When Partisan asked some of our favourite writers and contributors to tell us about the books that mattered to them in 2015, we were inundated with stocking stuffers and door-stoppers, small press gems and bestsellers, the timely and the timeless, and even a book that isn’t yet published. So we’ve dedicated our whole week to their recommendations. Here’s part one of Partisan’s Year in Books.
In the early spring of this year, the poet Beverley Bie Brahic gave a reading in Greater Manchester. After the event, we took the train back to town with her co-reader, the novelist Marli Roode. During our journey, Beverley suggested affinities between Marli’s debut, Call It Dog, and the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, book one of her Neapolitan Novels (the fourth and final volume, The Story of a Lost Child, was published in English in September). I ordered the book when I got home. Like Marli, Ferrante is sharp, incisive and cuts deep into family and friendly relationships, not least the narrator’s own best friend, Lila. In its exploration of female friendship in particular, it is at times uncomfortable, with a narrator who knows herself and is honest to the point of brutality. It reminds me in its way of my favourite novel of childhood, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. But Elena (first name of both the author and narrator) is a contender for more cruel than Henny. Elena never lets up examining, and sees through the most petty and even genuine gesture to its real truth.
This is not a novel in which much happens, and I remember during my slow read thinking as much and wondering why it’s so popular. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it since finishing. I wrote to Beverley shortly after that: “Do I have time to read the other books?” “Hard question,” she wrote back, “they are women's books, and great for her power/emotional honesty, but perhaps less interesting for her style and the structure of the novel.” But style and structure are not what held me. In her Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante has created characters I wish to know more. Raymond Carver, in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” describes the surgeon Mel McGinnis: “his gestures, all his movements, were precise, very careful.” Elena Ferrante is that kind of surgeon of all the people around her. Truly remarkable.
I’d like to call attention to an amazing book of poetry I read this year that many readers, especially in Canada, are unlikely to hear about. It’s from a new small publisher in the U.S., Natural History Press. The book is called Softcover, and it’s a first collection, by Monica Fambrough. I’ve known Monica for years and read many of her poems, but this collection is a revelation. The poems are incredibly direct, intelligent, funny and stern, and super real. They are emotional without ever being emotionally manipulative. Often the poems have a kind of radical flatness that will bother people who insist that poetry be vaguely fancy. These poems leave fanciness behind for the much more elusive state of true poetry. Several of the poems mention being a wife or mother, a few are written entirely out of those stances, but the book is into a lot of other things, too. I fell immediately into the voice, and felt compelled to read the entire thing without stopping, which does not happen to me that often, even with very good books. Plus, Softcover is not only one of the strongest books of poetry I read this year, but also one of the most satisfying to hold. Its design is so cool, and its size is perfect to put in your pocket and take with you on a walk instead of your phone. Clearly, Softcover is the result of years and years of serious engagement with poetry and life: at first for me it was strange to read the book and see that there were many really good poems of Monica’s that did not make it in. And then to understand that this sternness with herself as a poet was surely what makes the book feel so much like a book, and not just a pile of poems. Mahmoud Darwish wrote somewhere I remember that “extreme clarity is a mystery.” This book is a gorgeous mystery. It made me proud to be an American poet.
In Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family, and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, Emily Urquhart renews my faith in the possibility of personal journalism: not the kind of personal journalism where the confessional mode is used to amp up the emotions, but the kind where life and language become the double edges of an auger that leads you (and your reader) deeper and deeper into your subject. That double-helix metaphor isn’t accidental: this is a book about nature and nurture, about the families we’re born into and the families we choose, which sometimes, miraculously, turn out to be the same ones. I would place this book into the hands of any new parents, and particularly any new parents negotiating the emotional minefield of genetic diagnosis.
The task is daunting: How to portray the true nature of ageing in a style that doesn't smack of self-help and steel joints. In 60, through Ian Brown's patented wit, charm, and keen attention to craft, we are given the inner-workings of a writerly mind that is unflinching in its honesty. Oh, self-doubt. Oh, misspent youth. Oh, the immortal hemorrhoid. 60 teaches us how we should all be living; Brown teaches us how we should all be writing.
Katha Pollitt's Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights presents in crisp and witty terms the arguments for any woman seeking to express the pro-choice position. Nearly one woman in three has abortions, many of us married with children. Pro is a clarifying breath of air, written with brassy knowledge by one of the great essayists of our time, aimed at a US audience of those who already share the position, but useful for Canadian women who find themselves having to articulate their pro choice views. And speaking of spectacular essayists on a similar subject, Meghan Daum's Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed is a collection of essays by women who chose not to have children—provocative, warm-hearted, piquant, candid, and utterly memorable.
For a children's book, my vote goes to Anne Michaels' The Adventures of Miss Petitfour. It's catnip for the kiddy language geeks among us—and their parents, too. With Emma Block's utterly charming illustrations of Miss Petitfour flying above town with her sixteen cats.
The book I read this year that I'd most recommend wasn't published this year. It's by an up-and-comer named Robert Louis Stevenson. I somehow never read Treasure Island in the epoch of life when one is supposed to (was too busy reading Tom Swift books). But this past spring I encountered a reference to Seamus Heaney's admiration for the opening sentence of Stevenson's Kidnapped. Had to have a look: can't say said sentence blew me away, but I did keep reading—and was unable to stop. Having found that book exceedingly satisfactory, I figured I should give Treasure Island a try—and liked it even more. Not the book I thought it was—richer in characterization, more "adult" in its sense of the world and its ways, written with the most masterful fluency...not really (or just barely) a "young person's" book at all. Was especially struck by something I associate with Tolstoy: a sense of a complete world residing in the author's imagination—such that when a detail is mentioned, it's as though the author is accessing an independent sphere (with a thousand additional details that could have been mentioned had the author been of a mind to). No wonder Henry James was such a Stevenson fan; one of the notable talents ever, it seems to me.
My book for 2015 is The Handbook of the Irish Revival, An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922, edited by Declan Kiberd and PJ Matthews, published by The Abbey Press. On first glance the cover has all the appeal of a medical journal, but don’t let this put you off. The diverse collection of primary sources is dense with writings and discourse from the period spanning 1891-1922. This period, loosely referred to as The Irish Revival, contains some of the most interesting and tense moments in Irish history, from the rise of socialism across parts of the Industrialized world to the outbreak of the Great War. On the Irish domestic front there was: the Home Rule Crisis, a reigniting of debate on what Nationalism means, the War of Independence from British Rule and a difficult Civil War that raged after the signing of the negotiated Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Handbook is divided into sixteen sections, commemorating the year of the Irish Rising, and includes primary sources on a broad range of topics including theatre, religion, women, citizenship and popular culture. More than once, I found myself angered, moved and confused by writers as diverse as James Joyce, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Constance Markiewicz, and W.B. Yeats. Many of the period’s major players are included, making the book essential reading for anyone with an interest in the language and ideas that drive revolution, suppress it, or manage to ignore it altogether. The Handbook is a gem and will be a reference point for me for a long time.
I was most captivated by Jenny Diski’s as-yet-untitled memoir published in instalments in the LRB beginning in Sept. 2014 and still running (and that will no doubt appear as a book before long). Diski has terminal cancer. The thread of these essays dealing with her illness and medical treatment—an overpopulated genre, as she herself notes—is mordant, unsentimental, madcap shading into panicky. But the sections that worry over her fraught relationship with Doris Lessing, who was the teenaged Diski’s foster mother for several years in the 1960s, are unlike anything I’ve ever read. These pages tell of Diski’s intensely ambivalent feelings for the older novelist. Lessing rescued Diski for a time from dangerous parents, ensured that she got a good education, introduced her to literary circles, and became a role model. But Lessing clearly could not be—perhaps did not want to be—what Diski most needed her to be. The anguish of this emotional mismatch gives the memoir its fierce energy. Diski’s sentences do more than tell the story: “gathering everything into [themselves],” they lash out in unpredictable directions, giving form to ambivalence and laying bare a deeply human disappointment.
Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, a collection of essays by the brilliant and funny Laura Kipnis, had me at hello. Its witty discussion of y-chromosomed human creatures ranges from Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt's performance of the perverse to the way literary criticism can reenact, pseudo-erotically or pathologically or both, the tropes of childhood punishment. Kipnis's analyses are shrewd, surprising, and free of sentimentality. To the extent that she judges, her judgements are all conditional. She cops to a kind of "moral wishy-washiness," which she calls her "embarrassing affliction," since "critics are supposed to have deeply felt moral outrage about things." Taken as a whole, her essays in this book advance no dogmatic view of sex and gender but rather a humane skepticism, an openhearted, if sardonic, acceptance of human frailty. And her essay "Men Who Hate Hillary," included in this collection after its debut in Playboy during Ms. Clinton's 2008 presidential nomination bid, is worth revisiting on the eve of 2016.
“Read? Write? Bah! I have people who do that for me.” Thus a Sephardic great uncle of the Anglo-Egyptian food writer Claudia Roden once dismissed the bookish tendencies of the Ashkenazi Jews, one of whom she was about to marry. As the father of two keen readers (and husband and son of two others), I have sometimes felt a bit like just such a Levantine pasha waiting for reports from my underlings, particularly as regards the latest novels.
This MO allows me to be irresponsible and unzeitgemässe (or untimely), as the Germans say. The books I most enjoyed this year included Tom McCarthy’s novel Men in Space (from 2007), an experimental romp through 1990s Prague, and Charlotte Gill’s fascinating tree-planting memoir, Eating Dirt (2011). The novel I read in Spanish this year (I try to read at least one a year) was García Marquez’s El amor en los tiempos de cólera, the first edition of which had sat waiting on my shelves since 1987. That seems somehow appropriate, given the long interrupted love affair (“53 years, 7 months and 11 days”) the novel narrates. Even after all the Bolanõs, the tale of Florentino and Fermina beguiled me—sexier and more specific than I had imagined. But most surprising and enjoyable of all was Isak Dinesen’s extraordinary first book, Seven Gothic Tales (1932): wonderfully implausible and compelling stories, full of dream figures and haunting archetypes. Dinesen’s prose is so highly-wrought that you sometimes long for some bluntness, particularly when she describes a young woman assaulting her suitor in “The Monkey.” But then Mr. Blunt himself, Hemingway (who pipped her for the Nobel Prize one year), was a fan and don’t we get enough bluntness in daily life? And Dinesen (aka Karen von Blixen) writes so beautifully and with such intriguing wisdom and irony: “‘I think that I must explain to you,’ the Baron said, ‘…that to undress a woman was then a very different thing from what it must be now’” (“The Old Chevalier”).
In poetry, however, I do keep up—or just haven’t found the right underlings. I was very surprised that Karen Solie’s The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out did not receive more acclaim. It was, to my mind, the poetry book of the year in Canada and sent me back to her three previous books to admire her achievement. The Road struck me as less polished than her 2009 Griffin-winning Pigeon, but riskier and more ambitious: I particularly admired “Bitumen”, her long meditation on oil extraction that ranges from Newfoundland to Northern Alberta, from Turner and Gericault to Burtynsky. However over-determined and portentous it risks being (Keats: “we dislike poetry that has a design on us”), the poem has the singular virtue of engaging a subject matter very few poets have known how to—or dared—approach. But Solie doesn’t denounce—she documents our complicity and ambivalence (hence the Burtynsky). Plus, she has a wicked line in the ironically deployed archaism: “In April shall the tax collector flower forth” (that’s from Pigeon), “Is my house in order?”, “Where is thy market now?”
My new discovery of 2015 was Peter Norman and his The Gun that Starts the Race: some fine, resonant sonnets packed with brio and skill—plus a sense of humour that can veer off into joyous nonsense. Paul Muldoon’s new book, A Thousand Things Worth Knowing, brought the high formal wizardry and lexical treats I expected but somehow didn’t cohere or surprise the way his previous books did (admittedly a very high bar). Finally, it’s hard to have enough Don Coles: A Serious Call is essential reading–and re-reading–from the master. Plus, the gorgeously atmospheric and rambling title poem has led me to my latest untimely pleasure: Anna Karenina.