I did not sit still very often this year. I changed jobs. I moved twice. In the upheaval, I reread a lot of poetry. I read Ovid’s blunt love poems when I wanted something to make me feel like I was paying attention. Elizabeth Bishop always seemed to help, in her way. But, aside from the work I had to do as a reviewer (funny what deadlines do), I was often too preoccupied to focus on anything that required surrender. That’s why I tend to read long novels, obviously: to forget myself a little bit. I started January adoring The Ambassadors (you should read The Ambassadors), and that was the last demanding book I read until I started December with Daniel Deronda. The list of things in between is strange and has no theme. With no thread linking them besides my restless interest, here are things that had an impact on me in 2013.
The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm
What’s your take on Janet Malcolm? I found myself reading her whenever I needed a break from articles on the internet that I thought were stupid. I suppose that’s because The Silent Woman, her non-biography of Sylvia Plath, offers up piles upon piles of awareness, an antidote to nonfiction that asks too few questions. I like how Janet Malcolm asks a lot of questions.
I found out about Kleinzahler this year and felt elated about it for months. You know how that can happen, where you’re just thrilled that there’s someone contemporary and publishing new work for you to explore. He’s my kind of poet: inventive, funny, confrontational, and with a great sense of music. In his new book, Hotel Oneira, he has a poem about Whitney Houston and loneliness and the woman he imagines writing her power ballads, “up to the tips of her waders in self-immolation,” and it makes me sad and happy at the same time. I think about it in grocery stores now. It’s behind the firewall here.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Saunders made me cry on the subway, the jerk. This is my favorite one in the collection, which might seem like heresy to some but you can’t choose where your heart goes, you know?
“Rebecca” by Donald Barthelme
I think this short story might be perfect. It’s about a lizard who wants to change her name because she hates being called Rebecca Lizard. She also hates having green skin, because she wants to be something unimpeachable, something that can’t be torn down. Who doesn’t want to be loved for being great? Who could possibly want to be loved in spite of flaws? The last paragraph is a killer. It’s behind the paywall in the New Yorker archives, if you want to read it. Every line is good, I promise.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
I will fight anyone who doesn’t like Curtis Sittenfeld, I swear to God. As a friend put it when I questioned its position on his shelf, this book rules. It’s insightful, funny, odder than anything else you’ll find in an airport bookstore, and frighteningly close to my memories of being a smart, weird girl in a class-conscious high school. I did experience a bit of PTSD reading this, I’ll admit. Sittenfeld’s characters are rich, awful, full portraits of people you know or once were. Also, in Prep, there’s a basketball player named Cross Sugarman. Cross. Sugarman.
War Music by Christopher Logue
I received this as a birthday present (thanks, you know who you are) and spent a month reading and rereading it. It’s an extraordinary translation of portions of The Iliad. Logue is a guy who knows what he’s doing with language and myth, and his work is absolutely beautiful. And gory, and filled with attitude. Helen of Troy is just infuriating. There’s also plenty of fun insider baseball about Greek translators in the introductions. One scholar in 1611 or so called the people who thought he was cribbing from a French translation “envious Windfuckers.” Call your haters that next time you feel punchy.
I don’t know how I found this, but I did, and I loved it. What if I got this tattooed on my body? I’m sort of not joking.
Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick
I described this book to a friend as being about “all these women in a tenement in the Bronx feeling sexual RAGE and having OPINIONS.” (Caps left intact to be faithful to the source email.) It’s certainly about that, but it’s also about mothers and daughters and that tough balance between caring for someone and taking care of yourself. You know, small stuff like that. I love this book so much.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I know, I know. I hadn’t read it until this year. But don’t worry, then I did! And I wouldn’t shut up about it. I have way too many thoughts about this book to condense them here. Should we talk about it? Okay, my favorite character is Judy Poovey, the cokehead mallrat who talks too much. She’s my favorite, and I won’t change my mind.
The first 200 pages of Middlemarch
Ugh, I know. I’m going to try again next year.