Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

This past year involved a few wonderful things —I’m speaking strictly of small personal events and a handful of excellent books and not of the series of horrific world events that I find overwhelmingly preoccupying—but, sadly, the last twelve months did not involve nearly enough good reading. I think I actually read less than forty books this past year. This depresses me. I feel the most alive when I am reading and thinking about books and how they work. So I am desperately looking forward to 2015 and a series of reading projects I have planned.

First, however, a short list of the books I read and loved in 2014 (even if they were not published in 2014):

  • To Hell with Cronjé, by Ingrid Winterbach, tr. Elsa Silke
  • Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, tr. Anne Born
  • August by Christa Wolf, tr. Katy Derbyshire
  • Orkney by Amy Sackville
  • The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, tr. Shaun Whiteside
  • A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Nay, Rather by Anne Carson
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

I’d love to discuss any of these books with you – and recommendations based on them would also be very welcome.

My reading in 2015 is off to a good start, however. I rang in the New Year with a jetlagged midnight re-read of Clarisse Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. I enjoyed this book when I first read it, but I read it too closely to a read of Agua Viva and The Hour of the Star. This was too much Lispector at once and I did not appreciate it in the way I could have. I was entranced with this re-read a few nights ago – highlighting, taking notes, pausing to re-read paragraphs. Although I find this comparison a little troublesome, Lispector affects me in a similar way to Woolf – she asks me to engage with a complicated and fast-moving interior world, one that feels achingly familiar at times and wholly alien at others. You know that early scene of Joyce’s in A Portrait of the Artist, when he situates Stephen within the vast universe for the first time? That is what Lispector does again and again and again – she situates the mind of her character in relation to the universe, to others, to herself. She is constantly periscoping outward and inward and it can be dizzying but it is always illuminating and provocative.

The second book I’ve started for 2015 is Shirley Hazzard’s 1970 novel The Bay of Noon. This is one of the books that takes some warming up to. But I am about halfway through and looking forward to see how Hazzard pulls it all together. It is a short little book but formal—I mean formal in the way the prose feels, and structurally as well. Here is one of several lines I keep going back to:

That is something one does not foresee in wishing to elude one’s traditions: that the threat, once its fangs are drawn, may become transfigured into intimacy, a frame of reference.

Last but not least, a haphazard (because still in the planning stages) list of the reading projects I plan to move ahead on in 2015:

I have started reading Beckett finally, an author I have been meaning to read for some time. Anthony of Time’s Flow has piqued my curiosity with his many discussions of Beckett’s work and journals. I have begun with Molloy.

In 2014, I discovered Muriel Spark and plan to read as many of her novels as I can find this year. Her humor is very welcome, as is her biting social commentary.

I am about halfway through my start-to-finish Virginia Woolf read. I hope to finish this year.

Several authors I plan to read as much as possible of this year – Anne Carson, Nabokov, Coetzee and Clarisse Francillon. All extremely different writers, much to look forward to.

More poetry! More poetry!

One of the things I’d like to work on this year is non-fiction/philosophy/essay reading. I am still compiling a list of writers and books and will write more about this later.

Finally, some friends of mine and I recently engaged in a recommendations game. We are all serious readers but with quite different tastes. We gave each other a list of our “perfect books” and the reasons why. Based on these lists we then gave each other a single book recommendation. It was a great bit of fun, and I received the following three books to read: Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing.  So those are now added to my list.

And last but not least, I have a rather random pile of fiction waiting for me. I’ve collected these titles from reviews and recommendations from readers I trust:

  • A Life with Mary Shelley – Barbara Johnson
  • The Hum of Concrete – Anna Solding
  • A Town of Empty Rooms – Aimee Bender
  • Project for a Fainting – Brenda Shaughnessy
  • The Fountains of Neptune – Rikki Ducornet
  • My Mother: Demonology – Kathy Acker
  • Nightwood – Djuna Barnes
  • The House of Breath – William Goyen
  • All the Birds Singing – Evie Wyld
  • We are the Birds of the Coming Storm – Lola Lafon

So that’s it – anyone have a burning recommendation for me? The very best book you read in 2014 and would love to pass on to my ever-growing list? Please don’t hesitate!

13 Responses to “A new year”

  1. Anthony


    Complete agreement on Nay Rather and Dept. of Speculation, which are the two on your short list that I read last year. I read The Wall in 2013, but watched the film last year, and find myself thinking about both often.

    Muriel Spark is always on my list for the year but somehow I never quite get around to her books. Ingrid Winterbach is also on this year’s intended list.

    Filling my gaps in reading Anne Carson, Coetzee, Virginia Woolf and Christa Wolf are all intended for this year, as is knuckling down to read more philosophy (complete books rather than essays in PDF form). I look forward to comparing notes.

    The book I read last year that I think you’ll like a lot is Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky, a very singular book. The others I’ve read of his haven’t hit the same heights.

    As for poetry, the one I’m most excited about this year is a collected edition of Christopher Logue’s Homer renderings (due in autumn from Faber). You’ve read Alice Oswald’s Memorial? If not, you must – you’ll adore it!

  2. Michelle

    Anthony – I think I have you to thank for both Nay, Rather and Dept. of Speculation, actually. And I will look for Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky right away as ell as Oswald’s Memorial. Thank you. (Have you read Anne Germanaco’s Tribute? This is one I forgot to mention, a book that has stayed with me.)

    I still need to see the film of The Wall. It was a book that has stayed with me. And prompted multiple unexpected conversations with a variety of people who happened to read it at the same time as I did. I love it when a book does this.

    I will be very curious to hear what you think of the Winterbach. I have one of her other novels to read this year, and am looking forward to this.

    My non-fiction and philosophy project is going to require some careful thinking. There is so much I want to read – so much I feel I should have already read but never found the time – so I want to approach it all correctly, and not overwhelm myself and give up. I very much look forward to compare notes.

  3. Anthony

    Anne Germanaco’s Tribute looks very interesting, Michelle. I’ve added it to my list for later in the year. [I’ve a self-imposed limit on reading books by American authors.]

  4. Anne

    Michelle, I have both the Mitchell and the Brookner. Short-term swap you for the Lispector and Offill? (I also have a few Modianos for you, and a Lesbre.) And my 2015 recommendation is Evie Wyld’s debut novel. That may welll have been my revelation-of-2014 read. PS Did I lend you the Ishiguro? So glad you liked it. Your post on it was wonderful.’

  5. Michelle

    £Anne – A deal! I have now read the Mitchell (have you read this one? – I’d love to talk to you about how he mixes moments of highly lyrical writing into an otherwise non-lyrical book) – and I think I read the Brookner a few years ago but cannot find my copy, so will happily borrow yours. I need to give you back your Ishiguro – although I’ve ordered one for myself because I think I cannot bear to be without a copy of this book. You deserve my biggest thanks for this one. And I’ve noted the Wyld, cannot wait to read this!

  6. whisperinggums

    I have read the Mitchell and Brookner. I really liked the Wyld. And I like Shirley Hazard though I haven’t read that book.

    But if that’s the only Ishiguro you’ve read I’d say go read his others – particularly his first three of which Hills is one. I’ve read all of his books to date but one, and I’m a big fan.

  7. Michelle

    I’ve read Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World and his Never Let Me Go, both of which I loved, so I should not have been surprised by how much I enjoyed A Pale View – which others do you love?

    Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon turned out to be an interesting book – I think it deserves a re-read for me to get at its many layers. And it’s a really short text, the kind of challenge I enjoy.

    • whisperinggums

      I think of all I’ve read – which is 6 or 7 – Never let me go is my least favourite. I loved The remains of the day. It was the first I read and probably the one most imprinted on my memory in terms of tone, story, characters. When we were orphans is weird but I really liked it. And I think his most recent book is Nocturnes – short stories though with some connections. I enjoyed those too.

      Yes, I like short complex texts too.

  8. Scott W.

    So many intriguing recommendations here, a few of which I’ve read, most of which I know nothing about. Such an infectious idea too – “the perfect book” – what would I possibly pick? Ann Carson’s Men in the Off Hours is one of the best books of contemporary poetry I’ve read, for what it’s worth. And I’m inspired now to complete my own Virginia Woolf start-to-finish project, which began in high school and – in terms of the novels, at least – only awaits The Voyage Out. I might as well also note here that I very much enjoyed reading your own book, Fog Island Mountains. It put me in the mood to read again another favorite, Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain.

  9. Michelle

    Scott – I read Men in the Off Hours in November and December. It is so so good. I am a confirmed Anne Carson fan at this point, and will try to read everything she has written / writes.

    I will be very curious to see what you think of The Voyage Out. I really enjoyed it in terms of looking at it as Woolf’s first novel. It will never compare to her later works for me, but what she does is really interesting all the same and her writing – in this first long work – is as fascinating/sharp as ever.

    And thank you so much for your kind comment on Fog Island Mountains. I’m delighted that you liked it, and I have not read Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, so I will be sure to look for a copy.

  10. Scott W.

    Michelle – Okay, thanks, confirmed: I’ve added The Voyage Out to my reading plans for this year. If you can find it, the Kenji Hamada translation of Tales of Moonlight and Rain is the one to get.

  11. Stefanie

    I hope to do some reading of Woolf and Lispector this year myself. I totally understand what you mean about reacting/reading Lispector like Woolf. You have good plans for the year! If you want to add anything else to the piles I recommend A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride and How to be Both by Ali Smith. They were two of my favorite books in 2014. Happy New Year!

    • Michelle

      Hi Stefanie – I’ve been meaning to read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. I have a copy but the time just hasn’t felt right. I feel like I need to have time to read it all in one sitting. But maybe I should just dive in. (And I’ll note the Ali Smith, too Thank you.) Happy New Year.

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