The Best Newer Books I’ve Read — 2021
Emerson says, Never read a book that is not a year old, so there are books here from previous years. Most of them were published by small presses. Also, it feels silly to only list books from a certain year — “as Borges has taught us, all the books in the library are contemporary.” (Gass, Reading Rilke)
Kjell Askildsen — Everything Like Before: ‘The stories, and some are very short, two to three pages — are redolent of Chekhov and Isaac Babel (Askildsen is also a writer Lydia Davis would nod to) — the style is stripped — few adjectives, little setting or atmosphere, but all emotion, with tension often instantly delivered on the first page, often the first line: “When my wife was alive, I used to think about how much more room I’d have when she died…”’ My review in LA Review of Books.
Gabriel Blackwell — Correction: 101 stories/essays “were composed in a perpetual state of anger or anxiety,” says the author, none more than three pages long — all excellent. The madness and egomania of our time writ black and blue (“podcast for men, by men”).
Mauro Javier Cárdenas — Aphasia: Consistently upended my expectations, like great works of art tend to do. I had to begin it a few times to get on its wonderful wavelength. Funny on the outside, but with a dark interior, so one’s laughs get caught in the throat. One of the most electric novels from recent years. I can see my generation in it more than any other book I’ve read.
Michelle Latoilais — Widow: Hardy-hewn stories of bereavement and people on the edge. Overflowing with life lessons that are priceless and probably mica-glitters of wisdom that I’m not keen enough to recognize. “She wished it were evening now, wished for the great relief of the calendar inking itself out, of day done and night coming, of ice cubes knocking about in a glass beneath the whiskey spilling in, that fine brown affirmation of need.”
Garielle Lutz — Worsted: There are the larger themes of failed relationships and loneliness or aloneness in Lutz’s stories, but in reading her over the years, I also find a catalogue of Americana. The settings paid attention to are on the whole mundane and unexciting — supermarkets, mega marts, and discount stores, fast food restaurants and buffets, strip malls, and office buildings — but to me they are the quintessence of our strange, bruised, and unhealthy nation’s obsession with consumption and mania. In one story it is remarked that, “The young woman tending the checkout was happy and exclamatory about everything — the total, the change, the bagging.” The funniest book I’ve read in a while.
Joseph McElroy — Night Soul: I’ve found this to be the best entry point to the McElroy universe. Maybe along with Actress in the House. I’m still contemplating how to make sense of the Joe McElroy experience and hope to write something soon. It is more akin to listening to classical music or great jazz. Bartok’s string quartets? Or looking at architecture. Gregg Biglieri’s piece in the Electronic Book Review is incredible on the experience: “McElroy doesn’t think for us. Perhaps it frustrates readers to have to struggle with a writer who thinks through them.” From the story “Character”:
Robert Musil — Theater Symptoms: A compendium of Musil’s plays and writings on drama by Musil translator extraordinaire, Genese Grill. The crux of the book is his nearly 200-page play “The Utopians,” a key work imbuing his vaunted novel The Man Without Qualities. Elsewhere, there is incredible criticism: “The word as formed air: and at the same time, an enormous creative force; this has always been for me the most astonishing aspect of the effect of this great writer. I have the feeling, when I tune my ear to Shakespeare like this — I think, one mustn’t think now about the thing, but must enter in somewhere through a word […] and then Shakespeare’s word-world appears, and along with the word, the world.”
Cynthia Ozick — Antiquities: Antiquities is quite a feat. It’s totally out of vogue (who is writing about death?) — most importantly, Ozick is writing in the voice of an old man who often can’t grasp his flaws. People, bitter and conflicted, can die with very little resolution. A lasting book.
Ricardo Piglia — The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Formative Years: I quoted this early passage from Piglia so many times, but I will never be brazen to it, as it is the be-all and end-all of the reading experience for me (and others): “The value of reading does not depend on the book in itself but on the emotions associated with the act of reading…What is fixed in memory is not the content of memory but rather its form. I am not interested in what can obscure the image, I am interested only in the visual intensity that persists in time like a scar.” Piglia’s exercise of creating a character and imbuing that character with a refracted, though broken-mirrored version of his own life makes all the current Autofiction look like child’s play. I look forward to the other two volumes.
Gwendolyn Riley — First Love: It’s very good — if I had one criticism it would be the structure. She starts in media res and then goes back a little to the parents — that’s fine. But in the second half it kind of ping-pongs back and forth between the past and the present with the husband, including a distant character that makes his only appearance — I think her editors could have suggested smoothing that out. The other part of Riley, for the reader to overcome, is the degree of the main character’s culpability. Yes, she is with an awful person, but how does that happen? To see her as an innocent victim is too easy for me. So I extrapolate from the extended scenes of her parents — well, this is where her character was built, but she just makes fun of her mother and doesn’t sympathize with someone obviously oblivious to the world — so, it becomes hard to sympathize with her. Still, Riley is quite adept — the little portraits, the settings written out in a few sentences of stripped down lyricism. The dialogue. I maybe wanted it to be as good as Christine Schutt’s Florida or Paula Fox’s The Western Coast or Colette’s Break of Day, but it’s a different book — she doesn’t have the rearview mirror of those other writers, but all those books were written at an age in the late 40s, 50s. Maybe the Riley books of this decade will have that.
Bennett Simms — White Dialogues: Simms is very cool and controlled about taking a set-piece and then subverting it. “The Bookcase” lampoons This American Life, which is really lampooning a good segment of the U.S.’s population. The title story, about lip-reading the unheard background characters in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, is a prime example of how obsession undoes us, though it may take us to another level — really a “tension…between a desire and a contempt for what is desired.” (The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man) But every story has a Chinatown ethos: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.”
Karen Solie — The Caiplie Caves: I’m really choosing all of her latest books published, including The Living Option (2013) and The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out (2015) — the latter contains poems published in the 2013 Bloodaxe book. Solie, like so many great poets, does her own thing — and this thing can remind one of Wallace Stevens (an astral voice) and, especially, Marianne Moore (bricolage). Her verse is made up of the shards of our slangified 2021 speech and Hegel, Merton, etc. In Caves, she takes a 7th Century Irish missionary called Ethernan and mixes and matches that time with Ambien, DIY, and Co-ops. As Moore did, she meticulously documents her sources.
Why do I not move on? Why
hang around here while grass
grows up my chimney?
Every choice is a refusal. For Christ’s sake
I am guarding the walls. Like punctuation,
it could make all the difference.
Michael Winkler — Grimmish: A novel that takes chances, that animates a hazily documented life and bleeds it into a strange music called fiction. It’s Stein, Gass, Cormac McCarthy, and Pynchon rolled into one exquisite cannoli.