When I close my eyes and think about my favorite books among the multitude I’ve seen this year, dozens jostle for attention—far too many for a list such as this, even last year’s sprawling extravaganza. A few of these elbow other contenders out of the way, and like a dutiful surrealist I jot their titles down on the back of an envelope (in this case, one from The New Criterion). Voila!
In any given year, there are books I haven’t had a chance to read yet that might well appear on the list if I wrote it several weeks later. (Only quite recently did my copy of Vol. 2 of Katherine Sonderegger’s systematic theology arrive; ditto for Sasha Dugdale’s new book of poems, Deformations, which was supposed to arrive in September. Only today did I receive Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, which gathers early volumes of Paul Celan’s poetry as translated by Pierre Joris and is timed for the centenary of Celan’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of his suicide. Then there is Vows, the first installment of Sigrid Undset’s four-volume work Olav Audunsson, set in 13th-century Norway and newly translated by the intrepid Tiina Nunnally; this too I received just a few days ago.) If I performed the same ritual several days from now, the list would be different. And so on. In any case, what we have is a feast, fit for the week of Thanksgiving.
As usual, titles are (mostly) in alphabetical order (the logic of any departures from that rule will be clear), followed at the end by the Book of the Year.
Autumntide of the Middle Ages
translated by diane webb
edited by graeme wood and anton van der lem
leiden univ. press
This massive, gorgeously illustrated volume, distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press, offers a new translation of Huizinga’s classic supplemented by all sorts of useful and interesting material. It is in every way a superb production, beginning with Diane Webb’s translator’s note. If you know someone fascinated by the subject (especially someone you want to find a special gift for), you couldn’t go wrong with this. Of course, you might want to add it to your own library as well.
Charis in the World of Wonders
Youmans’s latest novel, one of her best, is set in 17th-century Puritan New England. My copy is a thicket of Post-it Notes. Here I will simply repeat what I wrote for the back of the book: “Charis in the World of Wonders confirms once more Marly Youmans’ place among the magi. There is indeed ‘a dark and amazing intricacy in Providence,’ as this spellbinding novel attests.”
A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History
illustrated by peggy macnamara
northwestern univ. press
It is not Cindy Crosby’s fault that, even after reading her lucid, companionable, and handsomely illustrated guide, I have difficulty identifying this or that particular dragonfly. The fault lies with my brain, with the way I process visual and spatial information. But never mind. I loved the book, which made me think of countless walks with Wendy, my wife, at the Morton Arboretum and elsewhere, and the delight we have taken in these creatures. (See also a piece I wrote for this magazine many years ago, on “The Lilliputian Imagination.”)
The Diaries of Emilio Renzi:
A Day in the Life
translated by robert croll
This is the third and final volume of a fascinating hybrid work by the late Ricardo Piglia, a writer from Argentina who taught for many years at Princeton University. Piglia’s full name was Ricardo Emilio Piglia Renzi; Renzi was his alter ego, appearing as a character in several of Piglia’s novels. Quarried and to some degree reshaped from notebooks that Piglia kept over the decades, these “Diaries” could be described somewhat inadequately as a combination of autobiographical fiction, diaristic chronicle, literary and philosophical rumination, and record of “the times.”
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky:
The World of Octavia E. Butler
angel city press
I’ve never read a book quite like this. It’s not a biography, not a study of Butler’s achievement as a writer of science fiction, not an inspirational guide for aspiring writers, though it has elements of all of these genres and more. Lynell George immersed herself in Butler’s archives, “more than three hundred boxes and thousands of personal items.” Along with text, George’s book includes many images from that record of a life, including call-slips for library books Butler had requested, scraps of paper on which she’d written injunctions to herself, and much, much more. What a marvel, a labor of love.
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts
Reviewing Beha’s splendid third novel in the pages of National Review earlier this year, I acknowledged that
I can’t vouch for the accuracy of its depiction of high finance (of which I’m utterly ignorant), but on subjects I do know something about (baseball, for instance, and literature), I can say that Beha writes with persuasive authority, all the more impressive because he seems to do it without the slightest strain. As someone who (since I was old enough to talk) has relished a good argument, I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in which there are so many delicious bits of exhilarating dialogue devoted to the sharp exchange of ideas—passages that lose none of their power even as we reflect on the terrible choices these very characters are making, right and left.
translated by mark polizzotti
yale university press
Patrick Modiano, as I wrote in this space not long ago, is
a master of suggestion and indirection, yet there is nothing muddy, murky, or imprecise in his fiction, sentence by sentence. In many of his novels—including Invisible Ink—“there are abrupt shifts of time in the narrative, then a return to the remembered setting. By the time the book is done—most of his novels are quite short—you may be feeling almost as if the memories are your own.” Even though I’ve read all of his novels translated into English, I still don’t entirely understand how he does it. There’s none of the machinery of the “fantastic” in his fiction, but there is always a sense of the uncanny.
The Island of the Innocent:
A Consideration of the Book of Job
turtle point press
“Glancy tells us,” I reported in September,
that as she meditated on Job, “Other times and places bled into the story. Among the first to disrupt the text were Indians and the history of America. Feathers appeared over the edge of a hill. The feathers were in headdresses. The headdresses were on heads.” So this book has a visionary quality—in some respects, Glancy writes as a seer, but one who is very down-to-earth. One of the poems or unclassifiable “texts” that make up this book (for, as I’ve said elsewhere, Glancy is a shape-shifter, writing fiction and plays and essays but also often genre-crossing books such as this one) is titled “Clarification for the Knitting and Fabric-Arts Club of Uz.”. . . Glancy herself is Native American, the daughter of a Cherokee father and a mother of German ancestry. She is also a Christian, of a variety often dismissively described as “conservative.” You should judge for yourself what precisely that entails in her case.
The Law of Innocence
“The Law of Innocence,” I wrote, when the book appeared just a couple weeks ago,
is Michael Connelly’s thirty-fifth novel. There’s not a single clunker among them, but this is one of his best. It’s Connelly’s sixth book starring defense attorney Mickey Haller, the first being The Lincoln Lawyer (2005). . . . Like Balzac’s Comédie humaine, Connelly’s novels make up one vast saga of crime and punishment, bureaucracy and domesticity, friendship and enmity, marriage and divorce, cohabitation and casual liaisons, parents and children, and more, centering mostly in Los Angeles and its satellite communities but also occasionally venturing farther afield.
Carl Rollyson is a superb and wondrously prolific biographer, drawn to an admirably eclectic range of subjects, but also a scholar of biography with an unparalleled knowledge of the field. His two-volume life of Faulkner (the first volume appeared in March, the second in September) should have been one of the literary events of the year. Instead, while receiving some attention, it been ignored by many of our leading literary opinion-makers. So much for them. Acquire the books, install them at your bedside, and make a habit of reading a bit each night. You will quickly find yourself drawn into the saga. (You might want to make a stack with the Faulkner volumes on top, then the Octavia Butler book, and, on the bottom, Huizinga: a treasure of reading, perhaps demanding a stout little night-table.)
Of Mutts and Men
If you’ve followed me for a bit, you probably know that Spencer Quinn (aka Peter Abrahams) is one of my favorite novelists. “In our house,” as I wrote a couple of years ago, “there are copies of each of Peter Abrahams’s novels and [Spencer Quinn’s] entire Chet & Bernie series (Chet, the narrating dog, assists Bernie Little, who presides over the one-man and one-dog Little Detective Agency). If you haven’t tried either one, why not investigate?” Why not indeed? The latest Chet & Bernie volume, Of Mutts and Men, wouldn’t be a bad place to start. You’ll find in these books “one of the most delightful depictions of friendship I’ve encountered in a lifetime of reading. That, more than anything else, I think, is what keeps readers coming back for more.”
Solzhenitsyn and American Culture:
The Russian Soul in the West
edited by david p. deavel and jessica hooten wilson
univ. of notre dame press
Between Two Millstones, Book 2:
Exile in America, 1978-1994
translated by clare kitson and melanie moore
univ. of notre dame press
Russia Between Two Fires:
Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia
tim duggan books
Three Russia-related books that should be read in conversation with one another. The first is especially close to my heart as it is dedicated to the memory of my late teacher and friend Edward E. Ericson Jr.; I contributed a foreword, and wrote about the book here. The second (massive) volume continues Solzhenitsyn’s memoirs of his time in the United States, displaying both his magnificent strengths and his all-too-apparent weaknesses. The third is the best recent report on Russia that I’ve seen. If you want to check it out, I suggest that you read Yaffa’s prologue, “The Wily Man,” and the chapter entitled “The Last Free Priest.” Those two chapters alone are worth the price of admission.
The Still-Burning Bush
As I wrote this week at the FORMA Review,
Whenever fires wreak havoc on a grand scale, fingers are pointed and much huffing and puffing ensues, to little effect. You don’t need a Ph.D. to recognize that our “fire regime” is unsustainable, not only in the US but elsewhere around the globe. The best guide to this subject that I know is Stephen Pyne, emeritus professor at Arizona State University and author of a small library of books about the history of fire, specific historic fires, and fire from a broadly environmental perspective. He is also a superb writer, though not one who caters to readers wanting to be spoonfed.
Suppose a Sentence
new york review books
Reviewing Dillon’s book for The American Conservative, I wrote:
If bad sentences make your brain hurt; if good sentences absorb your attention; if, like [Hugh] Kenner, you enjoy to a near-pathological degree “constructing English sentences” of your own and finding in “other people’s books . . . the endless ways their structures can be combined,” I have just the thing for you. Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence is a tour de force of exposition, witty, learned but jargon-free, the work of writer who is agreeably idiosyncratic. It consists of Dillon’s close readings and reflections on 27 sentences, in chronological sequence, from Shakespeare to Anne Boyer.
book of the year:
The Last Children of Mill Creek
OK, I cry more easily than a lot of people do. I’m neither apologizing nor bragging; just reporting. Sometimes I cry in response to unexpected bad news: a young friend, for instance, seemingly in the best of health, suddenly diagnosed with what may be terminal cancer. But far more often the prompt is an overflowing of various emotions rather than a particular sadness. I cried a lot while reading Vivian Gibson’s memoir of growing up with her big family in the Mill Creek section of St. Louis, mostly African American, which amounted to nearly 500 acres. It isn’t a sad book, though Gibson tells us that much of what had been a thriving community was destroyed, beginning in 1959, for a huge highway project connecting the city with white suburbs and scattering the more than 20,000 former residents of Mill Creek. That was sad, and angry-making, but it isn’t at all the primary subject of Gibson’s book, which is first and foremost the story of everyday life in her family.
Gibson and I are roughly the same age (she’s probably a year or so younger), born right near the end of the 1940s. Her family was large (she was one of eight children); my younger brother was my only sibling. Her family was intact; my parents divorced when I was around five years old, and we were raised by our mother and her mother. So many differences in addition to race and gender. And yet as I read Gibson’s book—vivid, unpretentious, loaded with resonant detail—I remembered something she said in her introduction: “This memoir is about survival, as told from the viewpoint of a watchful young girl—a collection of decidedly universal stories that chronicle the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.” Such an unfashionable claim these days: “universal.” But wholly justified. And “the extraordinary lives of ordinary people”: yes. We could use more books like this.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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