Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood Around 1900 *
Rupert Thomson, Secrecy
W G Sebald, A Place in the Country *
Tonya Hurley, Passionaries
Robert Walser, The Tanners
Robert Walser, The Walk
Eduard Morike, Mozart’s Journey to Prague
Olivia Laing, The Trip to Echo Spring
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker
Jenny Offill, Dept of Speculation
Maria Dhvana Headley, Queen of Kings
David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress
Rachel Cantor, A Highly Unlikely Scenario
Eileen Myles, Snowflake / Different Streets
Frederico Garcia Llorca, In Search of Duende
David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life
Richard Powers, Orfeo
LJ Moore, small fierce things
Karl Ove Knaussguard, My Struggle, Vol. 1
Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life
Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle
Bram Stoker, Dracula *
Pierre Louys, Aphrodite
W. J. Robinson, Birth Control, or The Limitation of Offspring
Henry Reed Stiles, Bundling
Frederic Hauer, Bypaths of Passion
Peter Charles Remondino, Praeputii Incisio
Edouard de Beaumont, The Sword and Womankind
F. M. Rossiter, The Torch of Life: A Key to Sex Harmony
Jack Woodford, White Meat
* = reread
In which we have gone under
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped.
The Stork Ensnared, logo for early twentieth century European brand of contraceptives.
I compiled my first best-of list last year—not the best books that came out that year but the best books I read in the past twelve months. The world doesn’t need another best of list, but I found myself fairly alienated by most of the lists I read, many of which seem to regurgitate the same dozen or so titles. These are the books that stayed with me, that I loved instantly, that I found myself constantly talking about to strangers, that fascinated me to no end, or otherwise seemed noteworthy. In no order:
The Greek Anthology & Mary Butts, Armed with Madness
My friend Alyssa Harad asked me and a few other people over Twitter one day to track down the source of Mary Butts’ epigraph, “Armed with my madness, I set out on my voyage.” With an assist from Sarah Werner, I finally located the line in a collection of epigraphs, epigrams, and other sayings, The Greek Anthology, an ongoing editorial project began in 60 BCE by Meleager of Gadara and finally standardized by Friedrich Jacobs in 1813-1817. I’ve worked my way through two of the five volumes, and they are truly an inexhaustible collection of strange and wonderful bits of poetry. The line, in turn, spurred me to hunt out Mary Butts’ forgotten modernist novel, which is strange and wonderful and subtle and complex.
Peter H. Hansen, The Summits of Modern Man & Salomon Kroonenberg, Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur
Both of these books were sent to me by Evan Kindley to review for the LA Review of Books; they were both stellar, and both reflected to me the possibility of a) a scholarly writing which is not bloodless and vapid, meant only for scholars and deliberately exclusionary towards a curious public, and b) a way of writing about nature, and humanity’s relationship to nature, which is historically grounded, creative in scope, and refreshing in conclusions. My reviews are here and here.
Lafcadio Hearn, Shadowings
I knew only of Hearn as the translator of Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but his collections of Japanese folk tales, including the more well-known collection, Kwaidan, are stunning and strange—not least because of the way Hearn inserts himself into the retellings. Shadowings is particularly rewarding because the ghost tales that make up the first half are followed by a series of lectures Hearn gave on place names, gothic cathedrals, insects and other topics.
Olivia Laing, To the River
I was predisposed to dislike the premise of this book, which traces the length of the river most well-known as the place where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, mainly because I’m on record as being perturbed by the obsession with Woolf’s suicide, an over-determination that makes her come across as histrionic, maudlin, insane, frail, and ultimately idiotic (see The Hours). But Laing shares these same concerns, and addresses them head-on, offering not only a finely contradictory portrait of Woolf, but also a natural history of a river in the finest tradition of Sir Thomas Browne and W. G. Sebald. This book is the only kind of thing I want to read.
W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country
Why this book has taken so long to make it into English is a mystery unto itself, as well as why it was published in the UK a full year before it’s being published in the United States. I ordered my copy from England, and it’s divine. As strong as the essays and poetry that have been coming out since Sebald’s death, it’s wonderful to see one last book-length work, and to see the way these essays interrelate and unfold on each other.
Amina Cain, Creature
I’m mostly done with contemporary short fiction these days, because to my personal tastes it’s become formulaic (which is to say, the bounds within which its originality and innovation operate are too narrowly defined for my tastes). But Cain’s work is not really short fiction, at least in the sense of the New Yorker story or its various variations, and it’s a wondrous reading experience. Creature is indeed fiction, in the sense that these are invented narratives, but they eschew not just plot, but also quite often the quietly devastating epiphany that we’ve come to expect at the end of a story (since Joyce’s Dubliners, I suppose). More like forays into potential interior landscapes than short stories.
Matias Viegener, 2500 Random Things About Me Too & Lynn Coady, The Antagonist
Viegener’s book, which I wrote about at length here, is to me one of the first and finest books that not only engages social media, but elevates its tropes to art. Lynn Coady’s novel does something not entirely dissimilar, though it adheres a little more closely to a traditional epistolary novel. But it captures, I think, better than anything I’ve read, that simultaneously elation and terror of coming across an old friend with whom you’ve been suddenly reacquainted after distance.
Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
I just can’t think of a book-length collection of essays I’ve read in a long time in which I found so much consistent wisdom, insight, surprise and wonder.
Lars Iyer, Spurious / Dogma / Exodus
This trilogy of novels was the thing I simply could not shut up about this year, and bought for at least two different friends. Hilarious and profoundly intellectually satisfying. Collectively, the three best novels I read this year.
Leonie d’Aunet, Voyage d’une femme au Spitzberg
D’Aunet’s narrative, of her 1838 voyage to the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Circle, hasn’t been translated into English so far as I know, except for a few excerpts, and so I’ve only read a few portions of this (I’ve yet to even track down the French version, to try out my abysmal French on it). But what little I’ve read, of her determination to get herself on a voyage to the Arctic despite all the hectoring men telling her it was unladylike, to say nothing of her observations once she got there, are terrific. Excerpts of it here and here. If ever a book needed to be translated and published in English…
Worst book I read this year: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Sir Thomas Browne, Hydrotaphia, or Urnne Buriall*
Mary Butts, Armed with Madness
Mary MacLane, I Await the Devil’s Coming
The Greek Anthology, vols. 1 & 2
Stephen R. Brown, The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen
G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen
Kristen Ross, The Emergence of Social Space
Melissa Milgrom, Still Life
Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva
Muriel Spark, The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark
Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale *
Eliza Fey, Original Letters from India
Paul Koudounaris, Heavenly Bodies
Rafe Posey, The Book of Broken Hymns
Gerald Murnane, Inland
Hans Zischler, Kafka at the Movies *
Shirley Jackson, The Road Through the Wall
Samuel JMM Alberti and Elizabeth Hallam, Medical Museums: Past, Present and Future
Cecil Castellucci, The Year of Beasts
Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, A History of Opera
Martin W. Sandler, Resolute
Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson, nanoq: flat out and bluesome
Olivia Laing, To the River
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch [Abandoned]
* = reread