2022 Reading Log
My 18 notable books of 2022 are listed first, followed by all of the other books I read that year in alphabetical order by author.
Notable Books of From My Reading of 2022
Sara Baume. Handiwork. Dublin: Tramp Press, 2020. Baume, a writer with a growing reputation for her fiction, has a personal craft obsession: carving small birds out of plaster, at the rate of a bird a day. In Handiwork, she blends narrative threads about her craft habits, bird-watching, stories of bird migration, and bits of memoir about her husband and her father, into a spiraling meditation on obsession and what it means to work with your hands. As she ponders the way in which migration patterns are passed on through generations of birds, she observes her father and herself, wondering what has similarly been passed from father to daughter—especially after his death. Nothing feels superficial to me about this book. Baume explores the concepts of craft, craft work, craftsmanship, and craftsmen deeply and personally.
Kirsty Bell. The Undercurrents. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022. After a move and then a sudden divorce, Bell found herself the owner of an apartment in one of the few 19th century buildings in Berlin that survived the devastation of World War II. Curious about the building’s history, she began to research it, but eventually started expanding her purview to research the nearby canal, then the neighborhood, and eventually more of the city and enough of Berlin’s history to give full context to the history of her building and the family who built it and lived in it for nearly a century. Along the way, she tells many stories about Berlin. For example, she lays out a concise picture of Berlin’s dismal attempts at post-war city planning and gave me the best run-down of what went wrong during “re-unification” I’ve read yet. When I visit Berlin later this year, I feel like I will be coming in with my eyes wide open. Every city needs a book like this.
Annabel Dover. Florilegia. Nottingham: Moist Books, 2022. A daring first novel narrated by a woman who becomes enamored with the 19th century British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins,. The novel is really about the power of objects to provoke memories that, in this instance, bring the narrator back in touch with memories of her parents and siblings. Packed with nearly one hundred b&w photographs.
Percival Everett. Suder. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1999. Everett’s first book, from 1983, re-released sixteen years later, seemed to start a bit slow, toggling between baseball and jazz, turned out to be a doozy, complete with an elephant, a hijacked young girl, some liberated cash, and a man who has decided he wants to fly.
Percival Everett. Walk Me to the Distance. NY: Ticknor & Fields, 1985. In Everett’s second novel, David Larson, a Viet Nam veteran, returns to the U.S. and seemingly lets chance take control of his life. Having failed at everything up to now, he blindly heads West and manages to land in Slut’s Hole, Montana, at the ranch of a one-legged sheep rancher named Sixbury, who has a severely retarded son. Larson has trouble adjusting to the routines of daily life, but becomes enamored of the openness of the West and the people he encounters in Slut’s Hole. As happens in so many of Everett’s novels, he leads his main character into an ethical thicket and watches as he tries to maneuver his way out. This is a taut, many-layered novel about a man who knows he’s not on the right path but is determined to right his ship.
Mark Haber, Saint Sebastian’s Abyss. Coffee House Press, 2022. A novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” is one of only three paintings that survive by the (fictional) painter Count Hugo Beckenbauer (1512- ?), a man who spent most of his abbreviated adult life in Berlin drinking and “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. Two art historians have built their careers on this tiny gem of a painting—the unnamed American narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have had a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day said a “horrible thing” that angered Schmidt and led to a rupture that ended their friendship thirteen years ago. Haber has crafted a novel about beauty and spite worthy of Thomas Bernhard. I wrote a longer review here.
Gabriel Josipovici. 100 Days. Manchester: Little Island Press, 2021. A self-assigned Covid project to “keep a diary for a hundred days . . . with a short thought or memory, one a day, connected to a person, place, concept or work of art that had played a role in my life . . . not . . . perfect little essays . . . but rather a way of talking to myself.” The alphabetically-themed entries range from Aachen and Abraham to [Georges] Perec and Piers the Plowman to Zazie dans le métro (Raymond Queneau’s 1960 novel) and Zoos. Josipovici’s erudition and his utter honesty shine through in these wonderful little pieces, each of which is preceded by a short diaristic encapsulation of the current political situation with regard to Covid, usually the British government’s botched handling thereof. Josipovici could have easily become this era’s Samuel Pepys, if he had kept a diary. (Maybe he does?)
William Melvin Kelley. A Different Drummer. NY: Anchor Books, 1959. [I read the 2019 eBook edition.] This is Kelley’s debut novel, written when he was 24. After reading it, I wasn’t surprised to find that he was a student of John Hawkes at Harvard. One day, a young Black man named Tucker Caliban burns his house, shoots his farm animals, salts his fields and heads North, starting a movement that causes the state’s entire Black population to also emigrate Northward. A rich and complex novel, told from the perspective of a rotating cast of characters, most of which are the white residents of Caliban’s tiny community. There is something fearless about the way in which Kelley interweaves satire and the occasional bits of heart-felt, almost endearing tenderness that we once thought had to lurk within just about everyone, even the most racist individual or the most radical leader.
Ausma Zehanat Khan. Blackwater Falls. NY: Minotaur Books, 2022. In a foothills suburb of Denver, Afghani-American Detective Inaya Rahman pairs up with a Latina Detective to try to solve the murder of a Syrian refugee teenage girl. Although I think Khan stretches credulity a bit in order to demonstrate how racism works in America, I applaud her effort and otherwise enjoyed this police procedural quite a bit. It’s apparently the start of a series and I look forward to more books to come. Khan lets us look at America from the perspective of several immigrant police officers and their families and it’s a very different mirror than the one most of us use every morning.
[Tom Lecky.] Peter Ward, ed. The Archive of Bernard Taylor. Hastings-on-Hudson: Understory Books, 2021. Can a spoof be beautiful and serious? At first, this appears to be a stunningly handsome book of formal b&w photographs taken in and around Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. The photographs are mostly of trees and suburban landscapes, which are full of subtle rhythms and symmetries that are hauntingly suggestive of hidden meanings. There are also some historic, vintage photographs and old maps reproduced, as well as finely-worded texts printed opposite many of the photographs. All of the contemporary photographs, we are told, were made by a Bernard Taylor and were purchased as a lot for all of $40 after his death by a Peter Ward, another resident of Hastings-on-Hudson. But the unsigned Publisher’s Afterword plants some doubts about the existence of these two characters and refers to this book as the “facsimile of a phantom.” A piece of paper slipped into the book like an errata sheet informs us that the texts opposite the photographs are actually quotations excerpted from a wide range of authors and notables, such as William Carlos Williams and Werner Heisenberg. The truth is that this book is the work of Tom Lecky, photographer and bookseller, who has decided to give his own smart photographs over to a fictional character, all the better to. . . to accomplish what? My guess is that it was just much more fun to do it this way.
Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains my current favorite mystery writer, despite the fact that I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic‘s predecessor, The Quaker, at times. It’s just good writing & pacing, great characters, and fine dialogue. McIlvanney is more fearless than most police procedural writers about plunging the reader in over his head and letting the context bubble up slowly like oxygen, just before you drown.
Tiya Miles. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. NY: Random House, 2021. In 1920, a woman embroidered less than sixty words on a cotton bag, identifying it as a gift from her great grandmother to her grandmother when the two were being separated and the nine-year old daughter was being sold at a slave auction in South Carolina. Using those few words as a base, Miles conducted extensive research and employed the imagination of numerous scholars and artists to recreate Ashley’s world as a slave in Charleston and the likely life for the generations of African Americans that followed her. At times it feels like an astonishing achievement conjured out of a pittance, but Miles’ book becomes an object lesson in how one lineage of African Americans went from slavery to the Black middle class in Philadelphia in a handful of generations.
Stephen Mitchelmore. This Space of Writing. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2015. Forty-four essays drawn from Mitchelmore’s invaluable blog This Space, where he has written about literature since 2000. He writes at a level unparalleled, in my opinion, and is one of the most acute thinkers about which books and writers really deserve our fullest attention and why.
Claudia Piñeiro. Elena Knows. Edinburgh: Charco Press, 2021. Translated from the 2007 Spanish original by Frances Riddle. Elena is positive that her granddaughter Rita would never have committed suicide, but the police won’t believe her. And so Elena is on a mission to find the one woman in Buenos Aires she believes will help her prove that her granddaughter must have been murdered. But Elena has Parkinson’s and it takes every bit of strength and courage that she has (plus a few pills) simply to cross town to knock on the door of this woman she hasn’t seen in twenty years, but on whose shoulders she has pinned all of her hopes. I can’t say any more without revealing the plot, but the denouement is not only unexpected but brilliant. The writing is compelling. Elena is a character I will never forget. This is likely my book of the year.
Emeric Pressburger. The Glass Pearls. London: Faber, 2022. (Originally published London: Heinemann, 1966.) Karl Braun, a German emigre who works as a piano tuner and lives in a bedsit in Pimlico, always seems nervous about something. Before too long we find out why. He is really a Nazi war criminal in hiding, a surgeon who brutally experimented on concentration camp prisoners. A few of his fellow Nazis want him to join them in Argentina, but to do so he has to make his way to Zurich to withdraw money from a numbered checking account he created at the end of the war. Pressburger is more famous for the films he made with Michael Powell, but The Glass Pearls is a terrific example of sixties noir writing applied to something other than a classic crime story. Braun’s fears make him his own worst enemy in his race against time. Highly recommended.
Richard Siken. Crush. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. After selecting Siken as the winner of the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets, Louise Glück wrote in the Foreword to this book of devastating and devastatingly beautiful poems, “this is a book about panic. . . The book is all high beams: reeling, savage, headlong, insatiable.” There are lines in here that take me to emotional places I’ve never felt from literature before, where love is dark, fearful, clinging, passionate, and much more, all wrapped up into one muddled sensation. I’m a huge fan of his 2015 book War of the Foxes, too.
Enrique Vila-Matas. The Illogic of Kassel. NY: New Directions, 2014. I re-read this largely because I thought I might go to Kassel in September to see Documenta 15. (I’m not. I’m going to Frankfurt, Berlin, and the Venice Biennial.) Vila-Matas was a writer-in-residence at Documents 13, which meant he sat for a few days in a Chinese restaurant in Kassel and scribbled in a notebook and made himself available to anyone who might want to talk with him. It sounds as if few people took advantage of this opportunity. But Vila-Matas, who is always curious when it comes to contemporary art, thought Documenta 13 might mean “finding doors opening to a new world. . . I was curious, besides, to see if there were many differences between the literary avant-garde—if it existed—and the artistic avant-garde.” As Vila-Matas interacts with some of the artworks and performance pieces in Kassel, he writes articulately and intelligently about his experiences and responses. In the end, he feels that “some of the works at Documenta . . . helped me rethink my writing.” A book that is surprisingly rich with ideas.
Ocean Vuong. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. NY: Penguin, 2019. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before about this book? Lyrical, carnal, angry, brilliant, astoundingly beautiful. I just don’t understand how someone can write stunning sentences one after another without end. May his well never run dry.
Everything Else I Read in 2022
Caesar Aira. The Divorce. NY: New Directions, 2021. Even though it is only 96 pages long, I wanted to divorce The Divorce about halfway through. Aira, whose books I generally like a lot, takes ridiculousness to an extreme that I no longer found interesting in this tiny book about the consequences of chance meetings.
Chloe Aridjis. Asunder. NY: Mariner Books, 2013. The narrator is a museum guard at London’s National Gallery. She’s comfortable watching people watching art. But at any moment, she’s aware that her life could be torn asunder as was her great-grandfather’s a century earlier. He was a guard in the same museum and he failed to prevent the militant suffragette Mary Richardson from slashing Velazquez’s painting known as the Rokeby Venus as an act of protest. Aridjis’s books are never about any one thing; instead, they invoke states of mind that try to push the reader into realms that seem mysterious, askew. She was a friend of the late Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), the Surrealist painter and writer, and it feels as if she always wants to nudge things in that direction. Moderately enjoyable reading.
Chloe Aridjis. Dialogue with a Somnambulist: Stories, Essays & a Portrait Gallery. London: House Sparrow Press, 2021. A wonderful miscellany by the Mexican-born novelist. I especially liked the tenor of her non-fiction work, written more like a novelist than a New Yorker essayist.
Jessica Au. Cold Enough For Snow. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022. Au’s very brief (94 pages) first novel reads like a first novel, albeit an excellent one. It’s beautifully written in a very deliberate, mannered way. It goes out of its way (too much so, to my taste) to be mysterious about locations the characters visit and artists whose work the character see, etc. The book would be a one-trick pony if it weren’t for some minor themes that are scarcely developed. I don’t mean to sound harsh. I think I’m just reacting to all of the hype I’ve read about this novel, which is genuinely promising, definitely worth reading, but not the pot of gold that some have claimed it is. A young woman from somewhere unknown goes to Japan to meet her mother, who lives in yet another unnamed country, to visit unnamed art galleries and unnamed art museums and talk about unnamed artists. But the daughter seems to have an unknown agenda.
Carlos Basualdo and Scott Rothkopf. Jasper John: Mind/Mirror. NY: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2021. I was disappointed in this catalog of the double exhibition (at the Whitney and the Philadelphia Museum of Art), meant to be the summing up of Johns’ long career. Too many short, distinct essays by too many authors made for a very choppy big picture. The decision to prints most, if not all, of the hundreds of works in the exhibition makes for a great reference source, but severely limited the number of images that were given a full-page reproduction. And the reproductions were good, not great, probably necessary in order to make the book affordable. Nevertheless, if I were in the curator’s shoes, I would have made the same decisions, except for the multiplicity of authors. It’s always about the compromises.
J.W. Böhm. This Wounded Island. Berlin: Institute of Liminal Studies/Probability Books, 2020. The title page notes that the book has been “translated by Michael Rudolph,” but it does not provide any original language or title. The author, the institute, and the translator are all, apparently, nonexistent. But the book is a collection of three previously published volumes of This Wounded Island, with a new Foreword by another pseudonymous writer, Mark Valentine. “Writer, photographer and wanderer J.W. Böhm’s pictorial survey of contemporary England finds a country overwhelmed by doubt. . .” This Wounded Island is best compared to Patrick Keiller’s trio of sardonic films about Great Britain, starting with London (1994). The books are comprised of b&w photographs and (usually) ironic texts on opposing pages. A terrific and farce that goes for Brexit Britain’s jugular. Great fun.
Kevin Breathnach. Tunnel Vision. London: Faber & Faber, 2019. Some mildly intriguing critical essays about Berenice Abbot, Susan Sontag, André Kertész, the Goncourt Brothers, and Stephen Shore, interspersed with self-centered non-fiction about his days as a wasted young man.
Amina Cain. A Horse at Night: On Writing. St. Louis: Dorothy Project, 2022. The 54th book I read this year was Cain’s novel Indelicacy, about which I wrote: “There’s a Victorian stiffness and politesse rubbing up against a modernist tension which seems to threaten that something raw and violent is about to explode. Instead, the ending seems indelicate, and nothing much else.” A Horse at Night strikes me as thinking-about-writing that never probes deeply enough. I suppose one could call it thought-provoking, but that’s just another way of saying that Cain’s writing remains always suggestive. When compared with something like Jenny Erpenbeck’s Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces, in which Erpenbeck uses her own writing to probe deeply into her life and the history of Germany, Cain’s book feels light and almost superficial. It’s more than that, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
Amina Cain. Indelicacy. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. Vitória, a young woman living in an unspecified country, tells us her story with great delicacy, despite the title. Once a woman who mopped the floors in an art museum, she met a very rich man who married her and helps her fulfill her passion to write about the art in that museum. When she ultimately sours on the life of a spoiled rich woman with servants, she decides she must leave her husband. Vitória’s story is told with the utmost simplicity, and yet something is deliberately off in the way that Cain shapes it. It reminds me of the art of Katherina Fritsch, who creates lifelike sculptures of animals that are the wrong size or the wrong color. There’s a Victorian stiffness and politesse rubbing up against a modernist tension which seems to threaten that something raw and violent is about to explode. Instead, the ending seems indelicate, and nothing much else. Unlike many other writers today, Cain has chosen not to give her readers any clues or pointers to the literary or art historical references in the book.
Leonora Carrington. The Milk of Dreams. NY: New York Review of Books, 2013. A slim and thoroughly fun book for very adult children with fabulous drawings in pen & ink and watercolor by the author/artist. Imagine Dr. Seuss allowed to be nasty (e.g. cigarettes and excrement) and nightmarishly surrealistic. It’s no wonder this book is the theme for the current Venice Biennial. From everything I’ve seen of the art selected, this is the perfect umbrella. I went to Venice in September for the Biennial, so I was prepped.
Raymond Chandler. Farewell, My Lovely. 1940. When in doubt, return to Chandler. Sentence for sentence, he can be more fun than just about any writer. “The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building.” But halfway through Farewell, just like his other Marlow noirs, the plot becomes more convoluted than a map of the Los Angeles freeway system. What’s with spelling okay “okey”? Is that just Chandler? Or is that a 40s thing?
Don Mee Choi. DMZ Colony. Seattle: Wave Books, 2020. Another great design by Wave Books and another book by Don Mee Choi in which poetry serves as a kind of velvet fist. The book uses children’s drawings and handwritten stories, adult’s doodles, documentary photographs (some by her father), and other images as jumping off points for poems and prose poems about Korean history, particularly the creation of the Demilitarized Zone after the Korean War and the decades of U.S-sponsored dictatorship. The book specifically documents and deals with the torture and death of so many citizens during those dark years. Winner of the National Book Award.
Ama Codjoe. Bluest Nude. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2022. “The guard signals for my attention: Move back,/Miss, behind the line, you’re too close to the painting.” Codjoe’s poems—about art, friendship, family, and race, among other things—benefit from a sense of the poet is always stepping over the line that separates a polite, comfortable distance into intimacy, an intimacy that can feel raw, uncomfortable, real, and worth paying attention to. A number of the poems address themselves directly or indirectly toward works by contemporary Black artists.
Deborah Crombie. A Share in Death. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1993. The first in the series featuring two London-based detectives from Scotland Yard—Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Sergeant Gemma James away from their home turf. Two deaths at a luxurious Yorkshire timeshare, where Kincaid is relaxing in his brother’s staid, turns a vacation into a working holiday. Crombie takes the tried-and-true blueprint of offering up a half-dozen or so likely suspects and having Kincaid and James look into each suspect’s motive and alibi. I like Kincaid and James so far.
Deborah Crombie. All Shall Be Well. NY: Scribner’s 1994. Number two in the Kincaid/James series (see below). At first it appears that Kincaid’s neighbor has died in her sleep after a long struggle with a painful disease. But slowly, Superintendent Kincaid begins to suspect murder. But who would want to murder a suffering old woman? Right now, Kincaid and James are more interesting that the crimes they are solving. I’ll give them another chance.
Charles Cumming. The Trinity Six. London: Harper Collins, 2011. An academic from the University College London can’t resist the opportunity to see if there really was a sixth man attached to the Cambridge Five, the Oxford graduates who turned out to be Soviet spies, a sixth man who escaped notice or, even worse, might have actually been hidden by Britain’s own spy agency MI6. It’s a dangerous game for an academic to play. I needed a page-turned and this did the trick.
J.M. Dalgliesh. One Lost Soul. London: Hamilton Press, 2019. Detective Inspector Tom Janssen leads the investigation into the murder of a young girl in the first of this series of Norfolk murders. It was very readable at the time, but a few days later I can’t remember much about the book at all. Proof that it’s harmless.
David Damrosch. Around the World in 80 Books. NY: Penguin, 2021. For the most part, Damrosch pulls off the delicate balancing act of making this popular movie scenario serve his purpose of introducing people to some pretty damn good writers and books, including obvious choices like Woolf, Proust, Kafka, Joyce, and so on. To his credit, Damrosch manages to get in Djuna Barnes, Georges Perec, Paul Celan, Naguib Mafouz, Derek Walcott, and a couple dozen names of that caliber. But he falls down by naming Bar Harbour, Maine as one of the sixteen areas he selects, simply because he grew up there and still has a home there. A world tour of literature that omits Russia and limits South America to Brazil should not be including Bal Harbour, Maine and writers like Robert McCloskey, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Hugh Lofting. Other than that, no complaints.
Don DeLillo. The Silence. NY: Scribner, 2020. My first take is that DeLillo’s attempt to deal with a collective loss of digital connectivity feels like a misfire. Five New Yorkers, mostly intellectuals, try to deal individually, as couples, and as a group, without any knowledge of why all of the world’s screens have suddenly gone gray. Sun spot? Nuclear war? Maybe a second reading, in a couple of months, will change my mind, but the writing seemed stilted. More disconcertingly, I don’t think DeLillo found any new ways of suggesting or responding to such a frightening situation. It reads like the script of a play—dead on the page.
Dennis Duncan. Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure. NY: W.W. Norton, 2021. Surprisingly great fun, especially the book’s own quite playful index. Who knew that indexing has led to philosophical battles for centuries? Duncan is just the person to make this topic thoroughly entertaining.
Eloísa Díaz. Repentance. Aberdeen, NJ: Agora Books, 2021. In the midst of the December 2001 riots, Buenos Aires police Inspector Alzada finds himself with a delicate murder case that takes an unexpected turn which forces him once again to try to come to the aid of his brother. Twenty years earlier, when he was a young policeman and his brother belonged to a guerilla group, he managed to keep his brothers name off a list of those who were going to be disappeared by the regime. Now his brother is in trouble again. Díaz’s first novel is taut, well-written, and face paced.
Joshua Edwards. The Double Lamp of Solitude. Galveston: Rising Tide Projects, 2022. An ambitious book of poetry, translations, and photography, which Edwards has published without copyright, placing it in the public domain. Edwards is finding his roots in poetry’s past with sections devoted to the landscapes and poetry of three poets: Friedrich Hölderlin, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Miguel Hernández. Another section consists of twenty-eight poems, most of whose titles begin with “The Lamp of,” which Edwards says is an adaptation of a story in Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. This is followed by translations of a poem each by Gabriela Mistral and Gérard de Nerval. The book ends with “Five Plans for Walking Around a Mountain,” five poems, each facing a page with blocks of eight or four b&w photographs of a hike Edwards made on Mt. Rainier. A very impressive book.
Annie Ernaux. Things Seen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press Press, 2010. Translated from the 2000 French original by Jonathan Kaplansky. Tiny, acute, paragraph-long observations, often made during her commute or while waiting in lines, written between 1993 and 1999. Many of these moments involve the crises of conscience or the minor confrontations that occur when the haves and the have-nots rub up against each other daily in the metro and on the crowded streets of Paris. This is the model for current books like Lauren Elkin’s No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus. Ernaux’s special gift is the art of leaving the best phrase or the killer sentence until last, so that you feel, at the very end, as if a matador had slipped a sword between your shoulder blades.
Jenny Erpenbeck. Visitation. NY: New Directions, 2010. Translated from the 2008 German original by Susan Bernofsky. I really wanted to reread this devastating short novel that follows the “ownership” of a plot of land outside of Berlin from the nineteenth century through to the reunification of Germany. The lands passes through numerous hands, though none of the owners are named. The main characters are the Gardener, who remains the one person who stays on the property throughout most of the time encompassed (which is probably about a century in total) and the land itself, which is continuously planted, uprooted, replanted according to the whims of the new owner, destroyed by war, replanted, and so on. The property’s owners/occupiers include a Jewish family, a Nazi architect, and a (very temporary) Russian brigade.
Percival Everett. God’s Country. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. A reissue of his 1994 satire on the classic western novel. The narrator is a white dude named Curt Marder, who is dumber than a rock. His wife has just been kidnapped by men masquerading as Indians, who also killed his dog and burned down his house. The local townspeople don’t much care about the house or the wife, but they are incensed about the dog, and they recommend a black tracker named Bubba to help Curt locate his wife. (Trust me, no one uses the term Black in this novel.) Curt is an ignorant American racist who insists on treating the professional tracker as “his boy” and who looks for the horns on the back of the head of the Jew he meets. Curt and Bubba face a series of improbable but humorous episodes that are always racially tinged. In the end, Curt makes sure that he’s the one who comes out alive. Another fabulous book from one of America’s premiere writers.
Percival Everett. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2009. A funny, pointed satire that aims its sharpest arrows at white Southerners, colorism, and higher education. It’s impossible to give a brief synopsis of the plot, but suffice it to say that the main character is a young kid whose mother named him Not Sidney because his last name really was Poitier. He accidentally becomes phenomenally rich through a stock purchase which makes him a partner of Ted Turner and the company that will become CNN. But because he is black, very dark, and named Not Sidney, he must suffer—and suffer egregiously—at the hands of whites and blacks alike, before becoming wise. Simply delicious.
Jon Fosse. I Is Another. Septology III-V. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020. Translated from the original Norwegian by Damion Searls. The second volume in Fosse’s acclaimed trilogy about an aging painter named Asle and his friend also named Asle was much more engaging then the first volume. The repition (which critics often called “incantatory” and other similar terms) is toned down here and Fosse gives us more a bit background to the lives and friendship of the two Asles. It’s much clearer in this volume how the two men are meant to serve as doppelgängers. And religion is coming into play more often. And so, on to the final volume before too long.
Stephen Saperstein Frug. Happenstance. Ithaca: Snark and Boojum Press, 2019. An excellent graphic novel made using photographs about two youngish couples who live in Ithaca, New York. Paul and his significant other, Rebecca, are Jews, except that Paul is secretly exploring the idea of converting to Christianity. Chris and her girlfriend, Alex, are a lesbian couple, a relationship that is troubled by the fact that Chris won’t come out to her parents. Paul and Chris, who is struggling with her evangelical Christianity and with religion in general, go for long walks and talk about God, the universe, faith, and other weighty matters. (Read in January, but not recorded.)
Rodrigo García. A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir of Gabríel Garcia Márquez. NY: HarperCollins, 2021. A slight, but occasionally affecting, voyeuristic look into the weeks leading up to and the weeks following the death of Gabriel García Márquez in 2014. Rodrigo covers his mother’s death in 2020 more or less as a token event. A glimpse at what the families of famous people face when the dignitary in the family dies.
George Dawes Green. The Kingdoms of Savannah. NY: Celadon Books, 2022. I bought this as a gift for a Savannah-sotted person, but, of course, had to read it first. It’s an entertaining, but not completely satisfying murder mystery. I generally don’t like it when amateurs turn themselves into detectives. In this case, it’s an entire family (you have to plot them on a family tree to understand the connections). Th plot’s a little too loose for my tastes, but, hey, the Savannah backdrop works like a charm.
John Hawkes. The Lime Twig. NY: New Directions, 1961. A motley gang of petty English crooks hatch a plot to steal a race horse and insert it in a rich race under a false name. This allows Hawkes to explore the chaos, confusion, terror, the small-time treachery, the illusions of grandeur, and the outsized dreams of success that are the prelude to several cheap and terrible deaths. Which is all just an excuse for lots of wild Hawkesian writing and carefree plotting, although this is somewhat more restrained than his earlier novels. If Graham Greene had taken a pair of scissors to Brighton Rock, it would have turned out something like The Lime Twig. The Introduction by the late, great Leslie A. Fiedler feels like a Hawkes’ short story unto itself.
Mick Herron. Slow Horses. NY: Soho Press, 2010. I remember being unimpressed with my sampling of this book when it first came out, but I finally caved and read it a decade later. It’s a mildly amusing story about Slough House, the purgatory where the British spy service parks anyone who has committed some grievous error. The “slow horses” that work there all have their own various quirks, which makes for a very entertaining cast of characters (and probably a very good Apple+ TV series), but beyond that I’m not really sure there’s a there there. The slow horses do manage to foil a kidnapping plot, but most of the book is consumed with the introduction of characters and endless chatter.
Michel Houellebecq. The Map & the Territory. NY: Random House, 2011. Translated by Gavin Bowd from the 2010 French original. Essentially the story of Jed Martin, a French artist who becomes famous and then retires to live by himself in the countryside. After he paints a portrait of the writer Michel Houellebecq, the writer is brutally murdered. The book wants to convey lots of messages but I found it mostly dry and wanting. Review here.
Ishion Hutchinson. House of Lords and Commons. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016. I’m becoming a fan of Hutchinson’s complex, often deeply-layered poems, and some of that is beginning to emerge in this book, which came out six years ago. Some of these poems blend his Jamaican heritage with classical of historic themes to great effect.
Ilya Kaminsky. Deaf Republic. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2019. Here comes another innovative example of text/image poetry. Deaf Republic combines Kaminsky’s poems with the line drawings that demonstrate American sign language for various words. Written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kaiminsky’s book is a sad and horrifying prophecy of the kinds of human rights abuses we have been hearing about. When an invading army shoots and kills a deaf boy, the entire village becomes deaf. Brutal and hopeful at the same time.
James Kestrel. 5 Decembers. Hard Case Crime, 2021. For a while I thought I had hit the jackpot here. A brutal double murder is committed in Honolulu on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, December 1941. A police detective becomes determined to track down the killer even if it means heading the wrong way across the Pacific Ocean as war with Japan begins. Kestrel’s book is very readable, but at a half-dozen points it stretched my credulity a shade too far. I kept thinking that Kestrel saw the movie adaptation down the road and got blinded by the klieg lights.
Esther Kinsky. River. Oakland: Transit Books, 2018. One of the books re-read for my 15 Books Project. River is one of my favorite books of the 21st century. It’s understated, lyrical, sensitive, and yet it’s underlying themes are about ethical issues, borders, and privilege, among other things. See my review here.
Katie Kitamura. Intimacies. NY: Riverhead, 2021. A modestly engaging novel about a woman who takes a short-term position as a translator at the International Court in The Hague. While there, she becomes the primary translator for the ex-President of an Islamic nation who has been charged with horrendous crimes against his own people, and she begins a relationship with Adriaan, a married man whose wife has left him and taken her children to Portugal. Both become complicated entanglements that force her to make decisions about her career and her love life. Kitamura could have pushed both of these tracks much further than she did, especially the translator’s relationship with the Islamist revolutionary-turned-President, who accused the International Court of “neocolonialism” for its continual focus solely on Africa, when crimes against humanity were occurring on every populated continent.
Herman Koch. The Dinner. NY: Hogarth, 2016. Translated from the 2009 Dutch original by Sam Garrett. Two couples go to dinner at an upscale Amsterdam restaurant. While the tension boils up over several long-standing issues and attitudes, a potentially explosive secret concerning their teen-aged sons slowly spills out, threatening to upend the life of everyone in both families. Psychologically pretty taut and fairly entertaining. Mercifully short, because I don’t think it could be sustained any longer.
Marius Kociejowski. A Factotum in the Book Trade. Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2022. A memoir of sorts of his life in the rare book trade in Canada and England. Kociejowski’s name appears in several of Javier Marias’ novels. Marias, a book collector, purchased books from Kociejowski a number of times and the two became friends. It was often hard to get any traction in sections of this book that dealt with London’s legendary rare book stores, many of which have now disappeared and about which I know nothing. But there were moments when I yearned to be unleashed with a generous checkbook in a great rare book store.
Alison Jean Lester. Glide. Bench Press, 2021. Leo, the book’s narrator, teaches photography at a Massachusetts community college. When his wife fails to return from a trip to Norway, but a half-brother that he had never heard about before shows up instead, Leo doesn’t know what to believe. With each advance in the plot, the mystery grows and the tension tightens. Photographs by Andrew Gurnett at the beginning of each chapter give of preview of the ominous level of what is to come.
Sally Mann. Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs. NY: Little, Brown, 2015. I am a big fan of Sally Mann’s photographs, but I was not as much taken with her memoir as many other readers seem to have been. Although it’s heavily illustrated with her photographs and full of fascinating family snapshots and memorabilia, it’s also chaotically organized. Parts of her family story are utterly fascinating, and her writing about her own photography is essential reading. And I confess that I struggled when it seemed like she went on far too long trying to convince readers how she had risen above her childhood ignorance of Southern racism.
Javier Marías. Venice: An Interior. NY: Penguin, 2016. Penguin craftily says this is a 2016 publication, but it’s a reprint of something Marías wrote for El País in 1988, updated with a tiny chapter at the end. True, I bought this for Marías’ verbiage on Venice, which I was sure would be amusing (and it is), not as a guide book. But it still ticks me off that publishers try to get away with this. It’s worth reading only 1) if you must read every word Javier Marías writes or 2) you are unquenchably aching for Venice and have already read Joseph Brodsky’s superior book Watermark. I fall into both categories.
Carole Maso. Ava. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993. The thoughts of Ava Klein, thirty-nine years of age, professor of comparative literature, on the day that she dies in a hospital bed of cancer. Perhaps some overheard conversations, as well. “The desire of a novel to be a poem,” as Maso says about this book in Break Every Rule. There are scattered, disconnected thoughts about literature, music, AIDS, current events (the Zodiac Killer, the Bush invasion of Iran), her husbands and lovers, her students, and the book she was working on about four French women writers of the twentieth century. I’m unconvinced.
Carole Maso. Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, & Moments of Desire. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000. Maso’s impassioned plea for a new kind of lyrical writing also feels like an explanation and defense of her recent novels Ava and Aureole, which she feels readers have either misunderstood or avoided altogether. I suspect that Maso will only convert those who are already prepped and willing.
Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains my current favorite mystery writer, despite the fact that I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic‘s predecessor, The Quaker, at times. It’s just good writing & pacing, great characters, and fine dialogue. McIlvanney is more fearless than most police procedural writers about plunging the reader in over his head and letting the context bubble up slowly like oxygen, just before you drown.
Paul Metcalf. I-57. New Haven: LongRiver Books, 1988. Metcalf’s book-length poem about his meandering south-to-north journey along Interstate 57 through Illinois is a combination of homespun diary, history, found texts that he subsumed in great bites into his book, and occasional snapshots, all adding up to a rich journey into place. The trip was made in 1975, making this a record of a disappeared era.
D.A. Mishani. The Missing File. NY: HarperCollins, 2013. Translated from the Hebrew by Steven Cohen. The first novel involving Israeli police detective Avraham (Avi) Avraham and the disappearance of a teenager. Half of the chapters are from Avi’s perspective, half from that of the teenager’s English tutor, who keeps trying to insert himself into the police investigation, for reasons no one can fully grasp. I don’t like this kind of split narration, but nevertheless the novel kept me going and kept me guessing. Avraham is an original kind of detective and Mishani writes succinctly. I will read the second one.
Johanna Mo. The Night Singer. NY: Penguin, 2021. Translated from the 2020 Swedish original by Alice Menzies. A very promising first book centering on detective Hanna Duncker, who works for the Kalmar police department. She has her own complications, of course, but they seem more interesting than many others I’ve read recently. For once, there is considerable police procedural work going on, as there are multiple credible suspects in the murder of a teenager and no witnesses. The ending comes out of nowhere and is also credible. Much about Duncker’s life is left hanging for the next installment. I’m all in.
Patrick Modiano. La Place de l’Étoile. in The Occupation Trilogy (Bloomsbury, 2015). Translated from the 1968 French original by Frank Wynne. Modiano’s first novel, published in the significant year of the ’68 student uprisings) was a thumb-in-the-nose to French passivity about his country’s sad collaboration with the Nazis during WWII and its long history of anti-Semitism. I agree wholeheartedly with M.A. Orthofer that La Place de l’Étoile is “caustic” and “subversive” and very angry. It’s also so full of references that it’s hard for anyone not steeped in French literature and culture to fully grasp all of the allusions. Thankfully, it’s very short.
Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon. Random House, 1977. This felt unfocused far too long for my taste. As Morrison wrote about one set of characters for a spell, then switched to a different set, I found myself flailing, in real need of some direction. It took until somewhere around the halfway mark before the book started to feel a bit comfortable. Lots of beautiful writing, and many typical Morrison touches, but it’s not my favorite book of hers.
Toni Morrison. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. Lets’ just say it right up front, Toni Morrison was brilliant. Somehow, Morrison can speak with the assurance of a world leader, yet reassure you her thoughts are not the final word on the matter. While it’s disappointing that the pieces naturally overlap somewhat (she steals from herself frequently) and she talks more about her own books that other people’s books (which is what I would have preferred), every essay contains much to be absorbed. She’s utterly fascinating on Huckleberry Finn and Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, for example, and I wanted so much more of that.
Chris Offutt. The Killing Hills. NY: Grove Press, 2021. If Offutt’s portrayal of backwoods Kentucky is accurate—big if—then shame on us for the way we enjoy watching the residents of the terrarium he has built for our consumption self-destruct through drugs, alcohol, crime, family feuds, and the occasional murder. Mick Hardin, on leave from his job with the Army Criminal Investigation Division in Germany, agrees to help his sister Linda, the local sheriff, on a murder case. He then quite literally takes the case away from her, tracking down and interviewing suspects, tampering with evidence that points in the wrong direction, and allowing family justice to take matters into its own hands rather than seeing anyone actually arrested for the murder. And he does all this without any legal authority whatsoever; remember, he’s just the sheriff’s brother. Nostalgic for the hollers of Kentucky, Hardin complains what the modern hospital and the new college have done to his home town: “Progress is wrecking us.” I’m sorry, but this book feels like an abuse of the people of rural Kentucky.
Richard Powers. Bewilderment. NY: W.W. Norton, 2021. I think of Powers mostly as a writer of ideas and Bewilderment is full of them—what life on other planets might be like, about decoded neurofeedback, about science under Trump. But it’s also a novel of powerful emotions about love and parenting, as an astrobiologist grieves for his deceased wife and struggles to raise a young son who is on the spectrum. I liked this more than I expected to.
Marcel Proust. The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Volume 5 of In Search of Lost Time. NY: Penguin, 2003. Translated by Carol Clark and Peter Collier. I feel like I have climbed K2. It has taken more than a year to get through this section of Proust. The Albertine section is notoriously tough going, but with her death the narrator goes to Venice and, as he looks back on his life, everything starts to come into a new focus. I’m going to make it to the finish line.
Donna Grant Reilly. An American Proceeding: Building the Grant House with Frank Lloyd Wright. Hanover, NH: Meadowside Press, 2019. Donna Grant was a young child when her ambitious and naive parents asked Wright to design a house for them in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, just after WWII. They owned a beautiful fifty acre setting that had its own small limestone quarry on site. The Grants quarried the stone themselves and helped build the house according to Wright’s plans. But it was—and still is—a nightmare to live in. It’s freezing in the winter and the flat cement roof leaked from the very first year. No one lives in the house now, but Donna’s brother lives next door and has been restoring and maintaining the house most of his adult life—without knowing who will take care of the house next. It’s just a couple of miles from where I live and I’ve gone through it twice with Donna’s brother. It’s a great Usonian house with all the typical FLW problems. Reilly’s book documents the truth about working with Wright and trying to live in one of his houses.
Jack Robinson & Natalia Zagorska-Thomas. Blush. London: CB Editions, 2018. Another amuse-bouche by Charles Boyle, who has written in the past under the pseudonym Jack Robinson. The text by Robinson (Boyle) plays with multiple meanings of the word blush and the various ways in which it appears in literature from Charles Darwin to Tony Judt. Zagorska-Thomas responded to the texts with a images of all sorts, including photocollages and hand-colored photographs.
Leon S. Roudiez. French Fiction Revisited. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1991. An update of the 1972 edition, in which Roudiez covers fourteen post-World War II French authors, including Raymond Roussel, Nathalie Sarraute, Maurice Blanchot, Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Georges Perec, and others. He wraps up with a chapter on The Next Generation, in which he briefly mentions a number of (then) younger writers, such as Patrick Modiano, Jean Echenoz, Annie Ernaux, among others. A very useful introduction to these writers and their books, some of which have yet to be translated into English.
Mary Ruefle. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. Seattle: Wave Books, 2012. Sadly, this book was wasted on me now. These pieces struck me as overly reliant on epiphanies and other personal beliefs and discoveries about poetry, reading and writing, something I might have been attracted to as a college student. You can inspire some people with epiphanies and bits of wisdom, but you can’t teach using them.
Cynthia Saltzman. Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021. Veronese’s “Wedding Feast at Cana,” a gigantic canvas commissioned in 1563 for the monastery of Venice’s San Giorgio Maggiore, was part of the plunder that Napoleon took for his new museum the Louvre when he conquered Italy and stripped Venice of many of its art masterpieces in 1797. Saltzman expertly uses “The Feast” to tell the larger story of Napoleon’s rise and fall and of his two decades plundering Europe and Egypt of art and antiquities.One can never read too much about Napoleon and this is a fabulous story told well.
Geoffrey Sanborn. The Value of Herman Melville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. This is not your typical literary criticism. Sanborn’s laudatory goal is to explore the values we might find as readers, in part by trying to see what Melville thought he was saying to his readers. Largely free of academic language, too.
Roland Schimmelpfennig. One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century. London: Maclehose Press, 2018. Translated from the 2016 German original by Jamie Bulloch. A rare wolf sighting seems to set in motion the movements of a number of individuals and couples, whose paths will cross and occasionally intersect in and around Berlin in this first novel by Schimmelpfennig, who, until now, has been a playwright. The novel feels like it wants to be a slice-of-life that reveals something about today, but I didn’t find any deep revelations in it.
Leonardo Sciascia. To Each His Own. NY: New York Review Books, 2000. Translated from the Italian by Adrienne Foulke. While it is true that this compact story depends on one plot twist at the very end, Sciascia’s goal is to let his characters reveal themselves through their conversations and interactions with other people. A high school literature teacher decides to look into the circumstances surrounding the murder of two friends, which he does primarily through casual conversations that reveal much about how people lie to themselves and others. A brilliant reinvention of the classic detective novel, with an ending that comes out of nowhere.
Ellis Sharp. Alice in Venice. York: Zoilus Press, 2022. Sharp’s photo-embedded novella is titled to remind us of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while its only characters—Alice and Alain—overtly track Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film “Don’t Look Now” throughout Venice. Roeg’s film, in turn, is based on Daphne du Maurier’s last short story of the same name. “Alice feels as if she’s wandered into Roeg’s film.” Sharp’s writing is deliberately disjointed, giving the novella, which is written in the present tense, a hectic sense. There are scores of b&w photographs of Venice by the author.
Daniel Silva. Portrait of an Unknown Woman. NY: HarperCollins, 2022. Silva has written more than twenty books featuring “legendary spy and art restorer” Gabriel Allon, who consorts equally with criminal masterminds and the heads of the world’s most important police forces in order to achieve his ends. In this book, he masterfully forges a painting by the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi in order to entrap a ring of art dealers who were dealing in another forger’s work. Someone in my yoga class, knowing my background, thought I would relate to this book. The plot is utterly ridiculous, but I managed to finish. So there must be some redeeming value here, yes? Silva’s book makes me wonder why writers don’t get paid for product placements the same way that movies do. If so, Silva would have a nice return before he even sold one copy of his book.
Bae Suah. Recitation. Dallas: Deep Vellum, 2017. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. I don’t know quite what to make of this slippery, engaging, mystifying, sometimes boring novel. There are some stunningly beautifully written sections tucked away amongst puzzling stories that morph without apparent reason. Probably not the best book to start reading Bae Suah.
Charles Todd. Wings of Fire. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. In the second Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery, he is sent to Cornwall to investigate whether a death and a double suicide might be something more insidious. It takes Rutledge nearly the entire book to determine if anything suspicious has actually taken place, and only at the last minute does he suss out the culprit. Lots of conversations and convoluted theories. Only for the determined.
Enrique Vila-Matas. Cabinet d’amateur, an oblique novel: Works from “la Caixa” Collection of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2019. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull-Costa. Vila-Matas, an astute and experienced observer of contemporary art, was asked to selected several pieces from this distinguished Spanish corporate collection and create an exhibition and narrative. He chose to build it around an aphorism of Kafka that he says has long been the key to his “biographia literaria“: “Our task is to do the negative, the positive has already been given to us.” It’s the particular genius of Vila-Matas that, within a handful of pages, he can connect Franz Kafka, Glenn Gould, Robert Walser, Rimbaud, Rem Koolhaas, Kurt Gödel, Miles Davis, and artists like Andreas Gursky, and Gerhard Richter. We need more Vila-Matas in our lives.
Rosmarie Waldrop. The Nick of Time. NY: New Directions, 2021. These poems either connected with me or just fell flat. I never became comfortable with the way Waldrop’s prose poems, written in paragraphs, used periods to force a pause, the way that other poems would use line breaks. Many of the poems are about language itself. Some are about her husband Keith Waldrop and suggest he is suffering from memory loss. These are deeply beautiful and personal poems.
Robert Walser. Little Snow Landscape. NY New York Review Books, 2021. “How eagerly and often people today employ the wordlet ‘wonderful’,” Robert Walser wrote about 1928. Thank you, sir, I shall my my best to avoid that vague and generally useless wordlet in the future. Walser is just so delicious. Every page makes me smile. This is a collection of very short pieces from 1905 through 1933.
Peter Weiss. Leavetaking. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014. Translated from the 1961 German original by Christopher Levenson. How many novels and memoirs are there of an adolescent trying to break out of the confinement of strict parents? It doesn’t matter. Read this one, just for the sentences. The life is not particularly memorable, the writing is. Wonderful sections on how books helped him in various stages of his youth.
Alejandro Zambra. Bonsai. NY: Penguin, 2022. Translated from the 2006 Spanish original of the same title by Megan McDowell. Zambra’s debut novel is a little too cute for my taste. It’s ostensibly the story of Julio and Emilia, two university students who fall in and out of love before losing track of each other entirely. The narrator is too cheeky for us to take the characters very seriously. And he reminds us a half dozen times that we’re reading a novel about fictional characters. He even suggests that Bonsai (the novel we are reading) was written by Julio out of desperation, when he was forced to pretend to Emilia that he had a paying job transcribing a friend’s novel, even though he had really not won the job.