As I mentioned in a post a few months back, I’ve been working the past couple of years at a independent bookstore in Oakland. While this has done wonders for keeping me up on new books, released & forthcoming, I’m becoming a little concerned my eyes for older titles — the stuff of dusty library discovery — is not quite what it was. Something to address, perhaps, in 2015.
Onward to the books!
- Eimear McBride, Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Much has been made of this book elsewhere. It was lauded with awards in across Britain & Ireland, and many an American reviewer ooo’d. A few surely eww’d, because it is definitely a love-or-hate thing, wallowing in linguistic indulgences that many Anglophones thought was resigned to the dust of their well-thumbed if unread copies of Ulysses. It is, though, also full of raw heart & nerve, and McBride is fearless in her presentation of language forming alongside a narrator’s sense of self and sex. I liked this book very much. Here’s a link to McBride reading a short portion.
- Hervé Guibert, The Mausoleum of Lovers (Journals 1976-1991). Speaking of raw heart & nerve, The Mausoleum of Lovers is bound by each. For twenty-five years, Guibert kept a series of brutally honest journals and invited his lovers to read. Such was life before the internet, kids. In them, well … he gets downright pornographic at times, neurotic, comedic, mundane, and (nearly throughout) eloquent. He imagines throughout a novel composed only as a journal, and if he wasn’t strictly pursuing this, I think he possibly achieves it anyway. There is a peculiar narrative energy at work here that is reminiscent to, though to my eyes also more provocative than, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. As I commented elsewhere, where the latter is a kind of pure striving, warts & all, Guibert’s is an outright achievement, and bears the scars.
- Nell Zink, The Wallcreeper. Another buzzy book you may have already heard about. The New York Times loved it — though I think their reviews were a little wide of the mark when it comes to something so small as, um, what the book is about — and sites like Flavorwire have feted her throughout their numerous Year-End lists. Believe the hype, I say. From my Newsletter review for the store:
Steady yourself Review Reader, here comes a superlative: The Wallcreeper is the best debut novel I’ve read this year. Nell Zink’s humor is never so prickly or wit so pointed as they are razor sharp and ready for blood. We could call it a frank domestic tale of two people’s juggling-act of a marriage — their wayward eye horniness flying high over large swathes of Europe as their synchronized affection for birds falls to earth — but this wouldn’t do justice to Zink’s penetrating reflection on perhaps the most ecological of questions, as earthy as it is philosophical, “Just what the hell are we doing here?”
What we find in The Wallcreeper is that answers to questions like this are usually tucked where you often look last — where you, the one wondering, already are, hopped up on hormones (not always yours), mournful of mistakes (mostly yours), and an integral part of the world you wish you could save (always). Read this book. Blush at the frank sex. Laugh at the jokes. And, we’re told in the end, “Learn, learn, and once again learn.”
- Jean-Patrick Manchette, Fatale and The Mad & the Bad. A year or two, I think I wrote lovingly about Derek Raymond’s Factory series. This year, though, I started wading a bit deeper into International Crime Writing waters. So, Manchette was a big, joyful discovery for me. Both of these books are short and probably best read in one burst. The Mad & the Bad, in particular, due to the fact that it is mostly an extended chase scene, complete with erratic gunfire & Molotov cocktails. Manchette is a Leftist’s delight, and he wears his politics proudly.
- William McIlvanney, The Laidlaw Trilogy. I love Glasgow. Studying there may have made me debtor for life, and I suffered many a dreary winter there, but I love the city and the people. I also, as it turns out, love their crime writer supreme, William McIlvanney. Sadly, I was a snobbish academic when I lived in Glasgow, so I didn’t even learn of him until this year, when my boss handed me an advance copy of Laidlaw, the first book of this massively influential, if under-appreciated, trilogy that was finally being re-discovered. Jack Laidlaw is a great noir creation — progressively broken down by his desire to know “the why” rather than simply “the who” behind each crime — and these books breathe the city, but not in an excessively nostalgic way that require you to know it. McIlvanney was told when he originally wrote them, thirty years ago, that if he wrote one a year, he’d be a millionaire. So like any self-respecting Socialist Scot, he began instead writing poetry & essays. Whatever he chooses, he is a flat-out brilliant writer, and can go flashy as well as blunt, and clearly labors over every sentence. Note: The first two books of this trilogy are currently available in the US, with the third arriving this spring.
- Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. This is another somewhat older book that was a a kind of revelation to me. I’d heard about it before, but the World Cup this summer gave me extra motivation finally to read. The regret that tag-teams with joy at discovering a book you should’ve already known & been talking about! There is a bit of Borges’ Imaginary Beings in Galeano’s history of world soccer. It entertains mythology at the same table as verifiable fact. One of the best books about sport every written, and probably the best sports book you can love without loving sports.
- Pierre Michon, Winter Mythologies and Abbots. Similar in a way to Galeano’s book, as well as to a book dear to my heart, Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary lives, Michon conjures up the lives of the forgotten or dimly seen saints and scientists into fabulist micro-biographies. It has sentences like “He rereads his words and tastes pure happiness,” and this pleases me.
- Valeria Luisella, Faces in the Crowd. Others have said it, so let me echo: 2014 has been an amazing year for female debuts. Luisella had, quite plainly, a helluva year. In addition to her haunting and spare collection of essays also published by Coffee House Press, Sidewalks (which many whose opinions I value liked even better), there was her hugely ambitious novel Faces in the Crowd. I’ve been put on the spot several times to describe the plot, which I’m loath to do in general, and this is what I’ve come with: “Two narrators, each haunting the narration and memory of the other, seamlessly swerve, recollecting their loves and losses. Is each fading into the other, or are they simply fading away? One of the narrator’s description of her novel-in-progress matches that of Luiselli’s achievement: ‘A horizontal novel, told vertically. A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within.'” .
- Nicolas Rothwell, Belomor. Readers of W. G. Sebald, definitely take note of Nicolas Rothwell. His life and work coil around one another like the serpents that slide through this strange book. Educated in Europe, Rothwell’s vision of the world is born of an exhausted Old World melancholy; living in rural Australia, his vision of life inhabits the dust (& its denizens) of the New World. Meditatively paced without being overly ponderous, Belomor weaves together fiction, art history and journalism, and defies easy categorization.
- Allen C. Shelton, Where the North Sea Touches Alabama. Shelton is rooting around in similar veins as Rothwell, though set mostly in the American South, where the blood has always been a little toxic. This bizarre, wonderful book is perhaps too easily overlooked because it is so difficult to pin down. The back-page blurb is accurate, but also doesn’t quite do it justice. Is it about a passionate, suicidal artist you almost certainly have never heard of? Yes . . . yes, it is — but only in the sense that a haunted house is exclusively about the ghosts inhabiting it. What if the ghosts are incidental visitors and the true story is the house that invites them? This is how I read Where the North Sea Touches Alabama. Shelton may be a sociologist by trade, but he is a writer of Southern Gothic at heart, and here he successfully taps into a Southern imaginary that exists only in memories turned ghosts (or is it vice versa?). His book is a mesmerizing weaving of biography and cultural analysis, and it bears patience, but it comes with its rewards.
- Stanley Elkin, The Franchiser. Elkin was an untameable stylist who never apologized for his over-indulgences. He was also funny as hell. I’ve read a good many of his books, but realized this summer I’d not yet read this one, one of hist most beloved. Not sure I like it as much as I did George Mills, which most people it seems didn’t care for at all. Not at all sure what says about me, them, or Elkin. The key, as with all of his books, is to give yourself over to the storytelling, of which there is plenty, from the head-in-the-clouds tall to scraping-the-bottom low, and to the blurrily-realistic patter he could lay on a page like none other.
- This list seems to be longer than usual, so I’ll finish with a rapid-fire rat tat tat of poetry / poetic prose:
• Mark Strand, Collected Poems • Claudia Rankine, Citizen • Fred Moten, The Feel Trio • Aimé Césaire, Return to My Native Land • Cees Nooteboom, Light Everywhere • Henri Michaux, Thousand Times Broken • Diogo Mainardi, The Fall • Paul Griffiths, The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories • David Connerley Nahm, Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky • Paul Valéry, Dialogues [a re-reading of this . . . NYRB, please get this back into print where it belongs]
Oh, and a post-script YouTube link, since I did something similar w/ H.D. last year. Tradition and all, you know.