Be sure to read the full list, with recommendations from booksellers around the country, but why not start here, with favorites from Portland and Seattle booksellers?
John Rember, A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World (University of New Mexico Press)
Jeremy Garber, Powell’s, Portland: John Rember’s A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World collects ten essays about civilization’s ongoing (and ever accelerating) anthropocentric woes: climate change, overpopulation, fossil fuel dependence, the Sixth Extinction, consumerism, capitalism, etc. While many might read this book and mistakenly conclude it a panoply of pessimism, it is instead a work of pragmatism and realism, foregoing as it does any indulgences of pipe dream fantasies, magical thinking, or spurious promises of techno-salvation. Throughout A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World, Rember demonstrates not only a mordant wit and dark sense of humor, but also an all-too-rare ability to see things as they actually are, offering neither platitudes nor quick fixes (or even slow ones, for that matter). A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World is thought-provoking, reflective, and forthright—as well as being that freak book that actually lives up to its descriptive copy: “A collection of gentle-spirited wisdom and a rumination on ruin, as if distilled in equal measure from the spirits of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.”
Fowzia Karimi, Above Us the Milky Way (Deep Vellum)
Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle: A book which at once has the soul of childhood and of an older soul leavened and weathered by exile and tragedy, this book has a narrative voice (and beautiful physical form) unlike any other encountered this year. It is the story of five young sisters, their mother, their father—forced to abruptly flee their homeland, then of life in the new land they arrive in. No one or place is ever named, but reading this you will know. The horrors being perpetrated in their homeland follow them in the form of heart-rending stories and news accounts, this while each of the five sisters is growing into life and ways of knowing, the parts of them that they come to know as themselves, but also as parts of a larger whole. Elements and forces beyond the human are a big part of this deep-hearted book, including the sky that is, after all, above us, over it all.
Scott Russell Sanders, The Way of Imagination: Essays (Counterpoint)
Karen Maeda Allman, Elliot Bay Book Company, Seattle: Scott Russell Sanders’s essays left me thinking deeply about the role of faith in understanding our relationship with the natural world, and our place in it. Isn’t there a different way forward, into restoration of the earth and of our relationships with each other, he asks? His words are gentle, hopeful, and wise, a counterpoint to harshness and giving in to the “inevitable.” Reading this book felt to me like reading a prayer. And prayer, in many faith traditions, also requires humility, taking responsibility and taking action.
Jason Guriel, Forgotten Work (Biblioasis)
James Crossley, Madison Books: When I chose this as my overlooked book for 2020, I didn’t think at all about the aptness of its title. Published in the fall, it hasn’t been out long enough to be truly lost yet, but it’s definitely flown under the radar. I didn’t see a single review of it, at any rate. Which might be the most brilliant marketing tactic ever, come to think, since Forgotten Work is about a lost artistic maybe-masterpiece. The setup is that a rock band with few resources but big ideas forms in the early 2000s, makes one recording, and then vanishes. A half-century later, in a world dominated by corporate technology, a coterie of vintage fetishists obsess over the band’s songs, known to them only through the writing of an obscure music critic. All very meta, concerned with the true meaning of art and authenticity, and crammed with references to the likes of Nabokov and Nick Drake. All very amusing, too, mocking its seriousness as it goes.
Oh, and I buried the lede: Forgotten Work is a novel in rhymed verse, heroically unspooling perfect couplets for almost 200 pages. It’s an SF epic poem, an excellent ekphrastic entertainment for English majors, a figment of imagination made real, and the perfect discovery to make for yourself in the hidden corner of your favorite bookstore.
Kawai Strong Washburn, Sharks in the Time of Saviors (MCD)
Robert Sindelar, Third Place Books: This is such a deeply felt novel of family and place. It is rich with deep power of folktales and spirituality and has a lot to say about the American Dream in our current landscape. I fell in love with this family and mourned having to say goodbye to them.