One of the gifts of being a critic is having the chance to share your enthusiasms (and sometimes your obsessions). Below are some of mine. I’ve decided upon two constraints this year. First, I’m only listing books that I haven’t yet had a chance to write on. I could spend more time celebrating Kathryn Davis, Fanny Howe, and Ilya Kaminsky; they, and others I’ve reviewed, deserve all the praise they can get. But I’d rather talk about the books that have thrilled me in private—the books I’ve quoted aloud to my wife, the ones I’ve pushed hard upon friends and students.
The second constraint: I’ve tried to avoid books that have popped up again and again on end-of-year lists. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is great, but you don’t need me to tell you. So is The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s most purely pleasurable novel yet. So is Sally Rooney’s Normal People. (Don’t listen to critics who say Rooney is only of interest to millennials. Sure, and Austen only appealed to Regency Era twenty-somethings). Many of the titles that follow received praise upon their release, but have been given short shrift in yearly round-ups.
Lay Studies, Steven Toussaint, Victoria University Press
The obvious point of comparison for Toussaint is the late Geoffrey Hill. Like Hill, Toussaint loves the recondite: “Vae mihi, si non / thomistizavero. I fear the verb // is intransitive,” Toussaint writes, channeling Jacques Maritain on Aquinas. (“Woe to me if I do not Thomisiticise,” the Latin means.) As these lines indicate, though, Toussaint’s love of the abstruse goes hand-in-hand with a Hill-like comic touch. As he playfully asks in another poem, “Have you contemplated / private // piety’s / competitive prices? // Are you in the market / for something like // but not precisely / eternal return?”
Hill is present, to be sure. But so is the music of David Jones, and the temporal layering of Ezra Pound, and a sensibility and style all Touissant’s own.
When the star
of grace reticulates
my lover, who, pray tell,
reciprocates? I see AGAIN
but never direct. An arabesque
of mirrors intercedes.
The Heavens, Sandra Newman, Grove Press
I read this novel in a single go while laid up on the couch with a bad back. Part historical novel (the set pieces in Elizabethan England are fantastic), part alternate history (or histories, really: the novel’s heroine seems to wake up to a different world each time she falls asleep), part social satire (the piercing of New York City pretension is delightful), The Heavens shouldn’t work but absolutely does.
Most of the illumination was from solar-powered tea lights, which the rich girl had hung on the fire escapes all day to charge, then pasted along the walls. That light reflected softly from the heavy glass tumblers into which wine was poured. There wasn’t even music playing. The rich girl said it gave her bad dreams. New York City, so everyone was interning at a Condé Nast publication or a television program or the UN. Everyone a little in love with each other; the year 2000 in the affluent West.
The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner, New York Review Books Classics
As usual, I could put about five books from NYRB Classics on my list. But I’ll go with Warner’s 1948 treasure.
Though its ostensible subject is life in a Benedictine convent in the Fenlands of fourteenth-century England, the book is really about time: historical and personal, sacred and secular. Warner gives us delightful characters: Ralph Kello, a drunken vagrant who wanders onto the convent’s grounds, is mistaken for a priest, and just goes with it, for years and years; the prioress Alicia, who launches a long campaign to erect a spire only to find “anticlimax” upon its completion: “It was her life-work; but her life persisted, a life filled with beef and mutton, clothing and firing, cavils and quarrels.” That’s what this novel gives the feel of—the sheer ongoingness of life and the tragedy and comedy that arise from it.
It was not till 1345, when Prioress Isabella choked on a plum-stone, that peace and quiet returned, followed by four ambling years of having no history, save for a plague of caterpillars.
Hue and Cry, James Alan McPherson, Ecco
Ecco has reissued McPherson’s first collection in its Art of the Story series. About half of these stories focus on work: young men working as janitors and stock boys, old men working as porters and waiters. This work can be a route to dignity or, in the loosely autobiographical “Gold Coast,” grist for the writer’s mill. This work also can be, and often is, a source of misery and disillusionment for the book’s black characters. The other half are wonderfully weird, knottily ambivalent examinations of sex, race, and politics that resemble the writings of McPherson’s friend and mentor, Ralph Ellison.
He…was getting older and desperate so that his teeth were not wet when he smiled, as is their custom, because his mouth was so dry from his daily decreasing expectations. He was also losing most of the hair from the top of his head and his eyes were soft and scared, like a trapped animal who does not know how to fight.