2020 Books in Review

End-of-year bookmarks
Unsplash/Julia Joppien

For the past four months, my wife and I have been reading Rebecca West’s 1941 Black Lamb and Grey Falcon together, ten pages per day. If I had to give one final reading suggestion for 2020, it would be West’s account of her 1937 journey through Yugoslavia. The book has a sprawl—geographical, theological, aesthetic, political—that is matched by the sharpness of its character sketches. (For example: “She was one of those widows whose majesty makes their husbands seem specially dead.”) For pages she’ll concern herself with the minutiae of travel—how to elude that pushy tour guide; where to stay and what to eat—before pivoting to a grand proclamation about our species’ bent towards self-sabotage: “Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad.” There are many things I’d prefer to forget about 2020. I know I’ll remember the pleasures of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here are some of my other favorite books of the year—books that I didn’t get a chance to write about but that delighted me in one way or another. With the Nazis advancing and the Yugoslavia she so loved crumbling, Rebecca West observed that “these days have given us a chance to test the artistic process, and judge whether it is a tool that does honest work or whether it simply makes toys for the childish.” The following books did honest work in bad times, offering, again in West’s words, “the small white star of the song, which is correct, permanent, important.”

Vijay Seshadri, That Was Now, This Is Then: Poems (Graywolf, $24)

It’s hard to think of a shiftier, more polytropic poet than Seshadri. He does abstraction and pointillism; he’s an ironist and a prophet; he can be demotic and he can be filigreed. That Was Now, This Is Then takes it all on: violence (“The roof collapsing in Aleppo. / The beam slamming the frontal lobe. / The drone, the terror by night and day”), death (a beautiful elegy for the poet’s father), and love (“There is the other compassion, the one / felt by those who see agony in themselves”). The book’s title signals its interest in temporal complexity: how time, both personal and historical, switchbacks this way and that, distorted and made new by technologies modern (cellphones) and ancient (memory). “I don’t even have time to write this text,” the speaker complains in “Meeting (Thick)”—a poem whose double, “Meeting (Thin),” uses the same words (but for one) with different lineation in order to change the speed of our reading. In an interview, Seshadri described these two poems as existing “in a state of quantum flux.” Quantum physics makes an appearance in the final poem, too, where Seshadri describes the connection between text and reader by which form becomes meaning: “Just now, though, you’re stupefied at this / spooky action at a distance. / So would I be, and I am.” 

Alexandra Harris, Time and Place: A Pocket Book on the Art of Calendars (Little Toller Books, $18)

Another book on time, though in an altogether different key. Alexandra Harris, a cultural historian who has written previously about literary modernism and the shaping effects of English skies on English artists, offers here a history and poetics of calendars. She begins with a consideration of Robinson Crusoe, whose titular character makes notches on a post at the center of his island to mark time. In short, elegant essays accompanied by images worth pausing over (thirteenth-century psalters; calendrical baptismal fonts), Harris then examines medieval church calendars, calendrical architecture, court masques, and more modern examples of keeping time. Calendars reveal “the geography of time, in the meeting points between the largest scales [and] the smallest...and all the life that moves between them,” Harris writes. Time and Place offers a lovely map of our temporal geography.  

Eliot Weinberger, Angels & Saints (New Directions, $26.95) and Phil Christman, Midwest Futures (Belt Publishing, $26)

Two great essayists, two distinct approaches to the essay collection. In a 2002 interview, Eliot Weinberger remarked that he “dropped out of college after (barely) one year to follow the Ezra Pound course in everything (except economics) that one needs to know to be a poet.” His essays read like modernist collage, working via tonal, imagistic, and musical juxtaposition. In his latest book, he considers the hosts of angels and saints, reveling in arcana (do angels remember? How can they speak? How many are there, exactly?) and offering playful flash-biographies. Of Frederick of Regensburg, he summarizes, “Although not a monk, he chopped wood at the monastery.” Of John Soreth: “He reformed the Carmelites to admit nuns; he was mistaken for Ethiopian; he died from eating unripe mulberries.” Illustrated with the illuminated grid-poems of a ninth-century Benedictine monk, Angels & Saints pairs nicely with Time and Place. More experimental in form, it’s just as beautiful to look at.

Phil Christman, a Commonweal contributor, writes a more traditional, down-home kind of essay—appropriate, given that he often writes about the traditional, down-home region of the American imagination, the Midwest. But part of Christman’s point is that the region is stranger, more radically dark and more radically utopian, than it appears: it is, he writes, “a conceptual magpie’s nest, made from scraps of everything.” And his book, resonant with metaphor and scorched by jeremiads on political economy, is stranger than it seems, too. Borrowing from the six-by-six-mile grids of the Midwest, Christman includes six chapters of six sections each, a structural constraint that helps corral his exploration of a region that is “massively there, constantly eluding our grasp.”

His essays read like modernist collage, working via tonal, imagistic, and musical juxtaposition.

Carl Phillips, Pale Colors in a Tall Field (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23); Christian Wiman, Survival Is a Style (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24); Sally Thomas, Motherland (Able Press Muse, $19.95)

These three poets are all formalists of one kind or another, though they use form in different ways. Carl Phillips is the master of the long sentence, the single syntactical unit that interrupts itself then presses forward only to double back again, barely and beautifully containing the mind and body’s traipsing through the world: “When the forest ended, so did the starflowers and wild / ginger that for so long had kept us / company, the clearing opened before us, a vast / meadow of silverrod, each stem briefly an / angled argument against despair, then only weeds by / a better name again, as incidental as / the backdrop the ocean made just / beyond the meadow.”

Readers of Commonweal will know Christian Wiman. Survival Is a Style showcases his idiosyncratic, driving music; it dwells in the dark night of the soul (“I need a space for unbelief to breathe”); and it matches this darkness with the light of grace. Imagine a Texas-born Hopkins who chose the life of a husband and father rather than the life of the cloth: “I have two daughters and one cloud, an old oak / and a great love, elected solitude, given sun. / There never was a now this golden one.”

Readers of Commonweal might not know Sally Thomas, but they should. In a superb review of Survival Is a Style, Thomas describes “Wiman’s prosody as reject[ing] nothing, neither form nor the loosening of form.” The same could be said for her. Her command of traditional verse forms is Audenesque (the villanelle, the sonnet, the Bob and Wheel), yet she’s capable of pleasing looseness, too. She writes about motherhood and God and goldfinches, “moving always forward to the unseen” yet launched by the seen, heard, and felt

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (Bloomsbury, $27)

Many readers, myself included, have been waiting a long time for the next novel from Susanna Clarke, whose debut novel published sixteen years ago, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,  is a landmark of contemporary fantasy. Piranesi departs from its predecessor: slim where the debut was thick, set in the present rather than in Regency England, more a metaphysical and aesthetic mystery than, like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a work of fastidious realism. (That is to say, a work of realism that fastidiously described an alternate England in which magic once existed.) But Piranesi is just as strong. I’m reminded of Marilynne Robinson following up Housekeeping twenty-four years later with Gilead. There’s the long gap between novels, but there’s also the shift from imaginative maximalism to something that is, if not minimalist, at least pared-down. Lovers of Robinson often ask one another if they prefer Housekeeping or the Gilead series. That preference seems to say a lot about you as a reader, perhaps as a person. Lovers of Clarke will now ask each other, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or Piranesi? With regards to both Robinson and Clarke, I’ll give the weaselly, and correct, answer: I choose both.

Thomas Gardner, Sundays (Tupelo Press, $19.95)

This book picks up the form (short, meditative, journal-style essays) and allusive network (Dickinson, Whitman, Emerson, Stevens) from Thomas Gardner’s 2014 Poverty Creek Journal. That earlier book charted a year in Gardner’s running life; Sundays charts a year of his Sabbaths. Gardner attends Church, goes for walks, visits friends, and thinks. He notices things (a bluebird “attacking his own reflection in the glass”; the “overfilled, resonant quickening” of the air on a winter afternoon), and he notices what he notices. Like Stevens, Gardner gives us access to the “delicatest ear of the mind.” The more I read and the more I write, the more I think it all depends upon rhythm: the rhythm of sentences and the rhythm of paragraphs and the rhythm of soul these two reveal. It’s no accident that Gardner, whose writing possesses such satisfying rhythms, would find a home in the rhythms of the year.

Danielle Evans, The Office of Historical Corrections (Riverhead, $27)

Short-story collections don’t get much love on end-of-year lists. The Office of Historical Corrections, Danielle Evans’s second book of stories, is the best I read in 2020. Evans hasn’t yet written a novel, though the title story here is a novella. I’d be happy if, like Katherine Mansfield long ago and Alice Munro more recently, Evans sticks to the short form; she works and stretches it that well. Her stories touch on the topical: an artist has to publicly apologize to the women he’s wronged; a white college student becomes a right-wing celeb after a photo of her wearing a Confederate flag bikini goes viral; a fictional Institute for Public History imagines itself as “the solution for decades of bad information and bad faith use of it”; unspoken tensions occur both across and within racial groups. But the stories’ virtues are traditional: moral complexity (much more than is displayed in such topical controversies) and attentiveness to how the social shapes, though doesn’t determine, the personal. At their best, Evans’s stories read like mini nineteenth-century novels set in the present.

The more I read and the more I write, the more I think it all depends upon rhythm: the rhythm of sentences and the rhythm of paragraphs and the rhythm of soul these two reveal.

Roberto Lovato, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolutions in the Americas (Harper, $26.99)

“Arguably the best-known description of El Salvador in the English language,” Roberto Lovato writes, comes from Joan Didion’s novel Salvador: “Terror is the given of the place.” Unforgetting gives a more complicated sense of El Salvador, one that looks at the traumas of the nation’s history but also at the resilience and political courage of its people. The book moves around in time and place, excavating Lovato’s own history: his fraught relationship with his father, Ramón; his time as a punk in San Francisco, where he was born; his stint as a supporter of the FMLN in El Salvador; his years as an activist. The biographical offers him access to the historical. Investigating his family leads to discoveries about La Matanza (the 1932 slaughter of indigenous people by the Salvadoran government), the civil war of the 1980s, and the present-day threat of maras (gangs). To tell the history of El Salvador, you have to tell the history of the Americas, plural: how the United States provided the muscle and training for government death squads in the 1970s and 1980s; how two familiar ghouls, William Barr and Rudy Giuliani, helped establish the mano dura (firm hand) policing of gangs in El Salvador that has led to more deaths and violence. Lovato traces, from several different angles, “the time-space continuum of violence, migration, and forgetting that extends far beyond and below the US-Mexico border.” In doing so, he shows how alethia, or unforgetting, might lead to collective hope.

Kerri Arsenault, Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99)

Like Lovato, Arsenault uses family history to uncover “the time-space continuum of violence.” She takes as her subject the small town of Mexico, Maine. Mexico, Arsenault’s home town, grew up around a paper mill, and this town history makes legible the relationships between “capitalism and its consequences,” between New England stoicism (“to be conspicuous was to be coarse”) and the things it holds in silence. Many townspeople, including members of Arsenault’s family, have died from cancer, and she wants to know why. She offers micro-histories of Acadian deportation “and the hatred behind it,” of the hollowing-out of the post-industrial economy and the reactionary politics it has birthed. She sets scenes at Easter Mass and at local diners. Arsenault loves Maine, its long winters and its perfect autumns, and she hates what industry has done to it: “Dioxin, cadmium, benzene, lead, naphthalene, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, arsenic, furans, trichlorobenzene, chloroform, asbestos, mercury, phthalates: these are some of the by-products of modern-day papermaking.” “All I can do is connect the dots,” she writes, “drawing one line to another until some kind of shape emerges.”

Nate Klug, Hosts and Guests (Princeton, $17.95)

Here’s how the poet Nate Klug describes a wriggling inch worm seen on the BART train in San Francisco: it “hides half itself / like an em dash scrunching / to a solemn hyphen.” On second glance, maybe it’s “a gymnast, all arm / between invisible rings.” Or, on third: “a pawn condemned / to the same two moves, / creative though short-lived.” Or, on fourth: “the steely tip / on the tuning fork / of a sonometer, twitching, / poised to decipher / the immiserated quiet / that descends (for some / more than others).” Klug possesses a sensitive ear (hear the music of “hide half itself” and the murmuring of “condemned / to the same two moves”) and a restless eye. The poems in his second collection are lean, often employing couplets or tercets, but they burrow down and soar up. The speaker sees a “semi-trailer slumber[ing] through / its own decomposing” on the side of the interstate and, suddenly, the present (the poem is titled “Christmas Eve, I-80, 10 P.M.”) becomes the geological past: “Once, an enormous seaway / ran straight through this country,” “plesiosaurs and clam-eating sharks / and the shifting bell curves of plankton / all thronging here, between Altoona / and The Lion’s Den.” A Congregational minister and new father to a daughter, Klug saves a cloth napkin that, “even newly washed, smelled of the milk / she’d gum down hourly.” The ordinary is recognized as, not made, holy: “Judge not. Or judge / that part of love which, when adrenaline and worry boil off, still wants some remnant, relic, / to itself. Elbows its way among the orthodox / for a glimpse of proof’s flimsy fabric.”

Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through (Riverhead, $26) and Yiyun Li, Must I Go (Random House, $28)

Two of our strongest, saddest, and sneakily funniest novelists wrote two strong, sad, and sneakily funny novels this year. Nunez’s rhymes with her previous book, The Friend. Both center on suicide (in The Friend, the narrator’s friend has killed himself and left her to take care of his Great Dane; in What Are You Going Through, the narrator’s terminally ill friend enlists her to help end things peacefully), and both leaven this emotional weight with tart comedy. Li’s latest also mirrors her previous novel Where Reasons End. Again, suicide features. Again, the book is structured as an imagined conversation (in Where Reasons End, the talk happens between the narrator and her deceased son; in Must I Go, between the elderly narrator and her deceased lover). Nunez and Li are great chroniclers of lonesomeness: the lonesomeness of a woman who has lost a friend or a mother who has lost a daughter; the lonesomeness that comes from simply being a self among other, ultimately unknowable selves.

William Gaddis,  J R (NYRB Classics, $24.95)

As every year, I could pick any number of books from the NYRB Classics list. This time, I’ll choose Gaddis’s 1975 choral novel of the unmoored, unmooring world of global finance and big business. Joy Williams, in her introduction to the new edition, puts it best: “The reader enters J R not as through a dark wood but by way of the churning flush of the Big Commode—American capitalism.”

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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