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Top Reads of 2015: Dustin Illingworth



Clarice Lispector

I consumed books in two very different modes in 2015; the tension between the two shaped my reading year in a number of ways. As a critic adhering to a review schedule, much of my reading was necessarily driven by a need for angles and fertile connections, the controlled epiphanies of interpretation. There is certainly pleasure in treating a book this way, as an engine of discrete meaning awaiting articulation; however, when not on assignment, I experienced a kind of wanton gratification in striking out into literature’s fecund jungle without map, compass, or specific motivation. I followed trails of intuition that proved mainly worthwhile, explored recommendations, dove into the silver sheen of the past, re-reading Woolf and Lawrence and Lowry, their supple familiarity never less than revelatory. I devoured almost all of Gass, again. I read poetry and criticism and the letters of Conrad Aiken. It was either buttoned-up or a delicious blur. Perhaps I can better blend the two reading styles in 2016; though, for whatever it’s worth, the binary created my favorite reading year in recent memory.


Charles Reznikoff, 
Testimony: The United States (1885-1915) Recitative (Black Sparrow Press)

Likely my favorite book of the year, Black Sparrow’s reissue of Testimony ensures this Objectivist masterwork will finally receive the praise and readership it deserves (glowing reviews in the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books certainly aren’t hurting either). Spare, haunting, plainspoken poems drawn from decades of court records depict a broken, enervated America, one in which a concentrated aesthetic witnessing—the titular testimony itself—becomes a profoundly moral act.




James Salter, Light Years (Vintage)

James Salter’s Light Years—impossibly beautiful, virtually unimprovable—bears frequent returns, as a kind of life-giving water when the reading consciousness becomes arid. This is the work of a master prose stylist, one whose exquisite depictions of the drift and decay of marriage remain somehow both sumptuous and vigorous, a structure made of song and steel. Not since To the Lighthouse has time, in its rich melancholy and prismatic joy, been summoned to greater effect.




Clarice Lispector, The Complete Stories, trans. Katrina Dodson (New Directions)

There was a definite “Lispector Moment” experienced in 2015—and lucky us readers. New Directions’ release of her complete stories was perhaps the literary event of the year, a gathering of attention for one of the great (and scandalously underread) geniuses of modern letters. Lispector’s work exhilarates and arrests in its unruly beauty, insisting convincingly that there is a porousness between the metaphysical and the mundane. “Coherence is mutilation,” one of her characters thinks. “I want disorder.” After spending time with her stories, you, too, will be duly seduced. A gorgeous, exhausting, sui generis collection.




Susan Howe, The Quarry (New Directions)

Enamored of historical minutiae, inhabitor of dusty university archives, Howe’s rigorous, probing essays unfurl like unreasonably gorgeous microfilms, granting voice and contour to lives and objects obscured by national (and personal) history. If she appears preoccupied with specificitywhat she calls “the nature of a particular”her essays are nonetheless underpinned by both formal restlessness and lyrical ambiguity. The end result is something of a photographic negative: history refreshed and personalized by virtue of its own estrangement.


greif cover


Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973  (Princeton University Press)

The first book of literary criticism I read in 2015 also turned out to be the freshest and fiercest. In a sprawling, erudite study, Greif delivers a rich and idea-intensive prehistory of our fraught contemporary moment as viewed through the prism of midcentury American intellectual history. Greif proves especially, even thrillingly, able as a cartographer of the generative nature of crisis discourse, particularly in his lethally intelligent literary criticism; the chapters on the fiction of Thomas Pynchon and Flannery O’Connor alone are worth the price of admission.




John Williams, Stoner (NYRB Classics)

The farthest thing from a hip outré pick, John Williams’ quiet masterpiece commanded a surprising number of thinkpieces and counter-thinkpieces within the literary internet—a fascinating development, particularly for a book that simply follows the daily routines of a reserved college professor, from dirt-farm childhood to fading expiration. But what a life is contained in these humble pages! With anatomical precision, Williams constructs a novel that channels the violet-gray sadness of day to day existence, its small victories and long disappointments. In William Stoner we are reminded that one of the dimensions of heroism is dignity, the ability to endure apace with the elemental cruelty mere living promises.




Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party and Other Stories (Oxford)

Virginia Woolf wrote of Mansfield “I feel a common certain understanding between us—a queer sense of being ‘like’.” They are usefully read side by side, I think; yet whereas Woolf mastered the voice of time’s ineffable rhythm, Mansfield seems to me better able to aestheticize the sexual and social tensions of her age. She could be as lyrical as Woolf, but also urgent and earthy. Unfairly put aside due in part to her preference for the short story form, this collection places her squarely in the company of the modernist masters.




Max Blecher, Adventures in Immediate Irreality, trans. Michael Henry Heim (New Directions)

In her beautiful introduction, Gretta Muller locates the pleasure of Blecher’s shimmering prose in the dialectic between substance and ornament, word and thing: “the eroticism that lurks in every ordinary object, waiting to ensnare a person.” That eroticism of perception gleams on every page of this sleekly liquid work, the poetry of seething matter itself.




Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Chekhovian in pacing and structure, Berlin’s work possesses the grace of specificity. These forty-three stories create a kind of rangy diorama of poise and catastrophe, presented in a prose of lyrical economy that one can (and will) obsess over. An astoundingly assured collection to be read and read again.




Michael Schmidt, The Novel: A Biography (Belknap Press)

An ambitious marvel of sustained love and attention, Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography traces the history of the form without ever dipping into stale chronology; rather, this large, warm study mixes astute criticism and colorful anecdotes with the erudition of a literary historian. One reads Schmidt with confidence, leaping assuredly from the epistolary to the postmodern, secure in the intellect and ability of one’s guide. In prose that is never less than elegant, The Novel (at a towering 1200 pages) makes a strong case for being the definitive study of a cherished literary form.


Dustin Illingworth is a contributing editor at 3:AM.

First posted: Thursday, December 10th, 2015.

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