What I’ll most remember about 2017 is, to use the poet Lawrence Joseph’s words, “the fiery / avalanche headed right at us.” This was the year I finally got around to watching Twin Peaks, and at times it’s seemed like we’re all living in a David Lynch fever dream. Fake News? “Very fine people on both sides”? Covfefe? We must all be stuck in the Red Room and not know it.
Yet despite all this, there was also great art. There’s always great art. In 2017, I had the pleasure of writing about, and talking with the authors of, my favorite book of poetry published this year (Lawrence Joseph’s So Where Are We?), my favorite novel (Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour), and my favorite short story collection (Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties), not to mention the most insanely pleasurable book I read in any genre (Elif Batuman’s The Idiot).
So, in reflecting upon 2017, I’ll focus instead on those books that I haven’t mentioned in the magazine. These aren’t necessarily the best books of the year; I haven’t read enough to make that judgment. But they’re all books that I loved.
“Love” is a word that the writers I interviewed kept coming back to. Here’s Machado: “Love is not a magic force—it’s hard work, sustained effort, risk.” And Batuman: “In a lot of ways, being a writer is a lousy job—grueling, emotionally taxing, terrible hours, no health care—so if it wasn’t about love, what would be the point?” And Joseph: “Love, the act of loving, beauty, are first, fundamental truths.”
Let’s hope that next year is a loving one.
Michael Robbins, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, Simon & Schuster
Easily the best book of criticism I read this year, it’s filled with brilliant passages on rhyme and poetic form and bad taste. Robbins is continually generous to other great critics (Hugh Kenner, Pauline Kael, Anthony Madrid) and to the artists he loves for various and complicated reasons (Yeats, Prince, Journey).
To write a poem is, ultimately, a redemptive act, a profession of faith in beauty (whether or not the poem is “beautiful”). But in a world where sons are pointlessly slaughtered, fathers drown themselves, and the hearts of men are merciless, the promise of redemption is a bad joke and beauty an insult.
Michael Wood, On Empson, Princeton University Press
I always look forward to Wood’s reviews. His sentences never quite finish where you expect them to and, no matter if he’s writing on film or fiction, he always directs your attention to the right spots—the surprising detail, the formal decision that matters. In this way, he resembles Empson, whose Seven Types of Ambiguity remains the best book of poetry criticism there is. It’s a privilege to see their two minds meet.
If criticism can’t explain, can’t peg things out in words, it can, often magnificently, show us what there is to be looked at, prove there is a crossroads where we so far have seen only a single, well-trodden track.
Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Random House
A series of lacerating and consoling essays about selfhood, memory, melodrama, depression, and the way that reading and writing might help manage or mediate between them all.
Unless shut away in a journal that will be safely and timely burned, one’s words will always be read, by design or by accident. Hiding behind these words is like entrusting one’s self to a straw house—there is the wind, there is the wolf, and above all, there is one’s urge to destroy the house before it is destroyed by an external force.