Last year was the year of finishing my novel. I didn’t read as much as usual and what I read, I read with bleary eyes. But one advantage of my mentally wrecked state was that the books that stayed with me really had a dazzle to them. Stylistically or intellectually, I needed someone to overpower me and make me pay attention.
I loved Akiko Busch’s brilliant Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. It suggests with gentle grace and sly wit the virtues of being inconspicuous, unseen, or unheralded in this over-documented age.
At an airport, I bought Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World despite its dubious cover and placement in the business section. So glad I did. Giridharadas has the seemingly impossible ability to turn the analysis of complicated systems into a fascinating page-turner. How? How? I am definitely going to dig my Eat the Rich button out of the box in my closet in his honor.
Finally, I reread one book that I had first read seven years ago and it still contained multitudes. It was written by criminologist Stanley Cohen, and the title says it all: States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. It is an unsettling and incredibly lucid book that addresses questions of direct and indirect complicity with great wisdom.
In fiction and poetry, there were some dazzlers too. I was thrilled to come across Michael Earl Craig’s Talkativeness. His poems are beautiful and beautifully deadpan. I keep returning to them.
Lara Vapnyar’s Divide Me by Zero was another delight. An incredibly inventive and insightful novel about a Russian-American woman whose life falls apart slowly and then all at once.
And Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8 isn’t out until March but it’s fantastic and strange. The plot concerns a plan to steal a million chickens so it basically couldn’t be more interesting.
The funniest book I read all year was a book of poems. I didn’t expect to laugh, which is often the best way to embark on said activity, and then I couldn’t help it: Michael Earl Craig’s Talkativeness, which came out in 2014 from Wave Books, is both lovely and hilarious. I haven’t been so bowled over by a poet’s sense of humor since…well, possibly ever. Too often the poems that cross my desk seem like a word salad tossed almost entirely for a hipster luncheon at the We’re All Poets Club (a phenomenon Craig touches on, possibly, in a poem called “Perhaps You See Where I Am Heading”). Such poetry uses words like “diacritical” that are too lofty for the likes of me and tend to make the enterprise of poetry seem more like an intellectual pose than an access to the ineffable. But Craig’s book is clearly 4 All Mankind, as it says, just a tad ironically, on the label of those two-hundred-dollar jeans — which isn’t to say it’s not subtle and idiosyncratic, because it is. I’m not talking Ogden Nash; Talkativeness is never cute. It’s full of wisdom and elegance and beauty, all those good things lined with a comic edge so sharp it made me laugh aloud (as I sat on an airplane this is a completely full flight beside a woman who held on her lap a very large deep-dish pizza).
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