Friday 27 November 2015

Books of the Year chosen by CBe authors

I asked some of the writers published by CBe to recommend books (not necessarily published during 2015). The only rule: titles published by CBe not eligible. The name of each chooser – listed in alpha order – is followed by a link to their own book or books on the CBe website.

There are hints in the below as to how this end-of-year formula might be reconfigured. Patrick Mackie, for example, chooses not books but individual poems (most of them can be read online) – we do, in the main, first come across poems singly, not in books but in magazines or online. My only interest in the regular lists is pointers to books that have flown under the radar – the latest Ian McEwan or Carol Ann Duffy doesn’t NEED flagging up – and if I do this again that has to be the whole point. Next time (and it doesn’t have to be end-of-year) I’ll pose the question differently: a book that you think has been undervalued; a writer that no one else seems to have noticed; a book that doesn’t exist but which you’d have liked to read … Meanwhile, there are enough under-the-radar books here to have made the exercise worthwhile. Meanwhile, also: it has been a privilege to have published these choosers. Linking to their books and buying will help there to be a next time.

Alba Arikha (author of Soon)
I devoured the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan series and when it was over, I found myself mourning the loss of Lenu and Lila. Because they had become my friends, as had Elena Ferrante. The visceral, tactile, hungry quality of her writing is unlike anything I've read in a long time: the sights and smells of Naples, the noise, the food, the poverty, the violence, the way Ferrante writes about women, female friendship, that fine line between love and loss, all contribute to an unforgettable, mesmerising reading experience.

Preparing for a short story masterclass, I found myself dipping back (among many others, too long a list) into Chekhov's The Collected Short Stories – a modern visionary, a master reader of character – and John Updike's The Early Stories, 1953–1975. From 'Separating': 'Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness. The white face was gone, the darkness was featureless. Richard had forgotten why.' Doesn't get much better than that.

I found Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation powerful. Narrated by the brother of ‘the Arab’ shot dead on a beach by Meursault in Camus’s The Outsider, it is written in succinct, insightful phrases, reminiscent of Camus himself.

Nina Bogin (translator of Agota Kristof’s The Illiterate)
The most remarkable book I read in 2015 was L’usage du monde (The Way of the World) by the Swiss writer Nicolas Bouvier. First published in 1963, it recounts the journey Bouvier and his painter friend Thierry Vernet (whose drawings illustrate the book) made in 1953 and 1954, when they were in their mid-twenties, from Switzerland to India via the Balkans, Anatolia, Iran, and Afghanistan – a journey that would be impossible today. The conditions they travelled in would also be considered grueling by current standards – the whole trip, over mountains and through deserts, was made in a little Fiat Topolino they sometimes had to push for miles uphill or wait weeks to have repaired. But this is no ordinary travel book. What makes it exceptional is Bouvier’s magnificent writing, exhilarating and beautifully phrased, and the generosity of his vision. I had begun reading L’usage du monde when the January terrorist attacks took place in Paris, and in the ensuing weeks it helped keep up my morale with its embrace of people – urban, rural, nomadic – stark landscapes, and night skies vast enough to allow us, in spite of everything, to continue to believe in the world and its possibilities.

It is also a tribute to a friendship between two young men which was to last throughout their lives. I read the book in French, but it is available in English in what appears to be an excellent translation by Robyn Marsack, originally published in 1992 and now available in two different editions, Eland Press and New York Review Books Classics.

Charles Boyle (aka Jack Robinson, author of Days and Nights in W12 and by the same author)
Hotel Lambosa (1993), a book of (very) short stories by the poet Kenneth Koch that sat unread on my shelves for years before, early in 2015, falling off and into my hands: I have now read it three times and each time it’s as fresh, funny and unpredictable as the time before.

Fragments of Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges: I don’t think it’s a book I will ever finish reading. Suppose that the several thousand aphorisms written by the 18th-century German scientist Georg Lichtenberg were the surviving fragments of a great Lost Novel – and suppose then that several generations of passionate, argumentative ‘pioneers, losers, casualties, freeloaders, cheaters, scholars, connoisseurs and laymen’ (not to mention dandies, lovers of puzzles, frequenters of auction houses, graphomaniacs, etc) were to dedicate their lives to filling in the blanks, to reconstructing that which is lost … You get the picture – though its frame is porous, letting in politics, philosophy, history, medicine, folklore … (Scheduled for publication by Dalkey Archive last August, this English translation by Gregory Flanders hasn’t yet appeared in the shops – it has become another lost book. And if you think I’m making this up, see below.)

Beverley Bie Brahic (translator of Apollinaire, The Little Auto, and Francis Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud; author of White Sheets; new poetry collection forthcoming in 2016)
Like an addict I scarf down anything in print. If I think of it, I jot book titles in my diary, with a line around them to separate them from the grocery lists. Usually I read several books at once, and mostly they aren’t hot off the press. Like Hédi Khaddour’s Treason, a collection of poems by a witty Franco-Tunisian poet translated by Marilyn Hacker (Yale, 2010). Treason has been sitting in my to-read pile for two years. I opened it in October and I haven’t put it down. It is so good I went to the Librairie Compagnie opposite the Sorbonne to buy Khaddour’s latest collection and found he has become a novelist whose latest book, Les Prépondérants (Gallimard, 2015), won the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française. His 2009 spy novel, Waltenberg (Vintage, 2009), has been translated into English by David Coward. Are his novels as good as his poems? Can’t say, but I strongly recommend Treason.

David Collard (author of About a Girl: A Reader’s Guide to Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, forthcoming from CBe in 2016)
Published last year in the States and earlier this year in Britain, Michael Hofmann's Where Have You Been? (Faber) is a casually brilliant and richly rewarding collection of essays, mostly about poets and poetry. The first two thirds of the book focus on anglophone writers, the final third on German (and many of latter were entirely new to me). A year's worth of slow reading and reflection, and a prompt to explore further.

J. O. Morgan's first three volumes (Natural Mechanical, Long Cuts and At Maldon) were published by CB editions. In Casting Off (HappenStance Press) is his latest book-length poem. It's a love story, of sorts, set in a remote fishing community over the course of a summer. Morgan combines a clear, fresh voice with easy virtuosity. What puzzles at a first reading subsequently dazzles.

Claire-Louise Bennett is an English writer living in Ireland. Her debut Pond (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is a collection of short stories linked by a single (and singular) narrator – her voice calm, droll, sad and scrupulous. My favourite new fiction of 2015.

Will Eaves (author of The Absent Therapist and, forthcoming in March 2016, The Inevitable Gift Shop)
I read associatively. Something leads to something else. Books I have enjoyed in this manner are not necessarily new or fun straight away. I am just beginning Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses and wondering how Shakespeare ever got as far as the poem proper after the rubbishy epistles at the start. But then it’s perfectly true that we read out of a sense of duty as well as pleasure, or that the duty itself becomes a pleasure. You get out what you put in, I suppose. This year, then, I really enjoyed: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (science), G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (memoir), and William Golding’s A Moving Target (essays). Novels: Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker, The Finishing Touch by Brigid Brophy, True Grit by Charles Portis and The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald. Poetry: Eavan Boland’s translation of the Old English elegy “The Wife’s Lament” into antiphonally rhymed half-lines. Two words – ‘pain’ and ‘tough’ – corrupt the rhyme scheme, one by refusing it, the other by extending it. She has listened to the voice of the original, which is about a woman bemoaning her exile while cleaving to it.

Best unexpected thing in the post: Peter Blegvad’s Kew. Rhone. Best book fished out of a skip: A Tale of Two Cities. Best disappointment: Howard’s End. Best next on the list: The Life of Houses, by Lisa Gorton (fine Aussie poet). Best stable-mate: Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan (Ed.: not allowed, I know; except as an exception that proves the rule.)

Gabriel Josipovici (author of Only Joking)
It’s a long time since a book of poetry moved me as much as Lucy Newlyn’s Earth’s Almanac (Enitharmon). She has grafted a sequence of elegies for and rememberings of a dead sister over a fifteen year period onto a Shepheard’s Calendar of the natural year. This could lead to mawkishness and sentimentality, but Earth’s Almanac is tough and complex. Often it is impossible to tell if the details of the changing seasons in Cornwall and Oxford, where the poet lives, are the occasions or the metaphors for memory. I loved it.

Peter Handke’s long poem Gedicht an die Dauer came out in 1986 and has only just been brought out in English as To Duration, in a fine translation by Scott Abbott, from the small press, Cannon Magazine. That the same person could write Offending the Audience, Essay on Tiredness, Repetition and this poem is quite remarkable. Handke is one of the shining literary lights of our time and it says a great deal about the insularity of our culture that this profound and beautiful poem has had to wait almost thirty years to appear in English.

Yevgeny Baratynsky (1800–1844) was a contemporary and friend of Pushkin's. He is practically unknown in this country, unjustly so, for he was fully Pushkin's peer, argues Peter France in the introduction to his fine translation of a selection of the poems with facing-page Russian, published by the enterprising Arc Publications as Half-Light and Other Poems. Reading this fascinating volume will transform, if ever so slightly, your sense of the nature of European Romanticism.

Stephen Knight (author of The Prince of Wails)
In The Worm at the Core: On the role of death in life, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski use compelling empirical research to show how the knowledge of our mortality unconsciously shapes our behaviour, so we seek to bolster both our self-esteem and our belief systems (psychological shields against the inevitable). A reminder of death will, for example, cause us to come down hard on those who do not share our political, religious or other view of the world. The trio coined the term Terror Management to describe the various coping strategies, and now I see it everywhere: adverts for wrinkle creams, the prize culture, recycling crates overflowing with wine bottles, splenetic below-the-line comments, BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, house extensions, and all political manoeuvring from the local to the global. Few books change the way you look at life. This one does.

Todd McEwen (author of The Five Simple Machines)
I spent the most horrid part of my youth in a place called Palo Alto, California. You think that tells you all you need to know, but it doesn’t, because you are too interested in Steve Jobs and are unaware of the almost-too-fabulous-to-be-believed Bell’s Book Store on Emerson Street. The first book I bought there, in 1968, was the autobiography of Texas Guinan, a famous speakeasy owner. I wish I still had it. But that is the kind of book one always finds in Bell’s, fabulous books one didn’t quite know existed. Last month I rushed out seethingly with a sumptuous biography of Saul Steinberg by Deirdre Bair, and two volumes by Ludwig Bemelmans, My War with the United States, his first in English and quite odd – lonely and perverse, but he’s all there. Also Holiday in France, an anthology he edited in the 1950s, including his divine alter-ego Joseph Wechsberg. This year I read a truly wild series of essays, The Professor, by Terry Castle, who seemingly has the bad fortune to live in Palo Alto. I’ll bet she goes into Bell’s a lot. But the book that marked 2015 for me was the Collected Poems of my late friend Paul Violi. The last time we had dinner together, he spent about twenty minutes trying to convince me that the restaurant we were in was situated atop a giant underground military complex right in the middle of the West Twenties in New York. Paul being Paul, no one, least of all I, will ever know if he was serious.

Patrick Mackie (author of The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints, forthcoming from CBe in 2016)
But could it not be poems of the year instead? The definition of poetry as news that stays news is one that we all remember. But we tend to emphasise the staying, and so overlook what it means for a poem to be news in the first place. A poem wants to be a type of news in which fact and report are fused with uncanny intimacy and wildness. So a good poem is one that brings us the news that this voice or this experience or this way of making sense or this set of losses or this pack of desires can be reported on, can report, can turn out to exist at all. It was for instance news to me this year that Karen Solie in her poem 'Bitumen' could bring such Lucretian qualities of massiveness and verve to wrestling with what it means now to live on a planet that is both a frail and beautiful biosphere and a sort of lavish monster. Likewise, in a poem called 'Midsummer Loop' that is itself both loopy and summary, Frances Leviston brought the news that the most meticulous stylistic contrivance and the most distractable empirical openness could fuse to produce a new way of inhabiting time itself. In his 'Musculature' Carl Phillips fused an intellectual intensity worthy of Blake with a slickly cartoonish casualness of movement to produce a new sort of elegy for lost aspects of selfhood, one whose light lines are electrically tense with knowledge of how fluidly we think that we live now, and how stubbornly the actual reasserts itself. Rebecca Perry's 'Wasp' associates so freely on its pungently creaturely little subject that it ends up bringing us all the more news about what poetry can be as the poem reveals that it is a sort of wasp itself, splendidly reductive as well as errant, sleekly designed and neatly aggressive. Frederick Seidel has long been a sort of cosmological news junkie in his poems, and there has often been bright political vibration as well as bitter panache in the ways in which he has shown us how the great and terrible political murders of the 1960s remain in many ways news to us now. The historical vistas and ambiguities opened up by 'France Now' have become, stunningly, if anything more urgent since its publication only a few months ago, as have its fusions of inventiveness at its most lurid with sincerity at its most obsessive, its insistence on flinging these qualities, finally, at its own subject matter with a garishness livid enough to vie with violence itself.

Miha Mazzini (author of The German Lottery)
I tried to read several of Orhan Pamuk's books but I didn't get far. I quit My Name Is Red in the middle, declaring in front of witnesses that it was so overwritten and boring that it must be ripe for a Nobel prize. So, I started his latest, A Strangeness in My Mind, very cautiously, prepared to drop it anytime – and I'm still holding it after 500 pages, with a few more to go. It's funny and tender, the story of a person and a city woven together brilliantly into a single life.

J. O. Morgan (author of Natural Mechanical, Late Cuts and At Maldon)
Anne Carson's If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho and Bill Manhire's Selected Poems. I have so far read neither, and may not ever do so, not completely, but I am curiously happy (and maybe content) just to have them in my possession.

I went out of my way to buy the Carson in hardback, from America. It has the Greek, fragmented, on the verso, in red (like Jesus), and Carson's translations in black on the recto, also fragmented, but not always mirroring the Greek. I don't exactly read it; I look at it occasionally, and consider it. The UK paperback edition: not nearly so nice.

I don't like books of Selected Poems, but, for reasons I forget, in this case I made an exception.‎ I also sought out the hardback, and it's a nice heavy object, with a simple unlaminated wrapper and one of those built-in bookmark-ribbon things. I bought it on the strength of one poem I happened to read by Manhire and have since read only a handful of other pieces in the book, fairly randomly. I have not been disappointed. I am very glad to have this book.

D. Nurkse (author of Voices Over Water and A Night in Brooklyn)
I'd pick At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón. Alarcon is a storyteller in the ‘boom latinoamericano’ vein at a time when attention has pirouetted elsewhere. Written in English, his novel explores guerrilla theatre and the aftershocks of political violence in Peru. Alarcon is a master of displaced narrative, but the effects don't feel forced. He's faithful to his characters' volatility, to a truth that never stays put.

Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, a writer who can explore ‘race and class’ without a trace of rhetoric. I think it's a classic – a semi-autobiographical portrait of a girl coming of age in a city terrorized by unsolved killings, knowing that she may be a target.

Dan O’Brien (author of War Reporter, Scarsdale and New Life)
I’m breaking the binding of two books rights now: The Littlest Pumpkin by R. A. Herman and Betina Ogden (Scholastic, 2001), which is, yes, Hallowe’en-themed. My two-year-old daughter gets stuck on the picture of a boy costumed as a skeleton. ‘What is that? What is that?’ she asks nightly at bedtime, pointing to tiny hand bones. The picture and the pointing perturb me, maybe, because we’re dealing with an illness in the family, but I suppose it’s natural for her to ask such questions, and to begin to try to learn about such things. ‘Bats fly at night,’ she also likes to say, about a drawing on a later page.

The second is Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark (Simon & Schuster, 1999). Partly I’m reading this book as research for an experimental chamber rock opera I’m endeavoring to co-write about Sasquatch and cancer. But the truth is that eyewitness testimony of any as-yet-undiscovered life – and taxonomical prose thereof – is one of a few sub-genres that helps me fall asleep at night.

Nicky Singer (author Knight Crew)
I don’t remember much these days (I think it’s the alcohol) but I do remember Vanessa Gebbie’s The Coward’s Tale (Bloomsbury 2011). It returns to me every so often with its Welsh lilt, its tenderness, its exact observation. Hailed as ‘the legitimate offspring of Dylan Thomas and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ (that would have been a rough and tumble) and chosen as book of the year by A. N. Wilson, you’d think it would have had a shelf life. But it hasn’t. It’s just disappeared, rather like the people in the mining tragedy that lies at its narrative heart. Gebbie’s new offering (2015) is just as good and four times as quirky. Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures (illustrated by Lynn Roberts) is a book that ‘doesn’t fit’. It could have been a CB edition but it is actually a Liquorice Fish: a portrait of a marriage in bugs and bats and ... other creatures. Intimate, surprising, strange and occasionally moving. This writer should be better known.

Julian Stannard (author of What Were You Thinking?, forthcoming from CBe in 2016)
Blue Movie (Nine arches Press, 2014). Bobby Parker is a Romantic living in Kidderminster. He writes about drugs, psychic conflagration , desperation. Good. Good. Good. Come back Robert Lowell – ‘Why not say what happened?’ Or even Coleridge. It was difficult not to think of ‘Frost at Midnight’ when reading Parker’s ‘Fuck the Moon’. I didn’t go for every poem in Blue Movie – his debut collection - but I liked a great many and his moon piece seems to me a rather good introduction to the volume as a whole:

Leave the moon alone.
Give us your head; peeled, colourful, half-asleep.
We have been eating the moon since high-school.
Our bodies are weak, they need meat,
gristle and hot fat. They can barely stand.
We have overdosed on the moon; caught exotic
diseases, genital warts, spent nights in jail
with your fucking moons up our arses.
Give us strange spices, a flash of bone
from your skeleton lockers. Leave it alone!
The next time you find yourself writing
about the moon, stop. Go for a walk in the dark.
Call your mother and tell her you are sorry.

Marjorie Ann Watts (author of Are they funny, are they dead?)
The Delicate Prey and Other Stories by Paul Bowles, published by Ecco Press (with ‘Shelbourne Public Library’ printed on the inside), and picked up on the London Underground. Seamus Heaney’s choice of poems by W. B. Yeats (Faber and Faber). The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, published by Virago. I had never read her, and was completely dazzled, went on to read everything I could lay my hands on. The Land Where the Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee, Penguin: fascinating, erudite and funny, and as good or better than actually going on holiday in Italy.

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