The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

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A Year in Reading: Kaulie Lewis

I’ve tried to come up with so many different themes for this year and the way I read my way through it. The year I read all the Russians! The year I read all the sad white woman poetry! The year I tried and failed to read all the books I’ve been hoarding under my sofa! And all of those are true, but none of them are all the truth. For me, reading comes in waves; these are the ones I’ll remember from 2017.

There was the week I spent in March reading The Master and Margarita on a river bank while my family kayaked in circles. My surprise when I discovered the book was infinitely more fixated on Pontius Pilate than on tequila is both embarrassing and, I maintain, not wholly unreasonable. My surprise when I found myself silently rooting for a demon cat on rampage in Soviet Moscow was just fun. Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire is biting, his characters insane, and his story strangely and deeply moving. I recommended the book to everyone I talked to for months, and I recommend it now. And as a kind of bonus, The Master and Margarita somehow, eventually, led me to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, now one of my all-time favorite essay collections.

Later, over the long Texas summer, I filled the days and nights with women writers and what must have been gallons and gallons of sparkling water. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God felt like a miracle to me—why hadn’t anyone recommended it before?—and I fell through Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jane: A Murder, The Argonauts, and The Art of Cruelty in a matter of days. I read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a sharp and challenging look at how we’re failing to respond to the migration crisis striking Central America and the U.S. Then I picked up the collected poems of H.D. for a cooling dose of classicism and a biography (or three) of Joan of Arc, who reminded me how to fight.

It was also over the summer that I looked around my apartment and realized (not for the first time) that I own far too many books I’ve never read and keep accumulating more. I spent the next few months trying to read through all the books stacked around and under and over all my furniture. That meant a lot of Graham Greene—The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, both immeasurably powerful books I’ve already stacked in my reread pile—and finally finishing Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which I resisted and resisted until it undid me completely. It also meant trying to force my way through a tattered old copy of the Essays of Elia, for some reason, which made me abandon the whole project.

There’s one book, though, that I’m thinking about more than any other as we all collapse towards the end of 2017: Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation. Though first released in 2014, when the national conversation about vaccination was much bigger than, say, any talk of an immigration ban, I’m willing to argue this book has grown more significant over the years, not less. Biss’s elegant explanation of our interconnected fates, her careful consideration of what we owe one another and her gentle (and not-so-gentle) unraveling of our isolating, protectionist instincts is a powerful reminder that we don’t—and can’t—move through this world alone.

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A Year in Reading: Garth Greenwell

Early in the year, an editor’s comment on an essay draft sent me back to Émile Zola, whom I hadn’t read since graduate school. And I think even then I only read one novel, L’Assommoir, which somehow didn’t make an overwhelming impression. It made one now, and I spent the first couple of months of 2017 reading novel after novel, in a state of real amazement. Zola is an uneven writer, sometimes careless, and he’s a deeply uncongenial writer for me in the attitude of knowingness he takes toward his characters, his sense that contemporary theories of human behavior adequately explain human beings, without any remainder of mystery. This sense of knowingness results, often enough, in an impression of authorial contempt. In his determination to show the social rot in France’s Second Empire, his plots follow the same monotonous course from bad to worse to devastated.

And yet. At his best, Zola gets more reality into his books than any other writer I can think of, and this fidelity to the real—to how laundry is washed and beaten and dried, to how a horse is lowered into a mine—his meticulous, obsessive need to get things right, makes the books absolutely thrilling. And even if his theories deny human mystery, his characters, at least at the books’ finest moments, reclaim it. Nana regarding herself in the mirror, purring like a cat; the anarchist Souvarine stroking a rabbit on his lap; la Mouquette mooning the houses of the rich: these are moments of pure literature, I think, that wondrous excess of behavior and feeling that swamps reductive theory. I was pulled away from Zola, after seven or eight novels, to other projects; I’m itching to get back.

Toward the end of the year, a stray reference in Maggie Nelson’s fascinating The Art of Cruelty finally sent me to a book several friends had enthused about over the years: T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death. All of my training in the arts has been musical and literary; I’ve always been (I remain) embarrassed of my ignorance regarding visual art, to which my response is sometimes powerful but never informed. The Sight of Death is a remarkable demonstration of what an exquisitely informed eye can see. Over the course of months, during a residency at the Getty museum in L.A., Clark studies two huge landscapes by Nicolas Poussin—studying them not in his usual scholarly, historically-informed way, but simply by looking. This book is the record of what he sees. The gamble of the project is that something about great art really is inexhaustible: that we can return to a great poem or painting or sonata again and again, always finding ourselves newly challenged. The gamble pays off here, and the gorgeous and generous illustrations allow us to participate in Clark’s looking, to see some shadow of what he sees. Seldom have I been more grateful to a book.

Among new books: Frank Bidart’s Half-Light, which collects 50 years of poetry, is for me the book not just of the year but of the decade. Yiyun Li’s devastating, consoling Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is among the most profound books I’ve ever read about the relationship between life and reading. And finally, two novels that I read in 2017 but that are coming out in 2018: First, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, out in January, is the best new novel I’ve read in a very long time, a gorgeous and profound interrogation of fidelity of all kinds. And Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, out in June, is far too wise to be a debut novel; I’m not sure I know another book that measures so exactly and compassionately the lines of resentment and love that stitch together a family.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Meaghan O’Connell

The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets — this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading.

I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in.

When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master.

If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power.

On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head.

After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over.

I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish.

All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould — who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading — told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more.

As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail.

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A Year in Reading: Leslie Jamison

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.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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