Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn
The author of this treasure of a children’s book lived and worked in the 1950s and ’60s on Waldron Island, where she was liberated from many of the creature comforts we take for granted, like electricity and running water. The island’s community inspired this story of an unappreciated boy inventor who sets out to create a child’s utopia by building forts for his friends in a meadow. Her pen and ink illustrations convey the light and shadow of the Pacific Northwest like your most cherished childhood memories. Burn’s The Summerfolk is equally spellbinding and deserves to be back in print. –Ryan Boudinot
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Among the biggest blockbuster novels to come out of this state in the last decade, Beautiful Ruins sails between 1962 (a movie star has left the set of Cleopatra to sequester herself in a small town on the Italian coast) and 2012 Hollywood, where a screenwriter is trying to pitch a movie called Donner! (about the Donner Party, of course). In his sixth novel, with spectacular verve, Spokane author Jess Walter encompasses the majestical sweep of old Hollywood and the cynical cunning of new Hollywood; it's the most comprehensive display of his powers—for comedy, for romance, for ripping plotting—to date.
The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
G. Willow Wilson is best known for co-creating and writing the latest Ms. Marvel comics. Her 2019 novel is both a departure (more words!) and continuation (a big, fantastic narrative): The Bird King follows two friends, a sultan’s concubine named Fatima and a maker of magical maps named Hassan. It's set during the Spanish Inquisition, just as the Emirate of Granada begins to fall. But Wilson is concerned just as much with the intricacies of character and relationship as she is with the grand-scale history.
Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes
This young adult coming-of-age novel centers on a pair of brothers going to a mostly white prep school. One appears white, the other black. When the latter, Donte, is unjustly jailed, he sets out to win a fencing competition. Seattle’s Jewell Parker Rhodes is the sort of writer who gracefully invokes Ralph Ellison (“I wish I were invisible,” the book begins) even as she sets out to grip—and teach—younger readers.
Black Hole by Charles Burns
In this graphic novel, a mysterious STI creeps through a Seattle suburb’s teenagers in the 1970s. The infected grow a tail, or maybe webbing between their fingers; then people start dying. Charles Burns’s stark, nearly Rorschachian illustrations remind us that the region has a spooky past—and horror is rarely far from our art.
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
Raymond Carver’s stories are where the literature of the Pacific Northwest becomes the literature of America. With settings as common as living rooms and diners, and with characters whose lives revolve around such low-stakes conundrums as whether or not to purchase a used refrigerator, Carver manages to capture expansive emotions in plain English. The title story, about a man’s uneasiness with his wife’s blind male friend, is alone worth the purchase price. –RB
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson’s chronicle of World War II code breaking and the rise of geek culture in Seattle appeared in 1999, just in time for Y2K paranoia and the WTO riots. It’s rooted in history, prescient, and a fabulous read, like taking the best college course of your life. And while Cryptonomicon dazzles with sheer brainiac firepower, its characters come across as compellingly human and alive. Historical figures like Alan Turing make appearances, mingling with spies and hackers, but what makes this novel such a joy are its moments of inspired, nerdy hilarity. –RB
Dune by Frank Herbert
Freaking sandworms, man! Widely hailed as one of science fiction’s most beloved masterpieces, this richly detailed space opera partly set on a desert planet is less known as springing from the Pacific Northwest. Herbert, a resident of Port Townsend, was inspired by the sand dunes of Florence, Oregon, to create a world in which scheming cartels battle for control of the most precious resource in the galaxy—a spice called melange that facilitates space travel and (bonus!) doubles as a hallucinogen. The novel inspired many sequels, a movie by David Lynch that bombed, a movie treatment by Alejandro Jodorowsky that sadly never made it to the screen (a remake by Denis Villeneuve is set for release late this year). –RB
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta
In this National Book Award–nominated novel, a bombing plan by a 1970s revolutionary turns horribly awry. So the protagonist, Mary, goes on the lam. By the late 1990s, she's living in Seattle, under another name, and has a son—and perhaps an old acquaintance nearby. Dana Spiotta, though, is not especially concerned with thriller plotting. Instead, in scalpel prose and with a satirist's eye, she dissects the city's counterculture streak: the radical bookstores, the anti-corporate protest.
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
Nisi Shawl's 2016 steampunk novel takes as a starting point the colonial genocide in the Congo Free State between 1895 and 1908. But, in a massively intricate narrative (this is a book with a character list at the start, and short chapters jump between years and countries), Shawl reconsiders what might have been, tracing the creation of and tensions in a utopia in the Congo. The book—ambitious, immense, vivid—is a rejoinder to a terrible past and a reminder of our responsibilities in the present.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Bellevue sci-fi writer Ted Chiang’s 2002 collection, The Story of Your Life and Others, eventually saw its semi-eponymous novella (“The Story of Your Life”) adapted into the 2016 movie Arrival. In 2019, Chiang finally released the follow-up collection, Exhalation. Like its predecessor, the book abounds with crisp prose and ingenuity: A parrot narrator, its species facing extinction, ponders the vast silence of the universe; a product called Remem functions as a prosthetic memory. Not convinced? Barack Obama wrote that “it’s a collection of short stories that will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction.”
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
Octavia E. Butler belongs in the sci-fi and fantasy pantheon with Ursula K. Le Guin and Isaac Asimov. She didn’t move to the Seattle area until 1999, and she died in 2006. During that time, she wrote only Fledgling, a novel about the first Black woman in a species of vampires called Ina (this makes her able to walk in sunlight). But it’s clear from the opening pages—in which the narrator, Shori, awakes after a head wound in a rainy Northwest forest—that the region had already seeped into Butler's consciousness.
The Girl with Brown Fur by Stacey Levine
Levine is one of our most idiosyncratic and unsettling prose writers, and absurdity reigns in her story collection The Girl with Brown Fur. Her first lines make it impossible to not read her second lines. For example, “Imagine being a bean: a pale supplicant, rimy dot, a belly-wrinkled pip, lying enervated on the kitchen chair, trying too hard all the time.” Levine’s are stories that aren’t so much read as succumbed to. She makes the English language sound new, and while she rightly belongs in the company of other fantasists like Aimee Bender and Judy Budnitz, her masterful manipulation of creepy atmospherics sets her apart. –RB
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Oh, sure, you started it once in college and it defeated you. But there’s no denying the lasting pleasures of this confusing and arousing romp through the aftermath of World War II with one of America’s most enigmatic former Boeing technical writers. Thomas Pynchon made his home for a time in the University District, but it feels a bit disingenuous to claim him as a Seattle writer, particularly since for long stretches of his career no one knew where he lived at all. Either way it’s hard to imagine this 770-page hallucinatory monster existing without the influence of the kind of rocket science the Pacific Northwest spent much of the twentieth century dropping on the world. –RB
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
Crows are a big deal in Seattle. Rarely, though, do they get to verbalize their role. This debut comic novel by Kira Jane Buxton changes that: S.T., a domesticated crow who calls humans MoFos and loves Cheetos (who can imagine a couth crow?), narrates as people fall apart around him. Quite literally. The MoFos are becoming zombies, which S.T. first senses when one’s eyeball falls out.
Homebase by Shawn Wong
University of Washington creative writing professor Shawn Wong got his start with this slim, emotionally rich account of a first-generation Chinese boy coming to accept his adopted country. The novel itself could serve as a master class on tone and lyricism. Wong plays with subtle, repeating motifs and creates one arresting image after another. The result is somehow both life affirming and haunting, as in passages about the suicides of hopeless Chinese expats stranded within America’s immigration system. This is the sort of novel that sticks with you for years and years. –RB
Lake City by Thomas Kohnstamm
After his rich New York wife cheats on him, Lane Bueche tumbles home to Seattle's Lake City to stay with his mom, waiting for things to settle down. While at a bar one night Lane meets Nina, a well-off California transplant who wants to get sole custody of her and her partner’s foster child. The birth mother, Inez wants her son back, and a judge has ruled for split custody. Nina offers Lane $3,000 to try to sabotage Inez’s sobriety. If some of the social commentary reads pat, Thomas Kohnstamm has a zippy sense of plot, a fine eye for detail, and a flair for casually acerbic description—it's darkly funny light reading.
Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
Jonathan Evison’s fifth novel (following The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving and This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!) is an energetic inquiry into class, race, sexuality, economics, and growing up that’s also engaging and digestible, a beach read about big topics. Mike Muñoz—a 22-year-old self-described “tenth-generation peasant with a Mexican last name, raised by a single mom on an Indian reservation”—lives on Bainbridge and is something of a topiary wunderkind for a landscaping company until he gets fired for flinging dog poop at his employer’s window. What unfolds is a bildungsroman of odd jobs and misadventures.
The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu
The second novel from Kim Fu (after 2014’s For Today I’m a Boy, about a transgender boy in a family of Chinese immigrants in Canada) begins as a typical summer novel, about a group of girls at Camp Forevermore in the Pacific Northwest. Fu even mimics the cadence of the YA section: “Siobahn wanted to be more like the heroines of the books she liked, about girl detectives and girl adventurers.” But on a kayaking trip, tragedy strikes. And the novel slips between camp and the girls’ adult lives, becoming not a summer coming-of-age story but a look into how childhood hurt echoes and echoes.
No-No Boy by John Okada
In John Okada’s 1957 novel, a young Japanese American in Seattle resists the World War II draft (responding “no” twice in a government questionnaire). He goes to a camp for two years, and prison for another two. When he returns to Seattle, he’s met with the scorn of his family and feels “like an intruder in a world to which he had no claim.” Okada, a Seattleite himself, parses the complexities of identity in Seattle's Japanese American community during a grim moment in this country.
Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman
During a prison riot he (perhaps) provoked, this slim novel’s unnamed narrator locks himself inside the Will and Edith Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts. He’s writing a final dispatch: part editor’s note, part confession, part scabrous ramble. University of Puget Sound–alum Ryan Champan’s first novel reads—in the very best way, all zooming sentences and layered, erudite jokes—like Nabokov live-blogging a prison riot.
Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
Goddamn has Tom Robbins given us a body of work. If you haven’t read this former Seattle Times art critic yet, start with Skinny Legs. He keeps his absurd conceits (inanimate objects discover how to travel across America) at a high boil, while meditations on the world’s common religious traditions simmer on the back burner. This is the book where the linguistically bonkers gusto of his 1970s novels began to accommodate more serious and lasting themes. –RB
Subduction by Kristen Millares Young
A longtime local journalist and essayist and currently the prose writer-in-residence at Hugo House, Kristen Millares Young's first novel, Subduction, is set in Neah Bay and follows a Latina anthropologist as she escapes her broken marriage to live on the Makah Indian Reservation. There, she falls into another fraught romance with the troubled Peter. The prose is at once poetic and punching. (Subduction releases on April 14, but is available for preorder.)
Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch
This sweeping novel examines the inciting incident of Seattle’s futurism: the 1962 world's fair, which gave us the Space Needle. The book bounces between the fair and a plot about a journalist in 2001 investigating Roger Morgan, the fair’s mastermind who’s now running for mayor. Through that, Lynch charts the rise of a city and its accompanying travails.
Vera Violet by Melissa Anne Peterson
A sense of grim drama suffuses this debut novel. You can feel it in the setting: Shelton, Washington, the logging town out on the peninsula. Feel it in the plot: about a group of teens, centered on the narrator Vera Violet O’Neely, dealing with the roughness of rural Washington, its meth and violence. Feel it in the taut sentences: “I beat the boy after school. I did not say a word before or after. I beat him because he stood against the brick wall alone like he was a fighter.”
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Seattle satirist Maria Semple’s breakthrough novel is a flurry of contemporary, epistolary wit. Passive aggressive e-mail threads, report cards, personal-assistant bills—all converge in a biting look at Queen Anne’s chard-growing, Microsoft-employed privilege. Let it stand as testament: We all don't take ourselves that seriously.
American Romances by Rebecca Brown
Reading this book of essays by Rebecca Brown is like going on a road trip through American culture with someone who insists she knows where she’s going, GPS be damned. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Brian Wilson, Herman Melville, and Gertrude Stein get picked up along the way, and the resulting conversations are so lively that you stop worrying where you’re going; you just trust that Brown will get you there. –RB
Before Seattle Rocked by Kurt E. Armbruster
If you’re to read only one book on Seattle music, let it be this. Most of us know about this city’s guitar rock bona fides. Far less known about are the region's other music—from Native traditions to jazz to folk to symphonic brilliance. Kurt E. Armbruster’s account is swift, witty, and comprehensive.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
Snagging comparisons to Unbroken, Daniel James Brown’s nonfiction saga tells the unlikely story of the University of Washington men’s row team, which competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and beat out Hitler’s German rowing crew. The Boys in the Boat is a triumph of sports history and of storytelling from a local author.
The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America by Margaret O’Mara
Starting in 1949 Palo Alto and ending in 2018 San Diego, The Code, by University of Washington history professor Margaret O’Mara, is not merely an investigation of Seattle’s southerly “sister technopolis” (her phrase). O’Mara’s focus here is on the part of the story that is often overrun in the nebbish Wild West narrative, in which a few brilliant kids bootstrapped empires into existence. Instead, she writes, “the Valley’s tale is one of entrepreneurship and government, new and old economies, far-thinking engineers and the many non-technical thousands who made their innovation possible.”
Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging by Gary Atkins
This century-long account of Seattle’s gay community begins in 1893 as laws set out to criminalize queerness. Over its more than 460 pages, you fly through the city’s early burlesque and drag scenes, the AIDS crisis, and how Capitol Hill became a gay neighborhood. Pretty much anyone can learn something here, but it’s especially good reading for newer Seattleites, so they can put history to some touchstone names, like Seattle actress Frances Farmer (not just a Nirvana song!) and Washington’s first openly gay state legislator, Cal Anderson (not just a park!).
Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus
Why’d it take until 2010 to get a narrative account of riot grrrl? Okay, Sara Marcus is not local. But her book is a smart, high energy retelling of feminist punk scenes that sprouted in the two Washington capitals (DC and Olympia) and it connects local music to national.
Heavier Than Heaven by Charles Cross
Kurt Cobain’s legacy is Charles Cross’s domain. Cross wrote for the seminal Seattle music magazine The Rocket, which kids from all over the Pacific Northwest depended upon for news of the grunge revolution. That scrappy rag chronicled a once-in-a-lifetime musical renaissance, the pinnacle of which was Nirvana. In this biography and a number of other books (Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain is a more reflective follow-up), Cross approaches his subject with honesty and sensitivity. Heavier Than Heaven, like the best Nirvana songs, delivers sorrow and inspiration in equal measure. See also Cross's Jimi Hendrix biography, Room Full of Mirrors. –RB
Jackson Street After Hours by Paul de Barros
The phrase definitive account gets trotted out an awful lot to describe history books. But, for Paul de Barros's look at Seattle's incredible jazz scene, which peaked in the 1940s and 1950s, such language is unavoidable. It’s evocative and richly researched—including interviews with the marquee names that helped form the scene: Ernestine Anderson, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles. The compendium of photographs alone is worth a look.
Like a Mother by Angela Garbes
Did you know the placenta is an organ? (It is, and it plays a fascinating, if finite, role in pregnancy.) Did you know that breast milk is made from a mother’s melted-down body fat? (Yup, from the butt and thigh). In her book, Angela Garbes approaches all-things-pregnancy with the skepticism of a journalist (she is one) and the grace of a humorist, all while staying true to the science mothers-to-be seek. –Sam Luikens
Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place by Coll Thrush
The first clue that Coll Thrush’s 2007 book does important work is in the subtitle: histories. This nation and city love to treat Indigenous peoples as a singularity, a continuous culture running coast to coast, which is unconscionably stupid. Thrush’s book delves into the varied generations, who have and still do call this land home. It's important work anywhere, yet as Thrush writes, "Every American city is built on Indian land, but few advertise it like Seattle."
Seattle Prohibition: Bootleggers, Rumrunners, and the Graft in the Queen City by Brad Holden
Probably you’ve heard of Roy Olmstead, Seattle’s “good bootlegger.” Maybe you know how intertwined Seattle jazz was with prohibition. Probably you know little else about this city’s prohibition history. While rummaging through a local basement, historian Brad Holden found a moonshine still, then documents saying the still’s owner had gone to jail. He turned this curiosity into a book, pulling up stories on people like Johnny Schnarr and Frank Gatt, the state’s major moonshine slinger.
Skid Road by Murray Morgan
This book’s title may be responsible for one of the worst hair metal bands of the 1980s, but don’t hold that against Murray Morgan. The story of our fair (read: muddy) city’s founding, Skid Road chronicles the optimism, greed, speculation, xenophobia, and venereal disease that put this supply point for Yukon prospectors on the map. The personalities enshrined in street names loom large—Yesler, Denny, Boren, and Mercer all get their moment in the spotlight—but it’s the hard-edged tales of vigilante justice, inebriation, and cathouse conflagrations that earn the book’s reputation as a page-turner. Under the sordid details you can detect the beginnings of what would become the progressive city we know today, most poignantly in the friendship between the drunk, polyamorous visionary Doc Maynard and the chief who gave Seattle its name. –RB
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
This primer on navigating race was published in 2018, a little over a year after many Americans could no longer ignore the fact that this country is deeply, systemically racist. As the title dictates, Ijeoma Oluo's explanation is charismatically conversational, breaking down more academic language like "intersectionality" so that anyone can be included in the discussion. It helps that she's funny. One of her examples of cultural appropriation? The Africa Lounge at Sea-Tac, where you can order nachos from a zebra-print stool.
Altitude Sickness by Litsa Dremousis
The existence of this gutsy little e-book is owed to a tragedy—a climbing accident that took the life of Litsa Dremousis’s onetime lover and friend. Coming in at 10,600 words, this emotionally fraught memoir punches well above its weight, revealing a writer willing to confront brutal, uncomfortable truths. –RB
A House on Stilts: Mothering in the Age of Opioid Addiction by Paula Becker
Local writer and historian Paula Becker’s memoir takes its name from the “tree house with no tree” in her backyard where her son Hunter played as a kid and where, after he became addicted to opioids as a teenager, he camped out. A House on Stilts is most valuable for its look at how addiction can rend not only a life, but a family. Becker charts in painful, probing detail her own psychology as she tries to reckon with what’s taken hold of her son.
The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh
A couple years ago, the local poet E.J. Koh began handwriting love letters to strangers, with the aim of eventually reaching thousands. Her memoir The Magical Language of Others inverts this conceit—responding, in a way, to long-unanswered letters from her mother, who moved back to Korea when Koh was 15. The resulting book parses how and what language means, across continents and generations, in the sort of prose that poets achieve—lapidary and evocative.
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy
Mary McCarthy should sit cover to cover with, oh, Saul Bellow, or Philip Roth, an ambitious, frank, and piercing cataloguer of the mid-century American psyche. Just see her sweeping 1963 novel The Group. That she isn’t included in such company probably owes to the fact that she was a woman, and wrote about them. She was also born, and mostly raised, in Seattle, and this memoir from 1957 recounts her youth with characteristic, and sometimes scalding, flair: “Our father had put us beyond the pale by dying suddenly of influenza and taking our young mother with him, a defection that was remarked on with horror and grief commingled, as though our mother had been a pretty secretary with whom he’d wantonly absconded into the irresponsible paradise of the hereafter.”
My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta
Memoirs that traffic in tales of depression and substance abuse often come across as though the author is fishing for attention and sympathy. Elissa Washuta’s My Body Is a Book of Rules transcends the tropes of the genre by virtue of the unsentimental strength of her prose. She’s reflective without being solipsistic, insightful without being pedantic, and wise beyond her years. Formerly an adviser for the University of Washington’s native studies program, Washuta claims membership in the Cowlitz tribe, and she explores her native identity as thoughtfully as she considers her bipolar nature. –RB
My People Are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain by Aaron Dixon
When he was 19, Aaron Floyd Dixon founded the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. His 2012 memoir encompasses his family’s history (going back to what little he knows of his great-great-great-grandmother Mariah, a slave in Mississippi), his childhood in Seattle's Madrona, and his political activism and radicalization—hearing Martin Luther King speak, having James Brown write $500 checks to the party in his hotel room, firing a shotgun and having it tear his arm “almost in two”—and the Panthers’ split. Cover blurbs should be taken with a grain of salt. Even so, a blurb from Cornel West might impel you: “Aaron Dixon is a courageous, compassionate, and wise freedom fighter whose story of his pioneering work in the Black Panther Party is powerful and poignant.”
Nisei Daughter by Monica Sone
Monica Sone was born Kazuko Itoi, and in this memoir she explores the complexities of dueling identities. Nisei Daughter is the story of a second-generation Japanese American (also known as nisei) coming of age in Seattle’s Japantown in the years before World War II. Coinciding with the internment of around 120,000 people of Japanese descent is Kazuko’s unfolding sense of self. “I felt nothing unusual stirring inside me,” she writes when her mother explains Kazuko’s Japanese lineage. –SL
Shrill by Lindy West
Former Stranger writer Lindy West’s essay collection is—much like its subtitle, Notes from a Loud Woman—an outspoken, brazenly feminist, and funny examination of fat shaming, internet trolling, and coming of age. But don’t let the volume level distract: West is adroit as hell, constantly dispatching wise and nuanced turns of thought and phrase.
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
When his parents divorced in the early 1950s, young Tobias Wolff found himself stranded in Seattle with his mother, who soon paired up with a backwoods bully named Dwight. In this legendary memoir, Wolff recounts the time he spent living with Dwight in Concrete, where he suffered abuse, fell in love with basketball, and forged his own high school transcripts in a successful attempt to escape to a private boarding school. The career that resulted—Wolff won a PEN/Faulkner award for fiction and has taught at Stanford and Syracuse—arguably justifies his deceptive ploy. Besides, what a fantastic story. –RB
All Its Charms by Keetje Kuipers
This collection from San Juan Islands–based poet Keetje Kuipers centers on a few key life events—her decision to become a single mother, her marriage to a woman she loved years before—but those are like prisms the poems radiate from. The book becomes not only about birth and living and loving, but also about death and time and loss. What fuses this together is Kuipers’s precise voice, light in touch and resoundingly constant. The book contains only 52 poems and they rarely reach a page’s bottom, yet when you read them together, you feel as if you’ve been moved through a life.
Ceremony for the Choking Ghost by Karen Finneyfrock
Every line counts and every line surprises. Karen Finneyfrock’s poetry is beautiful because it achieves this rare blend of economy and novelty. Pick up her Ceremony for the Choking Ghost and prepare your senses for funny, piercing, and vividly imagined poems. In her spare time she pens funky, cool YA books like Starbird Murphy and the World Outside and The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door. With Ceremony you get closest to the flame of Finneyfrock’s talent. –RB
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke by Theodore Roethke
Many legions of poets have exalted nature as they stared down existential darkness (it’s kind of their thing). For Theodore Roethke—whose poem “My Papa’s Waltz” graces nearly any anthology of American poetry—this darkness included a troubled childhood and a struggle with bipolar disorder. But he, as much as anyone, wielded rich wisdom like a fist to the chest. “God bless the ground! I shall walk softly there, / and learn by going where I have to go,” he wrote in “The Waking,” the title poem in his 1953 collection that won him a Pulitzer. Roethke taught at the University of Washington from 1947 until he died in 1963, also snagging a couple National Book Awards. In the state, and in the nation, Roethke is a titan.
Ensō by Shin Yu Pai
In her eleventh book, unsurprisingly, local poet and photographer Shin Yu Pai looks back. Ensō unreels in a pastiche of essays, lyric poems, and visual art (including the covers of her former books and images imprinted on leaves). On one level, it’s a 20-year survey of her work to date. On another, it becomes the narrative of that work’s creation, showing, for instance, how visits to a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago led to a poem about a 120-year-old Japanese work of ink on paper.
The Galleons by Rick Barot
Tacoma-based poet Rick Barot’s fourth collection centers on the Manila galleons, ships that from 1564 to 1815 sailed between the Philippine capital and Mexico. Its 10 titular poems become vessels themselves for his associations with the ships—of the trade itself, of present-day U.S. capitalism, of his own and his family’s immigrations from the Philippines, of the loss of his grandmother. The rest of the book's poems, all of it unfolding in couplets, are just as discursive and exquisitely controlled.
Huge Cloudy by Bill Carty
This debut collection from local poet Bill Carty is perhaps best typified by the lines that open “Constellations” about halfway through the book: “I’m eating duck with pleasure / in a borrowed gray suit / at one of those ‘bury me / in drink’ funerals because the airline / lost my luggage / somewhere over Nebraska, / and this funeral won’t stop losing / my friend.” Which is to say, Huge Cloudy is conversational but verbally limber, and mordantly funny but suddenly heartfelt.
Overpour by Jane Wong
Overpour unfurls in a montage of sometimes lovely but often brutal imagery (here be bones and animal blood). It is, like local Jane Wong's growing body of work, engaged with peeling back the manifold layers of self, with feast and famine, with her family history of poverty in China and American pastoralism: “Sometimes, I think: Can Walden exist in China? / Returning to nature is a luxury we keep.”
The Slip by Kary Wayson
Seattle poet Kary Wayson’s words have such a particular, spectacular syllable beat, you may want to compare the poems in her new collection The Slip to clocks or watches. But the metaphor also communicates how consistently she swerves and, paradoxically, surprises you—with humor, or a cool snap of wisdom: “I used to think of people, of lovers / of me as ways / to take. I’d take / a way. Each way seemed to seal off the others.”
This Glittering Republic by Quenton Baker
It is rare that a debut book arrives with as much assurance as Quenton Baker's 2016 poetry collection. That assurance appears in Baker's command of meter and beat (when young, he was a rapper—and can do ecstatic things with monosyllables), in the rigor of his thought, and in his focus on the many facets of American Blackness.
Ugly Time by Sarah Galvin
Sarah Galvin’s poems can feel like lists of absurdist non-sequiturs. But then you realize that random nonsense doesn't make you laugh this constantly, and it doesn't so suddenly and deeply knife you with thought and feeling—that demands Galvin's sneaky finesse.
(v.) by Anastacia-Reneé
The best of the very good three-book salvo poet Anastacia-Reneé unleashed in 2017, (v.) flaunts in spades the quality all writers covet—genuine imagination. A poem begins like an index (“h. / hell / heliotrope / heaven / hymen”), then swerves and becomes something grander, a dazzling account of the sounds and meanings embedded in words. The entire collection feels experimental but engaging, fragmentary but cohesive. It's a serious look at queerness and Blackness and humanness that’s wonderfully funny.