Friday, December 20, 2013

My other favorites of 2013

When rocketlass and her team won two (2!) Webbys for their redesign of the University of Chicago's main website earlier this year, she described their place at the awards ceremony as being sort of like that moment on the Oscar telecast where the announcer-voiced announcer says, "In a special ceremony earlier today, Academy Awards were given out for Best Sound Design in a Norwegian Documentary about Fjords."

You'll just have to trust me when I say that, after Monday's and Wednesday's posts about my favorite fiction and nonfiction of the year, today's mish-mash of categories doesn't represent any lesser loves. These are all books I'd vouch for just as powerfully as the ones on the more traditional lists. So here goes.

Favorite poetry of 2013

As Ed Park put it in the San Francisco Chronicle the other day, "If you buy one book of poetry this year - well, you should probably buy more than one, right?" Here's a pair.

Carrie Olivia Adams's Forty One Jane Doe's: I would quote more from this one but I gave my copy to an old bookselling friend, pressed it fervently upon him. It's that sort of book. Carrie--who, like a few others on this week's lists, is a friend--surprises with her images, searches for knowledge in antiquated sciences, and wafts over all a hint of menace. Her lines break unexpectedly, jaggedly, pull to a stop defiantly, even breathlessly. Her Jane Does are like noir heroines, seductive and dangerous, even when (possibly?) dead. "I don't know why this one or that one. But I know desire." "I don't know how to close / a door, but I am sending / the sound of it latching."

Ernest Hilbert's All of You on the Good Earth: Aside from a shade of shared noir sensibility, Hilbert's poetry couldn't be less like Carrie Adams's: where hers is fractured and fragmented, his is regimented and formal. He's that rare thing these days, a sonneteer, but he brings a conversational vibrancy to the form that continually pushes against its constraints even as it draws strength from them. And, oh, the pleasures he takes in sound and rhythm and rhyme! "Taped up, damp now, smeared photo of the stray / On each scratched steel lamppost along the way."

Favorite comic of 2013

Though I greatly enjoyed Jonathan Hickman's wondrously cosmic storyline in the Avengers titles this year, it probably requires far too much knowledge of the Marvel Universe to be a sensible recommendation for outsiders. Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon, on the other hand, requires only that you be willing to countenance the idea of a superhero . . . and then to watch that superhero remain heroic while dealing with the ordinary failures of daily life. It's funny and clever and surprising and beautifully drawn. (For those of you who do know the Marvel Universe, I should also recommend Fraction and Michael Allred's FF, the goofiest take yet on the meaning of the Fantastic Four.)

Favorite letters collection of 2013

Oh, J. F. Powers. What more can I say about him? His fiction is funny, moving, perceptive, worldly yet aware of grace. Because his output was relatively meager and he's thought of as "that guy who wrote about priests," he's given short shrift, but there are few writers of the last half of the twentieth century whose work I cherish more. So the arrival of Suitable Accomodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963 felt like a gift, a wholly unexpected chance to engage once again with Powers's inimitable voice. And what is grace but an unearned, unexpected dispensation? If you've not read Powers, start with Morte D'Urban or the short stories; if you have read Powers, pick up this book. You won't be disappointed.

Favorite daybook for the bedside table

Tom Nissley's A Reader's Book of Days: Opening pages of this calendrical collection of anecdotes at random just now, I found that on July 6, 1953, Michael Straight in the New Republic wrote of Colette that her "preoccupation is of course with women, and she despises all of them but one." And that on August 8, 1920, Katherine Mansfield wrote of E. M. Forster,
So aware is he of his sensitiveness, of his sense of humour, that they are become two spectators who follow him wherever he goes, and are for ever on the look-out for a display of feeling.
And that on October 11, 2007, Doris Lessing, on being told by reporters on her doorstep that she had won the Nobel Prize, sighed, "Oh, Christ." And there are entries for Anthony Powell and Donald Westlake and Barbara Pym and Iris Murdoch and Penelope Fitzgerald and Rex Stout and Norman Maclean and M. R. James and Samuel Johnson, and oh, have you not gone to buy this book already?


  1. In 2013 I finally read Powers for the first time, and loved Morte D'Urban, which is the best book I've read all year. (Reminded me of my hero Sinclair Lewis, but with a drier wit and more compassion for humanity.) I'm looking forward to reading the letters book eventually, though I want to read the collected stories first.

  2. I enjoyed Hickman's Infinity, but not as much as I enjoyed two of his Image titles, East of West and Manhattan Projects. Those are both great series.

  3. Pete: the stories are great, particularly "A Losing Game," which makes me break into helpless laughter every time I read it, and it's companion, "The Presence of Grace," which almost makes you reconsider that laughter by presenting an unexpected new perspective. (The other novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, while lesser, is also quite good.)
    Nick: I like the story of Manhattan Projects, but I dislike the style of art so much I haven't been able to read it.
    East of West, on the other hand, I don't know at all. A trip to the comics shop is in order!