[I made a request of the PACK: send along your favorite 2014 read—not necessarily a book written in ’14, not necessarily poetry, just that book, the one that most shook you. We hope these quick takes lead you to a book you’ll love, or love again. —Ed]
Eric Westerlind chose David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified, originally published in 1979.
Says EW: ‘Sturdy, complete. A reference for the ages—makes you itch for the rain to fall—to, hard-wicker basket and wax paper in hand, be outside, foraging, fingers deep in this sphere of soil. It’s to be read once from a library and then bought to found a library. Replete with lists. Lists on lists. And then these incidental moments of hilarity where, once you’ve bought Arora, once you’ve settled that sun hat on yourself and given up on being in the room you’re in, you find yourself chuckling with his asides and astounded by his astonishment.’
William Emery made a vague apology for ignoring my parameters.
He writes: ‘It was not a singular text but a singular reading experience that made my 2014. At a small bookstore stocked as though I were their only customer, I bought four books: Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco, The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector. All took writing to a vanishing point. Baricco writes of an author who abandons the novel for written “portraiture”; Krzhizhanovsky’s writers form a club where the members murder unwritten projects; the Sturgatsky’s conceive of a homeostatic universe responsible for the headaches, visiting relatives, phone calls, affairs, illnesses, murders, and suicides of scientists and writers that prevent human advancement; and Lispector writes and unfinished non-novel about a poor girl—a nobody—and a narrator who cannot and will not manage a story. All four books crave nonexistence, but that craving carves out inevitable pages. The week spent reading them, surprised by their essential shared gesture, was the best I have had in years.’
Joseph Spece chose JM Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, originally published in 1999.
Says JCS: ‘As with my first read of Moby-Dick, movement through two dozen pages of Coetzee’s novella-cum-philosophical-treatise made me feel a great tardiness—”this book has been around for how long?” Protagonist Elizabeth Costello is an imposing figure for her moral probity, refusing to indulge the light treatment her ‘celebrity novelist’ status might afford her—choosing instead to use her guest lectureship at Appleton College to address the meat-eating act, “a wound, which I cover up under my clothes but touch on in every word I speak.” The book’s writing coincides, of course, with Coetzee’s own Tanner Lectureship at Princeton; Camus and Sartre would envy Coetzee’s ability to seamlessly integrate argument with story. Most (sadly?) compelling to me, in the end, is Costello’s own conclusion that the divide between meat-eaters and vegetarians may be too yawning to gap: “If the last common ground that I have with him [the professor with whom Costello is in debate about animal rights] is reason, and if reason is what sets me apart from the veal calf, then thank you but no thank you, I’ll talk to someone else.”‘
Kirsten Ihns chose John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, published in 2010.
KI says: ‘While John Beer’s title poem riffs, of course, on the “The Waste Land” (and does so with surprising success), his poem is much more than an echo and distortion of Eliot’s ‘original.’ Densely textured, polyphonous, funny, and sharp, the poems in The Waste Land and Other Poems feel, well, felt. Beer pits image against sound and rhythm against content (a particular standout is “Ballad of the Police Department,” which jams a chilly, fractured narrative about police brutality into a form that reads like a rollicking Dr. Seuss-style good time). It’s an upsetting reading experience in a really remarkable way.
‘The “Sonnets to Morpheus” sequence is also highly recommended: the poems in the series read like a written version of Cameron Gray’s disorienting Internet video collage works, but more restrained, thoughtful, and with several hundred fewer acidified rainbows.’
D. Eric Parkison is sticking with Penguin’s 2004 version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, saying ‘It’s the book most by my side this year.’
He continues: ‘The ancient collection of myths and tales meanders through the series of transformations that give the collection its name. David Raeburn’s translation is very prosy—though I don’t say that to highlight a weakness. The quiet, steady, six-beat lines don’t mimic or cop poetic conventions, even though they represent the original dactylic hexameter; the music, therefore, is in the subtler relationships between words and their sounds. I suspect part of the charm for me is in the host of gods and nymphs, river and mountain daemons who act, in our human world, in a way our age’s absent god seems reticent to match. Break your heart and read the story of Cëyx and Alcyone in Book 11. For bonus fun, contrast the translation with Ted Hughes’ Tales From Ovid.’
Stephanie Adams-Santos chose The Describer’s Dictionary, edited by David Grambs. It first appeared in 1993.
Says SAS: ‘In this handy little volume you can find the words you are searching for: hat-like, handle-shaped, vortex-like, or nine ways to say three-sided. You can be pragmatic about your architecture (you won’t mistake the volute for the modillion), or you can look for the more obtuse, the zoological, for instance.
‘And how the adjectives beg to modify. Goose-like, to start. From there I would venture to say that an anserine love is one that migrates in the winter—but not alone, and never without that glimmering & alien fidelity that makes even the wind cripple gaze up with its bare arms on the eminence. See how fun?
‘Naturally you begin to lean and pick up the words like agates. And even if you are prone to losing them, still there are more. Let’s pretend it’s an alluvial plain, and the river’s debouchment is a wide glow. Be opulent or gaudy, or not.
‘Under the chapter of “Patterns and Edges,” there is this, by Martin Cruz Smith: She had gone into the sea, touched bottom and returned with no apparent signs of corruption aside from the stillness of death. To which you can only nod with sloe-eyed regard and reel—or recover.’