KR Holiday Reading Recommendations
Each year we ask KR’s friends and contributors for their holiday reading recommendations. Some sent us suggestions about books they’ve enjoyed this year; others told us about favorite novels, classics they couldn’t live without, or books that changed their lives. We’ve made a selection, just in time for the holidays:
From KR Editors, Staff, and Trustees . . .
David Lynn, Editor
Thanks to old friend and KR re-founding editor, Ron Sharp, I’ve discovered the Australian author Alex Miller. Lauded both Down Under and in Europe, Miller has largely been ignored by American publishers. This mystifies me. I started with the novel Landscape of Farewell, and it is an astonishing achievement. Something of J. M. Coetzee, mixed with Patrick White, and yet entirely his own voice as well. I strongly recommend getting your hands on one of his novels, somehow.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. A remarkable first novel. I hesitate, our culture still recovering from Harry Potter immersion, to recommend a book full of magic, but this is wonderful fun aimed at grown ups.
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Overwhelming—reminds you of how great Russian novels convey a sweep across history and continents, but then swoop to the smallest gesture in a dacha, a pungent odor in a village, the gallop of Cossacks attacking protestors on a city street.
The Yellow Birds: A Novel by Kevin Powers, Little Brown. Recommended to me by inveterate reader Bob Hallinan, this extraordinary first novel paints a vivid and disturbing picture of a common soldier’s experience fighting in Iraq. Beautifully written and harrowing, it shifts back and forth between the horrors of brutality and casual death in a desert city and the lush but alienating splendors of rural Virginia after he returns home spiritually broken.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor
At this time of year, I find myself anticipating the pleasures of spending the holidays with new books, rather than recommending books it seems everyone has already devoured. This year, I’m looking forward to Louise Erdrich’s new novel, The Round House, which recently won the National Book Award for Fiction, along with another nominee, This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz. Also on my shelf, Alice Munro’s Dear Life: Stories and Carl Phillips’ Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems 1986-2006. I’m also looking forward to books coming out early in the new year from poets whose work I’ve come to love: Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, due out from Graywolf in February, along with first books by KR’s two poetry fellows, Natalie Shapero’s No Object, due out this winter from Saturnalia, and Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers’ Chord Box, coming out from University of Arkansas Press in February.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson (Wave Books, 2009). A lyrical essay that is alternately abstract and razor sharp, the 240 entries in Bluets are not unlike a meadow bloomed blue: concentrated and diffuse, scatter-shot and teeming. Like any field, it works both at a distance and up close, with the intensity of nearness. The entries span the spectrum of emotions, from the ecstatic to a fierce and lonely sadness. A coterie of color-thinkers helps orient: Wittgenstein, Gertrude Stein, and Goethe all make appearances. Bluets is both a field report and an experience. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, and I’m happy that I did.
David Baker, Poetry Editor
So many excellent new books of poetry and so little time. But I have been reading and returning to Linda Gregerson’s The Selvage for the past month, grateful for both her social sense and lyric sense—her family and neighbors alongside Dido and Masaccio, the beautiful dense textures of her language and lines. Dean Young’s Bender: New & Selected Poems takes me, page after page, as he says, to “a new place!” But the most powerful and thrilling books to me, just now, are Adrienne Rich’s Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 and Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012. In these two books we have the work of truly essential poets, gathered in volumes that feel nearly eternal. Glück’s book in particular seems like an achievement equal in stature to Lowell, even to Stevens. It may be one of the most significant collections of American poetry in the last fifty years.
Caitlin Horrocks, Fiction Editor
T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty is an incredibly smart book, but I don’t want to make it sound airless. The essay unfolds in prose poems, revealing a web of connections between various places, lovers, identities, and art works. Surprising, beautiful echoes and juxtapositions keep emerging on reading and re-reading.
I’ve been on a Margaret Atwood kick recently, for a course I’m teaching this semester; I’ve enjoyed revisiting her novels, but I’ve fallen in love with her poetry. There are a dozen books and fifty years of it, but I began with her Selected Poems 1965-1975.
Geeta Kothari, Nonfiction Editor
Even though I’m allergic to cats and prefer dogs, I will be reading Peter Trachtenberg’s Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons, which appears to be about his search for his missing cat, Biscuit, but is really about love in its various forms. I heard him read from the book the other night, and it’s witty, smart, and elegant. That’s the new book; the old book will be The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. I like most of the books in the Wolves series, but this is the one I return to regularly. Snow, wolves, a wicked stepmother, and orphans on the run make this the perfect Christmas morning read.
Anna Duke Reach, Director of Programs
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg centers around Edie, the family matriarch who is eating herself to death. As she moves from comfort eating to obesity, family members react differently to her. Attenberg captures these differences by moving between family members revealing the love, pain, humor, and compassion of ordinary life. I ate up every word, especially the plans for a themed B’nai Mizvah with a choreographed dance routine.
A classic I adore is Anna Karenina. Tolstoy captures my attention in new ways with each reading. At age eighteen, I was wholeheartedly devoted to Anna’s romantic imagination and Levin’s spiritual rants. Ten years later, I read it after getting married and the relationships between couples most intrigued me. A decade and three children later, my mother’s heart cried for Anna’s loss in a way I’d not known before. My next rereading was with a book group (pre-Oprah’s selection of this title), and each person in the group had a different favorite character. If only I’d used a different highlighter color with each rereading. Time to return to my battered book and brace myself for the new movie.
Abigail Serfass, Associate Managing Editor
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies rocketed to the top of my best-books-ever list after I discovered it this fall. This swashbuckling, rip-roaring tale of disparate souls drawn together by loss, love, hope, and the call of adventure, is both a fascinating history lesson and, quite simply, a thrilling story, well told. His follow-up, the second in the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke, is wildly different in tone and topic. Ghosh explores the city of Canton in the year 1838 from seemingly every angle at a fleeting moment in history. This book did not enthrall me like Sea of Poppies while I was reading it, but the city of Canton and its colorful inhabitants stayed with me for days and weeks after I finished. I can’t wait to see how Ghosh will end the trilogy.
Marosa di Giorgio’s Diadem: Selected Poems (BOA Editions), translated by Adam Gianelli, is one of the most unapologetically oneiric volumes of poetry I have ever encountered. It shimmers between moments of half-perceived beauty and terror, but what abides (in subtle, disquieting ways) is its sheer lyric strangeness. I’ve also been enjoying Bruce Beasley’s Theophobia, Craig Morgan Teicher’s To Keep Love Blurry, and Mary Ruefle’s superb Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. And anyone who missed Cole Swensen’s Gravesend earlier in the year should check it out: even if you’ve not loved Swensen’s other work, this one might delight you.
Zach Savich, Book Review Editor
Oni Buchanan’s third collection of poetry, Must a Violence (University of Iowa Press, 2012), vividly illuminates the “quality of air surrounding the brink.” Its rapt flashes of humor (“A cupcake will not solve this”) and supple formal alternations support Buchanan’s singular vision. “Somebody could build your house / with both ends open,” Buchanan writes; her poems provide a similarly hospitable and capacious view. For a vantage that is equally urgent, if more nonchalant, the luminous conjectures in Emmanuel Hocquard’s The Invention of Glass (Canarium Books, 2012) turn formal logic into a form of wonder. Hocquard’s poetry is clever—he insists that poetry offers a variety of physics—but it also takes intent pleasure in noting “peacocks / and bags near the fountain,” in the sensual recognition of “beyond the windshield / yellow fields even.” His collection is translated by Rod Smith and Cole Swensen. This year, I was glad to also have Cole Swensen’s Gravesend (University of California Press, 2012) as a companion, along with Elizabeth Robinson’s Counterpart (Ahsahta, 2012), Stanley Plumly’s Orphan Hours (Norton, 2012), S. E. Smith’s I Live in a Hut (CSU Poetry Center, 2012), and the essays and tales in Dan Beachy-Quick’s Wonderful Investigations (Milkweed Editions, 2012). 2013, I happily await your books.
Daniel Torday, Book Review Editor
I’ve been on a big ol’ nonfiction reading kick of late. To that end, I’ve sure been enjoying Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, which is what its subtitle says it is, while also being whip-smart and whip-funny. Then I recently started Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. Again—see the subtitle. Finally, because I have a penchant for the strange, I’ve been digging into Albert Goldbarth’s essay collection Great Topics of the World. I’ve long taught his masterpiece of an essay, “Delft”—which I’ve only just discovered was first published in KR—and finding time to read more of Goldbarth’s essays has been hugely rewarding. Great Topics is out of print, but you can find Goldbarth’s essays now in Many Circles: New and Selected Essays, published by Graywolf. Worth every cent.
Hilary Plum, KR Consulting Editor
Noy Holland has been essential to me throughout my life as a reader and writer, or life aspiring to be reader and writer, I should say, since I don’t know in what form I’d be either without her work. I’m thrilled to say that she has a new collection of stories just out this fall, Swim for the Little One First, and it’s one to spend years with. Holland’s fiction excavates that deep place in mind and marrow where the impulse toward sound and the impulse toward story are not yet distinct. No one writes sentences like she does; no one writes people like she does. This is a book to keep close, to let under your skin.
This fall I also for the first time read Etel Adnan’s classic The Arab Apocalypse, as relevant and wondrous and harrowing now as it was when first published twenty years ago. If you don’t know it yet, track down a copy. I’ve also been happily losing myself in the collection of five Fanny Howe novels, Radical Love, which Nightboat Books published a few years back—wonderful to have so many rich years of her work in one volume.
Published several decades ago and recently re-released, Stephanie Vaughn’s Sweet Talk (Other Press, 2012) is THE best book of short stories I’ve read in years. I think Vaughn is one of the semi-secret geniuses of her generation. The stories are laughing-out-loud hilarious as well as exquisitely crafted. Vaughn has a deftness of language that makes a poet like me jealous; I wish I could steal all of her similes! “Dog Heaven,” the final story in the book, has been anthologized a number of times, but every story in this collection is a gem. I also plan to use the book for my students next semester, as these stories present endless teaching possibilities.
Natalie Shapero, KR Fellow
If you’re interested in performance art and the story of the American avant-garde, pick up The Journals of Spalding Gray, my favorite book of the past year. These diaries span four decades and three love affairs, and offer a sharp, self-critical account of Gray’s struggle with debilitating depression as he strove to stay honest and engaging on the page and the stage. Plus, no pesky handwriting interpretation controversy (Notebooks of Robert Frost, I’m looking at you). Also, speaking of, I just finished Tamara Plakins Thornton’s Handwriting in America, a nifty overview of penmanship trends and the ideological and technological forces behind them. Finally, for poetry types, winter is a good time for poems suspicious of love. Try the tight, disquieting sonnet sequence about weddings in Carrie Jerrell’s After the Revival, or Rachael Wetzsteon’s angry and astonishing Home and Away.
Andrew David King, KR Blogger
These essays are wholesome: there’s no other way to say it. Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures provides new models for poetics and the lyric essay while situating itself not uncritically between imagination and analysis. Part Annie Dillard, part John Cage, and part Lydia Davis, this book—like much of Ruefle’s poetry—is as sincere (in the least pathetic sense) as it is peripatetic, addressing everything from the moon to Emily Dickinson. Her meditations never approach ponderousness or pedantry, but stay cautiously earnest, tiptoeing from hypothesis to hypothesis as if across a frozen lake. The thrill of these essays is that they never fall in; somehow, and strangely, they improve that which they fracture.
Jack Gilbert passed away several weeks ago, hardly more than half a year after Knopf published his Collected Poems. So much, from the at times Kafkaesque Monolithos to the cutting lines of The Great Fires, is in here. A linear read-through puts Gilbert’s growth on display and again raises the question of why his canonization, if we can call it that, felt so late and lackluster. But this edition, which includes work uncollected elsewhere, has a better shot than any to reaffirm Gilbert’s place alongside his peers in the pantheon.
Other books worth shelf space: Linda Norton’s cross-genre The Public Gardens: Poems and History, full of sharp and anxious writing, delivers on its title while dismantling the notion of autobiography. “All is possible / Sleep’s reason is neutral,” Lyn Hejinian writes in The Book of a Thousand Eyes, at once a serial poem, a collage of disparate thoughts, and a dream diary. The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry by Raymond Barfield snapshots the thorny relationship between art and inquiry, as does Christian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev’s less recent (1916) and, it seems, vanished volume The Meaning of the Creative Act. M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong! tests the respective allegiances of history and philosophy to morality.
I could not live without Waguih Ghali’s classic Beer in the Snooker Club, for its brilliantly funny and miserable look at Egypt and the UK in the early post-colonial years. Recently, I’ve loved Khaled Khalifa’s dense and insightful In Praise of Hatred (trans. Leri Price) and Sonallah Ibrahim’s spare, moving Stealth (trans. Hosam Aboul-ela). For a Christmas present with wide appeal, Jurji Zaidan’s thirteenth-century historical novel, Tree of Pearls, Queen of Egypt, is finally out in a fantastic translation.
Jake Adam York, KR Blogger
I’ve got three books on my reading table I’m planning on re-reading this season.
The first is Katrina Vandenberg’s The Alphabet Not Unlike the World (Milkweed 2012). You may have seen poems from this book on Poetry Daily or Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. This book stands out in the shelves of thin volumes as it’s not an arrangement of poems that serve as settings for a few gems: every poem, it seems, is a standout. I read it in one sitting. Once my grades are in, I’ll sit down and read it again.
The second is Skinny, by Carolyn Hembree (Kore Press 2012), a manic “autobiography” of the eponymous character Skinny who seems to pull apart the language (and the world) around her. The book has rhythm and force. Imagine H.D. or Anne Bradstreet reincarnated as a punk-rock goddess and remixing John Berryman’s The Dream Songs through a finely distorted amplifier while spinning cuts of Leontyne Price on a DJ kit—but, you know, recorded as a poem. This one will keep you up.
The third is Adam Vines’ The Coal Life (University of Arkansas 2012). Vines returned to Alabama a few years back and dramatically relaunched Birmingham Poetry Review. The energy that remade BPR was original energy that cycles through these finely wrought poems. Vines has the hands of a formalist and the ears of a linguist; he combines his skills to drill back into Alabama’s coal country in some of the most beautifully haunting poems you’ll read this year.
The book I’m reading now that I find really strong is the Vietnam war novel Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It’s very powerful.
Last year I also reread three classic novels by Graham Greene that were absolutely stunning: The End Of The Affair, The Heart Of The Matter (my favorite), and The Power And The Glory. What a master!
Mary Elizabeth Bunzel, KR Trustee
Jim Finn, KR Trustee
Favorite recent read: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz.
Alva Greenberg, KR Trustee
I am in the middle of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews and am absolutely loving it. Not usually a biography reader, but this fleshes out a man we all think we know in surprising ways.
Here’s a quick list of some books I’ve really enjoyed reading in the last year (in no particular order):
The Story of a Marriage (Andrew Sean Greer)
Room (Emma Donoghue)
State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen).
I’m reading Alice Munro’s Dear Life: Stories, and although I’ve read the stories before, they are worth rereading and are even more interesting the second (or third) time around, when you linger over the strange details that bring the stories and characters to life. KROnline published a few of Catherine Barnett’s poems about motherhood, loss, and love, from her recently-published The Game of Boxes (Graywolf), which won the prestigious Academy of American Poets James Laughlin Award. It’s utterly beautiful and completely unsentimental.
And from our Authors . . .
I’ve been reading Last Evenings on Earth by the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño after listening to one of his stories, Gomez Palacio, on the New Yorker podcast. The stories are centred around writers and artists in exile and down on their luck, and have a dreamlike, hypnotic quality, somewhat akin to the sense of detachment in Camus’s L’Etranger. Interesting side note—whenever Bolaño won a short story competition, he’d change the story’s title and send it elsewhere, often winning again with the identical story, a process he captures beautifully in the humorous and poignant “Sensini.”
I’ll select More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon, which forever more put the lie to the notion of the nuclear family, for me, at least. It opened the floodgates to the idea that to be one human requires many other humans who are not at all “blood,” but are the collective ingredients that make one being more than any single entity related by blood. Thus, to be more than human requires the head, the heart, the hands, the psyche, and more. Thanks to that book—my beliefs in the “so called” tribe, or traditional family as the basis for unity—came into question, and I’ve lived with and “in” the question ever since. A good thing.
I would recommend Lidija Dimkovska’s pH Neutral History (Copper Canyon Press) because Lidija Dimkovska is fearless, asking: “To dig out what is live in my writing / do I have to bury those living in the world?”
Lightsey Darst’s Find the Girl is a book I return to again and again. Darst’s poems are haunted by fairy tale heroines, mythical women, dead girls, and a CSI investigator obsessed with finding those girls. Darst’s broken, beautiful fragments don’t offer easy narratives or simple solutions. Rather, her polyphonic poems stutter and gasp, trying to express what it means to come of age in a place that is, in many ways, quite dangerous for women.
Carol Ann Davis
A Giacometti Portrait, James Lord. This is a fascinating book that chronicles the interval of time that James Lord sat for a portrait with Alberto Giacometti. Lord surreptitiously notes down in longhand Giacometti’s sometimes funny, sometimes tortured remarks about process, and suspense develops about when, if ever, the enterprise will conclude. A must-read for anyone interested in the process of composition.
Blue Shadow Behind Everything Dazzling, Gail Wronsky. One of my all-time favorite books of poetry; I carried it everywhere with me for two years (no joke) after I purchased it. Poems that shimmer with real questions, about beauty, identity, existence, all while bathed in the literal of her surroundings. Find it.
Mary Ruefle: Madness, Rack, and Honey. A great book of essays by a great poet.
Patrick deWitt: The Sisters Brothers. A laugh-out-loud western that’s a joy to read.
Jean-Claude Izzo: The Marseilles Trilogy. This neo-noir trilogy rises above the conventions of the genre.
Masterpieces I could not live without? O dear. The line is long. But let us sing a few: The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary (an Irish guy), the single best novel I ever read (Ulysses would be first there but it’s too long by about a fifth, and who cares about Ulysses in Nighttown anyway, that should have been cut by the editor, where was that man’s editor?). Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, and his essay collection The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays, O my God what an essayist, even better than Hazlitt and Montaigne. One Man’s Meat by Elwyn Brooks White who ought to be accounted one of the finest writers in American history not only for his immortal fiction but his top-notch essays. The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor whom we ought to just admit is the finest female writer we ever had, all due respect to Annie Dillard and Willa Cather and Cynthia Ozick. Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, a note-perfect lean book that amazes me every time I read it. Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton, the greatest modern Australian novel, I think, all due respect to David Malouf and Helen Garner. Guests of the Nation, by the Irish short story master Frank O’Connor, and any collection from Mary Lavin, both of whom I think are so much better writers than the alpine Beckett, who beat a cool small idea to death over the course of many similar and repetitive and deliberately dull books, let us call a spade a spade. And while we are on the topic of spades, let us admit that Finnegan’s Wake is absolutely AWFUL, completely inaccessible; it may be a work of philological genius, but as a narrative a reader can savor, understand, and enjoy, it is a roaring and epic failure. Cold fact. But back to the matter at hand: The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick, a tiny masterpiece (as are many of Primo Levi’s books, also about the Catastrophe). Orwell’s essays and journalism. Li Po. Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard and The Tree Where Man was Born. Ian Frazier’s Great Plains. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain novels. Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being and David James Duncan’s God Laughs and Plays and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the three best spiritual books I think I have ever read. Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, of course, which changed the direction of American writing, seems to me. Kathleen Dean Moore’s Riverwalking. Bernard DeVoto’s epic genius historical trilogy of America. Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, a basic text for citizens in the American West. Winter Count by Barry Lopez, another masterpiece. Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, another masterpiece. Pleasures of a Tangled Life by Jan Morris, and Fisher’s Face, by Jan Morris, and Letters from Hav, by Jan Morris, maybe the second-greatest novel I ever read. For Oregonians like me, Ken Kesey’s soaring Sometimes a Great Notion and of course the American masterpiece Cuckoo’s Nest. A tiny amazing book by Jack Kerouac, Visions of Gerard, about his brother, the one perfect example of Kerouac unadorned, unperforming, unstoned, unshowingoff. Any five Joseph Conrad novels. No Dickens. All of Chekov’s stories and none of his plays. Thoreau’s Cape Cod. Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday and The Log From the Sea of Cortez. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Hemingway’s stories but not his novels. William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness. Mark Harris’s baseball novels. Bernard Darwin’s golf writing. Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. Capote’s The Thanksgiving Visitor. Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues. Mary Oliver, Pattiann Rogers, William Blake, Tom Stoppard, I must stop, I cannot stop, I’ll stop.
For a classic, I’ll recommend Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy. In the story, a wealthy, young Bostonian named Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in the utopia of the Year 2000 where all of society’s ills have been cured. In Bellamy’s fantasy, nineteenth-century Boston patriarchs lead a revolution from above by deciding that the capitalist system is untenable and unsustainable. Money, in the future, ceases to exist. Or, rather, all citizens regardless of occupation make the same amount of it. And everyone retires at age forty-five. Looking Backward doesn’t score high on prose style or narrative suspense, but its central theme, the inequality of class, is radical and provocative enough to make the novel, despite its shortcomings and outlandishness, still worth reading.
I’m reading two poetry collections I highly recommend:
Horse in the Dark, by Vievee Francis, winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize. More than a book about race or place or even her notion of self, here’s Francis describing the impetus for this, her second collection, to the National Book Critics Circle last month: “Horse in the Dark began as a personal investigation of self and place. I don’t openly discuss “skin” in terms of tone in the book. I don’t have to. The gaze upon me as an African American and as an African American has never been “real” or consistent, thus, never of true value to me. I demanded more from my own gaze back. I wanted to take the notion of skin a step farther into a play of skin as hide, as material: hair shirt and crocker sack, as a firmer boundary that I might mark and then, un-seam.”
The second poetry collection that has blown me away this year is The Game of Boxes by Catherine Barnett, published by Graywolf Press. These compressed, yet striking poems afforded me that reading experience that I live for, when I am literally breathless with delight.
My holiday reading recommendation: Michael Kimball’s new novel, Big Ray (Bloomsbury). In his blurb for the book, Madison Smartt Bell says that he’s never read anything like it, and I’d have to agree. As a novel, Big Ray has an honesty and a forthrightness of approach which are unusual and which serve to establish, for me at least, an intense and personal connection, like I feel in the best nonfiction. But this isn’t nonfiction. The ambition on display in Kimball’s book is pretty clearly novelistic. His subjects are big ones: what it is, what it means, to live in a body. I’m feeling grateful for the experience of these pages.
For younger readers, or just those young and gloomy at heart, Billy Fog is a graphic novel I bill as Edward Gorey meets Calvin & Hobbes. The death of Billy’s beloved pet cat Tarzan sends him on a quest to “find out the secret of death.” He’s convinced that if anyone knows, it must be Santa, since he’s been around so long, and writes him a letter demanding the secret for Christmas. There’s a nice balance of the gruesome and the cheery. Author Guillaume Bianco tells this story not only through traditional comics pages with panels and speech balloons, but regular excerpts from a Quibbler-type “Gazette of the Bizarre,” macabre Shel-Silverstein-type poems, and entries from Billy’s own imagined bestiary (which includes ghosts, boogeymen, monstrous insects, and even kid sisters). It’s a tremendous feat of world-building, not only graphically but verbally inventive—Bianco’s knack for wicked ostentation and morbid understatement come through not only in his pictures but his prose. Slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails—these are all present, along with princesses that sprout from squmkins, super-hoodies, vegetarian vampiresses, murderous moppets, Maupassant, Ouija boards, and seamstresses who put their eyes out with scissors.
I set a goal to read the three final novels (those completed) of Henry James this year—those of the late phase: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. Now I’m a quarter of the way into the last and though they are by no means beach reads, they are along with Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, and William H. Gass, the most rewarding works composed in English I’ve ever read. The narrators (all third-person) of these last books ignite the consciousnesses of every important character so that every emotional possibility is covered. The plots are fraught with complication—in the last two, couples who are in love but who lack the money to live comfortably marry (or plan to marry) other well-to-do people so their value will rise and leave them in an advantageous position should their marriage falter. And the sentences? “He was allying himself to science, for what was science but the absence of prejudice backed by the presence of money?”
Louise Glück’s book of essays, Proofs and Theories, also delights. These rigorous pieces focus on poetry, but they explicate the creative act and the emotion of living with a unique care and emphasis on syntax and diction. Wonderfully hewn works of art, they speak to anyone’s life situation regardless of vocation. I am also re-reading her stunning 1993 book Wild Iris and soon will start the just released Poems 1962-2012 and go over all her poems again.
It is a blessing to have the poet Mary Ruefle around. Her book of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, is in the vein of Glück’s. In the brief introduction, Ruefle states unequivocally, “my allegiance to poetry, to art, is greater than my allegiance to knowledge and intelligence, and that stance is harder and harder to maintain in today’s world, because knowledge and intelligence form the corporate umbrella (the academy) that shelters and protects poetry in a culture that cares about other things.” She reminds us that we come to people through words, their personalities residing in their sentences, and as we get closer to a writer we get into her thoughts and reside with her. It’s intimate, it’s shocking, it’s a miracle—that’s why people who know the pleasure of words continually seek that feeling out. There is no other pleasure like it, this link to another human being who has found sentences to share a wisdom that is not in love with its own importance.
In Dreaming in French, Alice Kaplan intimately relates the American study abroad experiences of Jaqueline Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, which span the period of post-German occupation in France when Kennedy arrived through the loss of Algeria, complete by the time that Davis left. Kaplan illustrates each woman’s life in Paris and signals when their stories brush up against each other. You get the sense that although these women were there at different times, they nod to one another, having shared both the streets of Paris and the pages of Kaplan’s book.
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. This is by far my favorite book. More people have heard of it than read it, and more people have read it than understood it, but Nightwood is a book that rewards you for the time and energy it demands. At first glance, it may appear baffling: the sentences lush and delaying the subject, the main character in the continual process of leaving, the structure patterned around the presence of that character’s absence. I love it for these reasons, and for so many others.
The Letters of Hildegard von Bingen (Volume I) and The Letters of Heloise & Abelard. I’ll assume most people have heard of Heloise and Abelard and know the story well enough. I’ll assume also that Hildegard von Bingen is a new name to most people, and I find that particularly exciting. Recently named a Saint and a Doctor of the Church, she was in her time one of the most prominent visionaries and theologians, and her letters show her chastising bishops and giving council to the Pope. Most striking for a lay audience (which includes myself) is a set of letters between Hildegard and the Archbishop of Bremen, whose sister Richardis was a nun in the abbey Hildegard founded. The Archbishop’s letter gives you the sense that the girl died young of a broken heart, having been taken away from Hildegard against her will, and Hildegard’s response to that news is at once magnanimous and full of sorrow. In it, you can see the depths of their devotion to each other—which was passionate and absolute, if not sexual. It’s well worth the read.
Rachel Poliquin’s The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012) is a seductive balance of taxidermy scholarship and poetic meditation. Although Poliquin gears her work on animal studies toward the general reader, I believe poets will find her allusions and meditations especially resonant. After all, one might ask, aren’t lyric poets and taxidermists after the same thing: to stop time? Storytelling and taxidermy have much in common, Poliquin suggests, as she develops the seven “narratives of longing” that shape people’s creations of stuffed beasts: “wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory, and remembrance.” Each of the book’s seven chapters explores a particular longing, including such examples as a preserved kitten with eight legs, the bizarrely anthropomorphized critters of Victorian dioramas (like the “squirrel cowboy” on display at a Wisconsin funeral home), a nineteenth-century glass-fronted hummingbird case, and the contemporary animal art of Iris Schieferstein in which the artist stitches together composite animal parts to make visually arresting yet disturbing chimeras. Poliquin asks, provocatively: “What does it mean to be dead but not gone?”
Volt by Alan Heathcock. These stories are haunting, vivid, and gritty, yet tender. Beautiful attention to detail and lyrical language.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. This compilation of advice is a gem. Sugar’s distinct voice is edgy, sincere, and sometimes funny, but mostly profoundly wise and heartbreakingly spot on about the challenges and choices we face as humans.
The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant—which someone else has surely recommended by now—is a wonder. His detail-filled story about “corn likker” runners in Virginia’s Franklin County in the 1930s is spellbinding, his writing lyrical, descriptive, and sensible. Be prepared, however, for the awful realization that may come to you as it did to me: very few of us can write this well.
At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch, gives answers to everything that anyone might have ever want to know about the night in pre-Industrial Western Europe. Yes, at times there are a tad too many examples supporting the same point; and yes the author’s academic prose style can be a bit ponderous. Having said that, however, At Day’s Close provides fascinating tidbits about what nighttime meant to Europeans in earlier times and opens windows on our own lingering fears of the dark.
I finally got around to reading the novel Father & Son by Larry Brown. I read it all at once, it gripped me so.
Last year I read engulf—enkindle by Anja Utler, translated from German by Kurt Beals (Burning Deck) and it absolutely changed my poetic worldview. But I see that Dan Rosenberg already reviewed it for you, so I probably don’t need to shill for it. But I think everyone should read it, twice, at least.
I have recently been reading Emily Wilson’s first book The Keep (University of Iowa Press) which wasn’t widely reviewed when it came out, but shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s dense and lyrical, infused with a naturalist worldview that reminds me of a fusion of Dickenson, Niedecker, and Bishop. But it’s starkly original, and threaded through with a scientific vocabulary that works brilliantly alongside the intense poeticism of her verse.
The best two novels I read last year were about cold and dark places, and they are both cold and dark tales, perfect for midwinter. Independent People, a novel by the mid-twentieth century Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness, was published for the first time in 1934 and 1935 and was out of print forever: now the book is available in a Vintage edition (1997). The plot follows the main character, the difficult and pigheaded farmer Bjartur and his family, including his sweet daughter Asta Sollilja who longs for a larger life than the Icelandic farm where they make their home. They battle nature and each other; they remind the reader what magic and courage are; they live in a setting that’s so vividly frigid I put on a sweater to read the ending. I also loved the mesmerizing Caribou Island, by the contemporary American novelist David Vann, published just this year but now available in paperback (Harper Perennial, 2012). Mesmerizing and unforgettable, Caribou Island opens with an argument between a husband and a wife building a cabin in Alaska that is so elemental and terse it feels like an updated outtake from the book of Genesis after that unfortunate apple incident. The rest of the book proceeds with a sustained, suspenseful seriousness that does not preclude humor, toward a riveting, disturbing conclusion. Vann’s characters are likable: it’s both harrowing and ravishing to see them give in to their worst impulses as the expansive landscape provides a background for family drama, the follies of erotic love, and the human struggle against the elements.
During moments of downtime this semester, I’ve been loving Mary Ruefle’s moving/incisive/witty collected lectures in Madness, Rack, and Honey. And I recently sped through (and then re-read) Marcus Wicker’s excellent book of poems Maybe the Saddest Thing, a collection I’d been looking forward to since hearing him read from it this past summer. I’m currently casting about for my winter break novel—ideally something old, slow-moving, and involving snow.
A slim poetry volume at seventy-seven pages, Inger Christensen’s alphabet (translated by Susanna Nied for New Directions) nonetheless seeks to catalog all the varied contents that make up earthly existence. On this journey from “chrome yellow irises” to “cobalt bombs . . . wrapped in their cloaks,” Christensen serves as a kind of unflinching census taker, documenting everything that populates our world, including those very things that threaten the whole. Her poems, modeled in length after Fibonacci’s Sequence, rattle with authority and startling urgency, and continuously remind me of the vast scope of poetry: “a magnificent crystalline sphere / of minuscule steps.”
I recently read Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana and Jessica Fisher’s Inmost, both of which have haunted me with their musicality and deftly woven narratives. I’m also very excited for Cleopatra Mathis’s Book of Dog, due out in January. The poems I’ve read from this collection are unswerving and exact—they completely knocked the wind out of me. And I keep finding myself returning to Inger Christensen’s delightful poetic project, alphabet, which is a perfect book for the turn of the year—reverent, tough, clear-eyed, and renewing.
Mary Ann Samyn
Like many others, I greatly admire the stories of Alice Munro. Her latest collection, Dear Life: Stories, reminds us that it is not only large events that propel us, but also the slightest shifts in awareness that reveal or confirm us. We move from such moments.
Helen Maryles Shankman
“There was something about a fete which drew Arthur Rowe irresistibly, bound him a helpless victim to the distant blare of a band and the knock-knock of wooden balls against coconuts.” This is the opening line of The Ministry of Fear, the first Graham Greene I ever read. It starts out as a thriller, and concludes as a journey into the pain and treachery of the human heart. I’m always reading Graham Greene. Just when you think you know where he’s heading, he takes off in an astonishing, unforeseeable direction. He knows how it feels to be on the outside when everyone else seems to be on the inside. He knows what we are thinking in the darkest nights of our souls. He knows what it means to struggle with faith in a benevolent God. I keep trying to pick a favorite, but it’s just not happening. As soon as I think, The Heart of the Matter, the other ones start nagging at me, The End of the Affair, The Power and the Glory, The Quiet American.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, so exuberant and so bleak, seems about right for a holiday season. I just finished Anthony Madrid’s I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium, 2012): think Berryman’s Dream Songs on the drug of your choice. And I’m making my way through Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a chapter of which first appeared in English in a 1954 issue of The Kenyon Review! I love Auerbach’s generous attention to the works he describes and quotes at length, and every time I put it down it’s mostly just because I want to go read whatever he’s talking about.
Lately I’ve been going for foreign intrigue thrillers of a literary bent. The far reach of the American military-industrial complex. Characters crushed under the weight of history. Highballs and extramarital affairs amid the backdrop of terrorist states, puppet regimes, and napalm-burned jungles. The Names, the most underappreciated of Don DeLillo’s work, is surprisingly good, an espionage novel with a domestic twist. James Axton is a risk analyst living in Athens who doubles as an agent for the CIA, although he’s unaware of this second part, all while trying to earn back the attentions of his wife after she’s escaped to a mysterious Greek isle. A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone. A very engrossing novel that chronicles how a revolution in a Central American banana republic comes together, and falls apart. The best moments come from a sexy nun, Sister Justin, who’s undergoing a crisis of faith and morality while the mission she’s attached to collapses around her. And a more recent one, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, which follows an ensemble cast of characters (including the resurrection of Bill and James Houston from Johnson’s first novel, Angels) and their connection to the renegade Colonel Francis Xavier Sands. Sands is a mythical figure (war hero, OSS officer, played football at Notre Dame for Knute Rockne) and his collapse in Vietnam is as devastating as it is expected.
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