Rank #1: Ben Lerner: The Topeka School
Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 find their synthesis in The Topeka School, the third in his Hegelian trilogy. Lerner speaks about language that isn’t just a technology of posturing or combat, but a mode of meaningful social connection, and about building a character who unlearns what had formed and deformed him. The conclusion to a thoroughly comprehended, intuitively understood, and deeply felt trilogy about a writer-to-be’s relationship with language itself.
Jan 09 2020
Rank #2: Jenny Offill: Weather
Jenny Offill’s Weather is a book about people living very much in our times. Lizzie Benson becomes a librarian who helps people with their concerns about the future, then she becomes the letter writer for the popular podcast Hell and High Water. This is a podcast that teaches people how to live in the present moment without despair. Offill says her primary interest is to bring the sublime into the everyday, and the ordinary into the sublime: Weather is about the spirituality of dailiness.
Mar 12 2020
Rank #3: Rebecca Solnit: Recollections of My Nonexistence
Recollections of My Nonexistence is a personal, cultural, political, and journalistic hybrid narrative about formative years in the life of Rebecca Solnit. A first-person account from San Francisco in the 1980s, she describes finding her voice, and invokes the possibility of others finding their voices as well. Nobody should have to carry the burden of nonexistence. Solnit finds beauty in the contemporary revolution of storytelling, and says each voice has a capacity to bear witness to what’s happened.
Book excerpt: Recollections of My Nonexistence Chapter 1:
I blacked out occasionally and had dizzy spells often in those days, but this time was memorable because it appeared as though it wasn’t that the world was vanishing from my consciousness but that I was vanishing from the world. I was the person who was vanishing and the disembodied person watching her from a distance, both and neither. In those days, I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone, and those agendas were at often odds with each other. And I was watching myself to see if I could read in the mirror what I could be and whether I was good enough and whether all the things I’d been told about myself were true.
To be a young woman is to face your own annihilation in in- numerable ways or to flee it or the knowledge of it, or all these things at once. “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,” said Edgar Allan Poe, who must not have imagined it from the perspective of women who prefer to live. I was trying not to be the subject of someone else’s poetry and not to get killed; I was trying to find a poetics of my own, with no maps, no guides, not much to go on. They might have been out there, but I hadn’t located them yet.
The struggle to find a poetry in which your survival rather than your defeat is celebrated, perhaps to find your own voice to insist upon that, or to at least find a way to survive amidst an ethos that relishes your erasures and failures is work that many and perhaps most young women have to do. In those early years, I did not do it particularly well or clearly, but I did it ferociously.
I was often unaware of what and why I was resisting, and so my defiance was murky, incoherent, erratic. Those years of not succumbing, or of succumbing like someone sinking into a morass and then flailing to escape, again and again, come back to me now as I see young women around me fighting the same battles. The fight wasn’t just to survive bodily, though that could be intense enough, but to survive as a person possessed of rights, including the right to participation and dignity and a voice. More than survive, then: to live.
The director, writer, and actor Brit Marling said recently, “Part of what keeps you sitting in that chair in that room enduring harassment or abuse from a man in power is that, as a woman, you have rarely seen another end for yourself. In the novels you’ve read, in the films you’ve seen, in the stories you’ve been told since birth, the women so frequently meet disastrous ends.”
The mirror in which I saw myself disappear was in the apartment I inhabited for a quarter century, beginning in the last months of my teens. The first several years there were the era of my fiercest battles, some of which I won, some of which left scars I still carry, many of which so formed me that I cannot say I wish that it had all been otherwise, for then I would have been someone else entirely, and she does not exist. I do. But I can wish that the young women who come after me might skip some of the old obstacles, and some of my writing has been toward that end, at least by naming those obstacles.
Mar 26 2020
Rank #4: Lawrence Weschler: And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks
An autobiographical memoir, romantic science, writerly nonfiction, rhapsodic nonfiction, the fiction of nonfiction—whatever one calls this we call this writing that matters. And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks by Lawrence Weschler is a book that can only be itself, like its legendarily kind, genius, and eccentric subject could only be himself. This book is a guide into Oliver Sacks’s realm of rapture. Lawrence Weschler discusses the fictive elements of nonfiction writing: structure, irony, voice, tone, the paradox of form and the paradox of freedom.
Dec 05 2019
Rank #5: André Aciman: Find Me
André Aciman talks about pathways to love; thank you André Aciman. Following Call Me by Your Name, this is a generational novel about life, time, and resumption—being not only desirable but liking yourself too. Aciman asks: isn’t it wonderful when life finds us? In Find Me, strokes of luck are destiny.
Jan 02 2020
Rank #6: Stephen Wright: Processed Cheese
The entertaining syntax and vocabulary of Stephen Wright build a replica of our lunatic times in his new book, Processed Cheese. He writes about the need for money in our degraded era, the end of quality and the beginning of junk: Processed Cheese finds hilarity in the tragedy of contemporary life. A manic life feels worth living in this thoroughly human book that blows up in your face.
Mar 19 2020
Rank #7: Tobias Wolff: This Boy’s Life
One of the first books within a huge movement that restored respectability to memoirs, This Boy’s Life celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, and Tobias Wolff celebrates thirty years since being on Bookworm. Honest and readable writing, This Boy’s Life makes its way from beginning to end not as if a memoir, but as if life itself is the adventure we hope for, the making of a writer: a mother’s divorce, a terrifying first stepfather, an escape from home to a thoroughly-unprepared-for prep school; the details of a childhood turned desperate. Wolff says that one can never know what sort of life a book will have.
Feb 13 2020
Rank #8: Garth Greenwell: Cleanness
Garth Greenwell is a writer of delicacy, beauty, and importance, writing about things you haven’t read about before. A poet turned fiction writer, Greenwell discusses engaging sex through its human facets and aspects, and comma-by-comma telling a reader what is thought and felt by his characters. Cleanness is a calm and passionate book with questions about power, cruelty, tenderness, and the fear that comes along when you reveal yourself to another person. Seeking human truths, Greenwell says he rejected easy stories and wrote into an abyss.
Jan 30 2020
Rank #9: Chris Ware: Rusty Brown
Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown depicts life the way it is: jam packed with details, the closer you look the ever more there is. The titular and central character of Rusty Brown is just a centerpiece in a snowflake of grief around which every character orbits; there is also a bully, a teacher, and a failed sci-fi novelist father. Readers are taken to sorrows of being, painful moments of each character, moments inside all of us: the replicating and unavoidable cosmic horrors of self-consciousness. Nothing escapes the attention of this graphic novel that locates people in their space and time. Ware speaks about breathing life into images, and never giving up on gripping the reader.
Dec 12 2019