Noise An Arts Blog

Top Ten Baltimore Books of 2016

City Paper

1. D. Watkins, “The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir” (Grand Central Publishing)

Watkins didn’t break through to a national audience because of dumb luck. He’s become Baltimore’s new favorite literary export because he’s revising the story that has been told about our city from the perspective of someone who actually lived it, and who has the writing chops to tell it. Watkins’ second book, “The Cook Up,” is his shift from essay to memoir, and it shows how Watkins (disclosure: a CP contributor) grinded through being raised by an older brother in East Baltimore and stepping away from a thriving drug business to become a no-holds-barred thought leader on race in America. (Anthony Moll)

2. Tariq Touré, “Black Seeds” (self-published)

Tariq Touré reaped the harvest of his life’s experiences this year with the release of his first book of poetry, “Black Seeds.” The self-published book “born out of the dark vestiges and radiant light that is the American ghetto,” as he states in the introduction, became a favorite at Red Emma’s, and an Amazon top 100 in African-American Poetry. Beyond the statistics, “Black Seeds” was added to the English curriculum at Baltimore City College High School and at Touré’s alma mater, Edmondson-Westside High School. Featuring tough, ruminative political poems and accompanied by photos from Kyle Pompey and Shannon Wallace, “Black Seeds” doles out terse insight: “they tell us/ to pull up our pants/ and it’ll be ok./ i can’t help/ but Notice. the Black Men lynched/ in 3 piece suits/ from back in the day—” (‘Respectable Genocide’). Inspiration for Touré (disclosure: a CP contributor) comes as the world turns, as he and his wife welcomed a second child into the world this year. “My second daughter’s birth has transformed my need to to write about joy. I need to leave them a legacy of joy and affirmation in my literature,” he told City Paper when we asked about a potential follow-up to “Black Seeds.” (Reginald Thomas II)

3. Shannon Wallace, “What Does It Mean To Be Black?” (self-published)

The images in Shannon Wallace’s book of photographs, “What Does it Mean to be Black?” are stark black and whites, but they still seem soft, vulnerable, joyful, loving. It’s a revolutionary thing in a world where it’s not always easy to find images of black people that were obviously shot by someone who loves them. In the book, various Baltimoreans answer the question: What does it mean to be black? “Being black means to be powerful, effortlessly,” says one subject. “You will enter a room and someone will feel some-kind-of-way just because you are black. They may feel good, they may be excited, or they may feel hate, but you’ve made someone feel a type of way just being who you are. That’s true power,” says another. (Lisa Snowden-McCray)

4. Terence Hannum, “Beneath the Remains” (Anathemata Editions)

Locrian member, professor, and critic Terence Hannum’s debut novella initially feels like a noir-tinted, coming-of-age novel in which a pair of teenage brothers are uprooted to Florida with their mom and stepfather. When the older brother goes missing and the younger feels like he’s the only one looking for him, Hannum reveals a gift for ambient menace on par with early Dennis Cooper or Rudolph Wurlitzer’s “Flats” and “Quake.” In economically precise prose, Hannum (disclosure: a CP contributor) peels back the veneer of Florida’s seemingly innocuous strip malls, quasi-suburban developments, and evangelical churches to reveal the human avarice and apathy lurking underneath. The lone escape in this bleak reality is the rich emotional world contained in metal music, where sound becomes a salve to the anomie of everyday existence. (Bret McCabe)

5. Justin Sanders, “for all the other ghosts” (self-published)

Consider the cover of this debut collection of short fiction from the locally grown writer Justin Sanders as its content warning. The violence it depicts—a lynching scene from which the victims’ bodies have been deleted—sets the mood for the entire collection. Many of these modern ghost stories are set here in Baltimore and the surrounding area, and most of them are as ruthless as they are honest. These are new mythologies, reminding readers that humanity has been, and continues to be, the most frightening part of any story. (AM)

6. Suzie Doogan, “CLEAN 5UM” (self-published)

Just like going to a poetry reading, or watching a performance on YouTube, or hearing a recording can bring the work to life in a new way, making us aware of the poet’s gestures and pauses and vocal intonations, we found something exciting and new in Suzie Doogan’s interactive poetry zine. Housed in a clunky, plaster, bar-of-soap-shaped object, with a long cord to plug into your USB drive, “CLEAN 5UM” opens an interactive javascript experience of her poetry/drum taps/songs. The interface, designed by Ryan Hammond, is simple but not exactly sleek; is it too early to get nostalgic about circa-1999 web design? Our cursors hovered over cut-out teddy bears and puppy-dog tarot cards as we clicked around and heard Doogan’s voice tell tales about grief, love, clickbait, and more. (Rebekah Kirkman)

7. Wide Angle Youth Media, “#ThisIsBaltimore: Wide Angle Youth Media” (self-published)

Started during the Baltimore Uprising as a project to document “positive images of Baltimore youth,” this book is the product of a lot of young talent in our city. The school-age photographers of Wide Angle Youth Media should never have felt the need to undertake a mission of that kind, of course, but what they’ve given the rest of us is more than we deserve. There’s a lot more beauty and truth in these portraits of young people, accompanied by their own words, than in a dozen coffee table books of the Baltimore skyline. A digital version of the book is available for free on WAYM’s website, but make room on the shelf between “The Arabbers of Baltimore” and “Neighborhood: A State of Mind” for another essential and buy a hard copy to support this organization. And if you don’t like Baltimore after reading this book, delete your account. (Andrew Holter)

8. Anna K. Crooks “Walking Thru Mist” (Bookish)

Lately we’ve been talking about fake news, propaganda, and rhetoric quite a bit—how a president-elect tweets or says things in interviews that go unchecked or unchallenged, how the general populace buys it, how the media normalizes it. It’s interesting to consider that power of language now, while leafing through Anna K. Crooks’ “Walking Thru Mist,” a newsprint zine that examines and undermines the supposed “truth” or objectivity of language, and of poetry in particular, and the methods we use to get “the many things that many my mind” out into the world. Here, the poet describes walking through a spider’s web; the spider builds this structure which is “destroyed by big big clumsy giant idiot person.” Folding in images of flowers, hands, bobby pins, and sports figurines, Crooks bends and distorts the images and the text, so that they swirl around and obfuscate each other. Language and text—what we might think of as impenetrable or objective forms of communication—turn out to be just as malleable, bewildering, and sticky as the rest. (RK)

9. Grace Davis “J.A.D.” (self-published)

In this volume of poems, which were written from 2013-2016, Grace Davis offers an elegy to her mother who has passed away. At the same, she gives the reader some semblance of illness, care, and loss, and what those can look and feel like when you’re the one watching a loved one go through it. Davis builds a world—a picture of one—with images and objects and smells that recur, like forsythia bushes, pine, flames, cemeteries, hospital rooms, “monster trucks called Grave Digger,” and glass houses. Straddling tenderness and harsh reality, Davis’ poems at times have teeth, in a way that’s somewhat reminiscent of Alice Notley (who also writes beautifully on death): “My birthday is in two weeks,/ and here we are, I bathing my/ mother, seeing the place where/ I originated,/ while she exits.” Though they could be, the poems here are not all death or endings or finality—because, Davis seems to suggest, death isn’t really the end. (RK)

10. Justin Sirois, “The Last Book of Baghdad” (Coping Mechanisms)

Sirois’ second collaboration with consulting editor Haneen Alshujairy, an Iraqi refugee who now lives in Baltimore, unwinds its fictional story out from the 2007 car bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street, the center of Baghdad’s literary life. As Sirois (disclosure: a CP contributor) pulled off in “Falcons on the Floor,” which unfolded with the sieges of Fallujah in the background, “Last Book” imagines what it’s like for Iraqis enduring war’s horror. In “Last Book” that’s chiefly Nisreen, the wife of a bookseller who is missing after the bombing; she turns to a book of poetry as both currency and source of strength. Thirteen years after we invaded Iraq, we’ve still got an estimated 5,000 troops there; we rarely read about them in newspapers. IraqBodyCount.com estimates between 168,000-188,000 Iraqi civilians have died from this war. We never hear those stories; the closest we’re getting is Sirois’ gorgeously written vital novel. Absolutely heart-rending. (BM)

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