Every book I read in 2021, with commentary
This year has felt like at least three years — not length-wise, but mood-wise. The first part was bad (exhaustion; despair), the middle part was good (hope; reconnection), and the last part was bad again, but in a different way (loss; disappointment). These past few months have been extraordinarily difficult for me, and yet, I’m not depressed like I was in late 2020/early ‘21. My mind lately feels more alive, and I took much more joy in the books that I read during The Year Part III. Hence, a lot of my personal favorites are weighted toward the end; favorite is in the experience, not in the work.
Anyway, we made it through another 365 days. Unfortunately, there’s nothing ahead but more time.
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. Every year, I read parts of a lot of books that I don’t finish, especially nonfiction and poetry books — 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. (Our time on earth is finite! Get what you need from books!) 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.
One other thing — my ratio of new books to old books was unusually high this year. It’s because I read so many of the old books from our library I’d been meaning to get to last year, and we’re moving soon, so I’m trying not to buy stuff. NYRB Classics excepted, the free books that just show up in the mail tend to be new. I’ve been reading lots of those.
For those counting: I read 25 works of fiction, 17 nonfiction books, and 27 collections of poetry, for a total of 69 books (nice). At the end of the list I’ll share some favorites. Here are my lists from 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. And here are a few other things I wrote this year:
I wrote about the particular loneliness of 2020, and my longing for strangers, for Harper’s
I wrote about productivity for The Believer
I wrote an introduction to a new Modern Library edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out
Now on to the list!
1. Red Pill by Hari Kunzru (2020) — A man goes away on a writing residency in Wannsee during winter, leaving his wife and young daughter in Brooklyn, to work on a book about the lyric I and try to solve some kind of personal crisis. Taking a walk around the lake, he stumbles upon the grave of Heinrich von Kleist (the epitaph: Now, O immortality, you are all mine!). He takes this to be a dark sign — Kleist shot himself, in a double suicide, near the site. The man proceeds, over the next several weeks, to pretty much lose his mind, though because it takes place in the recent past (the book ends on election night of 2016), we’re given to question whether his breakdown is justified, if the world itself is mad. (Does he lose his mind, or just lose control of his ability to act sane?) A good novel, but has a bit of a fatal flaw, I felt: The narrator is similar to Kunzru, but feels less intelligent, less morally organized, a slightly worse and more pitiable version of the author — perhaps to make the character more plausibly susceptible to breakdown, or to make him more relatable. It’s a choice that makes the whole thing feel somewhat condescending.
2. Bina: A Novel in Warnings by Anakana Schofield (2019) — A genuinely strange book, in terms of its formal and structural strategies: a sort of serial epistolary apologia, as though written from prison, though Bina is not in prison, just awaiting trial. The story is told in such a way that it takes quite a while to see what is happening, what her life is and has been like. It reads fast though, in part because a lot of it looks like poetry (Bina is writing these missives on scraps and receipts). Funny and compelling.
3. Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li (2019) — This smart, sad novel reminds me of Alice in Wonderland or Donald in Mathmagic Land: it doesn’t take place “here” (Earth) or anywhere exactly except the mind: The narrator has a long imagined dialogue with her teenage son who has recently killed himself, a dialogue in part about “where” and “when” he is, the difference between the living and the dead, full of arguments and illogic puzzles. Her son (in her mind) keeps yanking her away from cliché and sentimentality; he’s a strict perfectionist in an imperfect world. Ultimately it’s about how we can and can’t use language to express what we can barely understand — and how language can and can’t construct reality.
4. Marshlands by Andre Gide (1895) — Extremely hilarious short novel (or long story), a meta-/auto-fictional account of a week in the life of a man who is writing a book called Marshlands, which none of his friends understand. (From Gide’s afterword: “I said all these things and many more in Marshlands; but you understood nothing — as I explained in Marshlands itself.”)
5. Delicacy by Catherine Nichols (manuscript) — A moving historical novel based loosely on Nijinsky, about a boy, Valentin, whose mother drops him off at ballet school when he’s ten and never speaks to him again. By the end of the novel, Valentin is sixteen, the tsar has been deposed, and one of his best friends has run off to join the revolution. A dark but erotic novel about shame and self-control, beauty and art.
6. Subdivision by J. Robert Lennon (2021) — Almost a mystery, almost a sci-fi thriller, reading this feels a lot like playing a game, a text-based adventure or an RPG. It also reminds me of The Unconsoled, in that it begins very much like a dream, in that it doesn’t quite seem to begin. (Doesn’t your memory of a dream always start in the middle?) The narrator has no memory of her past, but operates as though this weren’t a particular problem. Strange and funny and probably prevents dementia.
7. Dissipatio H.G. by Guido Morselli, translated by Frederika Randall (1977) — A man decides he’d rather die than turn 40 so he goes into a remote cave with a secret underground lake, planning to drown himself, but he loses his nerve, goes home, gets in bed, thinks of shooting himself, doesn’t and falls asleep. Or does he??? In the morning he discovers he’s the only man still alive; everyone else has disappeared, as though evaporated overnight. He’s the last man after the apocalypse, or it’s all a vision he’s having in the moments between suicide and death. The writing is very elegant. “And the silence of human absence, I understand, is a silence that doesn’t flow. It accumulates.” “Adam didn’t think to himself, ‘I’m so manly,’ because he had no point of comparison. By the same token, I cannot go crazy.” Full of allusions, but the translator notes: “At times he will cite or paraphrase a work or an author in such a personal way that it becomes difficult to identify the passage he has in mind. Sometimes he invented and attributed his invention to a likely source; it was one of the games he played with his notional readers.” This reminds me of Jozef Czapski quoting (or misquoting?) Vasily Rozanov: “There’s nothing easier than to quote a text precisely, you just have to check the books. It’s far more difficult to assimilate a quotation to the point where it becomes yours and becomes part of you.” When the novel, his seventh, like the others, was rejected, Morselli committed suicide.
8. Old Open by Alex Higley (2017) — I really liked this novella about a widower who becomes obsessed with his neighbor’s secret life, as he conceives it, as a speaker at UFO conferences; he goes on an adventure to find the neighbor, but it’s not the adventure he imagined. First person and present tense, it’s also a meditation on self-knowledge and understanding. So many nice touches and good paragraphs. “Everywhere around me I see men alone, whether they are or not.” “I feel that I am also one of these people, these crap collectors. My crap is doubt.” Reminded me a little of Via Negativa by Dan Hornsby: the road trip as spiritual quest.
9. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1980) — Beautiful and tragic short novel told from old age, about an incident in the narrator’s childhood (the author’s childhood? I believe it’s autobiographical), a murder on a nearby farm. Part of the book feels like a memoir of that childhood; part is an imagining, a reconstruction, of the lives of the people most affected by the murder, including a boy, Cletus, the narrator was briefly friends with. Guilt, love, responsibility, the slippery nature of memory. This kind of looking back book is one of my favorite genres.
10. Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (2021) — A melancholy short novel in short chapters, each about a place and/or a state of mind: “In the Waiting Room”; “At the Museum”; “By the Sea”; “In Winter.” The narrator lives alone, a life of solitude that’s only partially her choice. Lahiri wrote the novel in Italian, then translated it back into English; I haven’t read enough of her other prose to know what difference or distinction this makes. But I liked the voice, more than I remember liking her early stories. There’s something interesting, authentic, in the depth of disappointment; if life has not failed to meet her own expectations, it has failed to meet the expectations of someone.
11. The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse (1992) — More tightly structured than The Rings of Saturn, though Sebald’s structures are never “tight” per se, this is a novel in four portraits, more or less; the stories of four men in exile along with some side stories: a doctor, a teacher, a painter, and Sebald’s Great-Uncle Adelwarth, the traveling companion of an American aviator. Written in Sebald’s signature indeterminate, essayistic style, intercut with photographs of people and places, it explores post-war trauma and memory, guilt and displacement, and what it means to “survive.” I read this as part of the distributed book club that A Public Space does from time to time using the hashtag #APStogether; I had lots of thoughts and you can read a bunch of them here. Quite devastating, and perfect to read slowly over ten days. (Bonus material: I talked about it with Catherine Nichols and Isaac Butler on the Lit Century podcast.)
12. When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, translated by Adrian Nathan West (2020) — Highly Sebaldian narratives based on real figures in math and science in the 20th century, figures whose discoveries fundamentally changed the way we see reality, or helped us understand we don’t understand reality (Heisenberg, Schrodinger, the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck). Knowledge as a progress trap. It’s fascinating and I read most of it in a day. My favorite part was the section with Schrodinger in the sanitarium; so much of this book is basically essay but this part could only be fiction. One complaint: I wish they had more faithfully translated the original title, Un Verdor Terrible, which I like much better. (Bonus material: I talked about it with Tom McAllister and Mike Ingram on the Book Fight podcast.)
13. Dear Life by Alice Munro (2012) — It’s nice sometimes to have a book of stories around, so you can read one or two here and there, in between other books, until it’s finished. This has an odd little “finale” section of story-length memoirs at the end, which she writes in a note are “the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.” Of the story stories, the ones I remember most are “Gravel,” “Corrie,” and “Dolly” (the last of which was so much funnier than I think of Munro being).
14. Emergency by Daisy Hildyard (2022) — Mysteriously compelling, often hypnotic novel with no plot to speak of: a woman in lockdown remembers her youth in a village in the ’90s; scenes of hyper-realistic detail tumble together associatively, scenes of farm life and violence, life and death among foxes and voles, moths and cows, the power struggles of children, not so different from the power struggles of hares and adults. Strange and beautiful.
15. The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch (1973) — What a strange ride this novel is. It starts off very funny, but sloppy, a borderline sex farce, in such a way that I could not quite imagine it being sustained over 400 pages; then it suddenly gets more serious and dramatic, even melodramatic, but enveloping, a little like Rebecca. I did not see the ending coming at all, nor the “post scripts” from key players in the main narrative, an absurd device used to remind you all narrators, all people, are unreliable and interpret events so as to flatter themselves maximally. But is that the point? I still prefer to “believe” Brad’s account, since it’s all made up anyway! (One critic at the time of its publication wrote, “the accounts batter home the theme that reality is subjective and relative — a point that came through clearly enough from Bradley’s story.” But this book is over the top everywhere.) These are just part of the faux paratext of the novel; it’s a kind of novel within a novel, written by an aging and failed novelist whose life becomes rather too interesting upon his retirement from his day job. This makes it hard to take any moral argument the inside novel makes seriously, it’s so firmly embedded in quote marks. The Alison Lurie blurb on the back of my copy made me laugh: “There is enough passion and sex and violence to satisfy anyone.” Surely not anyone, not a true sicko. It’s still Iris Murdoch!
16. A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies (2021) — A quick read with auto- and meta-fictional elements; there’s a lot of wisdom in the form of brutal honesty, about shame and parenting and marriage, but also a compulsive level of corniness, puns and dad jokes, a version of what the parents in the novel call their child’s “verbal self-stimming.” I kind of like dumb puns but they make up such a large percentage of this short book. Also, the wife is portrayed as kind of a self-righteous scold; the portrait of the father isn’t self-flattering, but I wish I’d been allowed to like the wife more.
17. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2020) — Bit of a departure for me, a sort of philosophical fantasy novel with a strong mystery element in the first half or so, in the sense that the narrator clearly has a limited grasp on his reality and you have to figure out what the real reality is. Liked it, but wasn’t obsessed. (A friend of mine said she felt it was like a very beautiful object that doesn’t mean anything.)
18. Remember Me by Christopher Pike (1989) — I can’t recall how Christopher Pike came up in conversation with my friend Catherine, but we decided to read this (re-read, in my case) and discuss on her podcast, Lit Century. I went through a Pike phase when I was 14 or 15, and distinctly remember that I’d seen the mass-market paperbacks in stores many times and dismissed them as trash. I don’t know why I eventually read one, but I’m pretty sure this was my first, and I was so surprised by how good and fun and even kind of moving it was. It’s like sexy Agatha Christie, but ~supernatural~. There were a few small details I retained about this book over decades (in particular, the last sentence, word for word) but I’d lost so much it was almost like reading it for the first time. Still really fun, and even kind of moving. I read that Pike knew when he finished it, it would be a big deal; it spawned some sequels and it’s still in print. (Also, he claims that when he typed the last sentence, he felt the presence of a ghost leaving his body!!)
19. Fall Into Darkness by Christopher Pike (1990) — Another re-read for the podcast. Catherine said she wasn’t impressed as much by this one as Remember Me, but I liked it just as much in its own way. It leans harder into thriller trash but has a self-aware, campy sense of humor about it that puts me in mind of Moonraker. This one is now out of print and was so hard to find, I had to read it online through an internet archive site that only let me borrow it for an hour at a time. Luckily, no one else was trying to borrow it so I just kept renewing it over and over. A good time!!
20. Days by Moonlight by Andre Alexis (2019) — Another “road trip as spiritual quest” novel, with lots of embedded narratives — picaresque, satirical, metaphysical. I’d been meaning to read something by this author, who wrote a book (Fifteen Dogs) that John absolutely loves; he says the others he’s read haven’t been quite as mind-blowing. I think this one falls in the good, but not mind-blowing category. (I’m aware these are unreasonable standards. But I’m pretty much always looking to have my mind blown.)
21. A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan (1999) — This novel takes place over two weeks, not long after the Civil War, in a small Wisconsin town which gets hit by a diphtheria epidemic and a raging fire at the same time. Unsurprisingly, it’s extremely sad. It’s also written in the second person, and I kind of can’t believe I got through a whole book written in the second person. It works and justifies some interesting moves. Reminded me a little of Women Talking, in its willingness to grapple with difficult moral questions, while using simple language.
22. Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (2021) — Most of this is written in a weirdly distant third person, like a camera that can only see but can’t know anything about what it sees, so you get a lot of constructions like this: “She seemed to have recognized a kind of challenge or even repudiation in his tone, and rather than cowing her, it was as though it had hardened her resolve.” “He didn’t ask her anything in return, perhaps warned off by her diffident responses…” As though? Perhaps? The POV is always guessing, but why? Clearly we’re meant to think she has hardened her resolve, and he is warned off. But the drama is all in the language of film, which telegraphs with gesture rather than saying outright. It feels too conveniently straight-to-screenplay. (There’s also a lot of listy atmosphere-building, like random lists of objects in a room meant to illustrate the ~vibe~.) The third-person chapters are intercut with essayistic emails written, of course, in the first person between two of the four main characters. At first these seem like the best part, where all the thinking lies, but after a while they feel aggravatingly convenient too, a way of inserting some theme without having to integrate it into the actual plot; all the potentially interesting moral questions are cordoned off. They’re also full of a kind of guilt/anxiety over wealth and success — one of the characters is a famous young novelist, worrying how it’s okay to have a nice house and write books at the end of the world, and then weakly justifying it. (It is okay to write books, but ugh.) The plot itself is really contrived (more so as it goes on, like TV often is) and needlessly dragged out; I can’t fathom why this book is over 300 pages. If you’re thinking, If you didn’t like it, why did you read it?: It’s because people I know did like it, and I wanted to see what it’s like, and then I wanted to articulate why, to myself, it annoyed me so much. I don’t think she’s untalented, though. I think she can do a lot better.
23. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (2021) — This was a real throwback to the days of capital-L, capital-F Literary Fiction, aka the twentieth century. Novels used to have this inherent quality of ironic narrative distance created out of the self-consciously heightened diction of “we’re doing writing now,” which is to say you really know you’re reading a book. (This is a good thing.) This has a fascinating structure, a rotating close third that is mostly backstory — the first 375 pages basically take place in one day, the present that narrow and the past that wide. In this book we don’t live in the present, and there’s a powerful sense of the impenetrable reality of other people; their lives are absolutely real to them, in a way they can’t be to us. (Makes me think of that ridiculous D.H. Lawrence poem about fish: “Their little lives are fun to them, in the sea”!) A book about love and hatred, the pains of youth versus the pains of aging, and God as randomness. Though it’s not without a certain Franzenian baroque silliness at times, a cringey-ness that while intentional can be hard to take, it puts me in mind of Virginia Woolf’s remark about Middlemarch, that it’s “a novel for grown-up people.” The first Marion chapter is mind-blowing, and the part where Ambrose says “Yikes” had me laughing for four or five days. I really loved it. (Bonus material: this episode of Mr. Difficult I guested on.)
24. Dead Girls by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott (2020) — A work of journalistic fiction, like a true-crimey In Cold Blood kind of thing, about the murder of three young women in Argentina. Well done, though I wished for a little more commentary, something more essayistic, from the author.
25. When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen (2021) — Kind of a contemporary Southern gothic novel with horror elements, this takes place at a wedding on a haunted plantation, and sorry for the spoilers, but things don’t go so well! A grim tale about the cost of ignoring, of refusing to see our evil history.
1. Lost in Summerland by Barrett Swanson (2021) — A mix of travel and journalistic pieces that are sometimes more about sites of American weirdness (like “Disaster City,” a visit to “a Disneyland for first responders,” where Swanson volunteers as a victim in the rubble of a simulated building collapse) and sometimes more personal (like “Okay Forever,” about his older brother’s brush with death after a bar fight) and often both (like the great title essay, in which he travels with his brother, who has started having clairvoyant visions, to a conference for psychics). Meditates especially on how we should live in a hostile and dangerous world without the grand narratives of religion, or anything to replace them. One of my favorites, unexpectedly, was about the language of football. I think if you liked my last book, you’d like this too.
2. Poetry Against All: A Diary by Johannes Göransson (2020) — Both a travel diary and a journal of notes for another book, and/or a set of outtakes from that book. Abundant in what I like about journals: a sloppy associative form; excessiveness and loose ends. Includes thoughts on homesickness and tourism (it was written on a trip to his native Sweden), art and pornography, images and violence. Often grouchy and confrontational. “All poetry takes place in the aftermath, where everyone belongs but are also out of place.” “It’s the sublime but in bad taste. The shitty sublime. Why is it shitty? Because it’s about history but it’s also beautiful.” “Art has to fail.” “Anything I write goes into the slaughterhouse of language. I was always most interested in the unearned line.” Just really interesting. This kind of book for me is almost comfort reading.
3. Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (2021) — Some short essays, written between the late 60s and 2000, which had escaped being collected in book form before. Apart from that, there’s not much holding them together. Good intro by Hilton Als, but mostly pointless. “Why I Write” (which I was surprised to learn is about fiction, not non-) can be found online.
4. The Betweens by Cynthia Arrieu-King (2021) — A moving lyric essay that stitches together years’ worth of thoughts and experiences, memories and vignettes, into a layered, discomfiting meditation on race and belonging, on silence and distance, on recognition and “miscognition.” Always careful, tentative, self-questioning, comfortable with unanswered questions. An attempt to give language to things we struggle to see because they are “outside of the nameable.” Some notable lines: “I didn’t have the words for what I felt. I still don’t. A shark passed.” “The silence does so much work.” “I feel extremely far from home. I notice that even though there are people in the payphones, they don’t move. People passing don’t move. Everyone seems to be weirdly looking away at invented distances.” “This is also not the truth.” “In sewing, there is definitely a knack one needs for knowing when to stop, knowing not to try, not letting things become effortful. In trying to do nothing, or in trying not to force things, there’s still, somehow, always progression.” “How I have been erased almost like a tree in the background; how I have elided myself which is my privilege.”
5. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken (2008) — This memoir about McCracken’s first pregnancy, with a son who was stillborn, is so tragic and moving but also so interesting, with an interesting nonlinear structure and so many interesting thoughts and questions about grief and self-understanding and time. It’s also about writing, and not just writing but talking about, telling our grief: how we tell the stories of our lives. “It’s a strange business, turning these days into sentences, and then paragraphs.” One chapter taught me how to write a proper condolence letter.
6. Audition by Michael Shurtleff (1978) — Sometimes I like to read a book that has nothing to do with my life, which often has the effect of making me wish for a different life. Sheila Heti recommended this years ago on a list of “secret self-help,” or books that aren’t pitched as self-help but can be useful as catalysts for change and improvement. Very funny (his frustration with actors is everywhere apparent; “Don’t be so literal!”), interesting, full of weird advice that might make you a better, or more successful, conversationalist or writer. “Transitions are fake.” “All human beings love to suffer … The reason people love to suffer is that it makes them right.” “Mere reality is never enough.” I wish I’d read it before I played Judy in The Designated Mourner.
7. The Uninnocent by Katharine Blake (2021) — I read this in May, during the first trip we took after full vaccination. Feels to me like a book-length essay, inspired largely by the author’s cousin, who had a psychotic break at the age of sixteen, murdered a child, and was sentenced to life without parole. Its approach made me think of the fourth step in AA, the “searching and fearless moral inventory.” It’s about justice, forgiveness, the nature of evil, fear and anger, luck; the people our systems fail and betray — “no room for them down such a narrow way.” Thoughtful and emotional.
8. Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron (2020) — I’d heard a lot of good things about this but especially wanted to read it after hearing her on the Wake Island podcast. It’s an addiction memoir, but from the perspective of the “enabler”/“co-dependent.” Really great writing in here, and so much I related to even though I’ve never had this particular experience. “Just for a day, I want to be the alcoholic. I want a wife.”
9. The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (2020) — A nebulous kind of book that feels like a mix of fiction, memoir, essay, and prose poetry, about sex, sickness, longing, friendship, politics, alienation, full of puzzling little aphorisms and language play, permutations and reversals (“And what will I think of desire. And what will I think. And what will I desire” … “Maybe everything is never everything” … “And then I find a book that I really love, and I talk about it for a while so I won’t seem like I hate everything. In other words, I hate everything.”). My favorite parts are the totally random life questions and interjections: “How is it possible to drop an earring on the floor, and never find it again? Somehow I do this all the time. I guess when you put yourself on the no-call list, that’s how the telemarketers get your number.” “One problem with cooking is there’s always more cooking. I don’t think anyone has ever adequately addressed the question of how it can take so long to do nothing.” “Whenever you think your memory is not as good as it used to be, it’s important to remember there used to be less to remember.” Contrarian, provocative, but also sweet.
10. Out of Nowhere Into Nothing by Caryl Pagel (2020) — Really good, quirky essays with a lot of associative movement, characterized by lists and digression, ekphrasis, fun facts and memorable anecdotes; some are collaged, fragmentary paragraphs, while others are one long wandering paragraph. I think Brian Dillon would like this book.
11. The Woman Who Can’t Forget by Jill Price with Bart Davis (2008) — Jill Price has a very rare condition (in some ways an ability, in some ways a disability) called hyperthymesia or highly specific autobiographical memory (HSAM). People with HSAM remember every single day of their lives in incredible detail, usually starting with a single day in early adolescence. There are only 60 or so known cases, and Jill Price was the first. (Her memories were so unstoppable they were driving her crazy, so she emailed a neuroscientist who studies memory on a whim, and he wanted to meet her.) I think she’s absolutely fascinating, and this book was really well done; it’s in the form of a first-person memoir but it’s about half pop-science.
12. Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947–1963 by Susan Sontag — I’ve been on a journal-reading jag (Woolf, Kafka, Gide), but this is the only one so far I’ve read cover to cover. It’s very fragmentary, which helps, whereas Woolf and Kafka often diarized at length. I loved discovering that both Woolf and Sontag read Gide’s journals and had the same reaction, something like “He’s thinking my thoughts!” (When I mentioned this to J, he said, “That’s how I’ve always felt!”)
13. The Fact of Memory: 114 Ruminations and Fabrications by Aaron Angello (2022) — This book came out of a fascinating process, or practice: Every morning Aaron would wake up at 5:30 a.m. and think about a single word in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, then fill a page in his notebook with prose somehow about or inspired by the word, even the seemingly boring words like “then” and “my.” The result is 114 pages of text, some more like stories or poems and some more like essays, accruing into something like a fractal memoir, full of beautiful memories and details.
14. Stories I Forgot to Tell You by Dorothy Gallagher (2020) — A sweet little book of short essays, in the looking-back-on-life mode, addressed to her late husband.
15. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell (1984) — I’d been saving this for myself for a while. Mitchell is my preferred translator of Rilke, and I love his foreword (“I once showed a psychic friend of mine a late photo of Rilke, and it took her three hours to recover from the glance”). The letters, written between 1903 and 1908, are full of writing and life advice, so if you hate advice, stay away. (Your loss, idiot!) He urges patience (“have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves”) and “trust in what is difficult” and trust in solitude. “Let life happen to you … life is in the right, always.” In the first letter he basically tells one how to write a poem: “write about what your everyday life offers you: describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty — describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself.” That’s it! That’s how you write a poem!
16. One Friday in April by Donald Antrim (2021) — In the tradition of Darkness Visible, this short book (alternatively, a long essay) combines memoir and something like an argument, toward how we should think about suicide. I’m not really convinced that one person’s experience can be generalized out in this way, but still, it’s compelling. One of the most interesting things about it, to me, is that it doesn’t use any section breaks at all. Antrim is comfortable changing the subject and leaping through time at any point using paragraphs alone.
17. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker (1973) — I heard about this book from a Louise Glück poem. It must be having a moment, because all my library’s copies were checked out already, so I bought one. I had the immediate sense that it belongs to the canon of books that, like Hyperobjects and Crowds and Power, explain everything. It’s all about how our motivation in all things is the fear of death, hence we have to align ourselves with some greater symbolic power, a big lie from beyond, that allows us a sense of “cosmic specialness,” allows us to feel heroic, to deny death, to deny our ultimate fate as “complex and fancy worm food.” Religion, in the past, made this easy, providing a ready-made meaning-of-life and assurance of immortality if we followed the rules. Modernity has made it more difficult, more of a figure-it-out-yourself affair, and many of us struggle our whole lives to find (or invent) a kind of meaning we can believe in, to feel like we have some control over nature. Art is one way; for worse people, there’s war. The language and some of the thinking around gender, sexuality, and mental illness is outdated and kind of ~yikes~ but regardless, this is full of good insights and writing and ideas. Really enjoyable in its sweep. Concludes on the limits of psychotherapy: “Not everyone is as honest as Freud was when he said that he cured the miseries of the neurotic only to open him up to the normal misery of life.” Here are some more choice quotes: “Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism performed the ingenious trick of pretending not to want to be reborn, which is a sort of negative magic: claiming not to want what you really want most.” “This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.” “The narcissistic project of self-creation, using the body as the primary base of operations, is doomed to failure.” “Man’s body is a problem to him that has to be explained.” “Full humanness means full fear and trembling.” “In a word, illness is an object … At least it makes us feel real and gives us a little purchase on our fate.” “Neurosis is today a widespread problem because of the disappearance of convincing dramas of heroic apotheosis of man.” “The jump doesn’t depend on man after all — there’s the rub: faith is a matter of grace.” “He has to go the way of the grasshopper, even though it takes longer.” “Life itself is the insurmountable problem.”
1. California by Jennifer Denrow (2011) — I love the California section of this book, a long poem about unsolvable longing (the word that came to mind, for some reason, was “solveless”). “I need to arrive at something … I write California in the air.”
2. Waterbaby by Nikki Wallschlaeger (2021) — There’s a lot of formal and stylistic range in here, but somehow Nikki sounds like Nikki whether the lines are song-like or in prose, whether she’s being quite direct (“When you keep repeating a lie / people will accept it as truth”; “I drag my body around lovingly”) or almost willfully unparseable in a way that makes me think of Glissant’s idea of opacity; some of these poems use a syntax that operates outside the sentence, with these great word pile-ups that I feel are sort of a poetry-only move: “good & plenty different worlds / tearjerkers crybabies they got no memories / of their own cruelty waterlogged lifesickness.” “muscle tantrum lantern time.” “In a mountain slurry. In a / basic foam hotel.”
3. Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov (2021) — Very enjoyable, heavily Frank O’Hara-influenced collection in love with moments and New York City and cyclical ephemerality (many of the poems are named after months), full of exuberance and wistfulness and cute exclamation points. The poet is present as a self-referential persona. I especially like the last long poem, written over the course of two years in the back of different cabs. “Once I was 19 / and now I’m 33 …. When I was younger / all I wanted was to be taken seriously. / A serious poet! Why not. / Now I realize being taken seriously / is as arbitrary as how long you live. / I would gladly trade wisdom for youth.” Risks corniness at times, but truly wins me over with its charms.
4. Edinburgh Notebook by Valerie Mejer Caso, translated by Michelle Gil-Montero (2020) — A book about grief, and writing through grief, but not exclusively; these poems (translated from Spanish) remind me of the French surrealists, and of Rilke; they are sometimes ekphrastic and sometimes feel faux ekphrastic, as if describing paintings in dreams. “The masts tilt, / pendulums deviling time. / Now isn’t the time to write you a letter. / We have to live as if one of us died.” I wrote more about it here.
5. Survival Is a Style by Christian Wiman (2020) — Sometimes what I get from poetry is the novelty of language from another person’s mind, which is so specific it almost isn’t English, or is at least an unfamiliar dialect. I especially liked the long poem “The Parable of Perfect Silence”: “Walk away, and unlearn the instinct of awe. / Walk along, and learn to believe that awe asks nothing of you” … “To see that image you have to be that sky. / It has to happen in you, that crushing, calling viewless blue / so deeply in you that it is not you” … “It is another country. / It is a language I don’t know. / La por alla, la por alla, I repeat in my sleep. / The over there.”
6. The Joy and Terror Are Both in the Swallowing by Christine Shan Shan Hou (2021) — I like these poems, they have a gauzy mood, like sheer pink fabric thrown over a lamp; a little aloof. “I can get down naked on all fours and be the woman who says yes / Even though I am the woman who says no.”
7. Be With by Forrest Gander (2018) — Gorgeous grief poems. “At which point my grief-sounds ricocheted outside of language … At which point I conceived a realm more real than life.”
8. The Life by Carrie Fountain (2021) — Wryly wise poems about motherhood, the profundity of banality, everyday epiphanies. “My children // are so young they cannot imagine a world / like the one they live in.”
9. Twice Alive by Forrest Gander (2021) — Very different subject matter here than in Be With; there’s an afterword that explains the influence of Sangam poetics: “Nature corresponds with the inner landscape of the individual” … “The exterior precisely relates to the one who beholds it.” There’s an interesting tension, then, between interior contentment and exterior wasteland (e.g. the California wildfires). Plays also with Whitman’s conception of “merging” (the luckiness of death).
10. The Essential Muriel Rukeyser (2021) — Selected by Natasha Tretheway, with an emphasis on Rukeyser’s political work, on poetry as activism. She wrote some personal poems, poems about love and sex and motherhood, but she only really seems fired up when she’s writing about power and war and suffering. “The past deep in the bone.” “The gift is torment.”
11. The Essential June Jordan (2021) — More 20th century activist poetry, different press (the title format is a coincidence). Jordan can be vengeful and violent in her poems about anti-Black violence (“from now on my resistance / my simple and daily and nightly self-determination / may very well cost you your life”), and yet is also so loving and lovable. She had a way with an exclamation point. (“How lucky I am / I got food stamps. Hot damn!”) I wrote about this, and the Rukeyser, here.
12. The Comedown by Justin Marks (2020) — Funny-sad poems about marriage, working, writing, parenthood, vanity and shame (“Look at me / like I’m important / I’m neither important / nor should you look at me”), the general struggling-through. Goes down easy, not too worked over (“Nothing is good / unless it’s undeniably great / is an idea I’m trying to escape”).
13. FuturePanic by Amish Trivedi (2021) — This catalogue of time anxieties is oddly fun to read, considering its bleakness, but then I always enjoy confronting the void. “There was time / that was not time.” “Future memory / is present panic.” “Space is a negation / of being, time a negation of space, nothingness / a negation of time, consciousness a negation / of nothingness.” “All of time has already happened.” “And at night / we imagine the world as it is: without / us.” “There is a future / that is not for me and a present / that goes right up to it.”
14. Embarrassments by Graham Foust (2021) — There’s so often a garden-path-ness to Foust’s sentences, like you think you’re going one way, but then you get confused. This is something I look for in poetry: useful confusion. “Being being but loosely / based on itself, // its hums are part / of the quiet over time.”
15. Returning the Sword to the Stone by Mark Leidner (2021) — Bounces around between cute, hilarious, and profound. “Life is long for a brief time / then brief for a long time.” “You can’t have your cake and eat it too / but you can always not have it / and never eat it either.” This poem actually made me cry laughing.
16. Wings in Time by Callie Garnett (2021) — I loved these poems, which refer to themselves a few times as “scrappy,” meaning both, I think, resourceful/tough, and fashioned from scraps. (I like the way the word “scrappy” connotes crappiness, jankiness, but in an affectionate way.) Somehow free but exact; you really feel this book came out of a specific mind. On my list of “good pandemic books.”
17. Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer (2021) — Excellent, especially the first section, a series of elegies that sound like Rilke, Celan, Inger Christensen. “Oh body, where are you going, / body of the earth, lost / double, lost copy of the body / mute body of yesterday / in tomorrow’s shredded cloth?” They’re about confronting the end, the end of one’s own time and time in general, about repetition (“This is why, each day, when I return / to the illegible page // I must begin again / from the beginning”; “Let us begin, let us begin again / not from the beginning but from the end”) and the paradox of poetry, its ability to say the unsayable, to exist and yet remain unsaid, the utility of futility. “When I think of ‘possible worlds,’ I think not of philosophy, but of elegy. And impossible worlds. Resistant worlds.” “And so your final poems: / that almost wordless // triumph of nothingness / over death.” “Never beg for mercy / from the poem, / since it can offer none. // Do not ask / what language it speaks, / since the answer is none.”
18. Alphabet by Inger Christensen, translated by Susanna Nied (1981) — It’s hard to believe this book is translated, because it sounds so good in English: “early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought; / seclusion and angels exist; / widows and elk exist; every / detail exists; memory, memory’s light” … “the darkness / is white, say the children, the paradise-darkness is white” … “ice ages exist, ice ages exist // where like a bit of fire the insects’ wingless / Nike exists, neither victor nor / defeat, just the solace of nothing; / the solace of names, that nothing has / a name, namelessness has a name.” Feels like a clear antecedent to so much climate poetry being written now but so much better than most of it.
19. Blood on the Fog by Tongo Eisen-Martin (2021) — Reminiscent of June Jordan in their near-embrace of violence, these poems have a kind of powerful ambivalence about what effect they might have in the world; they are very aware of being poems. The language is visionary, sometimes trance-like. “It takes a violent middle man for me to talk to myself” … “I wore a machete all winter and no one asked me what it meant … What I do is fight poems” … “I’m sorry to make you relive all of this, Lord … Lord, is that my revolver in your hand?” … “A non-future dripping with real people / I mean, real people … Not poem people” … “Words like a needle in a stack of throats” … “Falsifying my first solo on this stage / on this rickety enemy-ness / Ladies and Gentlemen, here to make some warmongering of your night” … “I am weak first / Before anything, I am weak” … “Has the poem started yet? / I will tuck your shirt into the earth” … “there goes the poet — killing without killing — don’t mind this …” I want to cross out the back cover copy claiming these as “clear-eyed takes on race and class.” Poems aren’t takes. But what they can do is rewire and re-activate our thinking by using nothing like the rote language we are so used to hearing in speech and in prose. It can jolt us out of familiar patterns, back into actual thinking. (Maybe all clichés are thought-terminating clichés.)
20. Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück (2021) — A very slender book, just fifteen poems, suffused with a sense of reluctance, even exhaustion, as though language and material were almost exhausted. “Where did you go next, after those days, / where although you could not speak you were not lost?” I have the sense that Glück’s best work is behind her and she knows it, that she is tired of poetry — but one never really knows anything! I wrote more about this, and her work in general, in my column.
21. Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück (2014) — I think Glück assumed her final form (a poet of the void) with Averno, and this is almost as good, super dark and cold like I like her. It’s different, more in the voice of fictive personas, but not, as in some earlier work, Greek goddesses or garden flowers; many are in the voice of a man who paints, and they remind me in some obscure way of Ishiguro novels. “I stood awhile in the dark, the cigarette glowing and growing small, each breath patiently destroying me. How small it was, how brief. Brief, brief, but inside me now, which the stars could never be.”
22. A Symmetry by Ari Banias (2021) — I liked this a lot. One of those books that really highlights the possibilities that open when you break a line. It’s not like chess; in poetry your next move can be anything.
23. Against Silence by Frank Bidart (2021) — Interesting to read alongside Glück’s latest (“though I speak I am silent,” Bidart writes); I love late work, older poets. And I love Bidart’s use of caps: “You are trying to rescue poetry, WORDS, art itself, all these chiseled / lurches.” “But natural / pity // soon ends / when what pity unleashes in CHAOS.”
24. The Vault by Andres Cerpa (2021) — Beautiful, open, spacious poetry that evokes a real sense of lived-through time, of time as a problem to solve over and over. “Nowhere compiles with precision / like dust into books.” “I want the past like a harvest again.” “I couldn’t draw my own face if god asked.” “I feel old / like I’ve only been alive today.” Elegiac and clean and cold, and reminds me of Robert Lowell saying of Plath’s last poems that they make one feel almost all other poetry is about nothing.
25. The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void by Jackie Wang (2021) — This is great, working in a kind of combination of the vivid surrealist, fabulist, scary-funny dream logic of James Tate poems and something more argumentative, theory-laced, dialectical, like Anne Boyer. The poems use oneiromancy as a strategy because “interpretation itself is always strategic … politically and personally enabling.” Here dreams are spaces of radical possibility, and as in the real world, the possibilities are sometimes magical and sometimes nightmarish (“You have put yourself at the center of the battle of cosmic forces and lowered your sword. // Because you were willing to die, you will be spared. // But . . . // But.”) and sometimes both (“In the dream I was someone clear-headed and focused under pressure. The problem didn’t consume me; all there was to do was solve it.”). “Yes, we are all living by three tempos: party, catastrophe, and limerence.”
26. A Dangerous Place by Chelsea B. DesAutels (2021) — Very good poems about life-threatening illness and, notably, life, the beautiful terrible thing that is threatened. “For many reasons, I am afraid of nearness … During cancer I pray to an unfamiliar God. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.” “You’d think almost dying would make every minute count. It doesn’t.” “I’ve understood twice when to love someone back. Once it was not too late.”
27. After Lorca by Jack Spicer (1957) — In the intro to this new edition from NYRB, Peter Gizzi describes these poems as a mix of “creative translations” and “fake translations.” These are intercut with letters to Lorca, little essay-missives about poetics, which are my favorite part of the book, along with the absurdist play-poem “Buster Keaton Rides Again: A Sequel”: “(No one rides by on a bicycle. The corridor is quite silent.)” Pairs beautifully with Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. “A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer.” “At the base of the throat is a little machine / Which makes us able to say anything.”
Favorite novel: For sheer enjoyment, it has to be Crossroads, sorry!
Favorite nonfiction: For the telling-me-how-to-live, I-need-it: Letters to a Young Poet and The Denial of Death.
Favorite poetry: I wrote about some of my 2021 faves here. Also really loved Alphabet and Faithful and Virtuous Night.
Happy new year!