Every Book I Read in 2016, with Commentary

Elisa Gabbert
Dec 31, 2016 · 25 min read

Last year I started keeping track of every book I read in a document, annotating the list with little mini-reviews. I’ve come to really enjoy this practice; it provides a little extra incentive to finish books, gives me a sense of accomplishment, and comes in handy when I need to buy gifts or when people ask for book recommendations.

Some bookkeeping notes: This list (which is organized into nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, each list in the order that I read them, from January to December) only includes books I read in full, from beginning to end. I read parts of a lot of books that I don’t finish (not necessarily because I don’t like the books; sometimes I just don’t feel the need to read the whole thing at that juncture or ever). In particular I rarely read poetry books cover to cover anymore, so that list is the shortest. (For those counting: I read 18 nonfiction books, 29 novels/story collections, and 9 books of poetry.) At the end of the list I’ll share my very favorites, if you want to skip ahead. (But don’t! Read all my delightful and trenchant thoughts!) And here is a link to last year’s list.

NONFICTION

The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger (2009)— This fascinating book about the construction of the self (call it neurophilosophy, maybe) full of phrases like “my ‘soul arm’ or ‘astral limb’” and “the folk-phenomenological ancestor of the notion of a ‘soul’” actually made me want to write poetry again. It also made me want to learn German. It got less fascinating, however, as it went on — the last several chapters are all about “consciousness ethics” and frankly I was much less interested in the ethical implications of “the new consciousness” than I was in the mind-bending weirdness of the science. (Also, this book introduced me to the concept of “metabolic cost” which is a useful way of looking at evolution.)

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)— You probably know what this is basically about; Macdonald, a longtime falconry buff, acquires a pet hawk in a sort of whim of grief after her father’s sudden death. The explicitly griefy parts of this didn’t really move me, but it’s mostly the story of training and getting to know her hawk, Mabel, and that’s all very good, full of interesting description and good hawk vocab. (J’adore jargon & lingo.) Her story parallels and quotes heavily from T.H. White’s The Goshawk (as a mostly closeted “sadist homosexual,” to use the parlance of the time, White got into hawking for similarly escapist reasons); I found those bits very touching.

Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein (2012) — This title is so inelegant, right? It’s also (ironically???) pretty dumbed down; the central idea is good but kind of obvious and he spends too long belaboring it even though the book is quite short. Not a total waste of time though, I learned a few things (mostly from the second half, the case histories; the first half is just long-winded freshman introduction stuff).

The Book of My Lives by Aleksander Hemon (2013) — Get this: When I was almost halfway through this book (a memoir in essays), John told me that the last essay is really sad, about his daughter dying, and that’s what the dedication is about. I flipped back and read the dedication: For Isabel, forever breathing on my chest. I started crying. I HADN’T EVEN READ THE ESSAY YET. Well, the essay made me cry too. Sooooo fucking sad. Some of these pieces (about growing up in Sarajevo, and making a new life in Chicago) descend a bit into a kind of sterile theory-babble, but there are moments of greatness throughout, and the last one is a serious doozy.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce by Bob Stanley (2013) — I did something very out of character and read a nearly 600-page book of music history/criticism from cover to cover. I was really obsessed with it for a couple of days, and loved reading it on the couch with my iPad next to me so I could YouTube recordings of the songs as I read about them. However, unexpectedly, it got less interesting when it got to the pop music of my lifetime (’80s and onward). I learned so much, though, about music scenes from the ’50s to the ’70s; it was kind of a blast.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014)— This isn’t really a book; it’s the transcript of a TED talk, essay length, bound as a little volume. I was curious about it after hearing that every 16-year-old in Sweden would be given a copy. I do think this would make a good introduction to feminism for students. It’s not a historical overview; it’s just a plea for why we (still) need it. (Incidentally, I heard that Jessa Crispin is writing a manifesto-style book called Why I Am Not a Feminist. She has a real baby-out-with-the-bathwater hostility to feminism that makes me nervous; I worry it could be influential in the wrong ways.)

Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater (2000) — A very interesting but also exasperating work of pomo nonfiction; the author seems to be a compulsive liar and documents her history of lying (and her supposed epilepsy) through a bunch of lies. Are the lies even true? (As in, did she ever tell those particular lies?) Does she actually have Munchausen syndrome or is she just pretending? (Can you pretend to have Munchausen syndrome?!) Now I need to read an actual nonfiction book about epilepsy to sort out what was bullshit.

A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence Krauss (2012)— A cosmologist’s explanation of how our universe (or any universe) could arise from “nothing” if we don’t resort to God as an explanation. It’s about the big bang, inflation, expansion, quantum fluctuations, “dark energy,” the multiverse, etc. Very compellingly written, and I generally just eat this kind of stuff up. Note, however, that if you are at all religious (I’m not) you will likely find this book unnecessarily combative.

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning} by Brian Blanchfield (2016) — Holy shit, this title(s), right? I picked this up because of the endorsements on the back (Maggie Nelson, Wayne Koestenbaum, Claudia Rankine), even though I’d just seen a review of it, which I didn’t really read, that called it an example of “the new nonfiction.” (I hate the inclination to call everything new! There is so little new to be done in nonfiction, and who cares.) These short, lyric essays (he’s also a poet) are also all individually subtitled with the same totally unnecessary subtitle (“Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source”), especially unnecessary because of a little prologue note that explains the process: Blanchfield did not “fact-check” himself or otherwise consult any outside sources while writing them. Which is fine, because they are lyric personal essays, not magazine pieces. Anyway, the packaging would lead you to believe the writing is going to be pretentious and over-intellectualized but it’s not; it’s very good, both subtle and approachable. Somewhat like the diary entries in The Folded Clock, each piece begins on a humble, mundane subject, like “owls” or “Sardines” (the children’s game, not the fish), and then turns into a broader meditation (about, say, coming to terms with early queer sexuality). So while I hate the trappings I do recommend the book.

The Last Interview and Other Conversations by Jane Jacobs (2016) — A slim collection of interviews with Jane Jacobs over four decades (Melville House does a series of these). Interesting but seemed to lack context, so may only be interesting to those already pretty familiar with her work. Full of typos.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (2011)— After starting and abandoning many books in a row, I read this one in a few hours on a grayish Saturday after too little sleep. I remember getting all geared up to be sad, the way you try to make the atmosphere scarier by turning off all the lights before you watch a horror movie. It’s about her daughter Quintana’s death and confronting her own mortality. Sad but not as gutting as The Year of Magical Thinking. (I just realized how simian Didion now looks; it’s affecting.)

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm (2007)— I have been hearing good things about Janet Malcolm and initially picked up a book of art criticism that I couldn’t get into, not being familiar with the art in question, but this was very good. She is insightful on both their relationship, their idiosyncrasies and moral failings, as well as Stein’s work (Malcolm cut The Making of Americans into six pieces so that she could manage to read it). Here’s a passage to give you a sense of it:

On November 24, 1952, Alice Toklas wrote to Carl Van Vechten about the death of Basket II, the white poodle she and Gertrude Stein had acquired in 1938 to replace the recently deceased Basket I. “His going has stunned me — for some time I have realized how much I depended upon him and so it is the beginning of living for the rest of my days without anyone who is dependent upon me for anything,” Toklas told Van Vechten, leaving unspoken an obvious parallel: the Toklas-Stein relationship. Stein had been the extra-smart, unruly pet whom Toklas took exemplary care of and upon whose dependence she depended. The hole that Stein’s death left in Toklas’s life was never filled. There was no Gertrude II.

The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward (2016) — Important, tightly edited collection of writing (essays and some poems) about race and racism. My favorites: “Lonely in America” by Wendy S. Walters, which is about confronting slavery (one of the most remarkable endings I’ve run across in years; I taught it in a recent class on expanding the personal essay), and “Black and Blue” by Garnette Cadogan, about “walking while black” or the impossibility of being a black flaneur.

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford (1960)— Interesting memoir to read just before the election; Jessica was a staunch socialist but two of her sisters were not just “Nazi sympathizers,” they actually hung out with Hitler. “Usually the events which make history seem to take an interminable time when one is living through them. Only years later do the essentials appear in perspective, telescoped and summarized in glib phrases for the history books.” Tell me about it.

Spaceman by Mike Massimino (2016) — A memoir, by an astronaut! Specifically, a spacewalker (i.e. the guys who go outside the shuttle) who worked on the Hubble telescope. Look, I love space shit, and I read this the weekend before the election, when I deeply needed the distraction. It’s not *brilliant* *writing* or anything, but this guy is a really good storyteller with lots of good stories. Also, SPACE SHIT. (Also also: I got to talk to him on the phone, briefly, when writing this piece about NASA and climate change; he was exactly like I thought he would be.)

I’ll Tell You in Person by Chloe Caldwell (2016) — I once tweeted, “I think if my name were Chloe my life would be entirely different.” And Chloe Caldwell saw it and favorited it! Anyway, I read this in one sitting; Chloe’s essays are very bingeable. They’re shameless and so funny and full of delicious detail, like the one about bringing bags of white chocolate Flipz to parties in high school. They are never preachy or self-aggrandizing. I think the Berlin one was my favorite, and possibly the best essay I can remember reading about depression.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (2010)— John picked this up for me at the library since he knows I love space shit. Very entertaining, if corny, look at astronaut life (there’s a whole chapter where she tries to figure out if anyone has ever had sex in zero gravity, and another about shitting in space). (That’s not what I meant by “space shit.”)

The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness by Israel Rosenfield (1992) — I picked up this up while clearing the Denver library of half its memory books, for a project. It turns out to be tightly related to The Ego Tunnel (published later, read earlier this year); it questions received ideas of memory and postulates (convincingly) a theory of memory as deeply intertwined with consciousness; Rosenfield believes that cases of “memory loss” are really cases of the brain being forced to restructure dynamically such that certain types of memory simply cease making sense; the key no longer works in the lock. Very interesting stuff.

FICTION

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (2014)— I had no idea what this book was about when I started it; I didn’t even read the jacket copy. So it was fascinating to figure out what to make of it as I went. Is it fairy tale or realism? Is it going to be about race? (Why would a black author write a book from the perspective of a snow-white woman?) Mysterious, magical, gripping, and very good.

Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz (1968) — A novel built completely out of dialogue, like a play but without even the stage directions. There are three characters, Emily and Marsha and Vincent, a kind of best friend menage a trois (they are straight and Vincent is gay). They are all in “analysis” (the year is 1965) but taking a break from their doctors while staying at Marsha’s place in the Hamptons for the summer, so they analyze the hell out of themselves in their stead. The trick of it is, it’s all based on real recorded conversations, like found poetry meets reality TV. The chapter titles are all very Celine and Julie Go Boating, e.g. “Emily and Marsha Compare Childhood Traumata.” Extremely fun, a successful experiment.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964) — There are people who love this book but I can’t say it swept me away. It’s so interior, I can’t fathom how they made this into a movie. (The copy I read had the actors from the movie on the cover; I hate that!!!)

The Other House by Henry James (1896)— I hadn’t read any James in a decade or more, and for some reason this minor novel intrigued me when I spotted it at the library. Those signature unparsable Jamesian sentences are in effect, but only in the non-dialogue parts — what’s up with that? Like, he KNOWS sentences don’t work that way. It’s actually very silly, almost farcical, a rom-com, basically, at least in the first book (of three), and then it spins out into melodramatic tragedy. Welp, every now and then one should read a ghastly book. Check out all the crotch jokes in this passage:

‘Does she strike you as awfully pretty?’

‘As pretty as a pretty song! I took a tremendous notion to her.’

‘She’s only a child — for mercy’s sake, don’t show your notion too much!’ Mrs Beever ejaculated.

Anyway, minor novels: sometimes they’re minor for a reason.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015) — The titular narrator may be the most unlikeable of all unlikeable characters. Ominous, noirish, gross, somehow a kind of fuck-you of a novel, not 100% carried off but comes impressively close. (Later I read that she started this as kind of a joke?)

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida (2007) — God this was sad. I wasn’t expecting it to be so sad, but it rushed up at the end, like sudden nausea. It’s about rape and identity, mostly takes place in Lapland (far northern Scandinavia). Short chapters, “economical” prose, too many similes, but quite pageturner-y, quite powerful.

After Birth by Elisa Albert (2015) — I heard about this book from (poet and doula) Carrie Murphy and had it in my head it was a memoir but no, it’s a novel. Quite provocative in that the narrator, a new mother, is intensely angry, hateful, inappropriate, mean-spirited, depressed, lusty, a feminist who hates women. The basic point is WHY DON’T WE TALK ABOUT ANY OF THE REAL SHIT THAT HAPPENS DURING AND AFTER PREGNANCY. I enjoyed it.

A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal (2013)—This was like Garden State, the novel, except the Manic Pixie Dream Girl dies at the end. Remarkably good prose most of the time, wasted on a plot/setup that feels more and more sophomoric and self-aggrandizing. I found myself actively rooting against the protagonist.

After Life by Rhian Ellis (2000)—Kind of a pseudo-murder-mystery; the mystery is not who did it but why, how, and will she get caught? It’s also about relationships (mother/daughter on the one hand and on the other, passion turned to hate) and spiritualism (the protagonist and her mother are both mediums) and the idea of belief as choice. Enjoyed it a lot.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy — I read part of The Possessed by Elif Batuman (quite delightful, but not the kind of thing I felt compelled to finish), which, to John’s delight, made me want to read some Tolstoy (he adores Tolstoy). I’m starting with the short ones, duh. I remembered John telling me that this novella had a lot of resonance with his own experience of illness. It was funny but dark/disturbing. I loved the part about the syllogism “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal” being obviously true of Caius but not applying to Ivan Ilyich, who knew the smell of the striped leather ball he loved to play with as a boy and the rustle of his mother’s silk skirts. What did Caius know of all that?

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze (1953) — Really terrific noir novel from the ’50s, much of which takes place in Colorado (Denver and Cripple Creek). Loved the writing, loved the characters. So good I kind of dragged it out, not wanting to finish it, but then read the last 100 pages all at once on a snowy spring Saturday morning. Here’s a little bit just to give you a taste:

I took her arm, hating myself for the silly sheltering gesture, and said, “Let’s get a drink first.” There was less of a crowd at the bar than at the food counter.

She wrinkled her nose. “I think we’ve been drinking too much. To enjoy drinking, you’ve got to not drink for a while. Contrast.”

“You be contrasty, I’m having a drink.”

You be contrasty!!!

Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge (1996) — I heard BB was underrated, and also happened to go through a weird few days of revived interest in the Titanic (see my disaster essay for the evidence), so I picked this up from the library. This is a historical novel that unfortunately and accidentally, due to the familiarity of the ’97 movie, feels somewhat like a novelization. Still, pretty good.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (1908) — Delightful, of course. As much as I loved Howards End, I hadn’t read anything else by him. Picked this up during an especial fit of dissatisfaction with new books, many of which I had started and abandoned after the first 30 pages. The chapter titles are pure delight.

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa (2008)—Three spare, eerie, indeterminate long stories perched on the verge of horror (billed as novellas, but they’re only about 50 pages each). I liked them but there were some oddities I felt must be due to strange translation choices — mainly, all the food (and there’s a lot of food) is American or French rather than Japanese. It’s like they translated whatever the actual foods were in the original into common western foods, but the western foods seemed pretty random (see this list: “I think a lot about what I’ll eat first when the morning sickness ends…sole meuniere or spareribs or broccoli salad.”).

The Man of Feeling by Javier Marias (1986)—I’m always up for a novella in translation. This was my first time reading Marias and I loved it. Despite it being only 130 pages long, it was slow reading at first, because his sentences are so long and meandering that if my mind wandered mid-sentence, I’d be forced to re-read the whole page. In any case the sentences were worth re-reading; I dog-eared many pages.

A Heart So White by Javier Marias (1992) — Craving more Marias I grabbed three or four titles from the library and ended up reading this one first. I loved it, even more than the novella. My favorite thing about it is the way the protagonist seems to be dropping in a tangential anecdote but then the anecdote will end up going on for 50 pages or so, so that the entire novel is just six or seven related anecdotes, full of parallelisms. It’s sort of about time and cause and effect so by the end, at the climax, when there ends up being a lot of repetition of sentences from earlier in the novel, it feels like those earlier sentences came out the way they came out the first time because the telling of the story was influenced by later events (the reader doesn’t know the later events yet, but the protagonist does). In other words, later experience reshapes earlier experience. I feel that Ben Lerner must have read and been influenced by Marias because there are similar tropes going on in his novels, but in 10:04 at least, the refrains ended up feeling like he was forcing the themes down my throat. In any case: highly, highly recommended. A fascinating life-of-the-mind book, funny and mysterious. I wrote a little more about it here.

The Succubus by Vlado Zabot (2010) — This Slovenian novel from Dalkey Archive was like psychological dementia/aging horror, but with enough dry humor to keep it from being unremittingly bleak. The end seemed like kind of a cliche, but maybe it’s not a cliche in Slovenia?

Dance Night by Dawn Powell (1930) — A sad and touching novel about life, and fantasy life, in a cruddy small factory town in the ‘20s; reminded me a little of Carson McCullers. John Updike is quoted on the back saying “Female desire is Dawn Powell’s theme, in all its varieties of risk and pain,” and this seems true (in retrospect, male desire is Updike’s theme).

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (2016) — I saw this on a list of books recommended during “Women in Translation Month” (August). Meruane is Chilean but the book mostly takes place in New York, where Meruane teaches. The story hits pretty close to home — the narrator has a medical condition which could cause her to go blind at any moment; one moment, she does, then must adjust to the new reality while waiting for an experimental operation. (This is basically the state of John’s hearing condition.) Aside from the horror of losing a sense, it’s about the toll illness and desperation take on her work, her family, and her lover. A bit gruesome.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)— Pym was recommended to me by a friend who read my essay about reading fiction. This was so funny in that dry British way (it’s mostly dialogue) and so sad, really infuriating at times — it’s largely about gender roles, the outrageous expectations we have of women, women’s acceptance of their fate, their pitiful little outlets. Not without optimism, but without false hope. Highly recommended.

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (2016) — A collection of mid-length, essayistic and digressive (which, of course, I like) short fictions about simple but interesting stuff, quotidian thoughts and pleasures, interwoven with more flash-like, suggestive but inscrutable pieces similar to Lydia Davis or Diane Williams. They’re so digressive in fact that they create the continual, purposeful I’m sure impression that you’ve missed something when you actually haven’t. This book was recommended to me several times, and I did like it! But I liked the longer pieces more than the short ones, which felt a bit like the little interlude non-songs on long Tori Amos albums (see Boys for Pele) except, as a one-time super-fan, I like Tori’s interludes as much as the real songs. I’m sure the same is true for Bennett’s super-fans. I think somehow if it was packaged more as a novel without the little interludes then I would have been truly enraptured. Anyway, this does that first-person introspective thing that I like; it’s good.

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988) — Clearly I’ve been on a little Anglophile kick. I loved the people in this book, English people living in Moscow in 1913; I loved the adults and I loved the children. (I like books for adults with children in them, because I think you have to be a bit of a genius to write children well, and Fitzgerald does.) For its short duration (<200 pages, taking place over the span of a few weeks) you feel completely enveloped in its little world, like a snow globe or a movie. I think I will always remember the chapter about the bear.

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988) — My Anglophile streak continues! I love the narrator of this novel, Mrs. Hawkins, a deeply-flawed-but-highly-likable-anyway character. She likes to give advice and gives it freely to us her readers too, and the book includes good tips on how to lose weight, how to get a job, how to write a novel, and how to concentrate if you can’t (get a cat, is the tip). And certainly I’ll remember and use her phrase pisseur de copie forever. I’ve heard this is “the one to read” by Spark but I think I preferred The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by a hair. Still, very good.

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer (1963) — I had never heard of this novel — apparently considered a classic of both dystopian and feminist literature — before reading Pond; in one of the stories or chapters the protagonist is reading it, but doesn’t mention it by name. I learned the name from a review of Pond and got it from my library. Fascinating, sad, very mysterious novel (Austrian, translated from German) written in the form of a “report” or survival diary from the perspective of a woman who is spending the weekend at a hunting lodge in the mountains and wakes up to find she is apparently one of the last if not the last human alive on Earth following some kind of biological attack. She is “trapped” between two perfectly transparent walls beyond which all life seems to have been extinguished; she never discovers the source or cause of the attack or why she has been spared. She manages to survive over two years (at which point she runs out of paper and has to end the report) by running a kind of farm with her dog, some cats, and a cow and the supplies her wealthy brother-in-law had laid in. It’s rich with details of her actual survival (the vast amount of work she had to do to stay alive and take care of her animals) but is at turns a meditation on meaning versus meaninglessness, time, nature, responsibility, and the possibility of happiness.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski (1959) — It’s been hard for me to concentrate on reading this month (November), but I felt it was time to read this book of stories which John had recommended. The author was a Polish “Aryan,” a poet and dissenter, captured and forced to work in the camps. He later, like so many Holocaust survivors, committed suicide. These stories go some way toward explaining why, how part of the horror of the camps was that the systematic murders became routine and therefore banal; banality and atrocity always hand in hand. He writes of an inexplicable passivity (“Why is it that nobody cries out, nobody spits in their faces, nobody jumps at their throats? … Our only strength is our great number — the gas chambers cannot accommodate all of us.”) and of course, complicity (“We said that there is no crime that a man will not commit in order to save himself. And, having saved himself, he will commit crimes for increasingly trivial reasons; he will commit them first out of duty, then from habit, and finally — for pleasure.”). To me, right now, this is necessary horror. “But this is a monstrous lie, a grotesque lie, like the whole camp, like the whole world.”

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)—Once again P-Fitz proves she has a genius for writing children. I really like her episodic style of building a novel, a complex whole out of many small parts.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899) — The time finally came for me to read this short novel. Like Two Serious Ladies, it seems to be about those mysterious forces which might compel a person toward utter self-destruction of one form or another. It is sometimes florid, but mostly lucid and surprisingly funny. I gasped upon reading the last paragraph of Chopin’s bio note: “Always sensitive to criticism, Chopin was devastated by the furor which surrounded the publication of The Awakening, and its harsh reception ultimately caused her to stop writing. When she died in 1904, she had been denied the recognition she desperately wanted and richly deserved.”

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam (2016) — This gutwrenchingly sad novel takes place over one day and night in an evacuee camp in Sri Lanka that is actively being bombed, multiple times per day. Dinesh, a young man, has so far managed to survive the bombings as well as to avoid being recruited by the “movement”; all things being equal he prefers to die in the camp than die fighting in the front: “He didn’t have conclusive evidence that he would die rather than survive, but perhaps because in such conditions it was easier to believe something than to remain unsure, he felt himself tending towards the former possibility.” While helping in the camp’s clinic he is approached by a man who would like Dinesh to marry his daughter, Ganga. Dinesh agrees. The camp’s Iyer or priest has just died, so Ganga’s father performs the marriage himself. She’s a stranger, but through this act of ritual and ceremony Dinesh becomes completely devoted to Ganga, and concentrates his energies on winning her trust and affection as well as protecting her; instantly it becomes his life’s purpose. Attentive, to the point of discomfort, of life on the edge, and devastating.

The Assault by Harry Mulisch (1982) — This Dutch novel is organized into a series of episodes occurring years apart in a man’s life between 1945, when he is 12, and 1982. As a boy, after curfew and during a blackout, Anton Steenwijk and his family witness the murder of a Dutch policeman and Nazi collaborator by two resistance fighters; Anton’s older brother, Peter, then sees two of their neighbors drag the body in front of the Steenwijks’ house. “God damn it!” Peter shouts, and then despite his parents’ pleas to stay put, he goes out to move the body again. Soon afterward, Anton has been scurried away by German police, and while he waits in a car and then later a police station, the rest of his family is executed in retribution and his house is burned to the ground. In the decades that follow, Anton avoids thinking about that night entirely, but chance encounters keep bringing it back to the fore, until he finally understands much more about what happened that night. Metaphorically this book is almost too perfect, but it’s a powerful exploration of how we cope with atrocity as well as how morality and responsibility break down in desperate circumstances, and perhaps in any circumstances. (That such questions, and the complications of survivor’s guilt, would obsess Mulisch makes sense when you consider that his mother was Jewish and his father a Nazi collaborator, which most likely saved their lives.)

POETRY

Dead Horse by Niina Pollari (2015)— A new entry into the Gurlesque! It’s a dry gurlesque though, not a sloppy one; it’s cool to the touch. My favorites were “Do You Feel Tenderness” (“I said I don’t have a period, then we barely locked eyes, the end”) and “I Owe Money” (“A part of me is money / And a part of me is the shadow-money of debt”).

Bath Poems by Dara Cerv (2015) — A chapbook of procedural poems: the procedure was, take a bath write a poem. As such they are quite intimate, melancholy, and physical, with a slow, glug-glug pacing to the thoughts:

My body the dark lake

Into which you stuck your

Finger nothing disturbed

Nothing arrived

To the surface

I watched you settle your eyes on

The underside of another woman’s

Wrist and nothing disturbed

My lips

Nothing arrived

To the surface

Engine Light by Kate Colby (2016)— A tiny tiny little chapbook, but I’m counting it so I can mention her to you — Kate Colby writes beautiful, beautiful poetry. When I’m in the right mood it just pierces me: “You are always born / in your birthplace, // but it’s rare to die / on your grave. // I take up space / like a habit — // nothing matters / and branches // the color of their / shadows on snow.”

100 Notes on Violence by Julie Carr (2010) — This wowed me. “Sun on the windshield animals my car and I come neatly close to rage // Up to it /// Looks like someone made me up.” I feel like Julie Carr is my Emily Dickinson.

Time Down to Mind by Graham Foust (2015)— The latest by another of my favorite living poets (what a dumb expression?). I saved this for when I really wanted to read something I knew I would love. These poems rely on a knotty, frustrating, self-subverting syntax full of double-negatives and not-quite-words (many lines are pile-ups of articles and semi-verbs and prepositions and qualifiers which almost convey syntax more than meaning — more mortar than brick?). It’s surprising to get so much complexity from single syllables. They are querulous, finicky, neurotic, and very beautiful. “Asleep, I’m not the only thing about me.” “I imagine and unimagine myself — // another day, the way the sun makes things feel, / the way the point seems once I’ve failed to see it.”

Ampersand Revisited and Monograph by Simeon Berry (2014/15)— Simeon is an old poetry friend of mine from my grad school days; we both read for Ploughshares during the same period and also had a writing group for a while along with Rob Arnold. He was working on parts of these manuscripts at the time; I recognized a few lines, e.g. “ziggurat of creamer.” Anyway, after revising the MS’s for years he got both picked by via the National Poetry Series, two years in a row, which is pretty amazing. If I was the type to say things like “New Confessional” I’d say these represent the New Confessional.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Mathias Svalina (2016) — My friend Mathias wrote these poems, each titled “The Wine-Dark Sea,” about being suicidal. They are so sad and so visceral, they are almost horrible to read — shocking, stark like a not-usually-shaved head — but beautiful, just tragically beautiful: “I can’t think without Julia / so Julia is my mind.” Or: “I am on the island / that speaks a language / I can only understand” — not “only I can understand,” but “I can only understand.” And: “It is more horrible to imagine / than to see it.” And then there’s the oddly exhilarating ending to one poem: “comma, / comma, period.”

Spiritual Grave Year by Dan Magers (2016) — Weird little handmade chapbook from Reality Beach. Dan Magers writes great one-liners; his poems always make me feel like it’s very late and you’re the last few people at the party. I’m a fan.

MY FAVORITES!!!

I loved many books I read this year but I think the four that brought me the absolute most delight and awe were, in no particular order:

A Heart So White

The Beginning of Spring

Excellent Women

Black Wings Has My Angel

Au revoir! Happy new year!

Elisa Gabbert

Written by

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

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