Every book I read in 2019, with commentary

Elisa Gabbert
Dec 31, 2019 · 40 min read

“It’s literally the only list I read. I hate all other lists.” — J. Robert Lennon

A few years ago I started keeping track of every book I read in a document, annotating the list with mini-reviews, and then publishing it. (At the real end of the year! No cheating!) I love this practice: it provides a little extra incentive both to finish books and to read them attentively; it gives me a sense of accomplishment; it comes in handy when I need to buy gifts or when people ask for book recommendations. Here at last is this year’s list, for your reading pleasure.

The usual bookkeeping notes: This list (which is organized into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, each list in the order that I read them, from January to December) only includes books I read in full, from beginning to end. 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). Last year, I read more nonfiction than fiction, but I’m back to my usual ratios (mostly novels). I was able to read a little more by writing a little less. Once again, I managed zero full collections of short stories. And 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 get to it. I read more old books than new books, and my to-read piles are large.

For those counting: I read 27 novels/novellas, 13 nonfiction books, and 21 books/chapbooks of poetry, for a total of 61 books. At the end of the list I’ll share my very favorites. Here are my lists from 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.

FICTION

1. Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls (1983) — A cute, sweet, sad little novella about a woman who falls in love with a frog creature. Gabe Habash said “it’s like a Richard Yates novel but with lizardman sex,” and, yes. Is this a fantasy world, or is Dorothy trapped in a very vivid escapist fantasy? Her life is dull, routine, tragic — the fantasy gives her pleasure and purpose (a replacement husband, pet, and child all in one), but brings with it even more tragedy. (I like what Rivka Galchen writes about Ingalls in the intro: She “falls into that category of writers who are famously not particularly famous, even as they are somewhat famous for their mysterious lack of fame.”)

2. Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928) — This novel-as-faux-biography is rather like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in its approach and what it represents, a subversive love letter, a bit of a lark. Apart from the obvious aboutness (gender roles in society/through history; the difficulties of writing, for anyone but especially women), it struck me as being about life’s infinite richness which is still somehow a bore. Enjoyed it, though it seems to have tedium baked in as part of its purpose: how else to convey the passing of 350 years?

Ghost Wall
Ghost Wall

3. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018) — Did you ever see that ’80s movie White Water Summer, where some kids go into the wilderness with Kevin Bacon and it turns out he’s semi-insane? This (queer, feminist) coming-of-age novella is scary the way that movie is scary, the way men and the wilderness are scary. It’s about a teenage girl who goes with her mother and abusive father, plus an archaeology professor and three of his students, to live as they lived in the Iron Age, ish, for two weeks — foraging and hunting rabbits and not washing their hair, and eventually trying out some age-old fucked up rituals like warding off your enemies with skull-lined palisades and sacrificing virgins to the bog. “Who are the ghosts again,” Silvie wonders, “we or our dead? Maybe they imagined us first, maybe we were conjured out of the deep past by other minds.” This was really enveloping but the end rushed up on me too soon, and left me unsatisfied. Someone I know said the ending “chickened out” and that seems right to me.

4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1831) — This was our second pick for Stupid Classics Book Club, and a vast improvement over the first pick, Fahrenheit 451. Not at all what I expected based on culturally received ideas about the story. I couldn’t quite figure out how to picture the monster! I wrote more about it here.

paul takes the form of a mortal girl
paul takes the form of a mortal girl

5. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor (2018) — I reviewed this for the LRB! You can read the full thing here; here’s a little excerpt:

As Polly, Paul does things Paul wouldn’t do; he cries easily, for example. He feels things Paul wouldn’t feel: ‘A flutter of shyness … girl-feelings. Weird.’ Midway through Orlando, Woolf writes that her protagonist ‘was becoming a little more modest, as women are, of her brains, and a little more vain, as women are, of her person’. This can partly be attributed to fashion: ‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.’ Polly’s clothes and altered body do the same kind of work, femming him inside and out, just as calling himself Polly casts a spell. (The novel’s epigraph is from Gertrude Stein: ‘Call anybody Paul and they get to be a Paul.’) During this stretch of the book, we may start to think, as Paul does, that he’s really, ‘like, chemically or something’, a woman — that he’ll settle in a true, final state. He follows Diane to Provincetown but she breaks his heart (‘You want to be everything, all the time … I just want a girlfriend’), and he goes back to being a guy and moves to San Francisco. The novel keeps changing just as Paul keeps changing, trying one form and then another, on a quest for narrative experience that mirrors his quest for sexual experience, for sex as novelty (‘What was sex but newness?’). Pleasure is important in this world — Paul’s world, Lawlor’s world, our world — pleasure as a radical end in itself. But Paul seeks love too, or if not love in a traditional form, then the transformative connection that suspends our native loneliness.

I liked it very much.

6. The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (2018) — This is one of those books, like After Birth by Elisa Albert and The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, that makes it OK to say not-OK things about one’s kids, that makes almost taboo admissions about motherhood. The protagonist is not really a bad person, but many readers probably think she is, and it’s bleak on America, in such a way that I’m kind of surprised it got published at all — I’m always surprised when good, risky books get published. There are some slightly clumsy first-novelisms, continuity errors, weird gaps in time, parts less plausible than other parts, but all in all, I liked it, especially the first half, which has more negative capability, you might say, at the plot level; the book opens questions I don’t necessarily care to see closed.

7. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) — This was another pick for Stupid Classics Book Club. I found the writing delightful, evocative and very funny, but wasn’t terribly interested in the story itself until the end, when it suddenly gets really interesting. “And this again, that that insurgent horror was knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye.” Bonuses: The chapter names are good (“Story of the Door”; “Incident at the Window”), and the author bio in our little Bantam Classic copy is very good: “Stevenson died suddenly on December 3, 1894, not of the long-feared tuberculosis, but of a cerebral hemorrhage. The kindly author of Jekyll and Hyde went down to the cellar to fetch a bottle of his favorite burgundy, uncorked it in the kitchen, abruptly cried out to his wife, ‘What’s the matter with me, what is this strangeness, has my face changed?’ — and fell to the floor.” DAMN, right? I wrote more about it here.

8. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) — Interesting short novel about time, memory, regret, etc. I like, in novels, when older characters reflect on the friendships/relationships of their youth. Actually, I like when real people do that too. This was recommended to me when I asked, on Twitter, if people could think of novels that get better in the second half. But I liked the first half more!

the heavens by sandra newman
the heavens by sandra newman

9. The Heavens by Sandra Newman (2019) — This is one of those novels (like Familiar by J. Robert Lennon) that might be science fiction or might not: is the main character actually a time traveler in the multiverse or is she delusional? When Kate dreams, she dreams that she’s Emilia, an English woman in the late 16th century. Emilia is haunted by apocalyptic visions, and believes there is some task she must complete as Emilia that will save the world. But no matter what she does in 1593, Kate’s world keeps getting worse, and she feels like it’s all her fault. I love this kind of thing — it’s endlessly ambiguous and interpretable: Is it about the importance of personal responsibility, or the ultimate meaningless of individual action? Whose fault is anything? What do we deserve? Has Kate imagined up these multiple timelines because she can’t accept a terrible thing she’s done, or as a way of coping with the incomprehensibility of the ruined world? Is there one true reality? I feel like we’re all going to get really sick of “climate fiction,” but this is good climate fiction and it isn’t simply climate fiction. It’s also really funny, the character descriptions are great (“tiny hands poised in a manner than suggested gloves”; “Her eyes were black black — insect black, like the eyes of a sapient and beautiful wasp”), she uses parentheses interestingly. A very good plane read and would be good for a smart book club because I immediately wanted to argue with people I know about it. It’s one I’ve kept thinking about too.

10. Mickey by Chelsea Martin (2016) — A short, funny-sad novel in vignettes, ostensibly the story of a relationship, but more of a portrait of the artist as a young failure. If you like Chelsea Martin (I do), you’ll like this. Full of lines like “I feel desperate to be by myself even when I’m already totally alone” and “I keep telling myself that what I’m going through now could be compared to a breakup, even though what I am going through is precisely a breakup.”

11. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) — I’d been reading Proust, but we were staying in on a Friday night, both tired after a long week, and I wasn’t up for Proust. This seemed like the kind of book you can tear through, and it is. It is sad, serious, often beautiful, not difficult, but moving and good. And thematically, at least, not unlike Proust.

cape may by chip cheek
cape may by chip cheek
The French edition, just for fun

12. Cape May by Chip Cheek (2019) — Chip is a good friend, an old grad school friend, and this is his first novel. I loved it — it’s set in the late 1950s and has the feel of a classic, Fitzgerald plus Patricia Highsmith and a dash of Donna Tartt (The Secret History). It mostly takes place over several weeks, Henry and Effie’s honeymoon, which starts off a little lonely and boring — it’s a beach town in the off season — such that they almost go back early, but Henry is afraid of how it will look: “How humiliating it would be. How everyone would detect failure, even if it wasn’t really there: they would think it and it would burrow in and eventually become true.” Oh, the tragic irony, the suggestion that some subtle, insidious idea might ruin their marriage if they leave, considering what happens when they decide to stay. They meet a trio of beautiful wild people, Max and Clara, an ersatz couple, and Max’s half-sister Alma, who convince Henry and Effie not only to extend their trip but to move into their house down the street. They day-drink and go sailing and roam the empty streets at night and one thing leads to another; Henry is an idiot who thinks he thinks he can lead two lives that don’t affect each other, one during the day and one at night, like Jekyll & Hyde. (“He had a strong urge to hold her, to tell her it would be all right, as if not he but somebody else were breaking her heart.”) I found it surprisingly difficult to predict how things would end, and when they do, as John put it so nicely (we read the book back to back, both on planes): “There are consequences, but you don’t get the pleasure of a catastrophe.” In that way, there is a sense in which Cape May is subtly an apocalypse novel, a novel about how we destroy things. (I have wondered, lately, if historical fiction is a way to escape the inevitability of writing climate fiction, but no, a novel written now is on some level always “aware” of climate change.) This is a great entry into two of my favorite micro-genres: party fiction and books about people who ruin their own lives.

13. The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras, translated by Richard Seaver (1964) — What a weird book! It’s a weird POV, a version of first-person peripheral (i.e. when the narrator is not the main character — though what is a main character, really?), a menage a trois story to the second or third power. There’s a lot of pronoun confusion that may be intentional or may be not, but either way it enhances the novel’s fundamental indeterminacy. “I’m suffering, but only slightly, everyone is afraid, but only a trifle.” Good to remember what Duras feels like; I hadn’t read her since grad school.

14. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (2017) — Sweet, brisk historical novel based on the poet Margaret Fishback, who was once the highest paid female ad copywriter; takes place on New Year’s Eve in 1984, when over the course of six hours or so, the titular character goes for a long walk around Manhattan, meets various NYC people, and reflects on the past and her life, on motherhood, wifehood, womanhood. I liked it best at its darkest, like the chapter where Lillian has a painful lunch with her ex-husband at Delmonico’s. Also all the thoughts and asides about aging and the writing life: “The point of living in the world is just to stay interested.” (Months later, I read a bit in Kurosawa’s memoir where he recalls an old relative telling him something like, “You must think my life is boring, but it’s interesting just to be alive.”)

15. The New Me by Halle Butler (2019) — One of those super misanthropic novels that are popular now, about depression, self-loathing, “toxic” people, meaningless jobs. Funny and easy to read, but feels bad (which is not to say it is bad, or that we deserve to feel good!). I wrote the preceding sentences when I was around page 70 and now that I’ve finished it I don’t have much to add. The POV is weird, interesting but I’m not sure it works.

such good work
such good work

16. Such Good Work by Johannes Lichtman (2019) — Almost an essay in the form of a novel, a long fictionalized essay about how to be moral from a position of privilege, how to be moral for the right reasons (do you need selfless motivation to be/do good?). Like How to Be Safe, it’s a novel that is highly political without feeling like an exercise in self-righteous flexing. The narrator is a recovering opioid addict who moves to Sweden in part because he knows it will be hard to get drugs there; he ends up volunteering to work with refugees. It (recovery) is an interesting position from which to question ideas of happiness: what is real, what is deserved, what is worth it. “I lay down and replayed every one of the night’s mistakes, as if I could change the past by thinking about it.” “I wanted to feel the right kind of empathy, but it seemed like every kind of empathy was problematic.” Recommended.

17. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (1979) — This novel, as old as I am, is about a group of semi-misfits living on houseboats on the Thames. Not my favorite P-Fitz, but it’s P-Fitz, thus lovely, subtle and charming.

18. Trilby by George du Maurier (1894) — A huge bestseller in “the 90s,” Trilby is incredibly silly and melodramatic, often tedious, but sometimes hilarious, though I couldn’t always tell if I was laughing with or at it. My favorite paragraph, in its entirety: “Paris! Paris!! Paris!!!” As you can probably guess, I read this for Stupid Classics Book Club. Surprisingly, according to the introduction in the Oxford Popular Fiction edition I read (a series that aims to reintroduce books that “live on in popular consciousness” and “have often articulated the collective aspirations and anxieties of their time more directly than so-called serious literature”) it was critically acclaimed at the time, too.

19. A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2008) — 1690: What a shitty time to be alive! I felt like reading some Toni Morrison for obvious reasons, and this was on our shelves (John reviewed when it came out). I like the structure, which is rather Faulknerian — the novel revolves around a cluster of people whose lives are entwined, a pseudo-family of orphans and outcasts and slaves and slavish women (Morrison makes the comparison) and the men, some more merciful than others, who hold degrees of power over them. As in a real family, they don’t necessarily love each other or make each other happy. Each of these characters gets a chapter in which their story is told, a fuller glimpse of the world from their point of view, via a moving close third narrator. Florens’ voice forms the heart of the novel in that her chapters are in first-person, a running interrupted soliloquy, a kind of psychic epistle addressed to the free blacksmith who represents salvation from loneliness and exile (her mother gave her up when she was a child, in what she saw as an act of mercy). Spoiler alert: Florens doesn’t get what she wants. (It’s 1690!) I also like the role of silence: “He couldn’t stay there surrounded by a passel of slaves whose silence made him imagine an avalanche seen from a great distance. No sound, just the knowledge of a roar he could not hear.”

20. Welcome to America by Linda Boström Knausgård, translated by Martin Aitken (2016) — A strange novella about a child who, believing she has killed her father by praying for it, stops speaking entirely. It is almost horror — you begin to fear the child — but “nothing happens.” I wrote more about it here.

women talking miriam toews
women talking miriam toews

21. Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2018) — Stunning novel based on real events, a series of violent rapes in a Mennonite community in Bolivia in the early 2000s. In the novel, which takes place over several days, a group of women across three generations gather secretly to discuss what to do about the acts of violence: Should they stay and attempt to forgive the men, in accordance with their religion? Should they stay and fight? Or should they leave? Because they are illiterate, they invite one man to the meeting (August, a formerly exiled man who left the colony in childhood with his family and has recently returned) to record the minutes of their meetings. August is the first-person narrator of the novel — and how reliable is he? He is kind and good and well-intentioned, but this text is not strictly minutes; it’s full of commentary, long asides, interpretation; it is translated (at one point, he adds a “translator’s note”; at another, he claims a phrase cannot be translated). And he is a man — not a victim of the crimes they are discussing. Can he fully speak their language? He is not merely a silent presence; he plays the role of an explainer; he interjects with relevant and interesting “facts” in part to charm the pregnant Ona, whom he’s in love with. The women look for signs and symbols in these “facts,” which may be helpful or just a distraction. He continues writing even when the women are silent. When they ask him what he thinks, he says “I’m not here to think,” but clearly, he is thinking. I read this book slowly because I had to keep stopping and contemplating its moral questions. What is the value of forgiveness, and how can we forgive in ignorance? (The women were drugged with belladonna, so they cannot be sure who has raped them or their children.) Is violence ever justified (some of the women are more inclined toward true revolution than others), and is power always abused? What are facts, what is real, who decides? (“Heaven is real, says Mejal. Dreams are not real.”) What would it mean to leave the life you’ve known behind and start over without men or without “men,” the idea of men? Amazingly rich at the level of its ideas, but the prose is so light-handed, it’s breath-taking. “They look ahead, towards something I can’t identify, not empty space. And they are silent.” I really loved it.

22. Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey (2020) — Structurally and stylistically this is very much like Rachel Cusk: Each chapter is a scene from a particular setting (“Ann Arbor, 2002”; “Fresno, 2014”) and focuses on a single memorable conversation from the narrator’s past. As in Cusk, other people do most of the talking, but since their conversations are filtered through the “memory” of a first-person narrator, these characters are all very similar, almost manifestations of the narrator’s own mind/neuroses. They add up to a kind of self-portrait: These are my obsessions, my desires, my not even half-hearted defenses. Funny in an acerbic way, quirky (likably so, though the prose quirks can at times feel like tics), and pretty fascinating. On one level it’s about what the cover copy says it’s about (“sex, violence, and self-loathing”), on another it’s about narrativization, “the stories we tell ourselves” in order to live, etc. Similar to Halle Butler, but less misanthropic, with more depth. I think this will do well.

the days of abandonment
the days of abandonment

23. The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (2002) — Wow, this book! It was recommended to me on Twitter (by John Williams, if I recall correctly) when I mentioned that I hadn’t read Ferrante because I tend to avoid long/serial books. This one, about a mother in her late 40s whose husband suddenly leaves her for another woman, is under 200 pages. For the first 40–50 pages, I was enjoying it, but idly wondering where it could possibly go for another 100+. Then it’s like a rift opens and there’s a stretch where time can’t be tracked, where a single nightmarish day threatens never to end. The psychological drama almost approaches horror here (it was good to read during a freak “winter storm” in October; I was absolutely glued to it, and in my memory my mouth was actually hanging open). A truly frightening and brutal portrait of a woman’s pain and desperation, of the chaos and cruelty of suffering.

24. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (2017) — Not sure how I felt about this. I read it on a plane, and admittedly after a ~3-hour delay I was very tired when I was turning the last pages. I was really interested at first, especially in the structure, a dialogue with embedded narratives. But it didn’t creep me out the way it’s supposed to (I rarely find books scary! The Days of Abandonment was an exception!) and by the end I just felt kind of indifferent. Not a knock on the book, I just didn’t fully vibe with it for some reason.

25. Bear by Marian Engel (1976) — Sweet, interesting novella about a middle-aged single woman who works at a historical institute that unexpectedly inherits an estate in the relative wilderness, where she goes to spend a summer cataloging its contents. When she gets there she learns that the house comes with a bear. She reacts not with dismay but delight: “the idea of the bear struck her as joyfully Elizabethan and exotic.” It’s kept in a shed like a big dog, and she befriends it, even inviting it into the main house, so you know this is going one of two ways (or both): they’re going to become lovers or the bear is going to kill her. (When I asked John if he’d read this book, he said no, but he had read that there’s a disturbing amount of bear sex in Canadian literature.) Weird, thoughtful, feminist. (And a lot like Mrs. Caliban, really.)

26. Ice by Anna Kavan (1967) — Spiralling allegory as dystopian sci fi: a man searches and searches for a delicate “glass girl” with glittering hair who he wants to protect and/or harm, while a mysterious disaster closes in (a climate disaster, but in the form of a new ice age) which threatens to destroy all life on earth. Is any of this “real”? Is he mad? In almost every chapter, the narrator speaks of unreality: “I was aware of an uncertainty of the real.” “She herself did not seem quite real.” “The unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.” But by the end, he’s telling us, the unreal is real: “All this was real, it was really happening … it was reality happening in quite a different way.” The different way is an eternal return: “The repetition was like a curse.” He seeks the girl, but she is just out of reach, or he reaches her, but she is dead. (Is she dead? Is he dreaming, hallucinating? Does she have multiple lives?) At one point he possesses her, but grows annoyed and leaves. Then he must find her again. His rival in all this is “the warden,” a powerful, loathsome figure the narrator comes to respect and even identify with, to the point of confusion: “I seemed to be looking at my own reflection … At one moment I actually seemed to be wearing his clothes.” (A Jekyll & Hyde moment!) Meanwhile, as the world ends, people are either killing each other or ignoring it entirely. “The rule was to choose not to know.” It’s Kafkaesque, obviously, but it also reminded me of The Ravishing of Lol Stein (the dreamy, menacing menage a trois) and The Unconsoled (world become nightmare or anxiety dream).

territory of light
territory of light

27. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt (1979) — Sad little book about a year in the life of a young mother going through a divorce, and about loneliness and self-control. The structure is interesting; it was serialized in twelve parts, a chapter for each month, and each chapter dips into a shallow flashback. I liked it but I think have read enough novellas for a little while!!

NONFICTION

1. The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead (2014) — Parts of this book about poker (Grantland, RIP, once staked Whitehead to enter the World Series of Poker) kind of feel like he needed to write a book (see p. 180: “I was here to write an article”). There are so many throwaway, unfunny jokes — but I read it on a plane, and it was suited to that purpose, i.e., breezy and entertaining enough. It gets much better toward the end, when he actually gets to the tournament, and all the best lines are in the last couple of chapters. “I was curating despair.” “Memory is the past with volume control.”

2. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso (2015) — Hard to believe I hadn’t read this yet, but I hadn’t! A short nonfiction book or long, fragmentary essay in book form about the diary that SM kept for years until it was almost a million words long — not excerpts from the diary but an exegesis of it. Natch, it’s mostly about time and how we process it, how living through more time changes our experience of time. “I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against.”

calamitees by renee gladman
calamitees by renee gladman

3. Calamities by Renee Gladman (2016) — I guess I’ll call these essays? They often felt to me more like essayistic metafictions: strange little narratives about writing and writing-adjacent activities like teaching writing and writing about writing; they are obsessed with shapes/space, “the line in art” and “the line in language,” how structure affects or effects meaning. “We were looking for architecture in everything.” I read it right after watching Inception for the first time, and surprisingly, there were resonances!

4. Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Jozef Czapski, translated by by Eric Karpeles (2018) — Published last year by NYRB, originally composed and delivered in 1940. This blew me away. The translator’s introduction is wonderful too. I wrote more about it here.

5. My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta (2014) — Formally inventive essays about identity and trauma. Washuta writes so openly and intimately about rape and assault, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, self-image, desire, etc., that when I had been reading this book and I’d see her on Twitter, I’d feel a little embarrassed, in a blushy way, like when you’ve dreamed about someone and you’re worried they’ll somehow know. “Having been raped as a virgin used to seem to have a lot in common with being Indian. People were skeptical and I didn’t have enough proof.” This would be a great book to read if you feel like your essays all follow the same boring structure, since hers definitely don’t.

5. Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey (2019) — This isn’t the kind of book I’d pick up of my own accord, but my friend Catherine recommended it, and sent me a photo of a page about Tallulah Bankhead that intrigued me. It’s 143 mini profiles of women artists and writers throughout history, process notes and routines and life structures. There are only so many ways for a person to work, so a lot of them felt samey, but still, it’s full of interesting quotes and tidbits, of which here are some: At a party, the critic John Gruen noticed that the artist Marisol had been sitting so still that a spider had formed a web under her arm. When it was pointed out to her she said, “The same thing happened to me once in Venezuela. It’s nothing new to me. I’m used to it.” Germaine de Stael, a French woman of letters: “One must, in one’s life, make a choice between boredom and suffering.” Stella Bowen, an Australian painter: “If you are a woman, and you want to have a life of your own, it would probably be better for you to fall in love at seventeen, be seduced, be abandoned, and your baby die. If you survived this, you might go far!” William James, in a letter to his wife, described Sarah Bernhardt as “race-horsey.” Jane Campion said, “The film is the mood.” Tamara de Lempicka liked to drink hashish dissolved in sloe-gin fizzes. Miranda July sometimes gets frozen in her chair: “I forget to remember that I can get up and walk or look at a book.” Would probably be better approached as text you just dip into and out of at random, instead of reading it cover to cover like I did, but hey, I got it from the library.

6. Dream of the Trenches by Kate Colby (2018) — I’m a Kate Colby fan, and I think this might be my favorite book of hers. It’s a bunch of short lyric essays, most of them titled “Driving to Margaret’s Mother’s Memorial Service,” as though all the thinking in them happened on this one “seemingly endless drive to a funeral on the Cape,” the way all the thinking in Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine happens on an escalator ride. As such this is a book about interiority, the life of the mind. It’s also about, to obsessive degrees, self-reference and abysses in every form, halls of mirrors and ouroboros and strange loops, words that have “all but supplanted their meanings,” like syzygy. Also motherhood, aging, art, and lots about memory, which is obviously of interest to me: “Memory is its own antimatter — the only way to keep your memories intact is to not remember them, which is why I have a desperate sense of wanting to keep the babysitter safe. She’s a container of perfect memories mostly inconsequential to her and to which I thankfully don’t have access.” If this sounds like your thing, it’s your thing.

7. Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle (2012) — I had a copy of this from the library when it was new, and when John saw that I was liking it, he quietly replaced my library copy with a new one. But that removed the urgency, and I realized recently I had never finished the book, and at this point, in any case, I’d forgotten most of what I’d read. These essay-lectures on poetry and topics adjacent to poetry (theme, sentimentality, the moon) are full of charm and delight and in retrospect, must have been an unconscious influence on The Word Pretty, or a spooky-action-at-a-distance influence, since I swear I never read the parts that feel most familiar. Ruefle is authoritative but Socratic in her insistence that she knows nothing, plainspoken but mysterious. “I have noticed that when a cat has kittens, my friends give away the kittens and keep the cat. Which has always baffled me: in the same situation, I would give the cat away and keep the kittens.” “Poets are people obsessed with the one thing no one knows anything about. That would be death.” “I offer my dinner guest, after dinner, the choice between regular and decaf coffee, when in fact I don’t have any decaf in the house. I am so sincere in my effort to be a good host that I lie; I think this probably happens all the time in poetry.” For me, pure pleasure reading.

8. In the Dark Room by Brian Dillon (2005) — Sad, interesting book about memory and grief, about memory as a spatial experience. It’s not as easy to read, not as lucid as Essayism — the prose is often pained, strained, as if written under duress, which it probably was, given the difficult, personal nature of the subject matter (his mother’s death when he was a teenager from a rare chronic illness, and his father’s sudden death five years later). The knottiness of the writing forms an echo of an image of a handwritten note he finds in his mother’s bedside bible, her once lovely penmanship ruined by her stiffening joints. Ach!

mourning diary
mourning diary

9. Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard (2009) — Published posthumously, this “diary” was a stack of notes on dated slips of paper, written between 1977, when his beloved mother died, and 1979 (not long before his own death). They read very much like poetry at times, and often achieve a tone I try to achieve in my poetry, but amount to cahiers on a single subject, the pain of grief (not “mourning,” he writes: “I’m not mourning. I’m suffering”). Some fragments: “As soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the future (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania.” “(Evening with Marco) I know now that my mourning will be chaotic.” “At each ‘moment’ of suffering, I believe it to be the very one in which for the first time I realize my mourning.” “Emotion (emotivity) passes, suffering remains.” (He repeats and rephrases this; time he says does nothing to ease suffering, contrary to common wisdom.) “May cocktails … What comes to mind is that maman is no longer here and life, stupid life, continues.” “Once again the horrible fear (of her death) overwhelms me: cf. Winnicott: how true: the fear of what has happened. But stranger still: and cannot recur. Which is the very definition of the definitive.” (!) “I live in my suffering and that makes me happy. Anything that keeps me from living in my suffering is unbearable to me.” (When I read this, I had already written about Proust and the joy inside suffering — Barthes in this diary often cites Proust.) “I write my suffering less and less yet it grows all the stronger, shifting to the realm of the eternal, since I no longer write it.” “Suicide: How would I know I don’t suffer any more, if I’m dead?”

10. Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff (2008) — A memoir, by her son, about Susan Sontag’s death, and her inability to accept her own mortality, and his lingering irrational sense of survivor’s guilt with regard to it. He contrasts her death, and his memoir, to Simone de Beauvoir’s mother’s death and her memoir about that, A Very Easy Death — with no internet, and a differing medical ethics, at the time, she died in ignorance of the true severity of her illness. Sontag had no such luck, and though she knew intellectually how slim her odds of survival were, she could not help but hold out hope, even inside or beside her despair, and continued to make lists and notes and plans for travel and projects, “fighting to the end for another shard of the future.” She was willing “to undergo any amount of suffering” for a chance at more life, this despite her depression: SS “wanted to live, unhappy, for as long as she possibly could.” It feels odd to quibble with a book about grief; Rieff writes that his mother was entitled “to die her own death,” and he’s entitled to live and write his own grief. Nonetheless, this short book felt a little long-winded somehow, like he kept circuitously arriving at the same two or three conclusions, like there’s a better long essay trapped inside this short book.

11. The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda (2019) — As a child, Brandon Shimoda did not know that his grandfather, Midori Shimoda, had been imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. His family didn’t speak of that history — or (as he wrote in a piece about American concentration camps past and present), silence was “the form of speaking they had chosen, or felt forced to choose.” The implication of their silence was that “the price of citizenship was forgetting” — but “forgetting was annihilative.” With The Grave on the Wall, Shimoda chooses a different strategy, writing memoir (a kind of hybrid of biography, history, and mourning diary) as a way to unforget the past. Shimoda’s prose is definitely a poet’s prose, sometimes lyrically open to the point of absent-mindedness, and sometimes concentrating meaning so intensely in a phrase it’s hard to take, piercing like smelling salts. It’s about the holes in family history and memory, the erasure of Asian Americans (take the “picture brides,” like his great-grandmother, who were “expected to be both exemplary and invisible”) transgenerational trauma, the profound moral hypocrisy of our incarceration of the Japanese while we fought “a war for peace.” Ritual graves versus burial graves; monuments and memorials. “People began to remember, even as what they were remembering was happening.” “I could not help but feel that all memorials for the dead, memorials for peace, were memorials for the bomb.” “The tree’s agelessness cast a light upon my humanness. I was human, that was my age.” Very, very, very good.

12. The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo (1979) — I read the title essay years ago, probably in grad school, but had read nothing else in this book, which I ran across in a cute little independent bookstore called Literarity in El Paso, my hometown. Very enjoyable short collection of essays based on Hugo’s teaching philosophy, which is basically that you can’t teach writing exactly but you can sort of teach people to teach themselves to be better at writing, by example (i.e. by showing them the rules that work for you, and reminding them they can make up their own rules). “If you can answer the question, to ask it is a waste of time.” “Poets who fail (and by fail I mean fail themselves and never write a poem as good as they know they are capable of) are often poets who fail to accept feelings of personal worthlessness.” “One reason many poets drink so much may be that they dread the possibility of a self they can no longer reject.” Stay worthless, poets!

13. Something Like An Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa, translated by Audie E. Bock (1982) — A memoir in vignettes. Someone recommended this to me back when I was writing about disasters a lot, because Kurosawa lived through the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. I bought a copy but only recently started reading it, because I was having a little moment with Japanese literature. The parts about his childhood were really delightful, but it got a little less interesting when he started writing about directing (this is terrible to admit but…I’ve actually never seen a Kurosawa film?). My favorite chapter, titled “Storytellers,” starts with a bit about his mother always serving whole fish in such a way, by accident presumably, to suggest the preparation done before ritual suicide, causing his father to angrily shout at her, “Idiot! Do you want me to kill myself?” Then he segues into a story about his father, despite his temper, always indulging them in movies, and how he remembers seeing a movie about a heroic dog who has to be shot, which made him (AK, not his father) cry for hours and hours, “even when my sister said she’d never take me to the movies again.” Then he rambles into a bit about his father also taking him to see live storytellers, one of whom told a memorable story called Horse in Miso Sauce. On the way home, they’d always stop for tenpura-soba. At the end of the chapter, he writes, “Tenpura-soba doesn’t taste like it used to. And I miss something else. The old noodle shops used to pour out the day’s broth in front of the entrance in order to dry the bonito flakes used to make it; they could be reused. When you walked past, the flakes gave off a familiar fragrance. I remember this with great nostalgia. This is not to say that noodle shops never pour out the broth in front any more, but if they do, the smell is completely different.” See? Delightful.

POETRY

1. Human Hours by Catherine Barnett (2018) — These are intelligent but unassuming, personal/personable poems about time and aging (time is aging!) and desire, about motherhood and childhood (her son and her father both figure, in particular), with a lot of wit in their associative leaps, and in the way they reference earlier versions of themselves, their sources and origin stories. “I intend to cry forever and die laughing, said one version of this poem. / To laugh forever or die living, said another.” “Oblivion, they said, / there’s no unenduring it.” “I tried to think of a question, any question, a question for my thoughts.”

2. The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy (2019) — I reviewed this for the NYT, you can read the whole thing here. Here’s a taste:

At times this book almost wallows in guilt, in the performance of self-flagellation. “Tell myself the weather ruined my plans, though it’s me ruined the weather’s,” Shaughnessy writes in one poem, and, in another, “I’m ashamed of us all.” In “Sel de la Terre, Sel de Mer,” the speaker addresses an octopod or a jellyfish: “Oh funny, runny little god who lived in the sea we cut to ribbons! Tell us the big story with your infected mouth. Tell us the big story is so far beyond us we can’t possibly ruin it.” “Here,” another speaker tells her hungry, bored daughter, handing her a pencil, “chew on this. … It’s all yours, darling.” It feels like a challenge to the reader: Chew on this, chumps. We made this hell and now we have to sleep in it; it’s “well-deserved.” Are these poems preachy? Do we deserve a poetry that isn’t preachy? And what’s the alternative? Raboteau writes, of her own children, “It’s pointless to question whether or not it was ethical to have them in the first place since, in any case, they are here.” That doesn’t feel quite right either. It’s a feature of apocalyptic living: There’s no right way to be.

3. No Matter by Jana Prikryl (2019) — Like The Octopus Museum, No Matter is climate poetry, slipping between the present and a chaotic, dystopian future. Prikryl’s book is more difficult and mysterious. It find it difficult to describe. Somewhat like Ben Lerner’s Mean Free Path, the lines often veer in a way so as to lose the thread; a line may follow pseudo-logically from the preceding line but not the line before that. In this way, the poems can feel somewhat like exquisite corpses, the ends of poems blind to their beginnings. But that rather overstates the case. They are not impenetrable, just strange, strange and alluring. “My memories all feel like news / as if I’ve been good at getting them wrong.”

4. Magical Negro by Morgan Parker (2019) — Morgan Parker’s poems are funny and ruthless, stinging, really, and make me feel very white! (From the poem “Matt”: “He knows he’s a white man but doesn’t think of himself as a white man.”) But there’s a streak of self-sick complicity, from moving in white spaces. “To be safe, I remain in a state of repentance … We are scared shitless to leave the house / as ourselves.”

5. Apologies by Tony Mancus (2019) — I really liked this long funny-sad poem about apologies and the word “sorry”: “I’m so so so so so so so so sorry about each extension of the sound between the ‘s’ and the ‘o’ / our mouths growing soil into each hover, each other — there’s further disbelief courting you as you sit there, no matter how loud or quiet my saying it goes, the ‘so’ takes over the sorry, and for this I sincerely apologize.”

autobiography of death by kim hyesoon
autobiography of death by kim hyesoon

6. Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi (2016) — Not to make light of its very serious project, but this book is so metal! It really is about death through and through, a kind of horror poetry that is very philosophical, image-driven but language-driven too. The first poem blew my mind, and there’s hardly a poem in here that doesn’t have at least one truly great line. “You head toward the life you won’t be living.” “A shimmering letter arrives from the hole that knows everything.” “Every, every day is the eve of death.” “You are already born inside death.” In an interview with her translator, Don Mee Choi, at the end, Kim Hyesoon explains how she wrote these poems in the aftermath of a tragic ferry accident that killed many children: “For a whole year I didn’t wear any clothes with bright colors. Going to work every day was like going to a funeral … it occurred to me that all the poems in this collection were written by death, as a kind of autobiography. I came to think that I, we are all part of the structure of death … I realized that I’d been kept alive by death. In other words, my existence, my identity didn’t begin with birth but with death … I wanted the poems to vaporize … I wanted a ghost of collectivity to emerge from the poems.”

7. You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior by Carolina Ebeid (2016) — Lush like an indoor garden, ornate but highly controlled, these poems remind me very much of Lucie Brock-Broido, the way she enters the space of the poem with a formality and seriousness of purpose, to raise an eyebrow at you and say we speak a different language here. “We live in a copy / of Eden, a copy // that depends on violence” … “it was anthem / was the listening.”

8. Dunce by Mary Ruefle (2019) — I reviewed this for the NYT. Here’s the full thing, and here’s an excerpt:

Dunce is full of these linguistic reversals — the chiasmus may be the device that best represents life’s reversal of fortune, our built-in obsolescence. The comedian Steven Wright once joked that everyone dies instantly: “It’s the only way you can die. You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive, then you’re dead.” Ruefle knows this too. “I tell everyone I was born,” she writes in “Suddenly,” “among the meadow people / who never speak a word / that has not been repeated / over and over and over again / but still takes me completely / and by surprise.” Not “completely by surprise” — completely and by surprise. Death is final and universal, but my death is unique.

9. Selected Poems by Vasko Popa, translated by Charles Simic (2019) — Delightful collection of strange, funny little ourobouros-ing poems (the “yawn of yawns” is “bigger even than its own bigness”). My favorite sequences were from Give Me Back My Rags, where he taunts and curses a childhood friend (frenemy?): “I won’t carry you piggyback / I won’t take you where you tell me // Even if I were shod in gold / Harnessed to three wheeled cart of the wind / Even with a rainbow for a bridle” … “You can knead me out of my ashes / The ruins of my laughter / The remains of my boredom // You can doll-face” (Is “doll-face” a verb here?!) And from The Little Box, where each poem represents a different perspective (from the admirers of, the craftsmen of, the tenants of, the enemies of, etc.) a powerful little box that contains everything: “Just don’t go around pretending / You’re more important than her length / And wiser than her width” … “Throw in your father’s dick / You’ll take out the axle of the universe // The little box works for you” … “If the little box holds / The world in her emptiness / Then the anti-world / Holds the little box in its anti-hand” …

10. $50,000 by Andrew Weatherhead (2019) — I blurbed this. An aphoristic meditation collaging “facts” (“Facts are innocent, like flies in a room, not even looking for a way out”) with impressions, images, memories, quotations, passing feelings, $50,000 is one of those poems that could go on eternally — reading it feels like a kind of practice, which I imagine is what the writing felt like too. A soothing book about language, loneliness, uncertainty and the banal rhythms of existence: “I’m trapped in something less than history” … “Our passion for living is not well understood.” Super-underline-able and re-readable. Incidentally, Weatherhead is also the author of one of my favorite tweets of all time.

11. Night by Etel Adnan (2016) — This is exactly the kind of prosey, philosophical poetry I like: notice something in nature, then have a profound thought about time. It oftentimes feels “random,” even kind of flaky — there’s a certain sloppiness that suggests it’s the overall feel, the mood of the thinking, not the details, that matters, which reminds me of a writer I know from Twitter recently saying that she’s stopped using semicolons because she’s become “pro-chaos.” In other words, this book isn’t interested in perfection, the way, say, Sarah Manguso is. Memory, Adnan writes, “is thinking, before thinking.” “Thus a remembered event is a return to a mystery.” “Vagueness makes the future conceivable.” Yes please! I love to read my own influences, unbeknownst to me.

12. Surge by Etel Adnan (2018) — Even more so than Night, Surge has the jumpiness and messiness of a notebook presented as is, along with an end-of-life feeling of sad resignation (“There isn’t much I can do”), creating the impression of a mind that’s tired of thinking and poetry but can’t break the habit. In a way this makes the especially lovely parts feel like lucky discoveries: “A lit candle can bring out the whole absurdity of victories.” “The heat and the cold fill many gaps, but is reality real?” “Why is winter followed by a few more days of winter?”

13. Tantrum by Stella Corso (2017) — This reminds me of the kind of poetry that was popular in the aughts — less serious, almost underwritten, drawing from the cute part of the New York School. I don’t mean this as faint praise, I enjoyed it a lot; it’s fun and sweet. “Thank god the stars // are behind me tonight / for I am angry angry.” “Chickens don’t seem to care / if I would like to eat them or not.”

14. Grief Sequence by Prageeta Sharma (2019) — Not really on purpose, I read a bunch of books about grief and mourning at once, as you probably noticed in the nonfiction section. These poems, at first, seem to occupy or create a space that feels a little resistant to entry. Then you get sucked into the bubble and it’s so sad — they are about Sharma’s husband’s very sudden death (two months from diagnosis to end) from cancer. They are mostly prose, verging on a lyric essay about the complications of grief and pre-grief, the state of knowing grief is coming: “he quickly slipped into a part of himself that became part of the hospital” … “he was buried in a slander his body made of him” … “I was a nobody outside of his illness, as was he” … “There’s no you, I say to you” … “It’s trudging we all do between sighs.” Very moving and thoughtful, though I disliked the choice to mix some love poems about a new relationship in with these. Yes, I get it, the point is that grief is complicated, but I still disliked it, I wasn’t ready for those.

15. You & Me Forever by Valerie Hsiung (2020) — I blurbed this too! Here’s what I wrote: How do we speak of the unspeakable? In the long, incantatory You & Me Forever, Valerie Hsiung creates meaning from the extra- and almost-linguistic (italics, punctuation, an echolalia-like repetition, numbers, empty space), since language, or “human words,” with their “complicit incompleteness,” seem to hurt to speak. Meaning is supplemental to the language. The poems become almost a filibuster of avoidance, describing a violence by circumventing a violence (“an unfathomable crime”) or the violence, violence as ongoingness. Dramatic but quiet, “This is a not a book written as a not a love letter — ”

16. Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido (2013) — My favorite poet of fulsome excess, of “ten-thousand-count Egyptian cotton sheets,” she is all brocade and velvet and candlewax dripping on the tablecloth, but quite funny; there’s a definite wit and a campiness to it: “Now, you are distracting Moi.” “It was always autumn in the paraphernalia of my laudanums.”

17. The Shore by Chris Nealon (2020) — I’m working on a piece about this, and about climate poetry, so I don’t want to say too much here and now. Look for it in the next few months.

18. In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché (2020) — See above!

grenade in mouth by miyo vestrini
grenade in mouth by miyo vestrini

19. Grenade in Mouth by Miyo Vestrini, translated by Anne Boyer & Cassandra Gillig (2019) — A new life policy I’ve instituted in the past couple of years is that when I wake up too early on a weekday, instead of immediately turning on my computer, I make some coffee and read poetry in the dark for a while. This was a good book to read in the winter, before dawn. Vestrini has been called “the Sylvia Plath of Venezuela” but I think she’s closer to Anne Sexton; she is messier like Sexton, with none of Plath’s coldness, instead sloppy with desire. These are poems about life’s enormous pain pitted against its minute pleasures (“you could not have expected the leg of lamb to melt in your mouth”), pleasures which almost poison the purity of pain, the constant longing for death. “Joy is the horrific part of the dream.” “This bird who always sings at the same hour / it’s the only thing that scares me.”

20. The Angel of History by Carolyn Forché (1994) — Three long poems and a handful of others about the atrocities of war in the 20th century. Contains many voices, and reminds me in a way of the effect of Svetlana Alexievich, a collage of testimonies. “If you ask them anything they go on telling you the same thing forever. / Not what happened, but what may happen. / Death understood as death.” Reminds me, too, of German Autumn by Stig Dagerman, a Swedish journalist who wrote about the suffering in Germany after the war, and asked whether deserved suffering was any better (or worse) than undeserved suffering. “The world is worse now than it was then,” Forché writes. “What can be taken away is taken / to allow suffering to remain.” And reminds me too of Sontag’s writing on photographs, when Forché writes of “the language of propaganda, the agreed-upon lie”: “I am not sure what the photograph has to do with what happened.”

21. I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel by Nikki Wallschlaeger (2015) — I read this earlier in the year but forgot to record it, so I just read it again. You can read a digital version of this chapbook here. It’s a bunch of images of a black barbie in different outfits/against different backgrounds with captions over them in an all-caps meme font: “DOES THIS DRESS MAKE ME LOOK LESS OF A PERFECT VICTIM TO RALLY AROUND” … “THE THING IS WITH ALCOHOL YOU ARE NICER TO PEOPLE WHO REALLY DON’T DESERVE IT.” This doll wants none of your shit! I love this kind of graphic poetry; it reminds me of a little book John and I have had forever, with no title on it, which makes it hard to find, but it’s a bunch of images which seem almost randomly paired with their captions (the one I always think of is, as I recall, a picture of a monk with the caption “THE BEATLES ARE DYING IN ORDER”). I really appreciate Wallschlaeger’s semi-caustic presence on Twitter as a counterweight to general poetic nonsense.

FAVORITES!

Most frequently recommended: Women Talking, The Heavens, and Autobiography of Death

Best “beach read” (I don’t read on the beach, or much go to the beach, and yet): Cape May

Best front matter: Lost Time

Most memorable reading experience: The Days of Abandonment

Favorite nonfic: The Grave on the Wall

Sentimental favorite: Jekyll & Hyde

Favorite favorite overall: Women Talking

Happy new year, y’all.

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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