What to read, what to read, what to read…

That is, what we read in 2013—

our recommendations in the order they came in:

From Sven Birkerts: “Some of my favorite reads this year:
The Apartment by Greg Baxter
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by our own Bob Shacochis
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
The Infatuations by Javier Marias
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (was that this year?)
When Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (wanted to see if I still thought it was funny—I did!)
What Light Can Do by Robert Hass.”

Ed Ochester writes: “I read a lot of books I love, but here are three:

“Fiction: Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall If you’re at all interested in Renaissance history, this is a great novel. If you aren’t, it’s still a great novel but you might find it a bit slow.

“Poetry: William Stafford, The Sound of the Ax. I read this in manuscript; the book will be out this winter.

“Non-Fiction: H.L. Mencken, Prejudices (Library of America).”

From Peter Trachtenberg: “The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last. Edward St. Aubyn’s quintet begins with a debauched English aristocrat casually raping his five-year-old son and follows the consequences over the next 40 years. The material could be melodramatic; it could be embarrassing. But St. Aubyn addresses it with such humor, cold horror, and compassion—and with such jaw-dropping command of the English language—that I put down the last of the books exhilarated. Humbled, too.”

Alice Mattison says: “I read the Jane Gardam Old Filth trilogy, one after another without stopping. I loved it for many reasons, mostly because it kept surprising me with boldness, as if Gardam kept telling herself, “What the hell. Do it.””

April Bernard offers, “The Red Queen (2004) by Margaret Drabble—
(I read it for a long review-essay of her work—occasioned by her newest novel, The Pure Gold Baby— which will be published shortly in The New York Review of Books.) Among the many works of fiction by this extraordinary writer that I admire, this one concerns an unusual historical figure, a Korean Crown Princess of the 18th century, the Lady Hyegyong, whose autobiography (stories of the court, madness, violence, etc.) is the starting point for a wildly inventive narrative of Drabble’s that links the past and the present, as the disembodied, out-of-time Princess narrates the events in the life of a 21st century academic, Babs Halliwell, at a conference in Seoul on bioethics. How about that?”

Mark Wunderlich writes: “A book from 2013 I loved and recommend is by Los Angeles writer and artist Matias Viegener, and it’s called 2500 Random Things About Me Too. The books a a memoir, of sorts, written as a series of lists, each 25 entries in length, and each attempting to be “random.” The result—a compendium of thought as it attempts to dissociate—is witty, moving, beautiful.”

And from Paul Yoon: “One of my favorite books of last year was The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna. It’s a slow burn of a novel, built like a house you want to explore forever.”

Rachel Pastan loved Archangel by Andrea Barrett, which she describes as, “A completely entrancing collection of unfashionably long stories about people (in the past, mostly women) who are passionate about science.

“And Someone by Alice McDermott. “Such a complex vision of life revealed through the story of a woman’s quiet life. A meditation on death and on time. Wonderful (deceptively straightforward) sentences.”

From David Gates : “I’d say Shakespeare in Company by Bart Van Es. Wonderful and lucidly written scholarship about the effect on Shakespeare’s drama of his close, share-holding involvement with his theater company. It doesn’t explain away his genius, but it’s given me a way to understand better his radical uniqueness. Oh for a time machine, to see those productions.”

Jill McCorkle writes: “Elizabeth Spencer who has been publishing for over sixty years, is a literary treasure. Starting Over, her latest collection, is nothing short of masterful.” 

And Ben Anastas’s pick is My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knaurgaard (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett). Ben writes:  “I started with Book Two of Knausgaard’s epic novel of life and its heroic squalor because I couldn’t resist the prospect of seeing the boredom of parenting and family life laid bare. There are a lot of good reasons for jumping on the Knaurgaard bandwagon (and there’s still plenty of room!), but the biggest one for me is seeing a novelist take his revenge on all of the everyday responsibilities that keep us from writing. “

Of Lawrence’s Wright’s recent investigation into Scientology, David Daniel says, “I’ve been reading a lot of disturbing books about American religions this year, but Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief wins the prize. For those of us who love gossip, the intersection of pop culture and ideas, good writing and reporting, and spectacular lunacy, well, this is an excellent book. “

And from Bret Anthony Johnston, about the same title: “I read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, his exhaustive and stunningly good book on Scientology. It is, without question or exaggeration, the most terrifying book I’ve ever read. I read it only in daylight and still kept looking over my shoulder in fear.”

Brian Morton recommends A Naked Singularity, “a debut novel by a writer named Sergio de la Pava, who self-published it in 2008 after rejections from nearly ninety agents. After the book garnered a word-of-mouth reputation, it was republished by the University of Chicago Press. A mammoth, shapeshifting novel about a young defense attorney, it’s like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and The Wire.”

And Amy Hempel writes: “For the holiday season, I gave the gift of Gurganus: Allan Gurganus’s Local Souls, three stellar novellas set in fictional Falls, North Carolina. I have already read it twice—first as a reader, then as a writer, trying to figure out how he creates those singular, persuasive voices. And for total immersion, I included with each book a copy of William Giraldi’s outstanding profie of the author in the current Oxford American.”

From Martha Cooley: “Dominique Fabre’s The Waitress Was New is a slim novel in the voice of Pierre, a guy who tends bar (and much else) in a Parisian cafe. Not a lot happens in the story, yet the narrator’s voice, ah well, c’est un autre chose..rueful, comic, and devastatingly honest. Pierre doles himself out in such a wonderfully sneaky and large-hearted manner. I have taught this novel several years running to students in Adelphi University’ MFA program, and nearly every reader makes something like a stabbing motion at his or her heart after reading it. And so will you.”

By way of promoting two books, Major Jackson sent photos of two gorgeous covers: Who Said by Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Late into the Night: The Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos translated by Martin McKinsey.

And,“Did you read anything you loved in 2013?” we asked Lynne Sharon Schwartz. “Yes I did,” she wrote back. “Wieslaw Myslinski, a major Polish writer, novel, A Treatise on Shelling Beans. Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows. Janet Frame, An Adaptable Man.”

Last, from Dinah Lenney: I’m taking forever to read Rebecca Solnit’s mysterious and gorgeous memoir, The Faraway Nearby. Also mysterious and gorgeous and genre-bending: Ali Smith’s Artful, a series of four actual lectures about art and literature—but who wrote them for whom, therein lies the story. Similarly meta, and baklavian (is that a word? It is now), and not to be missed: Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being.

Your turn!

3 thoughts on “What to read, what to read, what to read…

  1. Thanks for these great suggestions. I recommend The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti, which I assigned to my creative nonfiction students this past semester. It’s about a Spanish cheesemaker’s obsession with making the perfect cheese and the author’s obsession with the cheesemaker and the cheese. It’s also about what drives us to create.

  2. njwaldron says:

    One of the best parts of the Bennington program — reading recommendations from writers and readers and teachers like these. Thank you.

  3. I second the vote for everything St. Aubyn wrote. For years, I’d heard how great these books were and thought….really? Really. Some of the very best writing you’ll ever read. Dark, scalding and sometimes very depressing, but an astonishing ability to convey emotion without bathos.

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