Monday, December 21, 2009

The year draws in--time for a list!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I'm not generally inclined to make a year-end best books list, but this year it occurred to me that I could use the occasion to note some books that I failed to write about, despite their being among my very favorites. So here goes: a novel, a book of poems, and a category for special circumstances.


Karl O. Knausgaard's A Time for Everything (2004, translated by James Anderson and published in 2009 by Archipelago Books) is the only novel I read this year that could come close to challenging Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as the most absorbing, affecting read of the year. Shifting between philosophical detachment and psychological realism, A Time for Everything mixes reflections on the nature of angels in Christian history with retellings of a couple of stories from the bible.

If that doesn't sound promising to you, stay with me for a minute: the reflections on angels offer bookish, antiquarian pleasures in the playfully questing spirit of Eco or Borges--but with the addition of Danilo Kis's sense of tragedy and loss--while Knausgaard transforms the biblical tales (their spareness "fraught with background," as Eric Auerbach so memorably described them) into agonizing human dramas. Stefan Heym has worked some of this territory before, in his great novels The King David Report and The Wandering Jew, as has Nino Ricci in his Testament, but--while not intending to make too great a claim for the novel--I have to say that the writer this book most calls to mind is Tolstoy.

Imagine Tolstoy's ruminations on history shifted to ruminations on the role of angels; his empathy applied to a Cain who watches Abel, crazed by visions of angels, begin to lose his moorings. Imagine a Tolstoy who chooses to retell the story of the flood, not from the perspective of Noah, but from that of his doomed sister. There is real horror here: the human cost of divine anger has never, in my experience, been more clearly, achingly described. At the same time, the loving attention lavished on characters whose fates we know--and dread--reminds us of the necessary role of love in all creation, authorial or divine. Take this passage about Noah's sister's husband, for example:
She learned a lot about him that first autumn. She learned that he worked grudgingly, he'd rather sit and chat with people. But work was something he had to do. And when he'd at last reconciled himself to it, and begun to work, it always progressed slowly. He took plenty of time, no matter what he was doing. As if the measure of it was more the time it took than the work itself. Putting out a net in the evening shouldn't take long, it was only a matter of rowing out, casting the net, and rowing back, but for Javan it took hours.
We know he's going to drown, along with everyone he knows, yet Knausgaard convinces us to attend to him, think about and worry about him. A Time for Everything is an absolutely stunning book, one that I'll be thinking about for years to come.


Ernest Hilbert's Sixty Sonnets is exactly what its title suggests--and thus it's a performance as much as a book of poems, showy and spectacular. From the brisk noir of "She Remembers How They Fled from the Liquor Store Robbery in New Mexico"--
You'd been shot three times, soaked with tar and sweat,
But you gunned the grimy frame toward night,
Lit a smoke and cringed at the oily guts
Leaking from your side. . .
--to the ironic call-and-response of "Fortunate Ones"--
You will inherit large sums of money
(But someone dear to you will have to die first).
You will travel far and see the wide world
(And load yourself with debt; these things aren't free).
You can relax now. You've been through the worst
(But it consumed your youth, and now you're old).
--to the elegiac fatalism of "White Noise--
My songs are lost, as all will be at last,
Unremembered as a minor fiefdom,
Its peasants who tilled fields and died in wars.
--Hilbert takes the reader on a bravura run through seemingly every variation of tone and style that the sonnet can contain. It's a craftsman's book, a revival of form best summed up by the opening lines of "Song":
A song for those who learn forgotten, slow
Skills, crafts submerged long past by massed commerce,
By hard, dark, oily machines, and the din
Of duplicates shipped by the millions, stowed
In cavernous depots to be dispersed
To each home, used once, and then binned.
Books of the year are those you know you'll never bin; Sixty Sonnets belongs in their company.

Special Circumstances

1 Two of my very favorite books this year were written by good friends, and I'd be remiss to close out the year without noting them. Joseph G. Peterson's debut novel Beautiful Piece plunges the reader into the claustrophobic consciousness of a hard-luck Chicago man who is trying, in his limited, obsessive way, to figure out just how he's ended up in bed with the girlfriend of a dangerous man. The novel is short, but its repetitive phrasing and mobius-strip chronology combine with the intensity of the first-person narrative voice to make it haunting; its working title was Alone in the Heat Alone, a phrase whose thumping rhythm and repetition in a mere five words give a clear sense of the book's style. For a taste of Joe's distinct, insistent voice, you can check out the two stories of his I've published at Joyland.

2 My friend Carrie Olivia Adams, meanwhile, last winter published her first full-length book of poetry, Intervening Absence. Incorporating her earlier chapbook, A Useless Window (which I wrote about here), it is cinematic and mysterious, its frozen moments resembling film stills that have been severed from the domesticating surroundings of plot and exposition, leaving them full of fugitive meaning that eventually dissolves into dread, regret, and loss. In "A History of Drowning," the speaker, with the authority of an omniscient narrator, places you in the urban landscape--
This is before you have forgotten which way is east.
So, this is after you stopped on a bridge
by a statue to admire her hands.
And you turned your head to find yourself
in someone's photograph, your body arched
across the stone base, pressing up.
--before locking you away for good, and hinting that you should be grateful:
There is a room in the attic with jointed anatomical models and dressmaker torsos.
You & the parcels may stay there.
Inattention, in these poems, might bring us to disaster ("Floods have reached the bridge / Now the bridge bridges nothing); attention might not save us, either, but the book demands it nonetheless, its lines and images lodging deep in the mind, unforgettable.

3 Finally, a book from work. I tend to stay away from writing about books for which I serve as the publicist in my day job at the University of Chicago Press; it seems best to keep the two enterprises entirely separate, for, as my friend Luke once said, "Getting fired for your blog is so 2002."

But when I work on a book that draws on IBRL favorite Fernando Pessoa, how can I possibly justify ignoring it here? Philip Graham's The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon tells of a year he spent living in Pessoa's hometown of Lisbon with his wife and daughter, falling in love with the culture even as the everyday struggles of living in a foreign country continually reminded him that he could never quite be at home there.

Graham is wry, self-deprecating, and attentive to the unusual and the usual alike--just what I want in an armchair traveling companion. The following passage, which finds him settling in on the subway to read Pessoa following a confusing incident wherein a ticket salesman seemed offended that Graham had come to him to buy a ticket, will give you a sense of his tone:
Again, I press on and search further--I'm not sure why--here and there, until I find, "If I lift up my eyes from my thinking, they smart at the sight of the world."

I glance up at the window, and see the faint reflection of my own surprised face as I remember the ticket clerk, a few miles of train track safely behind me, and wonder if I've stumbled on the method behind his madness. What if invisible, convoluted strands of his imagination fill that glassed-in booth, and he sees anyone approaching as an alien unable to breathe his own brand of air. If so, what are a few strangers' missed connections to the unwelcome loss of his dream-state? His reputation has given him the solitude he craves, with the help of an accomplice, that ticket dispenser right outside on the platform.

Maybe everyone in the neighborhood gives him wide latitude in that booth, recognizing his artistic disposition, his need to defend an interior domain against all comers. Maybe those looks of shock and surprise I received weren't sympathy for me, but for the clerk who'd been interrupted by an insensitive newbie.

I blush, and then an alternate, Pessoa-like voice inside me rises up and says, Or maybe he's just a pain in the ass.
If you want more samples from The Moon, Come to Earth, you can find them at McSweeney's, where they were originally published in serial form.

Happy holidays and merry Christmas to you all. May your stockings bulge with books.


  1. My ghost stories are up! Two of them anyway....

  2. And just in time! Thanks for the pointer--I'll go check them out!