A Year of Favorites: Jen Vafidis

Year Of Favorites 2014

I’m not going to review much this year, I said to myself last December, and I guess I really meant it. Having so few deadlines, I didn’t move quickly or in any one direction, and I sometimes didn’t finish things. But what I finished, I devoured. I read and reread The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker, Rome by Dorothea Lasky, and The Second Sex by Michael Robbins, all odd, funny, and thrilling (yes, thrilling) collections that everyone should read, from poets I wish everyone knew. I turned religious over a handful of Charles Portis novels and “Love” by Grace Paley. I happily revisited The Silent Woman and Helter Skelter. I had some fun with Gone Girl. A few books kept bothering me though, too long after I had read them. They are listed below, as sort of a review of literary pests.

Can’t and Won’t: Stories, by Lydia Davis
On the way to Philadelphia, you see a horrifying sign on a bridge over the Delaware River. The sign says: TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES. I laughed the first time I saw it, because this is the sort of thing that makes me laugh. Lydia Davis took that sign and put a description of it into “The Seals,” which is the story in Can’t and Won’t that affected me the most. It’s about a woman on a train ride, struggling to remember someone who was very close to her and has been dead for a while. I went to Philadelphia a lot this year, and every time I saw the sign I thought about “The Seals.” You’d think I could have it easier; perhaps Davis could have put this bridge in one of her stories about how annoying the telephone company is. As it was though, I had to recall this line, about a gift from a dead person that the narrator can’t throw away: “You wouldn’t think a person could become attached to something like a jar of tartar sauce.” I also thought about this line, which in any context is as jarring as the Trenton Makes Bridge: “When we die, one of us will be very surprised!” Anyway, I don’t laugh at the sign anymore.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
I already wrote about this book here. But I’m going to say one more thing about it. There is a Motel 6 in Gowanus. It is across the street from a bar that serves popcorn, our country’s greatest bar snack. The first time I saw the Motel 6 after reading this book, I thought, That’s totally the motel that the Dept. of Speculation narrator goes to. New York is full of landmarks.

Grotesque, by Natsuo Kirino
This didn’t come out in 2014, but crime novels about women who go off the deep end are still relevant, I think. I sometimes dislike selling a book by saying, “it’s about [plot] but really it’s about [societal problem],” as if subtext weren’t routine, but here I go: on the surface, you see, this is a book about prostitutes and murder, and you can’t escape that element. Kirino isn’t interested in inference. After all, this is a book called Grotesque; prepare for sex, blood, and explicit female hatred. But this is also a book about the power dynamics among women in a society that gives most, if not all, of the power to men. It’s about the extent of one’s pity: how far your sympathies go before they become your misfortune. It’s about women who are ultimately killed in their struggle to be humanized by men. And it’s about age, how we confront it and how we factor it into our decisions. I don’t think I’ve read a darker exploration of female competition. Kirino’s Out was one of my favorite crime novels, but now this book has surpassed it. I’d suggest it to more people if I wanted to alienate them.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
Some of Marilynne Robinson’s sentences are dark and deep, and some of them are red rubber balls in a game of dodge ball, hurtling toward my loser face. They make such a sound, and why can’t I be the one throwing them? “Lila,” Robinson writes, seemingly without any effort, “had no particular notion of what the word ‘married’ meant, except that there was an endless, pleasant joke between them that excluded everybody else and that all the rest of them were welcome to admire.” What a timeworn idea, that married people seem to be laughing at something you can’t hear, and she says it so plainly. But how else do you say it? There is so much in Lila that feels like the ultimate truth about loneliness, love, and compassion, like it was written centuries ago, like Robinson has put everything she knows in this Mary Poppins bag of a novel. One scene with children selling apples at a tent revival broke my heart, and I understand if that sounds like watching water boil to you, I get it. But I’m going to go where you won’t follow.

Loitering: New & Collected Essays, by Charles D’Ambrosio
At least one person has tried to steal my copy of Orphans, Charles D’Ambrosio’s 2004 essay collection that went out of print soon after it was published. I worked hard for this copy, so I’m vigilant. After a friend told me I needed it, I combed through too many bookstores with multiplying cats and VHS copies of Blade. No one has to go through my misery now that there is this compendium of D’Ambrosio’s work that includes the essays from Orphans and several others that are equally wonderful. One thing I love about D’Ambrosio and try not to take for granted, as this should be how most essayists are, is how contentious he can be. His essay on Mary Kay Letourneau continues to be one of my favorite pieces of political writing. I have spent a lot of time failing to paraphrase this sentence from that essay: “The mistake is to confuse what’s merely similar with what’s equal… and then pass it off as logic.” There’s so much gold in Loitering, and some of it makes me cry, which is annoying but ultimately fine. I could be doing so many other things, but here I am, rereading an essay about Mary Kay Letourneau.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante
I know that Ferrante lovers can sound a little rabid, which should make anyone fear getting bitten, but I don’t know how else to express my excitement over this unphotographed woman. The third Neapolitan novel came out this year, and it’s devastating. Is that how you like your books? I couldn’t read anything else for at least a few weeks after it was done with me. It’s so frank, so full, so angry. Her books have begun to afflict and comfort me like they were the news. Here is one of my favorite rants from one of my favorite characters:

May I point out something? You always use true and truthfully, when you speak and when you write. Or you say: unexpectedly. But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another. I don’t do anything truthfully anymore, Lenu. And I’ve learned to pay attention to things. Only idiots believe that they happen unexpectedly.

My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series, is a little more perfect, but what kind of brat harps on that? Three classics in quick succession, and you’re complaining? Ho hum, another Ferrante novel. This is your era; you are alive at the same time as this. Delight in your riches for once.

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