I’ve loved a lot of books this year, relatively recent discoveries I’ve finally had time to dive into, or books I’ve re-read, like Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, Barry Gifford’s The Roy Stories, Christa Parravani’s haunting memoir, Her. Reviewing a new biography of Stephen Crane (Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire) sent me back to Crane’s poetry (“Because it is bitter/ and because it is my heart”) and prose. The Red Badge of Courage and his gorgeous stories remain immortal. The pulsing synesthesia that marked his writing emanates, controlled and rhythmic, in every graph.
I’ve needed books this year, as the world and the Republic shudder and seem to devolve. Books can be visionary arcs of narration that soar beyond our time, even by penetrating the past. Alchemy and transformation are on my mind: the magic of character, the wonder of the sentence on the page, the spiritual ascendance of books that bear witness. James Agee’s A Death In The Family, with its searing gaze into the heart of identity, remains my Bible. My pantheon includes They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in The Secret Sea, and Irene McKinney’s collected poems, Unthinkable. I love her single volumes: Vivid Companion, tightly bound as a silken correspondence, and her posthumous, Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? Each of these books moves through death as though it were a mere worm hole in a celestial galaxy; each decodes a personal survival that made writing the work a necessity for the writer. History, personal or national, may tell us the facts, but literature tells us the story, and stories are immortal. Poetry is full of story. Louise Gluck’s Faithful And Virtuous Night is its own soaring novel; Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda imagines an adjacent constellation; “rows of ghosts come forth to sing” in Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Unpeopled Eden. Poems can break character into glittering shards and let us see it whole: Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke “sees” bigger-than-life boxer Jack Johnson; Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A imagines the life of 13-year-old MacNolia Cox, the first African American contestant in a ’30s-era national spelling bee, disqualified by Southern judges with an unofficial word: “nemesis.” If character is destiny, memorize Leonard Gardner’s masterpiece, Fat City: a perfect novel about “allegiance to fate” in late-’50s Stockton, Calif. If you’re a reader who looks askance at the writer of the moment, don’t let that wariness warn you off Penelope Fitzgerald, suddenly awarded the attention we wish she’d had when she was nearly destitute, raising three children in a drafty houseboat on the Thames. She saw it all through to The Blue Flower, her own masterpiece, a book I read every year for sheer pleasure, with depthless thanks.
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