It was another pandemic year, in some ways more challenging than the first. There was a sense of fraying in the fabric of social life, work life, personal focus (my poetry journal full of fragments that I’m not postmodern enough to throw down on pages and pretend that they cohere as poems), the persistent floating anxiety.
Among the various costumes that relief arrived in were books, of course. In my usual magpie fashion, I wandered across times and genres, applying a habit I acquired in 2019: using little Post-its to flag passages I would otherwise have written in my commonplace notebook, which I started using years ago to break myself of the underlining habit. (Underlining is ok in cheap paperbacks but not in first editions or hardbacks of any kind.) I took the new habit a bit further this year by actually typing the flagged passages into the Excel file I use to keep track of my reading. (Why, oh why? If I were the ever-insightful Pat Dubrava, I would write a relaxed but insightful essay on the question. Maybe 2022 will give me enough focus to produce such a thing!) I had thought to offer up some of those quotes in this post, but then I studied my most heavily flagged book—Wislawa Szymborska’s hilarious and insightful How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Authors—and realized what a fool’s errand that would be. All I can do is recommend it for any writer, active or would-be, for its bracing honesty, generosity, and sometimes gentle, sometimes biting humor.
I’ve listed my 2021 readings below, including a couple of re-readings I chose to include as recommendations, in case you missed them in the past or forgot just how wonderful they remain: William Stafford’s A Glass Face in the Rain and An Oregon Message, both unfortunately out of print. I imagine that someone is engaged in assembling Stafford’s complete poems, which (if it ever arrives) will surely rival The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons (volumes one and two) in scope and depths of pleasure. So count The Complete Poems of William Stafford as a perennial on my wish list!
Before mentioning my favorites from this year, let me note that ISBNs appear in the full book list for those of you who wish to order them. I recommend using Indiebound.org to find a local bookstore to order from, if you don’t already have a favorite local store. And let me add that no book I consider unworthy makes it onto these annual lists! So feel free to fish around.
All right: here goes!
POETRY: All of Valzhyna Mort‘s collections; Steven Ford Brown‘s subtle translation of Jorge Carrera Andrade‘s Century of the Death of the Rose; Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska brought over into English from the Polish originals by Grażyna Drabik and David Curzon; Amit Majmudar‘s collections and his translation of the Bhagavad-Gita entitled Godsong. Closer to home, there was Carol D. Guerrero-Murphy‘s moving and formally adventurous Bright Path Dark River; Bob Cooperman‘s funny and tender Reefer Madness; Lisa Zimmerman‘s lovely sequence Sainted, in which she gives voice to a variety of female Catholic saints; Beth Paulson‘s Luminous, a gorgeous paean to the threatened but resilient natural world, including our own human nature; and Wayne Miller‘s sobering exploration of the ways in which our private and public lives interpenetrate, We the Jury. Somewhat farther afield but needful of mentioning is One Black Shoe, by Sue Reed Crouse, a book of elegies for her young daughter that simmer like lidded pots of water on a hot stove.
FICTION: For many years I owned the Avon paperback edition of Julio Cortázar‘s novel Hopscotch, which I attempted to read several times, but the small crowded type in the mass market format defeated me. I finally donated it to what was then the annual Jefferson County Libraries book sale. (Sound a note of chargrin here: the book goes for anywhere between $15 and $90 online these days.) Anyway, I happened upon an affordable, somewhat beat-up first edition hardback at The Strand, and I have to say—find a copy of Hopscotch and read it as soon as possible!
Among this years other novels, I highly recommend Ayad Akhtar‘s powerful and often mordantly funny Homeland Elegies. Hemingway‘s posthumous The Garden of Eden was a fine, psychologically spooky surprise. Clarice Lispector‘s The Passion According to G. H. begins with an annoying airlessness, but over the course of the book opens out—or, better, opens in—and becomes a profound, ineffable exploration of spiritual need. Many critics have described the novel as “existentialist,” probably because it bears a superficial resemblance to Sartre‘s Nausea. But it seems to me that Lispector argues against Sartre in favor of a via negativa approach to spirituality—though I have to admit I’ll need to reread the book with that idea in mind to see if it’s real or just a fantasy of my own! I also ventured into James Welch‘s magical but ultimately gut-wrenching historical novel about the tragic encounter between white settlers and the southern Blackfeet tribes of what is now Montana. It is among the most beautful and illuminating novels I read last year.
Finally, I have to admit to reading a book that I first picked up in a paperback edition in a bookstore that no longer exists in Denver’s Larimer Square in the early 1970s. I leafed through, sampling it, and felt a sense of disgust that made me put it back on the shelf. Years later, when I started reading the mid-career novels of Philip Roth, I decided to go back to that book—Portnoy’s Complaint—and give it a try. Although the book is often funny, it is more often an extended misogynistic whine. I’ll continue fishing around in the novels he wrote from Sabbath’s Theater on, thank you very much.
MEMOIR: This year I continued my love affair with Kapka Kassabova‘s writing. Her memoir/travel book To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace is a masterful combination of self- and cultural-exploration, a deep dive into personal and historical trauma that leads not to “recovery” but to a complex and quite beautiful embrace of her psychic inheritance. Wow! I finished the year with a memoir I’d meant to read since wrestling with The Last Temptation of Christ as an undergraduate: Nikos Kazantzakis‘s Report to Greco, published posthumously in Greek in 1961 and in English four years later, translated by P. A. Bien. In the introduction, his wife Helen notes that “[t]he Report is a mixture of fact and fiction,” and there are stretches in the book that have the feel of short stories or fables, but the hidden driver is an impetus toward truth as Kazantzakis understood it, so that it struck me as more honest than many another memoir I’ve encountered. Also, I can’t fail to mention A Ghost in the Throat, by the excellent Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s a lyrical memoir shaped by Ní Ghríofa’s obsessive work on her translation of “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” (“Lament for Art O’Leary”) by the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chronaill. Both the self-portraiture and literary investigation/translation are woven together into a single captivating essay on the fundamental experiences of women, which have changed so little over the centuries.
I’ll close this commentary with two prose books by Henry Miller—books I’d always meant to read but only last year got around to: The Colossus of Maroussi and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. The former is a flat-out masterpiece, the latter more miscellaneous and hence more uneven. But Miller is probably the most quotable of the authors I read in 2021. Here are a few examples:
- Our diseases are our attachments, be they habits, ideologies, ideals, principles, possessions, phobias, gods, cults, religions, what you please. Good wages can be a disease just as much as bad wages. Leisure can be just as great a disease as work. Whatever we cling to, even if it be hope or faith, can be the disease which carries us off. [Colossus]
- The only laws which last are the unwritten ones. [Colossus]
- I bless the world, every inch of it, every living atom, and it is alive, breathing like myself, and conscious through and through. [Colossus]
- A new world is not made simply by trying to forget the old. A new world is made with a new spirit, with new values. Our world may have begun that way, but to-day it is caricatural. Our world is a world of things. It is made up of comforts and luxuries, or else the desire for them. What we dread most, in facing the impending débâcle, is that we shall be obliged to give up our gew-gaws, our gadgets, all the little comforts which have made us so uncomfortable. [Nightmare]
- Dreams are the very substance of reality. Reality is not protected or defended by laws, proclamations, ukases, cannons and armadas. Reality is that which is sprouting all the time out of death and disintegration. You can’t do anything to it; you can’t add or subtract, you can only become more and more aware. Those who are partly aware are the creators; those who are fully aware are the gods and they move among us silent and unknown. The function of the artist, who is only one type of creator, is to wake us up. The artists stimulate our imagination. (“Imagination is the last word,” says Varèse.) They open up for us portions of reality, unlatch the doors which we habitually keep shut. [Nightmare]
- No part of this planet is immune once the spirit of self-destruction takes hold. The great organism called Society may break down into molecules and atoms; there may not be a vestige of any social forms which could be called a body. What we call “society” may become one interrupted dissonance for which no resolving chord will ever be found. That too is possible.We know only a small fraction of the history of man on this earth. It is a long, tedious, painful record of catastrophic changes involving the disappearance of whole continents sometimes We tell the story as though man were an innocent victim, a helpless participant in the erratic and unpredictable revolutions of Nature. Perhaps in the past he was. But not any longer. Whatever happens to this earth to-day is of man’s doing. Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything—except his own nature. If yesterday he was a child of nature, to-day he is a responsible creature. He has reached a point of consciousness which permits him to lie to himself no longer. Destruction now is deliberate, voluntary, self-induced. We are at the node: we can go forward or relapse. We still have the power of choice. To-morrow we may not. It is because we refuse to make the choice that we are ridden with guilt, all of us, those who are making war and those who are not. We are all filled with murder. We loathe one another. We hate what we look like when we look into one another’s eyes. [Nightmare]
These observations are even more striking when we consider that Colossus was first published in 1941, Nightmare in 1945.
Finally, I want to end with a book rivaled only by Szymborska’s How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) for sheer pleasure and resonant charm: Jay Parini‘s Borges and Me. It is (trust me) nothing like any book you’ve ever read touching on the character and presence of Borges. Pure delight!
Onward into 2022 … with Percival Everett’s new novel The Trees on the top of my stack….
|To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace||Kapka Kassabova||9781644450260||Graywolf||2020||Memoir|
|Homeland Elegies||Ayad Akhtar||9780316496421||Little, Brown||2020||Fiction|
|Factory of Tears||Valzhyna Mort||9781556592744||Copper Canyon Press||2008||Poetry||Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and Franz Wright|
|Collected Body||Valzhyna Mort||9781556593727||Copper Canyon Press||2011||Poetry|
|Music for the Dead and Resurrected||Valzhyna Mort||9780374252069||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2020||Poetry|
|The Mad Moonlight||Louis Jenkins||9780979312885||Will o’ the Wisp Books||2019||Poetry|
|The Great Fall||Peter Handke||9780857425348||Seagull Books||2018||Fiction||Krishna Winston|
|Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories||Philip Roth||679601597||Random House/Modern Library||1995||Fiction|
|For Now||James Richardson||9781556595790||Copper Canyon Press||2020||Poetry|
|Portnoy’s Complaint||Philip Roth||9780679756453||Random House||1969||Fiction|
|My House Is On Fire||Ariel Dorfman||9780670820214||Viking||1990||Fiction||Ariel Dorfman and George Shivers|
|United States of Banana||Giannina Braschi||9781611090673||Amazon Crossing||2011||Fiction|
|Woes of the True Policeman||Roberto Bolaño||9780174266745||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2012||Fiction||Natasha Wimmer|
|Luminous||Beth Paulson||9781954353091||Kelsay Books||2021||Poetry|
|Nobody||Alice Oswald||9781324005605||W. W. Norton||2020||Poetry|
|The Garden of Eden||Ernest Hemingway||684186934||Scribners||1986||Fiction|
|Erratic Facts||Kay Ryan||9780802126050||Grove Press||2015||Poetry|
|Dom Casmurro||Machado De Assis||9780374523039||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2009||Fiction||Helen Caldwell|
|Hopscotch||Julio Cortázar||9780394752846||Pantheon Books||1966||Fiction||Gregory Rabassa|
|Century of the Death of the Rose||Jorge Carrera Andrade||9781588381026||NewSouth Books||2002||Poetry||Steven Ford Brown|
|Holy Ghost||Bob Arnold||9781929048601||Longhouse||2021||Poetry|
|After Ikkyu and Other Poems||Jim Harrison||9781611806212||Shambhala||2018||Poetry|
|The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation from the Persian||Omar Khayyam||9780755600519||I. B. Tauris||2020||Poetry||Juan Cole|
|The Treasure of the Sierra Madre||B. Traven||9780809092970||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2010||Fiction|
|Fidelity||Grace Paley||9780374299064||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2008||Poetry|
|Blood Run||Allison Adelle Hedge Coke||9781844712663||Salt Publishing||2006||Poetry|
|The Roots of Wisdom||Zang Di||9781938890987||Zephyr Press||2017||Poetry||Eleanor Goodman|
|Fools Crow||James Welch||9780670811212||Viking||1986||Fiction|
|Continent||Jim Crace||9780060157241||Harper & Row||1986||Fiction|
|Topdog/Underdog||Suzan-Lori Parks||9781559362016||Theatre Communications Group||2001||Drama|
|Hapax||A. E. Stallings||9780810151720||Triquarterly Books/ Northwestern||2006||Poetry|
|Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska||Anna Kamienska||9781557255990||Paraclete Press||2007||Poetry||Grażyna Drabik and David Curzon|
|Traducir el silencio / Translating Silence||Manuel Iris||9781940075587||Artepoética Press||2018||Poetry||Manuel Iris|
|Sufficient Emptiness||Marjorie Power||9781736847718||Deerbrook Editions||2021||Poetry|
|Faraway Places||Teow Lim Goh||9781939728456||Diode Editions||2021||Poetry|
|Demented Flute: Selected Poems 1967-1986||Sasaki Mikiro||942668146||Katydid Books||1988||Poetry||William I. Elliott and Kawamura Kazuo|
|Warhorses||Yusef Komunyakaa||9780374286439||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2008||Poetry|
|Hatchet||Carmen Boullosa||9781945680397||White Pine Press||2020||Poetry||Lawrence Schimel|
|Mosquito & Ant||Kimiko Hahn||9780393047325||W. W. Norton||1999||Poetry|
|Summer Snow||Robert Hass||9780062950024||Ecco||2020||Poetry|
|Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932||Francine Prose||9780061713781||HarperCollins||2014||Fiction|
|To Star the Dark||Doireann Ní Ghríofa||9781910251867||Dedalus Press||2021||Poetry|
|The Colossus of Maroussi||Henry Miller||811201090||New Directions||1958||Memoir|
|The Invention of Morel||Adolfo Bioy Casares||9781590170571||New York Review Books||1992||Fiction||Ruth L. C. Simms|
|Time and Materials||Robert Hass||9780061349607||Ecco||2007||Poetry|
|Infinite Ground||Martin MacInnes||9781612196855||Melville House||2917||Fiction|
|A Ghost in the Throat||Doireann Ní Ghríofa||9781771964111||Biblioasis||2020||Memoir|
|The Parting Present/Lo Que Se Irá||Manuel Iris||9781953252241||Dos Madres Press||2021||Poetry||Translated by the author|
|Lies||Doireann Ní Ghríofa||9781910251393||Dedalus Press||2018||Poetry||Translated by the author|
|Borges and Me||Jay Parini||9780385545822||Doubleday||2021||Memoir|
|Station Eleven||Emily St. John Mandel||9780804172448||Vintage||2014||Fiction|
|Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems||Durs Grünbein||9780374260743||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2005||Poetry||Michael Hofmann|
|A Glass Face in the Rain||William Stafford||9780060909833||Harper & Row||1982||Poetry|
|The Passion According to G. H.||Clarice Lispector||9780811219686||New Directions||2012||Fiction||Idra Novey|
|Conscious and Verbal||Les Murray||9780374128821||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2001||Poetry|
|Poet Warrior||Joy Harjo||9780393248524||W. W. Norton||2021||Memoir|
|An Oregon Message||William Stafford||9780060550936||Harper & Row||1987||Poetry|
|Subhuman Redneck Poems||Les Murray||9780374271558||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||1997||Poetry|
|Poems the Size of Photographs||Les Murray||9780374235208||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2003||Poetry|
|Lean Against This Late Hour||Garous Abdolmalekian||9780143134930||Penguin Books||2020||Poetry||Translated by Ahmad Nadalizadeh and Idra Novey|
|Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita||Amit Majmudar||9780525435297||Knopf||2018||Poetry|
|The Air-Conditioned Nightmare||Henry Miller||9780811201063||New Directions||1970||Nonfiction|
|Winter Recipes from the Collective||Louise Glück||9780374604103||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2021||Poetry|
|What He Did in Solitary||Amit Majmudar||9780525656517||Knopf||2020||Poetry|
|Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth||Wole Soyinka||9780593320167||Pantheon Books||2020||Fiction|
|0°, 0°||Amit Majmudar||9780810126268||Triquarterly Books/ Northwestern||2009||Poetry|
|Memories Look at Me||Tomas Tranströmer||9780811220187||New Directions||2011||Memoir||Robin Fulton|
|Sainted||Lisa Zimmerman||9781599488943||Main Street Rag||2021||Poetry|
|We the Jury||Wayne Miller||9781571315311||Milkweed||2021||Poetry|
|How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Authors||Wislawa Szymborska||9780811229715||New Directions||2021||Nonfiction||Clare Cavanagh|
|Alcestis||Euripides||9780374149208||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||1999||Drama||Ted Hughes|
|From Spires to Peaks||Anthony L. T. Cragg||9781098369927||BookBaby||2021||Poetry|
|A Prayer the Body Makes||Penny Harter||9781952326042||Kelsay Books||2020||Poetry|
|Bright Path Dark River||Carol D. Guerrero-Murphy||9798693813311||Carol D. Murphy||2020||Poetry|
|Reefer Madness||Robert Cooperman||9781954353688||Kelsay Books||2021||Poetry|
|One Black Shoe||Sue Reed Crouse||9780985269272||Cup and Spiral Books||2021||Poetry|
|Three Poems||Hannah Sullivan||9780374276713||Farrar, Straus and Giroux||2020||Poetry|
|Report to Greco||Nikos Kazantzakis||9780571195077||Simon and Schuster||1965||Memoir||P. A. Bien|