Best Books of 2017 – Staff Picks

The festive season is well and truly upon us, and our splendid Holiday Gift Card offer has returned! From December 1st till December 24th, for every $50 you spend, you’ll receive a $10 gift card (more info here). And if you’re looking for a little shopping inspiration, check out this handy introduction to a few of our favorite books of 2017…

Names of the Lion by Ibn Khālawayh; translated by David Larsen

Poet and scholar David Larsen’s English translation of the late 10th century Arabic lexicographer Ibn Khālawayh’s list of names of lions. Essentially a book of translation about translation, this unique work engages medieval linguistic scholarship with precision and clarity. Larsen’s lively introduction, notes, and the 400 epithets are an engrossing work of cultural studies.

Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment by A J Lees

In this extraordinary memoir, neuroscientist Andrew Lees explains how William Burroughs played an unlikely part in his medical career. Lees draws on Burroughs’ search for a cure for addiction to discover a ground-breaking treatment for shaking palsy, and learns how to use the deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes to diagnose patients. Lees follows Burroughs into the rainforest and under the influence of yagé (ayahuasca) gains insights that encourage him to pursue new lines of pharmacological research and explore new forms of science.

Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo; translated by Karen Emmerich

Eleni Vakalo (1921-2001) was an esteemed Greek poet and art critic. She received the State Poetry Prize in 1991, and the prestigious Academy of Athens Prize in 1997. This volume includes six book-length poems, five of which were originally published as separate books, which Vakalo herself designed. By bringing these poems together under a single cover, we see the complex web of intertextual relations that bind these works together. Before Lyricism enriches not only our knowledge of a key period in Vakalo’s career, but English-language readers’ understanding of modern Greek poetry as a whole.

Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg; translated by Jenny McPhee

An Italian family, sizable, with its routines and rituals, crazes, pet phrases, and stories, doubtful, comical, indispensable, comes to life in the pages of this genre-defying work. Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon is about a family and language—and about storytelling not only as a form of survival but also as an instrument of deception and domination. The book takes the shape of a novel, yet everything is true.

Kzradock the Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah by Louis Levy; translated by W. C. Bamberger

Originally published in Danish in 1910, Kzradock the Onion Man is a fevered pulp novel that reads like nothing else of its time: an anomaly within the tradition of the Danish novel, and one that makes for a startlingly modern read to this day. Combining elements of the serial film, detective story, and gothic horror novel, Kzradock is a surreal foray into psychoanalytic mysticism.

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera; translated by Lisa Dillman

In the court of the King, everyone knows their place. But as the Artist wins hearts and egos with his ballads, uncomfortable truths emerge that shake the Kingdom to its core. Part surreal fable and part crime romance, this prize-winning novel from Yuri Herrera questions the price of keeping your integrity in a world ruled by patronage and power.

The Milk of Dreams by Leonora Carrington

The maverick surrealist Leonora Carrington was an extraordinary painter and storyteller who loved to make up stories and draw pictures for her children. She lived much of her life in Mexico, and her sons remember sitting in a big room whose walls were covered with images of wondrous creatures, towering mountains, and ferocious vegetation while she told fabulous and funny tales. That room was later whitewashed, but some of its wonders were preserved in the little notebook that Carrington called The Milk of Dreams

Human Achievements by Lauren Hunter

In her passionate poetry debut collection, Hunter meditates on universal trials of the human experience, contending with rage, desire, and powerlessness. Alternating between verse lyrics and prose poems, she writes confessionally of everyday survival, suffocation in banality, longing for the past, and the performance of wellness. . . . Hunter reveals an immense sensitivity and inner musicality that forecasts more good things to come.
Publishers Weekly

Staff Picks: Exit, Pursued

Karsten recommends Exit, Pursued by Dalton Day:

This book is a mouth, dripping with directions. The way things could have been, maybe, if we had been… what? Faster? Softer? A little less distant? Or a little more? A captivating bundle of impossible plays. The meaning of the stage is redefined; a field, a black hole, a fire. Something to break inside of. A new house for love. The props are bird skeletons and beehives and dirt roads and uncertain stains and infinite hallways. The actors just YOU and ME. Occasionally BOY. Occasionally DOG. Occasionally MOON. But always returning to those familiar faces. And the audience is, as always, a type of wild animal. Fascinating, and hard to predict.

This book is the touch of a very small hand, and it is also the hand that holds that hand, and it is also the hand that holds that hand, and it is also the hand that holds that hand, and on and on for some great amount of time. As YOU and ME calmly discuss the distance between two people, clouds are formed. Nothing is certain beyond what you feel with your hands, beyond what is listed in the stage directions. And even then, maybe. The voice in the fog that you talk to when you can’t get to sleep. That is this book. And it knows you so well already.

This book is a house in which it’s entirely possible someone has died. Which is fine. The possibility, I mean. The house, I mean. This book is a cute little fox that hasn’t eaten anything for days, and wants to lie down. The hair of a person that you no longer see, growing wildly without you. Everything’s on fire and the audience is just kind of sitting there, watching. They’re not even sad, which is fine, but also everyone is sad, which is fine. Kind of like when ME says how “eventually, all of us run or walk into the caves.” That sentence, repeated, echoing hollow in a cave. That is this book.

This book is the time it takes to be ok. And it is also the door that you walk through, again and again, until that time has passed. And even after all of it, still pursued. Ever pursued. This book is the part where you try to be ok with that, too. Which is my favorite part, maybe. Even if it hurts.

Staff Picks: I Am Not Ashamed

Julie recommends I Am Not Ashamed by Barbara Payton:

This month I found myself in a real reading funk. I’d been bashing my head with books I should have read in college but didn’t and trying to play catch-up with all of the “notables” of 2016. Nothing was provoking much delight. I needed a delicious cheeseburger of a book and found satiation in Barbara Payton’s memoir I Am Not Ashamed.

Payton’s voice rose off the page like a gale, blowing my hair straight back. The book begins with a casual forthrightness that makes it impossible to stop reading:

Today, right now I live in a rat-roach (they’re friends) infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rosé wine. I don’t like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men.

A famous 1950’s Hollywood actress, Payton’s name was once mentioned in the same breath as Debbie Reynolds, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. “I know it sounds unbelievable,” she writes, “but it’s true that Gregory Peck, Guy Madison, Howard Hughes and other big names were dating me.” She went from making ten grand a week, wearing furs and “dripping ice (diamonds)” to selling her body for just enough money to buy booze. 

Payton calls her life story a rollercoaster ride—this is true, perhaps even an understatement; she also deems the book “a kind of detective story,” one that attempts to piece together the reason(s) for her fall from marquee glory. How could a woman with beauty, power, money, and talent end up disgraced at thirty-five, and dead at thirty-eight? The answer’s heartbreaking to peer into.  Payton knows this; she writes:

I had a body when I was a young kid that raised temperatures wherever I went. Today I have three long knife wounds on my solid frame.

Memoir today is often telescoped on one experience, divorce, addiction, grief. Payton stirs the pot, bringing in all the ingredients of her remarkable life as an actress, poet, mother, and an expat in Mexico, where she spent two years. There’s no overthinking things, the scenes arise naturally as if she were talking to you at a bar, a dressing room, or her squalid apartment.  Her story is so urgent and her voice is so strong that it just pours out with ease and originality, creating a natural balance between vignettes and introspection. Before the term “radical self-acceptance” existed, Payton was living by its premier code.

I just want to be myself. If I’m a disreputable harridan, then tough, that’s what I am. I don’t want to be characters on film. I just want to be me. I think I found out who I am and that’s the way it’s going to be.

After finishing the book, I hungrily googled images of Payton, both when she was in her prime, on the top of the world, and after her life hit the skids and she’d had four failed marriages under her belt and had been busted for writing a bad check to buy wine. Something she wrote about how women are known and understood by men seemed to sting with truth:

A woman is like an iceberg. Only a facade shows. The rest is hidden and it takes months, even years, to find out the mysteries of what’s underneath. 

Payton does not emerge on the other side cleansed or purified or transformed. Nor does she ascend the ladder of success again. That’s how this book makes its mark, it foregrounds the uncrushable human spirit. At its heart, I Am Not Ashamed is a good story—told by a woman who led a full life, multiple lives, really, in one, and despite ending up destitute, Payton’s message is still a hopeful one—live, and do so without regret, without shame.    

Staff Picks: To Look at the Sea Is to Become What One Is: An Etel Adnan Reader

Stephanie recommends To Look at the Sea Is to Become What One Is: An Etel Adnan Reader by Etel Adnan

Etel Adnan’s work showed up in my life one morning a couple of years ago and I’ve been a superfan ever since. The idea of writing any sort of review of her work is terrifying to me; I’d so much rather talk your ear off in-person at Malvern about all the gifts this creator brings into the world. But this is a website, so here we go.

Adnan, who has spent her life in Lebanon, France, and California, is a force to be reckoned with both as a poet and as a visual artist (she’s a prose writer, too, though I’ve delved less into this area of her work). To Look at the Sea collects a half-century of Adnan’s writing, republishing several of her books in full, and the two-volume title is one of my personal I-Can’t-Live-Without-You books.

Adnan was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1925 to a Muslim Syrian father and a Greek Christian mother. Raised in Beirut and educated in French schools, she moved to the United States in 1955, not yet an English-speaker, to continue her studies in philosophy, pursuing post-graduate work at UC Berkeley and Harvard. She taught college philosophy in California for 15 years and published her first book of poems, Moonshot, in 1966.

According to Adnan’s website: “Based on her feelings of connection to, and solidarity with the Algerian war of independence, she began to resist the political implications of writing in French and shifted the focus of her creative expression to visual art. She became a painter. But it was with her participation in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam that she began to write poems and became, in her words, ‘an American poet.’”

Adnan’s vast oeuvre brilliantly crosses languages, countries, genres, mediums—perhaps not surprising given the role exile plays in her life: as a child raised in a country foreign to her parents, educated and culturally groomed in a foreign language; as a young adult scholar in another foreign country; as a graduate student and later professor in yet another foreign country; as a person of color; as a woman; as a lesbian.

She writes primarily in a language not her first. She paints her beloved Mount Tamalpais in California with a poet’s obsession. She writes poems with a painter’s sense of composition. She has been called arguably the most accomplished living Arab American author and has also had visual art exhibited around the world, including in the Whitney Biennial. She is multilingual, multitalented, and of many homes.

For my money, Adnan’s best poetic work is her lineated verse, which To Look at the Sea offers up in healthy quantity. Her latest collections, featuring prose poems—Night (Nightboat, 2015) and Sea and Fog (Nightboat, 2012)—read as mislabeled nonfiction, offering readers perhaps more Professor-of-Philosophy Adnan and less of the magic that comes from Poet-and-Painter Adnan’s skill with compression. There’s incredible value in both, but it’s the lineated, musical, fragmented, image-busting Adnan I’d run into the street joyfully screaming about, whether of the center-aligned, short-lined long poems running throughout her life’s work like “Five Senses for One Death” and “The Spring Flowers Own” or of the left-aligned, long-lined “The Arab Apocalypse” with its lines interrupted by / repeatedly generating glyph-like ink strokes.

In her work and life Adnan inhabits so many spaces, none of which belong to her and all of which are home, that there truly is an Artist Adnan for everyone: the poet, the painter, the novelist, the philosopher, the essayist, the bookmaker, the journalist. And To Look at the Sea Is to Become What One Is does the English-reading world an immense service by collecting over 700 pages of these Adnans and their many landscapes and languages. 

Images: (1) Book cover; (2) Installation view of paintings by Etel Adnan featured in the international exhibition dOCUMENTA in 2012 (image credit: Andreas Meichsner for the New York Times); (3) Excerpted from “The Spring Flowers”; (4) Excerpted from “Five Senses for One Death”; (5) Excerpted from “The Arab Apocalypse”

Staff Picks: The Story of My Teeth

Taylor recommends The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli:

If you’re someone who likes to have fun reading a book you gotta check this one out. It’s (as the title “implies”) the story of a man’s teeth. His name is Highway and he’s the greatest auctioneer in the world. He was born an ugly baby. He is humble and discreet and sanguine and an amazing performer.

One of the things that makes Highway the best auctioneer in the world is his storytelling abilities and in a few sections we get to see him in action—that is to say: contained in this novel are some delightful and bizarre microfictions that are like a little secret bonus treasure from Valeria Luiselli.

Filled with fortune cookie fortunes, esoteric quotes from famous philosophers, and a wild array of literary allusions, this charming book is sort of an adventure tale and sort of a summer reading list (I highly recommend checking out at least one story from every author Luiselli name drops) and it all comes together to make one hell of a character piece. The narration is killer. The format is divisive and functional. It was written in collaboration with the workers of a Jumex factory and it reflects the relationships/separations between art and commodity, value and desire, family and self.

I wouldn’t say this book is dark, but it gives me all the good feelings of a dark book. Nothing terribly strange or traumatic happens (yo, real talk, this is not a story about tooth pain or any sort of physical pain so if that’s something that makes you shudder there’s nothing to worry about), but it is the story of a rather eccentric person living a less than typical life, so… don’t wait around. Valeria Luiselli is one of the best writers out there today and The Story of My Teeth is ready for you to read it.

Dylan Krieger’s Giving Godhead

A couple of weeks ago we celebrated the launch of a rather brilliant poetry collection, Dylan Krieger’s Giving Godhead (Delete Press). It was a wonderful night, with captivating readings from Dylan, as well as Malvern fave Cindy Huyser, and Debangana Banerjeem and Vincent Cellucci, who shared work from an upcoming book of translations they’re collaborating on. Check out footage from the reading below—and if this compels you to race in and pick up your very own Godhead, you’re in luck, as we still have copies in stock. You might want to hurry, though, as this extraordinary collection is attracting a lot of attention, and the New York Times recently gave it a rave review, which begins with bold words indeed—words we couldn’t agree with more:

In this new age of the carnivalesque, understatement might be a greater currency than overstatement. So if I say that Dylan Krieger’s Giving Godhead will be the best collection of poetry to appear in English in 2017, you can trust the understatement, aside from the casual assertion of prophecy. Seamlessly mixing the religious with the obscene, determined to create a new form of the grotesque that marries autobiography to personal and national trauma, Krieger’s book is easily among the most inventive and successfully performative works to appear in living memory.