I read 101 books the past year, liked or loved a little more than half of them, and couldn’t finish another five. I didn’t include journals, rereads, individual poems or poem sequences (e.g.) in collections or online, books I reviewed for journals (or those upcoming), religious tracts left on my front stoop, or technical manuals on how to build bomb shelters, fascinating though those may have been. If it weren’t for time moving faster than Hermes ahead of a Zeus thunderbolt, I’d have included some words on all 50 + books I enjoyed. Here’s a list of my top ten, in order.
1) Juan Filloy, Caterva (tr. Brendan Riley), 1937. Last year’s fave book was Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop. At two novels, I’ve now completed all of Filloy’s works translated into English. He wrote, in Spanish, another 100 novels. ¡Maldición! Caterva, like his Op Oloop, another wild ride heavily influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses (this one involves seven outcasts on a bizarre peripatetic quest to acquire money by nefarious means), burns the brainpan with lexical mischief and complexity (neologisms, archaisms, vernacular insults, salty witticism, high-toned description, philosophical rumination), and through all the serpentine plot twists and asides, the undertow throws back alternating states of hilarity, tragedy, desperation, and tenderness. Run or drive to your closest book emporium and demand this novel be ordered!
2) Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (tr. Susan Bernofsky), 2012. A female protagonist is followed through five life stages and stories, each of them ending in death. It’s a merciless look at that puzzle: if we escape a brush with death, will our lives be altered in subsequent years, or does fate leave its calling card at conception (or before)? Existentially, Erpenbeck destroys any safe spaces we’ve cooked up for our own survival. Paradoxically, a sly grace is granted to the woman, despite the unsparing ruminations undertaken in a nursing home. A poetic reader may appreciate the symbolism of names and books, but that’s transcended by an attention to language carved and polished into totemic figurations, stark and unyielding.
3) Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems 1931-1987 (various co-tr.), 1988. Czeslaw Milosz was a ‘fortunate’ poet, spending the first 40 years of his life in some of this planet’s most explosive environs. His move to West Coast academia helped his profile, but it would be hard to credit that fact alone with his outstanding push to recognition when one opens this thick Collected, and encounters page after page of existential inevitability, understated sobering description, images that both startle and drift, and merciless personal inventory.
4) Silvina Ocampo, Thus Were Their Faces (tr. Daniel Balderston), 1988. Short stories have to work quickly to gain that mesmerizing affect necessary to great fiction. Some stories crash and burn. Others take the opposite route: drab anecdotes not saved by worn-out themes and symbols. Then there are authors like Ocampo. Borges loved Ocampo’s stories, and it’s easy to see why. In this lengthy Selected compilation, the stories chosen are stamped with similar ‘outward’ terrain: familial interaction, and a particular setting with (seemingly) mild conflict. Reading an Ocampo short is like walking into a twilit back alley where one is alone to wonder while noting dark shapes forming in squalid doorways. A character changes – permanently – mid-sentence, but is it because of that character’s ‘development’ (or devolvement), or the observer’s own destruction reflected in the environment he or she sees? These are disturbing stories, and though they condemn humanity, there’s an aching pity and outcry – in every story – for our spiritual limitations.
5) Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind (tr. Ekin Oklap), 2013. Another epic novel from the author, Pamuk’s latest is set in Istanbul, and covers that city’s geographic, political, economic, and moral changes from the mid 20th century to the present as seen through many eyes. Mevlut – a poor boza (a drink with minimal alcohol content) seller – takes centre street in the story, but Pamuk gives first-person voice to everyone in the extended family, as well to the omnipotent narrator who (as in many of the author’s novels) turns to the reader directly from time to time. The tone is pitch-perfect. In the novel’s most heart-wrenching scenes, facts are delivered neutrally from the narrator, which increases the weight of sadness, that sadness only possible at all from earlier, carefully etched, scenes of dialogue, rumination, and description. Not as dynamic as his Snow, A Strangeness in My Mind is nevertheless another Pamuk masterwork.
6) Doris Lessing, Five, 1953. A collection of four novellas and one novel, Five shows Lessing’s early development in fiction. The first two selections were hard to plow through. As in her endless novel The Four-Gated City (which I couldn’t finish), the tone is relentlessly bleak and grey. But when Lessing shifts us to Africa, the novellas come alive. A young Caucasian boy has to fight his parents’ expectations for university in Johannesburg, choosing instead to stay in touch with his African friend. The dilemma changes in the other “gold” story from racial to economic, as another Caucasian boy must deal with his prospecting father’s duplicity. But the real show-stopper is the collection’s novel, Hunger, about a destitute African boy who leaves his family’s hut for the city, only to get naively entangled in revolutionary agitation with sexual complications.
7) Thom Gunn, Collected Poems, 1993. Most every poetry lover knows of T.S. Eliot’s move from St. Louis to England, but not as many may know of the effects of Thom Gunn’s move in the opposite direction, the latter ending up in San Francisco. Some critics attribute Gunn’s early formal verse to his London university days, but frankly gay free verse wasn’t exactly prominent in journals on this side of the Atlantic, either, at that time (1953). Gunn didn’t have any personal conflict between the two approaches, however, and he could shoe a metrical foot with as much vigour and aplomb as he (later) could a more loose and ‘offhand’ (or off-foot?) production.
8) James Pollock, Sailing to Babylon, 2012. Allusive yet seemingly casual, lyrical yet grounded, Pollock’s poetry collection is infused with a wonderful meditation-event shifting. The shorter poems work – some more than others – on a personal level, yet they also work, like Cavafy’s efforts, to bridge the wide gulf between diurnal monotony and historic import. The long “Quarry Park” is a brilliant meditation on time, regret, fulfillment, and alternate hypothetical histories, as the narrator walks over hills and among trees with his young son. The rhythms match the walking tempos, the energy never flags, and the wisdom comes from both event and reflection.
9) Lauro Martines, Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700, 2013. A hundred-hectare battlefield of history books depicting World Wars I and II cover the printed landscape, but not nearly as many deal with the wars during the long span between the Renaissance and the French Revolution. (1700, in the title, is a bit misleading.) Rather than featuring political figures, or theorizing on how one conflict led to the next in a seamless flow chart, Furies concentrates instead on the day-to-day brutalities suffered by soldiers and civilians, how religious division enflamed sieges, and how economic expansion and usurpation heightened the carnage. The book also gets into detail regarding moral dilemmas, as when destitute civilians got nabbed by nation-state authorities to fight their own citizens. (Some carried out their instructions to torture; others defected away from, or into, the ‘enemy’ camp.) Grubby and shocking, the narrative goes beyond numbers to look at the atrocities themselves, and the (mostly) stupid, prideful, and greedy reasons they were engendered. Unlike many history books, this one’s well-written. Engaging and succinct.
10) Charles Willeford, I Was Looking For a Street, 1988. The first of a two-part autobiography from the influential crime novelist, this one focusses on a two-year period in Willeford’s life from ages 16 to 18. The author, after his parents died, and to escape stifling poverty while living with his grandmother, left home to ride the rails during The Depression. Embellishments? Maybe, but who cares? The liveliness of the writing mirrors the harsh circumstances and events on the ground. Despite the hunger, freezing, desperation, depressing sexual encounters, and economic hopelessness, Willeford makes several heartfelt friendships, learns many practical lessons, and is a great manifestation of Nietzsche’s “what doesn’t kill me ...”.