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My Year in Reading: 2018

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):

Narratively prismatic, hilariously parodic, virtuosically polyphonic, Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March is a wonderfully expansive work of collage, pastiche, intertextuality, and conceptual, playful repurposing.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, but reading it, I couldn’t help feeling it was the YA version of Robert Coover’s densely lyrical, thoroughly irreverent, oft-bawdy, and imaginatively outrageous engagements with history, politics, pop culture, etc.

Novel as collage, Olivia Laing’s Crudo embeds sentences by Kathy Acker within the largely aleatory and at turns digressive narrative, blurring genres and identities, reminding me, at times, of the intrepid writing of Laurie Stone, Rachel Cusk, and Édouard Levé.

Revisiting Moby-Dick or, The Whale, I realize that the form of the novel is itself a metaphor, that is, that its expansiveness and diversity, of character, setting, theme, and style; its shifts in narrative voice and literary genre; its wave after wave of symbol, allusion, metaphor, quotation, paraphrase, and intertextual reference; all suggest that it, too, is a kind of ocean.

Worldly and world-weary, If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving? deftly addresses late capitalism’s crumbling superstructures: the vast ruins in the wake of widespread cultural discord, political upheaval, and economic catastrophe. Phenomenologically engaging the sadness of screens and selfies, the terrors of surveillance, the complexities of intimacy in the disinformation age, these poems virtually burst with thinking about memory, time, history, love, and romance, burst with thinking about thinking itself, about “the ontology of want.” Brendan Lorber’s tragicomic poems, at turns wistful and sardonic, address spiritual fatigue, and emotional collapse, and contemporary absurdity. Here spaces read as caesuras and breaks and absences, but also as palpable presences, as tangible spaces, as rivulets even. Cultural references, both high and low, abound: Julia Child, Spock, Klingons, Goodnight Moon, Francis Ponge, Robert Duncan, Immanuel Kant, Kurt Cobain, Pierre Rameau, Robespierre, Hegel, and more. And there are many recurring objects, like mirrors, whisky, water (which is another kind of mirror), not to mention dropdown menus and a host of screens. Reminiscent at times of the poetry of Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, and D. A. Powell, these poems also often pay homage to other poets, like Lorine Niedecker, Eileen Miles, Stacy Szymaszek, Matt Longabucco, Joe Elliott, and Lauren Ireland. Over twenty years in the making, If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving? introduces an urgent, daring, and necessary voice.

Years ago, when I was at Brown, I saw a beautiful performance by Eiko and Koma, their dance foregrounding a struggle against elemental forces, their dance full of tension and sometimes release, and, even more rarely, connection, however tenuous. I often felt sad watching them move. These thoughts and feelings were revived after reading Forrest Gander’s Eiko & Koma, a suite of poems whose supple form mirrors the eponymous dancers’ evocative movements and whose expansive and sometimes baroque diction runs in wonderful counterpoint to same.

Elegiac, visceral, superbly lyrical, Forrest Gander’s Be With is a balm, a vital read in trying times, which means all the time.

Prismatic and kaleidoscopic in form, shimmering with crystalline prose—Dawn Raffel’s Carrying the Body is a gem.

I also loved Raffel’s The Strange Case of Dr. Couney, from the opening cliffhanger to its memorializing end. Unraveling like a literary mystery, brimming with choice and often bizarre historical details, exploring the odd intertwinings of scientific rigor and showbiz glitz, jumping backward and forward in time and space, the biography’s not only a wonderful novelistic depiction of a legendary eccentric and a critical interrogation of medicine and technology, but a loving portrait of early-to-mid-twentieth century America, especially its metropolises, especially New York City. At one point, Raffel writes: “The love of imagined places fuels extraordinary creativity.” Reading this book, encountering its own extraordinary creativity, I’m compelled to expand this sentence to include “places both real and imagined.” The images of letters, posters, photos, diagrams, etc., ask as many questions as they answer, acting as corroborating visual evidence, while also leaving things open-ended, mysterious, etc. Loved the country- and globe-trotting in the text, which suggests the biographer’s own Sehnsucht. I also really appreciate how Raffel foregrounds some of the many women who toiled thanklessly in the background. Loved, too, all the picaresque/picturesque elements, like the Artificial Hen, the Elephant Hotel (the “pachyderm-shaped,” “seven-story novelty colossus with telescopes embedded in its eyes”); the “three-year-old Nubian lion,” who “ran burning through the streets, roaring in agony, with his mane on fire.” The book is so lovingly rendered it probably shouldn’t be a surprise how this book also contains moments of memoir, of autobiography—life writing, indeed! But I was surprised! And thankful for those many moments of surprise.

Receiving praise from Craig Santos Perez, Patricia Smith, Craig Morgan Teicher, Roberto J. Tejada, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and more besides, Daniel Borzutzky’s Lake Michigan is a lyrical, fragmentary, and utterly damning indictment of the police state, prison industrial complex, and the privatization of just about everything in the United States. Go read this necessary poetic intervention!

Dušan Šarotar’s Panorama is excellent, reminiscent, at times, of the writing of Sebald (whose work is referenced in the book) and László Krasznahorkai.

Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing is a provocative book that deeply engages Lispector, Bachmann, Bernhard, Kafka, and others:

What makes a mind unwind till suicide sadly results? Winner of the 2017 Colorado Prize for Poetry, The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter is a superb reimagining of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, a young woman shattered by unbearable losses. Here Gillian Cummings quietly, lyrically questions Ophelia’s story in unapologetically “feminine” prose poems. Short, whittled-down “once-sonnets” bracket these poems, each one featuring other Ophelias, nameless “she” and “you” characters addressing the question of madness and its aftermath. These women and girls want to know: What is God when the soul reaches its nadir of suffering? And how can you have faith when your mind wants to destroy itself? If it’s true that “the psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight,” as Joseph Campbell said, then Cummings punctures the boundaries of this notion: “Is it the same? The desire to end a life / and the need to know how: a flower’s simple bliss?” Her women and girls—part “little heavenling” and part “small hellborn”—understand the emptiness of extreme despair and long for that other emptiness, an ironically fulfilling one you might call union with God, or the death of the troublesome ego. Voices abound and resound: Inspired by Shakespeare, guided by Dickinson and Plath, Cummings also engages other, more contemporary poets, among them Brock-Broido, Szporluk, and Cruz. The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter offers what might happen if, after sealing off the doors and turning on the gas, indeed, after dying, a poet embraces the holiness of how “all dissolves: one color, /one moon, all earth, red as love, red as living.”

In We Make Mud, Peter Markus, like James Joyce’s artist, “forg[es] anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being.” Markus achieves this through peculiarly musical repetition and a deliberately constrained and largely monosyllabic lexicon. “Loving repeating is in a way earth feeling,” Carole Maso writes in her tribute essay to Gertrude Stein, Stein herself a master of repetition, and Markus, through relentless repetition of words like “dirt” and “mud” and “rain” and “dust” and “steel” and “fish,” inspires, conjures that “earth feeling,” whether through taking these words through their noun, verb, and adjective forms, or through taking other words through their conjugations, etc., all of the above often happening within a single singular incantatory sentence, all of which adroitly demonstrating how artistic repetition, of words and concepts, alters feeling and meaning. Moreover, such repetitions and “limited” vocabulary make We Make Mud’s fabulist happenings and violent events and endings that much more jarringly, if absurdly, evocative. Like its title suggests, We Make Mud is an invitation for the reader to paradoxically participate in the making of what has seemingly already been made.

In Word Has It, poet Ruth Danon commandingly, evocatively addresses our deeply troubling times—the seemingly unending march of dark days, weeks, and months. Attentive to national and geopolitical disturbances, marked by foreboding and innuendo, these poems limn the contingent, the peripheral, the fraught, the interstitial. Its first section introduces “Word,” a speaker referring to herself in the third person, who offers acerbic, probing commentary throughout. The book’s second section finds the speaker regarding the domestic, the quotidian, “Word” and words subsequently digging toward a deeper interiority. “Word” journeys through the rooms of a house embodying various states of consciousness, which leads her to awareness, of the vital role poetry and poets play in regarding the world, transforming it through language, form, and structure. By the second section’s end, the speaker readies to leave the interior space and ventures into augury, a daunting poetic task culminating in concluding violence intimated throughout. Word Has It is Coleridge’s best words in the best order about a disordered world, a world on the brink, of catastrophe or greater catastrophe, Danon our all-seeing guide through it all. The center may not hold but perhaps words can, can hold us, can help us stand, withstand, and understand.

Kim Chinquee’s Shot Girls flings you into the jittery lives of women and menacing men, of women on the brink of disaster or anomic drift, the stink of smoke and drink, of bad or so-so sex wafting all around. Alternating between lapidary flashes and short fictions that read like novels, Shot Girls is a sledgehammer strike against patriarchy. Chinquee’s deftly drawn dreamers and schemers, drifters and grifters, and gone nuclear families are living, loving, and lying in American pre-fab, its sordid bars and motels, empty parking lots, imposing offices, cold hospitals, and strangling military strongholds. Keenly observed and deeply affecting, Shot Girls is a marvelous haunting, its author a master of loneliness, beauty, desire, sadness, loss.

In Cold House, Jon Cone artfully employs jarring non sequiturs, illuminating epigrams, bleakly comic jokes, and flat status update-like announcements to build a house haunted by a subway suicide, a dead cat named Biscuit, a dead dog, dead horses, a dead father, “droll Samuel,” César Vallejo, Kenneth Koch, Robert Oppenheimer, Karl Marx, Marlon Brando, and other ghosts. This is lyrical thinking-on-the-fly, life and death sentences, and—culling from Cone’s poems themselves—“Detritus from an unnamed life,” “fun-wreckage,” a “dream of cataracts,” “bright vessels made from an obliquity of language / in cluttered purling space.”

Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana is a nimbly-rendered, imaginative, satirical skewering of many of our infernal country’s sacred cows, Baumeister roasting them alive with incendiary wit, slicing and dicing them with razor-sharp prose, critically dispensing them, thereby circumventing herd mentalities. Dystopic, yes, set about twenty years into the future, yes, but the novel also reads as a devastating, zany take on current events, the current state of disunion, where the so-called lines between church and state and corporation have long been simply obliterated. Tom Robbins, William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut, and John le Carré all came to mind as I read Pax Americana, but Baumeister is thoroughly his own, his chiseled, seriocomic sentences meticulously capturing America’s particular hypocrisies, its absurdities brought, paradoxically, to their logical conclusions. Hard to believe this exemplary artwork is a debut.

John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process is a disappointing read that relies heavily on gossipy anecdote, useless diagrams, and gem-like paragraphs drawn from the author’s work, only to say about the last, essentially, “Go and do likewise,” all to basically hammer in largely well-worn ideas about writing.

Tobias Carroll’s Reel is a deft portrait of two escapists, one sadly caving ever inward, the other potentially perilously outward, both along their respective ways accidentally colliding into each other then careening away from each other, only to repeatedly tenuously connect in a series of strange coincidences. The novel features many plays on, off, and against the various denotations and connotations of the book’s title, as in the various characters’ off-kilter behaviors, Timon’s disruptive unbalanced dances, the audio recording tape he’s employed to authenticate, and more besides. Employing a thorny lyricism reminiscent of Denis Johnson, Carroll nimbly evokes the Pacific Northwest’s foggy melancholia and New Jersey’s hazy post-industrial blight; music and other noises conjured throughout, effectively demonstrating how sounds, organized or not, thoroughly affect and arouse the body and mind, or, as he writes, “the impact of bodies on bodies and its jarring absolution”; all of which marking Reel as an engaging rendering of characters and atmospheres and their corresponding disturbances.

Lessons in Camouflage finds Sandeen- and De Novo Prize-winning author Martin Ott deeply exploring dark challenges and mysteries, revealing hidden reservoirs in his life, or lives, as interrogator and divorced father, as estranged son to a dying mother. Here is an unwavering eye cast on life’s turmoil: absence, fracture, pain, and death. Here is an ear attuned to language’s musicality, its rippling rhythms, its alternately joyous and elegiac song. Infused throughout is a determination to not merely survive but thrive, to evocatively interrogate life, to probe within and beyond its limits, to discover what, exactly, makes life worth living.

The Musical Brain, by César Aira
Lessons in Camouflage, by Martin Ott
Reel, by Tobias Carroll
Entanglements, by Rae Armantrout
The Ice at the Bottom of the World, by Mark Richard
Draft No : On the Writing Process, by John McPhee
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
*In the Year of Long Division, by Dawn Raffel
*Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo
Where the Road Bottoms Out, by Victoria Redel
Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas
The Wallcreeper, by Nell Zink
*Glass Town, by Lisa Russ Spaar
*Blue Venus, by Lisa Russ Spaar
*Satin Cash, by Lisa Russ Spaar
*Vanitas, by Rough Lisa Russ Spaar
*Orexia, by Lisa Russ Spaar
Pax Americana, by Kurt Baumeister
*Falling Man, by Don DeLillo
Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, by Geert Lovink
Tatlin!, by Guy Davenport
I Am the Brother of XX, by Fleur Jaeggy
The Gotham Grammarian, by Gary Lutz
Madness, by sam sax
Shot Girls, by Kim Chinquee
Cold House, by Jon Cone
Spring and All, by William Carlos Williams
The Art of Death, by Edwidge Danticat
*Americana, by Don DeLillo
*Stay Illusion, by Lucie Brock-Broido
*The Master Letters, by Lucie Brock-Broido
*The Brick House, by Micheline Aharonian Marcom
*The Book of Endings, by Leslie Harrison
South and West: From a Notebook, by Joan Didion
*The Names, by Don DeLillo
Where the Dead Sit Talking, by Brandon Hobson
Pure Hollywood, by Christine Schutt
Letters to a Stranger, by Thomas James
Leadbelly, by Tyehimba Jess
Word Has It, by Ruth Danon
Barbie Chang, by Victoria Chang
We Make Mud, by Peter Markus
American Buffalo, by David Mamet
Intimacy and Other Plays, by Thomas Bradshaw
Reunion & Dark Pony, by David Mamet
Forty Stories, by Donald Barthelme
Maps of the Imagination, by Peter Turchi
Quotology, by Willis Goth Regier
Unbearable Splendor, by Sun Yung Shin
*Underworld, by Don DeLillo
Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill
Gathering the Tribes, by Carolyn Forché
*End Zone, by Don DeLillo
*King Lear, by William Shakespeare
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
Don DeLillo, by Peter Boxall
The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, by Gillian Cummings
A Life in the Theatre, by David Mamet
Pure Hollywood, by Christine Schutt
My Dinner with André, by Wallace Shawn
Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don Delillo’s Novels, by Randy Laist
Commons, by Myung Mi Kim
Collected Poems, by Philip Larkin
*The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
*Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, by Hélène Cixous
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, by Denis Johnson
*Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes
Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje
Panorama, by Dušan Šarotar
The Diary of Adam and Eve, by Mark Twain
The Strange Case of Dr. Couney, by Dawn Raffel
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
Landscapes, by John Berger
The Assumption of Rogues and Rascals, by Elizabeth Smart
Cruel Futures, by Carmen Giménez Smith
Race, by David Mamet
Oleanna, by David Mamet
The Cryptogram, by David Mamet
*Libra, by Don DeLillo
Boston Marriage, by David Mamet
Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
Passing Time, by Andrea Köhler
Ask the Dust, by John Fante
Running Away, by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Outline, by Rachel Cusk
Thom Pain, by Will Eno
The Flu Season and Other Plays, by Will Eno
Enduring Time, by Lisa Baraitser
Alive and Dead in Indiana, by Michael Martone
High-Rise, by J. G. Ballard
The Open House, by Will Eno
Rapture, by Sjohnna McCray
Of All Places in This Place of All Places, by Joe Milazzo
Lake Michigan, by Daniel Borzutzky
*The City Builder, by George Konrád
Carrying the Body, by Dawn Raffel
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier
Eye Level, by Jenny Xie
The Battle for Paradise, by Naomi Klein
The Administration of Fear, by Paul Virilio
Edmond, by David Mamet
Glengarry Glen Ross, by David Mamet
Taste, by Giorgio Agamben
Be With, by Forrest Gander
Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, by Jorie Graham
Decreation, by Anne Carson
Eiko & Koma, by Forrest Gander
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, by Terrance Hayes
Paterson, by William Carlos Williams
IRL, Tommy Pico
I Hate the Internet, by Jarett Kobek
If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving?, by Brendan Lorber
Indecency, by Justin Phillip Reed
The Novel After Theory, by Judith Ryan
Ghost of, by Diana Khoi Nguyen
Speed-the-Plow, by David Mamet
Museum of the Americas, by J. Michael Martinez
*The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, by Sojourner Truth
The Body in Pain, by Elaine Scarry
*Moby-Dick or, The Whale, by Herman Melville
Blue Rose, by Carol Muske-Dukes
Billy Budd, Sailor, by Herman Melville
*The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Crudo, by Olivia Laing
Monument: Poems New and Selected, by Natasha Trethewey
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
A Balthus Notebook, by Guy Davenport
Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow
The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, by Frederic Tuten
Region of Unlikeness, by Jorie Graham

And these marvelous forthcoming books:

Jordan A. Rothacker‘s Gristle; David Huddle‘s Hazel; Gregory Spatz‘s What Could Be Saved; John Domini‘s The Color Inside a Melon; and Lance Olsen‘s My Red Heaven.

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About John Madera

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found 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, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.
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