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.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

2015 - The Year In, And Around, Music

This summer I got a job at a music retailer. Subsequently, I became much more conscious of the commercial aspects of the music industry, the way that profit is made more by nostalgia and reissues than in new modern work finding an audience of contemporaries to speak to. Meanwhile, the audience for work that I think is interesting or valuable is incredibly small, and consists largely of people whose value system is inherently out of step with trends in capitalism, and so don't actually have much money to spend.

The majority of our customers are African-Americans over the age of ~35, and it is fairly easy to view their willingness to pay for physical copies of music -- on CD, no less -- as indicative of a lack of access to or understanding of the internet. Their engagement with music is a welcome exception to the rules and expectations set up by the rest of the music industry.

It is legitimately inspiring to see how many people call up the store on the day of the release of the new Jadakiss or Jeezy albums to see if we have copies in stock. However, it is commensurately disconcerting that the managerial policy holds playing music with so many expletives as off-limits, and so I have very little knowledge of what these new rap records sound like. (Song of the year, "Good Times," featuring Young Thug and Popcaan, was skipped when it came up on the otherwise basically mediocre Jamie XX album.) As interested in them as I am, the amount of off-hours unpaid research I would need to do is daunting. I love rap music, but it is not the genre I default to listening to, or that my passion for exploring leads to me checking out albums after only hearing an endorsement from one or two people. It is more the type of thing where some sort of critical mass approaching consensus persuades me to listen to something intently.

This year, the music I was more set on hearing and understanding was free jazz. Around the same time I got this job, Ornette Coleman died. I started listening to a lot of his music, and records led by his sidemen Charlie Haden and Don Cherry. The video of Cecil Taylor performing at his memorial led to an investigation of his work, that I had previously assumed I would find "too abrasive," as well as that of Andrew Hill. It felt like the dominant thing I was listening to, to the point where I started thinking about all of music through that particular lens.

Reading jazz liner notes was a constant reminder of the failings of contemporary music writing, grounded in extra-musical narratives of cults of personality, pushed by press releases, divorced from any idea of music theory.

The notion of "free jazz" is itself interesting, in its conception of freedom from restraint, and its constant wondering of how far out a person can go, It postulates music-making as a spiritual pursuit, and creates a product that to the uninitiated sounds angry and unmusical. Similarly paradoxical is the music's historical moment coinciding with the heyday of the civil rights movement; and certain artists, notably Max Roach and Archie Shepp, related their music directly to that struggle, even as they, and other artists, found their method of pursuing their art leading them away from an audience of black Americans to find a warmer reception among white Europeans. Throughout the sixties and seventies, so many individual artists found their own language and argot that the general audience's sense of what was at the core of their music dissolved. In the absence of any sort of solid ground to center the idea of what "jazz" is, the term itself starts to seem irrelevant.

This is all to say that for me the best "jazz" record of 2015 was made by Wolf Eyes. I Am A Problem: Mind In Pieces. Despite being made by white dudes, their music feels like the exact right capturing of the zeitgeist of 2015. Police shoot black youth, right-wing terrorists attack Planned Parenthood, George Zimmerman posts revenge porn on his Twitter feed, riots in Baltimore ravage areas that never recovered from riots in 1968. Maybe it is because most of my experience in West Baltimore is based in going to noise shows, because those artists were the people willing to live in half-abandoned neighborhoods, but it makes more sense to me that the soundtrack to life's struggle in 2015 seems more rooted in the sonic approaches of horror movie soundtracks than those of gospel music.

2015 in Baltimore saw all the places to consistently host noise shows in the past several years shut down. "Stabbed In The Face" played over the PA at the last show at The Bank, as people were heading out. The end of all these show spaces is pretty much directly tied to a great exodus from Baltimore of many of the artists I know and am friends with. It makes living in Baltimore these days feel real weird. That the places where we all once congregated are closing makes it hard to even remember who is still here, and that my retail job ends up occupying my weekend nights leads to a further feeling of alienation from the veins of culture.

I saw Wolf Eyes play at a legitimate above-ground venue, with a bar, and they were great. A piece of bent metal was used as a woodwind, ran through an electronics rig, and the guitar went through an amp but was not a part of the sound signals inside the larger PA. There was plenty of space, and lots of atmosphere. They were easily the quietest band that played, on a bill with acts that each had drum kits being amplified, with everything else mixed to still be audible over the volume of drums. It seemed like the majority of people in the crowd were essentially disappointed in Wolf Eyes for not delivering the full-fledged attack that can be understood as aggressive party music that they were doing in 2003. In all likelihood, if these people had seen them back when they were doing that, they would've hated it. By the time they've come around to the image or myth of what Wolf Eyes are, the band themselves have moved on, which relates very much to what I mean when I talk about freedom, which includes freedom from expectation as well.

Meanwhile, the best show I saw all year was the Sun Ra Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen. Marshall Allen is 91 years old, the same age as my grandfather, who was hospitalized with pneumonia the night I watched Allen use his lungs and the saxophone as a reminder of all kinds of vitality. I was surprised by how much was going on in the music, uncompromised by the low fidelity of El Saturn Records pressings, and at how it still felt vital and alive, despite being a repertory act, playing music composed decades ago. Watching them I thought "the music keeps him alive." Meanwhile, my friend Max Eilbacher, who opened the show as a member of Horse Lords, said afterwards, "It's amazing to be reminded that music actually is magic, and doesn't just have to reference it." (This is a paraphrase.) I was legitimately filled with more joy and goodwill for the people I was with at that show than I've felt for a long time.

I listened to so much jazz that these days when I listen to Future these days I just think "his voice is an instrument." I made a pretty impassioned argument for his Monster mixtape last year, and he's still basically mining the same artistic vein, but that's my takeaway these days, when I listen to DS2, which would be the rap record of the year for me. I know a lot of people really liked that Kendrick Lamar album, but whenever I listen to Kendrick Lamar, you are supposed to pay attention to the overall scope, and the funk sound gives you something to luxuriate in, but the lines that grab my attention are always fairly embarrassing. With Future, the lines that catch my attention as head-turners are always either incredibly real or are tiny details or are just super-musical. I like Young Thug too, and his voice is itself an instrument, but more like a rubberband being played like a bass than Future's autotune-as-trumpet, which I find more expressive and articulate.

The R&B records I liked this year were those made by Miguel and Autre Ne Veut. Miguel's Wildheart is like a hot beverage with a lot of cream in it, stimulating but smooth. The sonics at work are palpable, these songs are fuck jams. It feels deeply related/indebted to Prince, who I must mention I also saw this year. He was great. It was the "concert for Baltimore," part of the "Hit And Run" tour, and I am extremely grateful that tickets were relatively affordable. The Miguel record does this thing where what connects funk to sex is that by being "in the pocket," "in the groove," it is present within the moment, riding the wave. Miguel even says "I want to ride that wave" on this album!

(By comparison, rock music seems like it is trying to get somewhere. The best psych-garage stuff, for instance, seems to be premised on songs seeming like they are moving forward and falling apart at the same time. A good example of what I mean from this year would be The Lentils' Brattleboro Is Flooding.)

The Autre Ne Veut record, Age Of Transparency, is flailing wildly. Vocals are all over the place, high-pitched and dramatic more than they are classically note-hitting, creating a bit of crazy contrast when the choir comes in. Whereas Miguel sings about "no shame" in the context of sexual desire, Autre Ne Veut's demonstrates a lack of shame in terms of emotional performance, to the point of the record basically being unsuitable for being used as background music for sex, a gesture that is brave to the point of being performance art. In the context of music being sold as lifestyle accessory, to make "R&B" music that doesn't come off like an accessory to LifeStyles condoms is basically a Chris Burden piece. The songs themselves are embellished with jazz instrumentation, and then digitally deconstructed, each step seemingly designed to be more emotionally communicative even as it moves farther away from the directness of the song itself. The language of the lyrics themselves seems damaged in the writing of them, as if too overwhelmed by what they feel to express themselves grammatically. The way it communicates sex is almost like a Guido Crepax comic. I imagined something much cornier and trend-based when I was just reading about this dude's music, because of the context assigned to it by music writers, before I gleaned from Twitter he was friends with assorted noisers.

In the second half of the year, basically, I doubled down on my commitment to the avant-garde, as the place where I would want to spend my money and my time. That said, I continue to not fuck with pretty much all the influences of contemporary "experimental" music, in terms of goth shit or academic electronic music, kosmische, industrial, vaporwave, minimal techno or whatever. All the all white everything. (Despite my misgivings about reissue culture, I bought the rerelease of Sun City Girls' Torch Of The Mystics because that's closer to my values than most other stuff.) Autre Ne Veut's engagement with jazz and R&B makes for something closer to my wheelhouse than the Oneohtrix Point Never discography, for instance. But before that point I was spending my time mostly within the realm of something more emotionally straightforward.

During this era, I imagined a C90 with Torres' Sprinter on one side and Fred Thomas' All Are Saved on the other, although I think Sprinter would maybe get cut off. I hear Torres saying "a child of god much like yourself" as a Cormac McCarthy reference, and found her album's last song's "I shine my shoes for the fat lady" fairly-transparent Franny And Zooey allusion moving. I relate because I recognize the references, which is sort of pathetic or unimportant, like just because we have read the same books does not necessarily mean that we would be friends or even that either of us are smart - but that these have gone unremarked upon in any of the writing I've seen about the record or any interview with the artist makes it connect and feel human in the way that such things might fly at a loud party. The record mostly resembles a nineties alternative record, and that Torres went on tour with Garbage this year makes it easy to slate into a narrative that relates to the higher-profile, poppier acts of that era, especially since it's more of a "rock" record than her folkier self-titled debut, but certain tracks here still feel desolate in their atmosphere in a way that is almost reminiscent of my favorite Smog records.

The Fred Thomas record runs its mouth. It feels like a BARR record, like it is going to say all the thoughts, all the streams of consciousness, to actually describe itself and be truly open, rather than the approach of most singer-songwriters, who would rather speak in generalities to create a surface a listener can project themselves onto. Rather, the intent is for the artist to project himself into your room, like he will materialize as a friendly companion, talking about his own experience, which will alternately resonate with you and refer primarily to itself. This year I also heard a Saturday Looks Good To Me song I hadn't heard before, "Summer Doesn't Count Unless You're Here With Me," home of the lyrical sentiment I thought about incessantly for a month or so there, "I don't want to hear you talk about your girlfriend or your job/Or all the banks you always say you're gonna' rob." The best song on the Fred Thomas album, the one with the most lyrics I thought about constantly, is called "Cops Don't Care, Part 2," and I'll quote that one too: "Life is so incredibly long/Like a kiss on the bridge/Between two nervous-ass kids/Terrified of doing anything wrong." But also just the title, over and over.

More abstracted in its emotional connections would be the Circuit Des Yeux record, In Plain Speech. It's stirring, able to use the harmonies present in drones to emotional ends by combining them with a huge foregrounded voice, but still sounding lonesome. It's effect is less like a companion and more able to create for listener the feeling of watching storms soak everything surrounding you while you stand on your front porch. The Eartheater albums Hausu Mountain put out are like crawling around in the fertile soil that results while on mushrooms. The sounds of rain everywhere replaced by bugs and grubs whispering close to your ear. Both records are very good but I think that every time I have wanted to listen to one I would also be willing to listen to the other. I'm pretty sure the guy who runs Hausu Mountain works at Thrill Jockey. The Colleen record, Captain Of None, also occupies a similar space.

The sound at the root is not that far off from that explored on Jeff Zager's Still/Alive, which was pretty nice, but more distinctly domestic. Like housecleaning or drinking tea. This is also to say there's more sonic range, like there is a greater range of mobility afforded the listener. Like, one of the things you do around the house is listen to records. Zagers carries the vibe of listening to records inside his record more than most people, if that makes sense. Partly it's his proclivity for covers: There's a cassette of them that makes a good companion piece to his actual album. Similarly, this year I found out this year that his tape "Chu's Blues" was named off a song on Frank Lowe's Fresh. Maybe the other part of it is how his keyboard tones and drum machine feel like kosmische stuff in their purity of tone, but then his vocal croon is like soft rock balladeer, and these sorts of sounds make sense as go-to's when you are eating dinner with someone else? Peaceful times.

My most exciting musical discovery, made at the beginning of the year, was Gem Jones, although my cassette copy of Wurm Man Dubiosity is marred by issues with dubbing. One of those things where it would sound much better on cassette instead of digital if the cassette copy I had wasn't compromised. But also the compositional method is seemingly based around cassettes and multi-tracking and allowing for errors in terms of its party vibe. Like it feels like one dude going crazy and having a great time. In some ways this is like when Ween do their Prince homages, but even further down the rabbit hole Multiplicity-style cloning that creates a more retarded version, but for it just being one person, multi-tracking overdubs. Like the drums are playing reggae rhythms, and that allows for enough consistency that the keyboards can go bonkers, and so from there, song structures barely need to exist at all as long as the falsetto indicates the idea of "pop song." I love it! I would love to host this dude's live show which seems impossible to the point where it seems plausible it would mostly just be performance art. The Silent Girlfriend tape Night People put out this year, Backstabbing Female Supremacist, is also good fun. Also, the Night People catalog speak's invocation of Larry Young in regards to Gem Jones got me to download Unity, prior to diving into the free jazz wormhole, and discovering the later fusion record Lawrence Of Newark, which might actually have been the one Shawn was thinking of.

The best records made by people I'm sort of friends with and so should maybe not even mention but for the fact that they were totally overlooked by most music writers and so you might not have heard of them, even if you were "trying to stay on top of music," were the cassettes made by Angels In America. The Chicklette solo cassette, Unfaithful, actually did receive some praise from Tiny Mixtapes, but it includes a recounting of Esra asking, in an e-mail "Why the fuck do you like this music?" That tape rules, it's totally demented, and for a while was my favorite album to come out this year. It's possible it still is! Whenever it was playing on a cassette deck I loved it, but I don't know if it has the compulsive replayability of shit I know I listened to a bunch on iTunes, you know? The solo Farewell My Concubine tape from late last year, Symphony Of Problems, has more than its share of bangers also. Being employed as a retailer meant I attended no noise festivals this year, although the one I was most tempted to go to was Burning Fleshtival in Far Rockaway. A friend who attended picked me up the new self-released Angels In America tape, Uptown Funk, and it's a good one. That the Angels USA XILF Stikklemuzick tape hasn't come out yet is a shame.

Oh, and the other song of the year was Daphne And Celeste's "You And I Alone," written and produced by Max Tundra. I also listened to this Hinds song "Bamboo" a probably-embarrassing amount, in love with its vocal harmonies.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Who Is Donald Trump?

Donald Trump is almost certainly going to be the 2016 Republican nominee for President Of The United States. I am loath to say this in August 2015 not because so much can change in a year, but because in a perfect world the campaign cycle would be short enough we wouldn't even be talking about such things at this point in time. But the world we live in is horribly flawed, and this is why I believe whole-heartedly that Donald Trump has wide-ranging appeal.

I do not believe, as many claim, that the fact that Donald Trump says offensive things will alienate religious Republicans. I think that the single-issue voting bloc swayed by abortion will go with whoever the party nominates; furthermore, I think these people hate Hillary Clinton with a passion. More importantly, I think it is in swing states, where there are larger populations of people, where Trump most appeals.

I have heard it said (by Jeet Heer, in this essay) that the Republican base is small business owners. One thing that is interesting about Trump is that he's not a particularly good businessman. He's declared bankruptcy multiple times, I saw a thing this morning saying he would've made more money if he'd invested in index funds. I don't think small business owners will see these sorts of things and think "Wow, what an idiot," but that it will continue to bolster the excuses they make for themselves, where they blame their own struggles on taxes, unions, affirmative action, etc.

I don't mean to act like small business owners don't have a hard time. One of the reasons things are particularly hard is because of how outsourcing and the internet have essentially devalued everything, particularly people's labor and what people are willing to pay for a product.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Amazon: How they have never turned a profit, but are still considered a valuable company, because the strength of their brand name is such that their stock price continually goes up, and they essentially have an unlimited line of credit. I look at this and think "I'm a smart person, but this doesn't make any sense to me," although on some level, it does make sense: It's just not something I would ever do. I am too much of a spendthrift to believe in living on credit. Still, I wonder how much of book companies' resentment of Amazon comes from a wish that they themselves could publish work that doesn't make a profit, and live exclusively on the value that gets attached to their brandname by being associated with valuable art, but they can't, because they deal in something as resolutely unsexy and nineteenth century as printed matter. But Amazon is a successful company, in a surface-over-substance way, because that's the era we live in. I am convinced that Netflix's current drive to produce original content will not be profitable either, but it will work for them, in the same way that Amazon works, perpetuating itself on what is essentially a lie.

Trump, for all his failures, remains a recognizable brand. As a political candidate, when I think of the people who support him, I think of the "recognizable brand" of white men, specifically those who are able to coast on good will or expectation that they will someday do something worthwhile, who lack the introspection to examine themselves and turn their life around. The people Trump appeals to are those people who are him, and they are legion. Donald Trump is every drug-addicted dirtbag to have lived off the largesse of his girlfriend. He is anyone whose parents have paid lawyers to get him out of DUI charges. He is the sort of person who can get a job based on some nebulous idea of charm, the ability to flatter those in positions of power by how much they remind them of themselves. I say "white men," but who Trump is crosses demographic lines. Hillary Clinton is not that far from Donald Trump, honestly.

The core of conservatism, I am convinced, is not religious at all, but instead a deep and fundamental nihilism. It is most evident when looking at climate change denial. Ecosystems are dying, but the wheels keep spinning. Ideally, the exchange of money would function as a system of give-and-take, and this would maintain some degree of equity. Donald Trump is a dude with unlimited credit, paying for a party. Very few people have the moral fortitude to turn him down.

At least, within this country: One of the very many reasons this sort of dude should not be in charge of a country is because other countries will not see the appeal in continuing to lend their credit to someone so thoroughly incompetent. What works within America's broken system of appeal will not translate at all to a global stage. The question for Trump, with regards to the presidency, is how long you can continue to be promoted for your failures, what is the ceiling, and how many people will he take with him when he falls?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Couple Quick Thoughts, Occasioned By The Death Of Ornette Coleman

I don’t really know where to begin when discussing the death of Ornette Coleman. His music is important to me, both for what it actually is, and for what it represents. It represents a certain sense of freedom.
Ornette Coleman once argued that improvisation in black music, the root of jazz, stems from the idea that seeing black musicians read sheet music would be intimidating to white audiences. It would be clear they knew what they were doing, and so that needed to be hidden.
The freedom of jazz feels deeply spiritual. It reaches, then, into atonality, things that people find annoying, musically. This stems from the back and forth, players responding to one another, but also pushing themselves and their instruments to their limits.
See also: the notion of harmolodics. That harmony comes into being naturally from each being, or that we are all in harmony anyway, so we can play however we want. If I understand it correctly.
In a online forum, the group Autechre was asked if, after all these years, they’d gotten closer or had any ideas about what music actually is. The response: Music is speech minus text.
If you google this the first response you will get is someone saying this is basically true from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.
Thinking then about the post-modern academic position that text, language, is a trap, that defines your thinking according to its own parameters. This sort of post-modernism I would define as the kind I don’t like, distinct from the literature of the sixties that emerged from what was called “black humor.” But that writing, rich in paradox, is like a saxophone blowing as a band leader, pursuing humor, nonsense, counter-intuitive logic. “Catch-22″ as a short-circuit, that calls out other such short-circuits, and so begins to name the nameless thing, creating a space where one can breathe truly. 
Thinking about breath, yoga. The trick to playing a horn is circular breathing, where the inhales and exhales are each continuous, the body as a conduit. If I am understanding correctly. The air flows in as it flows out.
This sort of writing, this sort of music, this sort of art, is considered uncommercial, and so goes unmarketed to the masses ostensibly because it doesn’t appeal to very many people. I would argue that it is uncommercial not because it doesn’t appeal but because the goals of this work, to rewire meaning, counter the narratives of capitalism, which has a logic which is meant to make sense, although it only rarely does. It insists that things must make sense, even as they don’t, a claim is made to a system. Work that defies systems to make its own, that is forever falling apart and falling back together in a breath. I don’t need to understand anything precisely correctly if I can intuit the general shape.
A joke I made once, that is barely a joke, more of an observation, is that Ornette Coleman once wanted to castrate himself, to remove the sexuality from his music and his being. His doctor persuaded him to just get circumcised. Later he went on to have a son, and this son was named Denardo, which seems to imply, linguistically, the product of a man’s castration.
He is his survivor.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

End of the year book wrap-up

I wanted to write about the books I'd read since the last big list post I made of all sorts of books, now that it's the end of the year. I don't think I'm going to keep on doing these. But this, combined with the two other posts, constitutes a solid two years of reading. During this last chunk of time I started writing book reviews over at Bookslut, talking about new books, but, generally speaking, the older books I read were better, less in keeping with any kind of promotional hype cycle, so it would be weird to not write about them, the works that were so much more inspiring. Included are links to pieces I've written. I also am not going to use chronological order as a guiding principle the way I did with those other two posts, to instead group together books I thought books I thought of similarly.

On the list of books I made I wrote that I abandoned Rikki DuCornet's Butcher Tales, which I don't usually do, cite abandoned books on a list. (Although I also tried to read The Long Ships and Tatyana Tolstaya's The Slynx and couldn't get into either.) Anyway, discovering that I hated the DuCornet book and did not want to ever try to read other work of hers felt like such a huge relief. It felt really good to read a couple short stories and have them make so little impression that I could then just be dismissive of her entire oeuvre.

It was reading Sergio De La Pava's Personae that made me think I fucked up by posting that last round-up when I did, so this book, which was incredible, was not included. De La Pava pretty much destroys all other contemporary literature, and the fact that he self-published makes all publishers look like they value all the wrong things. This book is definitely weird and flawed. It concerns a detective with superhuman genius detecting abilities, basically, who in the apartment of a dead body finds a bunch of writing, stories reproduced here. Not all of that is good, there's a Beckett-style absurdist play that constitutes the longest chapter in the book and is pretty tedious. There's a few sentences where the character offers alternate translations of certain portions of Marquez's One Hundred Years Of Solitude that I was really glad I was reading, happy that was a part of the book. There's also good stuff about Glenn Gould and Bach. A Naked Singularity has a lot of talk about the boxer Wilfred Benitez, and here his appreciation of genius leads to riffs on classical music. I was pretty engaged by the detective's parts and then the ending memoir section blew me away, just like a very intense and direct confrontation with notions of suffering, in a specifically political context, rendered in a fabulist-but-black-metal mode.

Autobiography Of A Corpse by Sigimund Krzhizhanovsky is not that different from his other collection I wrote about in my most recent book round-up post. I liked reading both.

Patricia Lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals and Balloon Pop Outlaw Black. The newer book but out by Penguin is funnier and generally better than the earlier, more abstract book. Her approach to language and image is consistently fun and interesting. In notes I wrote for a review I ended up not writing, I was saying that the way she circles a subject isn't like she's "targeting" something and zooming in on it, but rather that she'll have several lines of thought that sort of press against each other, in the manner of a Spirograph, like she's turning over several thoughts at once. Her approach to line and rhythm is more advanced and fun to read in the new one, I think, less befuddling. It's also just closer to the body, and blood. You've probably read Rape Joke. The final poem is incredible in a wholly other way. I really adore the rhythms of her work.

Jean-Patrick Manchette, The Mad And The Bad and Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man. I got a review copy of the Manchette to write about for Bookslut but I did not have anything to say about it, a fairly straightforward crime novel "thrill ride." In terms of book reviewing, there's the words on the page to engage with and there's the feelings and thoughts that arise invisibly. Crime novels seem not at all interested in the machinery that makes those feelings arise in favor of just telling the story clearly. I've seen plenty of crime movies and maybe they're interesting for the documentary elements that appear just through the act of filming, and any stylistic decisions made toward the depiction of violence. When I try to read crime novels it's almost invariably disappointing. Manchette wrote some of the graphic novels Jacques Tardi drew. Dorothy Hughes wrote the book version of In A Lonely Place, adapted by Nicholas Ray into a movie I love. The Expendable Man is pretty politically relevant right now, I suppose -- It's narrated by a black man who is terrified of the idea of having to deal with the police but is accused of a crime and then needs to find the real killer. Written in the 1960s, it is not revealed immediately the narrator's race, and one is meant to wonder "Why is this dude so suspicious of everyone's motives and worried about being seen doing completely inconsequential things?" This level of political engagement is more interesting than Manchette's "the villians are rich" thing but neither ever really translated to anywhere that devastating.

Muriel Spark, Memento Mori, bought because of a pretty appealing New Directions design and a sense of "this isn't the sort of thing I normally read, good premise though." Old people keep on getting prank calls telling them they're going to die. Only one of them engages enough with the idea to say "Oh yeah, I know, I never forget about that, I'm not too worried" while the rest pester the police and essentially consider the phone calls terrorism. I think essentially it is never really resolved who is making the calls in a realistic sense? But mostly it's like a comedy of manners in a community of old people. After I sold this to a used book store I could not remember the name Muriel Spark.

Anne Carson, Red Doc. While doing the early drafts of the post, Courtney Love posted a photo of herself with Anne Carson, naming her as poet laureate of the universe. People love Anne Carson, including the person I lent my copy of this book too, so I can not consult with it now, and haven't seen it in months. It's got some good parts. This book was pretty much sold to me on the strength of the line "You could take the entirety of the common sense of humans and put it in the palm of your hand and still have room for your dick." The way text is laid out on a page is fairly appealing also.

Kate Zambreno, Green Girl. This book is pretty cool, got a good amount of praise a few years ago, and now reissued. It's about a young American woman working in an English department store, prone to depression and in love with images of glamour, and the author engages with the idea of her character through a narrator that often mocks her and peppers the book with epigraphs that sort of contextualize her struggle to exist, to come into herself, be a full person, as her consciousness is sort of nascent throughout. Zambreno has also done a good deal of non-fiction writing sort of illuminating her project, which I haven't read. There's an interest in internality which I don't think I personally share but the way that she sort of pushes against that here with the external voice I found interesting.

Brian Evenson, The Wavering Knife. Like other Evenson short story collections I have read, this is sort of experimental horror fiction, although I think more of these struck me as essentially comedies that the ones in Fugue State. Dark comedies nonetheless. I'm not quite sure what it would feel like for a book to horrify me, actually, I am pretty good at compartmentalizing things.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. I need to read more non-fiction in general. I think I talked about this book a lot, like at parties and stuff. Trying to recall arguments and general points to explain things to people. It definitely stoked the outrage I felt later on in the year when I learned about Hillary Clinton as secretary of state of the U.S. having the military intervene in Honduras and install a more right-wing government, like jesus fucking christ, I can't believe we as a country did this to South America during the eighties when we were afraid of communism, how are we still not letting those countries govern themselves? We really find it unacceptable that they want to nationalize their economies and trade mostly with each other, to grow their economies that way, and not just have U.S. companies wreak havoc. This book seems essential.

U & I by Nicholson Baker. This book's really cool, Nicholson Baker's great. I don't really care about Updike but it's cool for Baker to make assertions like "all the best novelists are women and homosexual men," and use Melville as an example of a homosexual even though that might not actually be true. Then there are parts where he talks about all the Updike books he hasn't read. There's this sort of self-deprecating arrogance that I found pretty charming. The part where he explains that he was interested in classical composition but then sort of thought that novelist might be more of a way to reach a broad audience because he had a mom who read Updike speaks to what a vastly different world he grew up in than the one where we live now. His favorite novelist is Iris Murdoch, who I haven't read, but should put on my list of authors to read.

Rachel B. Glaser, Pee On Water and Moods. Pee On Water is a short story collection that fucking rules so hard. Super-simple language that's just completely devastating. I couldn't believe the balance of total dead-eyed nihilism and incredible imagination and sense of play at work. I made other people read it, and I read one of the stories at a noise show and I think it kicked everyone's ass. (I had been asked to do a reading, and then I just wanted to read work written by women, and then specifically the idea of a woman writing a short story from a male perspective being read by me seemed interesting to me. This was the week there were all those sex scandals in the world of "alt lit," which was several months after I read the book.) I remember also doing an internet search to see if anyone had ever written about it for Bookslut and found Catherine Lacey mentioning it as being a really great short story collection in an interview she was conducting with Robert Lopez. I wrote a little thing to be posted on the blog but it never made it up. I think I talked about her work with metaphors like "a cartoon character playing the xylophone on your ribcage." I really just tried to champion this however I could. I called a friend I thought would like her work who was already familiar from having tangentially known her in college. I then read a poem over the phone and the title, "Incest Is Lazy," made her laugh out loud. Moods is her poetry collection, which is sort of "slighter," more casual, and funny. It's interesting to see her voice sort of boiled down to this casual state when in short stories it seems like she can do whatever epic thing comes to mind. I read the entirety of it while at a doctor's office waiting to get blood work drawn to see how the effects of taking Vitamin D supplements worked out. Rachel's novel "Paulina and Fran" is the book I am most anticipating in 2015.

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey I wrote about on Bookslut.

Kara Candito, Taste Of Cherry. Was recommended to follow this lady on Twitter, didn't, but was made aware of her and bought this book. Sort of interesting to encounter a poet who I don't think people actually like the way they like a lot of people that are more active on the internet or are actually good at Twitter, but who has gotten "fellowships" at things with names like "Breadloaf" that I genuinely had never heard of until this year. I read it like "yeah, I guess this is good? Or I get why people would appreciate it" and the sort of contrived way it approaches other literature. Most pieces in it I think utilize the same formal language of these two-line stanzas. A decent approach to rhythm, a sort of basic and unweird approach to the sexuality of bodies. It seems useful to occasionally stumble onto something like this that makes little impression. I think her Twitter is the sort of networking, shout-outs to other writers work published alongside hers that is sort of ubiquitous with book-people Twitter that I don't like to follow, although notable in her case also because it was pretty much always people I had never heard of. I also think there was an article she wrote about how its important female poets to be pretty so they can be marketable which came up in a roundtable discussion with like Vanessa Place and people who were all sort of dismissive and "I don't know what you're talking about."

Bark by Lorrie Moore. Probably not the best Lorrie Moore collection, but I enjoyed reading it enough. Seems weird and dumb that you would design a trade dress for all of the extant works of an author in a rerelease campaign and then put out her new book with a design that doesn't jibe with the others though.

all the Donald Antrim books. The Verificationist, The Hundred Brothers, Elect Mr. Robinson For A Better World, The Afterlife. Haven't read the new short story collection yet, waiting for a paperback edition next year I think. I read The Verificationist one night sitting on the couch and the way that my tiredness manifested  was pretty much the exact same out-of-body experience the book describes. Really funny, beautifully written, all the novels are. Another author I tried to convince people to read in my daily interactions. I feel like all of these books have memorable passages, lots of them, that will stick with me for awhile. They're just really vivid, very psychologically present, and the voice of the narrator's is consistently alive and doing its own thing that goes along completely with the things being described. His memoir, The Afterlife, didn't do that much for me, but it's obviously less intense and psychotic than his fiction is. I'm looking forward to his short story collection. These also seem really instructive in terms of how to write a comedic novel.

The Vet's Daughter and Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns. Two books about hard times, essentially, written by a British woman in the fifties, and having some gently fantastical elements. The book with the longer title is about a town devastated by a flood and then ergot poisoning. Neither of these really did anything for me, although that I heard of them is sort of a victory for all involved along the way to the point where I want to put them on a list now. I had high hopes. I think I wanted them to be weirder and more feverish than they are.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Not something I would normally read, but her other books got a ton of acclaim, then an acquaintance was making an argument that this book was really underrated and just not liked by people because it was different from The Secret History, so I bought it at a thrift store. It took me what felt like forever to read: This thing, sort of in the mode of like To Kill A Mockingbird or Carson McCullers, about a little girl in a southern small town, but so incredibly long and with not particularly interesting characters. Pretty bad-ass photo of the author looking goth, though. Was told by my friend Rachel Monroe that I probably would not like The Secret History either, but that it was definitely the better book than the one I read.

A Heart So White and Dark Back Of Time by Javier Marias. I really liked A Heart So White, and was thinking "maybe I will end up reading everything this dude has written" so it was kind of a relief to not be as into Dark Back Of Time, which is a book where a few pages passed and I no longer knew how what I was reading connected to what had gone before, and it never really returned to the subject that I thought it was about. The original premise of the author writing about how people thought his novel All Souls was based on his real life gives way to this story of gunshots and dying improbably. Also, I vaguely get the impression that all of his books are the same? They're all about translators, and they're all fairly digressive. I like him better than Sebald, though.

The Ticket That Exploded by William S. Burroughs. I think I said this before, that it seems like I can maybe just read like one Burroughs novel a year, maybe? I don't really feel like I need to read the whole body of work but I tend to enjoy it, and don't feel like I'm going to outgrow it or anything. The cool things in this book I wrote about when I wrote about The Descent Of Alette.

Magnetic Field(s) by Ron Loewinsohn. I thought this was really incredible. I knew Ron's name as a blurb on the back of my copy of Days Between Stations, and Erickson wrote the intro to the Dalkey Archive edition currently in print. I remember reading that book and feeling a kinship with it, felt the same thing reading this. Pretty creepy, and really just sort of governed by these sort of unspoken atmospheres that can't be explained, but where it seems like ghosts live. It begins with a house being broken into. There's also a kid genius who writes poems called "Love Songs To Death" who gets killed and has made a lot of incredibly sophisticated "sound art" which I basically understood to mean noise music, meant in this way that's cold and distant and that a parent can't access. This book accesses a nice mysterious place of intersecting strangenesses in a generally cold world. That is 100% something I've tried to do with my own writing.

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris. It seemed cool that this lady admired Joy Williams and named her record after a Swans song and was married to an editor at The Source, implying she fucks with rap music. Not very good though. All of those background details would seem to imply like a sense of humor or a brutality different than what's at work here, which is like, rural america, drug use, incest. Just sort of flat and small compared to what I want out of literature: Like I wanted vistas to be accessed rather than just a story. See what I wrote about crime novels, earlier, and remember that this sort of "southern gothic" thing is pretty closely related to the crime novels, just about different crimes, generally.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson. This book's cool. Acclaimed a few years back. A poet talking about the color blue. Seems, like the Carson book, to be a good one to have around. It's like poetic reference material. I heard about it last year in the context of being a book like Speedboat, that people wanted to write books like these, that were fragmentary and direct in their address.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. You've heard of this. The middle gets pretty tedious, there is a chapter about the whale's penis that I didn't know what talking about a penis at the time, but there is still some shit that really grabs you. Certain lines which show up in this Moby Dick Twitter account that gets retweeted into my timeline and I'm like, "yeah, I remember that." A few friendships in this book are really moving. I kind of don't know how you can barely introduce some characters, talk about whales for a long while, then have something happen to the characters that feels really huge but this book does it.

The Descent Of Alette and Culture Of One by Alice Notley. Wrote about The Descent Of Alette a few months back, followed it up in my excitement with Culture Of One, which wasn't as mind-blowing, but also sort of a novel in verse, and filled with good stuff. It's about life in Arizona, being an artist, a rock band, some talk of satanism. I really like that Notley's guiding principle is "disobedience," that she's a pretty adamantly bad-ass old woman.

I wrote about Baboon and The Wallcreeper for Bookslut and didn't really care about either one, but at least felt like I could write about them. I had requested a few things as review copies that I then just couldn't find any entry point into, and felt like "well, at least these books are attempting to be something substantial." People like The Wallcreeper though and I really wanted to have a conversation with someone where they found fault with my review but it just didn't happen. I'm pretty sure I'm right and that book sucks though.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. I am going to giving a copy of this book to my mom for Christmas. Really beautiful, widely acclaimed, a Pulitzer Prize winner. The narrator is a third-generation preacher, and the book's engagement with faith felt very real to me. I read it while my mom was going through some pretty hard shit and my thoughts were constantly with her, thinking about the faith she has. People pray that things will work out for the best and I am right there with them but I also have a voice in my mind that is always imagining worst-case scenarios in bad scenarios and trying to work out how they might be endured that I think other people cannot confront, hence prayer as a way to think intensely about bad situations without just succumbing to depressive thinking. This feels like the sort of rare book that actually works as a demonstration of principles of grace and calm that I just wish was more omnipresent. Very intensely thoughtful and useful and calming. I read Housekeeping also, and enjoyed it. That's about two sisters, growing up in a series of houses, with different figures, and slowly becoming more and more strange.

I wrote about Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish at Bookslut. A good book that I felt like I maybe undersold, due to my own skepticism about that type of realism, but a very sincere love story that genuinely moved me.

Through Rachel Glaser's blog, I found out about Paula Fox's Desperate Characters, which didn't do that much for me but is pretty good. People are married, one is scratched by a raccoon. Glad I got a hardcover from the library rather than an in-print paperback with a Jonathan Franzen introduction.

Kobo Abe, Secret Rendezvous. This didn't do much for me. I borrowed this and read it pretty quickly, I remember having concrete criticisms at the time. I guess there's a sort of don't-give-a-shit quality to it to the progression of incidents, lacking a throughline or emotional center? Things are arbitrary. I guess this is a Kafka-esque quality that lends a seriousness to what might otherwise seem playful. There's grotesquerie. This was the first Abe I'd read, but I'd seen the film adaptation of Woman In The Dunes and found it pretty boring and the adaptation of his other work by the same director I was trying to watch on a damaged DVD. I am okay with not being into things it seems like I'm supposed to like, but also open to trying again at some unspecified point in the future.

I wrote about Ottessa Moshfegh's McGlue and Colin Winnette's McGlue at Bookslut.

I wrote about 300,000,000 by Blake Butler and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace here. It's sort of an ambiguous write-up of the Butler book, I guess I should maybe clarify that I've recommended it to a few of my friends, those who are either noise musicians or horror cartoonists, but no women.

Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. This book is good, written in a slightly violent cadence that makes you want to read it out loud. It feels damaged, carries an ache around, as its narrator does self-destructive things. The book feels made by the way it is written, like that is the point of it. There is this incantatory quality to it, which isn't at odds with the self-loathing in it, but that gives it a purpose. Feels post-punk, like the literary equivalent of an Ut record or something.

Porochista Khakpour's The Last Illusion. A woman I started following on Twitter whose book came out this year and got some praise. What put me over the edge was her mentioning on Twitter how much she admired Donald Barthelme and Donald Antrim. Admiration doesn't necessarily equal a shared skill set, though -- in fact, it maybe implies the opposite. This book frequently felt repetitive in its approach to pacing, a fairly true-to-life cadence of patterns of behavior, among a fairly small cast, a semi-magical-realist countdown to a known historical event, 9/11. It seems like the takeaway is meant to be a feeling for the characters, for them to feel vivid and real in their strangeness that doesn't make the leap into poetry. This woman is also a teacher, with students. I really wish that my criticisms of this stuff didn't seem like jealousy or point-missing, where it's like, yes, it's well-done doing this thing that's fairly traditional of giving you characters and a plot. It's a novel that succeeds on terms that maybe a lot of work succeeds on. History is engaged in, as well as literary tradition. It feels like a book for people who read a lot of books and are particularly interested in the genre of literary fiction. One of the blurbs says that each sentence is more beautifully written than the last but I'm not sure any sentence in here actually struck me with beauty, which is fine, I appreciate invisibility of style as a virtue, although a few did strike me as kind of contrived. Khakpour apparently loves Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which I haven't read and never really appealed to me.

My intention is that before the end of the year I'll finish reading Marilynne Robinson's Lila and Michel Faber's The Book Of Strange New Things. I hadn't heard of Faber before this year, I saw Under The Skin and had no idea it was based on a book, and then learned that he is pretty well-regarded. I want to get over having these "I don't care" reactions to things, whether it's through either a sincere appreciation of more and different virtues or just somehow avoiding stuff that's not for me intuitively. I don't know which of those goals is more likely than the other, or if either of them are at all.

Friday, December 12, 2014

On year-end lists

Imagine that at the moment of death your perception of time slows down to such a degree that, while the rest of the world moves on, your own world becomes built on the time-like substance of that moment as it appears to you, no longer transient, but of infinite duration. The world in turn takes on a new consistency. This, sort of, is what the end-of-year list amounts to these days -- not a statement on what was 2014, to take with you into years to come -- but a sideways look at a conversation of what we should have noticed and been talking about all along.

This happens because it's easier to just run a list of things, that contextualizes everything by the circumstances of how it came into being, then to try to write about each individual piece of artwork in terms of how exactly it was made and what it does, who it is for.

I am I think particularly mad at the lists of books, that say "these are the thirty-five best books of the year," or "here are twenty-five short story collections that came out this year" or "here are some notable independent presses and the most notable books each of them put out this year," because it seems so everyone-gets-a-gold-star, a promotional apparatus that seems to genuinely miss the point of what it is to be a reader, as someone who is engaged with a body of work spanning many years. The argument can be made, with music at least, that everyone is constantly consuming. Depending on your job, you could always be streaming something on Bandcamp, or your iPod, or wherever. I am pretty sure this is why the lists of "top albums of the year" have gotten increasingly longer as file-sharing has become ubiquitous. If you're not going to buy any music in a year, why not try to hear all that's remotely interesting? Whereas in the past a theoretical person could be wondering "I only have so much money to spend, what is the most rewarding way that money could be spent?" This was the way I read these lists when I was younger, basically, when I was in high school, I think. The funny thing about that time period now is that my perception of time was different, a year seemed longer, and there was also much more of the past to catch up with and familiarize myself with.

I am not sure there is any record this year that I would call a titanic masterpiece, working at a scale that cries out to be acknowledged, so much as there were multiple things that created moods, or were interesting documents of where the people who made them were at. Which is fine. Not every indie rock band is trying to be Brian Wilson, not every rapper is trying to do their version of Illmatic. A pluralistic view of what music is will probably be more true to the intentions of most makers.

Although I think many writers are trying to stake some claim to the title of "masterpiece," and that is what I think these long-list approaches are trying to honor, although it can't help just saying that most of what is out there is simply noise. (Before the end of the year I will make a post here listing all of the books I've read since the last time I made such a list, and offer my opinions on each of them, by the way.) The way that most publications compile these lists -- asking their select group of contributors to each make a list that is then tabulated into a master list -- seems the best way to come to a definitive selection but also doesn't really work for a world of books so large that few people read the same things. The world of literature is so diffuse that the only value to assert is that books matter, despite the fact that most people don't really read them.

The year-end list is also a way to state its intention, hoping that more eyes will be on this one list than can be bothered to keep up with a daily publication schedule. I can think of no better way for Pitchfork to announce that it intends to be the definitive music publication of this era than to name Kanye West the creator of the album of the year. Similarly, Tiny Mixtapes declaring the same of James Ferraro is a way of affirming their marginality, that that is what they value. The latter decision is the more interesting one; although yeah, Kanye rules.

I haven't written a best-of list to publish at my comics Tumblr because I've done a pretty good job of keeping up with posting about the work I find interesting as it comes out, and the way that Tumblr works means that I can't really control what people see and what people don't, or what context they have for it. I would maybe have to hand-draw a list that could be a single image that would circulate on its own terms to have more of an impact. I could write "HOW TO BE HAPPY" on a woman's ass, or "BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS" on my arms in blood. Maybe "MEGAHEX" in a bit of ejaculate. This is actually a really good idea.

I haven't written about music at all this year really, except a few write-ups in Acres this year about things that I think were already old, because it had been a year since I'd last had that opportunity. A list would be fairly conservative, but a document of my active engagement with music as a whole this year would be nice to have. I would like to have written about Future's Monster mixtape, the Cam'ron First Of The Month EPs, Vince Staples. The third Lazy Magnet box set, VVAQRT, Farewell My Concubine. Piece War, Trash Kit, Scrabbled, Moth Eggs, Cold Beat, Moth Cock, Kemialliset Ystavat. Wye Oak, Excepter, Mozart's Sister, Blanche Blanche Blanche, United Waters. Blanche Blanche Blanche were my favorite band, but they broke up this year, but two records still came out. Myriam Gendron, Angel Olsen, Courtney Barnett, Elisa Ambrogio. Discovering Mary Timony's The Golden Dove LP after listening to that Ex Hex record. Ex Hex, by the way, were the best live band I've seen this year. That Mary Timony talks up my friends Ed Schrader's Music Beat in interviews makes me very happy. I made a playlist with examples of this stuff specifically because writing about it seemed stupid.

As a mix it's probably not as good as the mix I made in August that was mostly gospel music taken from those compilations Mike McGonigal curated that Tompkins Square put out. I wanted to have that on a tape to listen to at Fields Festival, a festival set up by a friend, featuring many other friends, as a contrast to what it is that moment was. Humanbeast played and were great. The Family Tang are a great band, three siblings who can't really be a band too actively due to their geographic scattering. Metalux played a killer set and then Jenny Graf moved to Denmark not long after. The other festival I went to was Savage Weekend in North Carolina, a noise thing in a bar, which was sort of depressing, although the trip itself was beautiful, outside the bar. Lounging poolside at a hotel, without a bathing suit. Still, note the list's general lack of actual noise music and my general disenchantment from that culture.

Writing about movies using the time-scale of the year feels non-productive these days owing to the function of the festival circuit, and how some things seem to never really get a theatrical release, and how year's end brings a blast of Oscar-bait and other movies supposed to be good that filters into secondary markets, like the one where I live, well into February. Here's a top five as of right this minute: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, The Raid 2, Under The Skin, The Strange Little Cat. I am really excited to watch Inherent Vice. I'm also excited to see Sion Sono's Why Don't You Play In Hell, the Safdie Brothers' Heaven Knows What, and all sorts of other things I don't know how long I'll have to wait before I get the chance to see them.

My turntable is acting screwy these days, a new fresh belt has seemingly created too much tension, so things are playing slightly too slow, so lower-pitched and distorted. That has contributed to my opening metaphor, I think. I was listening to Bill Callahan's Apocalypse, my favorite record of the year it came out, and it started to sound like shit, I couldn't deal with it. That image, of course, also has faint traces of psychedelic residue on it. I am pretty much free from any lingering trauma stemming from last year's hallucinogen use, but I remember being so excited at the end of last year, to move further into the future, to get past any thing that had happened and just put it behind me completely. This year has been terrible, not for me personally, but in terms of things in the news. The march into the future generally feels like a horrible plunge into the abyss, where torture is legal and white police can kill any person of color they want to, and upcoming elections seek to pit one presumptive nominee political dynasty against another. But the end of the year offers a chance of renewal, if we attempt to view it as such, try to kiss someone at midnight and have that bode well for what's coming. I think that's why I want a definitive statement on the year that was, not just this weird recapitulation of all that happened without noticing. I don't want to spend my December catching up on being a completist, I want something I can look back on years from now and say, oh yes, the year that happened. I remember being drunk on New Year's Eve, of 2011 turning into 2012, and having "Drover" off that Bill Callahan record running through my head. "One thing about this wild wild country, it takes a strong strong, breaks a strong mind. And anything less, anything less, makes me feel like I'm wasting my time." These days I do not relate to the second sentence of that sentiment at all.