Thinking back over my reading in 2017, it is inextricably connected to feelings of concern and panic, even despair. Many people have expressed this, so I know I’m not alone. My reading has been both guided by and in reaction to the world’s events and the continued ugliness of politics. Luckily reading is a comfort and a refuge, and luckily, I have discovered excellent comforts and distractions for an unsettled mind.
Something I did this year—at first unintentionally—was read much more in French. Without making this an essay on the angst of an emigrant/immigrant and how much I have struggled to be engaged with the political horrors of contemporary US politics while consciously telling myself to step back and focus on where I live now (Swiss passport in hand since 2016), I found myself wanting to avoid English, wanting the coccoon of my new home in language and books. Doing this I read more Michele Lesbre, whose work I have consistently loved. Her Le Canapé Rouge is stunning (and available in translation from Seagull Books), and I read her Ecoute La Pluie and was just as enchanted. I have her Chemins waiting for me to read this year.
I read Anne Brécart’s La Femme Provisoire which is a delicate and dark little book, and I loved it, reminding me that 15 years ago I loved her Les Années de Verre, so I reread that and my memory of its complicated elegance was confirmed.
Perhaps the best “discovery” of 2017 was Elsa Triolet, whom I add to my bulging basket of undertranslated French modernists. I wrote about her here, so I won’t say more than I have a stack of her books waiting for me to move slowly through this year, and I cannot wait. The other writer I will continue to champion is Clarisse Francillon, an almost exact contemporary to Triolet, and the two must have crossed paths in Paris at some point—which, if I can prove once I spend more time with both of their writing, will make me very happy. Both women writing about war, both women writing about women and power.
I read a short story by Francillon the other day, “L’harmonica” from her collection La Belle Orange, and it just quite blew me away. It’s a dark and horrible story, part of a collection published in 1944, and its content shocked me for its frank dissection of a brief but intense moment between a man and a woman, following the death of the woman’s lover. Each page is a concise study of power dynamics. So much of her writing is like this.
Finally, I did read in English this year but my reading was all over the place. I read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and was surprised to find I couldn’t put it down. I spent two days devouring Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching. I discovered that Graham Greene is utterly wonderful, even if I imagine everyone else knew this before me. I read two more Ali Smith, Autumn and How to be Both, confirming her as one of my favorite contemporary writers. I had the distinct pleasure of reading Helen McClory’s début novel, Flesh of the Peach, which is a book with sharp edges (I mean this in the best way) and extremely interesting, both in terms of story and style. It’s a book that bleeds. Along the same vein, Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter held me captive for several weeks, and continues to resonate long after I’ve finished. I really like Zambreno’s sideways curating, and this no matter the subject she’s working around.
I read more poetry this year than I have in past years—poetry is the ultimate comfort reading for me as it circles around the logical instead of dealing with it straight on—and I’m so glad that I did, returning again and again to Jan Zwicky’s marvelous collection Chamber Music. I am still reading through her Lyric Philosophy, so it doesn’t yet count for 2017, but it’s an enormous work and I can get lost in it or stuck on one or two of its pages for days. I read Brenda Shaughnessy’s Interior With Sudden Joy, loving so many of the poems I will read them twice or three times a day. I came across a copy of Nzotake Shange’s performance poem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide while visiting my family in the US, and read it over and over. It’s such a beautiful and frightening work of art, and doesn’t feel dated even if it’s now over 40 years old. I received Anne Carson’s Float for my birthday and have been thrilling over its chapbooks, each one like a special gift. I’ve also really enjoyed Antonio Rodriguez’s Big Bang Europa, which is intense and contemporary (and in French).
What has stuck with me the most this year? This year there isn’t just one author. So I suppose it is that I always wish I could read more, that there is always more to read. But also that reading is the best passion (just don’t even try to argue that one with me), and that as readers we’re so lucky to have these marvelous worlds at our fingertips. It’s endless, it’s so incredible.
Happy New Year bookish people, see you in 2018 with more books.