Christopher Coe’s ‘Such Times’ is a book you should read.

I read Christopher Coe’s debut novella I Look Divine a few years ago, but just now got around to reading his novel Such Times, which (aside from being vastly superior) is a devastating look at the way AIDS destroys human relationships. More importantly, it is a compelling investigation of romantic longing. I wanted to cry on almost every page. And on a few, I did.

Coe himself died of AIDS complications a year after the book was published, in 1994. How I wish he’d been able to give us more than these two books.

After the jump: I’ve copied out, by hand, a selection.

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Between applying to grad schools, graduating college, working, starting grad school, grading, etc., I managed to read 72 books in 2011.

I have to say, I’m pretty impressed that I was able to read 72 books in 2011. It was a year filled with monumental life changes, and I had only read 50 in 2010. But I told myself that if I’m going to be a “real” writer, I’ve got to read more. And that’s what I did. I’m hoping to hit at least 88 in 2012. Yes, that’s an arbitrary number I just came up with.

Now I’m going to talk about books that taught me something.

Erin Elizabeth Smith’s The Chainsaw Bears taught me that you can write a whole chapbook of poems with the same name and it won’t necessarily be intolerable. I had thought of doing it in the past, but Smith’s was the first that didn’t make me want to stop. Those wooden bears made me feel things.

xTx’s Normally Special taught me to be blunt. I’ve been having trouble saying what I want to say in my own work, largely fearful that it might be too much for readers to handle, but xTx taught me to throw those thoughts away. I shouldn’t be placing such restrictions on myself, especially in the early stages of writing. I can do what I want, and the right readers will find me. I am the right reader for xTx.

Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll taught me how musical short lines can be. Previous to Young’s work, I’d been quite adamant about my hatred for short lines—mostly because I find Kay Ryan’s work quite trite and, overall, terrible—but something in Young’s diction showed me that I shouldn’t make such sweeping judgments. His poems are incredible, and I’ve been writing in short-lined couples ever since. Emulation.

And Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution taught me a lot about language acquisition and interpretation.

Otherwise, I read a lot of fabulous books this year, of which I heartily recommend the following:

Molly Gaudry’s We Take Me Apart

Ryan Call’s The Weather Stations

Philipp Meyer’s American Rust

James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break

Carl Phillips’s From the Devotions

and Roxane Gay’s incomparable Ayiti

So, that’s the year in reading. I’m looking forward to 2012’s book list—many of which are patiently waiting for me in a stack in my bedroom.

2011 Books 11-25

As previously discussed, I am not a consistent blogger. I’m dealing with it.

I in fact did not stop reading after finishing Cavafy (while I could have, he’s so good). I have now read 25 books this year, which is halfway to my (revised) goal of reading “at least 50.” Having done this about 15 days before the temporal midpoint, I’m feeling optimistic. The list:

12: Molly Gaudry‘s We Take Me Apart: It’s gorgeous but I’m not sure I ‘got it.’ The imagery is bold, bright, and I loved how the line breaks were naturally determined by the language’s pauses (or whenever a comma or ‘and’ would naturally be placed). It’s one of my favorite novels-in-verse and I’m definitely going to reread it at some point, to figure out what exactly happened.

13: Ariel Dorfman’s In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land: Poems from Chile concerning the dictatorship and ‘disappearances’ of his detractors. Extremely powerful poems, though more for their content than their poetic competence.

14: Michelle Cheever‘s You’ll Miss Me But That’s Good: This collection of short stories was released by the student-run Wilde Press at Emerson. I reviewed it here. Cheever is stunning and I’m sure she’ll make a name for herself in the years to come. You can read two of her stories here and here.

15: CAConrad’s The Book of Frank: This book-length series of poems is, well, odd. Lots of avian imagery, lots of unexpected twists. I’m still not sure what I think about it.

16: Miranda July‘s No One Belongs Here More Than You: I read this to prep for an interview that kind of fell through. Met her, though, and she’s so wonderful and soft-spoken. I don’t think I fully understand the things she tackles in her films, performances, or even these stories, but I find something in her character’s subdued decay fascinating and oddly humorous. She’s like a light version of Tao Lin. Maybe.

17: Julia Leigh’s Disquiet: This was a beautiful little novella (which Penguin labeled a ‘story’ because, I suspect, people are afraid of the word ‘novella’). The writing was pristine but all I thought while reading it was, “Wow, I guess rich people have problems, too.”

18: Blake Butler‘s There Is No Year: The book is physically gigantic. The sentences are pretty. The design was pretty. I have no idea what happened.

19: Jac Jemc‘s These Strangers She’d Invited In: I love the Greying Ghost chapbooks. I only own four of them, but they’re all gorgeous and, as expected, the writing more than keeps up. There’s something so charming about being introduced to a list of characters and that’s that. Jemc is one of my favorite up-and-comings and I can’t wait for her novel.

20: Brian Malloy’s Brendan Wolf: I will be gentle in saying this book was not my cup of tea. When I finished it I contemplating getting a Good Reads account just to vent.

21: James Kaelan’s We’re Getting On: I remember liking this but I can’t remember why. And I’m too lazy to go find it and refresh my memory. I think I wanted to post about this separately later anyway.

22: Sara Levine’s Short Dark Oracles: Buy this before they’re gone. These stories were wonderful and just-quirky-enough.

23: Rose Metal Press’s They Could No Longer Contain Themselves: I plan to post on this later, but I’ll suffice to say I loved three of the five chapbooks, was ok with one, and despised the fifth. The book itself is beautiful and a great idea; I hope to be included in such an anthology one day!

24: Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish: I never say this, but I liked the movie better. It just had a sense of magic, of true story-ness, that I don’t think the novel had. I wish I could explain why.

25: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: Literally finished this right before making this list. The first paragraphs were too slow and then the ending seemed rushed. But I’m not complaining because each and every sentence was painfully beautiful: some of the best sentences I’ve read since her Gilead. I think I’ll try to read everything she’s written.

2011 Book 10: Cavafy’s Selected Poems

A few weeks ago my BFA advisor asked me if I’d ever read C.P. Cavafy. He kind of freaked out when I said I hadn’t. So I went to the library and got a couple translations. This collection, translated by Avi Sharon, was my favorite. They just felt so contemporary and wonderful.

Then again, that’s why I don’t really like translations: They’re never exactly what the writer intended. Sharon’s versions were so different than the others I read, it was startling. Granted I thought they were the best ones, but it’s strange to think of other readers thinking about Cavafy in completely different ways.

Cavafy was a Greek poet living in Alexandria at the turn of the century. He was basically ‘out’ before ‘out’ was a thing, which peppers both his life and his poetry with some intrigue. When I was reading, I was constantly surprised at how blunt some of the poems were—no allusions to homosexual love, it’s just there. His frankness is something to aspire to, I think.

My favorite poem was “One of Their Gods,” in which various townspeople watch a stranger coming into town before he ducks into an alleyway, where ‘those who know better’ are very aware of who awaits him. The coolest.

2011 Book 9: The Bee-Loud Glade

Steve Himmer, editor of Necessary Fiction (one of the best online journals, period), is a lecturer in my department at Emerson College. The Bee-Loud Glade, his debut novel, will be released this April, and The Berkeley Beacon was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy—which I reviewed.

My main (and pretty much only complaint) is about the book’s ‘humor.’ As I’ve said and will continue to say, I have problems with written humor; I either miss it completely or laugh at something that wasn’t the joke. But I know enough to say definitively that ball jokes aren’t funny after the fourth one. They just aren’t.

But I don’t want that abundance to stop people from reading it, because it more than deserves to be read. The questions it raises about authorship, identity, and man’s place in nature are ones crucial to the writer’s existence. So while it may have made me cringe in places, the time I spent thinking about my role as a writer post-read more than made up for it.

And who knows, I’m sure many others won’t find that particular brand of humor as juvenile as I do.

2011 Book 8: How They Were Found

It usually takes me a very long time to read story collections I like, and Matt Bell‘s How They Were Found is no exception. What happens is this: I’ll say to myself, “Wow, that was a good story, you should save some for later.” And that sounds ridiculous, I’m sure, but there are few things better than a great short story before bed, so I’ll read one on nights I have trouble falling asleep.

My favorite story of the bunch, “The Receiving Tower,” gave me nightmares, imagining myself stranded amidst never-ending ice like those poor men. And I think that’s what good stories should do: leave you with images you can’t scrape from your brain, no matter how hard you try. Between that and a drowned girl held in a meat freezer, How They Were Found certainly gives me my fill.

I’d suggest anyone interested should read the review of the book at TriQuarterly Online, who does a better job than I could at explaining what I like most about these characters, how they seem to see the world through a “filmy gauze.”