As is well known, it has been the tradition throughout the history of Western Civilization for me to hand in my “Best Books of The Year” list not quite in time for Christmas itself, but definitely in time for you to use it when you're maybe wondering which books to get when you head in to return the coffee table version of Pus: An Illustrated History that you got at the office White Elephant party thing. And once again this year: Mission Accomplished!
For me, 2014 was, among other things, the “Year of Reading all the Flannery O'Connor (Well, Almost All of It, Still Working on the Letters)” and also the “Year of Reading a Bit More Than Half of all the Anne Sexton,” which, I know, hardly fair to everyone else, but there you go. In honor of my really good intentions of a month ago, this list will consist of books I finished reading between 1 December 2013 and 30 November 2014. Forthwith, the winners, in terms of awesomeness as defined by how much pleasure they gave me, the edition listed being just the edition I happened to read:
O'Connor's Wise Blood (Library of America, 1988), by a solid few lengths. Third time I've read it, but the last time was at least a decade ago. So deeply strange, so altogether wonderful, so wholly round. Black humor and twisted thought, ever so precise. Delicious.
Best Published in 2014
Due to a disconcerting amalgam of personal flaws, I read far fewer books during their year of publication than I should, which means that your best bet for tracking down the Best of the Latest is places like here, here, and here. That said, here's the best of my latest:
Neverhome, by Laird Hunt (Little, Brown, 2014). The voice carries him well and far, through dozens of terrifically well-found details.
Praying Drunk, by Kyle Minor (Sarabande, 2014). Great formal variety in the stories, most of them told in a diction Minor has mastered that I'll call deadpan tragic.
Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes (New Directions, 2006). What a fascinating, confounding, splendid book. Magnificent characters bizarrely spaced through the lack-of-action. The text is mostly dialogue, which sounds deadly but is nowhere near, and in the end the story is given to... a dog. That we just met. Spectacular.
Snow Hunters, by Paul Yoon (Simon & Schuster, 2013). A glowing, quiet book, with a couple of transcendent set pieces.
Las primas, by Aurora Venturini (Estruendomudo, 2013). I'll be having more to say about this short novel in coming months, but just know that it's very cool and weird and disturbing and good.
Best Short Story Collection
A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor (Library of America, 1988). Magnificently creepy and bright and full, just like we all remember it to be.
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, by Grace Paley (FSG, 1985). So delightful. A good deal of range in the voicing and yet such tight dictional control. Beyond wonderful.
Tenth of December, by George Saunders (Random House, 2013). Rock-solid throughout, and three of the stories go on my all-time list. “Escape from Spiderhead” for its virtuoso spinning-out past the edge of those near-future-drug stories from before. “Home” for its rawness, something I haven't felt in quite this way since “Isabelle,” and loved, and missed. “Tenth of December” for being so amazingly full and structurally wise and for the line about the cardinal.
Truck Dance, by Jeff Landon (Matter Press, 2011). Really really great semi-short stories. At least one sentence I wish I'd written in every one.
Live or Die, by Anne Sexton (Mariner, 1999). This is the one that won the Pulitzer amidst great weirdness—it was low on the list of all three judges, and then they couldn't abide each other's top picks—but it deserved it on the merits. Superior control, high manic energy, high-wire language and sudden melancholy.
My Alexandria, by Mark Doty (University of Illinois Press, 1993). Such a lovely book. A sense of language that is abiding but not overwhelming; a sense of narrative that is structural but rarely central. Some amazing, daring turns. Overtones of Frost, nods to Rilke.
Patio de locos, by Andrés Neuman (Estruendomudo, 2012). A tiny book—33 poems—so good and clever and heartbreaking. Great use of narrative stance. Nice clogwork on the knife-edge of language. Bits of surreality that reminded me of Oquendo de Amat, but always in the interest of the overall sadness of insanity.
Notes from No Man's Land, by Eula Biss (Graywolf, 2009). Hard clear elegant thinking about race, and geography, and fate. And of course she has a new one out this year, which by all accounts is every bit as good, and I can't wait.
Llamada perdida, by Gabriela Wiener (Estruendomudo, 2014). A really engaging set of essays on looking at Peru, and the self, from the outside in. Really fearless in writing about sex, and some beautifully lyrical passages.
Best In Translation
The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, by Zhu Wen, trans. Julia Lovell (Columbia University Press, 2013). A really powerful collection of stories about people for whom things go sideways in one way or another. Good intentions that don't lead where you think they might. Splintered plots that nonetheless feel conclusive.
Running through Beijing, by Xu Zechen, trans. Eric Abrahamsen (Two Lines Press, 2014). A side of Beijing—a life in Beijing—that is rarely seen, even by people who live there, because it's hiding in plain sight: the sellers of fake IDs and pirated DVDs are presented here not as an urban phenomenon but as individuals with full lives and complicated backstories. A quiet, smart, fast book.
So that's them! And how I hope that if anything here wasn't on your radar before, it gets there now. They're amazing. I promise.
It has sometimes been unclear to me whether Obama is an amazing poker player or a really bad one--there's evidence both ways--but the more I think about his play on Cuba, the more of an absolute masterpiece it seems, at every level. In a single (and almost unforeseen) blow, he:
This isn't to say everything's rainbows and puppies now--the Castro regime has plenty of nasty to answer for, and I hope they'll be held to account. And obviously, Obama didn't do it alone--bringing in the Pope was its own little stroke of genius for all kinds of reasons--and it was only possible because the Venezuelan and Russian economies imploded at exactly the same time. But Obama saw the opportunity and ran with it in spite of the risks. You want legacy? I got your legacy right here.
Hats off, Sir. That was one hell of a hand.
December 21, 2014, 5:14 a.m.Category: Politics
My apologies for the radio silence of the past few months. I guess I was only using this space to give shout-outs for reviews and such, which is fine, but also maybe a little boring? So maybe I'll start using this space for other things too. Just so you know. Forewarned and all that.
December 19, 2014, 5:12 a.m.Category: History
So it turns out "Pacazo" is how you say "Pacazo" in German. Das ist überwältigend! Many thanks to Jessica Beer at Residenz Verlag, and to the translator, Anke Burger.
July 8, 2014, 12:30 p.m.Category: Pacazo