I read, I write. This is what I do.
Earlier this year, I dropped my hours at McNally Jackson down to part-time in order to do these things more. Ten months later, I left McNally Jackson altogether to take a job at BOMB Magazine. A few weeks ago, I came out with a little book that isn’t included in this list, but is called Things I Told My Mother. Thank you, in advance, if you choose to seek it out.
In other words: this year has been one of frequent, major changes, on-and-off journaling and traveling, constant reading and writing, long hours spent intermittently alone and among crowds, and perpetual attempts, however fruitlessly, to put my life in order.
Here’s a semiautobiographical exegesis of books, mostly published this year, that held me aloft from January to the present.
Shake Her by Arielle Greenberg
This book actually came out mid-December 2012, but I read it one night in early January, just after the McNally Jackson poetry section came under my purview. I read the whole thing standing up in the section, so entrenched did I become in its deeply personal and deeply researched material, powerful, chilling language, and bleeding, delicate fragility. A few months after I read it, I went to Boston for AWP and made a friend who I decided needed to read it immediately. I bought it from the Ugly Duckling booth and inscribed it for him later that night. I wonder if he’s read it, yet.
Railtracks by Anne Michaels and John Berger
I read this book on the train on the way to AWP, weeping the whole way. It consists of a conversation between the voices of Berger and Michaels, interspersed with photography by Tereza Stehlíková, taken from a moving train. Rarely will I say that a book includes everything, but this book does. It cuts through themes of globalization and place, history and the present, love and loss, grief and desire, war, movement and stasis, and everything in-between. The simplicity and clarity of both writers’ work here is astounding and deeply, deeply moving. Reading it, I felt: There is no other book.
I Await the Devil’s Coming by Mary MacLane
My very good friend Rachel Hurn wrote an excellent review of this memoir for the Wall Street Journal: “Praised by young women of the day as brilliant and original, and criticized by reviewers as mad and degenerate, MacLane was in many ways your typical 19-year-old: egotistical, headstrong, judgmental.” In many ways, yes, but I know few nineteen-year-olds in today’s world who can express their young angst so articulately and so powerfully. I read this book in March, with my personal life in turmoil. One morning, sitting in a café near Union Square before seeing my analyst, I came across the words: “My soul wanders hither and thither in the dark wilderness and asks, always in blind, dull agony, How long? – how long?” And I thought, Yes. Someone finally understands.
Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle
I didn’t think I’d make it through March, but I did, and then I went away for a month to finish my novel. Returning at the end of May, I found an advance copy of Mary Ruefle’s new collection waiting for me. How to describe the pleasure this gave me? Sitting in a vegan restaurant with my husband, after spending a day at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, we passed the book back and forth, and read it aloud to each other. Ruefle is line-by-line witty and wise, clear-sighted and wholly relatable. She’s everything. As my friend Rachel says: “She’s my heroine.” My response is: “She’s my heroin.”
The Summer of the Elder Tree by Marie Chaix
I’ve written about this book quite a bit already this year, for the Paris Review Daily and Bookforum, but this list would be incomplete if I didn’t mention it again. I’ve read The Summer of the Elder Tree now three times and it gets better with each reading. Things that I thought were mistakes the first time came to have significance the second time around and proved brilliant choices the third time. Chaix writes lyrically with honesty, humility, and grace. Talking with her, and writing about her work, I came to the realization that no piece of my writing will ever be complete, will ever be perfect. No matter how I try to fill them in, there will always be holes. This was an incredibly freeing concept, and one of the highlights of my year. And it came out of this book.
Firefly by Severo Sarduy
Jumping ahead to August: I’m on the committee of the Best Translated Book Award, so many of the books I’ve loved most this year have been works in translation. I first became aware of Sarduy when I read Cobra in an MFA class two years ago, and was blown away. I had never see someone do with text what Sarduy does in that book; it practically dissolves on the page. Firefly, while not as formally experimental, is nonetheless an astonishing prose work, sensually enveloping to an almost affected degree, with certain fabulist elements. Even in its most devastating moments, it remains playful. And because I derive great pleasure from giving books to people, I bought this book for a new friend of mine shortly after reading it. We were hanging out for the first time at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and in the midst of telling him about Firefly, I realized we were standing only a few hundred feet from the Archipelago booth.
City of Angels by Christa Wolf
As a continuation of that story: while I was buying Firefly for my new friend, I was carrying in my bag Christa Wolf’s book City of Angels, which boasts possibly the most skillful translation I’ve seen on any book this year, by Damion Searls. I tend to take a lot of marginal notes, but these pages were almost completely blacked out by the time I was done with them. I wrote about this book and others for the Best Translated Book Award blog, Three Percent, so I hope you don’t mind if I quote myself here, as I’m not sure that I can say this any better than I already have: “My favorite part of this book so far is the connection Wolf draws between political bureaucracy and architecture, using anatomical language to describe states of sickness or health as they occur in a population living under a functional or dysfunctional government, and the way architecture changes under those systems, directing bodies. The Berlin Wall is probably the biggest example of this. Again, Searls has handled this beautifully.”
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
While I was reading The African Shore, a copy of the Fall 2013 issue of BOMB Magazine, #125, was sitting on my coffee table, partially read. That issue contains a really wonderful conversation between Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Francisco Goldman, which I would read a few days later while I was killing time before my second interview at BOMB, the one that would land me the job. So, not only is The African Shore simple, elegant, and surprising; so too, often, are the events of my life. Rey Rosa was a protégé of Paul Bowles’s and, though many of Rey Rosa’s books are set in his home country of Guatemala, this one takes place in Tangier, which is textured, meandering, and dreamlike, as if seen through an opium haze.
Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
On my way to work one of my last shifts at McNally Jackson, I bought a pair of spike heels at the Housing Works thrift store and threw my already beaten-up sneakers in a nearby trashcan. Then, with some time to kill, I sat down to read this book on the curb across the street. Though sometimes difficult, Seiobo There Below is compulsively readable and mind-bogglingly beautiful from beginning to end. Krasznahorkai’s sentences compel the reader forward from one page to the next, often for several pages at a time, as if he instills a hunger in the brain that cannot be sated. Reading this book was, honestly, a revelation. So was the experience of wearing spike heels for eight hours in a row.
Sleet by Stig Dagerman
Reading Sleet, I felt nostalgic for the days when I hadn’t yet discovered John Steinbeck. If only I could have the experience of reading him for the first time all over again! I give you Stig Dagerman. Dagerman’s writing is personal and unsettling, hewing closely to characters being made to undergo humiliation and loss in an environment – mid-century Sweden – that’s almost too quaint for comfort. I would happily read this collection a second and even a third time. The last story, “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?”, (a title that makes me giggle every time because I think it sounds like a Sesame Street song), captures the experience of grief so accurately I found myself panting on the subway, trying not to cry. I missed my grandfather intensely.
My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Okay, so this book came out last year, I know, but Book 2 came out this year and is a serious contender for the Best Translated Book Award. I’m still in the middle of Book 1 but will tell you that despite its length (almost 450 pages), I’m going to have to begin the next volume immediately. My Struggle is a world to be inhabited, ingested, injected directly into the vein. If atmosphere were made material and then made textual and then laid down on several thousand pages consecutively, it would be My Struggle. And I will say this: I never care very much about plot, but I understand that people often do. In this case, they won’t, because from moment to moment, this story is going somewhere, even if it’s not.
Six books that came out this year that I read and loved but which aren’t discussed here:
Red Grass by Boris Vian
Cunt Norton by Dodie Bellamy
American Dream Machine by Matthew Specktor
The Crisis of Infinite Worlds by Dana Ward
Speedboat by Renata Adler
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg
Five books I read this year that didn’t come out in 2013 but are nonetheless great:
Why This World: a Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser
The Book of Monelle by Marcel Schwob
Where Art Belongs by Chris Kraus
The End of the Story by Lydia Davis
The Planets by Sergio Chejfec
Four books that I really meant to get to before the end of the year:
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
My 1980s by Wayne Koestenbaum
Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal
White Girls by Hilton Als
Sarah Gerard‘s book Things I Told My Mother was published by Von Zos in November. Her other writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, Bookforum, and other journals. She works at BOMB Magazine and is on the committee of the 2014 Best Translated Book Award for fiction, holds an MFA from The New School, and is a sometime bookseller at McNally Jackson Books.