I spent a large part of today playing with my five-year-old daughter in the snow, and I’m thinking that might have been my best moment of the year.
Here are some other bright and shiny things that have caught the eyes, and in some cases the ears, of Andrew Borgstrom, Gabe Durham, Eugene Lim, Kevin Prufer, Cooper Renner, and David Shields. And click here for “Best of 2010, Part 1.”
My Best of [under]20[pages but over]10:
Team Sad by Emily Kendal Frey and Zachary Schomburg
Self Help Poems by Sampson Starkweather
Some thin excellence from both ends of the year.
In no order:
Donald Antrim –The Verificationist – Antrim places a large cohort of psychotherapists in a grimy pancake house and then, 25 pages in, binds the arms of his narrator in the bear hug of a colleague and leaves him there, raised slightly off the ground in the man’s embrace, for another 150 pages.
Donald Antrim – Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World – When I introduced him at a reading earlier this year, I said, “The thing I most respond to in Antrim’s writing is the precision and the consistency with which the prose lands on the continuum of humor and despair, the way his funniest moments are often his most terrifying.” This was the novel I hadn’t yet read, but this is the one about which the statement is most true. The comic horror of the ending still kind of shocks me to think about.
The National – High Violet – album of the year, easy
Jeannie Hoag – The New Age of Ferociousness – Funny, idiosyncratic chapbook. Many hits, like “This Used to Be my Bunny” and “Natalie Portman is Smarter Than I.”
Kevin Sampsell – A Common Pornography – Memoir without interpretation, memory without judgment. What a challenge to withhold when writing about yourself. Pulled off beautifully.
Rachel B. Glaser – Pee on Water – Most of the stories in this book were re-reads for me, and one read usually doesn’t do it. “Dream House” is perfect: Two teens can’t be bothered to stop their heavy petting even as a skater kid maims himself right in front of them.
Kyle Minor – In the Devil’s Territory – Three strong novellas steeped in Christian culture. “A Love Story” is a the best kind of novella, one that pack’s a novel’s worth of character, plot, and emotion into 40 or so pages.
Mike Young – We Are All Good if They Try Hard Enough – Makes writers who shrink from proper nouns look ridiculous.
Matthew Simmons – A Jello Horse – Tragic road trip in which the tangents become the point. I read it on a plane ride.
Buried – Claustrorific. The supposed appeal of Ryan Reynolds used to baffle me, but he sustains a whole movie alone in a coffin. (No escapes into back story. Just him in a coffin.)
Nicholson Baker – The Anthologist – My favorite Baker. I can appreciate A Box of Matches (another 2010 read) but it doesn’t come close to my love for Paul Chowder. I heard Baker wrote this book by setting up recorders in his house, then walked around talking to himself as Chowder. I hope that’s true.
Dennis Cooper – The Sluts – Web mystery that takes full advantage of how easy it is to lie on the internet. A fast read.
Jonathan Franzen – Freedom – Patty is the heart of this book. She’s so complex, so fully-imagined. She stays with you. Walter and Richard too. The only times my attention wavered was when (1) the overtly political got in the way of character or (2) in the Joey sections, and even then, it’s never bad. The first 200 or so pages are rock-solid.
Funny People – Best Judd Apatow, best Seth Rogan, maybe best Adam Sandler (or tied with Punch Drunk Love). It’s a demanding movie–it’s so long for a comedy and it risks sentimentality, but it pulls it off. Great use of cameos. Makes better use of Apatow’s verbose dialogue than his other movies do because it’s so committed to Sandler and Rogan‘s characters. See also: Raaaaaaaany!
The Office – Still good. Erin is welcome. Smart to make room for Darryl. Pam is meaner in a good way. Jim is more fallible. I admire the long game they’re playing.
The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights – High-concept performances in low-population Canadian towns, interspersed with Jack White interview truth bombs. A tour doc gold standard.
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz – Great to see him stretching while retaining many tics and obsessions. “Vesuvius” is my favorite. Liz and I like the part halfway through the song where he starts addressing himself.
Kanye West – My BeautifulCrazySexyCool Fantasy – This thing keeps happening where I’m humming “Runaway” and then suddenly I’m humming Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.”
Local Natives – Gorilla Manor – Yeah, and two great Daytrotter sessions. There’s something nice about seeing a band support a great first album. They play all their songs and when they’ve played them all, they go. It’s after the second album that decisions have to be made.
Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions audiobook as read by Stanley Tucci – The reading redeems the book in an exciting way. Tucci’s voice dignifies passages that on paper read as kinda flip.
Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle – Callahan clicks with me more than most other Weirdos of Folk, and I prefer the clean production and instrumentation here to the more-muddled Woke on a Whaleheart. My favorite track is the mournful “Eid Ma Clack Shaw.”
The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs – Their most track-to-track album. Should’ve been shorter, but “We Used to Wait” and “Sprawl II” and “City with No Children” are among their best songs.
Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away – Best live performance I’ve seen all year was supporting this album.
Girl Talk – All Day – More fun jogging soundtrack.
Big Boi – Sir Luscious Left Foot – “Shine Blockas” especially, but also “Daddy Fat Sacks,” “Tangerine,” “Shutterbugg,” and “Back Up Plan.” The vocal hooks on this album are overpraised, I think–some are pretty grating. The rapping’s the thing, and it more than makes up for the rest.
Emily Toder – Brushes With – Simple declarative story-poems about encounters with shapes. Like The Little Prince untethered by logic. Begging for an illustrated addition.
Stephen Elliott – The Adderall Diaries – Great memoir. Elliott battles his dad’s self-selective memory (a dad who writes anonymous scathing Amazon reviews of his books), has painful sex, and tries to figure out whether an acquaintance killed a bunch of people.
Sam Lipsyte – The Ask – Most comedians would do better to read aloud from this book than their own material. It’s also Lipsyte’s most crushing novel. Every time Milo makes himself vulnerable to someone, they make him regret it.
Daniel Clowes – Wilson – Graphic novel-in-strips in which a jobless depressive attends his dad’s funeral, tracks down his ex-wife, meets his daughter, starts conversations with strangers wherever he goes. My introduction to Clowes (besides the forgettable movie Art School Confidential). I read it based on a rave review by Sam Lipsyte, whose characters have more than a little in common with Wilson.
Daniel Clowes – David Boring – Meandering slacker noir that’s hard to pin down. I like how about every woman in the book looks at David and goes, “You poor thing,” for no reason but his depressive face.
Junot Diaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – I love how Diaz anticipates and caters to my ignorance of US foreign policy. Oscar the meganerd is the perfect anchor for this historical/supernatural kitchen sink novel.
Amy Hempel – At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom – Hempel’s second collection is probably her most consistently excellent. Wow, she loves writing about dogs.
Inception – Left-brained movie of the year. I don’t ask emotional payoff of Sudoku and I’ve learned not to ask it of Christopher Nolan, but I will keep watching his movies.
The Social Network – I like that boat race scene. Why don’t more movies stop everything for a stylistic riff?
Chelsea Martin – Everything Was Fine Until Whatever – Reminds me of Kanye’s album in that it attempts and succeeds at self-expression from so many different angles. By the end of the book, I feel I know the artist. (Whether I really do is irrelevant.)
John Pham – Sublife – Bought this at Davis-Kidd’s store closing. Cats chase a dog. An old teacher lets students’ loud noises stress him out. Lonely spacemen meet an alien.
William Walsh – Pathologies – Walsh’s premise-based short shorts read fast and leave me with a buzz.
David Shields – The Thing About Life is One Day You’ll Be Dead – Death-obsessed Shields dukes it out with his life-obsessed dad while narrating every body’s development and decay. Reality Hunger may not hold much weight as a call to ALL WRITERS, but Shields’ dexterous essay-making method really works for Shields.
Bonnie Jo Campbell – American Salvage – Cut those two Y2K stories and you’ve got a near-perfect collection. My favorites: “Brian’s Problem” (I got to see her read this one live at AWP), “Family Reunion,” and “Winter Life.”
E.L. Doctorow – Sweet Land Stories – A cult, a runaway, a stone-cold murder. These stories deserve better than their ironic title. (Lives of the Poets is a bad title too.)
Ander Monson – Other Electricities – “Everything is good and ends badly.” I stole this line and folded it into Fun Camp.
Shellie Zacharia – Now Playing – Unencumbered by ambition, these stories shoot for self-doubt, boredom, whimsy, and honesty.
Mary Robison – Why Did I Ever – I tried reading One D.O.A. after this, but magic of these impressionistic notes seems impossible to import to another novel. What a great character name, Money.
Twin Peaks – Some great nights had gathering with three guys to watch Twin Peaks. I don’t know how I’d have made it through the valleys of Season 2 (and the prequel movie) without them.
We also watched Lost Highway, a movie I knew about in 7th grade only because it featured both NIN’s “The Perfect Drug” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Eye” on the soundtrack.
Moon – Rockwell vs. Rockwell. Some of the best twists are the simplest: What if… stay with me now… what if there was a space movie where the computer seemed evil but wasn’t.
Big Fan – Patton Oswald has one of those expressive comedic voices that always sounds like it could tip into rage or sullenness. In this movie, he does both.
Allison Bechdel – Fun Home – Bechdel’s open gayness vs. her dad’s closeted gayness, well-told. Man, these bad dad memoirs are really stacking up. And I liked them all. I didn’t read graphic novels until about a year ago. Seems like it was probably my friend Brian’s influence. I love how fast you can read them if you want to. It’s like fast-forwarding through an expensive car chase scene. All that money! Wheeee!
Grace Paley – The Little Disturbances of Man – Her first book. Paley sprung out of the gates with her voice fully-formed.
Christine Schutt – Florida – What stays with me is the feeling, an odd quiet. It’s great how the childhood moves slowly and adulthood is both sped up and preoccupied with childhood.
Vampire Weekend – Contra – So catchy. “Run” + “Cousins” + “Giving Up the Gun” is one of those too-pleasurable three-song sprints.
Nathaniel West – Miss Lonelyhearts – Crushing. I love the part where the narrator tells the story of his situation as if pitching the plot of a movie.
Gabe Durham lives in Nashville, TN. His writings have appeared in Mid-American Review, Fourteen Hills, Daytrotter, Hobart, The Lifted Brow, The Rumpus, Quick Fiction, and elsewhere. He edits Keyhole Magazine.
Eugene Lim is author of Fog & Car.
Eight Great Poets You May Not Know
1. Eleanor Ross Taylor (b. 1920, USA)
Championed by many poets (Jean Valentine, among others), Taylor’s work has yet to receive the readership it deserves. Still, the publication of her Captive Voices: New & Selected Poems (LSU, 2009) has brought new renewed interest to her work. Read my appreciation of her work: CLICK.
2. Miltos Sachtouris (1919-2005, Greece)
A harrowing poet whose best work is loosely concerned with post WWII Greek history, covering the period from the Axis occupation and the military junta of 1967-1971. Though his sensibility may remind some readers of Charles Simic’s, his poetry is even more dreamlike, succinct, and frightening. Karen Emmerich’s recent translation of his Poems: 1945-1971 (Archipelago, 2008) is brilliant. Read more about his work here: CLICK.
3. Jaime Saenz (1921-1986, Bolivia)
Saenz has been described as the greatest Bolivian writer of the last century and his poetry is terrifying, lavish, and hallucinatory. Best to begin with Forrest Gander and Kent Johnson’s brilliant translation of The Night (Princeton University Press, 2007), a frightening meditation on nocturnal La Paz, alcohol, and self-destruction. Read more here: CLICK.
4. Pierre Martory (1920-1998, France)
Martory lived for many years with John Ashbery, who has translated and championed his work in English for quite some time now. Martory, however, was less inclined to show off his work and, like most terrific poetry translated into English, he has not found a strong following yet. Best to start with The Landscapist (Sheep Meadow, 1998) to get a sense for this elusive, symbolist-surrealist poet. For an interesting meditation on his work, click HERE.
5. William Jay Smith (b. 1918, USA)
Although Smith has received numerous honors—US Poet Laureate from 1968-1970, twice a National Book Award finalist—most of the younger poets I know are unfamiliar with his work. For my money, Smith is one of the great formalists of the 20th century (and not a bad translator, either). Check out his The World Below the Window: Poems 1937-1997 from Johns Hopkins University Press. Dana Gioia has a good essay on his work: CLICK.
6. Laura Jensen (b. 1948, USA)
Laura Jensen’s lovely, emotionally complex poems are, at their best, among my all-time favorites. Her meditations on isolation, solitude, sadness and emotional strength are some of the most moving I know. Best to begin with her out-of-print Bad Boats (Ecco Press, 1977), then move on to Carnegie Mellon’s reissue of Memory (Carnegie Mellon, 2006). For more on her work, click HERE.
7. Dunstan Thompson (1918-1975, USA)
Dunstan Thompson, an American GI during WWII, published just two poetry books in his lifetime, both filled with visions of war-time horror coupled with often homoerotic longing. Later, after his reawakened Catholicism, his work mellowed a bit, becoming more contemplative and thoughtful. Although both early books are out of print and very hard to find, D.A. Powell and I just released a selection of his poems and accompanying essays: Dunstan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master (Pleiades Press, 2010). Click HERE for more.
8. Daniel Simko (1959-2004, Czechoslovakia)
Simko’s poetry often takes place in the landscape of war-ravaged Eastern Europe. It’s elegiac, elusive, skittery stuff, often reaching for moments of stark, profound realization. Simko produced just one book, published (with a fine introduction by Carolyn Forché) four years after his death. It is, however, masterful and eerie, suggesting enormous potential for this wonderful poet. Check out The Arrival (Four Way Books, 2008) and click HERE for more information.
Kevin Prufer’s newest books are In a Beautiful Country (Four Way Books, 2011) and National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008), named one of Publishers Weekly’s five best poetry books of the year. He’s also editor of New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008) and Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2007). He is Professor of English at the University of Houston.
Favorites of 2010:
Most of the following were not released in 2010, though that is when I first read or heard them
1. Every Man Dies Alone: Hans Fallada — Moving story of an ordinary couple’s decision to strike back at Hitler from within Nazi Germany. Fallada lived in Germany throughout the period and wrote this novel rapidly in 1946, shortly before dying in early 1947.
2. Curriculum Vitae: Yoel Hoffmann — Fictionalized memoir by the Israeli novelist and scholar of Buddhism. Hoffmann has few contemporary peers.
3. Dart: Alice Oswald — Book-length poem centered around England’s Dart River, written in the grand Modernist tradition.
4. Lady Audley’s Secret: Mary Elizabeth Braddon — Victorian “sensation” novel by a contemporary of Dickens, Trollope and Collins.
5. A Model of Order: Ian Hamilton Finlay and Thomas Clark — Selections from Finlay’s letters on the art of writing. Essential.
6. The Magic Mountain: Thomas Mann — Depiction of life in an Alpine tuberculosis sanatorium in the early 20th century becomes an oblique commentary on Europe before the Great War.
7. The Loved One: Evelyn Waugh — Published in the late ’40s but perfectly reflective of today, a satire on the American funeral industry and Hollywood.
8. Suite Française: Irène Némirovsky — Unfinished masterpiece about France at the beginning of World War II.
9. Monsieur Pain: Roberto Bolaño — Odd and entrancingly surreal novel about Dr Pain and the last days of César Vallejo.
1. Invisible City: BJ Nilsen
2. “An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music” (from Dreamweapon): Spaceman 3
3. “Whispering in the Leaves”: Chris Watson — New recordings created as an installation for the Palm House at Kew Gardens near London. I had the chance to attend a special performance by Watson and his laptop on opening day.
4. Copenhagen: Lucy Foley
5. “Year of the Ox”: F*cked Up
Cooper Renner has recently published (in New York Tyrant, Unsaid and The Anemone Sidecar) excerpts from his ongoing fiction set in Malta.
I like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and John D’Agata’s About a Mountain.
David Shields ‘s most recent book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010), has been chosen one of the best books of 2010 by numerous publications, including the Guardian and New Statesman.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.