Wednesday, December 28, 2016


"The calm and ordinary/is always based on a most delicate rite." --Ruth Stone "Order and Design"


This is Henry Miller at Big Sur, sitting, somehow, with swagger. The author, ostensibly alone with his work (imagine no photographer). He is thinking hard, smoking (naturally), sipping strong coffee, not paying the bills, scribbling on legal pads or composing on a Smith-Remington portable. The life of the mind--let's cling to it in the days ahead.

A good year for reading--if not for much else. Here are a few of the books that brought me a degree of solace or, in some cases, a jolt of righteous indignation, during 2016. 


Jane Hirshfield, The Beauty--has Hirshfield ever written a mediocre poem?

Amy Clampitt, The Kingfisher and Maxine Kumin, Where I Live--older books that I keep on my desk and read regularly.

David Kirby, House on Boulevard St.--new to me this year are Kirby's wildly inventive musings on his life.

Kim Garcia, The Brighter House and Drone--my favorite new (to me) poet.

Harvey Shapiro, The Sights Along the River--Shapiro writes simple elegies for a lost world of thoughtful decency.

My favorite poem of the year? Perhaps it's this one--apt and moving:

For What Binds Us
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

As the world around us become more difficult to absorb, as it makes less "sense" in the antediluvian Enlightenment context of "facts" and "reason" and "virtue," poetry assumes a more central place in the lives of (some) people. The poet's work is to make sense of her own experience and then to communicate that sense to the rest of us in language that is necessarily personal but also--here's what separates the poets from the fakers--universal. It's a big responsibility.



History and Politics

Rick Perlstein, Nixonland. I read Perlstein's trilogy out of order (Before the Storm, Nixonland, and Invisible Bridge, dealing with, respectively, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.) I can't recommend the Reagan volume, but Before the Storm and Nixonland are among the great political histories of our age.

Jane Mayer, Dark Money. Bound to make you want to emigrate to Portugal.

Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion --a history of 19th century political thought that is so detailed and nuanced and rich in recreating the lives of minor figures like Bruno Bauer and the other Young Hegelians that it feels like I've taken a graduate course from a scholar who has read everything.

Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Not well. Streeck's essay "The Citizen as Consumer" was the best political analysis of our ongoing crisis that I read all year.

Seymour M. Hersh, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Lies our presidents (and Secretaries of State) tell us.

Andrew Bacevich, America's War for the Greater Middle East. 

Volker Weidermann, Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark.


I read fewer than usual due to the load of politics and history that I felt impelled to read. But a lot of good novels came my way--again, not all of them new.

Yasmine El Rashidi, Chronicle of a Last Summer. Egypt after Mubarak. Cairo comes alive and the novel feels deeply topical.

Karan Mahajan: The Association of Small Bombs. Among the best novels I read this year. Discussed somewhere in TR.

Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker. A novel of Haiti and therefore of politics and hopes deferred.

Chris Bachelder, The Throwback Special. What Balzac did for post-Napoleonic France, that is, create an etudes des mœurs, Bachelder has done in a little over two-hundred pages. A mini-panorama of the (male) human comedy. An unlikely likeable book.

Irène Némirovsk, All Our Worldly Goods [Les Biens de ce monde]. Némirovsky was among the great realists of the 20th century, and this short novel, a prequel to Suite Française, is pitch perfect in its depiction of French society before, during, and after World War I. A kind of love story, but not in a traditional sense. Not one wasted word.

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say That We Have Nothing. Mao's Cultural Revolution destroys two families; the survivors tell their stories through folklore, magical realism, and grueling naturalism. I was entranced by the seemingly effortlessness with which this complex novel unfolded.

Han Kang, The Vegetarian. Harrowing. Ruthlessly explores the nuances of domestic cruelty. I wonder how many persons bought this book thinking it was the autobiography of a vegetarian?

Richard Ford. Let Me Be Frank With You. Yes, an awful title. What were they thinking at Random House? The last hurrah, in four long stories, of Frank Bascombe (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land). White, late-middle-aged male writers aren't especially popular these days. That's too bad, because Ford writes like a dream. He's Updike with a sense of proportion and a far greater degree of modesty. A genial craftsman.

Peter Stamm, Seven Years. A love triangle involving three utterly despicable people. How did he pull it off? All that nonsense about "identifying with the characters" is just that, and Stamm proves it.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle. Volume five. My favorite volume in this gargantuan enterprise that demonstrates Norwegian narcissism is more interesting than its American counterpart. I eagerly await the denouement of volume six, coming, like the winds of New Mexico, in April.

Other Books 

Music is still our great source of solace. A few fine books relating to music that fell into my hands during the past few weeks:

Ted Gioia, The Jazz Standards. The stories, and best recordings, of 250 jazz classics. While there's a lot missing, there's plenty here for the lover of standards. Gioia is the best writer on jazz since Nat Hentoff.

John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. Title of the year. "Bach in the breath of his vision, grasped and then revealed to us his conception of the universe as a harmonious whole; yet he was composing at a time when the breakdown of social unity was well advanced and the old structures of religion were fast being eroded by Enlightenment thinkers." Many brilliant insights by this great musicologist and Bach interpreter into the greatest musical genius who ever lived.

For Christmas, my brother sent me Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon's massive The Rolling Stones: All the Songs/The Story Behind Every Track. The French write wonderful books about American music. What most impresses me about my favorite band is how true they've stayed to their roots in the blues. (e.g. the new CD, "Blue and Lonesome").

Speaking of which....

My wife gave me Bill Dahl's gorgeous The Art of the Blues: A Visual Treasury of Black Music's Golden Age. Great photos of persons, record jackets, and venues (juke joints in the Delta). As one would expect, Dahl's text is informative and lively.

There were others--biographies (James A. Harris, Hume was the best of these), memoirs (Michael C. Keith's The Next Better Place), oral histories (the brilliant Secondhand Time by Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich), and some books that defy categorization (Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?) A question I ask myself almost daily these days.

I hope that you readers of TR found good books to fill your days and that you will find lots more in the year to come. Peter and I hope to provide some suggestions. Meanwhile, peace and good reading.

George Ovitt (12/28/2016)

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