“It’s literally the only list I read. I hate all other lists.” — J. Robert Lennon
A few years ago I started keeping track of every book I read in a document, annotating the list with mini-reviews, and then publishing it. (At the real end of the year! No cheating!) I love this practice; it provides a little extra incentive both to finish books and to read them attentively, gives me a sense of accomplishment, and comes in handy when I need to buy gifts or when people ask for book recommendations. Here is this year’s list, for your reading pleasure.
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). This year, in particular, a lot of my reading time was devoted to research for the book I just turned in (tentatively titled The Unreality of Memory); when I’m reading for research, I rarely read from cover to cover. I did read more poetry books in full than I managed in the past few years. I managed zero collections of short stories. If you sent me a book and it’s not on the list, I’m sorry! Please don’t assume I didn’t like it or that I won’t get to it. As you can see, I read more old books than new books.
For those counting: I read 16 novels, 13 nonfiction books, and 20 books of poetry. That’s 49 total, short of my forever goal of a book a week, and only close because of all the poetry. At the end of the list I’ll share my very favorites. Here are my lists from 2017, 2016, and 2015.
- The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948) — I can’t remember who recommended Elizabeth Bowen to me (someone on Twitter), but I’m a convert! I loved reading this novel, set in London during WWII, a setting that’s portrayed as a kind of stopped-clock interlude when the unknowability of the future made anything possible, and was particularly conducive to love affairs. (In one scene, the clocks in a bar have literally been stopped by the impact of nearby bombs.) A suspenseful romance, it’s a bit extra at times, but with so much casual genius on almost every page I didn’t mind. The dialogue is super funny and good; see this scene for example:
Robert, trying to knife the cake, said: “No, no one can say I don’t come across. The thing with you, Ernie, is that you never listen. There was nothing I would not tell you about the great retreats. — You wouldn’t think it was time we bought a new cake?”
“But that one has not been eaten,” objected Ernestine. “I’m sure Mrs. Rodney will take us as she finds us.”
“Happily for Mrs. Rodney, she does not eat cake.”
“Goodness, why?” exclaimed Anne, turning to study Stella. “Or are you always afraid it would make you fat?”
“Don’t say ‘goodness’ to someone older than you, dear. Mrs. Rodney is free not to eat cake if she doesn’t want to: that is just what I mean by the difference between England and Germany.”
Peter, wriggling inside his jersey, said: “The Nazis would force her to eat cake.”
A perfect curling-up-on-the-couch novel. If you like Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, etc., try this.
2. Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush (2013) — I loved Mating when I read it in college, and this seemed like my kind of thing in many ways: short novel with lots of short chapters that takes place over a short time period (a group of old friends gather on an estate after their once-leader dies suddenly). I also love the phrase “subtle body” which I learned from The Ego Tunnel (see my 2016 list). This was kind of meh, though; it had the feeling of a romantic comedy where you know everything’s going to be fine and nothing’s at stake, but not delightful enough to make up for the lack of driving tension. Also, he kept telling me explicitly what characters were thinking, word for word, like “So and so thought, ‘blah blah blah.’” There are more elegant ways to do that!
3. Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love by Anna Moschovakis (2018) — I’ve been a fan of Moschovakis’s poetry for years, and this, her first novel, got me thinking about the category of the “poet’s novel.” This one feels very French in a way (nouveau roman), experimental but highly readable; it’s a meta novel that switches back and forth between a third person narrative about the character Eleanor, herself a writer, and a first-person narrative about a novelist writing the novel of Eleanor: novel within a novel. This creates interesting effects, like that Eleanor and the I are somehow doubles of each other (but Eleanor is not aware that she lives in a universe behind a one-way mirror), and the sense that the novel somehow already existed before it was written, allowing it to be about itself. The plot is minimal; things happen, but not in a way that creates a strong arc; it’s just about what it’s about until it’s over. A philosophical engagement with the idea of a text.
4. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950) — I loved this. Smart, tense, complex, tragic. It’s noir, so, obviously you know bad things are going to happen, but they weren’t exactly the bad things I expected. Very literary in its handling of the meaning of evil. There’s one incredibly moving sentence I will never forget.
5. How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister (2018) — This feminist, anti-violence novel is a lot like Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever formally, chunked off and nonlinear and compulsively readable. It’s often essayistic, aphoristic, cynical, even moralizing and didactic, but it totally works. I loved it! One of those rare books that had me marveling How does this work?! Imagine setting out to write a novel about how school shootings are bad and succeeding. There were some metaphor pileups at the very beginning and very end, but otherwise, great. A few choice lines: “I didn’t think this was my fault, but people kept telling me it was not my fault, and this made me certain it actually was my fault.” “Now at all hours, I could watch the conservative news network or the liberal news network or the centrist news network. They all told me we were doomed, but for different reasons.” “TIME TO HEAL, the newspaper headline said. It read like an order.” “Death doesn’t belong to the dead. It belongs to the people it leaves behind.”
6. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956) — This came up in conversation with a friend recently, and I realized I had never read any of Baldwin’s fiction. Quelle horreur. I found this short novel to be lovely, reminiscent of A Sport and a Pastime, except that I liked it. When you see footage of Baldwin speaking, it’s astonishing, the way he speaks exactly as he writes; his speech comes out in perfectly formed sentences, like his thought just occurs already in beautiful syntax. As such his prose always feels effortless. “The look in his eyes was so bottomlessly bitter it was almost benevolent.” “I watched him diminish down the boulevard.”
7. Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig (1980) — I don’t feel like I brought my A reading game to this short novel; I was traveling and distracted and books weren’t holding my attention. Still, I could tell it was very good, and that I would have been really into it in the right mood. The narrator is a kind of invisible woman, being middle-aged and often alone in strange cities; she must interpret secret codes to rendezvous with her lover, a spy. The lover appears only in her memories; the code, which had been perfected, is no longer working, or maybe he’s abandoned her, or maybe she made him up to escape her dreary life, and this is all an elaborate fugue.
8. The Reef by Juan Villoro (2012) — I picked up this Mexican novel because I saw Laura van den Berg say somewhere that she liked it, and we tend to have similar tastes. It has a certain tone that I like, both cute and dark, present also in Zama and maybe common in Latin American literature. I can see why Laura liked it, and I did too: a low-key murder mystery with a narrator who’s unreliable not by his own design exactly but because he destroyed his memory with drugs in his youth, a novel about the appeal of danger for people whose lives have become too safe (“tourists are in love with fear”; “recreational paranoia”). It’s a little redundant, which was kind of a blessing in my current highly distractible state. All in all a pretty good parallel for our current suicidal level of societal destruction.
9. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972) — Somewhat in the manner of Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, this is almost a children’s book, which to be frank is exactly my speed right now. I had a taxing week, one in which my day job and the edits for an essay I was working on seemed to reach max difficulty at the same time, which was so exhausting that I spent all my free time for two days watching poker tournaments on YouTube to relax (which caused me to dream about poker all night: the Tetris effect). When I finally got sick of that and felt a little mentally refreshed, I read this, most of it the morning of July 4, a blessed “weekend” day in the middle of the week. It’s told in charming little vignettes (one for my fantasy course on chapter studies) about a young girl and her grandmother and the small island in the Gulf of Finland that they live on every summer. You can read it as a kind of comparison of consciousness at the beginning and end of life. Sometimes funny, sometimes melancholy, it’s ultimately indirectly a book about grief.
10. The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980) — Hmm. People get really obsessed with this novel, but I had mixed feelings, and would suggest that it’s because the book itself is uneven. There are parts that are just great, certain chapters that have a whole emotional arc of their own, that (as my friend Leeore once put it) “triangulate a world.” Then there are parts where it’s like Hazzard had a slow day, where things are moving forward but the writing is clunky and she’s resorting to her own cliches. The prose is fancy and dense in a way that reminds me of Alan Hollinghurst, or Elizabeth Bowen, and like them Hazzard can be heavy-handed at times. (She has a tendency to subtly suggest something and then go ahead and explain the suggestion.) She is also sometimes contemptuous of her characters and then less interesting than when she’s in their thrall. Still, very memorable characters, very emotionally rich, and probably a better experience overall if you’re a fast reader. (I kept thinking the underlying propulsive tension of the novel would work better at movie pace, somehow. And I hate movies!*) *Not all movies
11. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker (1962) — This reminded me a lot of The Parent Trap, which came out in 1961. Surely she couldn’t write and publish a novel inspired by The Parent Trap that fast? I guess identical twins, engagements and plots to derail them, and California ranch houses were just really big at the time? This is a lot darker than The Parent Trap though, with its thwarted love and suicide attempts. I liked it well enough, especially for a stretch in the middle, but, to employ a beauty guru euphemism, it’s not my favorite. After reading these great notes on dialogue by Elizabeth Bowen, I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the dialogue didn’t need to be dialogue. Also, once a long time ago, I read a thing about how the characters in Salinger’s books all have this kind of pseudo-intellectual self-importance like they think reading philosophy and listening to music makes them better than everyone else, and Cassandra especially reminded me of that. A little dated and precious, but not bad.
12. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (2007) — I picked this up, after reading something about it in the New Yorker, from the shelf of featured titles at my library, meaning I only had three weeks to read it with no renewals; the English translation is newly released. At 400 pages, this was a feat for me, since I’m also desperately seeking Susan, if “Susan” is finishing my book by the original deadline, which sucks up a lot of my reading time. (I know, I can ask for an extension, but that’s just not me.) Flights is a quirky, episodic book in lots of short, titled sections (like Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti, another book that’s quite long for something so fragmentary), many in the first person, and many not (which makes me think of the dreams I sometimes I have that do not feature me as a character; I’m not in them). They are connected thematically (lots of travel, lots of maps, lots of anatomy and bodies and pain and death, and fleeting encounters) but new characters are introduced and then abandoned all the time. It is sometimes essayistic, sometimes more like contained short stories. A handful of these stories were really compelling, even riveting, and this is the problem with books that change a lot: except in rare cases I end up with favorite characters and storylines and am always kind of sorry when the book veers away from them (see Mick in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter). Still, a good book, and I suspect it will be influential here; it’s one of those books with so much aboutness it almost exceeds its borders. (And it’s about borders! Blah blah.) (The author is apparently “one of Poland’s most celebrated and beloved authors”; hell of a bio!)
13. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) — So, me and John and our friend Mike had this idea to start a Stupid Classics Book Club to read the stupid classics we should have read in high school but never did. This was our first pick and boy, was it stupid. Incredibly heavy-handed and not really all that coherent; it has the feel of a NaNoWriMo novel that never got revised. Later I learned he wrote it in nine days. (It also seems to have mostly been motivated by racism? Great.) We might burn our copy.
14. Outline by Rachel Cusk (2014) — Extremely refreshing to read something this good and interesting after Bradbury. The format’s been described many times, so I hesitate to describe it, but here goes: There’s a first-person narrator, a writer named Faye, who is always present but often not in the spotlight. We meet her while she’s en route to Athens for a teaching gig. Over the course of the following week or so, we come along with her on her adventures (Neverending Story-style): She goes to restaurants to meet friends, she goes out on the boat of her neighbor from the flight from Heathrow, she teaches a class. We listen in on her conversations, which are usually “recorded” as if they were monologues, almost, on the part of her interlocutors. These people we hear from are almost all unbelievable — unbelievable on more than one level. This is not how most people talk (the dialogue in plays is not realistic) but even as characters in this unreal world, they seem like liars at worst, and dishonest with themselves at best. But perhaps this is Faye’s projection? She reads as a misanthrope, and just as she doubts her friends’ or acquaintances’ versions of their own stories, we have to doubt her versions of their stories. This is clearly intentional — she (Faye/Cusk) often slips from direct quotation into paraphrase, so there’s a blurring, like a first-person version of free indirect, between the mind of the narrator and the other characters: whose thoughts, whose tones, are whose? See a passage where Ryan, another writer/teacher she knows, says, or “says” (no quotes): “Go where the real money is — one or two of my own students, he said, have taken that road, you know, written things that have gone global in some cases. Actually it was the wife who said it — wasn’t it you taught them how to do that? Obviously she doesn’t entirely understand the process, but in a way she’s got a point.” Where does the judgment of that “obviously” come from, Ryan or Faye? We can’t be sure. Later, her neighbor from the plane draws a connection between an incident in his own life and the legend of the father of Theseus, who killed himself, Romeo-style, upon receiving misinformation on the death of his son. But does he draw the connection, explicitly, consciously? Or does the writer draw it for him? Yet another writer she meets in Athens, Angeliki, tells Faye that she has “treasured our conversation.” Of course, we’ve mostly heard from Angeliki; we can read this is a slight on Angeliki for dominating the conversation (no wonder she enjoyed it), or we can read it as Faye’s way of remaining interesting by remaining hidden, what another writer, later in the book, calls the “power of silence”: What if Faye’s “half” of the conversation were there and found not as interesting? It’s deeply ambiguous, but I take Outline to be about the nature of storytelling and therefore reality, which Cusk depicts as a kind of story: How do we have any ownership over our own lives, our sense of self? (The plane neighbor tells Faye, of his children, who had once been inseparable and then grew apart, “Each of them saw things now solely from his own perspective: there was only point of view.”) Do people, in their ego traps, attempt to “control the narrative” of their lives through storytelling, because we lack real will, that more basic control?
15. Comemadre by Roque Larraquy (2010) — This Argentinian novella (I love a translated novella) in two parts (I want to say like Asymmetry, but I haven’t read Asymmetry) is deeply strange, very funny and very dark. In the first part, which takes place in 1907, a group of doctors at a sanitorium run evil experiments on terminal cancer patients to determine what happens in the moments before you die. In the second, a century later, two installation artists mutilate bodies, including their own, in a successful bid for notoriety. “About” the wobbly the lines between art and artist, appearance and reality, life and death, person and society, human and monster, but handled with that cute kind of profundity that feels particular to South American literature to me. “I shoot Mr. Allomby a conspiratorial glance. We’re not actually conspiring, but it’s important to look at people like that every now and then because that’s how real relationships are forged.” “I’ll need to cultivate a serious gaze, as if I were very tired, so no one can tell how easy it all was.”
16. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963) — After writing about my Plath obsession for the Paris Review, I got an opportunity to have an early look at a short story by Plath that is being published in January. This brought me back to the idea of the “poet’s novel” or poets’ fiction, perhaps poets’ prose in general. (I find Plath’s poetry and the prose of her letters and journals to be dramatically different from each other, at opposite ends of the temperature scale.) I could have sworn I’d read The Bell Jar in junior high or high school, but maybe I only intended to, because I didn’t remember anything about it apart from the common-knowledge stuff. I guess I should get out of the way that “it didn’t age well” in many respects; there’s a kind of xenophobic streak wherein foreignness is only ever used as a metaphor, to represent the exotic or dangerous or wrong. It’s what you’d expect from a naive, sheltered super-WASP in the early 1960s I guess. But if you can get past the cringey bits, it’s rather remarkable. I expected it to be a little adolescent, a little inept as a novel, but it’s not! I mean, it’s not a masterpiece exactly but it’s justly a classic. It’s funny and daring and very meta. (At one point, Esther sits down to write a novel, naming her main character Elaine: also a six-letter name, she notes. My French brain automatically sees Esther as is-her. Estelle might be an even better disguise!) Also very revealing of the limited options available to women at the time; it’s like even when Esther is making choices, she’s just choosing between different types of passivity. My favorite part is when she goes skiing with Buddy Willard, and she knows she’s not ready to ski down the big slope yet, but Buddy insists; “It never occurred to me to say no.” She hasn’t learned how to “zigzag,” so she aims “straight down”: “I plummeted down past the zigzaggers, the students, the experts, through year after year of doubleness and smiles and compromise, into my own past.” This so beautifully encapsulates Plath’s whole life it stabs me in the heart.
- Blind Spot by Teju Cole (2017) — Teju’s images all seem to comment on images: They contain frames, reflections, windows and mirrors, paintings and other photographs. Portholes. Shadows. Advertisements, shafts of light. Backs of heads (referencing always Betty by Gerhard Richter). There are horizontal lines in many, walls and railings and roads, like lines in a notebook, creating the impression that you are reading the photographs. Others are split down the middle by vertical lines (a tree or a person or a telephone pole), like the spines of open books. Each photograph is accompanied by a micro-essay like a long, oblique caption (the prose does not describe the photograph), forming in cumulation a cross between a travel diary and a lyric photo essay about sight and its role in understanding the world across time and distance. Allusive, aphoristic (“Darkness is not empty. It is information at rest.”), and wistful-making.
2. Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning by Claire Dederer (2017) — I got this from my library after reading Dederer’s essay in the Paris Review about Woody Allen and coming to terms with the shitty morality of artists we like. Apparently her first book was a best-selling yoga memoir that got plugged by Elizabeth Gilbert, which sounds like the last thing I would ever read. OK, maybe not the last thing, but pretty far down. (Sometimes in airports, John and I like to play a game called If You Had To, where we go to the bookstore and pick the book from each row that we’d read, if we had to read one of them.) But this is just a regular memoir, about aging and sadness and sex and growing up as a child in the ’70s, when children were highly sexualized (one chapter is a letter to Roman Polanski), and a teen in the ’80s, which must have been such a good time to be a teen. I liked it, but I liked it more when it was implicitly about sex, versus the chapter at the end where she explains to us that this book is about sex. I kind of binge-read it, which it seems designed for, and then couldn’t read at all the next day. Reading equivalent of a candy hangover.
3. The Incest Diary (2017) — This memoir, written anonymously, was sitting on our coffee table, and when I picked it up to read a few pages, for some reason I had the idea in my head that it was going to be aloof and poetical and not all that shocking. Boy, was I wrong. It’s utterly disturbing and often disgusting, shudder-inducing. Your jaw falls open. The author’s father began raping and abusing her when she was three and it continued into her twenties. What makes her story especially horrifying is how it warped her sexuality/psychology into Stockholm syndrome: she knows it’s fucked up, but she can’t help it: “My father is my secret. That he raped me is my secret. But the secret under the secret is that sometimes I liked it. Sometimes I wanted it, and sometimes I seduced him.” This admission is hard to take, but it leads, I think, to many of the book’s most compelling insights and connections: “when an animal is scared, it goes home, no matter how terrifying home is.” “Today I read in a book about torture that the more a captive is raped, the more likely she is to experience pleasure. Pleasure as a means of survival.” She formulates a pseudo-theory that what her father really wanted to do was kill her, so she began to “seduce” her father to appease and distract him. This pseudo-belief gives her a kind of power, a kind of invincibility. (At one point, in high school or college, she’s with a group of girls who all say without hesitation that their greatest fear is rape; she says to them, “Don’t worry, it’s not so bad, just pretend you like it so you can survive.”) For the most part she goes through life with all this darkness kept beneath a membrane she tries not to pierce, through spells like avoiding the word rape: “I wouldn’t buy grape-seed oil because it had the word rape in it.” Her relationship to the word rape is troubled; at one point she refers to an incident in her twenties, not involving her father, as “date rape” — but she wasn’t on a date! (It’s such a weird euphemism; when you get murdered on a date, they don’t call it “date murder.”) When I was reading this, in one sitting, maybe to get it over with, John said to me, “Do you think it’s true?” I was startled. He explained that anonymous nonfiction often turns out to be false. I quickly decided it doesn’t matter; certainly, fathers rape their daughters. Since I don’t know who these people are, I can read it as a novel and still find it insightful. This book probably needs all the trigger warnings in the world; it’s quite graphic. I’m not a rape or abuse survivor so it wasn’t triggering for me, and despite feeling repelled, I also learned things from it.
4. Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg (1963) — At the time Family Lexicon was published, it won an Italian fiction prize; the back cover copy says it “takes the shape of a novel.” Yet everything in it is true, by the author’s own admission, and I tend to agree more with Peg Boyers, in her afterword: “it reads like a memoir.” By my lights this is a memoir, much in the style of Hons and Rebels: Ginzburg’s family and friends serve as ready-made characters. Her father, for example, is somewhere between a tyrant and a buffoon, but rendered somehow with affection (I typed this out before I finished the afterword, which uses the almost identical phrase “somehow affectionate”); he’s also a staunch anti-fascist. The only thing un-memoir-like about the book is the barely revealed I: Natalia is more like the director than the star. Though the book depicts tragedy, like the death of her first husband (he was arrested during the war, and she never saw him again), it is suffused with amusement and optimism. In fact I was struck again and again by the way the people in Ginzburg’s life seem almost to treasure their experiences of war, jail, and exile: “My father wouldn’t go down into the shelters … Under the roar and whistle of planes, he ran hugging the walls with his head down, happy to be in danger because danger was something he loved” … “Lola used to remember with great longing the time she spent in prison.” And later, also of Lola: “It didn’t remotely resemble her jail experience, which she considered the best and noblest time of her life.” Ultimately the war in all its horrors (Ginzburg’s father was Jewish) threw into relief the banality of everyday experience: “Much time passed before everyone took back upon his shoulders his profession and accepted the burden, the exhaustion, and the loneliness of the daily grind, which is the only way we have of participating in each other’s lives, each of us lost and trapped in our own parallel solitude.” Highly linguistic and full of word play and rhymes, the translation must have been challenging and rather game-like.
5. 20th Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies by Duncan Hannah (2018) — Stuck home with a cold one Friday, I was craving something a little trashy, semi-literary and nostalgic to binge-read on the couch all weekend, and this review copy arrived in the mail like magic. Praise the book gods! Duncan Hannah is an artist (I googled his work before reading and thought it looked like a cross between Hockney and Balthus; turns out he loves them both) who went to Bard and then Parsons and became part of the underground punk/glam/new wave scene in New York in the ’70s; he even starred in an art flick with Debbie Harry. These are literally notebooks (written at the time, when it was fresh, rather than through decades of reflection), full of drugs, booze, sex, and names; I had fun reading this with a browser open so I could image-search the rock stars and models etc, and YouTube the songs. The writing is just smart enough that you don’t feel cheap, but not so smart as to slow you down, and often very funny in a cute/silly way, like this bit where he tries out to be an art model for Dali:
“But are a professional model?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Ah! This is also good. Dali does not paint professional models! But then, what is it that you do?”
“I’m an art student,” I said meekly.
Dali threw his hand over his heart and said, “Ahhhhh, then you LOVE Dali!”
Taken aback by this lunatic, I answered, “Oh, yah, we’re all crazy about you down at art school.” A total lie. We all think he is the worst.
A charming diversion that made me want to read more notebooks.
6. Dead Girls by Alice Bolin (2018) — Alice is a very smart and funny young writer I have followed for a long time; this is her first collection of essays, and it seemed to drop at the exact right time for the cultural moment. The title comes from a popular essay she wrote about the “dead girl show” (Twin Peaks, Pretty Little Liars, etc.) but happily this is not a blown out, book-length version of that essay (I say happily, selfishly, because I’m not all that interested in writing about TV since I don’t, sorry!, watch all that much TV); instead it’s a rangy mix of essays that amount to a kind of authorial coming of age story (or what Monika, our shared agent, might call “a critical roman a clef”). There’s lots of book and cultural criticism in here, but I found I liked it best when Bolin was at her most personal/memoiristic; accordingly my favorites were “The Daughter as Detective” (about her “manic pixie dream dad”!!!) and “Accomplices,” about the disillusionment of moving to California to “find herself,” full of homages to her literary heroes. Write more of these Alice!
7. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World by Timothy Morton (2013) — I got this from the library and had to buy it when I found I wanted to underline stuff on every single page of the introduction. Some books with great intros really blow their whole wad there, but this was great throughout, a fascinating examination of how we should think about “hyperobjects,” or entities that are vastly distributed across time and space, like global warming and nuclear waste, both of which will continue to affect humans and non-humans for thousands of years, a real but truly inconceivable future, a “future future.” A work of philosophy that is directly concerned with activism and art. Highly recommended. (Features prominently in my essay “Big & Slow.”)
8. Autoportrait by Edouard Levé (2005) — This was recommended to me by the thespian individual I know who adapted L’Heure Bleue into a play, and I can see why: It’s one of those short books of prose that are almost poetry, a “self-portrait” consisting of many declarative sentences with no particular organization (and no paragraph breaks!). Many are simple statements of preference or nature (“Contradicting myself brings two kinds of pleasure: betraying myself and having a new opinion”); others are autobiographical facts (“There was a compulsive collector in my family, at her death they found a shoebox labelled in painstaking calligraphy: ‘Little bits of string that have no use’”; “My grandmother was introduced to my grandfather because they both liked gusts of wind.”). Others allude to the form of the book: “To describe my life precisely would take longer than to live it.” Rather than create a map more detailed than the territory, then, Levé describes bits and pieces of his life and self at random, eventually creating a rough portrait in pointillism. Reminds me of some American poets (Joe Brainard, Lyn Hejinian) and French writers of prose (Barthes). My copy was from the library, but I’d like to own it, as it’s one of those books that would be pleasant to dip into again at random.
9. Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus by David Quammen (2014) — Part of my book research. I don’t always or even usually read research texts cover to cover but this was good and also very short!
10. Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction by Brian Dillon (2017) — A very interesting ode to the essay as form or pseudo-form, divided into sections devoted to the different modes, moods, or moves frequently leveraged as part of “essayism,” or the tendency to write (and think) essayistically (associatively, ruminatively, obsessively, digressively, etc.). This gives us chapters or essays on things like lists, the fragment, aphorism, curiosity, and attention, and some close analyses of his essay-writing heroes like Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, E.M. Cioran. As Luca Turin often says of perfume, good stuff.
11. Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc. by Galen Strawson (2018) — I mean, of course I was going to like this. Very interesting, approachable philosophy with a lot of literary allusions. “More is not better,” he writes, of life. The only annoying thing is that a couple of the later essays seem like rehashed versions of earlier essays, not adding much new. The last essay is a bit of memoir from the late 1960s, and just lovely.
12. The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm (1995) — A fascinating, actually delicious book not so much about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes as about their respective mythologies, the narratives we’ve constructed around them, the difficulty of challenging or complicating those narratives, and the difficulty of writing biography (or nonfiction!) at all, of not taking a side, of changing one’s mind. Full of excerpts from letters and journals. I loved it.
13. Litany for the Long Moment by Mary-Kim Arnold (2018) — Oh, this was very sad and made me miss my mother terribly. I file it here because it was published by Essay Press, but like Monster Portraits and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely below, it could be poetry; it’s hybrid collage, fragments and lyric prose and photos and found text, about adoption and exile, death and grief, “unanswerable questions,” the search for home (“Waiting is a kind of exile”), the uses of “self-narration” and self-portraiture in photography and writing “to leave some record of a life that resists reduction, simplification, erasure.” Painful and moving.
1. The Public Gardens: Poems and History by Linda Norton (2011) — This was great. A mixture of poetry and journal excerpts, all assembled with the collagist’s instinct (the cover is her own collage) to collect and then arrange; it’s full of epigraphs that are not really epigraphs, just quotes collected. I liked the poems but the journals, a record of a woman’s life reading and working and riding trains and noticing things, were addictive and I could have kept reading them forever:
One difference between the beauty of fashion models and movie stars and the beauty of everyone else: the camera captures the model’s beauty, even increases it; but the beauties of other people often elude the camera. So you read biographies in which everyone testifies to the legendary beauty and charisma of so-and-so, and you turn to the photo insert and are unimpressed.
Ordinary beauty flourishes everywhere — across card tables, in carriage houses, at stoplights, during a frenzy of snow shoveling before turning in for the night. During awkward goodbyes. In life.
2. Fort Not by Emily Skillings (2017) — This book, which was blurbed by Ashbery (I would die!), has a very Ashberian sensibility: The sentences are quite clear, but the movement between sentences and sometimes phrases is oblique. However, I trust her sense of movement completely; the poems feel internally rational. They have a kind of black humor (the poem “Baby Food” starts: “I ate some. / It tasted fine. / I’m alive”). They each create a little habitat that’s kind of damp, like a hothouse:
The daylight is scrolling itself to death.
Everything presses into an atmospheric parfait.
Objects held by mounds of soil
On-and-off themselves in neat rows.
The available openings open wider-open.
Slits, in bunches, grow wild terminals.
If you ever see this book, sit down and read the first seven poems; they’re remarkable. Then buy and read the rest of it, duh.
3. Try Never by Anthony Madrid (2017) — These poems are mostly in the same, or variations of the same, form that feels made-up, but may not be (I’m not the FINAL authority on form): a titular phrase that then becomes the first half of the first line of each 3- or 4-line stanza. The rhyme scheme varies a bit, but is usually A/B/B/C, then in the next stanza C/D/D/E, and so forth, a la:
Quinceañera and whiskey and rhizome.
Rising and shining and taking dictation.
These “tales of mystery and imagination”
Are for snowy nights by the fire.
Quinceañera. And I’m wearing a wire.
And so on. Like Nick Demske, Michael Robbins, etc., the poems are maximally playful, engaged with rhyme and rhythm AS meaning, multilingual, and kind of compulsive, as when a tercet becomes a quatrain because he just can’t not make the rhyme! Or when he keeps riffing on the word didgeridoo (not all in the same poem) (“much adidgeridoo about nothing”). They are also aphoristic, and in these self-contained stanzas, meaning does not accrue into macro gestalt structures so much as stay micro, perfectly pleased with itself at that level. Fun.
4. Yeah No by Jane Gregory (2018) — I reviewed this for the Times! You can read the full review here.
5. A Horse with Holes in It by Greg Alan Brownderville (2016) — This poet passed through Denver in February and I got to hear him read from this book in his rather gorgeous, kind Southern accent. Sometimes Southern poetry has a wild, incantatory speaking-in-tongues quality (making it a good choice to read when you have a fever) and that’s present here in some degree, but in a subdued, almost shy way (“when you close your eyes, speaking in tongues looks like that scary snow dust in the hills, how it snake-swirls over pavement in your headlights”). I especially like the three prosimetra, where “the story” appears first in prose, then is followed by “the song,” which reinterprets, almost remixes the story into verse. Elegiac, bluesy, lovely.
6. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (2017) — This has been hyped to the heavens and back, but you know what, I liked it anyway. It has kind of a throwback style, the sort of extra-lyrical stuff that got anthologized a lot in the ’90s (a quality my grad school buddies used to call “poemy”), full of dreams and dust and fruit and small animals and mouths (also, moths) plus beauty and redemption, etc. But hey, I grew up on that shit. Quite dramatic (in one poem he asks, “Am I being dramatic?”), consistently interesting at the level of the line. “Even the trap-caught fox / knew enough to chew away its leg, // delighting (if such a thing can be said) / at the relative softness of marrow.” One complaint: he uses the word “tiny” much too much.
7. Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie by Joshua Harmon (2011) — Josh is an old friend, and I recently pulled this book off the shelf in order to quote it in something (“if you’re not part of the problem, / you’re part of the lengthening / tragedy”), then realized I’d never read the whole thing. These poems describe life in the crap town of Poughkeepsie with a level of lush attention that feels ironic, as though the speaker did not believe the landscape deserved it, but it’s beautiful anyway: “blood on a billboard, and how / to deal with loss, the radical idea that the sky is white” … “Perched on a lightpole, a crow cease-fires the self-effacing sunset” … “Bare-branched maples, brush / -stroked November noon / sky fading as far as Poughkeepsie / can dream” … “The houses are available, and an ersatz drunkenness is available, and a little snow completes the night.” He performs a move throughout where sentences are disinclined to stop; instead, clauses are followed by colons and more clauses and more colons, so the lines have a breathless, neverending, spilling-over quality like the exhaustion of days.
8. Monster Portraits by Sofia and Del Samatar (2018) — I’m filing this under poetry mostly because a bunch of poets blurbed it, but I don’t know what it is! They are short prose pieces that feel like a cross between fantasy fictions and lyric essay, written by Sofia and illustrated by her brother (a tattoo artist) Del, amounting to a meditation on the idea of monstrosity (race, the other, evil). Pretty sui generis, but the writer I’m reminded of most is Kate Zambreno; like Zambreno, it’s fragmentary, allusive, mysterious, always about itself and its construction. “Incongruity, we are aware, is monstrous. It is monstrous that you are wasting food while. It is monstrous that a child is dying while. It is monstrous that we are laughing while. While is monstrous. Simultaneity is monstrous.”
9. High Ground Coward by Alicia Mountain (2018) — Alicia Mountain is kind of a badass. There’s so much confidence in her poems, but they’re vulnerable too. I read them and think “handsome.” I think “tensile strength.” From “In the Belly of the Horse”:
My brother trains horses to be unafraid
after neglect. For hours he rubs a halter
against his Arabian’s jaw until the straps
are closer to a comfort. He told me
he could train a goat or a even a chicken,
anything with desire and memory.
He’s not my real brother. It doesn’t matter.
10. Nightingalelessness by Graham Foust (2018) — New book by one of my favorite poets! Graham’s poems have a kind of worrying wandering, an obsessive need to pursue a thought as it evolves almost independently of the thinker, based on sound or association or whatever logic guides a poem. You follow the thought through the lines into the dark until you’re lost. “I, / intangible, go off half-camouflaged, / as happens when I edit a sentence for clarity, / thereby muddling what was there.” “I change / the way a sky might on days / it doesn’t seem to.”
11. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker (2017) — OK, I kind of wanted this book to be uninterested in Beyoncé, and it is not uninterested in Beyoncé. Never mind. Some lines in here wowed me — or, more aptly, whoaed me? I was like, Whoa. “At school they learned that Black people happened … They do not understand that they exist.” (Whoa.) “This book is uncorrected proof.” (Whoa.) “Let me fucking mourn me.” (Whoa.) “So what if I have more regrets / Than birthdays I am old / For my age, I am made of water / Why do you get up in the morning” (whoa). I’ve been thinking about the wish for punishment, and my favorites were the most punishing: “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD,” “The President Has Never Said the Word Black,” “The Book of Negroes,” “The President’s Wife,” “99 Problems,” “Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce)” and “So What.” I helpfully dogeared all of these for whomever checks it out next from the Denver library.
12. Whatever Stasis by Chris Tonelli (2018) — As I said when I got to introduce him at a reading earlier this year, Chris’s poems have gotten less like beer and more like whiskey, quieter and more distilled. They pack a lot of philosophy into some very small lines, and are intensely re-readable, like endlessly mysterious meditations. “Prior to any object, / we’ve been / somewhere; / from the center / of the memory / comes a souvenir.” “Beautiful and worthy subjects / are everywhere, / which is / out of reach.” Comforting the way sad music is comforting. Highly recommended.
13. Magdalene by Marie Howe (2017) — It seems odd to say, but this reminded me of the Judy poems. They are sort of persona poems, but the speaker feels like a mix between Mary Magdalene and the poet, a kind of freeing constraint that allows her to pull details from either life to create a setting for the ideas. “We met — in our mutual gaze — in between / a third place I’d not yet been.” Full of clarity.
14. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (2018) — I reviewed this, along with Like, below, for the New York Review of Books. You can read the full thing here (unlocked last time I checked!). Here’s a little sample ‘graph:
The idea of complicity runs through the book like a leitmotif. One sonnet notes: “Even the most kindhearted white woman…may begin, almost/Carelessly, to breathe n-words…When she drives alone…before she can catch herself.” Nothing is harmless, Hayes suggests: “Of course,/After that, what is inward, is absorbed.” Reading this as a white woman, I wonder if I’ve done that myself. Then, two pages later, there’s a poem that contains the n-word several times over (albeit with a slightly more acceptable spelling variation), and I am forced to say it, if only in the silence of my own head; in America, I’m reminded, participating in evil is unavoidable. (Hayes hates to hear himself say it, too; a poem later in the book declares, “Nothing saddens me more.”)
15. Like by A.E. Stallings (2018) — See above. Here’s a taste:
But what makes the Minotaur an art monster, specifically, is that he’s a writer: “I bow to the yoke/of making, scratching this earliest of inscriptions//On a potsherd, down here in the midden.” (A “potsherd” is a shard of pottery, but I kept wanting to read it as “postcard,” a message mailed from the labyrinth.) Here Stallings identifies with the Minotaur the way Offill identifies with Nabokov, as a creature more selfish than selfless, one who must compulsively create whatever the cost: “Writing left to right…as a broken beast furrows a field.” That cost may be part of the source of Stallings’s anxiety, an anxiety of privilege. She may be grateful that her children don’t face the struggles of refugees, but she feels guilty about it too: “Empathy isn’t generous,/It’s selfish.” That is to say, other people’s pain is painful insofar as we imagine it could be our own.
16. Poems About Moss by Dennis James Sweeney (2018) — What a strange and interesting chapbook, made of very short, cryptic, semi-funny poems (“I am spores” … “I eat a lot of soup / Violets, take a picture of me”) each titled with the botanical name for a kind of moss, plus collages made of newspaper and named after headlines concerning Trump (probably the collages are composed of those stories), plus a lyric essay about place and names and boundaries and many other things that runs along the bottoms of the pages like a long footnote. You could read the poems first and the essay second, like I did, or just go page by page, letting them interrupt each other. “In the place with no sky I barely went outside because outside seemed so wildly content without me.” “Late in the drinks … the pleasure of unconsciousness would begin to overwhelm its terror; the terror became a sudden force for good. Impairment was not a side effect of the drinking but the exact purpose, since aside from hoping to escape ourselves we also hoped, and more deeply, to relinquish the burden of survival.” “I had an authentic experience. It was seeing a deer see through me in my apartment complex yard.” It feels rare to find something that’s both smart and gentle.
17. The Arrangements by Kate Colby (2018) — It’s lucky for me/us that one of my favorite poets is so productive. It seems like she can just sit and look out a window while the laundry spins and have ten brilliant thoughts. “You are always born / in your birthplace // but it’s rare to die / on your grave.” “In hindsight, everything is an omen of everything // that comes after it.”
18. Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (2018) — A big long book of poems all in the voice of a very silly femme fatale, a high-drama performance of superficiality and gold-digging. This character knows “the only way to be happy is to listen to records while wearing kimonos.” She wants “gumdrop-sized emeralds” and never means anything she says “on a yacht.” She is usually nursing a champagne hangover, is possibly a murderess. Don’t get the idea that there’s a plot, though. These are Groundhog Day poems that achieve the same effects over and over. I’m not complaining. “I’m nothing but a beautiful woman doing card tricks.” In the acknowledgments she writes, “I’m grateful to Turner Classic Movies”!
19. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine (2004) — My friend Sam used to talk about this book all the time, back before Claudia Rankine was a household name. I had read parts of it, of course, but never the whole thing cover to cover. Who was it that said grief needs to be underwritten, or perhaps underplayed? I don’t remember if I read or heard it in the context of writing or acting. This book, which is about grief, has that quality of lighthandedness, she steps away from the drama of grief the way, as a child, she stepped away from her father who was crying on the front steps about his mother’s death. “My sadness is alive alongside the recognition that billions of lives never mattered. I write this without breaking my heart.” This book also made me think about indirect influence, since I feel influenced by it, which is to say that work I already wrote and published was influenced by it, despite my limited prior engagement with the book. Influence out of sequence.
20. Portuguese by Brandon Shimoda (2013) — Brandon Shimoda’s poems have a way of estranging language, particularly through the breaking of the line, that feels like a kind of carnival ride (did I make this up?) where the floor shifts and tilts so you can’t walk straight. It is often bewildering, but primes the mind for the moments that I go to poetry for, instances of language and meaning that I think can only happen in poetry, in that they almost do not benefit from their context, except insofar as the context is mysterious or mystifying: “Moist growths of a new head space conjunctions of a skull / Are here — they are right here // We look at skulls and feel unsettled — skulls are right here.” (Skulls are right here!) “I / Fall into the void left by hoping / The void will not follow” … “Language is not not not the accommodating solvent” … “history as shown in this castle is nothing if not infinitely replaceable.” “A single touch of art / Can motivate nothing / Less than self-annihilation” … “I will eat the future out of the shipwreck.” These moments are as startling as seeing a deer in a mall.
My absolute top favorite reads of the year, in no particular order, were The Heat of the Day, Strangers on a Train, and The Silent Woman.
Happy new year, lovelies.