Every Book I Read in 2017, with Commentary
A couple of years ago I started keeping track of every book I read in a document, annotating the list with little mini-reviews. I love this practice; it provides a little extra incentive to finish books, gives me a sense of accomplishment, and comes in handy when I need to buy gifts or when people ask for book recommendations.
Some bookkeeping notes: This list (which is organized into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, each list in the order that I read them, from January to December) only includes books I read in full, from beginning to end. I read parts of a lot of books that I don’t finish (not necessarily because I don’t like the books; sometimes I just don’t feel the need to read the whole thing at that juncture or ever). In particular I rarely read poetry books cover to cover anymore, so that list is the shortest. For those counting: I read 22 nonfiction books, 20 novels, and 5 books of poetry. This is fewer than last year, and short of my forever goal of a book a week, but hey, it was a shit year. At the end of the list I’ll share my very favorites. Here’s my list from 2016, and here’s my list from 2015.
The Lost Estate (Le Grand Mealnes) by Alain-Fournier (1913) — According to the Adam Gopnik introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, shown above, this novel is something like the French Catcher in the Rye, the classic coming of age story. Told from the point of view of Francois, a kind of fifth wheel, always left out of the story, it’s about the intertwined fates of two young men and two young women, whose lives become entangled. This begins when Augustin Mealnes, known as “The Grand Mealnes” at school for his height and charisma, gets loss in the countryside and stumbles upon a magical wedding in an old estate. For years afterward, with the help of Francois, he tries to find his way back to this “lost estate,” but in the end the search for happiness seems to hold more meaning than actual happiness, which Mealnes cannot accept and perhaps does not deserve. The book has a very French sense of tragic dramatic irony. It’s a bit much, but touching and lovely all the same, much, in fact, like Catcher in the Rye. (I wrote a little more about it here.)
Class Trip (Le Classe de Neige) by Emmanuel Carrere (1995) — If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: I’m always up for a novella in translation. Carrere is now more well-known for his nonfiction, which is supposed to be formally daring, a mix of confessional autobiography and journalistic reporting (I’ll have to read some), but this is like coming-of-age horror. It’s about a shy, imaginative boy (imaginative in the macabre, self-indulgent way of youth, when one enjoys imagining one’s own funeral) who makes a horrifying, life-altering discovery while away on a class ski trip. Deft, subtle, chilling. The more you think about it the more everything falls into place. But I read a wonderful interview with the author that confirms a theory I have and mentioned recently when teaching an essay class, which is that echoes, connections, parallelisms don’t have to be consciously planted, they often “appear” on their own: “Of the five works of fiction I have written, there are two I really think are good — Class Trip and The Mustache. They are similar in the sense that they are short and tightly written, very straightforward in their narration, and that they were written in the same way — very quickly, without an outline, despite the fact that their construction is actually quite sophisticated. There are things on, say, page 20 that foreshadow things on page 80. But it wasn’t planned. It just came like that, straight from the unconscious, without premeditation.”
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992) — I requested this from the library after seeing Elizabeth McCracken name it as one of her favorite novels on Twitter. It’s really great — kind of a queer British analog to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in that it jumps from story to story among a handful of intertwined lives in a small town in Suffolk between the ’50s and ’70s, but revolving mainly around a central character, Mary/Martin, a girl who realizes, as a child, during the two-minute “moment of silence” after the death of King George, that she is truly and rightfully a boy, and eventually makes this dream a reality. (Which is not to say his/her life is all sunshine and rainbows.) I’m not that much of a “last sentence” person but the last sentence of this novel is truly great.
La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (1937) — A weird little Belgian novella, with unusual narrative devices and frequent tense changes, about a woman (named Elisa!) whose happy domestic life falls apart when her husband begins an affair with her little sister. Note that both the introduction and afterword in the new edition from Melville House contain, as ever, spoilers.
Literally Show Me a Healthy Person by Darcie Wilder (2017) — This is a fragmentary, death-obsessed short “novel” in a pensees style but with that alt-lit tone of “I have low self-esteem and make bad decisions, haha” (a tone I generally enjoy). It reminded me of reading Mira Gonzalez’s Selected Tweets (I’m sure a lot of the one-liners in here were originally tweets) but the arrangement here is more conscious and builds into more of a narrative. Stories are kind of referred to over and over again until they’re told. At times it’s very poem-like, not in the way that people usually mean when they say a novel is “poetic,” but in that the formal arrangement of lines literally looks and reads like a poem: “even cowgirls get suicidal / i dreamt everyone died / a boy called me ugly in a dream / i was on this rooftop coming down / and showed geoff the skyline”. Frequent typos (as though reproduced, maybe literally reproduced, from being typed while drunk on a phone) preserve a feeling of ephemerality, of “please don’t think I’m trying too hard.” Sweet, sad, and funny. (I grew weirdly attached to her weird dad.)
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell (2016) — This is a very good, weird, darkly funny but sad book taking place over the course of a few days, after the narrator, Helen, learns that her adoptive brother has killed himself. Though no one has asked her to, she decides to go to her adoptive parents’ home (she refers to them always as “my adoptive parents”) in Milwaukee, both to offer “support” and to “investigate” the circumstances around his suicide (he is, again, always “my adoptive brother”). She herself is currently undergoing an investigation at work, where she looks after “troubled youth” in Manhattan. (“The problem with an investigation is people will continue to investigate until they have found something, anything, and only then, when they have found something, will they close the investigation.”) Helen seems to be a misanthrope (constantly referring to people and their things as “disgusting”) with little to no self-awareness; she describes herself as a “genius at being ethical” and yet seems to have few scruples, few friends. The troubled people at work call her “Sister Reliability”; if the nickname is ironic, she hasn’t noticed. It’s unclear why exactly she is estranged from her parents — her behavior around them is often unkind, inappropriate, irresponsible, but when and why did that start? On the one hand, she’s unreliable (as a narrator) — but on the other, we slowly realize, so is everyone else. (“The world was inconclusive.”) How “real” is Helen? This handling of what can be known and trusted I found very deft, and surprising in how it unfolds, since the prose itself can be a bit blunt. (I read an interview with the author where she said she admires Robert Walser’s work in part because it’s “artless.”) Interestingly, I think, most of the books it reminded me of are works I read in translation. I take Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (the narrator’s favorite blanket apology) to be largely about alienation: the alienation of being adopted, of being Korean/non-white in America, of being “usually invisible,” an alienation that makes Helen unknowable even to herself. Highly recommended.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman (2017) — This bildungsromanesque novel is so basic in a way: It’s about a girl who goes to Harvard, takes various classes, gets a huge crush on an unavailable older boy (Angela Chase–style), travels around after freshman year. But I loved it. It was so funny and well-observed, and really captured the feeling of being “an idiot” as far as life wisdom is concerned, and believing you have to do what other people want you to. I found I missed the characters when I wasn’t reading it. Really great.
Broken River by J. Robert Lennon (2017) — Really good, weird, semi-thriller of a novel, with a prominent, weird, almost unnecessary metafictional narrative device (in that, while it’s successful and interesting, it could be excised entirely and still leave a good novel!). The story revolves around a family of three: mother, father, and 12-year-old daughter, all of whom are fascinating in their way and get their own moments of focus. I liked how certain chapters were much funnier than others, how the voice and tone of the third-person changed depending on which characters were getting the close-up treatment, a very immersive kind of free indirect. Familiar is still my sentimental favorite, but Broken River is as good a place as any to get a feel for Lennon’s fiction, which I have complete trust in. I wrote about it here.
The Travelling Horn Player by Barbara Trapido (1998) — A sweet and funny English novel about a handful of intersecting lives, told in seven chapters with rotating narrators. I don’t always enjoy that choice but here I did; the characters’ voices were all distinct and all good.
The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (1972) — A short sad Southern novel. I read it mostly on trains during the month I was staying in Boston. Not 100% up my street but often very, very lovely.
A Woman of Means by Peter Taylor (1950) — I’m not quite sure how I feel about this, another short sad Southern novel, kinda; it’s set in St. Louis in the 1920s, but it’s by a Southern author. (I read it right after we watched Meet Me in St. Louis for the first time; the Golden Age of St. Louis!) I really liked it at first, but it’s one of those older books where you can overlook the weirdness of the race and gender politics until you can’t. Basically I wasn’t expecting this seeming coming-of-age story to turn into a woman-on-the-verge (of-a-nervous-breakdown) story. In the end I think it is sympathetic to said woman, but I struggle with that whole mid-century trope of the institutionalized female.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg (2017) — The mother in Broken River is supposed to write “intellectual chick lit.” I imagined her fictional novels as something like this, easy-breezy reading that is also not cheesy or insulting, that manages to surprise. The prose itself is faultless; it’s funny and I like the characters. On the whole, though, reading this unchallenging always makes me feel cheap, even when it’s good. It’s like watching Girls (I like watching Girls) but without the excuse of it being TV. However, if you are into “beach reads” this is a definite beach read.
Zama by Antonio di Benedetto (1956) — I loved this Dostoyevsky-influenced, existentialist novel by a 20th century Argentinian writing about the late 1700s. The protagonist is (to me) an instant classic–level anti-hero, moderately unreliable (but then, who isn’t?), desperate, miserable, self-defeating, fragile, timeless and obsessed with time. For example, early in the novel, he writes a petulant letter to his wife, whom he misses terribly (he is posted far from home, in Paraguay): “And I was pained by the reproaches, now still fresh on the paper, to be read three or four months hence by my spouse, far away and without a man by her side — perhaps on a day when I was happy. But I changed nothing of what I’d written.” As the translator Esther Allen puts it in her excellent preface, “in its growing and inexorable dread, its sense that the present results not only from the past but also from the future,” the novel “seems uncannily imbued with what its author would live through twenty years later.” (In the late 1970s he was imprisoned, tortured, and like Dostoyevsky, threatened by firing squad.)
Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian (2017) — At first, Motherest seems to be a campus crush novel, like The Idiot (they’re even both millennial pink!). But after 50 pages or so, you realize it’s actually an unconventional “she’s having a baby” novel, which reminded me a little of Elisa Albert’s After Birth in its willingness to admit to “wrong” thoughts and feelings about pregnancy and motherhood, and a little of Laura van den Berg’s Find Me in its seeking obsession with the idea of the “mother” figure. Iskandrian’s gift seems to be funny, concise, striking descriptions of unusual, possibly inappropriate states and sensations. Speaking to her perfectly nice obstetrician, for example: “At odd intervals I find myself thinking, Fuck you, Dr. Lang. Not with any particular malice.” Speaking of childbirth, she writes in a letter to her mother: “I felt as though I were mutating into Pain Itself.” And: “At some point the sky outside the window grayed and then pinkened, and I could notice it because the epidural did, in fact, start working, and the pain became more storied — I knew it was happening but it wasn’t happening to me.” The end came up a bit quickly — the last 25 pages introduce a scenario that is genuinely psychologically creepy, which feels like it could easily have blossomed into a whole other novel.
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (1934) — This book reminded me of a person who is sometimes just SPARKLING company, just the best, and other times kind of a bore. I was very attracted to it because I love old novels where people drink a lot (AKA vintage party fiction) and novels that take place over a short time period — in this case, three days. However, it cheats a bit by having long flashback/exposition passages. The dialogue often sounds like an absurd parody of how people talked in the ’30s, but it was actually written in the ’30s, so there you have it. Overall pretty great, and more tragic than I expected, despite the title, which should have tipped me off — and what a title! I recently asked on Twitter, “Is there an epigraph you think of as absolutely necessary?” A lot of people responded defensively, as though I was suggesting epigraphs that aren’t absolutely necessary are shit. Nope — my last two books have epigraphs that I wouldn’t call necessary; I just liked them. (Other people responded that nothing in a book is necessary; I don’t agree.) Anyway, the epigraph here explains the title, which is pretty crucial if you don’t already know the reference.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) — I love Ishiguro, and for years have been kind of saving this, assuming it would be dependably great. And it is good, but as a beauty YouTuber would say, “I’m not obsessed.” It feels a little obvious at times, a little “unreliable narrators for beginners.” Also, even though I’ve never seen the movie version, I couldn’t help but picture Stevens as Anthony Hopkins and Miss Kenton as Emma Thompson. I hate that.
Me by Tomoyuki Hoshino (2010) — When I was in Boston for a month this summer, I often had the uncanny feeling, walking around the crowded city and surrounded by strangers, that people were interchangeable. This dystopic novel kind of takes that idea to its extreme. What if you recognized yourself in everyone you saw? What if you couldn’t remember your own distinguishing details? I felt a little bored with the actual story, such as it is, at times, but it was worth finishing. (The book has tons of 2-star reviews on Goodreads claiming variations on “I got bored/confused/frustrated and didn’t finish it.” But honestly if you can manage to get a lot of really mixed reviews on Goodreads you’re probably a genius.) The translation is excellent (I have been trying to figure out how I can tell) and it’s frequently hilarious. I learned a great word from Kenzaburo Oe’s afterword: bouleversement, “an inversion, especially a violent one.”
New People by Danzy Senna (2017) — This is a short, quick-to-read new novel (kind of like All Grown Up above — coincidentally I don’t think either of these novels has a good title), not bad but not great either; there are plenty of good things about it but it feels a draft or two away from being a truly good novel. Compelling themes (race, identity, self-deception, etc.) but just too light ’n’ easy; it’s light yogurt. Along these lines I preferred the funnier and crazier Pym by Mat Johnson.
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (1959) — A while back on Twitter I asked for recommendations of older novels that aren’t so famous that I really obviously should have read them already (you know, like Moby-Dick). This was one of the recs that came up. A very enchanting but creepy, witchy novella, much like a fairy tale with its grim underside. Good stuff, especially for October.
Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma (2000) — Back when we lived in Boston and John was teaching international students at Kaplan, he agreed to read a book from each of his students’ home countries. This one was chosen for his student from Cote d’Ivoire. When he (John) recommended it, I looked at the title and worried it would be too solemn for me. I was way off, it’s actually hilarious! Appalling, but hilarious, almost a farce in the mode of Catch-22. It’s told from the point of view of a “child-soldier” or “small-soldier” fighting in the tribal wars of Liberia, who sets out to tell his “bullshit story” and explain some things about how life works in the “fucked-up mess” of Western Africa: “When you’ve got no one left on earth, no father, no mother, no brother, no sister, and you’re really young, just a little kid, living in some fucked-up barbaric country where everyone is cutting everyone’s throat, what do you do? You become a child-soldier of course, a small-soldier, a child-soldier so you can have lots to eat and cut some throats yourself; that’s all your only option.” The delightfully profane voice makes this view into devastating violence and corruption a surprisingly fun read. Again, though I haven’t read the original, have no real way of knowing, etc., I felt that this was a masterful translation.
The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg (2018) — The fabric of “reality” in Laura’s David Lynchian, new-but-not-out-yet novel ripples with possibility: When Clare’s dead husband, a scholar of horror, reappears, are we to believe she’s having a psychotic break? Driven by grief or guilt? Did he fake his own death? Has he returned as a zombie or through a quantum glitch? Did she kill him? It toys with the recently popular horror trope of “the killer inside”: Was it me? Have I gone mad? Lushly atmospheric and dense with ideas, full of little essayistic meditations on film, marriage, subjectivity, life, etc., little embedded narratives and strange, possibly loose threads. I wish I didn’t have to wait months to read the reviews!
Losing Helen: An Essay by Carol Becker (2016) — In the acknowledgements, the author says “I have always loved the small books writers write after losing a parent.” This is one of those books. It’s OK, but the amount of “spiritual” woo left me feeling icky. I also can’t get over how she called the book Losing Helen. “Helen”! It’s about her mother!
The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere (2000) — See notes for Class Trip above; I’m having a moment with Carrere. This is a short nonfiction book (under 200 pages), kind of a true-crime biography, that also showcases the author’s personal involvement with the case, exposing his own subjectivity (inspired in part by In Cold Blood). The subject is Jean-Claude Romand, a man who skipped out on his second-year final medical exams for unclear reasons and then let everyone he knew believe he was still in school, completing his degree. He eventually gets married, has kids, etc., under the pretense of having an important job at the WHO, funding his doctor’s lifestyle by defrauding friends and family of their savings (he claimed he had access to exclusive investment opportunities through his job). This all comes to light when he finally kills his wife, two children and parents and then sets their house on fire, attempting suicide in the process but surviving. I have a longstanding fascination with books about people who ruin their own lives, and I loved this examination of the implausible life of an implausible man, and the failure of explanations.
The Brand New Catastrophe by Mike Scalise (2017) — The prose in this ironic, self-deprecating illness memoir (Scalise had a ruptured pituitary tumor at age 24) feels completely at ease with itself, breezy and conversational, which makes it very readable. More than illness per se it seems to be about the construction and performance of the self: Illness gave his relatively empty life content. (The epigraph is from Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness.)
Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno (2017) — A “mourning diary” or grief memoir in lyric essay form, very open, synaptic, raw and nervy, deliberately “messy,” its influences overtly present in the text, frustrated (all of this I would call Zambreno-esque). “Even now I can’t make language do what I want it to” … “It doesn’t seem possible sometimes I will ever finish it, or what that even means.” What does it mean, if anything, to finish a work of art?
Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation by Alan Burdick (2017) — Fascinating, super-readable book mostly about time perception (why and how time feels like it passes) with ruminations on what a clock is, why so many accidents occur between 3 and 5 am (“the zombie zone”), what happens to your circadian rhythms when you live alone in a cave, how long “now” is, why time slows down during traumatic experiences, how babies and rats process time and much more. Recommended.
Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrere (2009) — This book begins in Sri Lanka the day before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, where Carrere happened to be on vacation with his family. The young daughter of good friends is killed by the wave. Not long afterward, his girlfriend’s sister Juliette dies of cancer. With these tragic events linked in his mind, he decided to write a book about love, friendship, the shock of death, and how we cope with it, largely by interviewing the people who were close to Juliette, including a colleague of hers, another judge, with whom she shared a rather profound connection. The whole project is self-aware: the book constantly refers to the making (the conception, the research, the writing) of itself, but not in an obnoxious, show-offy way; it’s very organic. Carrere’s prose is so intelligently restrained, he just never seems to make a mistake.
Evil by Lance Morrow (2003) — I liked the approach of this book, a sort of long essay in short chapters or mini-essays, meditative and ruminative. By the end it started to drag, feeling repetitive and with too many rhetorical questions. Still, I dogeared many pages — lots of good bits to contemplate. For example, he notes that a certain wartime incident is “in a strange way, even more unsettling, in the sense that it does not represent frank, full-frontal evil but rather, a teasing proximity of evil — eight sharp little cracks of evil inferred, a glimpse of the devil.” Or: “It is one of the great lessons of evil that it flourishes in the subjective self-righteousness and grievance of a highly developed victim-culture.”
Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro (2017) — At times this novella-length memoir (memoirella?) reminded me of my own writing — that three-word subtitle (as in my essay “Time, Money, Happiness”) and the way she goes through her old notebooks, quoting from and commenting on them, which reminded me of “Personal Data.” Overall I found this stylish, honest, and compelling, and I liked its construction, but Shapiro has a tendency toward a certain move that I dislike, an emotive piling up of nouns or adjectives or phrases meant to convey a kind of full-to-bursting-with-life-ness, as in: “We lived in cities and on remote islands. We were struggling, contented, bewildered, joyful, full of longing, grief-stricken, fearful, searching, at peace.” Still, a quick and good read on family/relationships/careers/choices/”fate.”
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich (1997) — This collage of recorded testimony from survivors and witnesses of the Chernobyl accident is a stunning testament to the unimprovable humanity of real human speech; reading it I constantly felt that fictive dialogue (or monologue, rather) could not possibly be more artful. A profound study in the psychology of disaster, it’s hard to take in large doses, and I read it slowly over several months. Absolutely haunting.
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso (2017) — I was initially interested in this after reading a review that felt similar to the negative reviews of The Self Unstable. (In particular, the part where the reviewer said she didn’t always agree with the book’s declarations.) Then I saw her read from it and found her very funny. Self-described as “a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages,” 300 Arguments is built from little aphoristic snippets of prose (some just one sentence, some a half-page paragraph, though keep in mind these are small pages) about desire, envy, happiness and depression, success and failure, greatness vs. perfection. It is somewhat like The Self Unstable, in that if you liked that, you’ll probably like this. “It isn’t so much that geniuses make it look easy; it’s that they make it look fast.” “If you insist that people witness your beauty, they’ll watch it closely until it’s gone.”
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje (1982) — A travel memoir cum family portrait about the long line of wild drunks Ondaatje comes from in Sri Lanka (AKA Ceylon). This is the kind of prose people often call “poetic,” a description I hate, but the prose really is beautiful, hazy and dreamlike. Calmly delirious. “To kneel on the floors of a church built in 1650 and see your name chiseled in large letters so that it stretches from your fingertips to your elbow in some strange way removes vanity, eliminates the personal. It makes your own story a lyric.”
The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels (2017) — This is one of those books that is annoyingly packaged/marketed/blurbed to make you think it’s this innovative, uncategorizable new kind of genre. It’s really not; it’s just short and weirdly combines four essays and two short stories in the same volume, which seems more like a mistake than an innovation (the short stories don’t really work). As Dwight Garner put it in the NYT, “This is a book proposal as much as a book.” The essays, however, are very readable. As a “character” J.D. Daniels is kind of intolerable which is part of what makes them so interesting. But he also writes really good prose and doesn’t muddy up his essays with a lot of phony realizations. I recommend reading the whole thing because hey, it’s only 126 pages! (I read it on a plane.)
White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World by Geoff Dyer (2016) — This is supposedly a mixture of fiction and nonfiction but it really just feels like essays so I’m going to treat it as such. I can’t wholeheartedly embrace Geoff Dyer; there’s a strain of casual sexism/racism he doesn’t bother to tamp down and he sometimes goes for the easy, corny joke. But I do really like him — he’s intelligent and observant in an easy-going, unpretentious way. If you like writing about photography (e.g. John Berger, Teju Cole) and/or travel writing you’ll probably like something in here. There’s a very neat trick at the end.
Caca Dolce by Chelsea Martin (2017) — I love this book of personal essays. Yes, that’s what they are. They are personal essays! They are not hybrid or part this and part that. They are personal essays and they’re good. I feel refreshed to death.
The Other Walk by Sven Birkerts (2011) — A “slim volume” of many slim essays (most just 2–3 pages) about all kinds of things; an observant eye casts about for some occasion to latch onto (a memento, an object, a book, an old photograph), then latches and riffs, and every essay has two subjects, the ostensible subject as well as writing: while writing about anything he is also writing about why he writes about it and how. Very thinky and spry, associative but obsessive. Birkerts is a critic, and I felt a lot of kinship with the mode here and how I approach my own criticism. My favorites were “Lost Things” and “The Points of Sail,” which made me cry. Contains a couple of good definitions of poetry, which you may know I collect.
In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet (this translation, 2002) — A short work, kind of an illness diary, by a French writer who had tertiary syphilis (actually one of the things John was tested for when he first got sick; we were almost disappointed he didn’t have it). There are lots of interesting little tidbits in here, many of which are actually in the introduction (by Julian Barnes, who also did the translation) or footnotes. Like this bit from an essay by Xavier Aubryet: “Illness and Paris are mutually exclusive terms. Paris only likes healthy people, because it only likes success, and illness is as much a failure as poverty.”
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) — This was so good I didn’t want to read it; I kept putting it aside and trying to find something else to read instead. I finally finished it on a plane. I don’t need to tell you about it though, right? You already know all about it? (Next up on my list: Janet Malcolm on journalistic ethics.)
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990) — As mentioned, this was relevant to my current interests, both because I had just read In Cold Blood (and have been vaguely interested in true crime as a genre since reading The Adversary, which was partly inspired by In Cold Blood), and because I’m trying to write about ethics and journalism. This is a very interesting short work that attempts to dissect the essential duplicity of the author-subject relationship while itself, by necessity, taking part in that relationship. Cutting, self-aware, inconclusive.
A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris (2012) — I rolled my eyes many times while reading this. It does manage, in about 500 pages, to show that Jeffrey MacDonald was not guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”; there is plenty of room for doubt. But as a book it’s often ham-handed and, unlike The Journalist and the Murderer, which Morris takes issue with for not coming down on one side, it’s lacking in self-awareness. Morris opens by saying that you can almost always make the “facts” fit your narrative by omitting whatever doesn’t fit your story, but he doesn’t acknowledge the ways he does that himself! He basically never presents the prosecution’s case in a believable way; he just sketches it out so as to make it seem unreasonable on its face, leaving out details that wouldn’t help his own case. On the one hand he claims that psychopathy and sociopathy are made up conditions that can’t be proved or disproved, but then he tells us several times that psychiatrists examined MacDonald and found no evidence of psychopathy. If psychopathy is fake, why should we care that he doesn’t have it? He acts like the fact that a woman with a floppy hat was seen near the scene of the crime on the night of the murders is the smoking gun, but in fact only one person (Kenneth Mica) saw the woman in the floppy hat, and he himself said it was not Helena Stoeckley (who later kept confessing, unconfessing, reconfessing, then unreconfessing to witnessing the crimes). Morris also elides any testimony that would make MacDonald look like a scary guy (there’s a story from his past in Malcolm’s book that Morris never mentions). He says people are not like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, they don’t just look one way in public and then murder people. (But don’t they sometimes? What about Lowell Lee Andrews, the kid who kills his family at the end of In Cold Blood?) He does shady stuff like imply that Stoeckley was murdered (she is “found dead” in a timeline of events), but she died of pneumonia and complications from cirrhosis. Perhaps most absurd, he makes a big deal about Stoeckley once writing in a letter, “What does the CID want of me? I didn’t murder anyone?!!” Morris: “A question mark followed by two exclamation marks. Was it a forceful denial, or was she asking Beasley’s help in figuring out what had happened?” Oh come ON. Is he seriously pretending he doesn’t know what an interrobang is? (He uses them himself later in the book!) There are also about 50 too many epigraphs (one before almost every chapter). I guess Morris’s intentions are noble, and his elisions could be viewed as a corrective to Fatal Vision, but I do not think this is a very good book.
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly (2017) — As I’ve been saying for months, I think very short nonfiction books are having a moment. I haven’t heard anyone talking about this, but it’s lovely, and should appeal to people who liked 300 Arguments. The first two sentences are: “In every book my husband writes, a character named Colin suffers a horrible death. This is because my boyfriend before I met my husband was named Colin.” These truly micro pieces range from a sentence to a paragraph to several pages; I found I liked the longer ones best.
The Women by Hilton Als (1996) — An interesting and strange book made of three long essays which are more biography or portraiture than memoir, though plenty of memoir bleeds in. The subjects are, among others, his mother, Malcolm X’s mother, Dorothy Dean (an iconic “fag hag” of the ‘60s), the poet Owen Dodson who was one of Als’ first lovers. Als’ prose is sometimes haughty, sometimes startling in its dismissal of other black writers. It’s quite defiant, almost resistant to the reader. Like Wayne Koestenbaum (who blurbed it), Als is more attentive to the paragraph than the sentence. I admire how little he is tempted to explain.
Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker (2013) — Last year I tweeted, “I can’t stand when people say you have to finish a book to know if it’s good or not. You can’t actually have a good book without good prose.” I finished this book, but it kind of illustrates what I meant; I feel like a lot of people would call this a good book even though the prose is completely workmanlike and unremarkable. I WOULD DISAGREE. It’s just OK. Somehow I got it into my head that it would build to an actual conclusion even though the word “unsolved” is right there in the title, duh. So I was disappointed when it didn’t. Guess I’ll keep searching for true crime as good as The Adversary and In Cold Blood, but my hopes are low, friends. My hopes are low.
Half-Shine by Alexis Almeida (2016) — I love this little chapbook of quiet, serious poems. Read “Silence (An Index)” — doesn’t it achieve the exact cadence of trying to explain yourself until you break into tears? (Also, I love poems with first names in them.)
Blue Hole by Kate Colby (2015) — The poems in this book remind of that thing where you’re trying to talk to a very intelligent mother of young children and she keeps getting distracted and interrupted but still manages to say something interesting if disjointed. It’s built around two long poems, one of which, appropriately, is about a young child, and the form really evokes that kind of choppiness of thought: “Horror stories // of non-intention (thirteen / years of piano lessons) // I am paralyzed by my power / of suggestion — I held you // in my arms at the edge / of Ned’s grave”. The other is about islands, trees, words, holes, forged paintings, perspective, all kinds of things. It’s beautiful: “I’ve been trying to write this poem forever. / Easter Island is an eddy, / the rainforest a fork in my bonnet. / Sealed wax words, missing primers, / all those ideas for things / we haven’t even thought of.”
Palace of Subatomic Bliss by Darcie Dennigan (2016) — Darcie Dennigan keeps getting weirder and weirder (this is not a complaint). Her third book is a mix of poetry and unplayable absurdist-ish theater (similar to Khadijah Queen’s The Black Familiar) with a wee dash of Anne Carson–esque essay. Very funny, unsettling, mind-twisting, full of paradoxes: things both are and aren’t, are now and not now and in the future and in the past, always happening never happening: “The authorities come, in the middle of the night, on ignoble steeds, to take Hannahbella away. They come to take her away and they took her away, but she remains, for I have built this palace for her on the 13th, and therefore nonexistent, category of reason … They come to take her away and they take her away and the palace is peopled with Hannahbellas, each rehearsing a different scene cut short from the life of Hannahbella.” Interesting to read this right after Kate Colby’s book above since they are close friends/mutual readers. There is a lot of motherhood in both, but here it’s played almost as tragedy-horror-comedy (one’s child won’t leave one’s stomach, one accidentally kills one’s own child, etc.).
Hard Child by Natalie Shapero (2017) — These poems are extremely readable, taut, wry, mostly about death and babies (is all poetry about death and babies? I always thought it was all about death and time, which I guess you can reduce to time, and I guess babies you can also reduce to time). Death: “Death like a word I heard once and then / everywhere.” Babies: “I have been outside less, I have taken to saying, / in the days since my daughter was born — / passive as though it were somebody // else who bore her. And bore her / I also have / taken to saying, as though she were a hole.” I read it backwards, for some reason, as in from back to front (not bottom to top), and the quality is remarkably consistent. V. good.
Human Achievements by Lauren Hunter (2017) — I like when I’ve seen a poet perform enough times that when I read her book, I can hear her voice the whole time, and it feels like she’s reading to me. I got that internal audio book effect here. The poems are very sultry and personal, sometimes yearning, sometimes seething with a tough, exhausted anger (“my eyes down because no, and my feet fast because hell no, fists in pockets no, face turned anywhere but no”) and often very funny (“the last time I was drunk, I gave myself a cold — how droll. I love the easy discard of folks.”). Incidentally, the Ben Mirov blurb in the back is one of the best blurbs I’ve ever read.
Favorite novel: The Idiot
Favorite nonfiction: Chernobyl Prayer
Happy new year!