Monday, December 11, 2017

Catching Up On Writing About My Reading

I am not reading nearly as much as I did a few years ago, when lists of all the books I read in a year would appear on this blog, with a handful of entries including links to longform reviews I wrote elsewhere. Partly this is because the main venue where those reviews would appear is now defunct, and the other sources by which I would find out about books, both new and old, seems largely to have dried up. Much of the book coverage appearing online now feels less related to criticism than it does to plain publicity, which would be an unreliable source of information even if what weren't being sold so often seemed plainly unappealing. There remains a small handful of people I respect as writers even as I suspect our tastes differ too substantially for me to put too much faith in their every recommendation. I am grateful that they are out there writing about literature regardless. Still, any coverage inclined towards new books ends up sharing the biases of our age, towards a set of literary values it's difficult to place much stock in. Largely it all comes from people wanting to encourage each other, in a climate not necessarily amenable to literature, which I understand. If you need a disclaimer that my own opinions are formed at least in part by my resentment of my own failures, there you have it.

I do find a lot of value in people simply keeping track of what they're reading, what they like and what they like dislike. Even if no one recommendation leaps out, the slow accrual of endorsements can make me notice something. Often it seems like the books being published currently now only attempt to do one thing well. Seeing that there are certain books that work for a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons, over time, points us in the direction of work that does a lot of different things. This is a record of what intrigued me enough to investigate, subtracting the things that were too dull to risk me repeating the pattern of my mistake in others. I will warn against wastes of time unless a book seems too exhausting to give any more time to than I did in my initial reading.

Let's begin with the good stuff. Jen George, The Babysitter At Rest. This was great! Weird and funny and brutally mean short stories. Ended up lauded by The Believer, and Jen George got on a Granta "Best Young Novelists" list despite not having written a novel yet, alongside Rachel Glaser, who has written a novel, but still probably seems like she earned her space on the strength of her superior short stories. I would describe the vibe as like Donald Barthelme but with the concerns of a young female art student as opposed to those of an older man. I was immediately gripped from the opening pages.

Catherine Lacey, The Answers. I reviewed the same author's earlier Nobody Is Ever Missing somewhat enthusiastically for Bookslut back when that came out, and am relieved her new book is good. It's better than her first, richer in characters and plot. A woman, short on funds due to receiving new agey medical treatments for chronic pain, becomes a subject in a paid experiment where a celebrity delegates various aspects of a relationship to a fleet of disparate women. Mary is the "emotional girlfriend," who nods along with full eye contact while he talks about his struggles, and who he falls in love with without once asking anything about herself. Lacey plays the satirical aspects from a removed distance. At times it feels like she read Tao Lin and took deliberate note of what effects she could channel in a more rewarding book.

Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy. I am a fan of Lockwood's poetry and tweets and her memoir works really well. It's about being raised as the daughter of a man who converted to be a catholic priest. Lockwood presents herself as devilish, mischievous, filthy, worldly, literate, in contrast to her politically conservative father. The story of her distance from him and the patriarchy in general, is a question of feeling unseen, unlistened to: It's then her challenge to see and capture everyone around her as accurately as she can, to demonstrate her empathy and gift of sight, even as she initially frames all characters as somewhat ridiculous. Everyone's sense of humor is presented as a way to stop from going completely crazy, even as the sense of humor presents itself as self-consciously crazy. I would recommend this one more widely than it would be appreciated.

Antoine Volodine, Minor Angels, Bardo Or Not Bardo, Radiant Terminus, and under the pseudonym Manuela Draeger, In The Time Of The Blue Ball. Volodine's is maybe the most exciting literary project I became aware of over the past year. A French writer, writing under several pseudonyms, with some of these pseudonyms appearing as characters in other books. The name Volodine itself is a pseudonym, the writer's true identity is essentially anonymous. Many, maybe all of these books take place in a post-apocalyptic landscape, after the fall of Capitalism, but also sort of are manifestations from a Bardo state. The first of these books I read was In The Time Of The Blue Ball, credited to Manuela Draeger, who in the context of other books it is revealed is a children's librarian at a prison camp. The Draeger books, published in France as children's books, with no mention of Volodine's name, are more indebted to surrealism and British nonsense literature than the other stuff. That book is totally delightful, especially initially, although as it collects three short books the way the world is established becomes a bit repetitive over time. I was infatuated enough with the voice to track down a translation of a fourth book, published in the anthology XO Orpheus, where it appears along another one of Volodine's pseudonyms, Lutz Bassmann. Minor Angels is maybe a better book to start with, a collection of fragmented short stories being told by a grandchild, sired from lint, about to be executed for accidentally reinstating Capitalism, it would seem to convey many of the author's themes in literature. The most recently translated Volodine book, Radiant Terminus, is long, bleak, Tarkovsky-esque sci-fi, that only momentarily clicks into something vivid and compelling: A scene where a character pricks himself on a phonograph needle, dooming him to thousands of years inside the dreamscape of a psychic dictator, as all characters are in a post-death state where they are essentially continually dying. Volodine's endgame is to have 47 books in total, this being the number of days one spends in the Bardo, according to Buddhist teaching.

George Saunders, Lincoln In The Bardo. This was widely acclaimed, and I am a big fan of Saunders' short stories, but I thought this novel was basically terrible. It has an incredibly simple plot, to the point where at no point in my reading did I feel like I didn't know where it was going. There's plenty of interviews with the author where he talks about how hard he worked on it, how much revision he did, but reading it feels like you're just waiting to get from the premise to the happy ending. Nothing really feels inventive, everything seems like going through the motions. Maybe the revision means that no single page that you read is untouched by the writer's knowledge of what is to come, and so nothing ever bears the spark of the writer surprising himself.

Samantha Hunt, The Dark Dark. This book carries a blurb by Kelly Link claiming that every sentence of Hunt's is "electrifying," a plainly disingenuous claim, although a closer inspection reveals it was originally written about a novel, which might inhabit a separate voice than these short stories do. Sometimes that voice feels painfully middle-class; caught between a sense of superiority to other people and a defensiveness about being thought of as less than. If you ignore this element, which reoccurs throughout, certain stories do end up intriguing, although more on a level of structure and dreamlike progression than language. The way information is parceled out in individual stories can be thrilling, and the first story of the book, written somewhat realistically, is used as raw material for a vicious dream of a story at the book's end, which makes the book seem to cohere into a more interesting thing overall than it seems reading each story individually. Also, the front cover has a rorschach blot that includes the title of the book, which I probably would've missed if someone hadn't pointed it out online, and this discovery also made me appreciate the book, as an object, more.

Samantha Schweblin, Fever Dream. This book, like The Dark Dark, was praised by New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, and the author, like Hunt, had a short story published in that magazine also. Schweblin is Argentine, and this novella is a translated work. There's a good deal going on in it, a work of unease, about polluted villages, body switching, curses, and any confusion it creates in the reader is deliberate as it goes about creating its effect. The whole thing is narrated in dialogue, using flashbacks, from a sort of hospital or post-death state, although I didn't think this structural device worked as well: A further confusion that sort of pushed it too far away from immediacy for my liking. Still, not bad.

Geoff Manaugh, A Burglar's Guide To The City. This is a non-fiction book published by the same FSG Originals imprint that released The Dark Dark, which puts out straight to paperback stuff that is maybe a little weirder or quirkier than most of what is put out by mainstream publishing houses. Mostly this means they release books by people whose earlier books were put out by smaller independent presses. Anyway, I pay attention to them, maybe more than I should for how little they put out feels particularly uniquely rewarding. This book was cool enough, filled with interesting details about break-ins and heists, although its essayistic sweep was I thought lacking, with a thesis that felt more endlessly reiterated than actually supported by the material at hand. Still: Do you want to read about break-ins and heists? Of course you do. The biggest thing I took away is that it is sometimes easier to break through a wall than it is to open a locked door, which I think is probably a good rule of thumb for writers to consider before writing anything of any length.

Lindsay Hunter, Ugly Girls. Also published as a paperback under the FSG Originals aegis, although the hardcover was put out as a hardcover by FSG as well after Hunter's earlier short story collection came out straight to paperback. This is straight-up not very good, a story that develops like a crime thriller in a lower-class milieu only to not have an ending. Unsatisfying on most levels, it seems like the people who praised it largely admired the attempt at setting. Obviously, the setting seeps into the language, the metaphors the characters use to describe their surroundings, but that doesn't really make the book more beautiful or interesting to engage in. I suspect also that Hunter's pedigree means the people reading it maybe wouldn't have read many other novels of a similar ilk, of which I can only assume most would be more successful.

Denis Johnson, Already Dead and Train Dreams. I read Already Dead when Johnson was still alive. It's broken up into three sections, and I sort of felt like it lost its grip on me by the end, but it's a long book, and I was into it for a good long time. After he died, when I was thinking he wrote one of the best books I'd read recently, I read Train Dreams, a shorter novella that is pretty satisfying. Johnson was a good, maybe a great, writer, a close peer to Joy Williams in a lot of ways but more interested in the crime genre as a way of getting at a sort of desperation that gives way to an almost supernatural grace. It seems like there's a lot to learn from him that gets obscured by how invisibly he goes about a lot of what he does, particularly since his most famous book Jesus' Son seems so casual and direct.

Alice Notley, Certain Magical Acts. Didn't know this was coming out until I saw copies. Alice Notley is a very good poet although admittedly I wish she wouldn't talk about being a poet in her poems quite as much. This isn't her best book. At her best, reading her makes my brain light up somewhere between a field at night where lightning is striking tree stumps and moving through a haunted house and catching ghosts in the light that comes through windows. I don't remember this doing that so much.

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook, The Fifth Child, The Cleft. Much as it is easy to hear lots about Infinite Jest without learning that it's partly about experimental film, I had no idea going into The Golden Notebook that it's about a woman becoming disenfranchised from her involvement in the Communist party after word of Stalin's abuses got out. Reading it during the Democratic primary, when political options felt incredibly small, and the more conservative candidate was presented as the women's candidate, being reminded of the vastness of political thought, through women who derided the Labour party as middle-of-the-road, felt refreshing. That's not to say The Golden Notebook doesn't have other stuff going on. It's a vast book, largely about the irreducibility of life to a single narrative. Lessing's whole career is interesting and inspiring, feeling committed to doing whatever she wanted. The Fifth Child is excellent, laser-focused in its movements through a story, about two people who want to have a lot of children only to have one come out monstrous and have to confront their inability to live their ideal life. Told without chapter breaks, the story just proceeds, always engaging and never really giving an indication of where it's going, slowly tapping into horror without giving any clues at the outset that's what it wants to do. It feels like the intention is purely to tell this story and not let anything interrupt. The Cleft meanwhile is couched in small framing devices, some of which are unnecessary, like an opening note from the author, explaining the roots of the concept. The text of the novel is presented from a historian's perspective, telling a creation myth, essentially, of the emergence of men on Earth after a previous all-female form of humanity. At its best, it feels like it's tapping into something very universal and filled with feeling, although as it goes on, the aspects of the form of the novel seem to not particularly aid in its effects, as certain things feel superfluous and unnecessary. I should point out that I have another Lessing book, Briefing For A Descent Into Hell, that I have technically begun but can't really make much headway into. It has a strong premise but also sort of one that allows for it to waste pages on bullshit that doesn't really do anything. The "crazy narrator" premise allows a space to exist in it conceptually for a sort of stalling that the other books don't allow.

Dennis Cooper. Try, Guide, God Jr. The books in Dennis Cooper's George Miles cycle are incredibly powerful, owing largely to their willingness to be upsetting. I haven't read all of them because I'm borrowing them from a friend who is also lending them to other people, some of which are not as fastidious about returning books as I am. I found Try, with its teenage narrator, more upsetting than the books which feature Cooper as a protagonist. God Jr., lacking sexualized violence directed towards young men, is more accessible than the one-word titled books. It's about a father, consumed by grief about his dead son, playing a video game obsessively. All of these books are pretty short, and each moves quickly, to contain multitudes of literary effect.

Anna Kavan, Sleep Has His House, Asylum Piece, Julia And The Bazooka. Anna Kavan struggled with mental health issues, and had a couple nervous breakdowns in her life. Asylum Piece chronicles a descent into madness, beginning with a series of Kafka-styled paranoid short stories, told in the first person, that then leads to a sort of "break" followed by a short novella, told in third person, in a mental institution, that isn't nearly as strong or visceral. Sleep Has His House is a essentially an ode to sleep and dream as a respite from reality. It's maybe a little closer to Clarice Lispector than her other stuff, owing to having a little bit less of a narrative arc. Julia And The Bazooka is short stories largely themed around her drug addiction. The first one includes an AMAZING passage where the narrator, mad at everyone, gets hit by a car, causing her head to fall off and her to gush blood drowning everyone, and the surprise of that part really raised my expectations an insurmountable degree for the rest of the book. Reading her final novel Ice before any of these probably did a similar thing, but she's a wild one for sure, and I can't say any of her books I've read are actually bad.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves. This book is beautifully written but really washed over me without making any impression at all. Mostly non-narrative, it had characters but I couldn't distinguish between them. It seems like maybe she wrote it closer to the end of her life, after multiple successes and was maybe being a little self-indulgent, or at least making a book that should largely be read by people who liked her other books and had specific things they would then be looking for in her writing, and not necessarily trying to communicate the full extent of her genius to the unconverted. This is why I wanted to read it, that sounds great to me, but the truth is it might have been better for me to have attempted to read Orlando again.

Otessa Moshfegh, Eileen and Homesick For Another World. I would most likely not object to anyone calling Moshfegh overrated, owing to the amount of acclaim her short stories, published in The Paris Review, have gained, but a couple of those short stories, collected in Homesick For Another World, I thought were really great. One is the title story, the other one's about a dude who's dirt poor and spending all of his money on designer clothing that looks indistinguishable from knock-off copies of the same. The latter in particular resonated as a good description of the way our world currently works, and it efficiently and casually set up an ending I didn't anticipate but loved. Her novel, Eileen,  she has sort of half-dismissed as a genre exercise done to get money, and there's several aspects to it that smell of cynicism, but I certainly didn't think it was bad. A miserable woman becomes infatuated with someone more charismatic than her, and unaware of the moral systems she lives in, becomes an accomplice to a crime. It feels like it could be a movie, certainly, although the pace is pretty slow. I wouldn't be surprised if she at some point wrote a truly great book, although I will a little distant from her personality or sensibility to know what that book would entail. There's a cynicism, a bleakness, to her work that feels a little performative. Not necessarily unearned, because the world we live in is bleak, but maybe more learned from literary forebears than emerging from anything that feels uniquely hers.

Ted Chiang, Stories Of Your Life And Others. The title story of this one got turned into the movie Arrival, and I read it before the movie was produced, and thought "not really sure how they'll turn that into a movie," and after watching the movie learned the screenwriter adapting it spent a decade writing it on spec, probably working out ways to make what happened visually interesting and emotionally satisfying and not just intellectually interesting. The other stories are good and thoughtful things. I think Chiang is considered pretty emotionally resonant for a science-fiction writer but as someone who's not a huge science-fiction reader that wouldn't be the main takeaway. He seems pretty interested in religion. If he had more books out I would read them because as is I'm not sure I can wrap my head around where he's coming from.

William Gass, Cartesian Sonata. Wanted to read The Tunnel, which seems appropriate to our current situation, but found this one at a used book store instead. I didn't love it. It's a collection of short stories, maybe novellas, many of which are pretty boring. Well-written on a sentence level but I don't really care about that unless it's doing something else, and really the only thing the other thing these stories do is be pretty boring.

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado and The Old Man And Me. I'm a longtime open admirer of the NYRB Classics line, and The Dud Avocado seems particularly well-known or iconic as one of their books, in that it's a fun and likable book that would be difficult for contemporary audiences to know about without the imprint. Nails the balance perfectly between being light enough to be understood as a comedy and dark enough to actually be funny. That's not to say some of the comedic elements are not somewhat dated, but it essentially works. In terms of movies, if there was ever a historical moment where Elaine May was a peer of Billy Wilder, Dundy's work would function inside that time.

Iris Owens, After Claude. I think Owens' main thing was writing porn under a pseudonym, and this is her lone "actual" novel. Also from NYRB, way meaner than Dundy, dark enough to abandon jokes altogether at a certain point and just be kind of upsetting. Not a great book overall although enjoyable at first, and sounds good in summary. Probably one of the most lacerating books about its female protagonist written by a woman.

Lucy Ellman, Man Or Mango. Ellman's later novel Dot In The Universe was shortlisted for a Believer book award fifteen or so years ago which made me aware of her to pick up this book when I saw it for sale cheap. A quick flip through reveals a multitude of voices inside it, although a reading reveals a lot of these are essentially epigraphs, or bits taken directly from other books. Two narrators, one male and one female, having shared a romantic past, slowly get back to each other, after making a bunch of jokes about other things first. Once reunited, they promptly die in a flood. "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." This took me a long time to read despite not being very challenging, it was amusing but not compelling. I finished it on a bus trip. It's not bad but I think I'd only read her other books if they fell into my lap again.

Roberto Arlt, The Seven Madmen. Another NYRB Classics book, this one ends with a "To Be Continued," essentially, into a book that's not translated? I really don't get why both books weren't just published in a single volume. This one is sort of a Dostoevsky thing, about a man's tortured psychology leading him astray, into crime, and the companionship of a terrorist who aims to radically reshape the world. Always enjoyable, but never particularly distinct, each sentence moves forward but doesn't necessarily reward rereading, and it never really gets to the exciting surprising place you're hoping for as a reader, instead choosing to move in this world of moral turpitude, where we are meant to feel concern for the protagonist's soul.

Antonio Di Benedetto, Zama. Another NYRB Classics, translated from Spanish, this got adapted into a movie this year that's supposed to be pretty good. Existentialist thing about a guy posted out far from home in a colony, with very little money, very little hope to improve his station, and he cheats on his wife. Not bad but I feel like anyone I would recommend it to would have read a lot like it already? Which I imagine to be true for the movie as well: The audience would have a degree of familiarity with the form.

Tarsei Vesaas, The Ice Palace. The same British imprint, Peter Owen Modern Classics, that handles Anna Kavan handles Vesaas, and this book also carried a blurb by Doris Lessing. It's cool, a spooky, sparse, snowlit thing, about the friendship between two girls, and the embarassment that leads one to skip school and explore a palace of ice she dies in, and the town's attempt to find her body, and the surviving friend's grief. Would recommend. One of Vesaas' other books got reissued this year, with an introduction by the popular-but-unappealing Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Blaise Cendrars, Dan Yack. I love Cendrars' Moravagine, and this, published by the Peter Owens Modern Classics line, had a good summary on the back although it turns out said summary totally gives away everything that happens in it. A rich dude, drunk after being dumped, wakes up beneath a table of poor strangers, than invites them all to be his new best friends as he charts an expedition to an island. They end up freezing to death in the arctic, although the rich guy survives. Apparently the rich guy is modeled on Cendrars himself and this is basically what his life was like? An enjoyable read.

Rachel B. Glaser, Hairdo. Glaser's short story collection Pee On Water is an all-time favorite, and made me interested in any other forms she might attempt. This is her second book of poems, and it feels a little bit better than her first, Moods, although it still plays a game so uniquely her own that how exactly I come to that conclusion mystifies me. The voice of these poems encompasses the adolescent and airheaded, but is able to nail perfectly both the details of that worldview and character and how it can still observe, poetically and brilliantly, the world outside it. These poems, and their relationship to character and voice, seem more closely connected to the joke-telling, or short-story-writing, impulse than they do to other examples of poetic form. It feels like a gallery show of cartoons drawn on napkins; or like Ishmael Reed in terms of coming up with a completely new literary value system in order to accomplish its myriad goals. Or if I were to make a musical comparison, maybe The Waitresses but tbh I don't know their deep cuts. I'm imagining deep cuts based on the singles. I think this is really good, and the fact that you might disagree makes me like the book more.

Mitch Sisskind, Do Not Be A Gentleman When You Say Goodnight. The publisher of Hairdo, The Song Cave, also put out this book, a collection of poems and short stories by a writer that Donald Barthelme once called the funniest living American writer. I do not think it is actually very funny. It is very Jewish and very 1970s. The Song Cave still seems worth paying attention to, I don't mind being on their mailing list. Their monochrome book design makes all their books like Night People tapes.

 Leonora Carrington, The Collected Stories. I read Carrington's novel The Hearing Trumpet close to ten years ago, as it was one of the favorite books of a friend of mine, although she said she never recommended it to men. Carrington was a surrealist painter, one Jodorowsky cites a guru. Her memoir, which I haven't read, was translated and published by NYRB Classics at the same time as this short story collection was published by Dorothy, A Publishing Project. These short stories sort of delight in their sense of wildness and transgression: It feels less dreamy than specifically pointed, and maybe a little bit corny and unmemorable, as you get a feeling for what it's going for very quickly. I wanted to like it more than I did but I think it's fine enough. I could certainly imagine selling it for money in the future although I don't mind it being on my shelves. Also, I ordered this from Amazon at the same time as I preordered the New York Review Comics collection of Nicole Claveloux comics, hoping this would influence the algorithm in some way. The science-fiction writer Jeff Vandermeer put both books on his "Year In Reading" list at The Millions but other than the two of us maybe not as much readership overlap as I'd assume.

B Catling, The Vorrh and The Erstwhile. The author's stated intentions, when writing The Vorrh, a book that begins with a man dismantling his wife to make a bow and arrow to enter a massive forest, were to make a surrealist epic. Seemingly Alan Moore's praising the book as a landmark work of fantasy then inspired the author to make it into a trilogy, of which The Erstwhile is the second part. (A third installment, The Cloven, is forthcoming in 2018.) Without being too versed in fantasy literature, I would say the vibe, its relationship to genre, seems sort of of a piece with assorted Vertigo comics, or Mike Mignola's Hellboy material. However, all that stuff generally makes a big deal of Lovecraft homage, and that material doesn't seem a part of Catling's influences whatsoever. There is violence and sex, all of it weird, although the prose sometimes gets in the way, either obscuring a bit more than it illuminates, or putting forth some clunky metaphors, but all in keeping with a poetic vibe in keeping with the world it describes. Away from the jungle, a cyclops kept in isolation has sex with robots filled with goo. I had a great time, felt very much at home, like I was indulging myself in something very close to the true heart of me.

Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus. Roussel is a character in The Vorrh, and this wild book, which is blurbed by a panopoly of important twentieth century avant-garde figures, also gave its name to a historically important poetry journal. It's about a rich scientist-inventor showing people around his palatial estate, and all the crazy inventions contained there, like a solar powered thing making a mosaic out of teeth. I don't know if it's the translation or what, but while the images are vivid and imaginative, the logic pulling the reader from one sentence to another isn't, and I frequently found this book exhausting and easy to put down, even as I admired it from afar. If my understanding is correct, this book was basically written by a proto-Oulipo method where Roussel wrote two sentences based on the most similar words he could think of and still make two completely separate unrelated sentences, and then wrote the book to get from one, with its meaning, to the other, but that would be in the original French and uhh I might be getting this wrong anyway: I didn't read the book where this method is outlined, "How I Wrote Certain Of My Books," but rather a Wikipedia page.

Brian Evenson, Windeye, A Collapse Of Horses and Last Days. Brian Evenson wrote a piece for Electric Literature praising the Catling books. Evenson's work has its own relationship to intellectualized horror. His short stories, collected in A Collapse Of Horses and Windeye, are haunting, dark-humored thought experiments, essentially. More specifically, they're interrogations into the failures of thought to make sense of reality, utilizing the ways in which fiction can be stranger than reality, as it doesn't play by any rules at all. I am reminded also of how similar the Samantha Hunt book seems to be by Evenson, but really only when she's at her best. Last Days is something that could probably be a fairly fast-paced movie were it not for prohibitive amounts of gore and disfigurement. It is more concerned with the body than the mind. It's about a private detective, who lost his hand, being called on to investigate a crime at a secretive cult that cuts their own limbs off as an act of worship. His work is consistently of high quality, although his novel The Open Curtain is a cut above. He's also a great translator of French literature, having handled In The Time Of The Blue Ball and generally being one of Volodine's biggest champions, writing the introduction to Radiant Terminus as well.

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks. I remember liking Cloud Atlas, but this one manages to have more complicated plot and do a lot less. While having huge threads of fantasy that essentially dictate the shape of the book, stylistically it feels very beholden to "realism," or agreed-upon notions of what constitutes "good" writing, with a lot of pages being spent on descriptions and characterizations of largely uninteresting people. It seems like the audience that would be most enthusiastic about the fantasy stuff would just skim the majority of the book. The fantasy stuff is fairly stupid. If you're emotionally involved by the end it is simply due to the sheer weight of having read so many pages about these characters. As far as integrating "literary realism" and "science-fiction excitement," this seems like basically the worst way to go about it, as opposed to the poetic surrealism where everything becomes interconnected of much of the work whose virtues I'm extolling in this post. For how long as this book is, it might be the thing on this list I resented the most.

Steve Erickson, Shadowbahn. I am not sure I have ever taken more than two days to read one of Erickson's books. They are always compelling, mysterious in their construction, and powerful in a dreamlike way. They also almost always have stuff I wish wasn't in there, usually this sort of cornball eroticism, but now he's writing about his kids, I guess, and that element is gone. This one finds him riffing on a bunch of different themes and images in a near free-associative way: The Twin Towers, stillborn twins, twins of all sorts, a-sides and b-sides, music playlists. There's a narrative but it's as close to dream logic as he can get, as he chooses as his material all of these massive images that possess their own charged meaning. Certain passages felt inspired by Blake Butler, others were more rock-critic-canon inspired. Erickson's always great, but also always a little up his own ass, but always with the implicit agreement with his audience that that they'll shares many of the same obsessions: If you're reading his books, you're likely to be as deep into movies and music as he is, although this one has less movie-talk than most of his oeuvre.

James Hannaham, Delicious Foods. I read this because of an article written at The Fanzine by Scott Creney, who mostly wrote about music for them. He was talking all sorts of shit about contemporary literature, but had a brief digression where he listed recent books that were actually addressing the modern world in interesting ways, and this was the only one he'd listed I hadn't already read and enjoyed. So I ordered it from the local library, and yeah it's good: A plot-heavy thing about the world of modern slavery, of people abducted and working in a way designed to create debt, given crack cocaine. A boy is separated from his mother and tries to track her down. Tragic turns are taken. I feel like the language employs more cliches than are advisable but I remember images the book created in my head. If you're charting literary constellations, as seen from my hemisphere, Hannaham blurbed The Dark Dark.

Jessa Crispin, The Dead Ladies Project. Jessa was the founder of Bookslut, which I wrote for, so I went to see her on her reading tour. I probably would not have tried to write for Bookslut if I didn't think she was a great writer and admirable intellect. Her essays are appearing widely now and I always agree with them, and they're always written with style and brio. This is her book about traveling around Europe, visiting the places lived in by writers and personalities she admires. As good as this book is, it's also in large part a recommended reading list. The memoir aspects are sort of kept in check by the fact that she's not the type to really disclose too much, not a confessional writer, there's an assumption that you will know what she is saying if you've been alive for long enough and lived any kind of life at all.

Ariana Reines, Mercury. A widely-acclaimed contemporary poet, some of this I thought was very good and other parts did less. I was lent this book by a friend, a young female poet, and certainly I could return it to her and say I liked it without lying, although I'm sure that the overall book meant more to her than it did it to me.

Anne Sexton, Transformations. Supposedly Sexton is mostly known for being a confessional writer and this book, her riff on fairy tales, is an outlier but also her best book. Changes in consciousness of fairy tales and their attendant darkness almost certainly make it read differently than it did when it was written.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. A lot of women probably read this when they were teens but I didn't get to it until now. It is crazy to read a book that is so much like The Catcher In The Rye. It seems necessary for this book to exist so it can be read and no one has to write it now. Like the Sexton, it seems to owe so much to the context of the time its created, and its own constancy since that time, as an influence, that it feels tricky to read now and be surprised. This makes me appreciate the mission of publishers that are reissuing out-of-print books that much more: Many of them tend to exist inside this moment better than something that's been being read all these years.

Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress. Haven't read the best-known novel by Lem, Solaris, although I've seen the Tarkovsky adaptation, which seems pretty far from the things about Lem that intrigue me: A sense of play, that his science-fiction is somehow close to Calvino. This is the first book of Lem's that I've read, and it's wild, in that while you read it it often seems completely unstructured. The narrator attends a conference of people discussing the future, his hotel gets bombed, he wakes up in the future. Things continually seem to go from bad to worse, or be worse than they initially seem. That the ending actually calls back to things at the beginning and makes the whole thing seems like it would reward both people who expect stories to make sense and people who would rather they not. Apparently liberally adapted into a movie called either The Congress or Robin Wright At The Congress where the actress plays herself, but in a semi-animated setting? I have no idea how good it is, although I'm intrigued enough to investigate. I should also probably read more books Lem wrote.

Jonathan Lethem, A Gambler's Anatomy, Girl In Landscape. A Gambler's Anatomy is an intriguing one: Early chapters posit a fantastic premise (that the narrator, a world traveling gambler, owes his success to his telepathic abilities) while late in the game another character undercuts this as the delusions of a self-important jackass. I feel like the characterization in this book is actually really well-handled, like the characters are interesting, not completely self-aware, and feel full and alive, as revealed through their decision-making process. That's Lethem's new book. Girl In Landscape is probably twenty years old at this point, immediately preceding Lethem's breakthrough work, and is much simpler in some ways, although it's still a genre-switching work, integrating dreamlike science fiction elements into a western framework. I feel like Lethem is a weirder novelist than he gets credit for being, because it's easy to characterize his interest in genre as that of a nerd rather than as a collage artist consciously aware of the richness and depth of the material he's working with. Still, it's rare to feel totally blown away by his work, maybe because he frequently wants it to succeed as genre material, because he's aware of how that stuff can be transcendent when it works.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man. This is a landmark work of 1970s feminist science-fiction. Cool and experimental and more fragmented than I expected. Feels written from an angry enough place that, although there's a framework in place, Russ feels like she can just write what she feels the need to say at any given point.

Ann Quin, Berg. Good on a sentence level, good on an existential terror level, pretty weird and experimental. The Wikipedia article is both how I remind myself of the book's basic premise, and reminds me of why I read it. It's got a great first sentence. Quin was a British avant-gardist kept in print by Dalkey Archive, and this, her first book, seems less far-out than she later got. I imagine I'll get to the later books at some point. There's also a collection of recently discovered stories and fragments coming out next year.

Oisin Curran, Mopus. Initially read about this book through Blake Butler writing for Vice and saying it was a good companion to Joy Williams' The Changeling, so my expectations were high and not really met by this thing which has less narrative than I would want it to. It's like, a dude is looking for his dog, that is a ghost, sometimes the ghost is narrating?

Eugene Marten, In The Blind, Waste. Two novels of pared-down minimalist writing by a contemporary small press guy, blurbed by Gordon Lish. Waste is about a janitor at a large office building who finds a dead body in the dumpster and brings it back to his house to have sex with. In The Blind is a longer book about a locksmith. I heard about this guy via the publisher Tyrant Books, who published Marten's book Firework, which they're soon to reissue, who was talking about how James Dickey's novel Deliverance was a masterpiece and a big influence on Marten.

Kate Zambreno, O Fallen Angel. Zambreno is a contemporary writer with somewhat avant-garde and feminist intentions to her work. She is successful enough at this point to have written the afterword for the recent Penguin reissue of Anna Kavan's Ice. Her stuff was put out by small presses, but is now getting reissued by Harper Perennial. She's connected to Semiotext(e), and this one's got a blurb by Chris Kraus. It's... basically total garbage? A satire without jokes, split between narrating three characters, all of which are sketches: There's an angsty young woman, her consumerist mother, and an unrelated dude who self-immolates, whose awareness of the larger political realities is meant to be the point of the novel. I really don't know who would be surprised or rewarded by this book, who would find themselves challenged.

Vanessa Veselka, Zazen. While not necessarily a bad book, this one certainly feels like an argument for why the generally culturally accepted length of a novel is too long. This one feels written with a place of true familiarity with underground subcultures, or the periphery to them, of people working service industry jobs. It's about one woman's cynicism leading her to make bomb threats, and then places start exploding. Feels written by someone who's legitimately punk, but also feels fairly tedious a lot of the time, its supporting cast filled with interchangeable people, being criticized for their escapism and complacency.

Mark Leyner, The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack. So this dude was famously dissed by David Foster Wallace for being super-shallow and jokey. I read an interview where his stance was hey, it's cool to be compared to the antichrist, and his counter-argument is made by his work itself and he doesn't need to articulate anything beyond that. Anyway, the self-conscious metafiction elements in this are annoying as hell, super-tedious, not as funny as he thinks he is. The parts that poke through where he reveals his intelligence are good but few and far between, this is mostly head-up-its-own-ass garbage. The author is not be confused with Mark Leidner, the poet who has a short story collection called Under The Sea coming out next year, which I really anticipate. Both are "funny guys" but Leidner is no bullshit in his approach.

Witold Gombrowicz, Cosmos. A book where the main character shares a name with the author, about going crazy about the universe when weird stuff, like a hanged bird, is sighted. It's supposed to be a comedy but doesn't really get there. A classic in Poland, seemingly. Adapted into the final movie Andrzej Zulawski made before he died. That movie is pretty insane, and somewhat tedious, like Zulawaksi's movies can get sometime, although I guess these adjective apply to the source material as well.

Robert Walser, Jakob Van Gunten. Walser is a early twentieth century German writer supposedly admired by Kafka. This is a slight coming-of-age book about a boy who's run away from home and is attending a school for servants. J.M. Coetzee wrote an appreciation for it back in 2000 that helped it regain some attention. Can't say I got that much out of this one.

Raymond Kennedy, Ride A Cockhorse. Another NYRB Classics reissue, this one's from the eighties, and written by an American. I wanted to read it because it has a great title. Another attempt at comedy that kind of fails. I do remember a lot about it. A woman who works at a bank has her personality completely change, becoming sexually aggressive and taking over the bank and terrorizing her opposition until, eventually, saner heads prevail. Has a lot of Goodreads reviewers arguing about whether it's sexist or anti-feminist or if it's just about petty tyranny and its completely incidental that the main character is a woman. The back of the reissue talks about how it prefigures Sarah Palin, and Palin prefigures Trump, so it can still claim to work as satire. With its supposed satire that's largely unfunny, and maybe sexist underlying worldview, it sort of gives off the vibe of coming from the same eighties space as something that would be National Lampoon affiliated, like O.C. and Stiggs or something.

Susan Daitch, The Colorist. This was a Vintage Contemporaries book, circa 1990. It's got a great cover, and it's about a woman who colors comic books. When the publisher stops putting them out, she and the letterer work out their own stories, featuring the same superheroine. The stories they tell are summarized within the book, although they are impossible to visualize being told in comics, as they're incredibly complicated and would eat up pages. The stories become hopeless. It's a weird metaphor and I don't really get for what, or what this book is doing, beyond depicting a certain urban malaise, a mass of characters bouncing off each other, each stressed out, assailed by their reality and the uncertainties of it. Blurbed by Mark Leyner, but also Lynne Tillman, Salman Rushdie, and Mary Gaitskill. Was also considered a peer of David Foster Wallace's, for a time, and he publicly praised her work later, although this came out either before then or before anyone cared about him. The Google search I made to find out when this book exactly came out finds Eugene Lim, author of 2017's acclaimed Dear Cyborgs, also liked this book. It's well-written enough but I don't think it's unfair or unreasonable to want a book to do more, and cohere in a greater way than this does.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, Albina And The Dog-Men. Was sent a review copy of this, and while I reviewed another Jodorowsky book I've read approvingly this one felt a little tired. Jodorowsky's narratives are frequently digressive and all over the place: It's interesting how The Holy Mountain works because, despite its lack of a three-act structure, it can still be broken neatly into thirds, and so feels tighter and more focused because of this.

William Kotzwinkle, The Fan Man. Recommended to me by my friend Molly O'Connell, who I think read it in high school, I think maybe because a teacher really liked it. Recently reissued by Pharos Editions, whose books I haven't read too many of, although much intrigues. This one is narrated by a dirty and constantly stoned hippie who is collecting fans and other garbage, written in a voice that is constantly punctuated by the word "man." The narrator definitely commits at least one rape, which might put some people off. I was definitely thinking about the idea of the comedic novel, and trying to find examples that work these past two years, as that was what I was attempting to write. I'm not sure how well I pulled it off, and it's also unclear how well these books that feel so dated pull it off.

Charles Portis, The Dog Of The South. Another one I read because I heard it was funny, and it kind of is, if you can latch onto its tone. Real loose, about a road trip down to Mexico. The narrator is looking for his wife, who's run off with another man, and his companion is a con-man/salesman type, obsessed with a guy who wrote business self-help books, looking to get money from his mom, a missionary. When I say it's kind of funny, I mean I can imagine the characters being funny, if they were being portrayed by actors, as their situation is fairly pathetic, though the overall effect of the book is just fairly loose.

Nicholson Baker, Substitute. One of my favorite writers does what might be his longest book yet, a catalog of the days out of a year he got called in to work as a substitute teacher. He mostly loves being around the kids, and is blown away by how much tedium they are assigned as a way to keep them busy. This book definitely becomes repetitive, and sometimes feels like work to read, as it is capturing days of work, but is fairly interesting if you've been out of the school system for a while, although I think most people want their non-fiction reading to have more of a thesis and narrative structure than this.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Music of 2017


As I began to write this post, I realized that the "jazz phase" that defined most of my music listening for the last few years, so much so that I thought it would just be a fact that would define my thirties, seems to have past. I am back to the land of song as a form of direct emotional communication from the singer to the listener. Weird jams to bring the listener into tripped out zones took a backseat to the primacy of the takeaway. Lyrics and refrains left their hooks in me and called me back. Things that are weirder, further "out," I will still include in my cataloging of the year's listening. I spent more time listening to things I could relisten to in my head, even though for whatever reason I remained more inclined to buy records of weird instrumental music.

Still, it's 2017; and to most people's ear, guitars alone sound somewhat tired. Something else needs to buttress the song's structure than this signifier of the straightforward. So when I talk about songs I like there are almost always rhythmic and textural accents defining them. Nothing I list is not made in large part by its arrangement.

Probably the number one exception to this rule, the thing I would still feel the need to include in a best of the year list, is Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked At Me. Phil Elverum's testament to his wife Genevieve, now deceased, was spare and spartan and, in my few listens to it, devastating. Last year I mentioned Anohni's Hopelessness was an incredible album that for its emotional power I could admire but didn't really spend a ton of time with, this principle applies to the Mount Eerie record this year.

So with an exception to my rule named, let's move on, to what it was I was talking about when I was trying to outline some general premises. For instance, The Weather Station released a self-titled album and while earlier records released under that alias were spare in their accompaniment, folk music through and through, here there is a rhythm section and occasionally a string quartet. The singer's voice is a fine one, but not hair-raising on its own, I don't think. Lyrics supply this feeling of urgency, or even revelation. I am grateful to her for lending an earworm to the necessary-to-be-remembered thought "You and I, we are complicit." The record never gets to actually rocking, the most aggressive thing about it is always the force of the thought behind the lyrics, the weight behind them surges them out the speakers like water gushing out a hole in a dam. Not everything is political, but everything has meaning.

Sophia Kennedy released her first album this year, also self-titled. That record's use of piano chords and a sort of grid-based rhythm structure makes her songs saunter in a way that feels to me like a John Cale record produced by Matthew Herbert. I listened to a good deal of John Cale this year. The lyrics emphasize wordplay, the rhymes adding additional jaunt to the rhythmic interplay, while still essentially seeming simple, sounding like upbeat pop music. The album was released by a label known for dance music, and some press outlets were quick to point out that it wasn't a dance record, but I feel like the uptempo numbers really swing in a way that is pretty rare.

The EMA album, Exile In The Outer Ring, really struck me, although I hadn't been taken by music of hers I'd heard in the past, which was barely anything. Here, things click into focus. Songs seem stronger melodically, and the lyrical strategies seem more primed to be used as anthems for audience identification, rather than her older music's direct address to an imagined audience. For instance, I think that as far as pop songs go, listing traits the way the chorus to "33 nihilistic and female" does, works better than saying "You were a goth in high school,"  to quote a line from a few albums ago. Sonically, it's weirder, less acoustic guitar where you can hear fingers moving about the frets and more hums of texture, crackling into riffs. Her voice is stronger and less strangled sounding. Everything is more confident, emphatic, and all noise elements seem committed to selling the song. The weirdo commands the stage by communicating her emotions to an audience more interested in feeling than abstraction.

I feel I can almost go without mentioning the records Angel Olsen and Circuit Des Yeux released this year. Not like those albums aren't good, but that to discuss them at length seems unnecessary. These are women I feel invested in as artists. Angel in particular has never made a bad record and a compilation of her rarities works just as well. The Circuit Des Yeux is another step forward. The same concept applies to the Colleen record: If you're not aware of these people, you should catch up. It seems more necessary for me to note that the band Oxbow, who I had never listened to before, put out a record that essentially came out of nowhere for me, although I guess I was aware enough of them for them to be on my radar, I still didn't really know what they sounded like. It seems like when people talk about Circuit Des Yeux's connection to Scott Walker they're talking about the stuff he did thirty-plus years ago, while the new Oxbow thing seems vaguely connected to what he's doing now, although that's not quite comparable: The blurb saying "like Burt Bacharach doing charts for Harvey Milk" comes closer. I've not spent much time with Scott Walker so I am referring more to an idea, extrapolated from "The Electrician" alone.

It's also exciting to encounter legitimately new bands. The Parlor Walls album Opposites is probably the thing I have listened to the most. The presence of saxophone alludes to jazz but they're a post-punk band basically, and they get me as a listener to the place of thinking "yeah, this rocks" more than any other band that released a record this year, due to the emphasis on drums, and a vocalist who screams her lyrics, but keeps them enunciated and clear. When she says "Don't you know I'm perfect?" I am convinced.

The record label that put out Parlor Walls had my attention all year. Particularly notable would be the On Fillmore record, and the Horse Lords mixtape featuring their performance of a Julius Eastman piece. On Fillmore is a group consisting of Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist Darin Gray, a Chicago dude who's done a lot of work with Jim O'Rourke. While they are the band's membership, a lot of people perform on their record, Happiness Of Living. Essentially I take it as a rhythm section working as composers recording a record in Brazil. Certain songs sound like late period Can, songs are sung in Portuguese. It is very easy to recommend, and very easy to put on and listen to, or play for other people. Other releases Northern Spy put out this year I can vaguely endorse based on scant listens include PC Worship, Ross Goldstein, and the Brooklyn Raga Massive's performance of Terry Riley's In C. Also, a few years ago they put out a record by a band called Starring that I wanted to hear but somehow never did until 2017. They are sort of like a music-school-prog band's attempt to go to some late-Boredoms/OOIOO ecstatic trance states. I did some cursory searching to try to find out if this band was still together and found the Twitter feed from one member, from a few years back, although essentially after the band stopped being active, I believe, talking about seeing Guerilla Toss and being blown away- referring to them as "Gorilla Toss" in the method of hearing a band announce themselves rather than owning a record, and also saying the band was too cool to be on Twitter. I was pretty disappointed by this year's Guerilla Toss record, but the cassette released by their drummer under the name Do Pas O, Join The Fucking Drum Circle, I can recommend. I assume it's electronically produced using MIDI or GarageBand, bright and sprightly stuff not far from the On Fillmore album's general effect but with less of an exotica sound palette.

Almost exactly between the realms of the song and the zone was the collaborative Shackleton/Anika record, which seems like the best thing either artist has done, although admittedly my experience with Shackleton's stuff hasn't really dug that deep. Anika's first record has this sort of dull industrial/militaristic vibe, working in a factory, produced by Geoff Barrow of Portishead, but here there's a deep space science fiction vibe, like alien nanotechnology is infiltrating the air to clean it. Two LPs worth of music.

The Fifth State Of Consciousness, this year's Peaking Lights album conjures up something similar, although its more earthbound in its psychedelia, more plainly dub-influenced. Their last record was terrible, seemingly an attempt to make pop songs by mixing the vocals too high, and having them say the dumbest lyrics imaginable. This feels both like a course-correction and a way of showing what they were going for, what a cleaned up version of the sound on earlier records could be. It exists in this rhythmic space that allows for a perfect halfway point between dancing and walking around, pacing.

The Eric Copeland album "Goofballs" seems similarly to come from just a place of being made by a sentient weed cloud. This is true of a lot of Eric Copeland stuff, and certainly he comes close to a general endorsement for his whole career, but he is fairly prolific and has made some records I don't need to ever hear again. This one, though, is like a techno version of a Ween record, where each song is a little too long and repetitive, but there are these pitchshifted vocal melodies that are very goofy and endearing and still conjure an atmosphere. I guess the final, bad Ween album actually had songs on it that were techno parodies but what I mean is that the Copeland record sounds like is like a highly drum-machine driven version of The Pod, widely known among those who've lived their lives inside potentially-sentient weed clouds to be the best Ween record.

 Rick Weaver's cassette tape The Secular Arm, released by Hausu Mountain, feels evocative of an entire sonic world, the occasional excursions into the world of linear song making it feel more grounded than gaseous. It feels like a cartoon world, but vaguely pastoral, like the woods the wagon rolls through in Calvin And Hobbes or something. Rick's done a ton of projects, from noise-rock to acoustic folk but always on the weird side of the spectrum, always defined by some eccentricity or performance-as-confrontation. The same label released a tape by Rick's cassette-music-trio, Form A Log, that's good too, and of course the Khaki Blazer/Moth Cock stuff is always going to be a favorite. (The Moth Cock cassette Rick released on his tape label a few years back is also on Bandcamp, which I didn't realize until just now.) I feel like I am sort of out the noise loop currently, not too many shows of that sort happening in Baltimore right now, or if they are they're being put on by people I am not friends with, and this stuff, this sort of psychedelic abstraction humor music, is sort of the only thing I'm aware of that I'm even into, really. Hausu Mountain also released the Do Pas O cassette I mentioned earlier.

The highlight of the year's instrumental electronic music, though, was the Jlin album Black Origami, which will surely receive no small share of praise elsewhere. Let me weigh in to say I agree. Sounds incredible through sound systems large or small. Feels like putting the CD into a car stereo could transform your vehicle into something that walks upright. While it's rooted in footwork, it is something else, something that seems more readily danceable by normal people than that stuff.

I still tried to keep engaged with contemporary jazz. The Nicole Mitchell album is cool, Mandorla Awakening Part Two and I spent some time with older work of hers through it. It got her on the cover of The Wire, but I still felt like she should have received more attention, outside the world of music. The fact that it's a concept album about the work of Octavia E Butler is pretty interesting as a hook in itself, but for whatever clout Butler might be getting as a reference point right now, avant-garde jazz is still not really going to be discussed in more generalist venues. I had this idea I would try to write an article for a women's-focused online publication about the current wave of women in avant-garde jazz, specifically how Nicole Mitchell as director of the AACM is interesting because it's women inheriting an organization specifically designed as a way for black musicians to get more respect by controlling their own destiny but such an article should probably be written, if not by a woman, then at least someone in the city of Chicago who has more access to the people whose work I would be discussing- Nicole Mitchell, Jaimie Branch, Tomeka Reid, and Mary Halvorson. Many of these women are white, by the way. I assume all are driven by ideals of solidarity and commitment to art which is frankly utopian. Obviously it would be ideal for such an article were written by a woman, but it seems necessary it be done by someone in a position to see these people perform together, even though the records are good on their own. Mandorla Awakening admittedly has some vocals late in the game that make the record much harder to just put on and listen to than some of her other work.

Jaimie Branch's Fly Or Die was the one I was most interested in owning as a record I think, because it was a single LP. At first I was put off by how went back and forth between group settings that hit really hard and portions where it's just Branch playing and electronically processing her trumpet but now I think I'm on board. International Anthem also put out Irreversible Entanglements, where Moor Mother fronts a free jazz group delivering spoken word against police brutality.

I do not mean to neglect rap but am not sure there's anything I can mention that hasn't been praised extensively elsewhere, besides to say that about half of Future's album HNDRXX totally rules- I didn't really fuck with the self-titled at all, which seemed like a retread of the commercially and critically successful DS2 approach to diminishing returns, while the pop songs on HNDRXX seemed to rekindle a sort of romantic streak that was present on the retroactively-maligned Honest. If you put on HNDRXX, you can sort of skip straight to "Incredible," which is maybe the song of the year, and go from there. The only thing is that its tone then feels very similar to Young Thug's "Beautiful Thugger Girls" album, to a point of borderline redundancy, but Future's hooks and songwriting are better I'd argue. But honestly I feel like the way people talk about rap is so insane and focused on youth and what's new that, besides Kendrick Lamar I feel like I'm continually hearing about things I have no idea what they are and that often sound awful to me just on a level of what a rap name should be. This is how I know I am old.

More music: The Dirty Projectors record sounded great playing through the record store sound system, making architecture out of multi-layered and pitch-shifted vocal harmonies. Tara Jane O'Neil's self-titled album was spare and campfire in the sunlight warm, I want to compare it to Sibylle Baier. Obnox's Niggative Approach is great: I feel like if it had been released on CD under a different title I could've played it in-store and sold it to people buying Childish Gambino records, but as it is it's just for garage-rock obsessives I guess. I checked out the Nick Hakim record due to the Keith Rankin album art and it fucking swept through my coworkers like wildfire, although none of us got it together to see him live. Amir ElSaffar's Rivers Of Sound was a very good large ensemble jazz record. Mary Halvorson in a quartet setting playing John Zorn compositions I found very soothing. I bought Alvarius B's 2 CD set collecting 3 LPs but haven't spent a ton of time with it yet. NHK made a cool electronic records I enjoyed listening to. While listening to the new Linda Perhacs album, I'm A Harmony, I tweeted that it sounded very nice, but then came to regret that when it lapsed into silly territory, but it is in fact still good, and the fact that two songs are embarrassingly corny seems true to where she is at at this point in her life.

Reissues:

 I stumbled across an original copy of Yoko Ono's Approximately Infinite Universe a few months before it was reissued, and it's great. More straightforward and classic rock than you might expect. Oh shit: CD and digital reissues of this include "Dogtown," the song I was originally introduced to as a Jeff Zagers cover that appears on the much later Season Of Glass. I assume this is a different, earlier version? Anyway. Pep Llopis' Poiemusia La Mau Dels Argonautes is a beautiful work of minimalism with spoken word poetry passages. I am honestly furious at how that label's follow-up, Richard Horowitz Eros In Arabia received such a small pressing as I was anticipating it hungrily. I work at a record store and we never received copies, despite me insisting on ordering it as soon as it was listed at the distributor. The compilation of Alice Coltrane's 1980s ashram recordings was great.

Oh also, for whatever it's worth: Superior Viaduct reissued an Arnold Dreyblatt record, Propellers In Love, and while that album is fine, this year I heard for the first time a record that dude in the nineties for Tzadik, Animal Magnetism, that is much better. It is weirdly similar to the band Horse Lords my friends are in. It is also very good music to get writing done to, I think. If I get my shit together to write a post about books I've read and enjoyed this year, the influence of Brian Evenson will hang heavy over it, for much of what I've liked he either wrote, translated, publicly endorsed, or does work that just feels similar to. In some interview with Evenson or another he talked about enjoying the quality of music where it feels like if you turn it up more, you will hear more, catch something mysterious, and this is what he likes to write to, or the sort of mindstate he finds rewarding. The Dreyblatt liner notes mention that due to the way the work is meant to work with overtones, it should be played at maximum volume. But of course, who really does that? All you can do is play it loud enough for it to do its thing but still allow you to be in the room with it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Music In 2016

Ideally, I would've written about music throughout the year. Year-end lists attempt to make a canon or time capsule, but I realized that every time I buy a piece of music as physical media I am doing so based on the assumption that it is something I will want to return to in the future, and so I desire the physical form as a reminder of its existence. There should be more to music listening, to sharing what you value, than a simple showing of receipts, a browsing of shelves. Music, made of the passage of time, should have words to note it, as it happens. I wrote a few write-ups early on in the year for a magazine that never came out, but really most conversations about music were had in person, and marked by an inability to remember what I'd been listening to. I apologize in advance for the extent to which these write-ups/explanations are mostly just attempts to give context, rather than explain how the records make me feel.

The two most notable things were the reissues of Syrinx and Dow Jones And The Industrials. Dow Jones And The Industrials were a midwestern synth-punk band, in the late seventies in Indiana, comparable to Pere Ubu or Devo both in their instrumentation and in the sense of East Coast geography that reduces the Midwest to an indistinct blur. They are also similarly actually good, which isn't always a given when dealing with dug-up examples of trends viewed nostalgically. Their songs are occasionally "dumb" in that sort of perfect garage band way, where things are simplistic and straightforward, unpretentious in a way that can be associated with the midwest but that most wouldn't ascribe to the other bands I mentioned who have sort of "art school" reputations. Syrinx are even better, basically: A trio of synthesizer, saxophone, and percussion from Canada in the early seventies, doing psychedelic melodic miniatures that feel very rich, who opened Canadian dates for the electric-era Miles Davis band. The compilation Tumblers From The Vault includes two LPs and a recording of a performance done with an orchestra. The main composer, John Mills-Cockell, who plays the synth, had an earlier group, an art collective called Intersystems, whose work was also reissued this year as a box set, but that stuff is essentially too far out for me, which I mean as high praise. Sine wave wobble and spoken word creating very intense psychedelic atmospheres that are too intense for background listening, essentially demanding the sort of "don't freak out" attention those with drug experience might find disconcertingly familiar. Those are the reissues that, in their rearrangement of material, are basically new. The first three solo albums of Colin Newman from Wire were reissued this year, and while I haven't spent a ton of time with any of them, what I've heard has been pretty enjoyable, the logical follow-up to Chairs Missing I didn't know existed, since 154 is such left-turn.

I also spent a lot of time listening to a two-CD reissue of the first four albums Arthur Blythe did for Columbia in the late seventies and early eighties. Blythe is an alto saxophonist, who plays on Julius Hemphill's Coon Bidness, and this stuff is sort of similarly funky/ritualistic. There's various approaches, but my favorite stuff is with an electric band, which switched up its membership, but at various points has James Blood Ulmer on guitar, Abdul Wadud on cello, people on tuba, flute, etc. If you look up the song "Bush Baby" on Illusions on Youtube that's a highlight. It's a particular kind of "eighties jazz" which can feels post-Can but also has the sort of neon brightness of a Michael Mann movie or something. Most jazz from the eighties doesn't feel like this, and it was a famously conservative decade in terms of what was popular. The cover art for "Lenox Avenue Breakdown," depicting a drawing of a house on a corner shaped like a saxophone also feels exemplary of a particular era in that there's a type of corniness but it also feels really refreshing to take in now.

The most exciting new band for me would be Guerilla Toss, who I know are not actually a new band, but whose older material never grabbed me. It's possible the shift into greater focus is attributable to a new bass player, but either way. I have described their new LP Eraser Stargazer as "like Dog Faced Hermans but with a synth instead of a trumpet" and while that is fucking great and exactly what I want to hear, imagine my delight to discover that the 4-song Flood Dosed 12-inch adds saxophone and percussion to bring it into more of a Remain In Light/afrobeat proposition, and that the EP of remixes by Giant Claw, which removes all the live band instrumentation in favor of detailed synth/midi moving landscapes, is just as beautifully arranged while sounding completely different.A single CD collects both of the latter two releases.

In a similar area, but lower-profile, were a couple of releases put forth by OSR Tapes by Salt People and Listening Woman. They are similarly female-fronted no-wave-ish bands, but with expanded ensembles, jazzier, but in a way that simultaneously seems like they might be reading from sheet music, or being conducted, the vocals marginally more operatic in their delivery, bringing them more into an art-song zone. I discovered OSR Tapes a through years ago, through its proprietor Zach Phillips, of the band Blanche Blanche Blanche, who had releases on Night People and Feeding Tube Records. This year, I discovered Jake Tobin through his having releases on both OSR and Haord Records. Haord is a fascinating label, run by the same people who put together the Spider's Pee-Paw comic anthology, which works with a sort of molten CGI mutation of the Tim And Eric visual aesthetic. The musical analog to that visual is this sort of Residents-y, maniacal synth-pop of sped-up vocals, and abrasive rhythms. There's a sense of landscape to this music you might know from the Verhoeven Total Recall. The label's flagship band, Macula Dog, put out a record on Wharf Cat Records this year I would recommend, Why Do You Look Like Your Dog. The Jake Tobin tape on OSR is marginally gentler: More of a human-kitten hybrid with a snout in a can of ravioli than a cybernetic doofus working in a factory, but obviously both of these images coexist within the same future.

My favorite Young Thug record of the year was Slime Season 3. I've said in the past that Young Thug's voice is an instrument, and I realize that specifically it is like an extremely well-played set of tape manipulations, speeding up and slowing down in its yelps. It is not that far from the stuff on Haord, really, but the beats are made on a computer, and the voice is elastic on top of it.


In the realm of rap records where lyrics were important, and songs were about discreet topics that can be summarized, I enjoyed Aesop Rock's The Impossible Kid. Self-produced, personal, but language obscure enough to not be confessional. I know the critical conversation is pretty far away from praising work like this these days, but that is largely because of the amount of investment it asks from a listener, and how much the artist himself is putting into making a true achievement.

 I would say my favorite jazz record of the year was made by the Mary Halvorson Octet, their album Away With You. Mary is a guitar player, with a clean tone, and she leads this group through compositions with a lot of space, the horns present but not foregrounded. Halvorson played on one of my favorite jazz records of last year as well, the Tomeka Reid Quartet, but I didn't hear that until this year. I don't know how much relevance jazz has to the larger world in 2016, but there's something about this stuff, where the players are clearly listening to one another, and giving them space, that feels instructive. The thing that makes this one an Octet as opposed to the previous Septet is the presence of Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar. The presence of guitar and pedal steel makes it feel rooted in folk music. It feels like a late afternoon record, light coming through the curtains.

The use of pedal steel connects it in my mind to Itasca's Open To Chance, a quiet folk record. Itasca was previously a solo project, deeply lonesome. Now there's more embellishments, flute, violin, drums,  but the feel of it hasn't changed considerably. The pastoral idylls are just more detailed, including birds instead of only trees. I also enjoyed this year's Angel Olsen record, My Woman, which will probably be on a great number of high-profile year-end lists. The desolate folk vibes of her earlier records are gone, replaced by bright colors, electric guitars, rock and roll. As the music paints a happier feeling image, the lyrics tend towards these love songs, sung from a place of utter desperation, and a willingness to be less than a romantic partner. The vision of romantic love on the earlier records seemed much more hopeful and healthy to me, but this is a good record of pop songs, still.

On the opposite end of the spectrum would be the Moth Cock/Form A Log split. Moth Cock puts free-jazz blurts inside a garbled intuitive mess of electronics and comes up with something fist-pounding, drugged-out party music that is abstract, psychotic. Form A Log are more repetitive, looping, but off-beat enough to never be rigid, off-beat both in terms of the loose "swing" they possess but also the weird sense of structure and tension they employ. It's satisfying. Their noise feels related to that of Black Dice, who put out some good stuff this year: A 12-inch single, a side-project called Spiked Punch, and Eric Copeland's solo record Black Bubblegum, which is a a dumb summertime pop record that I loved but will probably not listen to again until next summer. It follows up on the experiments with vocals he has been exploring on seven-inches for years but while those songs had titles like "Vampire Blues" that made me think of something older, becoming musty, this feels brighter, bouncier, although still degraded: Like a little kid sticky with spilled fruit punch, singing pop-punk melodies without knowing any of the actual words.

Katie Gately makes incredibly detailed, rich sounding electronic music: If I liken the hyperactivity of Haord Records stuff to landscapes, this is atmospheres and ecosystems, viruses becoming a part of DNA. It is glossy, Gately's day job is apparently doing sound design for Hollywood films, but any review comparing it to pop music is way off. It's symphonic, alien stuff: To me it is easier to imagine her producing noise bands, mixing their work for maximum impact and nuance, then creating backing tracks for pop singers.

Considerably closer to pop music is this year's Olga Bell record, Tempo. The voice remains upfront, in focus, the negative space allows the drum programming to hit, the other textures are melodic, gorgeous. I was unfamiliar with Olga Bell's older, classical material and can't really imagine how listeners familiar with that stuff would've processed this, but it's a thrilling, human, record. I listened to it, and the new Chairlift record, Moth, a lot. The song structures are different, but both had hooks that stuck in my head, and both felt good to listen to, creating a sense of relief in the space they created, and how they allowed the body to fill it.

Meanwhile, I listened to the ANOHNI record, Hopelessness, maybe twice, and it's the record I would say was the "record of the year," a masterpiece, etc. It's a huge-sounding thing, an emotional record about things actually worth getting upset about, and makes the listener aware of how complicit they are in the world we are unmaking. I still have never listened to Antony And The Johnstons, and so was unaware of what a voice she has. I was more familiar with Oneohtrix Point Never, who does some of the production, but I haven't spent that much time with those records either. The huge human voice in these dispiriting digital spaces, that drips with a gloss that is nonetheless a type of viscera, is deeply affecting, and the emotional core of the record is dispiriting and necessary, even as the only catharsis to be had comes from accepting one's part in an almost nihilistic fashion. Listening to this record feels like being on social media, and it is not surprising that presented with that option, we choose to log off for our health, but still, what an achievement. I imagine songs about being disappointed in Obama will make this record feel dated in a year's time, when even the most adamant and earnest leftist will be awash in nostalgia for the merest illusion of decency.

I also wanted to just list these additional records, while distinguishing that they were runners-up, not quite my personal top tier. I wanted to leave it as a comment but Blogger wouldn't let me, because it was too long.

But immediately before writing such an addition I realized that Lil Ugly Mane's Oblivion Access was released right at the end of 2015, after I made my "best of the year" list, and that record is incredible. A bluesy lament, with noise, it's happy songs have this kind of melancholy grace that I loved and listened to a lot, although the whole record is very well-sequenced for balancing the noisy elements with the songs. I wrote about it for a magazine that never came out. In the same magazine, I also wrote about The Body's No One Deserves Happiness, which I think is great, but putting one metal album on my list when I basically heard no other metal seemed extremely unhelpful for being unconvincing.

The Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith record Ears occupies a similar place to the Syrinx reissues, and my description of the Katie Gately record could apply to it as well. But it is a little more new-agey, and so could be considered boring, although I liked it, and her previous album, Euclid, plenty. Her collaboration with Suzanne Ciani that RVNG put out I don't think of as being as good.

The record Haley Fohr from Circuit Des Yeux made under the name Jackie Lynn is good but too short. It occupies a space sort of like Suicide or Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, but calmer than each.

The thing I wrote about Guerilla Toss, where I endorsed everything they did, could be applied to Deerhoof as well- Their LP The Magic was better than their last several records, their collaboration with a classical composer was interesting, the record John Dietrich made with Jeremy Barnes called The Coral Casino was totally listenable and fun. They remain the best live band this side of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and all of the interviews I read with the members this year were inspiring. I sort of take Deerhoof for granted, and in the context of a year-end list where the goal is to highlight music people might not have heard, I wrote about Guerilla Toss because they are a newer band.

Greg Saunier from Deerhoof is maybe my favorite working drummer, but Jim White would have to be somewhere in the top five. His duo, Xylouris White, where he accompanies a guy who plays the lauoto, a stringed instrument also called the cretan lute, who is performing what my understanding has as traditional greek folk songs, put out a record this year, Black Peak, which I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Rangda, or the various post-John-Fahey/post-Jack-Rose acoustic guitar records so beloved by people I follow on Twitter who also really like the Grateful Dead. It's not my favorite mode, but it's good. It's also vaguely comparable to the Mary Halvorson Octet record.

I thought Johann Johannson's score to Arrival was really good when I was watching the movie, enough to stick around waiting for the credits to tell me who did it. I haven't listened to it as a separate piece of music. It's sort of in a similar space to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's Ears too, actually.

The new A Tribe Called Quest album is really good, at least based on the one time I listened to it. Tribe isn't my favorite rap group, not even of that school or style. I much prefer the "classic" De La Soul albums to the classic Tribe records. But the new De La Soul record is a stinker, without a ton of rapping on it, and vaguely sounding like a Gorillaz record, and a total disappointment that set a low bar Tribe easily cleared.

The new Vince Staples EP is really good but also too short. The tracks produced by James Blake are good and cool, I had never listened to James Blake but heard his new record this year and thought it was cool, I should maybe spend more time with his work. Again, he's getting attention from other people and I felt he didn't need my help in this write-up. I should clarify that the things I say I only listened to once I heard when someone else put them on at the record store I work at, which is a different kind of "I only listened to it once" than iTunes stats.

Patterns Of Light, the new His Name Is Alive record I also really enjoyed. I find it compulsively listenable, something I'm drawn to. I really like the last few records he's made with his new vocalist, in the last ten years or so. They're all on his Bandcamp now. It's an indie rock in a very particular way, pre-release hype describing it as like Free Design songwriting and vocals with Thin Lizzy guitar heroics is pretty accurate. I didn't include it on my list essentially because I don't trust how comforting I find it, and I think I prefer to highlight things that feel a little more alienating, things that hold me with a bit more tension.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Books I Read In 2015


The idea of writing about all the books I read this year is an exhausting proposition. This is not necessarily because I just read SO MUCH, but because of much of what I read I found exhausting. Some things took a long time to read, others were started and left unfinished, but whether I will pick them up again or leave them to collect dust is still unclear. Still, I read enough things I either liked or thought considerably about that I could write a substantial list, even if I avoid mentioning the things I don't feel like talking about. If you click this link you can see what I reviewed for Bookslut, all at once. Of those books, the Renata Adler and Silvina Ocampo collections are the best, and are basically essential.

That said, for the sake of my energy I will not order things chronologically. I will just start talking.

Anna Kavan, Ice. I read this right at the end of the year, and it led directly to feeling that I should spend 2016 reading more 20th century female modernists, namely Virginia Woolf and Ann Quin. (Also, Sylvia Plath, although I'm not sure if she counts.) Kavan's biography is pretty fascinating if you have any attraction to tragic figures: Born in 1901, she received an injury in the 1920's that led to her being prescribed heroin, leading to an addiction that lasted until she died in 1969. After her second divorce she had a nervous breakdown, spent time in an asylum, and legally changed her name to Anna Kavan, which was previously the character in a book she'd published under the name Helen Ferguson. Ice has a male narrator, whose conflict with the book's antagonist is over a woman - a woman viewed explicitly as a victim, and the protagonist basically views himself as being the one entitled to victimize her. Few depictions of men feel as harsh, or as basically accurate. Meanwhile, in the background is ice, destroying the world and reducing nations to ruins, which leads to the book being talked about in science fiction circles, although it's clearly analogous to the destructive forces of interpersonal relationships in the novel. The narration does weird things where, despite largely being in first-person, it's also able to take off from that limit and describe things the narrator doesn't bear witness to, sort of pointing at the character's worldview as so omnipresent that it's able to allow for narrative omnipresence by proxy.

Mark De Silva, Square Wave. I got a review copy of this book and then didn't want to review it because I basically disliked it. I was intrigued by the way the author talked about literature in an interview that ran on the publisher's website. Just tonight I read an essay he wrote where I again agreed with basically everything he said. My main problem with the book is what he describes as critic's problem with William Vollmann, who it's clear he likes: That the way in which he's overdescriptive can come off as fetishistic when talking about things that are morally abhorrent. There are parts where De Silva is not detailing violence, where he's talking about music in a way that seems like he's largely showing off what he knows in a way that becomes tedious. Meanwhile, his essay sort of bypasses entirely notions of poetry - both as something that provides visionary life-altering power and perspective and also as something that can enliven prose, that musicality can be compelling for its own sake. That sort of understanding of the sentence is absent in Vollmann and in Square Wave.

Cynan Jones, Things I Found On The Beach. I was sent a review copy of this one too, although this was unsolicited, and that was initially exciting until a few pages in, where I realized I didn't really like the book that much. A press kit was sent, one of the initial blurbs was like "If Jones is like Cormac McCarthy, this book is his No Country For Old Men," but then if you read the article that's excerpted from, which was also included, it's in the context of talking about his other books, and it's a diss. Fairly straight-forward crime fiction, with a consciously "minimal" style. It is funny how when reading crime novels the thing you think about is what you would do in the character's position. Reading this book I distracted myself by wondering what I would do if I came across a large amount of cocaine. Even at the time I knew this question was not really worth pondering.

Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories. The stuff from her first two books is really incredible, before all the stories start containing dogs and seem largely about dogs. That stuff's good too, though. I read these pretty quickly and can imagine those later stories being a delight were I to have read them as they were written. I wanted to recommend these to people going through hard times. They don't offer assurance, they are just very sad. I would also recommend them just to people who want to write better.

Gary Lutz, Divorcer and Stories In The Worst Way. I loved these. I read them early in the year. There is a type of joke Lutz uses a lot that I was basically already using in the thing I'm writing now, where words are defined incorrectly, but on the basis of what appears to be at the root of them, that made me want to read more. The sentences here are so contrived and tortured that all of the narrators seem insane. I picture them all as fat and sweaty and with crumbs all around their mouth, stains on their clothing. The narratives then are like classic 1980s short story style, scenes of domestic alienation, but they feel more fraught, the characters more doomed. They are pretty funny.

Elizabeth Mikesch, Niceties. Calamari Press has this deal intermittently where you can buy several books at a time, only selecting a few specifically, the rest chosen for you by the publisher. This was one of the ones I got randomly. I still haven't read all of the stuff Calamari sent, but everything I've read so far has been pretty readable. The David Ohle books (Boons And The Camp, The Blast) were fine. Stanley Crawford's Travel Notes was one of the books I specifically requested, and while it eventually becomes basically too far out for me to even parse, before that it is like a string of paradoxes, impossibilities. It's pretty insane even before I lost a bead on what it was entirely. Considering that the sixties were an era where lots of people read weird stuff, this seems like a rare example of what only total freaks would read. Mikesch's book is a short story collection that is not too far off from Lutz's stuff but rather than taking place in sad apartments and offices it's air is perfumed like opulent boudoirs strewn with jewelry. That is sexist, but I mean it is more opaque. It wears wigs, makeup, sunglasses, and the texture it surrounds itself becomes so much a part of its look that it is synonymous with the body and its beauty. Bits of its music glop in my head still, but not any narrative. Incantatory. I don't know who would like it but I hope that people would, in general. I relate to it. I also read Miranda Mellis' The Revisionist and Beth Steidle's The Static Herd, they were fine, but very short. There was also a reprint of Scott Bradfield's book The History Of Luminous Motion, which was also fine, but not good enough to induce me to read his other books. I would read more books by Mikesch if they existed, which they will, in the future, maybe.

Steven Millhauser, Voices In The Night. I love what Steven Millhauser does in his short stories. Before this book came out I was drafting an essay in my head about how what Millhauser does, in all of his stories, basically redeems America. The quintessential Millhauser short story is about some form of Americana - the department store, or miniatures, or animation - and is about an artist or practitioner pushing that thing to the limits of its fantasy, until the story goes completely past realism. You see the yearning and the dream in Millhauser's stories, and through fiction, they achieve this form of tangibility, that makes the fact of American's continual wanting for MORE not seem like a curse or a disease but as something intrinsically spiritual. Here there is a take on the story of Gautama found in Hesse's Siddhartha but here way more rich in imagery of the delights of artificiality, and the title story is specifically about a longing for a spiritual calling felt even by those determinedly secular. It's a great book. The way that Millhauser's body of work seems to essentially mimic or parallel the characters in his stories seems to perpetually promise that what comes next is going to destroy all boundaries, but I'm not sure if the books really get better so much as that as his bibliography grows the scale seems increasingly monumental.

Shirley Jackson, Haunting Of Hill House. This is good and fun and a really easy read. Some people adore her and now I know why. It's still not exactly my thing but I get it. I read this at the same time as the Millhauser and basically alternated between the two of them, the Mark De Silva book remaining in my backpack as I was in New Jersey for my grandfather's funeral.

Patrick Dewitt, Undermajordomo Minor. I actually read this a few days ago, at the beginning of 2016. The acknowledgments page includes the work of lots of people whose work I like, including Millhauser and Italo Calvino, but also the cartoonists Sammy Harkham and CF. I think that if you were looking for a fun, well-written, genre-indebted in terms of atmosphere but still primarily focused on character book, which I think a lot of people are looking for, you can't really do any better than Patrick Dewitt.

Chelsey Minnis, Zirconia and Bad Bad. Two great books of determinedly bratty poetry. I relate to the obnoxiousness on display here so much. Zirconia is probably the more consistent book. Bad Bad starts off with a great series of introductions, that basically talk shit on the whole idea of writing poetry, and ends really strongly, but the bulk of the middle started to feel tedious in ways that seem both to do with the slight changes in formatting from her Zirconia baseline and littering the poems with words that I basically didn't know. Here is a prose-poem. The willingness to be abrasive, self-deprecating, talk shit, feels beyond refreshing in a world where people are desperate to be liked.

Mark Leidner, Beauty Was The Case That They Gave Me and The Angel In The Dream Of Our Hangover. I read the book of aphorisms while watching the Super Bowl. Great stuff. Rough paraphrase of one would be "art for art's sake is a tacit endorsement of war for war's." Shit man. The poems are pretty funny. I think a lot about this quote I've seen attributed to Leidner, that his work goes right to being stupid because that's what beauty reduces him to, and he is just skipping a step.

Rachel Glaser, Paulina And Fran. This book is not as mind-altering as her short story collection, Pee On Water. In fact, it's not mind-altering at all. It is eminently recognizable if you know women who went to art school and are approximately my age. Reading it I wanted to recommend it to people specifically because I am not sure I really value mimesis all that much but I know that there are certain people who would love to see their life experience reflected in prose. It's interesting to think about how this book is all about the art school experience but maybe her short stories are more like conceptual art.

Leon Neyfakh, The Next Next Level. This is a book about the rapper Juiceboxxx, a dude I know and share mutual friends with. There's an N+1 article that this book is essentially a longer version of, but that article is I think basically fine, while this book is terrible, and way too much about the author, and the author's weird sense of alienation from anything, and his inability to understand anything without a lot of projection. Specifically, Juiceboxxx knows a lot about noise music, and finds it inspiring, but the author finds it totally off-putting and then assumes it is designed to be alienating. As someone who listens to noise and goes to noise shows it seems pretty understandable as music if you are familiar with free jazz, or Sonic Youth, or The Velvet Underground, or any number of things I think music writers should be familiar with. I know it is not for everyone, but something can not be for you without the assumption that its only goal is to alienate. Even more of a problem is the sense that the author doesn't really understand or know anything about rap either, which makes the book's relationship to its subject, a rapper, all the more awkward. Neyfakh apparently wrote a really fawning article about hanging out with Drake, which makes a lot of sense, if you think about Drake as being basically wack and his fans as people who relate to him because of their own innate wackness.

I also read that collection of Jessica Hopper's rock criticism (and I wrote a review for Bookslut that sort of talks about Hopper's writings on its own terms) but later in the year I think I started to feel like Hopper's approach to music writing is really prevalent now in a way that I basically view as detrimental. I think it was reading her review of the Grimes album Art Angels, and how it basically parrots pre-release hype and the artist's own narrative for this tone of triumphalism that made me feel like "ugh, this is the worst." Also I think in general culture writing this year has been so much about representation, and who is making work, and giving things a gold star for being "feminist" or "intersectional." This is separate from the totally great function of feminist criticism, where looking at art through a feminist lens allows you to see larger systemic problems in a way that doesn't necessarily condemn the work itself. The strangest thing to me about championing things for their politics is how often those politics are largely a projection, based more on what the critic wants to see in the work. I realize that my objecting to this sort of comes off like what I'm mad at is work made by women, and the championing of the same, in a way that makes it seem like what I want to see is more talk about women being subjugated, (in a manner akin to what the Anna Kavan book is about) but like if people are going to talk about Beyonce or Taylor Swift as feminist icons and be super-psyched on every little win these rich people achieve, while across the board women's reproductive rights are rolled back, I don't want to read articles about how Broad City is a bellwether for progress.

While I'm offering retrospective disclaimers let me say that I read a Silvina Ocampo novella, The Topless Tower, after writing my feature on her for Bookslut and that book, which is not collected in Thus Were Their Faces, is not very good.

I read Ian Svenonius' Censorship Now! which was good. Good lord how much more do I admire Svenonius' contrarianism that frames basically everything as a byproduct of capitalism than the weird triumphalism of successful artists that constitutes music writing for major outlets. It seems basically besides the point to say "this is better than that" about things that are so different but it really is worth noting how rare Svenonius' approach is, how genuinely radical and reality-reshaping, than the affirmation of the myth of "music saved my life by presenting me with a vision of a future self to aspire to." But maybe when I say this I am just saying I relate to Svenonius and I'm full of shit.

William Gaddis, JR. This was the really long book I read this year and was maybe unsure if I'd finish. Once I did finish it, I kept on thinking about it, just in this way of wanting to compare things to the book's premise and tone. The notion of money as an abstraction for its own sake that perpetuates itself ignorant of all else, some kind of churning engine that will place advertisements anywhere and devalues everything because things without value can be bought up at low cost. The book is kind of repetitive and after a certain point you get it but it keeps on going in a way that then deepens the sense of the ubiquity of the book's subject.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale. Another one where the takeaway from the book is the idea at the central premise of it, how it resonates in real life. Before reading it I think I would've dismissed that concept as hyperbolic to the point of lacking realism but 2015 ended up being a really weird and reactionary year. I also started but didn't finish Atwood's The Robber Bride, which is one of her more realistic novels and was basically boring.

Dennis Cooper, Frisk and The Marbled Swarm. Frisk is really powerful and immediate, the way it's posed as faux-autobiography implicates the writer and by extension the reader. The premise is that the narrator, Dennis, saw some faked snuff photographs when he was way too young and since has been obsessed with combining sex with violent death. This obsession runs throughout Cooper's oeuvre, in often gross, transgressive ways. They are never really the point but seem to open the audience up to a willingness to be violated by other aspects of the book's strangeness. One fascinating thing in Frisk is the complete absence of women, so the deviation from society the book presents is not homosexuality as an alternative to heterosexuality but violence as an alternative to tenderness. Cooper's most recent "novel" is composed of animated gifs, which I looked at, maybe even "read," but don't really recall and am not including on this list. The Marbled Swarm deliberately avoids immediacy, in its prose, for a more confusing, ghostly and mazelike effect. Still I read it in basically a night, and lent it to friends who had to put it down for a while due to how gross it was.

William S. Burroughs, The Wild Boys and Cities Of The Red Night. The Wild Boys is really great. In some ways the takeaway is the conclusion, which is really straightforward, and the way in which Burroughs language is clipped allows the images to proceed with unimpeded motion, but flipping through it I ended up rereading one of the chapters that is basically gay erotica, and the way that one sort of returns to cut-ups to tell it sort of moves through the atoms of the room as they become charged with scent is sort of like if you were watching pornography and making animated gifs of your favorite moments at the same time. Cities Of The Red Night juggles a few narrative strands in alternating chapters in a way that I don't think works nearly as well as The Wild Boys' prismatic approach.

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory and Look At The Harlequins. Speak, Memory is Nabokov's memoir, and is pretty dull, dominated by the thread of his interest in butterflies. Look At The Harlequins is more interesting, at least in part because of the fact that the main character is clearly based on Nabokov, in that he's a writer whose works each have an analog with books written by the actual Nabokov, but he has no problem making this character erotically fixated on young girls, the way I'm certain some people viewed Nabokov after Lolita's success. This is pretty funny.

Jenny Offill, Dept. Of Speculation and Last Things. I read Dept. Of Speculation super-quickly, I think just sitting in a chair at the local Barnes And Noble, then checked out Last Things from the library for the sake of being a completist about an author with a very small body of work. The best part of Dept. Of Speculation is a small thing about getting a job as a fact-checker for a magazine that runs science facts. The best thing about Last Things was Sarah Nicole Prickett on Twitter making fun of the blurb on the new paperback edition's cover.

Natalie Lyalin, Blood Makes Me Faint But I Go For It. There's a great poem by Natalie, Wolverine, that you can read in this interview Rachel Glaser conducted with her. It is not contained in this book, which has a pretty good title. I was not particularly into this collection.

Edward Dorn, Gunslinger. After I finished my book, a western with some poetry in it, I read this and Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid. Chelsey Minnis talks about how Edward Dorn is her favorite poet in the prefaces to Bad Bad, but maybe she is thinking of the later work, Abhorrences. I've read one poem from that, it was great, and have e-mailed it to some people. The Ondaatje has a line about "blood a necklace" which is the name of a Goslings song.

Richard Brautigan, The Hawkline Monster. This was also described to me as a weird western. I liked it more than In Watermelon Sugar. It feels colder and weirder, like everyone in it is alienated from each other and themselves, death is palpable as this transmutational substance. Like it takes place in the parts of the west that feel like the moon. I think I found out at some point that Brautigan was friends, or collaborated on a journal with, Ron Loewinsohn, this book has a similar texture (smooth like glass) to Magnetic Field(s).

Thomas Bernhard, Correction. Written in this maniacal voice of total fury, which due to Bernhard's Germanic ancestry I read in my head as an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice. It feels possessed by violent obsession, like the goal is to break through a wall by smashing your head against it repeatedly. Like the literary equivalent of power electronics: This is an endorsement and a disclaimer that I don't know when I will next read one of his books.

Stanley Elkin, The Magic Kingdom. I really liked Elkin's Criers And Kibitzers short story collection. I associate this whole type of dark humor with my grandfather who died this year, an urban Jew who worked in a pharmacy in the sixties who I know read Joseph Heller. I keep on imagining this world of smart, well-read people, who raise children and read a certain kind of novel and they basically don't exist anymore, and it's possible the image in my head doesn't even really correspond to anything other than a myth. This book is good, well-rendered. It's about taking dying children to Disney World. It is dark but thankfully manages to avoid any dumb knee-jerk cynicism that the premise seems to threaten exists inside of it as a seed of its undoing. The ending is beautiful in a very particular way, powered by rage against death that is also an acceptance of it.

William Gay, Twilight. This book sort of splits the difference between two types of Southern novel - One, the kind about kids exemplified by The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, The Little Friend, and To Kill A Mockingbird. Two, Cormac McCarthy, and his whole approach to language. It's good, but basically a thriller, about a kid trying not to get killed.

Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies. Super-weird structure in this one. Seems to invite rereadings just to get to better understand the characters and their relationships to each other. This is one of my best friends' favorite books. I also read it to "prepare myself" for Paulina And Fran, which I was anticipating highly. It is pretty funny.

Sara Josephine Baker, Fighting For Life. An NYRB Classic, bought on sale. A memoir written by a public health advocate in early twentieth century New York. Every chapter has some sort of particularly interesting detail or anecdote. The stuff about arresting Typhoid Mary, a baker who didn't speak English very well and didn't seem to understand that she was sick and spreading disease, is pretty surprising to someone who mostly knows the name from the Daredevil villain named after her. The stuff about her belief about how women's suffrage would lead to an end to child labor is really good. Funny and smart in a way that feels "modern" enough in its consciousness that it serves as an effective window into this era that is so difficult to imagine that the consciousnesses of the people becomes unfathomable without such documents.

Alice Notley, In The Pines. Really good, basically incredible, particularly the title piece. Old lady witch shit with intent to break the world.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary. Kind of weird to read a book with this structure. Mothers News used these jokes as the basis of their "word jumble," and I always liked these bits when I could decode them, but without that effort, that pause before the punchline, I don't know if I liked it as much. That said, this book did teach me that "pandemonium" literally means "place of all the demons," which rules.

Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me. I don't really know why I read crime novels, I basically never find them satisfying, but people like them and they are quick to read. I found my copy of this on the side of the street, along with Chester Himes' Cotton Comes To Harlem, which I couldn't finish, although the movie is fine.

Don DeLillo, Ratner's Star. I'd heard this was Delillo's most sci-fi and Pynchonesque novel. It is basically about people becoming so obsessed with their areas of interest, their systems of decoding the world, that they unravel and no longer have any idea what they're doing. A comedy of philosophy, basically.

Herman Melville, The Confidence Man. Another comedy of philosophy. This one's about a con man on a boat, wearing a series of disguises, trying to get people to give him money. It is not always clear who the con man is. People frequently talk about Christian charity and the necessity of having confidence in your fellow man, but not all of them are necessarily the dude trying to get the money. This took me a really long time to finish.

Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography. This also took me a really long time to read, despite being basically the easiest thing to read in the world. It's Stein, newly successful, talking about all her famous friends, like Pablo Picasso. Pablo Picasso writes poetry and Stein, totally confident that she is the best writer in the world, has to explain to him it's like some Sunday painter showing him their stuff and it's basically an insult. Picasso only reads stuff his friends have written, why would he think he is good aside from this celebrity?

Amelia Gray, Gutshot. Short story collection in the Donald Barthelme vein where each story is like a comedy sketch, even when they are basically horror stories. These are okay.

Donald Antrim, The Emerald Light In The Air. A writer who can be compared to Barthelme for the weird inventiveness of his novels does a collection of short stories that ran in The New Yorker. Last year I read all of Antrim's novels, and they're all great, but much like the Amelia Gray collection I basically don't remember any of these. I actually do remember the Amelia Gray story that ran in The New Yorker, I remember being excited for her and then not thinking the story was very good.

Something I remember right now is I thought to include at the beginning of this post a disclaimer that maybe all of my negative opinions about things can be chalked up to professional jealousy, or an amateur's jealousy of professionals, whatever is the more appropriate and exact way to word it. I am sure whatever intern read the novels and short stories I sent out to be rejected this year don't remember my words either. I wouldn't want me saying anything dismissive of the writers in question to be something that sticks in their memory in any sense except for adding to their idea of time as being essentially a river of forgetfulness.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout. I thought this book was really good, a Dave Chappelle style satire about race that feels totally fearless.

Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. I read this as a "western" around the same time I read the other stuff, the immediate predecessor to Mumbo Jumbo which I loved. I think I described Ishmael Reed's style as "half Kurt Vonnegut and half William S. Burroughs," really straight-forward sentences but deliberately disjointed and sort of anti-narrative. There's a lack of rules because the point he is trying to make is that there are no rules and all of the rules that exist were created to perpetuate a racist power structure.

Ben Okri, The Famished Road. Based on the same Yoruba folklore that powers Amos Tutuola's writing but more put together, so as to be way less deranged on a level of language but still basically running counter to any traditional ideas of narrative. It reads more like a fantasy novel than it does just coming off as some alien radio transmission. Some people wanted to call it "magic realism" but the capitulations to realism are practically nil. Derek who runs Calamari Press loves this book, and so does Porochista Khakpour. I think I expected it to walk different lines than it did in its navigation of its territory. It seems fucked up to put these three books by black authors together but I think I read this book around the same time Baltimore was going crazy. When people were talking about a Baltimore uprising I was thinking about the idea of a black-owned bookstore in that Penn-North area, which apparently already exists but I was imagining as like a positive outcome. Still it sort of seems like when people talk about reading "more diverse" literature they sort of diminish what literature is and imagine mostly personal essays or something. (Or that's how I interpret the conversation, and who seems to be the main beneficiary of such dialogues in terms of the bump in their profile.)

Javier Marias, Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me. I read this right after Christmas. Javier Marias is good, for a second I thought I would read all of his books but they're all pretty similar, but I can still imagine reading one of his books every one or two years and they would probably always be pretty rewarding, especially if you spaced them out, or only read one after reading a couple of books that you couldn't get into or were somewhat unsatisfying. This one is kind of repetitive or obsessive in its underlining of its ideas.

Roberto Bolaño, The Secret Of Evil. This is basically odds and ends that were on the writer's hard drive at the time of his death. I am not obsessed with Bolaño the way others are but I got a free copy of this when someone was moving house and brought it with me to New Jersey to read and it was diverting enough.

Georges Bataille, The Story Of An Eye. I guess certain people read this when they are like twenty or something? Transgressive French pornography is maybe a common thing for college freshman who were more pretentious than people I knew at the time. I read this in a day, grabbed from the same pile as The Secret Of Evil.

OK I feel like I am officially bored with writing this list and trying to do write-ups. I also read Kelly Link's Get In Trouble and Valeria Luiselli's The Story Of My Teeth. The Kelly Link was fun but I think my expectations were too high or I was put off by the way it seemed like YA. Luiselli's book was smart enough but lacked drive. I read a bunch of NYRB Classics grabbed from a sale: Anne Carson's Euripides translations Grief Lessons has good essays by Carson but the plays themselves I basically couldn't follow, Maude Hutchins' Victorine I don't really remember, Théophile Gautier's My Fantoms is interesting (sort of) for a blurb from Lovecraft about how "it has a French sense of the strange" which ends up basically meaning that people have sex with ghosts that live in the paintings at a rich person's house, which makes perfect sense, The Letter Killers Club by the Russian guy with the long name who does the short story collections is not as good as the short story collections, despite attempts to embed short stories into the novel format. I read Julio Cortazar's Cronopios And Famas and it made basically no impression, I tried to read Hopscotch and, in the early chapters at least, it made a negative impression: The same sort of think I disliked about the beginning of The Savage Detectives, actually, where it seems like youth is being romanced and the woman is sort of this ornamental object and basically nothing is really being said except for this attempt. Apparently both of these works end up being a satire of that line of thinking eventually but I didn't really have the energy to stick around and find out. I read Jesse Ball's Samedi The Deafness and didn't feel like I had to read anything else by him, but honestly I think that was what I wanted, to just felt like I'd had a sampling of what he had to offer. I read Joyelle McSweeney's Dead Youth, which I didn't like as much as Percussion Grenade, and I basically feel like I should stop trying to find another book by her as good. I read Ken Sparling's Dad Said He Saw You At The Mall which is a nineties Lish-edited thing that is essentially domestic, but also sort of like the nineties equivalent of a Twitter feed's jottings of a young weird dad. It had a part I almost felt like highlighting or circling but I never do that and I think by that point I knew I was just going to give it to a used bookstore anyway. I read Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers and felt about it the same way as I do about crime novels, it is not as good as James Dickey's Deliverance, which feels like a fair comparison point. I read George Clinton's ghost-written autobiography and a book about Impulse Records and I don't really know why you'd read books about music. I read a few more books that I don't even really feel like mentioning.

In conclusion, a year is too long a length of time to remember all the books you read within it. I think the last time I attempted posts like this they covered nine months or so. Right now I am reading another book that I am not sure if I am reading closely enough to remember in a few month's time. These posts would not exist if I were not making a list in Google Drive to aid in my memory and my sense of accomplishment. But at the end of the year every book that is basically forgotten does not feel like an accomplishment any more than the meals I ate, which I am glad I do not keep a record of.