02 January 2018

My favorites from 2017

I didn't read anything by Barbara Pym this year! That must be the nagging emptiness I was feeling...

But I did read a lot of really terrific books. Usually when I sit down to compile these lists, I find that it actually isn't that hard to settle on a top 10 out of everything I've read. This time I almost gave up and decided to do a top 20. How could I possibly have a top 10 that didn't include A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I would unhesitatingly rank as one of the most important formal innovations in novelistic form of the last 15 years? Well, because while it may well have been one of the best works I read, when you get down to the awful business of quantifying your love, you find that you might have just a smidgin more of it for something like a slender little novella by Arthur Schnitzler, perhaps because you read it at just the right moment, or because something about its particular droll voice endeared it to you in a special way, or because I love Schnitzler, and there is a particular thrill in reading a new book by someone whose work you adore and finding that it delights you just as much as their other books. On the other hand, while A Little Life completely undid me emotionally in a way that very few fictions have, reflecting back on it I found that it didn't leave as much of a trace as I might have expected (unlike Yanagihara's People in the Trees, whose meditations on science and modernity still echo occasionally through my mind).

I was thinking to myself that my list this year had a lot more contemporary authors than have graced it in previous years, but when I actually checked, this proved to be incorrect (for 2015 and 2014; apparently I didn't make a list in 2016. Really, self? Ugh.). I think the illusion was produced in part by the fact that I fully expect that works by some of the authors listed below will appear in my favorites list next year -- I'm really looking forward to reading Jesmyn Ward's Sing Unburied, Sing and Marie NDiaye's My Heart Hemmed In, for instance. And I recently finished Yuri Herrera's Kingdom Cons, and while I didn't love it as much as Signs, it further entrenched my sense that Herrera is one of the more interesting writers working today, and someone I'll definitely be keeping an eye on. I guess I actually read a pretty good amount of contemporary writing, and it's nice to be reminded that there are great new books coming out all the time.

Without further ado, alphabetically by title, my top 10 favorite books of 2017:

Ladivine, by Marie NDiaye -- Haunting, raw, slightly surreal; I was mesmerized by the gorgeous prose (beautifully rendered by Jordan Stump's phenomenal translation).

Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler -- I have a great weakness for Schnitzler, and this melancholic, humorous little meditation on art, aging, and celebrity was no exception.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders -- This dazzling multi-vocal novel has all the emotional power of Saunders' short fiction. A riveting, playful exploration of the mythos of American history that resonates with some of the more painful conversations happening in contemporary culture in really interesting ways.

Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin -- These stories are every bit as good as everyone says they are. Wrenching but also, often, very funny, or sweet. Read them.

Notes on a Foreign Country, by Suzy Hansen -- Few books so fully live up to the promise of travel literature. Seeking to better understand Turkey, Hansen discovers, instead, America; the legacies of its foreign policy, and how they figure into American identity. Revelatory.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler -- I don't even usually like sci-fi, but wow. In a year when everyone was really excited by the dystopian visions of The Handmaid's Tale, 1984, and The Power (which I'm almost done with), it was this novel that seemed the most terrifyingly to me like a prescient vision of an increasingly probable future.

Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera -- A mesmerizing modernization of the epic form played out on the US-Mexican border.

Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg -- Brave and beautiful, this is an important work of historical testimony, but also a powerful, searching exploration of gender identity.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie -- Absolutely stunning. Moving, wry, tender, intricate.

You Should Have Left, by Daniel Kehlmann -- I was absolutely delighted by the delicious terrors of this little book, which reminded me of Danielewski's House of Leaves (another favorite) in its visceral rendering of a mind-bendingly horrifying premise.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan; Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward; A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara; The Door, by Magda Szabo; 10:04 by Ben Lerner; A Greater Music, by Bae Suah; Not One Day, by Anne Garreta; Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, by Eka Kurniawan; A Horse Walks into a Bar, by David Grossman; The Iliac Crest, by Cristina Rivera Garza.

17 June 2017

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara's People in the Trees was one of the best books I read last year, so I had been looking forward to this. I had been forewarned, thankfully, of how devastating it was going to be, which is -- maximally. The best comparison I can think of is the film (I haven't read the book, though I suspect it's comparable) The Piano Teacher. It is brutal and awful and very very difficult. It completely unzips you emotionally. Is it worth it?

Well, to me, yes, it was. I am pretty squeamish about violence and cruelty in books/movies. I quit watching Game of Thrones, and walked out of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I can handle atrocity better in books, but I refuse, for instance, to read anything else by Gillian Flynn after reading Dark Places. So it's not like I'm a glutton for punishment, or immune to the emotional suffering that these kinds of things inflict. I'm pretty highly vulnerable to it, so if I'm going to subject myself, there needs to be serious payoff.

I started this blogpost intending to muse on the curious fact that this kind of grueling tale seems increasingly popular, both in "high" culture (Knausgaard, Ferrante) and in more mainstream stuff, but I don't really have anything to say about that, at least not yet. I am interested in what makes the calculus of cost/benefit pay off, ie, why I found this book genuinely rewarding and pleasurable, as opposed to my intense hatred for what to me seems like the torture porn of a lot of comparatively milder things. But I guess I don't want to delve that deeply into my own psyche, at least not publicly, in that way right now, aside from a few remarks. I will say though, that I think that People in the Trees produces that suffering more purposefully than A Little Life does. By this I mean that in the earlier novel, the awfulness is more clearly in the service of a broader reflection on modernity, science, and forms of knowledge, which to many may seem more noble and justifiable than what this later book, I think, is doing.

A Little Life has been called the Great Gay American Novel, an important Bildungsroman, and a powerful portrayal of (gay male) friendships. All of those descriptions seem pretty wrong-headed to me.* Actually, this is arguably one of the novel's flaws -- it seems to start out intending to be one of those things, but after a few hundred pages, it changes its mind and does something else entirely. Instead, it becomes a fairly relentless and intense story of trauma and recovery (or lack thereof). What makes it so incredible to me, I guess, is that it's a remarkable, uncannily accurate portrayal of self-loathing, but more specifically, of the ways it can exist within the confines of a relationship that is wonderfully warm and intimate. In other words, it's about how devastatingly awful human affective attachments can be, but also how absolutely marvelous -- both utter hell and something akin to grace.

This is not exactly a recommendation. I can't recommend this novel, not only because it is in fact flawed in many ways (it's too long, too lurid, and too idealistic), but also because I can't in good conscience advocate that anyone subject themselves to it. But I also cannot help enthusiastically telling you that I absolutely loved it.

* Tanya Agathocleous has a really interesting and smart reading of it in relation to those descriptors, and to queer futurity, though be forewarned that it is very heavy on spoilers, so best saved for after reading the novel, or for after resolutely deciding not to read it: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/life-narrative-end-times/

15 April 2017


The less you know about Colossal going into it, the better. Which is to say that if you haven't seen it, you should maybe stop reading now and come back when you have, though what I have to say about it doesn't contain any actual spoilers. It's just that it's a creative and unexpected movie that continuously keeps you guessing, and the surprise element is one of its great pleasures (as many people have noted, Anne Hathaway's performance is another one). I don't intend to review the movie overall so much as to get out a few of the things I've been muddling over since seeing it (and try, again, to be better about keeping this blog).

One of the things that I really appreciated about the movie is that it represents both the pleasures and the pitfalls of heavy drinking with genuine nuance. Unlike Trainwreck, which admits that staying up late and getting drunk can be awfully fun but ultimately insists that the heroine get rid of all the booze in her possession in order to be redeemed*, Colossal acknowledges the damage alcohol can wreak, and the need for limits, while also criticizing the tendency to moralize those limits (and highlighting the gendered ways that such moralizing tends to play out). It doesn't offer a simple solution - the movie's final scene is brilliantly ambiguous in this regard - and I love it for that. 

Overall, this is a really satisfying female-empowerment story. It treads a very fine line between showing you some of the ways in which sexism structures the main character's experiences without letting it dictate the narrative arc, or effectively disempower her altogether. Sometimes, arguably, this means bending away from realism. But it's so welcome and so satisfying to see a woman winning in a way that doesn't feel blatantly idealistic and contrived. This means that sometimes she doesn't win. This also means that sometimes what it means to win turns out to be something other than you (have been taught by Hollywood to) expect. That's how life works. It's refreshing to see a film that gets that.

I have more ambivalent feelings about the way that South Korea figures in to the movie as an uneasy combination of symbol and real place. It literally becomes an arena for (white) Americans to work out their issues, and sustains massive damage in the process. An elegant metaphor for actual political/economic/affective processes, but is the film critiquing them or repeating them? A bit of both? I do think that the movie insists upon South Korea's tangible reality as an actual place with actual people, and not just a tragedy that you see on tv, in important ways. I think that the monster movie aspect is loving homage and thoughtful hybrid rather than cultural appropriation. But I also want to hear what other smart people think about it (especially people of color), and I don't think it's my place to make a firm pronouncement on the matter. To my surprise, a brief google search turned up nothing (well, for some reason, it did turn up a lot of articles about the Gilmore Girls, which I haven't seen but I gather has some very problematic representations of Asians). I will probably be considered a killjoy for even raising the question when the movie is doing such awesome things re: gender, but them's the breaks. 

In the meantime though, you should totally go see the movie. It's not perfect or even mind-blowingly amazing (there's a whole other conversation to be had about how weirdly passive the minor characters are - like, I get that they're minor, but they are so blatantly without agency that it kind of boggles the mind), but, like Bad Moms, which I unfortunately didn't write about here, it's one of those rare movies that seems to be imagining someone like me as the audience while still being relatively mainstream. So go give it some money.

* There were a lot of things that I liked about that movie, but it turns out that that's what stuck with me, and apparently I can't forgive it.

31 December 2016

My Favorite Books of 2016

I am a great fan of Best Of lists, though I prefer the more expansive to the purportedly authoritative, and I'm always frustrated by how rarely translated or indie press works are included, or how small the lists are when they are - here are two good exceptions, one of indie presses, one of translations. Mine is slightly different, in that it's a list of the things that I most loved of books I read, and is not limited to things published this year.

So, without further ado, my 10 favorite things I read in 2016 (listed in the order in which I encountered them):

--A House of My Own, Sandra Cisneros
--The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli, Translated by Christina McSweeney
--The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara
--Here, Richard McGuire
--Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Simon Armitage
--The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
--Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay
--Killing and Dying, Adrien Tomine
--Little Labors, Rivka Galchen

--Beauty is a Wound, Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker
--Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
--The Seven Good Years, Etgar Keret, translated by Sondra Silverston, Miriam Shlesinger, Jessica Cohen, Anthony Berris
--Scheherazade Goes West, Fatema Mernissi
--The Moor's Account, Laila Lalami

...and I reread Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, and it's still one of my all-time favorites.

19 August 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

In the middle of the novel, the main character shows a writer some pages of her work, and the writer comments on them, thereby providing us with a neat explanation of what the book that we have been reading has been doing all this time. Very clever, if a little heavy-handed, and it did make me appreciate what are essentially long scenes of conversation between a woman and her mother a bit more.

  Still, the story never really got to me on an emotional level. I didn't quite believe in any of these people. And it seemed a bit unbalanced, occasionally wandering into other plot-lines or reflections (Lucy's relationship to her husband, to a friend, her development as a writer) that often felt tangential and undeveloped.

It was interesting to read this so soon after finishing The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls' memoir of growing up extremely poor, with parents who were willfully disconnected from society, and had, shall we say, a peculiar approach to raising children. My Name is Lucy Barton features a main character who seems to have come from a similarly traumatic and difficult childhood -- although her parents don't seem to have particularly outlandish notions of raising free spirits, they are extremely poor, and occasionally treat their children in ways that will strike most readers as shocking. Walls mostly writes about her past, without saying a lot about how she eventually broke away from her parents, or what happened to her afterwards, or how she interacts with them now. Lucy Barton, on the other hand, is chronicling several days of conversation with her mother as a way of obliquely shedding light on the past, and implicitly considering the kind of relationship they have, and can have, in the present. Very different approaches, and they complement each other in curious ways.

14 June 2016

The Creation of the World, or Globalization, by Jean-Luc Nancy

This is the kind of book that people talk about "thinking with." One of these things that you see cited a few times and think "oh, I should read that," and then you do, and it's nothing like what you had expected. It's not that people project their own ideas onto philosophical works like this, it's more that everyone has their own unique encounter with it, and will probably get something else out of it. It has an argument, though it's a tricky one to pin down, and it's so deeply philosophical in nature that it's hard to translate into more accessible terms. I did not read the book as carefully as I think I should have -- I more just let it wash over me, rather than struggling with it and forcibly trying to get a grip on what it was doing. But I did find myself caught by many of the sentences and individual ideas, and I mostly enjoyed the experience.

It is somewhat astonishing to discover that people still write things like this. I'm glad they do. I'm glad I read this one.

25 April 2016

Going to Meet the Man, by James Baldwin

I am slowly working my way through James Baldwin's works (you may recall that I read Another Country in December ), and I recommend that you do the same. Even when he's not that good, he's still amazing. I was not especially impressed by the first three stories in this collection, but then the book started to pick up steam, and then it soared (culminating in an utterly devastating finale, terrifyingly vivid). How one man could have such profound emotional intelligence, and such an amazing ability to render the smallest details in utterly persuasive prose--the mind boggles. Surprisingly, I think shorter fictions may be Baldwin's strong point -- unexpected, given his ability to create a broad, diverse cast of utterly real characters. You'd think that a novel's ability to hold many different people and spend a lot of time with all of them would be perfect for him, but I think he is better with shorter, more concentrated plots. Not that they must be compressed into an abridged time period; one of the masterful things about some of these stories is the way they ramble restlessly across time, interweaving past and present. But the novella length seems to be the perfect size of story for his particular insights. 
Everyone should read more Baldwin.