Writers Recommend: Books to Give

We wanted to avoid the inevitable Best-Of lists, but we still want to take the opportunity to recommend books, so here we have a list of favorites and recommendations–not only from this year, and apparently, not only in book form! Enjoy, and best of the season. Also, please fill the comment stream with your recommendations.

I think the discovery that affected me the most this year was Rodrigo Toscano’s Deck of Deeds. It’s a book of faux-fiction prose poems that puts us deep in the blood and guts of recent history. Toscano makes us experience our complicity. I’d like to give that to everyone.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th edition.
Roland Green and associates have done a tremendous job in revising Terry Brogan’s and Alex Preminger’s magisterial 3d edition of this classic work. It’s a vast compendium of poetic lore, terminology, technique, and history with an astutely chosen set of contributors. At 1664 pages, I am still cruising the book and wishing I had the  digital edition as well. This is a work to dip into at any page for a wealth of detailed and often absorbingly arcane information. PEPP is up to date, with entries for new poetic developments right up to the present (yes, Lavinia, Conceptual poetry, Kootenay school, and Flarf have entries, along with my own précis on “absorption,” and new entries on antropofagia, codework, cognitive poetics, Xul, Sanskrit poetry, and many more). The index alone is worth the price of admission. Here is “F” from the topical index (available on-line):

fractal verse
Frankfurt school
frottola and barzelletta
furor poeticus

As a kid (and as the kid I still am) I read through dictionaries and encyclopedias, a to z; this book holds that same kind of transfixing fascination. It also shows how new encyclopaedias (I prefer that spelling) can remain relevant in the wake of Wiki. Each of the entries is signed and bears the stamp of its author. While scholarly and descriptive in tone, the book has a thousand different points of view of what poetry is and how it works, hundreds of contradictory, or at least competing, programs.  As with the best compendia of odd facts and magical formulae, the wild swerve from one entry to the next offers delight upon delight.

Poplollies and Bellibones: A Celebration of Lost Words by Susan Kelz Sperling, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1977. I actually bought this book a couple of years ago intending to give it as a gift and then couldn’t part with it, a fact that makes me look bad but the book look good. Even if the merry-go-sorry holidays find you flag-fallen and chitty-faced, this book will gladden your wink-a-peeps.

Natalie Zina Walschots, (one of my former pupils) has recently released an amazing book of poems, entitled “Doom,” which consists of love-poems, written with the intention of seducing supervillains in comic-books. The premise for the book is, of course, both kooky and witty (but entirely inspiring in its execution). The sensual quality of the language, with all its acoustic
textures, seems completely remarkable. The poems are a lot of fun to read aloud—hence, I have the pleasure of being a proud mentor, recognizing the superior merits of a student. I envy her achievement, and I wish that I might have written such a book.

I would give (and have given), W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Anyone who hasn’t read it should, if only because it’s utterly irreducible to a “you should read this because” kind of sentence.

A Giacometti Portrait, by James Lord. Lord sat for 18 days, taking copious notes at the end of each day, while his friend Giacometti painted, painted over, and repainted his portrait. This book paints portrait of its own, not only of the genius of Giacometti, but of the existential nightmare towards which all creative endeavors perilously lean.

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, by R.J. Smith, a biography issued by Penguin–Gotham Books in 2011. Why? Not only is this non-fiction seemingly authoritatively researched, it is written with breathtaking fidelity to the rhythms and cadence of Af-Am speech so that it’s a living thing. The book raps at you like a radio, like James Brown himself, come right up out the grave. It’s a dissertation on funk; it’s right-on blues, ladies & gents.

In one of his recent columns in The Globe, Russell Smith praised, for their urbanity and contemporaneity, Walrus’s short list of poems chosen from their poetry competition. He was delighted that there were no birds in them. One has to ask, as we’re destroying the songbird population around the world, where that kind of delight comes from. An antidote is Nancy Holme’s wonderful new book the Flicker tree subtitled Okanagan Poems and published by Ronsdale Press this year.  Its title contains the name of a bird, the beautiful cover is a close-up of said bird, and the poems are rich with winged ones. Here’s what Holmes lets us know about chickadees: “Black-haired, wheezy, buffy, busy, / upside down, it grows a new brain cell / to remember each seed it secrets away.”  To quote Don McKay, this book “establishes a benchmark among Canadian nature poetry—a book, and a practice, to savour and celebrate.”

I think these are all kind of artisanal books, if ya get what I mean. They’ve got a glow: The Incident Report, Martha Baillie. For the library lover on your list — and what reader doesn’t love libraries? A novel told in public library incident reports, this is worth the read for the premise alone, but even better, it quickly transcends any question of premise and is just a really absorbing, compassionate book. A Winter Book, Tove Jansson. A book of stories as quiet and enveloping as snow.  Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, Detectives Extraordinaire, Polly Horvath. Children’s books: not just for children. Beasts of New York, Jon Evans. And here’s a “Children’s Book for Grownups.” It’s available free online, but I’d give the very attractive Porcupine’s Quill edition with wood engravings by Jim Westergard. Squirrel hero Patch is a worthy successor to Watership Down’s Hazel.

Monoceros, Suzette Mayr (Coach House 2011). Mayr’s not going to wait for it to get better, writing a book that investigates a gay teen suicide and its effect on, and genesis in, a community. Mayr’s critique is sharpened by her trademark wit and her fusion of the mundane and the speculative.

Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan (poems, New Directions, trans. Lucas Klein) and The Changing Room, by Zhai Yongming (poems, Zephyr-Hong Kong University Press, trans. Andrea Lingenfelter). These are excellent translations of two of China’s best poets, with quite good introductions and in Xi Chuan’s case a remarkable afterword. From both you get a sense of the poetry movement in China from the late Eighties on.

Collected Early Poems and Plays of Robert Duncan
, Peter Quartermain, U of California Press, 2012. Beginning to make my way through Peter Quartermain’s truly magnificent Collected Early Poems and Plays of Robert Duncan. It puts Duncan in an entirely new light, I think: the Introduction alone is a masterpiece. How Peter has done it all I just don’t know–every detail worked out with the greatest precision–THE BOOK OF THE YEAR, surely.

The novel of the year for me wasn’t a novel but a narrative composed entirely of facebook status updates. Matias Viegner built a compelling, moving and elegant portrait of a constellation of people, places, modes of thinking, trajectories of artists, and all using the “25 things about me” meme that circulated on Facebook a few years back. I had a hard time putting it down and in a year where life seemed overwrought, 2500 Random Things About Me Too was a relief. Atigonick is Anne Carson at her wry and playful best. The book is a timely translation and a reminder that feminist interventions can be as fun as they are deadly in their aim. Materializing Six Years, Lucy R. Lippard & the Emergence of Conceptual Art, Brooklyn Museum, 2012. Even if you think conceptualism is over, it’s hard not to have been a practicing writer in the last five years and not have had to come to terms with conceptual writing–and therefore conceptual art. They’ve both been around for a lot longer than many people seem to think, and Lippard’s work is seminal. The materiality of women’s work is never more apparent than in conceptual work. Several books and shows this year (Lippard and * ) make their contributions apparent. Finally, don’t miss the group of women in This Is Almost That: A collection of Image and Text Work from Women Artists and Writers, Siglio Press, (2012) or in I’ll Drown My Book, Les Figues, 2011.DON SHARE
A book I’d certainly enjoy giving is Robert Duncan’s Collected Early Poems and Plays (University of California Press, 2012), heroically and usefully edited by Peter Quartermain.  Because it’s a big book, it will certainly provide pleasure for quite some time to the recipient–and that pleasure will be distinctive.  As much as one may have known previously about Duncan and his work, each page here is, or contains, a revelation: I found myself constantly fumbling for my notebook to record samples.  There was nobody like Robert Duncan, and even given that, there’s no other book quite like this one.SUSAN SWAN
I really enjoyed Jill J. Robinson’s novel, More in Anger, Thomas Allen (2012). It’s about a daughter’s struggles with her rage-filled mother and I admired the way Robinson was able to present the mother as both a victim and a persecutor. How often do writers tell stories about their mothers anyway? Not so much, says Colin Toibin who claims mother characters in fiction interfere with the agency of the protagonist, which is why literature is ripe with orphans. Robinson is doing us a favour by breaking that convention. Here We Are Among the Living, a memoir in emails by Samantha Bernstein. Written by the daughter of Irving Layton, this book was nominated for the B.C. non-fiction prize this fall. And with good reason. Samantha Bernstein is one of the authentic new young Canadian voices who have to cope with the world left by boomers like myself.  I’ve never read anything like it. It’s earthy, wise, funny and scathing, and (in case your nose is out of joint) it also offers a bridge to build on between the generations.

For me the poetry book, indeed event, of this year is the newly republished Collected Poems 1935- 1992 by F.T. Prince, from Carcanet’s Fyfield books (2012). Prince, whose centenary this year was, is best known for his World War Two poem, ‘Soldier’s Bathing’ – a celebration of Renaissance art and fine young naked men in the Mediterranean.  Frank Templeton Prince was born in South Africa, in 1912, of a Jewish father from London’s East End, and a Presbyterian mother; he moved to England to be educated at Oxford; then studied at Princeton; was involved during World War II in Intelligence; became eminent as a professor of literature (he was invited to give the Clark Lectures for 1972); was married with two children, and a practicing Catholic. Prince died 7 August 7th,  2003, aged 90. In 1979, Anvil Press published Prince’s Collected Poems. In the winter 2008 issue of Poetry Review John Ashbery (in conversation with poet-critic Ben Hickman) has this to say about F.T. Prince: ‘Prince was one of the first modern poets I read; another contemporary of his, Nicholas Moore was also one of my favourite poets, and I can’t understand why they’ve been overlooked. Prince’s early poetry is very unconventional although it doesn’t offer much difficulty. There’s a kind of lustre on his language which intrigues me.’  Prince’s dandyish poems offer a unique blend of artifice, sentiment, archaism and modernity – and they reject The Movement’s desire for ‘English diction’ from a recognizable ‘voice’.  His witty dramatic monologues and ultra-stylish lyrics are precursors to the New York School manner, and are returning to influence younger poets in Britain now.  His work is a delightful gift waiting to be opened

Two novels by the great Zimbabwean novelist, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (1989) and The Book of Not (2006). Doris Lessing called Tsitsi’s first novel, Nervous Conditions, “the novel we have been waiting for. I am sure it will be a classic,” and, for me, the sequel, The Book of Not, is even more accomplished. The novel is a brilliant, often shocking, exploration  of a young woman’s intellectual coming of age in Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe, and the challenges, after a country has won independence, of freeing one’s mind, of staking claim to unhu, the complexity of personhood. Tsitsi’s writing — her characterizations, observations, language and subject matter — collide genius with courage. I wish I had millions of copies to spread far and wide.

Yannis Ritsos’s Exile and Return,
trans. Edmund Keeley. I have in fact given that to many people. There is something timeless about the political and personal sorrow and compassion of that book that is necessary to anyone who feels. I always find it necessary to me.