Best of 2023 - Benjamin

December 17, 2023

Best of 2023 - Benjamin
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Ordinary Notes

Christina Sharpe

One of The Millions’ “Most Anticipated Books of 2023One of The New York Times’ “19 Works of Nonfiction to Read This Spring”A dazzlingly inventive,...

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In Note 114 of Christina Sharpe’s brilliant Ordinary Notes, she discusses a photograph of her mother at five years old, writing: “It is my mother’s hands in the photograph that constitute what Roland Barthes called the punctum—that detail, that accident which pricks me.” And it’s this regard for the confluence of artifact and accident—presence, absence, present-absence—that has stuck with me most from this remarkable book. From Note 133: “The way my mother is holding her hands: cupped, fingers not quite touching. Where did she learn that?”  

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Andrew Steeves, Christopher Patton

An incidental expression of “Pied Beauty,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s influential poem, is captured in the waste of a letterpress printer’s fine edition. In this...

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Gerard Manley Hopkins’s concepts of “inscape” (roughly: the singularity of each individual thing) and “instress” (the whole of one’s attention to a thing’s inscape, roughly) have been important to my work over the years. Because of the reverence for happenstance inherent to GMH’s poetry and philosophy, I’m certain that he would have appreciated the “incidental printing”—near-pictograms created as by-products of the printing process—of his poem “Pied Beauty,” chanced upon by Andrew Steeves of Gaspereau Press and contextualized by Steeves in collaboration with poet Christopher Patton. 

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Furniture Music

Gail Scott

In Furniture Music, Montreal luminary Gail Scott chronicles her years in Lower Manhattan during the Obama era, in a community of poets at the...

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Gail Scott is a legend of the Montreal literary community, so I was thrilled to see that her latest book would be released by Wave Books, one of the most innovative US-based publishers around. Furniture Music did not and does not disappoint; Scott is concerned with the City as a place of plurality and singularity—the throng-loneliness of urban life—and here turns her attention to Lower Manhattan, thinking with and through a legion of voices, from Mina Loy and Renee Gladman to Heath Ledger and Barack Obama. The result is a text that is part memoir, part long-poem, part cityscape, part polyphony, part living thought. It’s excellent.

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Ranjit Hoskote

Set in an age of ecological catastrophe, Icelight eloquently accepts transience yet asserts the robustness of hopeIcelight, Ranjit Hoskote's eighth collection of poems, enacts...

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“Of what / am I the barometer?” asks the speaker in the first poem of Ranjit Hoskote’s Icelight. The question is apt, as throughout the collection Hoskote has the measure of pressure-points.

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Empty Spaces

Jordan Abel

From the acclaimed, boundary-breaking author of NISHGA comes a hypnotic and mystifying exploration of land and legacy.Reimagining James Fenimore Cooper’s nineteenth-century text The Last...

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Visionary Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel once again takes up James Fenimore Cooper’s nineteenth-century settler-colonial novel The Last of the Mohicans; whereas 2021’s NISHGA digested Cooper’s descriptions of the natural world into the visual field of the traditional Nisga’a artwork of Abel’s father, Empty Spaces turns its focus onto the text itself, drawing it out onto the page where it is then written over, under, and through.

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M. NourbeSe Philip

A haunting lifeline between archive and memory, law and poetryIn November, 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans...

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I will take any opportunity to recommend M. NourbeSe Philip’s masterpiece—an uptake of the language of the Gregson vs. Gilbert case report which detailed the Zong massacre of the late 18th century—and the new edition out from Invisible Publishing is exactly such an opportunity. 

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My Death

Lisa Tuttle

A widowed writer begins to work on a biography of a novelist and artist—and soon uncovers bizarre parallels between her life and her subject’s—in...

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I hadn’t heard of Lisa Tuttle before this NYRB reprint of her 2004 novella. My Death is the story of a writer who—listing after the death of her husband—has a sudden and inexplicable conviction to write a biography of a little-known writer named Helen Ralston. As she sketches out the project and conducts preliminary interviews with Ralston herself, the narrator begins to entwine with the subject and the work in a manner which threatens the border between selves, between the world and the word. That the slippage into the uncanny is accomplished so seamlessly, and in such a short work of fiction, is very impressive and very memorable. 

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Offshore Lightning

Saito Nazuna

Anxiety and longing suffuse incisive portraits of postwar JapanNazuna Saito began making comics late. She was in her forties when she submitted a story...

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The work of Saito Nazuna was nearly lost to time and circumstance—I’m grateful that her work has not only been restored to popular attention, but has now been translated to English for the first time. Offshore Lightning is a collection of stories which zero in on people and experiences which are most often—out of repression or negligence—pushed to the margins: the very young, the very old, the very ill. Drawn with precision and written with generosity, Nazuna’s work deserves its resurgence. 

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The Long Form

Kate Briggs

From the award-winning author of the book-length essay This Little Art, a debut novel that reaches back to the start of the novel tradition...

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Kate Briggs’s latest book takes ‘novel’ at face value: it feels utterly new. Following a mother and her infant in the mythic everyday of the first year of life, and interwoven with theories of the novel throughout the centuries, The Long Form construes the way forward while taking it.

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Mirror of Obedience

Simone Weil

Simone Weil (1909-1943) was one of the foremost French philosophers of the 20th century; a mystic, activist, and writer whose profound work continues to...

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A collection of Simone Weil’s poems and autobiographical writings, translated into English for the first time. Lucky us! Weil’s thinking and writing, to me, represent the acme of attention; we need her now more than ever.

Non-2023 favourites:

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The Hundred Years' War on Palestine

Rashid Khalidi

A landmark history of one hundred years of war waged against the Palestinians from the foremost US historian of the Middle East, told through...

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Rashid Khalidi’s The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine offers invaluable context for the atrocities currently unfolding in Gaza, for US and Canadian complicity in the actions of the Israeli state, for the conditions that have have allowed for a genocide to be carried out with impunity.

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The Corner That Held Them

Sylvia Townsend Warner

'One of the great British novels of the twentieth century: a narrative of extraordinary reach, power and beauty' Sarah WatersThe nuns who enter a...

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The work of Sylvia Townsend Warner, a contemporary of Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes, has seen somewhat of a revival lately, though she remains underappreciated. The Corner That Held Them—which tracks the life and lives of a medieval Norfolk convent over several hundred years—is a new favourite of mine. Townsend Warner’s writing is, at times, dizzyingly precise; she is keyed into what she calls “the oddness of the world,” which she renders with equal parts gravity and grace. 

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Wet Dream

Erin Robinsong

Wet Dream is an expansive book of ecological thinking for living on a wet planet on fire. Erotic and political, vibrating with pleasures, medicines,...

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I love this book by local poet Erin Robinsong, and have been coming back to it throughout the year. Wet Dream explores the conditions of existence upon “a wet planet on fire,” moving through each of the iterations in turn: braced and bracing; liquid and erotic; and, finally, coalesced into breath. Some researchers believe there is a fourth phase of water, a kind of energetic, jellied state between liquid and solid; many think it’s sham science—and perhaps it is—but I believe you can sense something of this fourth phase in Wet Dream: an ulterior holding-together of sense and sound.

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Double Trio: Tej Bet, So's Notice, Nerve Church

Nathaniel Mackey

For thirty-five years American poet Nathaniel Mackey has been writing a long poem of fugitive making like no other: two elegiac, intertwined serial poems—“Song...

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Double Trio sees Nathaniel Mackey’s twinned lifelong-poems “Mu” and “Song of the Andoumboulou” brought together in a three-book ensemble, hence the title. Mackey’s poetics run alongside free jazz in the enclave between improvisation and composition. Double Trio feels like a significant work; it’s a privilege to read Mackey’s “all-day-music” of the “alter-everyday.”

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Dashiel Carrera

The Deer is a rhythmic, surrealist psychological thriller about a physicist who hits—what appears—to be a deer. As he returns from the scene of...

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On his way home and not on his way home, a physicist strikes a deer with his car and he does not. Dashiel Carrera’s Deer is a curious, challenging novel which—like Lisa Tuttle’s My Death—distorts narrative time with deft misuses of tense and indicative. 

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A few books I’m looking forward to in 2024:

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Kaveh Akbar

A newly sober, orphaned son of Iranian immigrants, guided by the voices of artists, poets, and kings, embarks on a remarkable search for a family secret that leads...

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Gerald Murnane

Inland is a work which gathers in emotional power as it moves across the grasslands of its narrator’s imagination—from Szolnok County on the great plains...

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Wrong Norma

Anne Carson

Published here in a stunning edition with images created by Carson, several of the twenty-five startling poetic prose pieces have appeared in magazines and...

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Code Noir

Canisia Lubrin

Here is groundbreaking, dazzling debut fiction from one of Canada's most exciting and admired writers.Canisia Lubrin's debut fiction is that rare work of art—a...

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Paul Celan and the Trans-Tibetan Angel

Yoko Tawada

Patrik, who sometimes calls himself “the patient,” is a literary researcher living in present-day Berlin. The city is just coming back to life after...

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