Nathaniel Tarn, Gondwana. From the snowy north, head south to planet Earth’s other pole in extremis—Tarn’s songs sung from the deepest wells and cells of the heart, pitched to the mind’s drifting waves: “you have come far, at such / expenditure of energy, / to witness.”
Michèle Métail, Wild Geese Returning, translated by Jody Gladding. The wildest Chinese poetry anthology translated from the French you’ll ever read, forward and backward.
Friedrich Reck, Diary of a Man in Despair. A epoch ago earlier this year, Kathryn Schulz recommended this devastating book to me as particularly resonant for our times—urgent reflections Reck wrote “driven by my own inner necessity” about life’s insanities in Germany during the years between Oswald Spengler’s death in 1936 up to the moment of the author’s death at the Dachau concentration camp.Reck hid his finished pages in a tin buried in a field.
Walt Whitman, The Sea is a Continual Miracle: Sea Poems and Other Writings. The editor burst a spleen putting together this collection of Whitman’s life-spanning, seaward words—the poet’s most perennial theme—lifted from all his editions of Leaves, and here listed with the shamelessness of a nighthawk returning a favor. Perfect for a cruise or book club. Avast Ye!
I love Go, Went, Gone best — a book I feel everyone should read. It asks all the right questions, even questions I’d never considered, about the immigrant crisis, while enfolding a wonderful story about a solitary retiree getting involved with various African men lost in Germany’s bureaucratic nightmare.
The Kites is another favorite. It’s about resistance, difference, and squeaking past life’s many horrors, while maintaining a jaunty, delightful tone throughout.
The Illustrious House of Ramires by Eça de Queiros. Dickensian or maybe Trollopean; dense, amusing, with fascinating detail building a most satisfying tale about a charming muddler.
Oh! and my own dear A Simple Story by Leila Guierrero. Inspirational story about success and hard work. Sounds corny but it’s about the American dream happening in the Pampas of Argentina written in a fast paced journalistic style that I don’t often get to see. Made me cry….
Earlier this year, Jenny McPhee’s new translation of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon was the perfect excuse to revisit her work. Ginzburg’s writing is clear-headed, immediate, and often streaked with perfection.
One of my favorite books of the year, which stunned me again and again over each rereading, was Mathias Enard’s Compass, translated by Charlotte Mandell. Goethe wrote that “every literature will exhaust its vitality if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one” and Compass—written in hypnotic, sensuously dense prose—explores how many of the West’s cultural landmarks are indebted to the Middle East; Enard’s vast references in this novel also helped shape the rest of my reading for this year: first there was Sedagh Hedayat’s hallucinatory The Blind Owl, and then Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Edward Said (who also championed Salih’s work), Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s DEATH IN PERSIA, and Lesley Blanch’s The Wilder Shores of Love.
John Beer writes my favorite kind of poetry collections, the ones that mimic the best people to meet at parties: charming without pretense, talks about dumb TV, but also 18th century German poets I’ve never heard of. I could sip beers with his second collection, Lucinda, until the wee hours, enjoying its playfulness, tucking away references for later. I would be way too intimidated to approach to Morgan Parker’s There Are Things More Beautiful Than Beyonce who would be across the room, smoking a lipstick stained cigarette in a beautifully patterned pantsuit, holding court on astrology and loneliness.
Rarely does a novel like White Tears by Hari Kunzru take me so by surprise or leave me in such terror. It’s a ghost story in which the haunted house is America and the “well-intentioned” exorcisms only create more demons. A gripping story about music and race, but the less you know going in, the better!
Another novel I loved was the late Soviet era Russia satirical masterpiece Moscow-Petushki by Venedikt Yerofeyev. The entirety of the novel takes place on a train from Moscow to the idealized town of Petushki, where the main character Venya’s saintly girlfriend is awaiting him with open arms (supposedly). And the entirety of the plot is Venya getting smashed. He muses on corruption, religion, money, and work and scuffles with other drunks. It is very funny, very sad, and very Russian.
And two nonfiction books by/about poets I enjoyed this year are Time of Gratitude, essays by Gennady Aygi, and There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera of Joanne Kyger. Aygi was largely ignored in Russia for most of his life, although he was friends with Pasternak (also because he was friends with Pasternak). Too Chuvasian for Russians, too Russian for Chuvasians, too political, too modern, too spiritual—no matter, he wrote and read anyway, which lead to this wonderful collection of essays about literature. It can be belittling to pitch poets as left-behind, but sometimes that’s just how they wanted it. Joanne Kyger is often referred to as a beat poet because of her short marriage to Gary Snyder, but really she was doing something much more radical, and preferred her simple life in her hidden eden of Bolinas, CA to the patchouli glamor of Allen Ginsberg’s fame. She is a master, and There You Are is a shrine to the life of a poet.
These Possible Lives and I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy: an odd, off-kilter tenderness animates these strange, beautiful, dry-ice works. Such brevity, but with Jaeggy, as Brodsky said, “remembering time is the rest of your life.”
Debths: Susan Howe’s newest poetry collection explores memory—its threads and galaxies: “the mystery of strong music in the soul.” There is no one like her, and in her “not-being-in-the-no,” she says yes to setting poetry wantonly, exhilaratingly free.
The World Goes On—Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s latest, incredibly beautiful book: I would leave everything from here: the valleys, the hills, the paths, and the jaybirds from the gardens, I would leave here the peacocks and the priests, heaven and earth, spring and fall…for here I would leave this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.
Kawabata’s final, unfinished novel, Dandelions, is a curiously mesmerizing deep gaze into desire: the fiancé and the mother of Ineko, a young woman beset by somagnosia (or “body blindness”), deliver her to a small town’s mental clinic in spring, as dandelions bloom. Locked in a disagreement over this commitment, the fiancé and the mother debate the decision overnight in an inn; the sensuality of their conflict is only one of the enchantments of this strange work.
Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban, a slender knock-out novel about an unhappy housewife who finds romance with an escaped 7-foot-tall sea monster, who, though green and aquatic, turns out to be a curious, avocado-eating, tender lover.
I was blown away by Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story, nuanced portrait of passion, sacrifice, and greatness that tracks the shifting boundaries between a journalist and her subject. A ripping good read that started 2017 off at a gallop.
My favorite find from the backlist this year was Gogol’s Wife by Tommaso Landolfi. Brazenly bizarre and subversive, Landolfi’s tales burn with weirdness and glisten with irony. The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrere is a masterful thriller and a lucid, unnerving exhibition of madness that reminds us of the flimsy, contingent nature of identity, and Raduan Nassar’s A Cup of Rage delighted me with its gratuitous, bracing misanthropy.
What to Do, by Pablo Katchadjian, tells the same dream again and again over the course of its 112 pages. This should be tedious. By some strange narrative alchemy, it is the opposite—though nothing is really happening, you can’t for what happens next. What to Do opens new literary possibilities, and is one of the few books in English by this exciting Argentine experimentalist.
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich. It was fascinating to read this early work by Alexievich; here, unlike her later works, where she remains in the wings, you can see her baton waving as she conducts an incredible choir of women soldiers recollecting the Second World War. One woman tells of saving an officer from drowning in a river after an explosion, she hauls him to shore only to discover it is not a man, but an enormous sturgeon.
The Sagas of Icelanders. A simpler time when a dinner guest wishing to insult his host might slurp too greedily on his drinking horn and neatly projectile vomit across a banquet; when a person wishing for a fresh start need only some felled trees and determination. I delighted in the many subtle variations of the viking’s names, my favorite: a Hermit named Odd.
Belladonna by Dasa Drndic. Fierce and relentless but also incredibly funny, Drndic’s novel takes no prisoners. With a strong stomach and a full glass of whisky, read of tulips, breast cancer scans, the cold precise hands of a surgeon, rats, MRIs, the gouging of eyes, damning accounts of perpetrators of war crimes from the Second World War to the Serbo-Croatian wars, the futility of recycling, the ineptitude of academics, and crabs devouring a crystal mirror. Whoever gets to the last page without flinching wins a prize.
Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom by Howard S. Levy. My great secondhand bookstore find of 2017 was an incredibly weird illustrated book with gorgeous endpapers featuring exquisitely drawn mutilated feet.
Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. It was a joy revisiting these poetic and meditative texts again. Our edition, gorgeously designed by the genius designer Peter Mendelsund, presents The Book of Disquiet as it was written chronologically. We have more Pessoa planned, also translated by Margaret, with some help by Pessoa scholar Patricio Ferrari.
Laszlo Krasznahorkai, The World Goes On. Working with Ottilie Muzlet and John Batki on these translations was a thrill. Editing requires multiple readings, and a multi-layered writer like Krasznahorkai, whose prose works have the precision, density, and beauty of a poem, offers countless rewards to an editor. I love his work so much.
Jenny Erpenbeck, Go, Went, Gone. This book is a bit of a departure for Jenny Erpenbeck. I have worked on four of her books (translated magnificently by Susan Bernofksy), so editing this one required a mind shift. One of the rewards of reading translated works is being taken inside a different culture. Here, you are feeling the pulse and rhythms of contemporary Berlin, but riveted also by the heartbreaking fates of African Refugees, which a retired Classics professor is irrevocably drawn to.
Anne Carson, The Bakkhai. Anne Carson’s translation was first performed at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2015 and published by the British press Oberon. We caught on that the book was unavailable in the US so bought the rights and reissued it here in this stunning hardcover edition with totally
cool artwork by the Iceclandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson.