Friday, December 19, 2014

Ten Favorite Books of 2014

Our mountains look roughly like this at the moment--a couple of brief dustings of snow this past week, altostratus and stratocumulus clouds against an otherwise clear sky, cold, but not too. No, please don't move here--believe me, you wouldn't like it. But even from my first-floor study window, through the now-bare elms and cottonwoods, I can see the gray-blue-oranage beginning to mass on the summit--it's quite lovely, though an acquired taste.

Today was also the day that the Times published its "Ten Best Books of 2014" list, an event I look forward to so as to receive some guidance in my last minute holiday shopping.  If you don't bother with the Times, you may not know that the paper has three full-time book critics--Janet Maslin (the light stuff), Dwight Garner (likely to review a book that, if you read this blog, you might enjoy reading yourself), and  Michiko Kakutani (in charge of championing Establishment books, thereby insuring that the Times never strays from the acceptable literary mainstream). Gore Vidal called what the Times does "book chat." If you want literary criticism, read James Wood. The Times preserves, at all costs, the middle-brow in literature (the upper middle brow), so what you won't find in their "best" list (why not just call it "ten books worth reading" or "ten of the better books"?) would be anything from Eastern Europe, plotless, genuinely political, or genuinely difficult. Which is fine, but in some ways also a shame since a review in the newspaper of record bestows credibility and sales on lesser-known publishers (not to mention their writers) and would go a long way toward keeping diversity alive in publishing. But, for the most part, the three reviewers stick to the big New York houses and their authors.They perform a service, but given about 300 reviews a year, not as much of a service as one might hope.

I admit I haven't read too many of the Times books this year. Four, to be exact. Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Volume III; Foreign Gods (see below); Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, Ben Lerner's 10:04, and about 50 pages of  Redeployment by Phil Klay. No way was I going to read Robert M. Gates Duty: Memoirs of the Secretary at War since you pretty much know it will have all the credibility of a Kissinger memoir. Garner's list was the best one since he included Hermione Lee's new biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and Teju Cole's Every Day is For the Thief (which I plan to read soon).  Ms. Maslin has included one book about hackers, one book about Wall Street, and one book about a feisty furniture manufacturer--we're not talking belles lettres here.  Kakutani, in keeping with her portfolio, got stuck with Gates, or maybe chose it, and mostly stuck to books put out by Knopf and Random House, two great publishers who have become incredibly conservative in their lists.  Farrar is now the best source of good books outside of the independent publishers, and they haven't compromised on the quality of their product either; I just purchased Leopardi's 2500-page Zibaldone from them and it is a gorgeous book. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the Times' list is full of fine books, but why is there no novel by the Nobel Prize winner? Only one book of poetry? No history, philosophy, or political writing? Kolbert's book is brave, well-written, and timely--but hers is the only one on the list that tackles any questions of real substance.

Who am I to talk? Hell, I don't even live in Brooklyn! Look at all I've left out! And my list isn't entirely of books published this year. This list-making fetish is becoming idiotic. Everybody is making lists--The 100 Top Sushi Bars in Des Moines!--what's the point? On the other hand, it was a pleasure to have spent two hours thinking back over the many fine books I was able to read this year. Pulling them off the shelf, remembering the joy I had reading them, piling them up and trying to decide which ones had meant the most to me. Choosing wasn't easy, and by the time I had decided on my ten the sun was setting and the mountains had disappeared.

In no particular order:

1--Thomas Bernhard: Extinction: His final novel and his most representative. My favorite Bernhard is whichever one I am reading at the moment (Frost).  A plot summary? Are you kidding? Don't read page 47 of the Vintage edition with coffee in your mouth, as I did, ruining a nice book and nearly choking with merriment.  Bernhard-induced laughter is like no other. The only writer who never fails to cheer me up.

2--Giacomo Leopardi: Canti, beautifully translated by Jonathan Galassi (Farrar Straus Giroux): Italy's second greatest poet and the finest of the Romantic poets, period. (Book critics need to be sure of themselves).

3--Reiner Stach: Kafka: The Years of Insight: I read an above average number of literary biographies, and this one, the second of a three-volume life of the consummate modernist, is as engaging, well-written, and as worthy of its subject as any I've ever read. It was translated by Shelly Frisch who is extraordinary and deserves to have her picture here--it was published by Princeton, the fine press that also did the Joseph Frank biography of Dostoevsky, which many readers consider the finest literary biography ever written. I also read that one (abridged) this past year, but preferred Stach's Kafka by the slimmest of margins.

4--Charles Wright: Bye-and-Bye: Selected Later Poems (Farrar Straus Giroux): poignant, lyrical, deeply felt, rich in expression, moving...our new poet laureate, the one job in government through which one might truly make a positive difference to people. I've been carrying this book everywhere for four months.

5--Geoff Dyer: Out of Sheer Rage (Vintage): Dyer's take on D.H. Lawrence. Only Dyer could make the maudlin, self-regarding, utterly tedious Lawrence interesting--but Dyer can make anything interesting. Actually OOSR is more of a book about Dyer, which is just as well. Not new, but who cares? Really good.

6--Drago Jancar: Joyce's Pupil (Brandon): Twelve stories of love, death, and chaos by the Slovenian master. My favorite stories of the year.

7--Arnon Grunberg: Tirza (Open Letter): Strange doings in Amsterdam and Africa--utterly compelling as a study of the degeneration of an ordinary man who finds himself--as we all do--in an insane world.

8--Ben Lerner: 10:04 (Faber and Faber): I just finished Lerner's new novel last week. He thinks of himself primarily as a poet, but I have tried (twice) to read Angle of Yaw and gotten nowhere. But as a novelist Lerner has real genius. This is a book that is difficult to categorize and therefore even better. Definitely give this one a look.

9--Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (Penguin): translated by Dick Davis. Persian love poems with a remarkably informative introduction by the translator. "However old, incapable/And heart sick I may be, /The moment I recall your face/My youth's restored to me..." Not a new book, but for me an untried poet and an utterly fresh reading experience.

10--Penelope Fitzgerald: The Blue Flower (Mariner): I've just reread Fitzgerald's novel of the German poet Novalis. Reading about the Lee biography of the eccentric, productive, unclassifiable Fitzgerald made me want to go back to this book after many years. A great odd-ball novel. There are parts of this book that are literally unlike anything that's every been written by anyone. Do read it!

May I have two runners up? Thomas Pikkety's Capital which would be on this list if I had been able to read the entire book but I pooped out in the middle. It's extraordinary, but mostly over my head. Antonio Machado's poetry in two different translations. I loved The Landscare of Castille as translated by Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney (White Pine Press), and I wanted to note how much I am enjoying both Foreign Gods by Okey Ndibe and Monica Maristain's Bolano: A Biography in Conversations (Melville House). I hope to write more about these books when I finish them.

Meanwhile, happy reading at the end of the year, and I wish you great reading in the New Year.

George Ovitt (12/19/14)

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