As I did last year, as a sort of alternative to a “Best of” list, I thought I’d give you a run-down of the books I blurbed over the course of 2016. If I have time, I follow it up later with books I never got around to formally blurbing, but should have.
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1) Sudden Death, by Alvaro Enrigue (trans. by Natasha Wimmer)
Sudden Death is going to be a revelation for a whole lot of people this year. (It was already my favorite book of 2016 when I read an advance copy in 2015!)
We are in the midst of a new golden age of Mexican literature, and Sudden Death has opened even more audacious paths for this most cosmopolitan storytelling. To retell the plot does the novel very little service — which isn’t to say it is plot-less or even particularly difficult to follow. Rather, it is tightly wound (not unlike the balls used in the epic duel of a tennis match that functions simultaneously as the novel’s centerpiece and frame) and bounds expertly between centuries from Old World to New.
Sudden Death is, at its core, a very angry book – specifically, at the insipid successes of the world’s colonizers – but it is an anger born of play and the censure of comedy. The bad guy may always win in the end, Enrigue seems resigned to say, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the losers’ little victories along the way.
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Not quite poems. Not quite essays. C. D. Wright’s final collection [edit: there has since been a posthumously released collection of poems, Shallcross, which is tremendous; and I suspect more still to come] before her untimely death earlier this year is a fitting farewell for — and arguably even introduction to — a poet who defied formal identification. In the course of saluting the likes of Robert Creeley, Jean Valentine, and William Carlos Williams, and meanderingly reflecting on her time spent in Mexico and with those who have lost lifetimes in prison, Wright gives us a master-class in modern American poetry. Fans of Mary Ruefle’s underground classic, Madness, Rack, and Honey, should take special note.
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3) Olio, by Tyehimba Jess
Olio is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. How often does a person get to say that? Tyehimba Jess’ second book is a mash-up of sonnet, song, and story, and neither the fiction nor fact of American history looks the same again. A celebration of the works, lives, and defiance of African American artists and musicians who suffered (then and today) minstrelizing stereotypes. Olio is an education and encyclopedia.
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4) Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962 – 1972, by Alejandra Pizanik (trans. by Yvette Siegert)
Adored by the titanic likes of Octavio Paz, Roberto Bolaño, and Julio Cortazar, amongst many others, it is something of a mystery why it’s taken so long for these poems to reach Anglo ears. If you’ve been privy to her for as long as you can remember and cherish your private holding of her as you might any rare treasure, I apologize. For these poems, quite simply, must be experienced.
(Another due apology: to the friends who have been receiving, during the darkest parts of the evening, text-messaged photos of her poems, with attending exclamation marks in lieu of sufficient commentary.)
There is a prismatic quality to Pizarnik’s language. Her poems are often simple, in the most immediate sense. Each resembles to me a discrete solid thing — as though you might reach through the page and touch it, as one might a stone. But in her tragic pursuit, by way of poetry, of a silence that can only ever be put into language, we find a stone that refracts light in unexpected ways.
Similarly, though the comparisons between Pizarnik and Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath seem concrete and helpful pegs for our understanding, something happens as we read — our Anglo eyes darting to the Spanish, mouthing her words alongside their translation. We are exposed to (and perhaps by) Pizarnik’s sense of a profound (because it is shared) betrayal that is an indelible part of the human experience. Her ultimate vision is a dark one, to be sure. But by the light of her brilliant language we see something in the dark that is not of the dark. So we keep reading, knowing full well it could be but a trick of the eyes.
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5) Ninety-Nine Stories of God, by Joy Williams
Sorry, pals new and old, but one of America’s great literary treasures, Joy Williams, has introduced a new measure for our friendship. Do you like Ninety-Nine Stories of God? Okay, I’m being a little dramatic there. But, rest assured, if you don’t, I’m keeping an eye on you. In all seriousness, though, she has crafted something special — one of those books that begin as a secret, turn into a surprise, and unfold into a classic.
Technically, I guess the ninety-nine stories are flash (or micro) fictions — each only 1 or 2 pages. But the mysteries, contradictory readings, surface humor boring deep not only reward but outright demand multiple readings. Each time I wanted to move along to the next piece, inevitably my eyes would scan back to what I’d just read and it looked and sounded differently than before. The humor is often pitch dark, sometimes absurd, but never cynical or silly. These koan-like stories are of God, after all — a point they take seriously enough to not spell out for the reader. They’re after bigger fish than belief or disbelief. We’ll be working out for a while exactly what they’ve netted, and this may be entirely the point.
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(6) The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera (trans. by Lisa Dillman)
It was no surprise at all to me that Yuri Herrera’s US debut, Signs Preceding the End of the World, was such a huge hit at our Oakland store last year — one of our top-selling books of the year, in fact. I described the realism of that novel as akin to that of a vivid dream. There are a good many “causes,” whose effects proliferate … but at a peculiar, withheld pace that somehow advances by keeping its distance.
Not coincidentally, Herrera is one of the great novelists concerned with what borders mean and do. Where his previous novel was apocalyptic in its depiction of borders — with its mythological structure — his latest is perhaps more existentially epidemic. Violence is a sickness endured and spread, and it traffics in bodies in motion.
Perhaps less epic in its scope, Herrera’s foray into noir has a kind of (more or less nameless) specificity that will resonate in different (but not unrelated) ways. After all, the borders between one body and another, are permeable, sometimes imperceptible … but they are thick with meaning and possibility.
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7) White Rage, Carol Anderson
as bad as I thought about
the same as I figured it
all bleeds together.
Carol Anderson’s excellent new book provides layers of context for the anger displayed (and deployed). While she offers no solutions for this present moment that feels as though it is dragging down the future, it is because the weight of history itself has its own free-fall gravity. With the same precision and clarity that informed her much-discussed op-ed in the smoldering wake of Ferguson, which compelled her to dig even deeper into its historical precedents, Anderson’s argument is stark. Namely, at every turn of U.S. history since the 13th Amendment, when black Americans were on the verge of democratic and economic advancement, if never quite unequivocal equality, there have been attending infernos of anger not only blocking the ways forward but charring the paths taken. The moral judgment of history is most damning when it repeats itself.White Rage is a sobering, timely read that asks us to consider the enormity of the task at hand — for white Americans not simply to educate themselves about the wrongs their privilege has inflicted, but to submit themselves to being educated by black Americans for the wrongs still being done.
“And they all lived happily ever after.” This is what the storybooks say, anyway. Everybody’s happy at the end of her book, Jill notices, except the dragon, who must settle for being hated and feared. She isn’t having any part of that!
Jill invites the dragon out of the book — that’s all it takes, you know — to teach him some skills that go beyond singeing castles. He makes a botch of things at first. Dragons are going to dragon, it seems. All seems lost until they discover the dragon’s surprising culinary artistry fit for its own cookbook!
Lesley Barnes’ picture book is gorgeously illustrated and wittily told. It is a true treasure.
I don’t really like ever hearing a book called “perfect.” A dollop of imperfection is, in my eyes, the mark of a book that’s really striving for something new — and because that “something new” never quite fits exists categories to judge it, “perfect” just never seems quite right. Having said that, I’m also no dogmatic! Sometimes a book defies even my own defiant expectations and preferences, and I’m forced to dig deep for appropriate synonyms. In the case of Natalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden, the most appropriate word I’ve landed upon is exquisite.
What’s going on in this book is hard to down into a blurb. A mash of imagination and fact, biography and fiction, Léger is as curious about what she is doing as we are. You needn’t know much about the cinematic work of Barbara Loden or her cult film, Wanda, the analysis of which is the pivot around which this little books turns. This is because Légerger’s singular obsession somehow, and brilliantly, expands into something universal about all the untold things that are lost and gained in teh course of “playing our role” / “playing one’s role” in life.
So, yes, “exquisite” will do perfectly for Suite for Barbara Loden. I really cannot recommend this small press gem highly enough.
Every year I allot space in my book budget for a couple of big art books. The criteria is pretty simple: will I be completely gutted if I wait too long to buy this, it slips out of print, and I never see it again. (Such is life with some of the greatest art books.) Last year it was Mexico Illustrated, 1920-1950 (happily, that one’s still alive and kicking!). This year, without a doubt, it is Paint the Revolution. I’m especially taken with the variety of themes and styles, which all seem to swirl into something mesmerizingly unified.
I’m so in love with this book, I’m already pricing tickets to Mexico City to see the exhibition there in 2017. (Currently it is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but who can be bothered with Philly in the winter?)