Whatever else happens today, the world now has this in it: my translation of Pola Oloixarac's brilliant debut novel, Savage Theories. I hope you like it. With crazed thanks to Pola, and to Mark Doten and Bronwen Hruska of Soho Press.
I'm very sad to bring the news that the great Aurora Venturini has passed away. The world has lost a way of seeing itself that it very much needed. I'm currently in the midst of translating her terrific novel Las primas (The Cousins)--there's an excerpt up here at PEN America, along with an essay about how and why I fell so hard for this book--and the thought that her time with us is at an end--that we won't get any more of her dark, viciously funny, dry-eyed takes on the world--is just crushing me right now.
Really proud to have an excerpt from my new translation project, The Cousins (Las primas), by the nonagenarian Argentine genius Aurora Venturini, up at the PEN American Center website. There's also an essay I wrote about the book, its author, and the process of bringing the text into English. Many thanks to Wei-Ling Woo for good edits on both excerpt and essay.
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.
In addition to being a class act and a great writer, Brad Listi is a total natural as an interviewer. It's a hard thing to be good at, but he's nailed it over and over at his Other People podcast, with guests ranging from Cheryl Strayed and Susan Orlean to Cal Morgan and Roxane Gay to Molly Ringwald and... Yeah, I don't know who to put up there with Molly Ringwald. Point being: huge thanks to Brad for inviting me on the show.
Cool questions from Ravi Mangla at the excellent Recommended Reading.
Granta's list of the writers they consider to be the Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists is terrific and silly for all the usual reasons. It's also a bit ridiculous that only 5 of the 22 writers listed are women, and that a full 8 of the 22 come from a single country (albeit one with a magnificent literary tradition that includes two of my all-time favorite writers.) That said, of the listed writers whose work I'm familiar with, (about half of them, plus scatterings from a few more through Etiqueta Negra,) I can't really imagine leaving any of them off the list.
The two I know best are the Peruvians: Santiago Roncagliolo and Carlos Yushimito. Roncagliolo is an established figure here, has won most of the awards there are to win, and deserved every one of them. Yushimito is just getting started, doesn't yet have anything in English (but, I suspect, soon will) and your eye, it should be on him.
I'll be in Beijing for the next ten days to participate in the immensity that is Get It Louder! All participants are legally required to end all statements with exclamation points for the duration of the conference! More information here and here!
I've just gotten back from an extraordinary three weeks in St. Petersburg, where I was on the faculty for the Summer Literary Seminars. I taught a travel writing workshop, gave a reading with the poet Mark Halperin in the gorgeous Nabokov Museum, gave a lecture and a craft talk. And outside the classroom, I was absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty of the city, the intensity of the white nights, the richness of literary culture and cultural history...
Part of it, of course, were the people with whom I shared the experience. Aside from Mark, Tony Swofford was there, Paisley Rekdal and Meg Storey, Daniel Baird and Elizabeth Hodges... And that's just the foreigners. We also got to hang with some of the writers building contemporary Russian literature--Alexandr Skidan, Ekaterina Taratuta, Dmitry Golynko. Just superb.
Like everyone else who's ever been part of the program, I went with James Boobar on his justly famous Dostoevsky walk. Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker and Tom Burke have put together a great local staff, and a great program of extracurricular trips. And the city itself...
Forgive this raving, but I just can't recommend the place/time/seminar strongly enough. Many thanks to Dan and Steve at Dzanc for arranging my time there. St. Petersburg will be showing up in my writing for years, I suspect. And I'd write a great deal more about it right here and now, except that it's time for me to leave Beijing, fly to Peru, move to Syracuse, build a year's worth of life there... But if you're interested, go check out the program's webpage, or this promo video that Ken Calhoun put together.
And then go, go, go.
Tonight begins a week of events--panel discussions, readings and signings, a cabaret--at The Bookworm here in Beijing. I'll be there this evening to serve as moderator for Adam Williams and Qiu Xiaolong, and will return on March 8th as part of the launch for Beijing: Portrait of a City, and then again on the 9th to talk about moral ambiguity in fiction with Nicholas Jose and Edward Ragg.