Best Books of 2016: Carrie’s Picks

In January’s Books & Bites podcast, Eden Grey, Kendall Haddix, and I discuss our favorite reads from 2016. Listen to the full podcast, or see below for my recommendations.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Night Sky with Exit Wounds
by Ocean Vuong

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a first book by a young poet who was born in Saigon and emigrated with his family to Connecticut when he was two. The New Yorker says the poems are both “narrative and lyric, his diction formal and insouciant. From the outside, Vuong has fashioned a poetry of inclusion.” 

Because of its inclusiveness—the mix of the formal with the colloquial, the narrative with the lyric, the humorous with the serious—I recommend Night Sky with Exit Wounds even if you don’t normally read poetry.

The book’s opening lines hooked me, and the language and emotion propelled me to keep reading. One of Vuong’s primary subjects is violence, both in war and at home, as in the following lines from the poem “Deto(nation)”:

“To even write father
is to carve a portion of the day

out of a bomb-bright page.”

Other subjects include cultural displacement, family, gender, love, and sex. 

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Notebook Fragments,” which leaps deftly from image to image, contrasting violence with beauty in a way that is shattering, as in the following pair of couplets:

“Grandma said In the war they would grab a baby, a soldier at each ankle, and pull…
     Just like that.

It’s finally spring! Daffodils everywhere.
     Just like that.”

Coincidentally, just as I was thinking about what I wanted to say about this book, I heard Vuong talking about Vietnamese food on the New Yorker Radio Hour. He took the interviewer to the New World Mall in Queens, where the food court has all this delicious Asian food. Vuong said that when he first moved to New York City from Connecticut, he used to go to that mall and read because it reminded him of reading in the kitchen at his family’s home.

While something tells me you wouldn’t have the same experience taking Night Sky with Exit Wounds to the Fayette Mall, there are a couple of Vietnamese restaurants in Lexington, including Pho BC, which is just off Nicholasville Road. Bring the book with you and order something really spicy to match the fire and passion of the poems. You could also try making something yourself using one of the Vietnamese cookbooks from our collection, pictured below.

Pond book coverPond
by Claire-Louise Bennett

I talked about Pond, also a first book, in our September Books & Bites meeting, and of all the books I’ve read this year, it’s the one I most want to re-read. In fact, I’d like to have my own copy, because as I read it the first time, there was so much that I wanted to underline and savor.

Pond defies categorization. The book is composed of short, lyrical, and wry pieces that are part story, part essay, and part novel chapter. A young woman who lives alone in a coastal village—most likely in Ireland, though the country isn’t named—narrates all of the pieces. Other reviews compare Bennett’s writing to the work of Lydia Davis and Samuel Beckett; the book’s stream-of-consciousness and focus on the domestic also remind me of Virginia Woolf.

If you are someone who reads mainly for plot, Pond is probably not the book for you. Instead, this book’s pleasures reside in the narrator’s sharp and funny observations and in following the thoughts of someone fully immersed in solitude.

It’s a little hard to decide what bites or beverages to pair with this book simply because it includes so many food and drink references. In fact, two of the shortest stories in the book are about food. “Stir Fry” reads in its entirety:

“I just threw my dinner in the bin. I knew as I was making it I was going to do that, so I put in it all the things I never want to see again.”

In one of my favorite stories, “Finishing Touch,” she describes plans for a summer party where “there’ll be martinis and Campari and champagne…. And beautiful heaps of salad in huge beautiful bowls. Fennel and grapefruit and walnuts and feta cheese and all kinds of spread-eagled leaves basking in oil and vinegar.”  

Urban pantry book coverSo, since it’s the dead of winter and I’m dreaming of summer, I’m going to recommend pairing this book with one of my favorite salads, Lentils with Mint & Beets. You can find it in the book Urban Pantry by Amy Pennington, which we have in our collection. And since beets are a root vegetable, it’s the perfect salad to enjoy this time of year—it will bring a touch of brightness to your winter meals.