Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Books Read in 2014

Yet another change-up on the year-end retrospective, this time listing every book (with brief commentary) I liked this calendar year. I can't remember better luck in my reading choices. Maybe twenty or twenty-five mild-to-outright duds and flubs, which means an above-50% plug rate. That said, I shelved several only a chapter (or a few poems) in, so, in hindsight, it allowed for far more quality. I've been sliding in that direction for several years now, anyway, and as the years accelerate into worldwide graphomania, it's a damn good policy.

The first ten books are listed in order of preference, the other twenty-seven in no particular order. The [b] designation after publication date refers to a lengthier blog entry on the same book earlier in the year, which can be accessed at the sidebar to the right.

1) Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, (1973). I don’t know why it’s taken me forty-one years to pick up this wayward, psychedelic, manic encyclopedia. The best “new” novel I’ve read this century, its scope and tonal range, lexical extravagance and meaning (reading some of the dismissive reviews on its meaning was discouraging), and prophetic impulse is incomparable. From a trapped bombing victim on one page to the surrealistic trip of a buggered bar patron trying to fish out his mouth harp from an overflowing toilet on the next page, it all works, all 760 dense pages of it.

2) Cynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers, (1997). Over forty years in the making, Ozick’s novel is executed in all facets with a hyper-attached Swiss Army knife. Stylish, lean, big-voiced with an incredibly sophisticated tone both arch and solemn, a fantasia without taking away from the realistic and harrowing penultimate event, wise, metaphysically daunting, meta-fictionally ingenious, structurally and chronologically inventive, funny, funny, and funny. The titular character I won’t ever forget.

3) Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760). Even Sterne wouldn’t have anticipated the irony and hypocrisy of present-day pomos carping about the too-earnest and too-proud certainties of realists and other assorted traditionalists while, themselves, lathering on the arcane and the obscuring, the specialized hush and the snake-eating-its-tail argumentation. I read this novel (or anti-novel) in my youth, but it’s only this year, this reread, that I’ve appreciated it as more than an amusing, infinite digression. (The targets are broader, of course, including other pompous figures, whether in the eighteenth or twenty-first centuries.)

4) James Park Sloan, Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography (1996). With the help of a skylight winch, pulled this from a Victoria, B.C. bookstore in 2007, and it took me seven years of daily weight training to be able to hoist the cement coffin from a bookcase addition. Amazingly meticulous research – not dissimilar in kind, at least, to the work Brian Busby put in on another bio on this list, while separating truth from whopper – in order to get underneath the many layers of fibbing and “image maintenance” of Kosinski’s mercurial personality. The Polish history is fascinating, the involvement with a New York literary elite desperate for “authenticity” revealing, the Hollywood hobnobbing a converging and sympathetic ambivalence, the Village Voice exposé a balanced journalistic overview with riveting biographical detail. Kiki von Fraunhofer must be the most selfless lit-spouse of all.

5) Joseph Heller, Something Happened, (1974). Relentlessly dark, the novel is black and yellow bile served up dry. Heller, after Catch-22, brings the American nightmare home. If there’s a more illuminating floodlight turned on office politics, I haven’t yet read it. The home front gets a similarly detailed psychological exploration. (I seem to have chanced upon quite a few laugh-to-keep-from-crying works this year.)

6) Jenny Erpenbeck, The Book Of Words, tr. Susan Bernofsky, (2004). Impressionistic yet concentrated, the novel gathers force and leaves stunning metaphorical clues as the girl narrator tries to understand her mysterious guardian’s language-perversion in justification of a career in state torture. Mixing folklore with horrific event, the reader, too, is constantly unbalanced. 

7) Anis Shivani, My Tranquil War and Other Poems, (2012). [b]. In a wide range of modes and emotions, Shivani argues with, and touts, an equally wide range of literary lion(esse)s, artists, and political figures, while situating (or implicating) them in cultural clashes and irrelevancies. Many standout poems.

8) Peter Richardson, Bit Parts For Fools, (2013). Richardson deepens his historical fiction monologues in this latest poetry collection, but never runs away from more personal involvement, revealing new concerns in entries of retirement, nostalgia, and specific appreciation. (As a huge Ralph Gustafson fan, it’s heartening to see the corresponding gentle elegy.)

9) Rachel Lebowitz, Cottonopolis, (2013). Shelby Foote complained about most historians whose dry and/or poorly-written tomes detracted from the horrors evoked in source material. Not so in Lebowitz’ stirring poems – found, phrase-borrowed, or original – of the too-easily-forgotten slaves, weaver-slaves, and famine victims of the Industrial maladaptation. Mixing extracts of squalor and beauty in language both vivid and blunt, the book is a worthy reminder that history tends, unfortunately, to favour stories of superhuman battle rather than the more common (and relatable) long emergencies detailed here – even during the American Civil War – of  infection, exhaustion, and disease.

10) Yiyun Li, The Vagrants, (2009). Set in the late 1970s, between Mao’s Cultural Devolution and the ‘Eight Square’ Massacre of 1989 (I use one of the euphemisms to bypass Chinese censors in that country on the slight chance someone there googles this mini-review), Li’s consistently low-key, formal, dire novel records the cultural ambivalences of that brief and hopeful period, when generations clashed over the value of individualism and revolution over respect, collective will, and family obedience. 

John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse, (1970). A delightful Henry Miller-ish creative non-fic place piece, without the inflated metaphysics.

ed. Brian Busby, The Heart Accepts It All, (2013). A wide-ranging selection of John Glassco’s letters which, in their personal obsessions, reveal, perplex, and delight.

ed. Brian Busby, A Gentleman of Pleasure, (2011). [b]. Meticulous biographical research against a complex historical adventure which organizes a psychological study of  dramatic, wise import.

Joyce Carol Oates, A Fair Maiden, (2010). [b]. Grim novella, rich in character tension, not so rich in tonal contrast.

Thomas Pynchon, Vineland, (1990). [b]. Has been called Pynchon’s worst novel. We should all be so lucky. A delightfully paranoid California romp. The author gently slaps the counter-culture while throwing vitriol at apostate informers.

James Dickey, Deliverance, (1970). [b]. Exceptionally tense, with gorgeous rock-cut sentence-descriptions of the river rapids. Dickey doesn’t let up in the quieter character assessments, either.

Bill Gaston, The Order of Good Cheer, (2008). [b]. A colourful bisection where the comparisons are effective only at a stretch. The alternating stories, though, provide a potent one-two combo of whimsy and guilt.

Mona Simpson, Off Keck Road, (2000). It must be hard to compose a novella about three unadventurous women, but Simpson succeeds with interior shading, wise character exchanges, and descriptive subtlety.

Beryl Bainbridge, An Awfully Big Adventure, (1989). Bainbridge’s last semi-autobiographical novel (I believe), the writing is superb: dialogue captures working-class vitality, and narration is crisp and colourful. Humour with a cost.

Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow, (2010) [b]. A generous dose of typically surprising, astute, comedic Amis-penned mischief.

John Pass, Crawlspace, (2011). [b]. A pretty good poetry collection with vibrant images, disarming humour, and narrative heft. Flagged a bit with emotional overreach.

Dean Young, Embryoyo, (2007). [b]. Excellent surrealistic poetry assault. Provocative linkages which gather multiple suggestions.

Nicole Dixon, High-Water Mark, (2012). The transience of desire, and desire’s reconciliation, usually for the best, characterize many of Dixon’s dialogue-heavy short stories. The traps gnawing at each character stem not so much from grim economic realities or family pressures, but from individuals’ own limitations, largely based on a lack of experience (many characters are young). Pared, immediate, and refreshingly clear of taking sides.

Philip Roth, Indignation, (2008). [b]. I’ve soured a bit on this since reading/blogging it in February, but it still packs a typical Rothian punch of sexuality and identity at near-burst the entire novella.

Alissa Nutting, Tampa, (2013). [b]. Receiving a horrendously reactive critical reception, either for or against, because of its explosive subject matter, the novel isn’t cutting edge or exploitative trash, but a flawed, intelligent first-person study of sex and power.

Will Ferguson, Spanish Fly, (2007). Riveting account of scammers set in the U.S. Depression dustbowl, the novel scores frequent points for humour, drama, plot, and description. The ending fell apart – in believability and force – but that’s a minor point.

Jason Guriel, The Pigheaded Soul, (2013). [b]. A wide tapas table of literary response to a fairly divergent set of authors in several genres, Guriel’s writing is concise and occasionally startling in its phrase-making and wise allusive reach, though I disagree with many of its evaluations.

Shane Neilson, Will, (2013). [b]. In-your-face and angry, sadly contemplative, or japingly satirical, Neilson, in these short stories, succeeds in a variety of tones. Too many noteworthy stories to single out just one or two. They’re all various shades of interesting to exciting.

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, (2005). Whimsical, witty, poignant novel of a reclusive poet battling inertia and failure to craft an intro to a poetry anthology. Baker overcomes the potentially dry material by releasing a captivating voice in the narrator.

Martin Amis, Heavy Water & Other Stories, (1999). Much panned and, yeah, some of the inverted conceits (and conceited inverts) are more interesting for the idea than the exposition, but several of the shorts have the stamp of Amis-branded absurdity and bullseye satire. Unlike almost every reviewer, I found the title effort both vivid and moving.

Jerzy Kosinski, Passion Play, (1979). The quality of Kosinski’s opus flags markedly after his first two fiction titles, but there are many haunting passages here of identity crisis and ambivalent nostalgia, as well as stinging descriptions of polo drama and Caribbean intrigue.

Guy de Maupassant, Selected Stories, tr. Roger Colet, (compiled 1971). A much-culled selection of Maupassant’s short stories, including “The Horla” and “Boule de Suif”, Colet’s translation is classically rendered, though dialogue has the force and immediacy of the characters’ volatility.

Orhan Pamuk, Other Colors, (2007). A slew of essays, articles, reminiscences, polemics, literary statements, anecdotes, historical cut-outs, and author retrospectives, capped by his Nobel speech, Paris interview and an original short story, Pamuk’s range is impressive, though that scope is contradicted, at times – I carp – by his obsession with East-West relations.

Zachariah Wells, Career Limiting Moves, (2013). I’d read most of these poetry reviews and essays, interviews, considerations, and ironic interrogations, but not his excellent review – “Disaster Tourism” – of Anne Simpson’s Loop, which he once pointed me to, after I’d reviewed her atrocious collection, Is, (available at the roll call to the right). Lots of quotation included throughout the collection, and assertions are elaborated on from more than one angle.

Richard Greene, Dante’s House, (2014). [b]. The long terza rima titular poem is a standout, neither sagging nor garrulous. Several gems appear in the opening section, too, including the simultaneously gripping and measured “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince”.

George Elliott Clarke, Black, (2012). [b]. In a stunningly wide array of moods and modes, Clarke’s characteristic indulgences are superseded by a wealth of lyrical power.

Zsuzsi Gartner, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, (2011). Wallowing in cultural ephemera, this short story collection is nevertheless saved by Gartner’s (narrative, lexical, stylish) joyous invention.