For the June installment of Favorite Books, Sebastian invites Elisa Gabbert to tell us about her seven favorite books from the last five years. Elisa is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays and The Word Pretty. She writes a regular poetry column for The New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, A Public Space, The Nation, and many other venues. Her next book of poems, Normal Distance, will be out from Soft Skull next year. Below are her favorite books.
Is it weird that I don’t know if I have a favorite book? The older I get, the harder it is for me to choose a favorite anything. Anxiety of choice. There is just too much; I always have to find a way to narrow things down. So here are seven of my favorite books from the last five years (which is to say, books I read within the last five years, not books published in the last five years). My desert-island books are another matter; I’d pick books I haven’t read at all.
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich — This collage of oral testimony from survivors and witnesses of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident is a testament to the unimprovable humanity of real human speech; reading it I constantly felt that fictive dialogue (or monologue, I suppose) could not possibly be more artful. Later I heard that Alexievich didn’t record and transcribe her subjects, but rather listened to them speak and reconstructed their stories later, which somewhat troubles my initial impression. Either way—it is absolutely haunting, and profoundly affected my thinking about disaster.
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald — I finally read Sebald for the first time last year, and I liked it so much, I felt like an idiot for not having read him before—but you can’t already have read everything! At some point you just have to read stuff. Reminded me of Proust in multiple ways—autofiction-y, digressive, deeply about memory; it takes place as much, or more, in the mind as in any physical setting. Strings together “facts” and history associatively, some of which may be quoted directly from uncited material; it’s hard to say, as there are no quotation marks in the book. At one point he dreams of a labyrinth which, he is certain, “represented a cross-section of my brain.” A great description of the book! I love the table of contents, which summarizes the chapters with little headings that don’t appear in the chapters themselves. Seems to end arbitrarily—like a notebook that just got filled up.
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li — Really excellent essays about depression, the temptation of suicide, and the consolations of reading, about Li’s years spent with her favorite authors, not just their fiction but their letters and journals as well (Turgenev, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor, Kierkergaard). The title is from a Katherine Mansfield letter, and reminds me of hearing the poet Matthew Zapruder on a podcast once talking about correspondence as a writing practice. Also put me in mind of Cioran, in its aphoristic mode, and its use of despair almost as an aesthetic. Some of the many great lines I flagged: “One always knows how best to sabotage one’s own life.” “Harder to endure than fresh pain is pain that has already been endured.” “This must be greed too; wanting nothing is as extreme as wanting everything.” “Waiting is treacherous. Rather than destroying one with the clean stroke of catastrophe, it erodes the foundation of hope.” “This is the cruelty of melodrama—like suicide, it neither doubts nor justifies its right to be.” “What does not make sense is what matters.”
Women Talking by Miriam Toews — Stunning novel based on real events, a series of violent rapes in a Mennonite community in Bolivia in the early 2000s. In the novel, which takes place over several days, a group of women across three generations gather secretly to discuss what to do about the acts of violence: Should they stay and attempt to forgive the men, in accordance with their religion? Should they stay and fight? Or should they leave? Because they are illiterate, they invite one man to the meeting (August, a formerly exiled man who left the colony in childhood with his family and has recently returned) to record the minutes of their meetings. August is the first-person narrator of the novel—and how reliable is he? He is kind and good and well-intentioned, but this text is not strictly minutes; it’s full of commentary, long asides, interpretation; it is translated (at one point, he adds a “translator’s note”; at another, he claims a phrase cannot be translated). And he is a man—not a victim of the crimes they are discussing. Can he fully speak their language? He is not merely a silent presence; he plays the role of an explainer; he interjects with relevant and interesting “facts” in part to charm the pregnant Ona, whom he’s in love with. The women look for signs and symbols in these “facts,” which may be helpful or just a distraction. He continues writing even when the women are silent. When they ask him what he thinks, he says “I’m not here to think,” but clearly, he is thinking. I read this book slowly because I had to keep stopping and contemplating its moral questions. What is the value of forgiveness, and how can we forgive in ignorance? (The women were drugged with belladonna, so they cannot be sure who has raped them or their children.) Is violence ever justified (some of the women are more inclined toward true revolution than others), and is power always abused? What are facts, what is real, who decides? (“Heaven is real, says Mejal. Dreams are not real.”) What would it mean to leave the life you’ve known behind and start over without men or without “men,” the idea of men? Amazingly rich at the level of its ideas, but the prose is so light-handed, it’s breathtaking. “They look ahead, towards something I can’t identify, not empty space. And they are silent.”
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith — It’s noir, so, obviously you know bad things are going to happen, but they weren’t the bad things I expected, exactly. Very literary in its handling of the meaning of evil. There’s one incredibly moving sentence I will never forget. Smart, tense, complex, tragic.
A Heart So White by Javier Marías — My favorite thing about this is the way the protagonist seems to be dropping in a tangential anecdote, but then the anecdote will end up going on for 50 pages or so; in the end the whole novel is just six or seven related anecdotes, full of parallelisms. It’s sort of about time, and cause and effect, so by the climax, when there’s a lot of repetition of sentences from earlier in the novel, it feels like those earlier sentences came out the way they came out the first time because the telling of the story was influenced by later events (the reader doesn’t know the later events yet, but the protagonist does). In other words, later experience reshapes earlier experience. A fascinating life-of-the-mind book, funny and mysterious.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote — This was so good I didn’