This year has been a tough one for many reasons. It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list. But Grant from 1st Reading twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.
The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure. Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other. Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again. I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature. We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book. Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book. So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.
Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish. What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.
The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year. I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming. His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving. My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.
Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union. Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times. I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.
War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths. But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did. I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review. I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem. As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.
Seagull Books Catalog. It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special. It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world. This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog. Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed, Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.
The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.
The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.
A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.
Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry. The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.
American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year. Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.