Very happy to see that A Manner of Being is now out in the world. It's an anthology of essays about mentors and mentees, edited by Jeff Parker and Annie Liontas, and the George Saunders essay alone is worth the price of admission. I also happen to have a short piece in there, looking at the surface irreverence and deep smarts that made Robert Day such a force for good at Washington College and the Rose O'Neill Literary House when I was a student there way back in the day.
Washington College, where I'm currently the Writer-in-Residence, has been closed through Thanksgiving due to security concerns that are, more than anything, depressing as hell. As a means of addressing that depression, kind of, as well as the fact that my students and I lost a class period, I made a short video with a few thoughts on Maggie Nelson's amazing book Bluets, which we'd been scheduled to discuss. I'd apologize for its goofiness, but that's also part of the point.
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.
Cool questions from Ravi Mangla at the excellent Recommended Reading.
My hat goes high and then higher to the new U.S. Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin: extraordinary poet, superb translator, and author of one of my favorite offbeat nonfiction gems, The Mays of Ventadorn.
Poems, yes, in the many-platformed Vitruvius, with, among others written by, among others, a favorite poet of mine, Jules Gibbs.
Thanks to The Rome Review for tucking a poem of mine called "After Jazz" in amongst some really wonderful work by Blake Butler, George Singleton, Steve Almond and Kathleen Rooney, among others.
In his book The Other Lover, my friend Bruce Smith has a great poem called "Afterbody" where we get, among other things, this:
"...From the most meager
scraps of voice on the telephone--
a half tone or quarter tone--
he pieces the body together: widow's peak, collarbones,
pelvic tilt, lobes and clefts, the body cloned
from some pressures and inflections,
a stammered word, interference, aspiration."
And I say thee yea, Bruce Smith! Yeah, yea. By our diction shall we be known, shall make ourselves known, shall manifest our very lives aloud, and those of our characters, and thank you for saying so so clearly.
April 22, 2009, 8:57 a.m.Category: Poetry
Last night I cleared out about twenty pounds of paper. Most of it was easy--paid bills from 2004, warranty slips for things I don't even own any more, that sort of thing. Some of it was harder. I have a file of magazine clippings that I've been carrying around (and adding to) since, I don't know, 1995 or so. So I went through it, pruned what I could. One of the things I kept--easy choice--is the following poem by Melissa Montimurro from Literal Latte, Volume 7, Number 5, and first prize winner in the Food Verse Contest, and it gets me every time:
Why Onions Give Us Their Tears
Because they are secretly afraid of the dark.
Because they are homely and humble and cannot bear the sadness.
Because they've held all of the hopes of the lily yet will never pose wanly in a vase
but be tamed in a kettle instead.
Because the garden was a long lush dream above them.
Because once for a moment they felt the sun on their maiden heads
and they knew then what the others knew
cabbage and chard and sugar snap
that it was the hot kiss of the galaxy
and they had misspent their entire lives.
Because they would drown in the waters of their own weeping.
This news made me just unfeasibly happy. I first came to Snyder almost exactly twenty years ago, in an early edition of Donald Hall's excellent Contemporary American Poetry. I'd just dropped out of college and was hitchhiking across the country on my way to Alaska, bought a couple of books in a used bookstore in Seattle before jumping on the ferry, and that anthology was one of them.
I already knew a few of the poets inside--Lowell and Bly, maybe Stafford, maybe Ashbery--but most of them were new to me, and they made me crazy with pleasure and desire, the whole crowd: Duncan and Nemerov and Dickey and Levertov and Logan, Ammons and O'Hara, Kinnell and Merwin and Wright and Kennedy. Creeley and Wilbur were crack to me--the feeling that whole countries were there, and that maybe, if I was just a bit smarter, if I really read the shit out of those poems, I'd be given the visas, have earned them. John Haines felt like a brother-in-arms, because, hey, poems about Alaska, exactly where I'm going right this very minute!
And of course Gary Snyder as well. I like what Margaret Soltan has to say about him here: the man knows how to listen to the world, has hearing most of us can barely imagine. Sitting there on the deck of that northbound ferry, skirting Canada, sun on my face but not in my eyes, reading "Milton by Firelight" and "Hay for the Horses," I'd have given Snyder a hundred grand right then and there, if, you know, I'd had a hundred grand, and hadn't been on a ferry. Thank God Ruth Lilly has my back.