Where do I start? The year was full of chances to read new work from authors I already loved: I ingested Marilynne Robinson’s Lila in a tiny Parisian garret like I was binging on communion wafers, and I felt a crazy gratitude for the ragged, stunning insight of Charles D’Ambrosio’s new essay collection, Loitering. I gave several days of my life to total immersion in Michelle Huneven’s latest novel, Off Course — one of those books that casts a deliciously addictive spell over the days it occupies, then lingers long afterwards with its questions and insights and strokes of emotional acuity: it kept me racing back to my apartment just so I could curl up with it on the couch again. It’s the story of a woman caught in the thrall of a destructive love affair — the seduction of that compromised intimacy, its price — and the whole thing happens in Huneven’s deftly sketched vision of the High Sierras: a bear smearing his nose against glass windows, boots crunching over pine needles, the abjection of waiting for a phone call. The book made me feel — in the smartest, most graceful way — like it was a lantern held up to deeply interior recesses of my own soul.
For a seminar I’ve been teaching on the art of criticism, I re-read two of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Art of Cruelty, books I love for different reasons: The Art of Cruelty honors a kind of restless thinking that resists conclusions; Bluets honors, among other things, the kudzu quality of loss, how it creeps into everything else.
Another book on loss (was every book on loss?) that blew me away and kept me riveted, absolutely locked in its orbit for days, was Will Boast’s recent memoir, Epilogue, about grief and — in the best, subtlest, utterly un-cloying ways — the possibility of unexpected renewal. There’s a chapter about Boast’s attempt to write a short story about his brother — after his death, giving him life somewhere else — that will stay with me for a long time, a man crafting an alternative narrative to hold what he’s haunted by.
A trip to Sri Lanka on assignment sent me down a rabbit hole of research reading: Gordon Weiss’s The Cage, a chilling account of the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war — its bloody final siege — and V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage, a poignantly realized novel about the ripples of that war through the Sri Lankan diaspora community. Back home, I returned to several books of documentary poetry — C.D. Wright’s One Big Self and Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary — that witness certain unseen margins: coal mining communities, incarcerated life.
As fall got seriously cold, I started reading Dorothea Lasky’s new poetry collection, Rome, about lust and dissolution, and reckoning with what language can do for either one, and — brilliantly — Diet Mountain Dew. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you: “And what is not / Well I’ll never know / I will quench the thirst of my stomach / And eat the bitter doughnuts / Under the blank sky.” I read her poems on a crowded 4 train during rush hour and still felt completely immersed — which says something about her voice, how it creates what Olaf (the most infamous snowman of the year) might call a personal flurry.
But the book that meant the most to me this year was one I’d already read a few years back — or rather, listened to and been spellbound by, on a long drive across desolate Western states: Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children, a novel about Vegas and the deep longings people bring to its neon jungle. Its account of a marriage under duress is one of the most powerful visions I’ve ever read of what it means to keep showing up for someone you love, even when you feel absolutely disconnected or humbled by grief. But I am no doubt a biased observer, because — as fate would have it — near the beginning of the year I met Bock in a kitchen, and near the end of it, I married him.
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If you’re interested in the history of the music industry, or have wondered idly how the song that’s stuck in your head got to be there, you should read David Suisman’s detailed and entertaining Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Harvard). Every page held a new discovery for me, from the competitive world of song pluggers (piano-and-crooner teams hired to perform songs in advance of the sheet music publication, often to “spontaneous” applause from plants in the audience), to the rise of the player-piano (in 1900, it would have been regarded as more potentially culture-transforming than phonographs), to the reason tenors surpassed sopranos in popularity (their voices better masked deficiencies in early recording), to Irving Berlin’s nine rules—some seemingly contradictory—to writing a hit song. The chapter on Black Swan Records alone, which from 1921 to 1923 attempted to combine racial uplift with a viable business model, is worth the price of admission. Selling Sounds is a profound and fascinating book, not just for academics but for anyone with ears.
As a chaser, I recommend Geeta Dayal’s Another Green World, another excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series. It’s as much a philosophy book as a “Behind the Music” breakdown, and an invitation to think creatively about creativity.
You can’t open the paper today—sorry, click open your favorite news source—without running into an article pondering China’s shifting relationship with the U.S., often against a backdrop of sharp cultural differences. Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary finds the common denominator in accounts of coal-mining disasters—one in Sago, West Virginia, the others in China. None of the words here are Nowak’s. Instead, he juxtaposes excerpts of Chinese newspaper reports with testimony transcripts (and elementary-school curricula) on the American side. The only original material consists of color photos by himself and Ian Teh, but Coal Mountain Elementary is altogether original, a words-and-image fusion that’s at once simple and rarely seen—something with the energy of a link-rich website and the beautiful, horrible inevitability of a book.