Standout Reads 2015

Finally! Just squeaking by before the end of the first quarter… here’s my list of the best books I came across LAST year. As always, this list has nothing to do with release dates. Honestly, I was a little disappointed with what I read in 2015. I pulled in a couple from 2014, because there were SO MANY I loved from that year I couldn’t fit them all in. The good news is that 2016 is already looking great.

I’ll start with my top pick; after that, totally random order.

FICTION


A
Little Life, Hanya Yanigahara. I won’t say I enjoyed it, but it was the most thought-a little lifeprovoking, chewy novel I read all year. I’m still thinking about it. I’ll think about it forever I bet. Like those great books we read in high school. One of which was…

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy. I read this twice and it bummed m
e out totally both times while feeling absolutely true. I swore I’d never read it again, but after reading A Little Life, I felt I had to revisit it. Yanagihara never says anywhere that she was writing judein counterpoint to Hardy, and neither do any of the reviewers I read, but it seems obvious to me.

The Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante. There are four. Read them in order, starting with My Brilliant Friend. Weep because they are so good, so right, so rightly done, and how did she do it?

Nora Webster, Colm Toibin. Another novel looking at a woman in a small impoverished community, in a country where women’s lives are tightly controlled by said community and by Catholicism, and where poverty is also strictly enforced by social mores. Yet, the narrative is handled very differently. Beautiful book.

Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Perhaps not as polished as some of Haruf’s other books, but it was his last, and I figure he ran out of time. Much to think about here, and to be moved by, as is usual with Haruf. With this story, I found myself considering how wrapped uwatsonp with their own lives adults become, how insensitive to the needs of their children and parents, how insensate to the fact that their children and parents HAVE interior lives.

Let Him Go, Larry Watson. If you’re missing Kent Haruf, go read Watson.


The Blazing World
, Siri Hutsvedt. Can never go wrong with Hutsvedt. She blazingworldshould win everything. An outsized, unfashionable, and rather shrill woman, gifted as an artist, but overshadowed by her art-critic husband, may have gone a little crazy by the way she’s been marginalized, and by
the way her work has been stolen (at first with her blessing as part of her performance art, as part of her POINT about the way women artists are not taken seriously, but later, actually stolen), but then again maybe not, as her final work unequivocally shows her genius.

dark room


The Dark Room
, Rachel Seiffert. Three ways of looking at the Holocaust from the POVs of ordinary Germans, including leading up to it, during the war, and from long after. The middle novella was made into the Canadian movie Lore, also worth watching.

Day of the Oprichnik, Victor Sorokin. A Russian writer has recently made a list: the 10 best books for understanding contemporary Russia. This little oprichnikhorror of a novel, though set in the not-so-distant future, should have been on it.

Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner. First novels have become so workshopped and polished these days. Here is one that may have serious flaws but that also pays off big. This novel takes huge risks. It’s vivid and daring—well worth the read.

gardenSomeone Else’s Garden, Dipika Rai. Stands out among Indian novels for its emphasis on lower-caste women. Beautifully written.

Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum. I didn’t actually rate this novel very highly on Goodreads, but it still stands out for certain reasons. The question of mental health vs. personality disorders for one thing. What the hell was WRONG with that woman?

Girl girlwarat War, by Sara Novic. Another very interesting first novel. This book came under fire for getting some of the details wrong about what may have happened in Zagreb, but I maintain it stays true to what a 10-year-old girl may have remembered. The war in the title stands for a lot of different struggles, both external and internal. Perhaps the ending was a bit too clean, but the book stays with me, and that’s what I look for.

einsteinEinstein’s Beach House, Jacob Appel. It’s hard for a short story collection to make this list, because often some stories really rock and others seem just blah, but this collection shone all the way through. Appel is one of those writers who has published hundreds of stories and won dozens of prizes but only recently has begun seeing his books published. I hope he soon gets the broader recognition he deserves.

NONFICTION

Men We Reaped, Jessmyn Ward. A grief memoir, as Ward gives us the backstory of the young men she grew up with, including a brother, who died violently in her neighborhood, sometimes as a result of their own misdeeds, or just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Structural poverty is the main culprit.

Madam Secretary, Madeleine Albright. No matter what quote you think you’ve heard and why you believe you hate her, you should still read this book. You should read all the books by the secretaries of state. It’s no easy job, and maybe you’ll find out about the deals and the trades and why it’s impossible not zealotto do some harm in this role, and maybe you’ll stop armchair quarterbacking.

Zealot, Reza Aslan. Makes a good case that Jesus was crusader who wanted all non-
Jews out of Israel. That is, he may have been the Jewish equivalent of a jihadist.

The Beast in the Garden, David Baron. How mountain lions changed their ways and came to threaten suburban beastcommunities. Reads like a thriller.

Worlds of Arthur, Guy Halsall. While it’s extremely unlikely that there was ever a King Arthur, here’s a great window into the era in which he would have lived, if he had. (And there are a few assumptions Halsall dismisses out of hand that I’m not sure he should, so maybe there’s a teeny bit of hope, still, though not for a King.)

arthurPOETRY

Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey. What I admire about Trethewey is the precise way she combines the narrative and the lyric… a good chunk of this collection looks at a company of black soldiers who held an island off Louisiana for the North during the Civil War. Trethewey was recently the U.S. Poet Laureate.

Nox, Anne Carson. Designed like a scrapbook, the  book” emphasizes the hopeless nature of trying to reassemble our memory of a person who has committed suicide.

Hard Love Province, Marilyn Chin. This collection is also chasing something ephemeral, a “beautiful boyfriend” who has died.

Many Parishes, Adrian Koesters. One of the best collections I’ve read in years, this debut approaches childhood abuse, sequesterdom (is that a word?), deep religious inquiry, and spiritual emergence with fortitude and tenderness.

JOURNALS

Once in a while I come across journals that I actually read from cover to cover, so I go ahead and recommend them (on top of other journals I’ve mentioned in past years, and my standards, such as Beloit Poetry Journal, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, and that lot):

bosque

Spillway

Tar River Poetry

Iron Horse Literary Review

Ploughshares Solos Omnibus 3

Advice from a Master

Some years ago I took a master class with the poet Marvin Bell. I’d beennightworks galvanized by an interview I read in American Poetry Review. The interview (not linked) was accompanied by a selection of Bell’s Resurrected Dead Man poems. I was only starting to take myself seriously as a poet—i.e., to give myself permission to call myself one. Many people who write fiction regard poetry as something sacred that they have either failed at or “could never do.” And it’s often the case that a poet has tried to write fiction and was told by some teacher that he or she sucked at it, and wound up writing poetry instead.

And some poets and teachers of poetry have strong feelings about the division of art forms. Bell himself has said that writers of prose and poetry do very different things. Novelists must put stuff in, while poets leave things out.

Yet, here I was, writing stories and piling up pages that I thought might one day turn out to be novels. And here were these poems, or things that might be worked into poems, dropping into the various piles on my desk. Was I supposed to cut them up and flush them down the toilet like unwanted children? Bury them in the backyard in the dark of the moon?

I didn’t think so.

deadmanI found the Dead Man poems and their sequels so exciting because of the way they related to sentences. Every line was a sentence, and every sentence was a line. The narrative drive, the energy gripped me—I paced, I talked to myself on walks in the woods—and yet many of the poems talked about the end of things, they discussed what happened when you emptied (after considerable agony) the possibilities.

An MFA was logistically and financially out of reach, so I promised myself I would take a workshop with Bell if I could find one. I did, at Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop.

Some key advice I encountered there, not included below: Examine the strength of the line. If you had to pull a line out of the poem, what would it sound like on its own? Sometimes you need a crappy line just to get to the next one, and sometimes bad sections help the great ones stand out, IMO—a too-polished workshop piece can sometimes be bland. But on the other hand what good are lines like these:

 

or were

 

is to see

 

over and of

 

All from a recent collection of a highly respected American poet (the collection also contains work so stunning I don’t care if he never writes another poem).

Anyway, Bell recently sent me a list of 32 points of advice he likes to give to writers. He says he was asked to write an essay, but he was too lazy and came up with this list instead. I was going to write a blog on an entirely different topic, but I was too lazy. So I’ll post this list instead, with his permission. I may not agree with every point, but this guy has been at this for a long time and has work to his name that I look to again and again. Here’s the core of his philosophy about writing.

 

32 Statements About Writing Poetry

(Work-in-Progress)

1. Every poet is an experimentalist.

2. Learning to write is a simple process: read something, then write something; read something else, then write something else. And show in your writing what you have read.

3. There is no one way to write and no right way to write.

4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff.

5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.

6. You do not learn from work like yours as much as you learn from work unlike yours.

7. Originality is a new amalgam of influences.

8. Try to write poems at least one person in the room will hate.

9. The I in the poem is not you but someone who knows a lot about you.

10. Autobiography rots. The life ends, the vision remains.

11. A poem listens to itself as it goes.

12. It’s not what one begins with that matters; it’s the quality of attention paid to it thereafter.

13. Language is subjective and relative, but it also overlaps; get on with it.

14. Every free verse writer must reinvent free verse.

15. Prose is prose because of what it includes; poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

16. A short poem need not be small.

17. Rhyme and meter, too, can be experimental.

18. Poetry has content but is not strictly about its contents. A poem containing a tree may not be about a tree.

19. You need nothing more to write poems than bits of string and thread and some dust from under the bed.

20. At heart, poetic beauty is tautological: it defines its terms and exhausts them.

21. The penalty for education is self-consciousness. But it is too late for ignorance.

22. What they say "there are no words for"–that’s what poetry is for. Poetry uses words to go beyond words.

23. One does not learn by having a teacher do the work.

24. The dictionary is beautiful; for some poets, it’s enough.

25. Writing poetry is its own reward and needs no certification. Poetry, like water, seeks its own level.

26. A finished poem is also the draft of a later poem.

27. A poet sees the differences between his or her poems but a reader sees the similarities.

28. Poetry is a manifestation of more important things. On the one hand, it’s poetry! On the other, it’s just poetry.

29. Viewed in perspective, Parnassus is a very short mountain.

30. A good workshop continually signals that we are all in this together, teacher too.

31. This Depression Era jingle could be about writing poetry:

Use it up / wear it out / make it do / or do without.

32. Art is a way of life, not a career.

– Marvin Bell

 

Used by permission.

Unpreparing

A further post on the matter of mentally preparing for death. Or un-. Not sure why I’m on this kick. But as I was in the middle of all these thoughts, a high-school English teacher of mine, David Weber, sent me the gorgeous poem below. It was written by another former teacher at Exeter, Charles W. Pratt.

The poem takes the opposite angle from my last post, where I was saying that I would want a little bit of time to meet my own death. Not enough to linger, but enough to say my goodbyes, to express gratitude, and to beg forgiveness where necessary. To get the kind of footing under me that Jane Kenyon seems to have found in her famous piece, “Let Evening Come.”

Let me be immersed in life when it happens, Pratt says in his powerful poem. I hope you’re as moved as I was.

 

Resolution, by Charles W. Pratt

 

When the tsunami draws back its fistful of waters

And crushes the city, let me for once be ready.

Let me be washing the dishes or patting the dog.

 

When the great windstorm angles across the flatlands

Hungry and howling, let me be patting the dog.

Let me kneading the bread or picking an apple.

 

When the ground shudders and splits and all walls fall,

Let me writing a letter or kneading the bread.

Let me holding my lover, watching the sunrise.

 

When the suicide bomber squeezes the trigger

And fierce the flames spurt and wild the body parts fly,

Let me be holding my lover or drinking my coffee.

 

Let us be drinking our coffee, unprepared.

 

“Resolution,” ©2010 by Charles W. Pratt. Used with permission. In From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, New and & Selected Poems, Brookline, NH: Hobblebush Books, 2010. www.hobblebush.com

 

PC250309 (2)

Julian and Tony on The Ridge at Loveland Ski Area, Christmas Day, 2010.

Massive

At the end of last year I posted about some “night terrors” after I met an older man contemplating his impending death. A high-school classmate responded by telling me of his heart attack a few years back. His comments are included at the end of the blog post; he says he felt an overwhelming sorrow at the thought that he might not be able to say goodbye to those he loved and express his gratitude for what they had done for him.

I spent some time thinking about this. Around 12 years ago, my father died. Although many people admired him for his athleticism and charisma, he was your basic deadbeat dad. A violent, manipulative drunk, abusive in every way.

I don’t hold all of it against him. He suffered from at least some combination of these, all untreated: alcoholism, narcissistic personality disorder, ADHD and/or manic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder from World War II, and multiple concussions. God bless the shrink today who would have to deal with that differential diagnosis.

His brain was sclerotic from the alcohol and maybe from bipolar’s kindling effect, and his thinking had grown rigid over the years. Nevertheless, he had the phenomenal memory that ran in his family and that was as legendary in the local bars as his physical strength. He could recite historical names and dates, or your telephone number. At 73, he was still building docks and boathouses, singlehandedly hoisting pressure-treated beams, and competing in triathlons despite his vices.

He was also hilarious, thanks to the kind of reverse empathy the sociopathic and utterly despairing can deploy.

He and I shared an abiding interest in history and a passion for Crazy Horse, psychopathic dictators, European-theater World-War II machinations, and the Revolutionary War. I owe my retention capabilities, my critical thinking skills, and my doggedness to him. If I was never successful at connecting with him, I can hardly regret where the quest has taken me.dad

We didn’t talk often, because I didn’t often have several hours in which to converse about history and politics over the phone. But one day around 12 years ago I had LASIK surgery. I was sent home and told not to open my eyes for a day or so except to go to the bathroom.

Okay, I thought. Why don’t I catch up on my phone calls?

I called up my father and talked to him for around three hours. History. Politics. But also some personal stuff. He’d been working on his issues, or so he said.

He said, “I think I’m finally able to love.” He said that he recognized that for his entire life, he’d been incapable of loving others.

He didn’t come right out and name narcissistic personality disorder, but isn’t that what not being able to love anyone is? One of the defining aspects of the disorder is that someone who has it almost never can have the insight that they have it. For all I know it was his latest con, or self-con. But I think he really hoped.

Five days later, his heart failed.

Coincidentally, this death occurred at a place that was at the center of our childhood summers. He just happened to be working there. And my brother happened be nearby and heard that someone needed help. He rushed to the scene, not knowing that it was our father.

To be sure, heart disease and strokes run in my father’s family, and given the way he abused his body, it’s probably amazing that he made it to age 73. Still, the metaphors are pretty darn glaring.

Despite the overwhelming nature of the heart attack, my father fought it hard. His coworker saw his paroxysms and ran for help, leaving him lying on one end of a very long dock. When he returned with a police officer, my father had reached the other end, climbed up a ramp, and was in the parking lot, where he was having more convulsions.

Maybe this is just what the body does when it dies, and there was nothing conscious about his struggle. Some people said, At least it was quick. But would you want it to be quick? Would you want to be overtaken by death, without a chance to say goodbye, clear things up, offer your thanks?

I think that’s part of my “night terrors” thing. I had a pulmonary embolism in 2004. For about a year afterwards I’d wake in the night grappling with the immediacy of death. Statistically it’s likely that another clot is how I’ll go. And I would think: please, no. I want to know in advance, a little. Not to linger, not to suffer. But to have a chance to make my peace, express my gratitude, say what needs to be said.

In Who Dies?, Stephen Levine suggests that we all, at the very least, try to become comfortable enough with the idea of death to ensure that our last words/thoughts are not OH SHIT.

For all the warnings and signs I’ve had, I’m not sure I’m there.

Are you?

 

Massive

 

I.

You could say he died of a full heart.

It burst with the overturned blue

of the lake beneath the tree-limned

sky. His last meal: hot dog, onions,

Pepsi, thou shalt eat ice cream and chips

in memory of Me. He munched

in the new truck above the harbor

of our childhood, those years of blue-lipped

lessons in heaving, leaf-murked water.

Somewhere there is a steamer sunk

too deep for anyone to find.

 

The waves tugged the ice-mangled dock.

He was about to fix everything,

he had the wet suit on, the muscles

in his back good and strong.

At seventy-three, the muscles

still so impossibly strong.

Ironman, Olympian, no one

rises up in a massive attack

of the heart. Though he tried.

He staggered and he crawled.

 

Is it fullness, or emptiness,

if a father says, five days before his death,

finally he is ready to love?

 

II.

You could say his heart was full

of never having been ready to love.

 

III.

You could say it was cholesterol,

alcohol.

 

IV.

There are so many ways to love a father.

Seven years old: ski black diamonds, never

letting him out of your sight; eleven:

sneak gulps of his manhattan; thirty-seven:

come upon the scene too late, the giant

purpling before your eyes.

Leave one rose floating near

the far, deep end of the tilted pier,

artery-colored in the lungless lake.

Lonely, beautiful, begging for rescue

from the tourists ever coming to this place,

this harbor of learning to swim.

 

Originally published in Vermont Literary Review Summer/Fall 2008.