I always want to do an end-of-year book list of everything I've read, and it always seems too daunting. So I'm going to follow Elisa Gabbert's example and start early! Here's everything I've read so far in 2015 (I think--I may have missed a few). If there's a link, it's because I've written about the book somewhere. If it's in bold, it means I've read the book at least once before, so it's probably really good. To make things easier, I've divided the list into two sections: fiction/poetry and essay. Read! Enjoy!
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman - Large, philosophical novel of male friendship. Kabul, Islamabad, London, New York, science, economic crisis, war. I wanted to love this more than I did. The experience of the raped woman whose voice is never heard hangs over it.
Tongue Screws and Testimonies, edited by Kirsten Eve Beachy - This is a collection of fiction, poetry, and essays, in which Mennonite writers respond creatively to the Martyrs Mirror. Harrowing, funny, and full of insights into what makes and sustains identity.
Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil - "It is psychotic to draw a line between two places." Partition, migration, and as always the utter beauty of Bhanu's writing.
Incubation: A Space for Monsters by Bhanu Kapil - The postcolonial woman goes on the road.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - Listened to the audiobook, which is great. Had the same reaction I did to Cloud Atlas: I loved the realist parts and was bored and unconvinced by the paranormal/SF stuff.
Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey - Read it because a review compared it to two books I love (and reread this year!), Renata Adler's Speedboat and Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights. What happened? I don't remember anything, but I didn't remember a thing about Speedboat either after reading it for the first time, so…
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller - Like The Bone Clocks, this deals with apocalypse. In the aftermath of a superflu, a man struggles with harsh Colorado weather, memories of loss, and the hyper-masculine jerk who's his only companion. Quite lovely. Also the Mennonites survive y'all!
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee - MOAR APOCALYPSE. Also another good audio book. Best part: the narrative voice, a fascinating communal "We". Worst: a coincidence that saves the plot.
Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon - Fragments of a young woman's life in psychiatric institutions. Shut the door and curl up with it.
The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington - 1976 novel by the brilliant surrealist. Starts off weird, then goes completely off the rails. It's Alice in Wonderland for old ladies--who, by the way, as Carrington makes clear, are better than all of us.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill - A novel in fragments, a marriage in fragments. Riveting.
Speedboat by Renata Adler - Fierce, cool, funny, moving, shrewd--the art of anecdote at its best.
Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil
The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers by Bhanu Kapil - "The project as I thought it would be: an anthology of the voices of Indian women. … The project as I wrote it: a tilted plane."
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson - Myth becomes novel, novel becomes poetry.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi - Much has been written about this book, both positive (imaginative genetic engineering & mutations) and negative (stereotypical Thailand, rape porn) and it's pretty much all true.
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany
The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlín R. Kiernan - Mermaids, werewolves, ghosts. A deadly incantation of a novel. Also a love story. I think I've read it 4 or 5 times.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac - Somehow I had never read this book. I listened to an amazing audio version read by Matt Dillon while driving back and forth between Ventura and Fresno and it was horrible and grotesque and perfect.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese - Read it for book group. Wanted to like it more. There's nothing wrong with this story of twin brothers growing up on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, but somehow it felt heavily plotted to me, calculated, not quite alive.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - Taught it in the spring semester. Still the best. Love u Gregor xoxo
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño - I'm that friend who couldn't get into The Savage Detectives or 2666 even though you were SURE I would like them, but I loved this brooding novella about art and violence and complicity.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters - Another book club book. Gripping! A tale of passion and crime in 1920s London. Reading it on the train, I forgot where I was.
Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders - Strange, cruel, often breathtaking collection. The little girls hanging on the wire in the yard like they're on a clothesline! No matter what the consequences, you have to help them get away.
The Revisionist by Miranda Mellis - Brief, lyrical, illustrated dystopian fiction. Yes, another apocalypse! The narrator works as a revisionist whose job is to "conduct surveillance of the weather and report that everything was fine." Everything, of course, is not.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell - Solid speculative fiction collection, except for the one where all the dead presidents turn into horses, what was that?
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink - A 2015-so-far favorite. It's about ecoterrorists. Zany, funny, and unpredictable not just in terms of the overall plot, but also, magically, in every sentence.
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys - I've loved Wide Sargasso Sea for YEARS so I don't know why I'd never read this one before, but better late than never. Uncompromisingly bleak tour-de-force.
Nadja by André Breton - Surrealist classic. Famous last line: "Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all."
Fra Keeler by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi - A man in a house, a death in a house, a death--or a series of deaths--in a man. Utterly ghostly and weird. Another good one from Dorothy, a publishing project.
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard - "I am a dwarf star." Anorexia, alcoholism, disintegration, survival. A white-hot book--I read it fast, as if I had to tear through it before it burned up.
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra - A collection of stories that read as if taken from the author's computer files: unpretentious, economical, direct. I loved the title story. The one where the main character rapes his girlfriend, not so much. You can read "The Most Chilean Man" (which is neither of these) online.
Writers by Antoine Volodine
Her 37th Year, An Index by Suzanne Scanlon - A life compressed into short, alphabetical entries. Philosophy, feminism, longing, grief: all concentrated and aglow.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - Completely lovely and funny and sad and animal and human.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi - The story of Snow White remixed into a drama of race in 1950s New England. I'm going to teach it this fall and I can't wait.
Five Spice Street by Can Xue
Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett - A compromised computer program runs a city in this science fiction debut. I interviewed Jenn for Strange Horizons.
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac - Where is Kerouac? Who's the idiot that wrote this book?
The Quest for Shar-i-Sabs by Philip N. Bier - A novel based on the historical Great Trek of Mennonites from Russia to Central Asia in the 1880s. I read it because I'm trying to write about the same event. The book's a bit clunky, but maybe, as the jacket promises, it will give you a "historically accurate and emotionally gratifying account" of my "sometimes mysterious yet fascinating people."
Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote - Somehow I'd missed this one. Southern Gothic steeped in race and sex and queerness and youthful alienation.
The Kitchen-Dweller's Testimony by Ladan Osman
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick - Astounding novel from life, infused with life. I still don't know how she does it. "Sweet to be pierced by daggers at the end of paragraphs."
Icon, edited by Amy Scholder - Beautiful collection of essays on iconic women. Our adoration of star writers and other celebrities can be so intimate!
An Elemental Thing by Eliot Weinberger - A collection of interests and obsessions, a kind of commonplace book. Stars, tigers, seasons: all shine.
The Pushcart Book of Essays, edited by Anthony Brandt - Excellent. Here are some musings on one of the essays.
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong by James Loewen - Mesmerizing and dreadful tour through high school American history textbooks. Boring, brain-killing propaganda. No wonder the kids hate it.
Heroines by Kate Zambreno - A study of the "mad wives" of literary modernism--Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, and others--that's also a memoir. Vital, impassioned criticism.
Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas by Marcel Griaule - Poetic 1948 record by a French anthropologist. I first read it in college, and reread it to take myself back to that place when I was writing the story "Request for an Extension on the Clarity."
Coming to Writing and Other Essays by Hélène Cixous
Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy by Graham Harman - Literary criticism meets speculative realism. Harman's writing is entertaining, his passion for Lovecraft endearing, his attempt to deal with Lovecraft's racism pretty halfhearted. He does make a good case for why philosophers should be interested in weird fiction and its representations, necessarily hazy, of the unknowable.
Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era by Paul B. Preciado - Like Heroines, this is a theory book that is also a diary and utterly brilliant. Journey into testosterone. I compared it to the film Ex Machina.
The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten - Notes on academia and how to live there now, inspired by the black radical tradition. Theory as practice.
The Address Book by Sophie Calle - In which an artist finds an address book on the street and decides to get to know the owner, not by contacting him but by contacting all his friends and relatives. Slightly creepy, wholly engrossing.
The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults by Joyelle McSweeney
The Red Parts: A Memoir by Maggie Nelson - Nelson investigates and meditates on the murder of an aunt she never met. It was weird, maybe even an error, to read this without having read Jane: A Murder, Nelson's previous book on the subject, but anyway her writing, even when it's about death, is life.
Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination by Avery F. Gordon - The uncanny is social. A brilliant, convincing argument worked out through readings of Luisa Valenzuela and Toni Morrison.
The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson - An exploration of cruelty in the arts--Plath, Kafka, Abramovic, Ono, more. Nelson really wants to know how to interact with cruel works in an ethical way; if you do too, read this book.
Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947 - 1963 by Susan Sontag
The Trouble with Being Born by E.M. Cioran - Aphorisms of a philosopher who realizes that birth is the first disaster. I found it strangely comforting, even uplifting, full of beautiful insights on writing. "A book is a postponed suicide."
The Unsealed Prophecy of the Prophet Daniel and the Meaning of the Revelation of Jesus Christ by Claas Epp, Jr. - Predictions about the end of the world from the late nineteenth century. I read it for research.
MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions and MennoFolk 2: A Sampler of Mennonite and Amish Folklore by Ervin Beck - Two volumes of stories, jokes, crafts, and traditions. Interesting not just for the content, but because you can watch a research area being created.
Dancing Naked: Narrative Strategies for Writing Across Centuries by Di Brandt - A collection of the poet's essays over a period of ten years. History, memory, trauma, feminism, environmentalism, poetics. Wonderful generosity in every piece.
Mennonite Identity and Literary Art by John L. Ruth - I found these 1978 lectures fascinating. Bonus weird critique of Ebony magazine.
American Canyon by Amarnath Ravva - Spare and gorgeous memoir in words and photographs. Faith, migration, loss, and a powerful juxtaposition of the terms Indian American and American Indian.
Monday, July 13, 2015
I don't know what my real feelings are.
Some parts of Reborn remind me of Carole Maso's AVA, one of my favorite books. Snapshots of life interspersed with criticism, reading lists, philosophy, cries. In these notebooks Sontag investigates her sexual identity and her identity as a writer: she explores and creates what she wants to be.
That quality of openness--terrifying--unforced writing that is the highest genius.
What is the secret of suddenly beginning to write, finding a voice? Try whiskey. Also being warm.
How to make sadness more than a lament for feeling? How to feel? How to burn? How to make my anguish metaphysical?
In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do in person; I create myself.
I am a lazy diarist and Sontag makes me want to do better. It seems so smart, suddenly, to keep careful notes on reading. I tend to write about what I'm reading here, or sometimes in reviews, but Sontag's journals illuminate the value of private notes. Like it or not, few of us are completely honest in public (and how she castigates herself for a quality she calls "X"--"the desire to place myself under the other's protection"--"being a moral coward, being a liar, being indiscreet about myself + others, being phony, being passive." This sinister X looms larger and larger toward the end of the notebooks, people are "X-y" or "un-X-y" or "X-prone," things give Sontag an "X-feeling," she reacts "X-ily," she despises a man in the faculty dining room "X-ing all over the place." "Think of Blake," she writes. "He didn't smile for others."). The private notebook is a space for the harshest criticism: absolutely severe, unforgiving, even stupid, unfair, wrongheaded. And maybe this is necessary for each of us to find our way.
To trust my skin.
To write, my profound joy!
Posted by Sofia at 7:57 AM
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Excited to teach a course on these searching, striving, playful, experimental, sly and enchanting books this fall.
By Night in Chile
Boy, Snow, Bird
The Last Lover
Things We Found During the Autopsy
|Karen Joy Fowler|
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Posted by Sofia at 5:06 AM
Friday, June 19, 2015
Can Xue is "the only woman associated with the male-dominated avant-garde school that emerged in China around 1985." She cites Kafka, Calvino, Borges, and Dante as inspirations, and has written about all of them. She has published at least three novels, fifty novellas, 120 short stories, and six books of criticism (those numbers are from 2009). She describes her thirty-year career as "an experiment without an escape route."
Madam X spends a lot of time at her microscope, yet she's struggling to get away from it. "I sometimes think: why don't I create a miracle? Creation would be much more interesting than research!" Madam X creates miracles without trying and also by trying extremely hard. Her relationship to Five Spice Street is that of an artist to the public. They think she's disgusting, alluring, a sex maniac, a corrupter of youth and morals, and also "the wave of the future." Meanwhile Madam X muses: "Just think how fragile people are: how is it possible to be a genius?"
Madam X jumps up on the table. Her eyes shoot beams of saffron light. Asked to give a speech, she threatens to turn somersaults, and when people insist, she does in fact turn somersaults.
A long, convoluted, hallucinatory novel, full of commentary from people with half names or no names, from Mr. Q, Dr. A, the widow with the ample body, the young coal worker, the widow with the felt hat. A feeling of being unmoored, adrift among these characters without character, in a story that builds in such a weird way that it seems to be going nowhere. But who is more utterly adrift than Madam X? In the chapter called "Madam X Is Up a Creek," her feet are stuck to thin, cracking ice in a kind of dream. "Must this drama end? Finally, do I--this woman who sells peanuts--have to grit my teeth and hold out until the end, and flip my body--wounded all over by arrows--into the sea? Wait, I still want to do something whimsical: I want to dance on this sheet of ice. It's so bright! So bright!"
A novel that's off-putting and mesmerizing at the same time. Into a commentary that seems to go on almost forever in the service of almost nothing, a surreal image falls like a thunderclap. Madam X's sister remembers X as a child:
"My sister used to be a charming, gentle little girl. The peach blossoms were brilliantly red. Then, suddenly, she threw Mother's spectacles into the mountain stream. Afterwards, we ran and ran until she leapt into the air, and I heard only her footsteps--tita, tita--overhead. In private, Papa and Mama said she had two calcium carbide lamps for eyes. Sometimes, her slender fingers would turn into a hawk's talons--very sharp and truly frightening. Mama was always grabbing her and cutting her nails until her fingers bled."
Can Xue is a pseudonym that means both "the purest snow at the top of a high mountain" and "the dirty snow that refuses to melt."
Posted by Sofia at 10:54 AM
Sunday, June 7, 2015
One night, a black spider in my pillowcase.
"God sent me here to protect you."
"Okay," I said. "Come on in."
"Who are you talking to?" my husband asked.
I told him a spider with the most beautiful voice
would be sleeping with us from now on.
The poet, too, is a small creature dwelling uncomfortably in domestic space: a scared, resourceful, tenacious kitchen-dweller. It seems so important that the collection opens with the scene of a poetry reading (Claudia Rankine's, at the University of Chicago in 2011). And that the poet, having left behind the kitchens and backyards and dumpsters and sheds of her childhood, is also a spider here, a stranger. "My voice is small as it asks/ What will it matter to them if I make a book?" I like these raw moments in Ladan Osman's work. "It's me who's getting ugly." "I just need to ventilate." "Yes, I have been disgusting so much." The spider's beautiful voice.
already read a book by Manuela Draeger, which is one of the heteronyms of a French writer who also writes as Antoine Volodine. Writers consists of seven short pieces on writers who belong to the post-exotic world (something I will not try to discuss until I've read the book, which I see has just been released in English!!!). They have created "a literature that has no name," a literature characterized, to judge from the stories in Writers, by marginalization, disappearance, crime, imprisonment, and death. Several of the writers are political prisoners and/or patients in psychiatric hospitals. But they don't just reject the state and society, they reject writing--or rather, they reject being writers. Mathias Olbane doesn't bother to complete his stories and uses his work as toilet paper. Linda Woo writes in abbreviations and a private language. Bogdan Tarassiev employs "particular literary strategies, which…consist of evacuating all hope of notoriety and, on the contrary, finding a way for his texts to survive in the least flashy way possible, in scorning the hostile environment that surrounds them and in dreaming of hypothetical readers, located in the future and in the beyond." Nikita Kouriline "wasn't called to be a writer."
Something here about opposition, about how to be a revolutionary artist. For these writers, step one is refusing recognition by the public. Step two is drawing a careful distinction between writing and activism. These writers aren't in prison for penning manifestoes, they're in prison for pulling triggers. Writing is a truly underground project: latent, occult, peristaltic, thrown out with the trash. It's not about "the voice that vociferates," says Maria Three-Thirteen in a weird nude prison interview, it's about the image. "Whether it is extinguished or not, whether it means something or not, in the end, and when I say the end it's really the end, only the image counts."
What Art conducts: itself: Art: its potential: its fecundity: its contaminatoriness; in and of itself: its viral mediumicity: its monstrosity; its sound; its vibration; its stutter; its contagion; flightlike or fluid; its inhuman Influence.
I like her evident desire to be an Anthropocene artist. I like the way she places herself here.
Posted by Sofia at 8:38 AM
Saturday, May 9, 2015
|Edward Burtynsky's paintings of quarries: |
images of anthroturbation or scarring of the earth
Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint lead workshops on fermentation as part of their Edible Ecologies project. Here is a world you can eat and it becomes you and you become it: a "collaborative hack," Nadir says, between fruits, vegetables, microbes, and humans.
The problem of invisibility came up in several talks, such as Erin Wiegand's, mentioned above, and Julie Koppel Maldonado's presentation "Resisting the Forces of the Anthropocene: The Transformation of Places, Communities, and Lifeways." Like the creators of Invisible-5, Maldonado collects oral histories, this time in tribal communities in coastal Louisiana whose land, once it's under water--that is, once it's invisible--becomes the property of the state.
Yukihisa Isobe has marked the old course of the Shinano River with yellow flags, showing how it's been altered by dams and other human interventions. This installation, called "Where Has the River Gone?", was discussed in Brad Monsma's talk "Distributed Agency and the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale."
|very absent and also present|
|very dead and also alive|
In her talk "Doing Philosophy: Art as Ethical Testing Ground for the Anthropocene," Kayla Anderson argued that while some artists express awareness of the Anthropocene with what she calls "destructive narratives," which simulate action, others adopt "constructive narratives," which stimulate thinking. Among the latter is Jae Rhim Lee, whose Mushroom Death Suit is pictured here. Anderson was on the same panel as Nadir and Peppermint, and the Mushroom Death Suit, like the Edible Ecologies project, could be called a collaborative hack between the human and the nonhuman. Basically, a death hack. There was a relaxed, chummy attitude toward death at this conference. "When you see solutions in our work, it's a poetic gesture," Nadir said. "We actually don't think we're going to survive."
There was also a lot of discussion about thinking and doing and what art is for. At one point Anderson used the term "thinktivist." The role of art in the Anthropocene, she said, is to conduct experiments, raise questions, and "provoke dark discussions" in order to enliven critical thinking. Leila Nadir quoted Ricardo Dominguez on the difference between activism and art: that activism tends to break the law, while art creates a disturbance in the law. It's the difference between the effective and the affective, Dominguez says in this completely amazing interview conducted by Nadir in 2012.
I leave you with this still from Nadir and Peppermint's video project "Late Anthropocene." In their talk it had the subtitle "A Geologic Feeling." This describes our state when we left the conference--mine, anyway. Very geologic. Very feeling.
Posted by Sofia at 5:03 PM
Monday, May 4, 2015
"Are you going to leave the book there?" he asked. And Vonnegut said: "I'm teaching it. I thought it'd be phony to take it out of the car."
I love that! The way Vonnegut is so sensitive to phoniness that he would rather look phony by leaving the book in the car than be phony by taking it out.
Apparently Ellison's wife didn't like to fly. She came by train. So after hanging out and having a few drinks and quoting Hemingway, Vonnegut and Dubus settle Ellison in his room and get ready to pick up Mrs. Ellison. "How will we recognize her?" Vonnegut asks.
Ellison says his wife is wearing a gray dress and carrying a beige raincoat. And then he smiles and adds: "And she's colored."
Another example of how not to be phony.
(I still wonder how Fanny Ellison felt about the whole situation, and whether she thought these guys were phony or not.)
Posted by Sofia at 9:40 PM