T's top book picks from twenty twenty
My birthday was at the very start of the year in January when we were in New Orleans. In South and West, Joan Didion marked out the Louisiana air's potential to "suspend" its pedestrians in a "precarious emulsion".There seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead, she said. Someone was dying when that guy hit me in the face with goldish beads on Bourbon street, my 24th birthday crown. "Quick! I need a pen!" I told whoever, for a joke, because it seemed like a moment worth recording. I was getting writing and reading confused again: I was not someone who understood the plot in moments like these. Conceivably, after losing my beloved Berkeley analyst and fleeing the States for the Manawatū, it became a year to look at myself, by myself. Conceivably, I became obsessed with the ways other people looked at themselves: I was sizing myself up all year against Karl Ove Knausgård, Annie Ernaux, and Proust. On my birthday I wrote a note on my hand: that I was to have a year unbounded, filled with bound books. My present was
1. The Unfortunates, by B.S. Johnson
A brown and turquoise box filled with unbound chapters. The first and last are set, but the rest you can throw, catch, and read. Each customisable fragment concerns a couple of British couples, going for drives and walks and standing in gardens. Lately I've been chipping away at this year's Booker Prize winner at work: Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain– another fragmented UK text with chapters that almost stand alone, side by side: except you can totally feel B. S. standing behind it all, eating his punnet of chips. Bryan Stanley Johnson was a big boy "English experimentalist", who associated with the likes of other Sixties Britain personages such as Ann Quin, Eva Figes, and Wilson Harris. He writes about the drab and grey and the British everyday, like Samuel Beckett without the grandeur. In The Unfortunates, you get the sense that the author might actually be dying. If you're superstitious like me, his fate is totally in your hands as you set the order of experience and thought, mucking all the little pages about on your own desk or bed.
2. Fragments From An Infinite Catalogue, by John Tāne ChristellEr
I've seen him twice at two different readings, in which he spoke in and out of te reo, english, and scientific language beautifully and intimately. Christellar's poetry collection was published earlier this year by the Cuba Press: and I found in it a sort of synaesthesia. Reading Fragments is like looking at the poet's memories, sort of as specimens, sort of through a microscope. I watched him listening to the "stridulating" of cicadas, for example. I get the sense this book belongs in my trench coat pocket or near a kitchen table: to be read before any event in which your body experiences a change: a lecture, weather event, or a meal.
3. Approaching Eye Level, by Vivian Gornick
Vivian Gornick talks shit about pedestrians like Joan Didion never could, because she is one of them. She eats ice cream on NYC sidewalk and talks to people while it dribbles down her wrist (!). She is a hungry hostess in upstate New York, bothered less by restraint than the management. She hosts dinner parties and cooks meat-centric meals for her friends, a prerequisite for their politics. My boyfriend and I were in the mountains around Whangārei when I read this book of personal essays in July: he made us ravioli on a camping stove, and I didn't stop reading 'til the pasta was limp and cold.
4. ALL 75 BOOKS IN THE Bridget Williams books SERIES
Disclaimer: I haven't read them all yet. But what I have read has been heartfelt and central to this country, beautifully packaged preservatives– by which I mean these texts really really make me think well about preservation. One of the newest and most frightening releases is Living With the Climate Crisis, edited by the Palmy academic Tom Doig. He curates a series of essays written by a range of voices, from high school students to ecologists. The text tracks fire and smoke, silently stalking back to an issue that haunts the post-wetland Te Papa-i-Oea soil we stand on. Another Palmy scholar, Mike Joy, published Polluted Inheritance with BWB back in 2015: in which he explained how the sludge that fills the cracks in the rocks at the bottom of our river (that I never got to swim in as a kid, because it was dog poison) is more poisonous than we can see as we ooh and aah, biking across the new He Ara Kotahi bridge to Linton. What cuts through our city is a river of effluent: a water source that can boast some of the most concentrated levels of extinction in freshwater species in the world. It's meant to be getting better, but I still won't touch it. O oooooo Preservation!
My favourites: the Piketty Phenomenon, by various interpreters like Max Harris, Hautahi Kingi, and Gareth Morgan, and, of course, Imagining Decolonisation, by Bianca Elkington, Moana Jackson, Rebecca Kiddle, Ocean Ripeka Mercier, Mike Ross, Jennie Smeaton, and Amanda Thomas. For me, the latter text didn't just reorient major works of postcolonial theory within an Aotearoa framework, it operates as a call to action: a clarification of what decolonisation looks like, feels like, and means for me, as Pākehā.
5. The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner
From 2016 to the middle of 2017, I lived in Los Angeles' Northern-most suburb. Tucked into the frontier of the great dusty central valley, Santa Clarita is a strip mall on Mars: home to Sofia Coppola's film college, Regular Show, and recent school shootings. I spent nearly every day riding from one end of the bowl to another on a bus, in like 55 degree heat. Costco was blending into Trader Joe's was blending into Magic Mountain.The Topeka School, set in another Santa Clarita, another one of the uniform suburbs that exist across America: impacted my nose. While I seem to have repressed many of my memories from the strip mall, Ben Lerner has a genuinely critical ability to tackle "Self"ness, or at least subjectivity, in his prose-ode to suburbia. It is thoughtful, in touch with art's historical modes, and its present day representation. Honestly!!!!! The novel opens with Adam, some kid, as he attempts to break into his girlfriend's tract home. He uses the bathroom, sees her sleeping body, looks around: and then realises it's the wrong house, wrong neighbourhood. Of course, "he was in all the houses around the lake at once; the sublime of identical layouts".
6. Indelicacy, by Amina Cain
This book, which came out in February, skirts the tracks of a cleaner in a museum who talks about art like my art history-major roommate and I would in bed: half asleep and dreaming, yelling across the room. Like the protagonist, we were women who liked to look at things and each other. I heard Indelicacy was likened to works by Clarice Lispector, which is probably right, but really it reminded me inexplicably of something on screen: something where I saw people's mouths moving, something where you watch people's eyes dart, hands behind backs in a museum stroll. A book where you bear witness to the speaker's lips curling over real words.
Anyway, make no mistake, this isn't the first year in my life where I have focused on <<the Self>> like this. Next year will be the same, as will the year after, and the one after that
References: Didion, Joan.South and West: From a Notebook. HarperCollins, London: 2017.