2021 Books in Review

End-of-year bookmarks
This story is included in these collections
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The first book I read in 2021 was James Lee Burke’s 1987 New Orleans noir, The Neon Rain. The last book I read before filing this column was Jane Austen’s 1817 autumnal masterpiece, Persuasion. In between, I read a lot more Burke (he’s terrific) and a lot more Austen (she’s pretty good, too). Some new books—Paticia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, Francisco Goldman’s Monkey Boy—impressed. Many—almost all of the literary biographies I read—disappointed.

But even disappointments can bear fruit. The new Elizabeth Hardwick biography wasn’t very good, but reviewing it led me to reread Hardwick, and no year spent with her is a total loss. In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick writes of Billie Holiday, “Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style.” Retrieving a miracle from darkness: that’s an appropriate image as we head toward another long, dark winter—one where, it seems, we’ll again have plenty of time to stay at home and read.

Here are some of my favorite books published in 2021. As always, they’re books that I didn’t get a chance to write on; as always, they brought this particular reader great pleasure.

 

Julia Parry, The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen (Duckworth, $27.50, 384 pp.)

It’s a donnée straight out of an Elizabeth Bowen novel: the correspondence between two lovers, both married, sits in a cardboard box in an attic for years, forgotten or hidden or some combination of the two, until the letters are inherited, opened, and pored over by a critic. Except in the case of The Shadowy Third, one of the lovers was Bowen, the other was the Oxford don Humphry House, and the inheritor was House’s granddaughter, Julia Parry. This is Parry’s first book, and it’s a remarkably assured one. It’s smart on Bowen’s work (in her fiction, “the past beds down with the present”), on Bowen’s life (for her, “experience means nothing until it repeats itself”), and on Parry’s grandfather. And it’s a gift just to have more of Bowen’s writing, like this glancing, perfect description of the Norfolk wetlands from a 1936 letter: “The reflections translate everything: I mean there is a sort of democracy of strangeness. A young woman in a sky-blue satin dress walked past along the bank, by a row of poplars, while we were having tea, like a Renoir figure.”

 

John Edgar Wideman, Look for Me and I’ll Be Gone: Stories (Scribner, $26, 336 pp.)

“Think of layers within layers. Within layers.” That’s how Wideman’s story “Death Row” begins, and it’s how his writing tends to operate. In his latest book, fiction is layered with memoir, which is layered with essay, which is layered with historical documentation; voices and tenses and languages accrete and enrich one another; sentences fold in on themselves and then open back up. Too often, critics tend to think of stylistic experimentation and moral seriousness as opposed. If you’re playing around with form, you can’t be concerned with goodness or beauty; if you consider goodness or beauty important, you can’t be concerned with making form new. To which Look for Me and I’ll Be Gone responds, “Just watch me.”

To take one example, “Whose Teeth/Whose Story” opens with an email (“Okey-how are u, where r u”); reconstructs the biography of William Henry Sheppard, a Black Presbyterian missionary who spent twenty years in Africa; dramatizes the narrator’s own archival interest in Sheppard; and plays these stories against Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s famously outraged response to it. (Wideman even includes a peroration on how outrage, etymologically speaking, doesn’t arise from unthinking emotion but from a process in which “reason and intellect have been engaged.”) All of which is to say, it’s as formally layered as a story can get, and it uses this formal layering to consider the ethics of storytelling: “Who listens to suffering’s ever-present wails. Who is wailing. Who suffers. Who profits.” Storytelling is always morally compromised; it’s also the very means by which we consider morality—its compromises, yes, but also its demands. As Wideman writes, “Nothing inside if stories stop.”

 

Storytelling is always morally compromised; it’s also the very means by which we consider morality—its compromises, yes, but also its demands.

Maureen N. McLane, More Anon: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30, 224 pp.)

Poet and critic James Longenbach has described a certain kind of poem that “makes us hear [it] as an ongoing act of thinking, a bringing forth.” Maureen McLane’s poems achieve this bringing-forth, showing the mind (and the body, since for McLane the two can’t be separated) as “an irresistible humming vibrating” thing, “all present-tense,” “a congeries / of possibles.” More Anon brings together poems from five previous collections. In all of her work (she’s a strong critic, too), McLane is grounded in poetic tradition: one poem is titled “They Were Not Kidding in the Fourteenth Century”; another “On Not Being Elizabethan.” “No one bothers / anymore with the past,” she writes in a poem that decidedly, delightfully does just that. Yet I couldn’t imagine a less stodgy, more lively poetic voice. Her poems are learned but they’re also fun, sometimes goofy, and they’re always moving, moving, moving. “Every time / I collide with your mind,” she writes, “I give off — / something happens — / we don’t know what / Particles, articles / this bit, a bit / digital, simple / fission, fusion / — a great vowel shift.” Fusion or fission, articles or particles, whatever her poems give off, I want more of it. 

 

Jon Fosse, trans. Damion Searls, I Is Another: Septology III-V (Transit Books, $17.95, 330 pp.)

I’m working on a longer essay on Fosse, who writes what he calls at different times “mystical realism” and “slow prose.” When the final volume in this septology comes out in English next year (I Is Another contains sections three through five), it should be an event in world literature.

 

Jesse McCarthy, Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?: Essays (Liveright, $27.95, 352 pp.) and The Fugitivities (Melville House, $25.99, 288 pp.)

As I mentioned above, this was the year of Elizabeth Hardwick for me, and one of the most remarkable things about that remarkable writer was her wedding of critical intelligence (name me a better essay collection than Seduction and Betrayal) and fictional daring (Sleepless Nights is the kind of autobiographical fiction that many try and almost none can pull off). Jesse McCarthy, editor at the Point and assistant professor at Harvard, is another gifted critic-artist, publishing, in one calendar year, a book of essays that displays a novelist’s touch and a novel that displays a critic’s acuity. The novel, The Fugitivities, elegantly meanders from Brooklyn to Paris to Rio, from the history of Black aesthetics to questions of universal salvation; the book of essays, Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?, is just as smart and strong. (The first essay, “The Master’s Tools,” is an instant classic.) Here he is, in fictional form, on the tension between cosmic beauty and human injustice. (The character Orígenes believes in the aforementioned universal salvation.)

He had read that the spiral arm of the Milky Way would one day reach the bend of Andromeda, and the two great puddles of stars would commingle a while, before returning into a void with no boundary at all, only an infinite thicket, like a wild jaboticaba tree climbing the visible realm, its billions of candescent branches fanning out through space and time. Perhaps Orígenes was right. On the other hand, he was still a black man laboring in a sugarcane field, most likely as he had been his entire life. As though even in all the immensity and beauty of the universe his world had no exit, no line of flight.

 

Padgett Powell, Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between (Catapult, $16.95, 272 pp.)

Powell is a maestro of the sentence, offering a pleasing blend of high and low, antic energy cut with archaic fustiness (he loves the verb “obtain”). On Twitter, the editor Levi Stahl put it perfectly: “This is the most Charles Portis shit I’ve read since Charles Portis.” Hardwick said about Simone Weil, “It is only in quotation, not in paraphrase, that the extraordinary quality of her concerns shines through.” The same goes for Powell: “In this quiet corrected air on the porch I watched the interesting lone figure of Bill Wegman continue on his troubled way untroubled”; “The twilight-zoney warbling of odd conjunctions in New Orleans is obtaining”; “The day is rued”; “Trevor is brave, brave, and strong, a phrase I head a man say of himself once at a mall.” 

 

Poems don’t pay the bills, so poets often need day jobs.

Laura Kolbe, Little Pharma (University of Pittsburgh Press, $18, 128 pp.)

Poems don’t pay the bills, so poets often need day jobs. Laura Kolbe is a physician by training, and her first book of poetry, Little Pharma, displays the kind of precision you’d expect from a doctor-poet. In one poem, the spine is a “rope in bone broth, / tender as a leg by Watteau.” In “Buried Abecedary for Intensive Care,” we’re introduced to the clarifying and obfuscating nature of medical language: “It’s called an awakening trial when the pleasanter drugs stop. It’s called bucking when the lungs and vent jam wing against each other. It’s called clubbing when the fingernails thicken to spoons from lack of oxygen. It’s called drug fever when no one knows why.” (One of the many advantages of poets having second careers: their immersion in other lexicons.) “In the lab I meet the rest of life,” she writes in “Little Pharma’s Research,” “all the world / packed in one corpse: the body a kind of government, / a flame-red senate wrapped in fur. Its provinces / all fens and rivers, two-bit hucksters stamping / wet-booted outside the commissary store.” This image of the province-filled body echoes Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Like Auden’s Yeats, Kolbe has been hurt into poetry; her poems often sting. Seeing truly is a professional imperative for the doctor, a moral imperative for the poet. It’s a matter of care, and Little Pharma displays care, tact, and truth in every poem.

 

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, 368 pp.)

Lord knows the world doesn’t need more Rooney discourse, so I won’t add to it other than to say that this novel’s vision of beauty suffusing and sustaining the world was the most Catholic thing I read in fiction all year.

 

Rowan Williams, Shakeshafte & Other Plays (Slant Books, $16, 156 pp.)

In Grace and Necessity, Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, offered a critical reading of the Anglo-Welsh modernist David Jones, focusing on his “awareness of participatory patterns under the surface of appearance.” Now with The Flat Roof of the World, Williams offers a dramatic rendering of this same figure. Jones, a painter and poet who fought in World War I, converted to Catholicism after witnessing the Eucharist being celebrated in a shed near the front. As he wrote, he was moved by “the oneness between the Offerant and those toughs that clustered round him in the dim-lit byre.” Williams returns to this vision in The Flat Roof of the World: “It’s just that they were all doing something, all right, yes, making something. Only not a something to use for something else, just a something, a pattern where all the lights light up and the whole thing—breathes, or whatever. That’s what I want to do, I thought.”

In Williams’s play, one of three collected in Shakeshafte & Other Plays, Jones is ambitious and vulnerable, seeking out intimacy only to withdraw from it. In the first scene, he describes the superfluity of perception and the world it seeks to know: how images call forth other images, words other words, times other times: “You look at something and then you see something else showing through or creeping in at the edge; you get one thing down and it shouts for another.” That’s the feeling that Jones’s poetry gives—that, to quote from later in the play, there’s always “something running over, pouring out.” For Jones, everything he cared about—poetry, painting, the Eucharist, love—was a matter of gratuitousness, an abundance unmerited and outside of mere use-value. The title play in this collection, featuring an imagined encounter between a young William Shakespeare and the soon-to-be martyr Edmund Campion, is very good, too.

 

Kirstin Valdez Quade, The Five Wounds (W. W. Norton & Company, $26.95, 432 pp.)

Commonweal readers will be familiar with this debut novel from Valerie Sayers’s review in the magazine; listeners of The Commonweal Podcast will know about it from Quade’s conversation with managing editor Katie Daniels. The Five Wounds took an excellent short story, first published in the New Yorker, and made it better: more ambitious in its vision of suffering and salvation but just as careful in its sentences; more daring in its formal construction and just as invested in the bodies and souls of its characters.

 

Lucille Clifton, Generations: A Memoir (New York Review Books, $14.95, 104 pp.) and Fleur Jaeggy, trans. Gini Alhadeff, The Water Statues (New Directions, $13.95, 96 pp.)

Two newly reissued books by two authors I love. Clifton’s 1976 memoir of familial history is built out of repetition: acts of violence and love repeat across generations; scraps of language—“Get what you want, you from Dahomey women”; “Oh she was magic”—turn into refrains. Clifton, best known as a poet, places her own history (growing up in Buffalo; briefly attending Howard; mourning the death of her father) against the longer history of the Dahomey family (her great-grandmother and namesake, Lucille Sayle, was the “first Black woman legally hanged in the state of Virginia”). She also interlaces quotations from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Like that poem, Clifton’s memoir celebrates continuity and connection: “Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept.”

The Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy resembles not Whitman but his contemporary, Emily Dickinson. Jaeggy’s prose is as oblique and exacting as Dickinson’s verse; her novels, including The Water Statues, compress paragraphs and sentences and words down until they become diamond-like, shimmering and hard. The Water Statues, first published in Italian in 1980, is impossible to describe. I guess you could say it’s about a broken family and a flooded basement filled with statues, but that’s like saying that Dickinson’s poetry is about loss. Again, Hardwick helps. She describes Renata Adler’s Speedboat as “a lucky eye gazing out from a center of a complicated privilege, looking about with a coolness that transforms itself into style and also into meaning.” Jaeggy also shows how coolness might become style and style become meaning. Her description of a character’s face captures her own fiercely chilly aesthetic: “there was something wild and at the same time ascetic about her.”

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department 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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