Every book I read in 2020, with commentary

I dread trying to sum up this year in a paragraph. It sucked, you all know it sucked! My reading was weird, because everything was weird (“weird” of course is inadequate). It was harder to focus, and I worked less efficiently, but I had fewer plans — so it sort of evened out. Anyway, this list has become a tradition, so I kept it going, though I have nagging doubts now about sharing it publicly, in a way I never have before. I have doubts about everything, the year has crushed my ego, I don’t know who I am! Let’s move on!

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Me in 2020. Just kidding, it’s Gustave Courbet

The usual 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. Every year, 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. On the other hand, if I finished a book, I probably liked it or at least found it interesting to think about, which is almost as good as liking it. Finally: If you sent me a book and it’s not on the list, I’m sorry! — But please don’t assume I didn’t like it or that I won’t eventually get to it.

For those counting: I read 22 works of fiction (novels/novellas/story collections), 14 nonfiction books, and 29 books/chapbooks of poetry, for a total of 65 books. At the end of the list I’ll share some favorites. Here are my lists from 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016.

FICTION

1. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929) — Definitely fun in its way, but this was so much like watching a movie it didn’t really give me the experience of reading a book. Every sentence is action, dialogue, or a description of what somebody looks like, no interiority whatsoever. And too much happens! Yeah, I get it, those are the conventions, this is probably not my genre, but I wanted to see what it was like. Now I know.

The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter

2. The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter (2019) — This novel in fragments (I like to read fragmentary works when I travel; they are conducive to interruption) almost feels like a novel in verse; the sentences have a poetic mood; they are quiet and exacting. And there’s something in the composition that feels familiar to my own poetic methods, accumulation and arrangement. The story is like Shirley Jackson or Helen Oyeyemi, a dark fairy tale or allegory. Sad but quite funny too, with many memorable images. There’s a meat quarry!

3. Real Life by Brandon Taylor (2020) — It took me a minute to get into this, but then I rapidly got into it; the first chapter is kind of like a slightly awkward TV pilot that is disconnected from the rest of the show, by virtue of being made earlier (which is maybe the case here too?). I say this in case you’re the type who, if not swept away by the first chapter, will stop reading. Keep reading! In Ch. 2, the tense switches to present, and everything suddenly feels more immediate and alive. The whole thing happens over a weekend (I love this kind of novel; is there a name for it? A poet I follow on Twitter suggested “roman holiday”!!), tracing the late-summer desperation among a group of not-quite-friends in graduate school, more a karass, and the damage they do to each other. It’s about racism and homophobia in academia and everywhere, scale and power (or power as a kind of scale), the permanence of history, the difficulty of intimacy, the emptiness of apologies, the competitiveness of suffering. There is misanthropy and disgust, but with moments of happiness, glimmers of hope. I felt it just got better and better as it went along, more complex and subtle and interesting, like a living intelligence.

4. Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey (2020) — If you know me you know I almost never reread books in full, but I read this in 2019 and reread so I could write about it. You can read the piece at The White Review.

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

5. The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse (1995) — My first time reading Sebald, and I like him so much, I feel like an idiot for not having read him before, but you can’t already have read everything! At some point you just have to read stuff. This is like Proust in multiple ways — autofiction-y, digressive, deeply about memory; it takes place as much, or more, in the mind as in any physical setting. Strings together “facts” and history associatively, some of which may be quoted directly from uncited material; it’s hard to say, as there are no quotation marks in the book. At one point he dreams of a labyrinth which, he is certain, “represented a cross-section of my brain.” A great description of the book! I love the table of contents, which summarizes the chapters with little headings that don’t appear in the chapters themselves. Seems to end arbitrarily — like a notebook that just got filled up.

6. Via Negativa by Daniel Hornsby (2020) —This was the perfect thing to read the first weekend after everything began to shut down, a needed companion amidst anxiety and confusion. Both morally complicated and funny. Also, I blurbed it! Here’s what I wrote: “In Via Negativa, a retired priest living ‘on the edge of the outside’ drives across the country with an injured coyote in the backseat, reckoning with his demons and the question of what we owe to other people. This quietly wise and graceful novel knows so much about what we don’t know, about visions and signs and everyday tragedy, ‘the cloud of unknowing.’ A book to savor in lonely times.”

7. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier (1938) — It was my turn to choose a book for Stupid Classics Book Club (which has become even more erratic and desultory in 2020) and this was my pick. I read it, slowly, during the first month of self-isolation. It’s dramatic, but slow-dramatic, moody and with a building tension. The writing is really good and it never, or almost never, descends into outright silliness, IMO. I liked it!

8. Self Care by Leigh Stein (2020) — A little light pandemic reading, un peu de nostalgie: Self Care is set in the before time of ~2017, when things sucked so bad and yet, not as bad as they suck now. This satire of pseudo-feminist corporate bullshit and competitive outrage is actually funny! I LOL’ed.

9. The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor (1953) — This book helped clarify something I’ve thought vaguely about midcentury English novels for years but never quite put my finger on — they often have a quality of arbitrary contingency, as if the author didn’t choose the setting and characters but just ended up with them, as though dealt a hand of cards. So there’s a very low-stakes slice-of-life feel, but it’s fine, because the author goes right on ahead doing the English novel thing, making them say witty things over a glass of sherry and having sharp and poignant observations about their cloistered inner lives. It’s like a nature documentary but for domestic humans (it’s not a special day for the tree frog; it’s just the day the videographer showed up). Probably not “the one to read” by Taylor, but charming.

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10. Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (1956) — Say it with me now: A NOVELLA IN TRANSLATION! This is about the relationship between a wealthy “idler,” a sort of pseudo-scholar, and the geisha he goes to visit several times over the course of a couple of years in a ski & hot spring town in the mountains. The geisha is a tragic figure, lonely, devoted, capricious, moody, a drunk. Her lover is affectionate but cannot satisfy her. There’s an interesting motif of “wasted effort” which first comes up when she is telling him about her diaries and catalogues of every novel and story she has read:

“You write down your criticisms, do you?”

“I could never do anything like that. I just write down the author and the characters and how they are related to each other. That is about all.”

“But what good does it do?”

“None at all.”

“A waste of effort.”

“A complete waste of effort,” she answered brightly.

In the end you get the sense her whole life will be wasted. The translator’s introduction explains that most of the story was written in the 1930s, with the second part added in the late 1940s. The second part does feel different in style, and sort of hopelessly midcentury in a way I had thought of as uniquely American (I liked this part less).

11. Free Day (Le Jour de Congé) by Ines Cagnati, translated by Liesl Schillinger (1973) — Jesus Christ, this was sad. It’s about a poor girl who goes away to high school on scholarship against the wishes of her family, Italian immigrants living on shitty, marshy farmland, with lots of daughters and no sons. The girl, Galla, rides her bike home twenty miles on her day off (the French title is “day of leave”) to surprise her mother, but never sees her mother; her father sends her away and she sleeps in the barn with the dog. Most of the book is just Galla thinking, poking around in the woods, and finally biking back to school again. It’s good, but almost relentlessly sad. (Jesus Christ!)

12. Drifts by Kate Zambreno (2020) — A Sebaldian meta-novel, a lightly fictionalized notebook, about writing a novel, about trying and failing and succeeding to write a novel. Highly referential and self-referential, it’s also about experienced time and durational art, ambition, the artist’s life, friendship, pregnancy, dogs. “Even the phrase ‘deep thinking’ suggests a spatial aspect to thought.” “That’s what publishing a book felt like — that every book was somehow an elaborate fraud.” I found it addictive to read; my favorite of Kate’s books, I think.

Sleepless Nights
Sleepless Nights

13. Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979) — I had started this and not finished it a couple of times in the past, but felt like now might be the time, after recently reading Sebald and Zambreno in similar modes — and it both was and wasn’t the time; I finished it but ran into my old frustrations. I’ve always enjoyed Hardwick’s prose in bits and snippets out of context, but find her kind of unreadable at length. This book is 127 pages long, and as such has no right to be so tedious. (Not sure why it’s OK for a book to be boring if it’s longer.) It feels like an unfinished work published posthumously — my love for notebookish books is well-documented, but this is so notebookish it would be better as a notebook, longer and with an index so you’d feel more entitled to skip around. On any given page there’s something interesting, a sentence worth underlining, but it doesn’t really coalesce or amount to anything much. I’m still glad I got around to it, and will keep it for reference. (I sometimes think it’s easier to have a unique voice if your writing is a little bad.)

14. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969) — For SCBC. I thought the writing in this was great, especially in the parts where Ai gets hauled off to prison and then when Ai and Estraven make their epic journey across the Ice (“Sometimes as I am falling asleep in a dark, quiet room I have for a moment a great and treasurable illusion of the past. The wall of a tent leans up over my face, not visible but audible, a slanting plane of faint sound: the susurrus of blown snow … In such fortunate moments as I fall asleep I know beyond doubt what the real center of my own life is, that time which is past and lost and yet is permanent … I am not trying to say that I was happy, during those weeks of hauling a sledge across an ice-sheet in the dead of winter. I was hungry, overstrained, and often anxious, and it all got worse the longer it went on. I certainly wasn’t happy … What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy.”). I don’t read a lot of pure sci-fi, so I’m sure it’s partly my lack of fluency, but I didn’t feel completely bought into the larger stakes of the novel, the importance of Ai’s central mission. Like, did I care if Winter joined the Ekumen or not? Not really, but maybe you’re not supposed to? At the scene level, I cared.

15. Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson (1968) — Guys, I read a whole book of short stories! I almost never do that. The trick was, I just read it straight through, without pausing after each story to think about them, like they were chapters. (They are nothing like chapters.) Mostly pretty great and very funny. You get the feeling he didn’t like women very much (oh well) though the last, long story (the title story) breaks the pattern. This story has some striking parallels to the discourse/culture now — the white appropriation of Black causes, the illogical belief that old people dying will solve all societal ills, the sense of “dialogue” being mandatory and yet mostly useless.

16. Problems by Jade Sharma (2016) — I didn’t hear about this novel until last year, when Jade Sharma died, and I kept hearing people say how good it is. It’s short, fragmented, very funny in a bleak way, the kind of book I think of as a good weekend read, fast and easy but not dumb. It’s about addiction and the painful boringness of life and being sick of your own self. “Life isn’t short. Life is long. That’s why you have to do something.”

Michael Kohlhaas
Michael Kohlhaas

17. Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by Michael Hofmann (1810) — Like Kafka but funnier, a weird (though what from the 1800s isn’t weird?) novella about a “good” man who is wronged in intolerable ways and succumbs to revenge fantasies. There are some longueurs in the middle third, surprising in a book that’s barely over 100 pages, some catalogues of bureaucracy I couldn’t bring myself to care about, but I loved the wildness of the beginning and end. I talked about it on this episode of the Fan’s Notes podcast.

18. Disappear Doppelganger Disappear by Matthew Salesses (2020) — What a fun, funny, weird novel about identity, “free will,” responsibility, and the unreality of reality, a kind of cog-sci sci-fi affair with a bit of detective story and metafiction thrown in, reminding me of Murakami, Rivka Galchen, Laura van den Berg, Mat Johnson. Also reminiscent of The Unconsoled in its nonlinear, almost uninterpretable structure, like a frustrating dream. The daughter character is so great. “I pictured my protagonist’s cat tied up inside, calling for someone to love it. Which made me realize the cat in my novel was a stand-in for Charlotte. Which made me realize the cat I had bought was a stand-in for Charlotte. As I understood psychology everything was a stand-in for something — even reality.”

19. Spurious by Lars Iyer (2011) — Two would-be intellectuals wander around (and don’t wander around), talking about literature and philosophy and religion and what idiots they are compared to real thinkers like Kafka and Blanchot. Very droll, almost a farce, but more Beckett-esque than that makes it sound; could loosely be categorized as climate fiction with all its “apocalypticism,” but doesn’t feel like typical cli-fi either. This was a good thing to read during a period when I kept thinking “Feeling like a failure is a life-long commitment.” Here’s a representative paragraph: “Alone with the apocalypse? The only thing for it is to drink. Luckily we have a bottle of Plymouth Gin in our bag. We are sober men, terribly sober, we agree. It’s only those who are the most sober of all who have to drink, and then to the point when they can no longer pronounce the word apocalypse. It’s only then, drunk as lords, that they will know God’s plan, which they will immediately forget.”

20. The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (1974) — Kind of like a surrealist version of The Bell Jar, this comic novel put me in mind of that 1973 study, published under the title “On being sane in insane places”: David Rosenhan had eight “pseudo-patients” check themselves into mental institutions and came to the conclusion that “we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals.” Also, Alice in Wonderland (“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice. “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”)

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf
The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

21. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf (1915) — Beautiful, tragic novel that might be more well-known if it wasn’t so different from her later work (this was Woolf’s first novel). Very much about perspective and the way your own circumstances trap you — when you’re sick you can’t imagine being well, and when you’re on a ship you can’t imagine life goes on the same in London. I wrote the introduction for a reissue coming from Modern Library next year.

22. The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (2019) — Some year-end pleasure reading. (I said to J one night, “Ferrante is my Lee Child!”) (J sometimes reads Lee Child to relax.) The title of this is almost too perfect; it really is about coming of age and realizing there are no responsible, trustworthy adults, everyone is a mess of contradictions and barely holding it together. I love how the characters in Ferrante novels can really shock you. The ending made me happy.

NONFICTION

1. French Lessons by Alice Kaplan (1993) — A gift from a friend who thought I would like it, this is an interesting, smart, subtle memoir about a Jewish American who becomes obsessed with French language and culture and eventually goes on to do her graduate work at Yale on fascist intellectuals (she studied with Paul de Man). It’s very much about the ways that learning a second language changes the way you think (“I start correcting myself, I’m feeling double”), but also about reckoning with her father’s early death, identity, the ethics of following your interests. Reminded me of Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, in both subject matter and style.

Dear Friend From My Life I Write to You in Your Life
Dear Friend From My Life I Write to You in Your Life

2. Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li (2017) — Really excellent essays about despair, the temptation of suicide, and the consolations of reading, about Li’s years spent with her favorite authors, not just their fiction but their letters and journals as well (Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor, Kierkergaard). The title is from a Katherine Mansfield letter, and reminds me of hearing the poet Matthew Zapruder on a podcast recently talking about correspondence as a writing practice. This book also reminds me of Cioran, in its aphoristic mode, and its use of despair almost as an aesthetic. Some lines I marked: “One always knows how best to sabotage one’s own life.” “Harder to endure than fresh pain is pain that has already been endured.” “This must be greed too; wanting nothing is as extreme as wanting everything.” “Waiting is treacherous. Rather than destroying one with the clean stroke of catastrophe, it erodes the foundation of hope.” “This is the cruelty of melodrama — like suicide, it neither doubts nor justifies its right to be.” “What does not make sense is what matters.”

3. All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Paul Wilson (1986) — This almost reads like absurdist fiction or a prose poem, but it’s memoir, about Hrabal’s complicated relationship with a bunch of cats living and breeding at the country house where he goes to write, a fixation that seems to indicate he is losing his mind, veering ever closer to hanging himself in a willow tree as prophesied by a fortune teller who left her handbag behind to haunt him. It made me think of Louis Wain, the artist whose paintings of cats grew more and more psychedelic and psychotic over time. A book about guilt, responsibility toward living things, the temptation of death, “the courage to go on living.” Hrabal died after falling from the window of a hospital, while attempting to feed some pigeons.

4. On Dreams by Maureen Thorson (2021) — I blurbed this! It was supposed to come out this year, but: delays. Here’s what I wrote: “After being diagnosed, or misdiagnosed, with a rare, ‘invisible’ eye condition that causes blind spots, Maureen Thorson set out to write a self-portrait in a broken mirror: a ‘mirror of my suffering,’ wry and poignant, fragmented and necessarily incomplete. On Dreams is allusive, searching, and self-arguing, a lyric meditation on reality, truth, illusion — the warped reality of the mirror image and everything we ‘see’ — and the illusion, ‘the dream,’ of control.” The book’s other inciting incident, as it were, is Maureen’s nagging obsession with a “fact” she runs across while reading Aristotle, who thought that a mirror would turn red if a woman looked at it while she was menstruating — a “blithe and ridiculous statement” so obviously stupid and false that it seems to contain a kind of truth. A favorite line: “This culminates in a truth that I arrive at and forget, arrive at and forget, so stark and unpleasant that it is a constant struggle to realize: cruelty arises in fear, and perpetuates itself in control.”

5. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored by Adam Phillips (1993) — I requested this from my library after seeing Dana Levin tweet some intriguing bits from a Paris Review interview with Adam Phillips. These are very interesting “psychoanalytic essays about the unexamined life,” awakening my buried childhood interest in Freud and the unconscious. They were mostly published in general-interest/literary venues like Raritan and the London Review of Books, but some are less penetrable than others — it’s a short book but I had to read it slowly. I love how these pieces approach analysis as a way of “redescribing” feelings and experience, an approach where being right matters much less than finding new ways to conceive of yourself, which keeps the self fascinating: “The art of psychoanalysis, for both the participants, is to produce interesting redescriptions, redescriptions that the patient is free — can bear — to be interested in.” A sampling of thought-provoking and/or poetically mysterious lines: “It is as though, from a psychoanalytic point of view, our unbearable self-knowledge leads a secret life; as though there is self-knowledge, but not for us.” “To be petrified by a pigeon is a way of making it new. The phobia is eroticization not so much of danger as of significance.” “Symptoms are a way of thinking about difficult things, thinking with the sound turned off, as it were.” “What we think of in psychoanalysis as a symptom is often in children a way of making someone worry and therefore of making someone think. Winnicott writes, for example, of the ‘nuisance-value’ of the symptom.” “Compared with the dream, the worry is almost pure, uncooked day-residue; indeed, it is addicted to reality.” “As a furtive protest, worrying is an attempt at simplification. It can give a local habitation and a name to a diversity of grievance and desire.” “Worrying implies a future, a way of looking forward to things. It is a conscious conviction that a future exists, one in which something terrible might happen, which is of course ultimately true. So worrying is an ironic form of hope.” “The worst thing that could happen is more comforting than the unimaginable thing.”

The Yellow House by Sarah Broom
The Yellow House by Sarah Broom

6. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (2019) — A memoir and family history and city history, of New Orleans (mostly the area known as New Orleans East) before and after Katrina (aka “the Water”). It’s not a page-turner type of disaster book, but a long slow story, what I sometimes call in my mind “slow interesting.” You’ll get attached to all the people in it.

7. Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark (2020) — I pretty much never read giant biographies like this (it’s over 1100 pages!), but I was asked to write about it, and given my Plath devotion I could hardly say no. It was an interesting experience — PRH had stopped mailing galleys during the first few months of the pandemic, but I knew I needed a physical object in front of me or I wouldn’t finish it. So I had the PDF printed and bound, in two volumes, at Staples. They were so large and unwieldy, I had to read them sitting at our dinner table. It took me a couple of months, reading in chunks over nights and weekends during the summer, underlining and making notes with a pink Bic pen, which glided very nicely on the almost glossy paper they printed it on. To some extent the struggle gave me purpose, and it was intense, but kind of comforting, to read about someone who suffered more than me during what has probably been the worst depression of my life. You can read my full piece about it here.

8. Suppose a Sentence by Brian Dillon (2020) — Brief essays on twenty-seven sentences. I love Dillon’s brand of close criticism, and this was delightful. I was surprised that so many are not the kind of tight or aphoristic sentence you can easily memorize; he chose mostly long, complex, eccentric sentences, which often don’t make much sense out of context, almost as if he took a book by a favorite author and just opened it at random, just picked any line as an occasion to riff. Evidently not the case though; in the introduction he describes a years-long habit of copying out sentences he admires in the backs of his notebooks. (I’m always interested in the notebook habits of writers.)

9. Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco (2019) — Vanasco was either assaulted or raped by one of her best friends from high school when they were both in college — that is to say, it’s unclear if you go by the legal definition of rape, which changed after it happened. At the time of the violation, that definition was shockingly antiquated, suggesting only women can be raped, and that what is used for penetration matters as much or more than the fact of penetration. It did not center the experience of the victim. This difference matters to Vanasco, who always had trouble accepting that what happened to her was rape, both because her friend “only” penetrated her with his fingers, and because he was her friend. Some fourteen years later, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, Vanasco decides to contact this friend and talk to him about what happened. The resulting memoir is both fascinating and maddening — it’s almost all meta-narrative, its structure set up to create a constant questioning of the book’s right to exist, which is then quieted by self-justification: She is always asking her friends, her therapist, her editor, her partner and even, in indirect ways, “Mark,” the pseudonym she gives to the man who raped her, if what she is doing is wrong, if the book is a bad idea, if it’s terrible to give her rapist a voice, and they always say no, that it’s important and interesting because it’s so fraught. That’s really what the book is about — its goal is to complicate the stories we tell about rape, and our beliefs about “good” and “bad” people — but it’s still somewhat maddening. I couldn’t stop reading it though. It made me think about the word “unflinching,” which appears on the back cover — but I do think the book flinches, if flinching is a fear/uncertainty reaction, and what’s so wrong with flinching? Isn’t it natural to flinch when you’re under threat? And if you can flinch so much and write it anyway, isn’t that also brave?

Down Below
Down Below

10. Down Below by Leonora Carrington (1988) — A short memoir about Carrington’s breakdown and time in a mental institution following Max Ernst’s capture by the Nazis (they were living together in France at the time). I read this for context around The Hearing Trumpet. The novel is infinitely more interesting.

11. Palimpsest by Gore Vidal (1995) — A lot of bitchy gossiping and score-settling but — such gorgeous prose! Listen to this:

At Liverpool, we board the Antonia for New York. In the Irish Sea we see our sister ship, Athenia, torpedoed by a Nazi sub. Longboats carrying passengers to the dull, misty green Irish shore. Consternation aboard our ship. Some wanted to turn back. Captain did not. We zigzagged across the North Atlantic. Canteen ran out of chocolate. No other hardship. I did not know fear because I knew that true history — life and death too — only existed in books and this wasn’t a book that I’d read — just a gray ship in a dark sea.

He’s at his best when reflecting on age and time: “Old age is turning out to be like youth; there is a tendency to daydream, but never about the past.” I caught myself wondering why memoirs aren’t like this anymore, talky and loosely structured? Then I remembered that most memoirs I’ve read recently were written by the young, and are therefore not about life in general.

12. Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby (2020) — I read these essays at night before bed instead of staring into my blue-light machine, which seemed like the perfect way to read them. I think there are good writing lessons — about voice and structure and surprise — to be learned from these even (especially??) if you’re not a humor writer.

13. Darkness Visible by William Styron (1990) — Not what I was expecting. Basically a long essay about depression, there are striking parts but overall it somehow doesn’t feel like literature. It’s like the memoir sections were grafted onto a pamphlet you’d read in a waiting room. Worth reading though, given its importance in the canon of despair.

14. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst (2015) — I happened to see an old poetry friend tweet something about the loneliness of trees, while I was working on an essay about loneliness. She recommended this book. It’s mind-blowing! J has a book called Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and reading this, I kept thinking, we’re not smart enough to know how smart trees are. I am fully convinced that trees can think and feel and have personalities. I saw someone complain that it “anthropomorphizes trees” but … so what?

POETRY

The Four Seasons Brandon Brown
The Four Seasons Brandon Brown

1. The Four Seasons by Brandon Brown (2018) — I found this in the essay section of a little bookstore in El Paso and assumed it was essays, and maybe it is, but it thinks of itself as poems, refers to itself as poems, and certainly the author is a poet. It’s four long, discursive prose pieces, one for each season; chatty, melancholy, notebooky, mixing anecdotes and allusions and jokes and confessions. The winter one is unlike the rest, not realist or faux-realist but a tale about visiting the land of the dead. Very companionable, with a quality I’ve come to realize I enjoy in poetry: sloppiness, a purposeful sloppiness, a kind of fuck-it-you-know-what-I-mean feeling, which is enhanced by some typos (are they purposeful too?). “I know you won’t believe this, you know I drink too much and smoke too much weed, but I swear to God all I want to do is remember. I don’t know what happened in Grandpa Bud’s bed but I remember that I don’t remember.” I think the autumn one was my favorite.

2. Ways We Vanish by Todd Dillard (2020) — I blurbed this! Here’s what I wrote: “Each poem in Ways We Vanish is a thought experiment, a reminder that all poems are thought experiments, an answer to a question — what if this, or this, is the best way to say this? What if this is the only way to say this? These honest, kind-hearted, generous poems about family (fatherhood, sonhood, motherhood, brotherhood) are also about war, snakes, bees, dancing, graves, Mars, the moon, marriage — in short, life on Earth, and poetry as a way of understanding it. ‘You look until / you become looking.’” This may be weird to say but I liked how many of these poems were about his mother’s death, that inexhaustible subject.

3. For the Ride by Alice Notley (2020) — A post-apocalyptic epic. Notley is legend, obviously, but at the moment I’m a little sick of this flavor of book, these speculative sci-fi cli-po things. I wrote more about it here.

4. The Wild Iris by Louise Glück (1992) — When I was young I was turned off by Louise Glück’s seriousness, but now that I am nearer to death I appreciate how she always has the intensity turned up to eleven— any time is a good time for a dark night of the soul! “The star, the fire, the fury”! My favorites were the ones addressed to God.

5. The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed (2020) — A lot of greatness in here: “I arrive at no place on time / as long as my life is chronologically implausible, which it is / as long as it is mine.” “Someone told me my whole life / was ahead and, ahead, a mountain spilled its hills / and spasms of wild violet wall irises / and fields of gold-flecked buttercup topographies at sunset / and the people there shot even their own horses.” “I am the kind of cautionary poem / that no one anymore has the peacetime / to memorize.” Some poems I found a little academic, but that’s a personal taste thing — and I raised my eyebrows when he made it clear that he knowingly moves between two modes of writing: “I rolled out the higher register. It had a trapdoor.” Oh ho!

6. Averno by Louise Glück (2006) — Gorgeous poems about aging and the persistent life of the mind. (P.S. I was reading Glück before her Nobel win, and before her unfortunate, baffling acceptance speech…??)

My Baby First Birthday by Jenny Zhang
My Baby First Birthday by Jenny Zhang

7. My Baby First Birthday by Jenny Zhang (2020) — Almost 200 pages of intentionally gross anti-poetry, an absolute rejection of Western/White ideals of beauty and polish and the serious mode of the Award-Winning Poem. To be clear, I like it! I read it as a middle finger, an accusation, a REJECTION. To trim or refine too much would be beside the point, would work against the fuck-you-ness of it, the necessary rage and giant fuck you to America. For a taste, read the great long poem “needs revision!

8. Toxicon and Arachne by Joyelle McSweeney (2020) — Cerebral, rebellious, sonically associative, tragi-casual poems written through the emotional intensity of pregnancy followed immediately by grief. “I’m the matron-king of hell / In yoga pants and a disused bra for a laurel / & shatter the scene inside your simmering year // Like a ransom scene filmed through shattered transom.”

9. DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi (2020) — Multi-form, multi-media, multi-vocal. I love Don Mee Choi’s translations and this book is about translation as much as it’s about the horrors of war/post-war and being a foreigner in your own country, or one of your own countries, and what is a country? Highly visual and game-like, in that each section seems to require its own approach, so you have to keep re-learning how to read the book.

10. Julie the Astonishing by Julia Story (2019) — Amazing little chapbook of poems based on a saint known as Christina the Astonishing, of course also autobiographical (I like books that mix up the self with a historical figure, creating a third person). It’s kind of pseudo-religious, using religious frameworks for its own purposes.

She turned on her side and saw black birds on the edge

of her vision, erased them, and filled the empty space

with other birds who were made of paper.

She turned onto her other side, cut open the house,

and climbed inside and slept.

11. Hello, the Roses by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge (2013) — This seems like my thing: long prosey lines about nature and metaphysics. A little over-numinous for my liking in the end, but has some really great lines.

Fear of Description
Fear of Description

12. Fear of Description by Daniel Poppick (2019) — When I’m reading poems, I often think about how the poet decides to move the poem forward, to decide what’s next. It could always be anything. This is true in prose, too, but the universe of options seems much smaller and more constrained in prose. Lately I’m enjoying poetry that seems to foreground those decisions, and this book is a good example of that. Its engines of propulsion are very interesting. The poems also refer to each other in a straightforwardly po-mo way that I like. Unusual. There’s a long haibun about an incident with a Ouija board that I’ve kept thinking about all year.

13. Seeing the Body by Rachel Eliza Griffiths (2020) — A double book of poems, many of them elegies (I love elegies), poems about “the divine grief of daughters,” plus photographs. Griffiths has a way of writing a line that isn’t as simple as it seems: “How does the elegy believe me?” “The moonlight struck / my skin last night for proof // I had been born at all.” “The dark is possessive.”

14. Anodyne by Khadijah Queen (2020) — Great. Formally it’s poetry, but it could fit into the scholarship of pain alongside Simone Weil and Elaine Scarry. “I think I am losing everything but my mind.” “I slept in a lie & the comfort felt so real it was real / I slept as if I were years” (This didn’t make it into my favorites column only because I’m not allowed to promote my friends in that context, which rules out anyone I’ve done karaoke with.)

15. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell (1982) — Reading Drifts made me want to read Rilke again, and Mitchell’s translations are my favorite that I’ve read (I don’t speak German, sorry). I read this cover to cover, mostly in the early mornings; he’s absolutely the perfect poet for my current crisis of the soul, the deep and unsolvable unhappiness I have been feeling. “Oh and night: there is night, when a wind full of infinite space / gnaws at our faces.” “That is what fate means: to be opposite, / to be opposite and nothing else, forever.” The Robert Hass introduction was a revelation — I had no idea that Hass wrote such wonderful prose. The second paragraph begins with the word “Anyway,” as though he had already only digressed; he calls Mitchell’s translations “startling Rilkean”; he calls his own search for Rilke’s spirit in Paris “actively stupid.” Though I’d never read Hass’s criticism before, I had the feeling that I have learned everything from it. I wrote a little more about reading Rilke here.

Arrow
Arrow

16. Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty (2020) — What an interesting debut, very allusive and scholarly, formally inventive (there’s a long poem that feels like some kind of exploded sestina), witty. Engages with the idea of the “visio” or dream vision, a la Boethius, Chaucer, or (per Wikipedia) “Hotel California.” Includes a few playful “essays” that remind me of Anne Carson. Wrote more about it (and Normile’s book, below) here.

17. Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party by Chessy Normile (2020) — A couple of years ago I happened to open an issue of jubilat to a long poem by Chessy Normile, a poet I’d never heard of, and it blew me away. It’s the last poem in this book, probably worth it for that poem alone, but the other poems are good too!

18. First Figure by Michael Palmer (1984) — One nice thing about having a husband (well, my particular husband) is finding books I didn’t know we had on our shelves. Palmer is really good at the thing that is one of my favorite things in poetry, a kind of movement between lines or sentences that is not quite pure non sequitur, but surprising enough that it allows the poem to constantly lose track of itself, to end in totally unexpected places. It’s not as jarring as exquisite corpse, where the writer literally doesn’t know what happened two lines earlier, but the effect is close, like exquisite coma. Here’s the second half of one, called “Prelude”:

and you are reading

in a way natural to theater

a set of instructions

that alters itself automatically

as you proceed west

from death to friendliness, the two

topics upon which you are allowed

to meditate

under the first broad drops

of rain. The planes

will be piloted by ancestors

who have come back to life.

Why the delay.

19. Thrown in the Throat by Benjamin Garcia (2020) — I’ve always liked when poets invent or reinvent a punctuation mark (Alice Notley’s quotation marks in The Descent of Alette, Alice Fulton’s “bride,” Chelsey Minnis’s long ellipses). Garcia does an interesting thing with slashes, using a double slash (//) within the line to create a kind of pseudo-break, short lines within long lines. Very playful. “There is something like a word inside a word in names.” I wrote more about this in the context of poetic punctuation here (along with Thresholes, below).

20. Thresholes by Lara Mimosa Montes (2020) — One of those fragmentary, notebooky books (a genre I’m always drawn to) mixing prose and verse, verse in the form not of full poems but stray lines; including bits of memoir, research notes, and quotations, like a commonplace book. Its interests include the history of the Bronx; trauma and grief; place and the absence of place (nowhereness?); all kinds of art: film, dance, installation, architecture. Consistently interesting. Includes a novel glyph (a little circle or hole) that serves as something much more than a section marker.

21. Arena by Lauren Shapiro (2020) — Good, sad poems that I liked reading when I was sad. Reminded me of the experience of reading The Wine Dark Sea by Mathias Svalina (both about depression, attempted suicide).

Cardinal by Tyree Daye
Cardinal by Tyree Daye

22. Cardinal by Tyree Daye (2020) — Beautiful poems about moving (leaving, returning, remembering); “cardinal” as in the bird and also as in direction. Echo-y poems, echoing each other and other poems. “If I didn’t return the way snowbirds return with snow, / songbirds return songs to one another across a harvested field, // the way my grandmother returns to my dreams begging me / to let her stay dead.”

23. Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort (2020) — A child in Belarus bears the weight of an accordion and countless repetitive war stories, nightmares of blood and bones and radioactive soil. Mort’s poems tell a secret history (“Silence beats language out of us”); they have the haunting quality of a nursery rhyme in a minor key, the quiet, shadowy magic of a snow-dusted forest. “I, too, am meat braided into a string of thought. / I pray to the trees.”

24. Suitor by Joshua Rivkin (2020) — I’ve been thinking about a poetics of fatigue — poetry that feels quiet, humble, even slightly underwritten, which suits my mood and the mood of the world now (tired). Some of these poems about family, love, and sex, and one interesting, subtle lyric essay about the complicated legacy of Fritz Haber, feel quiet and tired in a way that appeals to me. “There’s a poem below this one / where I know more.”

25. My Daily Actions, or The Meteorites by S. Brook Corfman (2020) — Poems of fear and foreboding that live with the knowledge of climate crisis, without resorting to self-righteousness or self-flagellation. The form is mostly prose blocks, built of elusive, mysteriously fascinating sentences that often hinge on apparent contradiction, the simultaneity of seemingly opposite states: “One question is about how much can be willed into the world, whether this is a form of activism or deadly distraction.” “Even if Tuxedo Mask kissed me back to life, all Endymion, I think I would stay dead.” “Then, not. Then, not.” “I often imagine a god I don’t ever want to meet.” “We do not yet know how I feel.” “I am a bad imitator and yet this is a good imitation.” “It is hard to talk about. And yet I have filled a notebook.”

26. Inheritance by Taylor Johnson (2020) — The voice of these poems hooked me right away — poised between conversational and elevated, with a kind of elegant swagger. Johnson writes about longing and “impossible desire,” about poverty and precarity (“No one like me gets old, or so I thought, even as I watched the days fade into each other. / Was I no one?”), about the struggle and joy of becoming oneself: “Every day I build the little boat … O New Day, I get to build the boat! / I tell myself to live again.”

Wicked Enchantment by Wanda Coleman
Wicked Enchantment by Wanda Coleman

27. Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems, by Wanda Coleman (2020) — I came to Wanda Coleman through Terrance Hayes, who took her “American Sonnet” form as inspiration for the poems in his own book American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin — so I was happy to see that he edited and introduced this new selection of her work in verse across twenty or so years of her career. The poems are wildly fun and inventive (like Carroll or Vallejo), frequently hilarious and seem to cover every human emotion (often anger or just annoyance) and experience, and states that blur the line between emotion and experience, like pregnancy (“i’m 99% body”), horniness, the freedom of driving a car, perseverance (“i will. with difficulty / but i will”). I love the way she uses a line break so it’s not quite enjambment and not quite an end stop — “i want to go home and wonder how long it’ll take me to hoof it / maybe twenty minutes” — invisible punctuation. The antidote to “bloodless, banal crap,” to borrow her phrase.

28. Emporium, by Aditi Machado (2020) — “Wordplay” isn’t quite the term for what’s going on here; it’s more like linguistic athleticism. If you always choose Scrabble over Risk, crosswords over sudoku, Twitter over Instagram, you’ll get so much pleasure from the rhymes and slant rhymes (“The body is pronounced bawdy”; “It’s like innocence way off / in the distance”), double and triple meanings, conjugations and declensions, repetitions that evoke a sense of déjà vu — “Fold this” or “Fold it” or “I fold,” etc., occurs as a refrain that seems to half-reset things, like cutting a deck of cards, or twisting them into a Mobius strip. “The camera is deft, so I am dire. / I look into the mounting of desire … surely, the darkness, metonymic, shall / proceed. / I fold this.”

29. The Fish & the Dove by Mary-Kim Arnold (2020) — Feels in some ways like an extension or continuation of the project of Arnold’s last book, Litany for the Long Moment, which is kind of a long poetic essay. Again she’s processing exile and motherlessness, but here also womanhood and war. “Looking back, the path to war is clear / as an arrow whistling through still air, / but now at the courthouse / men smoking and taking photographs / as if their living eyes could see / what the dead already know.”

FAVORITES

Favorite fiction: The Rings of Saturn (Sebald)

Favorite nonfiction: Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Yiyun Li)

Favorite poetry: I wrote about my published-in-2020 faves here. Best experience with the poetry of the past was Rilke.

Happy new year, loves. I hope it’s better!

Poet and essayist. Author of The Unreality of Memory, The Word Pretty, and other books. On Twitter at @egabbert. More info at http://www.elisagabbert.com/

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