In place of our usual staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our new Winter issue to recommend their favorite books of the year.
I once sat on a loveseat for several nights in a row, watching a multipart PBS documentary on emotions. What I recall most vividly from this documentary is an experiment conducted on Jason, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome. As he watched a movie, Jason wore a pair of special glasses that allowed researchers to see exactly what he was looking at on the screen. In this way, they could see how Jason processed visual data, and how he created a kind of hierarchy of significance. One scene featured a dramatic and emotional encounter in the foreground—a man and woman, I think, embracing, kissing, whispering endearments—but Jason, as it turns out, was watching the very interesting chandelier in the background. I don’t mean to hard-heartedly ignore or make light of what the experiment reveals about Asperger’s syndrome, but it strikes me that there is an apt analogy here to fiction. This is what good writers do—come at drama indirectly, reverse foreground and background, disrupt conventional priorities, focus on and draw our attention to the “wrong” data. I was reminded of the chandelier when reading the remarkable stories in Robin McLean’s collection, Reptile House. There is no shortage of mayhem and menace in these stories, but they achieve a thrilling and disorienting power by refusing to pay commensurate attention to the life-and-death troubles of people. McLean does not shrink the world down to interpersonal conflict, but instead opens it up to achieve a cosmic perspective that somehow feels both dispassionate and compassionate (Chekhov’s trick). This opening up is wild, surprising, and not a little frightening. I suppose you could call these stories dark, but in their dazzling perspective I find them full of vitality and wonder. —Chris Bachelder (The Throwback Special)
I treasure Oliver Sacks’s little book Gratitude. For him to have written these four compassionate essays while tumors were metastasizing throughout his aged body seems to me an astonishing act by a ‘sentient being, a thinking animal.’ I give thanks for Sacks’s unique life and for all the inquisitive books he wrote while caring for the mistreated and the marginalized. —Henri Cole (Five Poems)
Over the past year, I have read several new or newish books that impressed me for different reasons: Anne Carson’s formally delightful Short Talks; Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, which kept capturing so precisely and hilariously certain familiar, miserable, touching interactions; the Swiss writer Peter Bichsel’s Mit Freundlichen Grüssen, a slim book of lovely, thoughtful stories from real life. But the writer I have been waiting for decades to see receive the kind of high recognition she deserves is now represented by a wonderful new selection of stories: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is admirable for its wit, adeptness, compassion, honesty, and humanity. —Lydia Davis (After Reading Peter Bichsel)
Atticus Lish’s extraordinary ear for dialogue, his photo-realistic description of New York City streets that never appear in fiction, would be enough to make Preparation for the Next Life my favorite book that appeared this year. But it’s the author’s empathy for people living on the edge of what is physically and emotionally bearable that truly distinguishes the novel. A soldier brutalized by what he believed was his duty meets a stateless migrant with a fierce will to survive—what love story could possibly say more about America’s responsibilities in the world today? —Nell Freudenberger (Found Objects)
When Robin Coste Lewis was writing “Voyage of the Sable Venus”—the core, the poem at the heart of her book Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems—on Wednesday nights she would bring a new section to the table on West Tenth Street, at NYU’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing, and, when it was her turn among the twelve poets in the workshop, she would hold the pile of copies of the draft and first read it to us, then pass it to the poet next to her, who would read it to us and to Robin, then the copies would come around the table and we would see it. It was a new sun, rising—and facing, across the sky, a new full moon, a mirror. In these brilliant, terrifying, gorgeous, essential poems, our species is seeing itself as if for the first time—for one of the first times which art, over the years, gives us, the times which make up the story of human seeing, knowing, and slowly transforming. Then we would speak, greet the new being—and then in turn Robin would hear, and respond to, in her generous, smart, deep, warm way, her poem’s fellow and fellow poems brought to the table that day. —Sharon Olds (Two Poems)