniscule instants in the lives of each of these women at the age of fifteen. In paying close attention to nearly imperceptible happenings, Pixin plumbs deep deposits of meaning and tracks shared traumas, quiet triumphs, familial inheritances, and patterns of behaviour across five generations.

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Personal Attention Roleplay

Helen Chau Bradley

A young gymnast crushes on an older, more talented teammate while contending with her overworked mother. A newly queer twenty-something juggles two intimate relationships--with...

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Three Novels

Yuri Herrera

The Mexico we hear of in the news—the drug cartels, migration and senseless violence—is rich soil for Herrera’s moving stories of people who live...

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Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth

Wole Soyinka

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR • The first Black winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature gives us a tour de...

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I'll reiterate what I wrote previously about Helen Chau Bradley's exceptional debut collection of stories: Personal Attention Roleplayat turns hilarious, disquieting, heartening, and shatteringprobes at the complexities of intimacy and loneliness in an array of different minds, bodies, and rich particularities. Chau Bradley's sentence-making is precise and potent; there is a sense of brink in each of their paragraphs, and they have a deft sense of when to veer and when to plunge.

I had been meaning to read Yuri Herrera for years, and Three Novels—which does what it says on the tin—offered me the perfect way in. Kingdom Cons, Signs Preceding the End of the World, and The Transmigration of Bodiescentering a Mexico that is mythic and counter-clichémake for a dark, destabilizing triad. 

The peerless Nigerian novelist, poet, playwright, and political activist Wole Soyinka has written a masterful novel of nearly dizzying internal variation: Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth moves nimbly from side-splitting to eye-widening, from Nigeria to New York, from full-throated to soft-spoken, from the operating theatre to the boardroom, from unputdownable to stop-you-in-your-tracks.
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Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Undrowned is a book-length meditation for social movements and our whole species based on the subversive and transformative guidance of marine mammals. Our aquatic...

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Jordan Abel

From Griffin Poetry Prize winner Jordan Abel comes a groundbreaking, deeply personal, and devastating autobiographical meditation that attempts to address the complicated legacies of...

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A Ghost in the Throat

Doireann Ní Ghríofa

An Post Irish Book Awards Nonfiction Book of the Year • A Guardian Best Book of 2020 • Shortlisted for the 2021 Rathbones Folio...

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Daphne B.

A nuanced, feminist, and deeply personal take on beauty culture and YouTube consumerism, in the tradition of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets As Daphné B obsessively...

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Undrowned is an astonishing book. I adore the tenor of Alexis Pauline Gumbs' meaning-making, which mixes Queer Black theory, poetics, and life-narrative into a thoughtful and thorough consideration of the social movements of marine mammals, and what our species can learn from our aquatic kin. It begins with a question: "What is the scale of breathing?"

Jordan Abel is one of the most exciting young poets at work today. The Nisga'a writer's radical sense of materiality and his generative erasure practice lead to his third bookInjun (Talon, 2016)—being awarded the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. With NISHGA, Abel has upended the memoir form, paring and bending it into an experience of language and image that is capable of registering the experience of subjective memory, of familial histories, and of inherited traumas.

I had heard Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa perform at Writer's Read Concordia several years ago, and was struck by her bruising musicality and her effortless command of both English and Irish. A Ghost in the Throat synthesizes autobiography, poetics, feminist theory, and history into a beautiful, singular book about a period in Ní Ghríofa's life in which her obsession with an 18th-century poem underpins a series of life-shifting events: illness, desire, aging, motherhood, and beyond.

I'm grateful that Made-Up by Montréal poet, essayist, and feminist thinker Daphné B. has been translated into English (with consideration and grace) by Alex Manley so that the Anglo community can enjoy Daphné's intellectually rigorous and deeply personal examination of beauty culture, the scaffolding of capitalism, and the experience of holding simultaneous, contradictory convictions.