I don’t usually do best of lists, because I love too many categories and because I also have no capacity to declare Favorites. I would be a terrible creature on a prize jury, loudly calling out that I loved all the finalists (and as loudly calling out that there were things I hated on principle that ought never be given prizes). So, this is a Best Of Everything list instead, or, perhaps just a scattershot list of things I loved this year. I spent most of 2014 writing, not reading, which drove me crazy. One of the things I wanted most was time to read, but I’d require an extra month to do it, so on this list are things I fell into reading while on subways. Subways are my Sundays.
This year, my tastes in art ran to the crossed genres, song cycles in which grief creates the ecstatic, books in which death creates space for last bits of beauty. I spent a lot of the year sad, and a lot of it furious, often both at once. I also spent a lot of the year surrounded by love, and impacted by the passion and curiosity of the people I know, the way they engage with their communities, the way they work at changing the world. It’s been a year of social revelation and revolution in America, much of it painful. We lived this year theoretically in 2014, but much of our custom and action dates to the shivering shit of centuries past. There was injustice, cruelty, and failure to parse even simple truths. There was also passion, bravery, ferocity, and dialogue, all of which are the best parts of living human here on earth. So, some of my favorite things this year were about those topics too.
I’ve been thinking about the old hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing? It’s from 1869, written by the American Baptist Minister Robert Lowry. The original isn’t entirely my sort of thing, because it’s very rooted in Christianity. But it got some new verses in 1950.
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?
Pete Seeger covered it, and made it into a famous folk song. This version is very much my kind of hymn: it acknowledges pain, injustice, and suffering, while also acknowledging the possibility of joy and shifts in current realities. Here is the Springsteen version of it.
I’ve been especially interested this year in traditional narratives given new spins, old materials transformed into new stories set in our present surroundings. I’ve been wrangling with folklore – not fairy tales so much, but stories that are more prosaic, the ones about magic solving nothing, but existing anyway. I spent the year reading a lot of history and a lot of tales categorized as history, but…not.
Here’s a wild-eyed selection, much reduced, of some of my favorite things from 2014.
I’ll put them under the heading ECSTASTROPHE, a combination of ecstasy and catastrophe. That’s what this year has been for me at least, and it’s the art that speaks to me too.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel rocked my soul.
It’s beautiful writing about (in part) life in the traveling theater post-plague, and given two of my first obsessions as a teenager were rat-borne catastrophic plague and Shakespeare, well, essentially this book was written to my personal specs. It’s elegiac while remaining energetic, which is something I rarely see in contemporary lit. I think we’re all, at this moment in history, engaged in a state of perpetual goodbye, and this book is about that condition, while also dealing with what it means to begin again with damaged hope in a changed world.
The Book of Miracles, Taschen. I got this as a gift last January, and it inspired me all year.
It’s a facsimile version of a stunningly beautiful illustrated manuscript dating to about 1550, and it depicts apocalyptic weather and eerie celestial phenomena painted in a style that reminds me of the Surrealists mixed with, say, the paintings of William Blake. Rains of blood, and suns like decapitated heads, exuberant colors, naive outlines.
It’s a depiction of shock, and of the creation of beauty in the midst of it. It made me cry the first time I opened it, handed sheepishly across a table to me by someone who said, “I had to buy it for you. There was nothing else to be done.” Yes. And so, everything I wrote all year was ecstatic catastrophe. But that’s about right for this moment.
The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Machado in Granta. A ghost story, but much as I said above, it falls into the category of energetic elegy, and it also has a classic feel while being rooted firmly in our world, this moment, the particularities of our present system of injustice and misogyny. My favorite kind of ghost story, this one mourns a life as it is lived. It’s sexy as hell, and complicated as hell, and it has the following line in it, which made me make a noise of empathy for former lives of my own. Maybe this is simply often what it means to live as a woman in this world, with the structure of the world designed to accommodate the needs of men rather than women.
I look at the face of my husband, the beginning and end of his desires all etched there. He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all.
This is a story about how good men can destroy women with their normal desires, their wishes for a life lived to be gloried in by men instead of a life survivable (or perhaps even enjoyable) by women. It’s about living a whole life while being mortally wounded. I’m a Machado fan full stop, but this one is particularly brilliant.
A Girl Who Comes Out Of A Chamber at Regular Intervals by Sofia Samatar in Lackington’s Quarterly. This story is a searingly political and feminist riff on automata. Read in conjunction with the Machado story above, you’ll come out feeling bruised, but renewed by language and content. This story is an automaton’s dream of the present day, the world consumed in war and vengeance, combined with a list of tasks assigned to a woman made of gears. It’s blistering.
What is the nature of things? The mechanism works perfectly for years; then one day it breaks…That’s how it happens. One day something springs loose, and the clock stops. The clock is bleeding.
I’m a big Samatar fan both personally and professionally. She is simultaneously ferocious and kind, and her work is as well. This story is no exception. I’ve been thinking about it for months.
Polynia by China Miéville at Tor.UK. This one’s a bit of a gimme, because I edited several versions of it. That said, it’s always been exactly the kind of story I love, and it’s on point with my best of Ecstastrophe theme. Because I got to work on it, it also inspired me through months of my own writing this year. It’s a story about icebergs in the sky over London, and an expedition that goes up in an attempt to assess them. It’s also about life on the ground among children. It’s a story about loss and complex resurrection.
In Stepney a newsagent was taking every other publication out of his shop window and filling it with, of all things, copies of New Scientist. ‘I tell them,’ he kept shouting to someone inside. ‘I keep tell them.’ He waved a magazine at me jovially. ‘Look,’ he said.
On the cover were photographs from an arctic mission which took place years before I was born, icebergs rising from the water. Next to each of those images was one of a mass over London. The frozen slopes and slices and cracks were the same. The crags overhead were close to identical to those that had once floated in the Antarctic.
‘Look, they melt!’ he said. ‘First they melt and now look they come back.’
The icebergs are ghostbergs, reconstituted in the air after their disappearance from Earth. And this story, about ice, itself always a potential ghost object, something that can change form and disappear with only a touch of warmth, well, this is a story about everything I’ve been thinking about this year. China often writes about wonder paralysis, the moments in childhood when the world, normal to those who’ve been in it, looks like unspeakable magic to those new to a place or a lifetime. This story is full of that, and is as well a confession of typical cruelties, but done in such a way that it is an earth-wide confession of the accumulation of typical cruelties and the effects of same on, well, life on Earth.
I read lots of nonfiction this year, and am most annoyed with myself, because I have no idea at this point what I read. It was often frenzied clicking, and so much of it was beautiful and topical. These two things stick in my brain here at the end of the year, but there were many more.
A Resourceful Woman by Jeff Sharlet on Instagram. Hybrid photoessay about Mary Mazur, living in a motel and telling some stories about her life to this point. It’s about America, eating and trying to eat, listening to the people upstairs whether or not they’re real. It hurts. It’s vital.
“They think I can’t do nothing,” says Mary. “But they don’t know.” They: The three brothers she says live upstairs, the three ding dongs, she calls them. Her three children—rather, she insists, the children she bore—gone, but some ghosts won’t leave. “They turn off my lights, they change my channels.” She makes her hands into fists. Grins. Stands on her one good foot
I watched this being tweeted last August as Ferguson grieved the murder of Michael Brown. I spent that afternoon feeling a bunch of similar rage and re-tweeting it myself. It’s furious and funny, satiric and so not. It’s a manual for life in this moment, and I love it for its reality as much as I love it for its immediacy, elegantly done in extreme short form.
Your rage should be constructive and look for solutions, rather than simply existing for itself.
Your rage can be something when it grows up.
Please make sure your rage is logical rather than emotional. Your rage will have a hard time if it is overly sensitive.
We would advise your rage that it should bring along a resume and/or CV with a timeline of proof.
If only your rage had had two parents. Think what it could have done!
Ghost Quartet by Dave Malloy. This is a song cycle based in old lore, the English murder ballad The Wind and the Rain, much altered. It also mashes a lot of other stuff into its wild couple of hours, including Poe, 1001 Nights, a contemporary subway murder, a story about a bear and an astronomer… Yes. It’s a compendium, with an underlying story about ghosts, guilt, and love, attempts to atone over centuries combined with attempts to avenge over centuries.
I love the way you see the world.
I love the way your soul sings.
I wish that I could sing like you.
I wish that I could feel things.
Part of Ghost Quartet is performed in pitch black. There’s something about listening to a show that way, feeling it move around you, and there were warnings about the dark in the program, but for me, it was an unadulterated joy to feel heavenly song rise around me while I sat on some bleachers on earth, holding hands with a guy with whom I was in the process of drinking some serious whiskey. A sister kills her sister. The dead sister is washed up and her bones are made into a violin. Now let us listen to it play.
Tristan & Yseult by Knee High Theater Company, directed by Emma Rice. Medieval love triangle done with both hilarity and empathy. I’ve never seen something in which a classic story of a cheating bride, a cuckolded husband, and a hot lover is treated with so much love and loyalty for all parties, but it is here. That’s the only way this tragedy works. Everyone has to love everyone else.
This is a story about real love. Also, there’s a rendition of Emily Dickinson’s Wild Nights, done as a song, that could just kill everyone in the theater with its beauty. It’s stunningly staged, and man, it’s very sexy. I love sexy theater. I love non-naturalistic theater. As time goes by, I find myself increasingly taken with theatrical productions that don’t attempt anything close to echoes of reality, but instead go with swings suspended over audiences, and high notes that, if heard in life, would cause one to call for emergency services (as heard in Ghost Quartet.)
Kontakhof, Tanztheater Wupperthal, Pina Bausch Company. This is a 1978 examination of courtship ritual on a dance floor, love and other humiliations, repetetive acts of hope and violence in human interaction.
I saw this one twice, actually, once from the floor and once from the balcony. It’s a long show. Sometimes I regretted seeing it twice, because I was driven crazy occasionally, but that was the point. From the floor the show is vastly more playful and sexy than it is when seen from above, from which vantage the movement across the stage looks like pain, high heels look broken, and repetition, purposefully engaged in to examine the pain inherent in pleasure, shows something deeper about aging and attempting to find faith in love. Perhaps this is the difficulty of the god spot. Were we all watching from on high, maybe we’d have more empathy for the ridiculous and kaleidoscopic patterns of attraction, and more than that, even, the similar patterns of warfare. This Pina Bausch piece is a timely view given the last year in crowd-sourced misogyny. There’s a notable long section involving a woman being initially of minor sexual interest, and then of too much interest, poked and prodded by a crowd of men. There’s also lively love, though, a young couple disrobing shyly and slowly from across the stage from one another, again paralyzed by awe in admiration of one another’s stunning flesh. Ultimately, the piece left me twitching with uncertainty, and longing for a dance with clear steps, or an improvisation with follow through, which I think was exactly what it meant to do.
I listen to tons of music while I write, so my appreciation of it is all about whether or not it cues my brain to leap into a writing state, which for me is actually a pretty ecstatic place to be. The perfect writing songs, it follows, are made of distilled emotion. I like many things, though, and have many musician friends, so the distilled emotion ends up being a range from furious feminist rap to peculiar new klezmer songs, at least lately.
Rival Dealer – Burial. This came out in the last days of 2013, but I didn’t hear it til 2014, so it’s listed here.
A million layers of everything from dreamy electronica to percussion combined with a repetition, over and over in the first song of the phrase “I’m gonna love you more than anyone.” (sampled from…something Gavin DeGraw, but what the hell, we have a theme here). We have sitar and pouring rain and a painful joyful excerpt from Lana Wachowski’s speech about being transgender. The whole thing listens like a broken dream of half-remembered childhood degrading tape deck Mannheim Steamroller run over by a fast car in a thunderstorm and the longed-for sound of a drive in movie screen three miles away playing Golden Age films to an audience of no one. End of the world noises, but full of hope and themes of love. The final song on the EP repeats the phrase “you are not alone.” Basically, it’s just transcendently beautiful.
D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah, Really Love. Whole album, really, but the way this one starts all whispers and Spanish guitar and turns into rapturous declarations of love. Come on. It’s irresistible. The rest of the album is full of fever and spike, and there’s nothing like a voice like this declaring anything. It works. This is more than a sexy album. It’s an angry beautiful album, and that’s the criteria here.
Ben Holmes & Patrick Farrell, Gold Dust – So, yes, an accordion & trumpet duo. Listening to this album in conjunction with this one wrote a very crazy 8000 word story about Bremen for me, basically, and I particularly note the song Black Handkerchief, with which I am obsessed. It starts out slow and mournful and rolls into something that is both a dance and a triumphant arrival of ferocious animals in careful procession. Or so it sounds to me. Before this year, I’d never listened to much in this category, and now I’m not sure what was wrong with me. Lately I’ve been sitting in dark rooms listening to extraordinary musicians playing music drawn from about ten traditions at once, and it’s a pleasure. It’s like reading a great lore anthologies, but the living, breathing, weird-improv version.
Phox – Evil. This is a vengeance song, done sweetly, with brass and flash. It has been a soundtrack, because within its pretty, it contains the words “I know that evil will find its own demise.”
I do. But I always think that evil can be helped along a bit on its way out, by art, by invention, by innovation.
By ecstastrophic creation, making new things in the face of collapse and sorrow. Lighting the world brighter, sharing one’s love. My last few months have been impacted by generous strangers right and left, people taking my hands on the streets of my city. I look around me, at these people I don’t even know, and, here, at the end of 2014, how can I keep from singing?
I look at cruelty being exposed, at injustice being discussed, at some of the wrong assumptions and horrible truths being shown to people who never knew about them before. I look at people marching with their neighbors. I look at people realizing that they are part of the solution.
How can I keep from singing?
I look at this art, on this list and not, things I read and heard and saw and didn’t manage to list here, my friends creating astonishing things all year long, and how can I keep from singing?
Thank you, terribly beautiful world. You are worth living and loving in.