I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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I once hit Louise Glück after one of her readings, oddly with her own books. Of course, I did so unwittingly. During the post-reading mingle, I kept trying to place my book bag on my shoulder, but it kept bumping against something and wouldn’t stay. That something was her, and when my embarrassment met her surprised eyes, any alarm disappeared. We could see the mistake, and understanding was very clean, almost surgically so, like a line of her verse.
About a decade ago, I read Louise Glück with enthusiasm, and, in the end, fatigue at what I recognized. The poems were doses of medication. Her work has always “spoken” to me more than many poets because she examines the concerns I have about being in the world: loneliness and being alone, searching for happiness, and desiring to have my feelings validated, though they often aren’t. Her poetry is both direct and indirect, as she will talk through a feeling, but sometimes dress the speaker of the poem in a mythical mask as she uses many Ancient Greek deities and characters in The Wild Iris, Meadowlands, and Vita Nova. Her one book of essays, Proofs and Theories, published in 1994, provides further insight to her artistic philosophies. The last essay, “On Impoverishment,” has a few tempered lines on Glück’s major theme, despair:
Despair in our culture tends to produce wild activity: change the job, change the partner, replace the faltering ambition instantly. We fear passivity and prize action, meaning the action we initiate. But the self cannot be willed back. And flight from despair forfeits whatever benefit may arise in the encounter with despair.
So many times I have heard people say, “Poetry doesn’t make anything happen,” but I believe they say that out of chagrin at the way poetry is treated by the popular culture. It’s viewed as arcane, difficult, effeminate, and as useless as some humanities people regard geometry. Most poetry makes things happen off-camera. One reads it on a sofa and a line overwhelms and his or her regard for life is colored by a burnishing of the words and sounds.
At that distant time in my life I was seeking epiphany and the epiphanies Glück concocted, those ending points and moments of ultimate response, were similar to the ending of many an Ingmar Bergman film — abrupt, cruel in its truth, but spectacular. Take the “The Silver Lily” from Glück’s most prized collection, The Wild Iris. In it, the speaker of the poem, maybe God or some creator, asks the other presence, a woman, “Will speech disturb you?” Therein that first presence implores her to look at the bounty of nature and the universe, in particular the moon:
In spring, when the moon rose, it meant
time was endless. Snowdrops
opened and closed, the clustered
seeds of the maples fell in pale drifts.
Finally the being offers:
We have come too far together toward the end now
to fear the end. These nights, I am no longer even certain
I know what the end means. And you, who’ve been with a man—
after the first cries,
doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?
Here Glück attacks the normal configurations of despair produced by a life of pain. So she won’t get sad at the end of the connection, which will also be the end of poem, the being reminds her of sex she has had and how joy and fear end in the same silence. The consolation of nature is fractured as the being tells the pained woman all feelings are born in the same stream in which they will also die. There is a good deal of white space on the page, including the gap after the em dash, and there one can imagine the ghosts of words that Glück doesn’t use to fight this force. The ending question cancels out any response from the woman and nature, both devoid of speech — the world remains mystifying to the humans who depend on it to renew their belief in the life they live.
Once I showed my uncle, who had originally piqued my interest in Louise Glück, her poem “Purple Bathing Suit,” where a woman speaks to a man in such a suit. After its sucker punch, “your back is my favorite part of you, / the part furthest away from your mouth,” my uncle said, “Boy, she really hates men.” And men can hate women, because the book is a documentation of both, the complete war. But I think after most Glück poems there is insight and disturbance, and to some, maybe the majority of people who seek poetry, disturbance is as alluring as sunset, because that sensation is what drove them to read poetry and often what drove poets to write it. In Glück’s world, to be ultra-conscious is to be conscious of pain and the words that delineate that indelicacy are the simplest. Ideas and questions that act as deep pools are inhabited by everyday words and often in short lines, like Emily Dickinson before her. When, in “The Silver Lily,” she says, “doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?” she brings basic words together. Two of them, “joy” and “fear,” are very hot. The others, “doesn’t,” “like,” “make,” “no,” and “sound,” we use to get through most days. Like T.S. Eliot, she reorders the familiar musically (that last line is iambic) to train the reader to trust her words and isolate them and so to slow down life.
One night last winter, while I read again each book of Louise Glück’s in the original slim hardbacks, I sat in a car taking an hour break from my homeless outreach job in Manhattan. My co-worker and I were parked just off 41st Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, near a hotspot of homeless activity. It’s a dirty street, one of the many garbage dumping areas in Hell’s Kitchen, where men set up lean-to’s and shanties out of industrial cardboard boxes to sleep among rats crawling about for food. While my co-worker sat napping, I reread Glück’s 1988 collection Ararat. When my co-worker couldn’t sleep she thumbed through the scrolling Instagram feed on her phone. “Can I read you a poem?” I asked and she quickly agreed, almost as if she longed for a reason to quit the endless stream of information, welcoming any distraction from distraction. I read the last poem, “First Memory,” because it was short and powerful, the way I remember it from when I carried Ararat like a bible, with its final lines, “…from the beginning of time, / in childhood, I thought/that pain meant / I was not loved. / It meant I loved.” An apt summary to a book of such dredging and loosening, all those years ago it seemed I didn’t read poems but readouts from a heart cooked by memories and impatient to re-season them into an idea of some order and clarity. The message still held, though the word “loved” carried very different meanings from its first use to the next, beyond the passive and active tenses. It meant in 10 years I had loved and had been loved and I now loved differently because of time. The speaker of the poem can only come to her sweet conclusion from a distance of years, and only with 10 more years of experience, of loves lost and gained, could the startling already past tense of “love” trigger a charge and a recognition of the beauty of responsibility.
I read it to her slowly, in a voice that I thought the speaker of the poem would adopt if the speaker’s voice could be heard. After I finished my co-worker immediately popped up, turned the car light on, and told me to hold the book still. She took a picture of “First Memory” with her phone and then shared it.