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. Read the first installment here. Today: part two of Partisan’s Year in Books.
There's a reason why it will take months, if not years, to get through the holds on copies of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between The World And Me at urban and suburban libraries in Canada. Coates' book-length letter to his son, on the realities of being Black in the United States, was already one of the most anticipated books of the year before the multiple shootings and travesties of justice that spawned the #blacklivesmatter movement prompted Coates' publisher to bump the publication date from fall to spring. Coates's take, however, isn't a soothing balm for nerves jangled from the onslaught of images and stories of cop-on-black violence dominating our news from south of the border. His take epitomizes one of my father's favorite sayings: "I'm not pessimistic; I'm realistic." My Dad was a pessimist. Coates is looking hard for an optimistic but truthful narrative to hand down to his son, and this book is his beautiful, important failure to find it. What may seem like pessimism to those who want to find a teachable moment in every random or systemic act of brutality will read as powerfully spoken truth to those who have long since learned all the teachables, got the T-shirt, etc. Coates's reluctance to use the word 'hope,' and his insistence—"Infants, raised to be white," he writes—on the fiction of whiteness are refreshing. Coates's refusal to use his literary eloquence to soften his critique of the systematic dependence of the American Dream on black bodies' suffering has inspired similar forceful critiques here in Canada, by writers such as Desmond Cole, of police carding practices. The global race conversation is one that needs to move forward from a place far less polite than we're all used to (see Marlon James on pandering). This book doesn't speak to me per se (Coates's is a bruh when it comes to nuance in representation of Black women's experience), but everyone needs to take a moment to eavesdrop on what a Black man who has spent his life thinking about this stuff says when he speaks out of a deep and fearful love.
Due to its Giller run, Samuel Archibald's Arvida (Biblioasis, trans. Donald Winkler) garnered most of the attention afforded Quebecois translations this past year, and with good reason. But for readers who like their fiction a little more aesthetically adventurous, it's well worth revisiting Alain Farah's Ravenscrag, which was translated by Lazer Lederhendler and published in English last spring by House of Anansi. Farah (who has Lebanese roots) channels his wild imagination and worldly outlook into a thriller that plays as much with Quebec's history and culture as the concept of time itself. In terms of its formalist ambitions, Ravenscrag takes its cues from the American and European avant-garde. It's one of the most inventive Canadian novels to have come out this year.
Kate Beaton is the smart person’s humorist—a gifted skewerer of human foibles and failings who treats her characters with wit, warmth, and a knack for finding the funny in history. On her long-running and widely beloved blog, Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton’s takes on history and literature often work to reveal the hidden stories of the women whose real and fictional lives haven’t gotten their due. Beaton has always aimed to make her comics inclusive and joyous, but the more pointed and political feminism of Step Aside, Pops hits me where it hurts so good: squarely in the heart of being a woman circa 2015. Her takes on the women of history and pop culture—a grumpy Wonder Woman who refuses to chase bad guys in her silly boots, a Lady of Shalott who gives up her life for a glimpse of Lancelot with his pants down, the bra-burning straw feminists that haunt current discussions of gender equality, the give-no-fucks velocipededestrienne who graces the cover—are snortingly funny and wickedly pointed send-ups of how our culture shapes, limits, and treats women. Her men are equally complex and comedic; among the best is the “The Black Prince,” which takes bro culture back to the “wicked chivalrous” Middle Ages. From its sketchy, energetic drawings to its blade-sharp humour, Step Aside, Pops slays. Kachow!
Peter Norman’s latest, The Gun That Starts the Race (Icehouse, 2015), comes barreling out of the gate ironically clad in an apocalyptic sensibility. The poems seize on the evacuated and the dilapidated, where “Rust winds like vines” (“Playground Incident”) and where we sift through “stomped beer cans/ cinder chunks/ charred foil shreds” (“Firepit”). Yet the voice isn’t maudlin-tinged, all doom-and-gloom; the book’s dark humour snaps along with formalist verve (Norman has to be one of my favourite sonneteers writing right now). Almost every stanza contains tight little sound/sense earworms: “Bundled for the slog, we scuff at slush / and think of heated places. Grains of grit / scattered for traction wheedle under tongues, / tormenting feet” (“Heading Home”). In a climate of signal-jamming and piled non-sequiturs, Norman bucks the trend and constructs small narratives (a playground accident, a premature burial) with syntactic panache and surrealist turns that show “the old mundane/ reversed” (“Sometimes a Crowbar is Just”). And at a tidy 61 pages, filler is kept at a minimum. Here’s another solid release that pays fealty to the poem as self-sufficient unit. I dare you to read, and reread, and “try not to think of worms” (“Buried Alive”).
The Essential Daryl Hine, edited by James Pollock. The best Canadian poet most people have never heard of. I’ve already gone on at length about Hine, but this selection (which includes a brief, thoughtful introduction and a biographical sketch) is the ideal way to get to know a poet who deserves to be better known.
Some years the year’s best book comes from outer space, out of nowhere, out of a poet few people had rated before. This isn’t one of those years: of all the books I liked, from the obviously bizarre to the neo-traditional, the one I’m most confident about has to be the fifth book from a poet now justly, and widely, recognized: Terrance Hayes’s How to Be Drawn. It has rhyme and pararhyme and cascades of wordplay, almost Oulipian formal and graphic experiments, anecdotes, and chances for any reader to visualize: “It was light and lusterless and somehow luckless, / The hair I cut from the head of my father-in-law, // It was pepper-blanched and wind-scuffed, thin / As a blown bulb’s filament,” begins a poem called “Barberism,” and if you think that’s description for description’s sake, you’ll find you’re wrong: “He’d sworn / To never let his hair be cut again after his daughter// Passed away... I almost showed him // How I bow my own head to the razor in my hands, / How a mirror is used to taper the nape.” (Even “to never,” a solecism in prose, makes sense here: it’s what he would say.)
I chose that poem almost at random from among the ancedotal, scene-based, easy-to-recommend, easy-to-teach poems in How To Be Drawn, but other, stranger, often longer kinds of poems flourish there too: Hayes’s ladders and stacks of pensive stanzas can braid scenes together with other scenes, and with invented aphorisms, and with jokes, and with the kinds of fears that render any joke temporarily unfunny: “Because thinking is feeling, I think about death // All the time: the food under my nails, the nails underfoot, / The skullish sockets packed with dirt... Maybe the zombies have taken over.” Take that, T. S. Eliot; take that, much-possessed Webster; take that, moviegoers. Death may be a human universal, but zombies belong to our moment; so does this book, and so, alas, does mass incarceration, as in Hayes’s “Model Prison Model,” which is also a sarcastic ars poetica, a jar in Tennessee with a “black male poet” both inside and outside.
How can you get outside the prison of the self? Answer: by listening. Answer: by writing. Answer: by writing in such a way, with such attention to the doubleness and the unreliability and the history and the potential elegance in the language, that you notice how you and I and all of us are more than one person at once: “Not even two eyes in the same head see the same things.” Hayes’s doublings and puns, his evasions and dual identities and puzzle pieces, are as much a part of his oeuvre as his actual life in Pittsburgh and South Carolina: readers liken him to other giants of African-American poetry, which is fine since he is one, but we should also liken him to other great poets of double-mindedness and puzzlecraft, of canniness that is also a strength of feeling: Andrew Marvell, Paul Muldoon. With Hayes’s storytelling and his punning (cf. the poem “How to Be a Hummer”), his new forms, and his familiar reasons for fear, anger, devotion and pride, his festivities and his laments, his eye (see the title poem) and his ear (“someone / jonesing for Grace Jones at the party, / and someone jonesing for grace”), it’s tempting to say his new book has something for everyone. It will also be everything for someone. In a poem called “For Crying Out Loud,” Hayes speaks of “the book in which nothing is written / but the words everyone uses to identify things / that can’t be identified.” Now Hayes has written that book. Now you can read it.
Justin Cartwright's Up Against the Night (Bloomsbury) is by far the best book I have come across this year. A South African living in London, Cartwright has won the Hawthornden and Whitbread Prizes, and been shortlisted for the Booker. Recently, he was one of the judges who gave a lifetime Man Booker prize to Philip Roth and a member of the 2014 Giller Prize Jury. In his new novel, a wealthy South African confronts the troubles of his family history. Descended from Piet Retief, a pseudo-martyr to the Zulus in Boer mythology, Frank McAllister has lived for years in England, far from the consequences of what his ancestor did. McAllister's return to South Africa is a strange mix of scenes of hope and horrific violence. Mandela is dead and "the rainbow republic" is a mess. The book's recurring metaphor is of a boy surfing happily in waters shared with the white shark. This brave account of contemporary South Africa offers no sentimental assurances about what happens next. It is amusing, grim, and devastating.
Accepting this task makes me realize how few new releases I've read this year, but one book that cut clean through my world was Vijay Seshadri's 3 Sections (2013). From Alzheimer’s to apocalyptic nightmares, through awkward interactions, immigration, and invasive surgery, Seshadri inhabits every space with equal spirit and insight. These poems are free, yet fine-tuned, playful, clever, and stealthily profound. “You are mystical, Ghalib, and, also, you speak beautifully. / Are you a saint, or just drunk as usual?” Imagine a casual conversation with the Dali Lama in which neither of you realizes who he is until the impact of his spiritual wisdom suddenly sinks in.
Camille Ralphs’s Malkin (‘an ellegy in 14 spels’) gives voices to England’s Pendle Witches and their families at the time of the infamous trial of 1612. The poems are tough, compelling monologues: Demdike, the local healer and accused ringleader of the group, tells of the boy who "gnew me by a stone pit," the cities that "hymned | and chymneyed in the atlas of his sex," and how "he got with dogg my daughter, bent our howse | toward a future wigged with cirrus, | fingernail’d with hangman’s lime. I died in prison." Unconventional spellings and jagged syntax recur, teasing out links between the words (hymned / chymneyed), giving distinction to each character, or playing subtle verbal tricks. (Jane Bulcock’s antithetical conclusion about the witches’ trial-by-drowning is "we’re damned | if we do; and we,re certainly damned | if we don,t" – the lowered apostrophes minutely enacting the despair of the line, as well as carrying a typographic pun on the image of sinking.)
What impresses me about Malkin and its style, compared to related areas of the avant-garde, is the subtlety of the conceits. Much experimental writing ends up being just that – clinical, something by which difference alone is measured. Ralphs transcends this. Her ‘spels’ range across form and language (Demdike’s is a mostly-rhymed, mostly-regular sonnet, while "Isabel Robey" is a scatter of words and phrases flecking the page), but never at the expense of their real subjects: the difficulties of testimony (what Geoffrey Hill has called "The tongue’s atrocities"), the marginalised or demonised voice, the ironies of history and the roots of suffering. That these are, in twelve of the fourteen poems, the voices of women condemned by a patriarchal church is all the more affecting. She has a pure instinct for her own style, while drawing capably on a gritty, serious atmosphere that is the birthright of certain English poets from Gawain to Hughes; a kind of wit we associate more with Donne; a tenderness found in Rossetti’s lyrics. There is something lasting about the poems. These things, combined with a fearless ear for rhythm and a heart for the pain of others, makes for a worthy debut in a world that often goes by – as "Alizon Device" pleads – "whyle I had nothing, nd nothing made sense."
Howard Akler’s Men of Action. A brilliant long essay about fatherhood, comas, intimacy, the latest research into consciousness, the unknowable nature of our attachments, what it means to perform an action, and Jewish tough-guy actors. A survey of the meaning of the human condition through the way we fall apart.
Read the first installment of Partisan's Year in Books here.
WHAT TO READ NEXT: 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.