Best Reads of 2013

Becoming Judas by Nicelle Davis, Red Hen Press. In this collection of poems, Nicelle Davis blends personal history (involving, among other things, the Mormon religion) with popular mythology (John Lennon) and the Gnostic Gospel of Judas. To get a glimpse of what that might entail, read my review.

The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, Liveright. Although it was not a proper review, I did write about this book. I have read several of Purdy’s novels, and overall I like them better than his short stories. I think he is at his best when he allows himself more space to work. But these stories are unique, sometimes shocking and often beautiful in very weird ways. One of Purdy’s major themes is gossip and the many ways it determines human relationships. Reading Purdy I have the impression that no one has recognized the importance of this theme to the extent he did. For that reason alone he should be read. His work is historically significant in that he wrote about the difficulties of being homosexual during a time when it was not cool to come out. But anyone who has suffered abuse or trauma will appreciate the damaged people he wrote about. The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy runs to over 700 pages. Not all of the stories are great, but some are unforgettable. Daddy Wolf, to name only one, is unlike anything I’ve ever read. A guy out of work and living in a slum, his wife and child having just left him, turns to the public phone, picks a number at random out of the phone book to tell his troubles to, finds himself without a listener and screams for the operator. “This here is an emergency phone call,” he tells her.

Gemini/Scorpio/Capricorn by Shay Simmons, Kelli Simpson and Joy Ann Jones, ALL CAPS PUBLISHING. Three poets for the price of one. This book is rich. Read my review.

Green Eggs & Weezie and Friday Girls by Cathy Olliffe-Webster. I became a fan of the short fiction Cathy (please excuse my use of the first name, but after connecting with her in social media I find it impossible to refer to her as Ms. Olliffe-Webster) has shared on her blog. Some of these stories are collected in Friday Girls, so-named because the stories—her “girls”—were written for a community of flash fiction writers called “Friday Flash”. They are surprising and beautiful sketches, the characters—however light or dark the piece—indelible. Cathy is a great prose stylist, and the funniest writer I know. Her own description of flash fiction says it best:

Get in. Get out. Don’t waste time on unnecessary details. Go for the jugular, right from the start, and stop when you need to – you’ll know when it’s time. Usually I get a little hitch in my throat, an emotional hitch, and I know the story is done. Pick one idea, one small moment in time, and write about that. A story can be written about the smallest of things. Some of my best stories were like that. Some of my worst were too convoluted. Think small, crawl inside your head like it’s the tiniest of closets, and camp out there, in your short story fort.

All of Cathy’s strengths at short fiction are on display in her novel, Green Eggs & Weezie: an earthy representation of character, humor, heart and the power to propel narrative at a brisk pace. Her ability to inject humor into painful situations is a very rare gift. My only grumble about the novel is that its happy ending doesn’t ring true for me. It seems to me that a serious situation calls for a serious denouement. But I understand it will be just right for many readers, that a touch of fantasy after so much pain is just the right medicine. The ending aside, I admire Cathy’s formal inventiveness—she uses different narrative techniques from chapter to chapter—and her prose style. I happened to be reading a couple of novels by Fredric Brown when I picked up Green Eggs & Weezie. I admire Brown precisely for these qualities—narrative inventiveness and style (humor too). I’ll be damned if Cathy isn’t just as good.

Louis XXX by Georges Bataille, Equus Press. A new Georges Bataille book for readers of English. Need I say more? Well, I did.

Oppressive Light by Robert Walser, Black Lawrence Press. OK, this selection of poems by Robert Walser came out in 2012, but if you missed it you might want to run out and get it. The progressively rising brightness of Walser’s star in the literary sky is a beautiful and deeply satisfying thing to see (as I’ve written before). Sure, there will always be those who will romanticize his story (went mostly ignored, lived in poverty, invented his own form of writing ((tiny tiny writing on tiny pieces of paper)), ended up in a mental institution, then fell into a ditch one snowy winter while on a walk and died, alone, in the gently falling snow). But when, after falling deep into his stories and novels, you get inside his so very beautiful head, you can’t help but think it’s a spiritual triumph for humanity to pay him the kind of attention he’s been getting. And he wrote poems too. And here they are in sensitive translations by Daniele Pantano with the original German texts on facing pages.

Here are some ways of being popular with yourself, according to Walser’s poems: stop walking, turn around and look at what you might’ve missed, stop talking to yourself and listen to the trees and birds, find comfort in a simple thought, complaint, food and drink, sleep, waste time without a care reading a book, and, perhaps most importantly, don’t take yourself (or literature) too seriously. “When you’re in the midst of the essential, where else can you go?” Try out these lines from Self-Reflection:

They abandoned me, so I learned to forget myself,
which allowed me to bathe in my inspired soul.
When I lost much, I realized losses are winnings,
because no one can find something he didn’t first lose,
and to discover what’s lost is worth more than any safe possession.
Because they didn’t want to know me, I became self-aware,
became my own understanding….
On life’s path, we lift all the peculiarities given to us….

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic by Chris Tysh, Les Figues Press. This poem in seven line stanzas is a transcreation of Jean Genet’s great novel, the second in Chris Tysh’s Hotel des Archives series. My review of this beautiful poem is forthcoming. In the meantime read what I wrote about the first in the series, Molloy: The Flip Side.

Quick Question by John Ashbery, Ecco. A new poetry collection from John Ashbery, any questions? Actually, I have a couple. Here is my poetic response to the book, and here is my review. Oops, I’m still adding the finishing touches. Stay tuned.

Red Doc> by Anne Carson, Knopf. The buzz was loud shortly before and just after Anne Carson’s Red Doc> was published. Then silence. Or so it seemed to me, but a search brought up a large number of reviews, most of which appear to agree that while Carson’s language is, as always, engaging, Red Doc>’s narrative is hard to follow. I would have expected a more enthusiastic reception (the book doesn’t even figure in the NY Times list of 100 “notables”), but the consensus might help explain why the so-called follow up to her much celebrated Autobiography of Red doesn’t seem to be equally celebrated. While I agree the narrative isn’t very exciting, we should have come to expect by now that Carson is going to defy expectations. In fact, with her dedication of the book to the “randomizer” she seems to have welcomed a degree of subversion of her intentions. Due to a glitch in her word processor (or human error) her work in progress appeared with narrow margins and other oddities, including the automated title. She kept them. The typographical oddities of Red Doc> appeal to me less than the tepid narrative. Nothing ages faster than typographical novelties, and only time will tell how good Carson’s decision was to go with them. For now it works to disrupt the comforts of familiarity, but I’m not convinced it is a perfect marriage of form and content. I can find no compelling justification for the format, and one like The Autobiography of Red would probably have sufficed.

All of that aside I find myself pulling Red Doc> from the shelf, opening at random and reading sections from time to time—just the way one reads any great book of poems. When all is said and done, Carson’s language is what we’ll come back to.

That’s what all of the books I’ve selected in my Best List have in common: They are all keepers, and it is their quirks as well as their undeniable strengths that will keep me pulling them from the shelf to puzzle out what I have missed and remind me of what I love.

! Of the books I’ve read this year that were not published in 2013 Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems is the most memorable. I stumbled upon this book in my favorite used bookstore last spring. It’s a really nice little hardcover published by the wonderful Library of America in their American Poets Project series. Heretofore I had known of Fearing only through a handful of poems in an anthology. He lived in New York City (1902-1961) and his photo reminds me of Kenneth Koch, which is fitting because he was writing New York School Poetry decades before the New York School of Poets even existed. Fearing was to American poetry what Stuart Davis was to painting. Davis’s paintings of the 1930’s look like they’d be perfectly in place in a 1960’s Pop art gallery. Hell, they look exactly like paintings being done now, nearly a century later. A Pattern is astonishingly Ashberian—listen to my reading of this extraordinary poem. Fun fact: Fearing earned money writing pulp fiction, which is still in print. Unfortunately his poetry, apart from the Library of America edition, is out of print. That’s just so wrong. Here is a section from C Stands for Civilization, first published in 1938:

the lynching was televised, we saw the whole thing
from beginning to end, we heard the screams and
the crackle of flames in a soundproof room

You are born but once
you have your chance to live but once
you go mad and put a bullet through your head but

once too soon, and just a little too fast
once too late and a little too slow, just once too

But zooming through the night in Lockheed
monoplanes the witches bring pictures of the latest
disaster exactly on time
—Kenneth Fearing

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14 Responses to Best Reads of 2013

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    You have such a gift for getting to the essence of a book in a few short strokes. I hardly get to the books I’ve chosen to read, let alone assess them at all perceptively. I was underwhelmed by Red Doc>. I didn’t know, until reading your review here, how she came upon the form. By accident makes sense. I agree about the tepid narrative, which is what put me off most. It was the first of her books that disappointed me, and I’ve read all but one. I’m of course mightily interested in your perspective on Quick Questions.

    • I think if I had to pick one I’d say ‘Men in the Off Hours’ is still my favorite. But I love ‘Plainwater’ and ‘Glass, Irony & God’ too. I never seemed to love ‘Autobiography of Red’ quite as much as everyone else. Maybe that’s another reason why I seem to be less disappointed with ‘Red Doc>’. I don’t know. I get the impression from interviews that Carson needs to surprise herself, which must be pretty damn hard to do. I suspect she finds it much harder to please herself than others. She’s a very complex person, to say the least.

  2. Wow! That’s all I can say, being included on that fabulous list. You’re too nice to me, Mr. Kerstetter.

  3. John Wiswell says:

    Chuffed to see Cathy on there, Mark! I love the mixture of list here. And Becoming Judas always sounds so weird, no matter how many write-ups I read for it.

    I don’t know if this was inspired at all by our #bestreads2013 blog hop, but would you mind if I included you in the blog hop list when it goes live on the 28th? Your selections are very interesting.

  4. hedgewitch says:

    A fascinating and intriguing group, Mark. I have added a few to my used-bookstore list. Thanks very much for including Gem/Scorp/Cap as well.

  5. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark: Great point about AC and the need to surprise herself, and how increasingly hard it must be to do that. She certainly surprised us (or at least me) delightfully with Nox and Antigonick. In the mode of visual/poetic experiments, they are each a hard act to follow.

  6. angela says:

    How I enjoy reading the dialogue between you and Susan ~ you have inspired reading additions to my list, but most of all your convo with Sue inspires me to finish Nox (it is open upon my kitchen counter where I left it two weeks ago after my own loss / I also found used, this summer, If Not Winter, which seems perfect for now – perhaps in the quiet of Christmas Day…)

    • I’d like to read both of those books, and I may get a copy of the Sappho at some point, but I’m not planning on buying a copy of ‘Nox’. I wish there was a version available with just the text. I’m not a fan of books that have to be held together in a box. The beauty of a book is that it’s words flowing from page to page held together in a neat package. (paintings and sculptures have their own beauty) And I really dislike faux-effects – staples, tape and whatnot. Just blow me away with the words on a page, all the rest is a distraction, or should be left to visual artists.

  7. ManicDdaily says:

    Wonderful succinct reviews that yet convey a great deal. Thanks, Mark. I will look for some of these. My life has been consumed with job work lately but am hoping for a break! K.

  8. For me this post was a great introduction to works I’m not familiar with. I’m not a big poetry reader, but once in a while the mood gets me, and it’s always good to welcome new names to my shelf. Thank you, Mark.

  9. Sonia Lal says:

    Wow so many I’ve never heard of before. All, except for Becoming Judas.

  10. Beverly Fox says:

    Based on that one stanza alone I am now determined to pick up Robert Walser. And I will have to check out your other reviews as I too have never heard of most of these before. Thanks for bringing these to my attention!

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