The bad news is 2019 will find humanity continuing to head toward the termination of organized existence, with the U. S. government continuing to lead the way. The good news is 2019 will also find amazing books written by amazing writers published by amazing presses, small and indie presses as always working against great odds to transform the literary world, if not the world itself, by publishing the best words in the best order. Check out my picks for the 2019 books to buy, read, share, borrow, review, talk about, etc., below!
Despite 2018’s many local, national, and global catastrophes, it was a wonderful year for me, especially reading-wise. I read over a hundred and thirty books in the year, thirty books over my goal. You can find the full list of all the books I read this year below. But first, here are some capsule-reviews of some of the books I read (* = rereads):
New Fiction is Psychic Occupation
Fiction—or more generally, longform narrative text—has long been the handyman of culture, serving whatever functions are most urgently needed at a historical moment. The Greek oral tradition, famously, functioned in part to preserve cultural histories and customs—hence the sprawling lists of names and figures, or lengthy descriptions of hospitality, in Homer. Arabic maqamas synthesized and preserved the collected wisdom of the medieval Iberian peninsula through proverbs and fables. Victorian novels provided an escapist entertainment for members of the aristocracy, while the Bible, Quran, and Mahābhārata operated as normative unifiers.
We no longer need literature to provide heavily plotted absorption: drug-like escapism, the loss of ego, more easily come from other mediums. Likewise, our encyclopedias, our etiquette guides, our microfiche handle our cultural history just fine. Television, film, non-fiction, and the Internet spent the 20th century eating away at literature’s territory, and once again the discipline transforms from generalist to specialist. The best literature of the modern day does what only literature can do—allow readers to inhabit other minds, other worldviews, other consciousnesses. Continue reading
The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries has a 43-minute interview with Guy Davenport from 1992–the only recorded one on the internet (click “Access”).
From Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns
Hugh Kenner was to edit a Wiley Anthology of 20th Century Literature. He asked Guy Davenport for suggestions. Continue reading
ON FIRST REFORMED (Spoilers)
The form perfectly matches the content. And so, with First Reformed, Paul Schrader has done it, just as Henry Jaglom, another disciple of greater directors, was able to hit jackpot once with Deja Vu. William Gass said if tragedies weren’t tragic, no one would go to them, but these days if a serious film doesn’t “speak” to the issues of the day (how the issues of certain human beings are greater than others is a different discussion) it is pretty much DOA. First Reformed is concerned with everything we worry about today—including race, but in an offhand way—without blatantly stacking the deck, as a film like American Beauty does. It promises to be a tragedy and even though it turns out not to be, there is still catharsis in its last second Ordet-like save, and I don’t mean because some in the audience think the priest is dead and imagines being saved. “Nothing matters but the quality of affection,” Ezra Pound wrote in Canto LXXVI. What is the quality of affection in that swirling rapturous kissing between the priest and the pregnant widow? Carnality, like in Ordet? It might not matter if it proves affection is still possible. Continue reading
READING THE CANTOS
I am not the only person in the United States reading The Cantos. I know because the internet tells me so. Another man is blogging The Cantos. He started in 2015—he’s up to LXVII, about fifty more to go. Elsewhere, The Cantos Project (“peer-reviewed by a board of scholars”), is seemingly the only active website dedicated to them, and has annotations up to XVI. I am neither impressed nor depressed by these on-line affairs. Nobody “likes” to read The Cantos and of the few called, many are passionate. The Cantos become an obsession because they are about large swathes of human history and its languages, subjects equally infinite. Guy Davenport avers, “I have seen students learn Chinese because of him, or take up mediaeval studies, learn Greek, Latin, music…” I expect others ardently caught up are similar to myself—undoubtedly most male, politically disenfranchised by both squirming sides, hunched over a haul of books, rueful at not being brought up in a French or Italian immersion school, and feeling fucked by standard stateside curriculum that left Latin in the dustbin. Continue reading
‘Basil returned with the two pies. He was wearing the expression of a man who has laid hands on a symbol of his boyhood: it made him look somewhat ponderous.’ This seems a pretty straightforward example of a symbol (pie = boyhood), though the passive construction of those verbs (‘He was wearing’ and ‘it made him look’) must be seen a little warily in the context of ‘Basil’ being the ‘great actor’, Sir Basil Hunter, come back from England to Australia to ease his dying mother into an old folks’ home, secure as much of the loot as he can, and play whatever roles are required. Continue reading
When Stanley Kubrick died on March 7, 1999, there was still a little over four months until Eyes Wide Shut’s release date, July 16. There is no basis to argue Kubrick wouldn’t have altered the film right up to that date and possibly even beyond as he did with 2001 and The Shining, films most similar to Eyes Wide Shut. Michael Herr says, “…there was looping to be done and the music wasn’t finished, lots of small technical fixes on color and sound, but it wasn’t ready to show…” Continue reading
TO LIVE TO READ TO LIVE
Gimmickry attached to the world of belles-lettres has me chagrined: not the book itself, but the buying of the book, the book trailer, the story “behind” the book, the “personality” who wrote the book. The latest iteration, where reading is concerned, revolves around the reputed mental health benefits of reading, it keeps your brain fit. This may be partially true, but to use it as reasoning to do something that doesn’t call us is underhanded, bullying. A true reader, a true human, doesn’t need to be sold on anything that is so fundamental. Continue reading
Fans of lengthy and complex novels often encounter the sentiment that shorter works are better because they get their points across economically, that the dreadnoughts of literature contain too much boring armature, and that to persist regularly reading books over, say, 500 pages smacks of pretension and elitism. Those charges can be true at one time or another. Sometimes it seems we’re stuck in an either/or situation where readers are either hostages or idolaters. Continue reading
Like every year, there’s much to dread about 2018, and to fight against, but, fortunately there’s much to look forward to, including powerful works of art from small presses. Below you’ll find the small press books I’m most excited to see published this year. Following this, you’ll find lists from stellar writers Kate Angus, Kurt Baumeister, Alex Behr, Jeff Bursey, Lisa Chen, Tobias Carroll, Brian Evenson, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Meghan Lamb, Janice Lee, Christina Milletti, Michael Noll, David Leo Rice, Kevin Sampsell, Jason Teal, Dan Wickett, James Yeh, and Leni Zumas. Thanks to them, and thanks, too, to stellar writers Lynn Crawford, Robert Dean, Annie DeWitt, Joe Pan, Dawn Raffel, Jacob Singer, Joanna C. Valente, and Marjorie Welish for giving me the heads-up on other books.
I read two hundred books this year. Crazy, I know. “Suffering” from segmented sleep certainly “helps,” as does “suffering” from the seemingly un-ebbing anxiety of not having read everything I need/want to read. In any case, throughout the year, I intermittently came out of book criticism retirement to write capsule reviews of some of the books I’d read: Below you’ll find my thoughts about forty-eight books, all save two of them published by small presses, books by Nick Francis Potter, John Reed, Daniel Borzutzky, Robert Lopez, Jennifer MacBain-Stephens, Carole Maso, Jessie Janeshek, Lynn Crawford, Lidia Yuknavitch, Patricia Smith, Vanessa Roveto, Melissa Range, Bret Easton Ellis, Jeff Bursey, Johannes Göransson, Robert Vaughan, John Keene, Michael J. Wilson, William Walsh, Jennifer Firestone, Christopher DeWan, Hannah Lillith Assadi, Jorge Armenteros, Eleni Sikelianos, Karen An-hwei Lee, Andrew Joron, Donald Breckenridge, Airea D. Matthews, Tomás Q. Morín, Margo Berdeshevsky, Alejandra Pizarnik, Albert Mobilio, Constance Squires, Eugene Lim, Stephanie J. Urdang, Mai Der Vang, Craig Morgan Teicher, Gabino Iglesias, James Reich, Jeremy M. Davies, John Haskell, Roberta Allen, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Chen Chen, Joe Pan, Joanna C. Valente, Layli Long Soldier, and Kaveh Akbar. Continue reading
Happy birthday anniversary, Charlie Parker! Bird lives!
Happy birthday, Meshell Ndegeocello, American singer-songwriter, rapper, bassist, and vocalist! 49, today!
“We’re all just bags of bones and muscle and hormones; I’ll never understand what makes our minds do the things we do. It’s like that statue of the monkey holding a skull. We’re trying to use a thing we don’t understand to understand ourselves.”
Happy birthday anniversary, Michael Jackson, American singer, songwriter, and dancer!