Thursday, December 13, 2018

Books I read in 2018

I am attempting something slightly different with this post writing up various books I've read so far this year. I am not quite writing them all immediately after reading, but am trying to keep up a little while at the same time delaying the posting until I read a bunch of books I am anticipating reading that I think I will like enough to recommend to others. But let's begin with the explorations of unknown quantities.

Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban. This novella, recently reissued by New Directions, is about a woman, neglected by her husband, who begins an affair with a frog-man who's escaped from the military. While probably more unconventional at the time of its original writing, nowadays it fits in with The Shape Of Water, but it is clear reading it that it's not really beholden to any genre. The tone is controlled enough to convey a balance between realism and the fantastic, while never really feeling surreal or far-out. Charming and likable, not something I would press you to read, but something that the premise might make you want to read, and I would not recommend against. I haven't read Ingalls' other work, though a small collection of three of her novellas, curated by Daniel Handler, was issued by Pharos Edition around the same time this came out. I guess this book also did well enough for New Directions to be reissuing another novel of hers, Binstead's Safari, next year, but I don't think I was really intrigued enough to check that one out.

Peter Rock, The Unsettling. Brian Evenson selected this book for Pharos to reissue. Despite the title, it is not as spooky as Evenson's stuff, but sort of run in a Poe-inspired way. One of the characters in one of the stories is particularly into Poe, and that's the longest story in the thing, the one that comes closest to a novella. Looking at Pharos' page for this, I see Daniel Handler also liked this one, as well as Ursula Le Guin. It was pretty good, I would recommend it to someone wanting to read a short story collection that can't really be pigeonholed into any genre. I read this while listening to Eliane Radigue's Trilogie Du Mort to drown out the awful pop radio that contractors were leaving on at night in the house next door to convince would-be intruders there were people there.

Harry Mathews, My Life In CIA and Cigarettes. Mathews died last year. His early novels seems like a more cracked-out version of early Pynchon, which would seem to be up my alley but I find the prospect a little intellectually intimidating. His first book ends with several pages of untranslated German, for instance. My Life In CIA is a "novel" that also is kind of a memoir, about a time he lived abroad and people thought he worked for the CIA, he gets involved in espionage. It's a fun enough and fairly easy read, light in its tone which alternates between basically two types of very easy things to read. Cigarettes I was at various points VERY into, despite its resemblance to things I would think I wouldn't be interested in. He employs his Oulipo background to structure the book like a sestina, but rather than reuse words each chapter discusses different characters and focuses on their relationship, building a sort of intense social lattice of interconnections. It's a social novel about rich people but damn certain chapters are emotionally intense and others were just fascinating and involving. I thought to myself "I would want to write a book like this" despite knowing that not only would I not want to do that, I probably am not even interested in reading others like it! The insane structuring guarantees there are not actually other books like it. I don't know who I'd recommend it to, though I've seen it praised by both Blake Butler and Sarah Nicole Prickett, two writers who probably wouldn't agree on much else.

Kerry Howley, Thrown. This book got a good deal of praise when it came out a few years back but I decided to read it after reading this amazing profile the author wrote about Reality Winner. This book's about following around MMA fighters, it's "creative nonfiction" because the author writes from this perspective of an essentially fictionalized character version of herself who seems a little ridiculous in her belief in watching fights as this ecstatic state. I thought a lot about masculinity while reading this one, as I was reminded there's a whole world of young men who exist outside my frame of reference I never think about. I definitely feel like Howley is a writer to keep an eye on, partly because at this point I don't know what her thematic interests would be exactly.

William Gaddis, The Recognitions, first 200 pages. At a certain point I texted a friend of mine who had read this book to say that while I liked it I wished there was less bullshit and his response was "good luck with that." The part I read is about the child of a esoterica-interested priest getting sick until the father does something weird and occult so he lives, this kid grows up to become an unsuccessful artist whose own "deal with the devil" includes making forgeries. Cool stuff! I bailed before the four-fifths of the book where the main character (already absenting himself) is replaced by a series of characters with similar names. Even the stuff I read has plenty of stuff that sort of doesn't go anywhere but reinforces the bleak worldview. I'm not saying this book isn't worth the effort, but the feeling that the degree of difficulty was going to increase made me return it to the library rather than renew.

Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins Of Latin America. I don't read nearly as much non-fiction I should. I found this through a dude on Goodreads who wrote very short and generally dismissive reviews of all the books he read, whose tastes like mine included Nabokov and Gaddis and various NYRB things, but then all of the books I had never heard of he rated five stars were these non-fiction books about various leftist topics I'm interested in but wouldn't know where to begin learning about. This one was written in the seventies and covers centuries of Latin America being exploited, over and over again, by Europe and later America, first taking the metals and minerals and then consigning various countries to unhealthy agricultural practices oriented around single crops. That this book stops before the various abuses and indignities that happened in the eighties feels kind of crazy but gives valuable historical perspective. There's this huge moral and economic debt we owe our neighbors that we have no intention of ever repaying,  and we not only wash our hands of it, but double down on the horror.

Denis Johnson, The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden. Have not read all of them, but this might be one of Johnson's best books. The follow-up to Jesus' Son both in the sense of being a short story collection and feeling mostly very closely tied to autobiography, there is a sense of directness that feels very real. The few stories that don't feel like they are taken from Johnson's actual life come with a sense that they are an alternate path, stemming from the past he once lived. All of the stories have this sort of intimacy with death and failure and just this sense of being alive as a source of great pressure and tension. It is very easy to see how this would be the best book of the year.

Padgett Powell, Typical. I've wanted to read Powell's book of questions, The Interrogative Mood, for a while, but this was at the local used book store and had a good cover. I would say it's not great. In the post-Barthelme school of short story writing, this was written at a period of time (the turn of the eighties into the nineties) where there seemed to be a real literary concern with "irony" as a distancing device. You might be familiar with this from various David Foster Wallace essays. There's some sort of interesting stuff here with voice and southernness but not really a lot and I don't think it ever really makes that leap into the transcendent genius realm that you get with Barthelme. It feels more like someone amusing themselves and keeping their tenured position at a college. It's not bad but I would definitely sell this one back if I thought I could get more than two bucks for it but I don't think I can.

Ann Quin, Three. I think last time I mentioned feeling like much of what I was enjoying had some association with a Brian Evenson endorsement, but I didn't realize, when I bought this book, that the most recent printing of it, via Dalkey Archive, had Evenson writing an introduction to it. This is Quin's second book, weirder than Berg by a good bit. A married couple is investigating the life of the woman who was living with them, until the point where she killed herself, looking at her diaries and tape recordings, all of which are more abstracted in their relationship to her feelings than a suicide note would be. Sometimes feels difficult, or unsatisfying, but less so as it goes on and you sink into it.

Tao Lin, Trip. This book came out right before I had jury duty assigned and I correctly assumed it would be an easy read. I think it told me a lot I already knew, about drugs and Terence McKenna, and a lot that wasn't that interesting, about Tao Lin. Maybe the best part of the book was Tao talking about a text-based game played online in the context of drug addiction and language, that was maybe the point where it seemed like he and his perspective were adding something potentially illuminating.

Ishmael Reed, The Terrible Twos. I found this at a used bookstore I went to on my lunch break from jury duty when I needed a second book and it seemed like the most promising thing available. It's not as good as the older Reed books I've read, but it is similarly busy with characters and incident. This one's about the Reagan era, which means that now the elements of hope and optimism in the satire seem outdated, but also anything heavy and cynical doesn't seem aware of how much worse it could get. Mumbo Jumbo and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down have this historical sweep to their vision that avoids this, I think, though also I read them before Trump got elected.

Helen Weinzweig, Basic Black With Pearls. Another book printed by NYRB Classics, I was convinced to pick this up due to the writer Lauren Oyler saying it was good. Didn't realize it would have an epigram taken from Ann Quin's Passages. It's pretty cool, plotwise: A woman is having an affair with a man who is essentially a spy, and so she follows this code to meet him, around the world, driven by this longing or erotic obsession. It feels both adjacent to a spy novel but also like the narrator might just be completely insane, and is very compelling. As the Quin influence might suggest, it's fairly experimental: The afterword compares it to David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, which seems fair. At various points I was also reminded of Javier Marias, though the sentences work differently, and aren't crazy-long. There were a couple of tangents where I was like "wait, how did we get onto this subject" which happened to me when I was reading Marias' Dark Back Of Time. There's also a sort of similar relationship to espionage style plotting. I came to this comparison and thought "Javier Marias always writes about translators though," and then later found out the husband the narrator abandoned is a translator here as well. This book is pretty good at revealing information at a steady clip while still feeling like there's more to be revealed. I like Marias a lot, enough that I feel like I could read one of his books every few years and reliably enjoy them, but the feminine viewpoint distinguishes this one enough that it's probably better than the vast majority of a prolific yet consistent writer's body of work. Recommended.

Ann Quin, The Unmapped Country. A collection of short stories and uncollected work, including a fragment of the novel Quin was working on at the time of her suicide. Not very good. Quin's stuff is so weird and abrasive it helps for it to go along enough for it to become hypnotic and change and vary and see how much it contains. The beginning of the novel is the best part, an account of being in a mental hospital. It makes sense to compare it to Anna Kavan's Asylum Piece, though it's worth noting Quin is way more vulgar and sexual when talking about the behavior of the inmates or people in general. People view her as a predecessor to Kathy Acker, for instance. For a while I thought this was because Kavan's older, but now I think it's probably because she was on heroin and that could've killed her libido to the point she didn't think about sex at all. The Unmapped Country part of the book is better than the part of Asylum Piece that takes place in an asylum.

Isabelle Eberhardt, Oblivion Seekers. I read this before The Recognitions but am placing it next to the Quin book now as it's similarly a collection of fragments. Eberhardt lived a really interesting life, and was clearly a pretty good writer, but died in a flood that also basically destroyed the manuscript of the book she was working on. I think this book is an assemblage made by Paul Bowles. It seems like the other book attributed to her that's been published might contain some of the same material? There is basically no way reading even a short bio of Eberhardt won't make you want to read her writing, such a bio is printed in the intro to this book, so you might as well just read it there, as the book itself is definitely not as good as you'll want it to be or that satisfying.

Penelope Mortimer, The Pumpkin Eater. Oh wow just now thought "wait, is this woman Emily Mortimer's mom?" She isn't, but after a divorce, the husband that this book is basically about married another woman also named Penelope who gave birth to Emily. This book is another NYRB Classic, about a woman stuck in a bad marriage, with a ton of children, who's essentially forced to go to therapy. Pretty bleak in its viewpoint, this took me a very long time to get through despite being short and well-written. It's less compelling for how you feel you can basically extrapolate the whole of the book based on reading only a small amount of it. The "female suffering" genre. I would recommend it if you liked Play It As It Lays, or The Bell Jar, and now I guess I would recommend it to fans of Emily Mortimer, assuming such fandom is based on the movie Lovely And Amazing and the HBO show Doll And Em. I don't know what else she's done.

Jenn Pelly, The Raincoats. A 33 1/3 book about a great band, there are various points of interest in terms of the biographies of the members involved and the political milieu they lived in, though the stuff about fan perceptions of the music and its reception based on projection is in some ways less interesting. But art is also about the relationship the audience has to it, and with "punk" in particular artist and audience are essentially meant to be thought of as equals. It's just that in this instance, the artists really do have uncommonly interesting life experiences and live in a cool milieu. I'm mad about this book beginning with a Chris Kraus quote and ending with an interview with people who wrote the screenplay to Ten Things I Hate About You, is what I'm saying. The author talking about how she turned the band on to Angel Olsen is cool though, though obviously that sort of exchange wouldn't have fit into the book thematically if it wasn't so much about how what people who came after the band responded to their music. Still, for a book about stuff that happened in 1977, few things are going to date it as being written in 2016 like name-dropping Chris Kraus and Angel Olsen. Though I agree that the latter is great I dunno if young women forty years from now will be as psyched on her as Pelly is on The Raincoats.

Eve Babitz, Slow Times, Fast Company. Babitz was a hot young woman in L.A. who dated a great many celebrities; her voice is incredibly charming and smart and witty. Certain chapters falter a bit in scenes where there are too many characters, when the tone starts to seem less insightful (pretty much whenever she's speaking generally she seems really insightful) and more gossipy, which would honestly be fine if it weren't for the pseudonyms that help make this thing a novel. Although it's more of an essay collection about characters, if that makes sense. A good beach read, this sort of book probably does as much to create NYRB's glamorous cachet as the uniform design sense. It's not as good as Renata Adler's Speedboat but if you read that and thought Adler came off as kind of a square you might like this more.

Wolfgang Herrndorf, Sand. Another NYRB Classics book. This writer wrote an enormously popular YA book, then wrote this, and then killed himself before his cancer did him in. It's a moderately funny thriller, in the end pretty nihilistic, and the back-of-the-book praise compares it to Pynchon and Gaddis and Catch-22 and the Coen brothers. The afterword adds Nabokov would appreciate it for the games it plays. All of this is extremely my shit, I was pretty involved in this, though I didn't solve any of the book's puzzles on my own. It largely concerns an amnesiac trying to figure out why people are after him, which also creates a sort of narrative uncertainty akin to Evenson; there's also this feeling of "how dark is this going to get?" throughout, even though the tone remains vaguely comedic. I think pretty much everyone I talk to about to about books would like this one, unless they were in the mood for something more philosophical and ideas-based.

Harry Mathews, The Solitary Twin. Published posthumously, this short book seems pretty boiled down and distilled in terms of carrying characteristics of various older books of Mathews. Feels pretty loose for the most part but then an ending sort of comes out of nowhere, with one twist easily foreseen and another that's kind of bizarre. I don't get the feeling that Mathews writes with "ideas" in mind that he wants to communicate, but is more amusing himself with a sense of play. I don't offer this as a complaint, it might be the smarter way to work. It's a charming and fun book.

Noy Holland, I Was Trying To Describe What It Feels Like. Noy was associated with Gordon Lish, the teacher/editor most known for his work with Raymond Carver being too heavy-handed, but who has a whole coterie of short story writers whose work is more language-y, like Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, and Gary Lutz, all of whom I like. This is Noy's big "New and selected works" collection, but I was not nearly as into it as I would like to have been. The language felt pretty opaque. While Lutz's prose is convoluted in a way where I get a feeling for the characters as deeply socially alienated weirdos, with Noy's writing, mostly about families, it sort of seems like narrators might be brain-damaged, or the family has had some sort of sexual abuse that is now being largely talked around, but maybe not? The timelines skip around to give out information, but it never feels revelatory so much as mostly ADD. Sentences individually have good rhythms, but on a paragraph level don't come together.  I kept on feeling like I didn't "get" these stories, on several really fundamental levels. It goes back and forth between long pieces and really short ones and while the long ones were a total slog I didn't really feel like the short things made any real impact on me. Note: I realize it is kind of sexist for me to refer to Noy Holland as Noy while I call Gary Lutz by his last name, but I don't want you to think I'm thinking about either the country of Holland or either of the cartoonists Gary Panter and Gary Larson. For me questions of distinctiveness in names take priority over stylistic consistency, sorry if this offends.

Mark Leidner, Under The Sea. Short-story collection by a guy whose poems I liked, partly due to their being funny. A few of these stories feel like "exercises," attempts to do something specific to show off how varied he can be, and there's a sense of logic or attentiveness to a character's inner world that runs throughout and unites the whole thing, but sometimes I felt the presence of an "ironic distance" between the author and his choice of subject matter. It often feels like the sort of "parody" I would write in high school of some sort of genre I only half-paid-attention to, where there were a lot of jokes that were indicative of a sort of sarcastic contempt for the thing in question. That's not to say this isn't better, just that they share the feeling. Here that self-consciousness is employed to a literary end, but I as a reader definitely felt aware of the writer's knowing tone in ways that were sort of distracting. I kind of think the book could've benefited from the stories being in a different order. (I think opening on the story that's most plot-heavy, and about a lower-class crime milieu, was totally a mistake, and I would've opened with the story about ants, "Avern-W9" instead. That one really gets you on board with it, whereas other pieces you read with a bit more hesitation. Then I would've put "Garbage" third. If you're going to read it based on my say-so, read it in that order and let me know what you think.) I still think it's pretty good, and it gets better as it goes along, with the final story both making me laugh out loud and feel "seen." It has a good front cover, and I think flipping it open to pretty much any page or sentence will present an intrigued potential reader with enticement to read more, as the tone definitely works.

Emily Fridlund, Catapult. Selected as a contest winner by Ben Marcus, which made me pick this up. Fridlund wrote a novel that was seemingly pretty well-reviewed but I never heard of. These stories are all pretty much about relationships between two people where one feels alienated from the other for various reasons. It's kind of similar to Samantha Hunt's The Dark Dark but better-written on both a sentence level and in terms of having more realized characters, though it never really tries to get weird, staying firmly in the realm recognizable as "traditional literary short story." Probably I should've tried to read this and the Leidner at the same time and just switched back and forth between them.

Roque Larraquy, Comemadre. This is a pretty short book, split in half with two narrative threads taking place at different times. The first half involves an experiment to get the decapitated to say as their last words something insightful, the second half is about the world of modern art. It straddles the horror/humor way differently than most things: Normally, in a film, instances of gore have this over-the-top grotesque quality that might make you laugh, here people are weird and cruel in an underplayed way where there's absolutely no catharsis and you just feel uneasy. The translator, Heather Cleary, writes a column online that seems like it might be a good source for info on other translated books, I'd trust her taste based on her interest in this one. This one's got blurbs by Brian Evenson and Samanta Schweiblin.

Mathias Enard, Compass. This is a long book, taking place over the course of one night in the stream-of-consciousness of an orientalist musicologist talking about a woman he is in love with but never had a relationship with. It's erudite and digressive in a way which would appeal to fans of W.G. Sebald, who I guess was publisher New Directions' hit author for awhile. I don't love it but it's fine. It's some shit you would read if you dressed like a tenured professor with elbow patches on your jacket.

B. Catling, The Cloven. This is the conclusion to The Vorrh trilogy, and after starting it and feeling like I would remember enough of the previous book, The Erstwhile, to enjoy it I realized I was wrong and reread that one. I like this stuff: a sort of gnarly fantasy that ends with an acknowledgment that humanity was a mistake that gets erased from the face of the Earth before World War II starts.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes. An early NYRB Classics publication, feels sort of staid and droll and very British at the outset, it's also sort of a feminist classic due to it being about a woman becoming a witch, because she'd rather walk around the woods alone than hang out with her family. I kind of expected it to be weirder than it was but if you like stuff that predates modernism, or Barbara Comyns, you might be into it.

Harry Mathews, The Sinking Of The Odradek Stadium. Most of Mathews' stuff is kept in print by Dalkey Archive now, but in the eighties a big paperback was printed with his first two out-of-print novels alongside the publication of this one, which was serialized in The Paris Review. The idea of that big book was very appealing to me. This one's an epistolary novel, half of it written in broken English that improves throughout the reading, between a married couple planning on searching for treasure and infiltrating secret societies. It ends up reading less like Pynchon than I thought, in part due to the rigidity of the form of letters back and forth, rather than Pynchon's free-flowing storytelling.

Chelsey Minnis, Baby I Don't Care. The title is taken from Robert Mitchum's autobiography. A book of poems written in a voice familiar from the femme fatales and glamorous ingenues of Turner Classic Movies, to the point where every line feels like it might be taken from elsewhere, and is now being collaged into a new form. At the same time, especially compared to Minnis' earlier work, which I also adore, these feel "classical," controlled in their rhythms, but surprising and compelling in the way they develop and how far the voice is able to go. Feels similar to Alice Notley's Culture Of One in how the sequence of poems suggests a narrative moreso than just being a poetry collection, though this has a much smaller cast of characters: It's basically just a woman addressing a man.

Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida. One of the more acclaimed novels of the recent past, this book about a college wrestler obsessed with winning a championship and having no real goals after that point has compelling and funny voice and consistently strong sentences. I read it in a day and was pretty absorbed. I don't think I would recommend it too strongly just because of the weird hype that accumulates around "new" novels, I wouldn't want to postulate it as one for the ages just yet though it's definitely good. Habash is married to a woman who just wrote a review of another currently acclaimed novel where she criticizes how the women are written in it, but this book does this thing where the love interest literally asserts her own agency and says that she's not just a character in his story, which is something I don't think people do in real life so much as something writers put in out of self-consciousness about how readers don't understand the basic premise of first-person narration or something. Habash also liked Comemadre, both books were put out by Coffee House Press.

Helen Dewitt, Some Trick. This got a lot of acclaim when it came out because people love The Last Samurai and want Dewitt to have a win, but this collection of thirteen stories is not really that satisfying. Three are dated "Oxford, 1985" at the end, and they're the weakest stories in the book, but also read different from the rest, which are all about the frustrations of being a genius, basically, in that the world isn't really designed to just let them thrive. This is true, and requires a degree of thought and rigor to write about, but also feels fairly entitled and low-stakes for a book's worth of short stories. (The struggle for Dewitt is life-and-death, she's struggled with suicide as a result of the difficulties she's had with the book world.) I basically disagree with the idea that these are "funny" but maybe it's just too dry for my dumb and vulgar sensibilities. I could see myself rereading this after getting a used paperback copy for cheap some years down the line though.

Sergio De La Pava, Lost Empress. I kind of feel like De La Pava and Dewitt have a lot in common, in terms of being really smart and not really well-served by the literary community, but damn if reading these books one after the other didn't underline out their contrasts; i.e. how De La Pava's concerns are way more pressing and politically engaged. This one’s about a ton of different stuff, but the criminal justice system and the struggles of the working class are a big part of it. There’s also a ton of stuff about football. This is all rendered in a voice driven by all of the major characters being these hyper-intelligent steamrollers of authority and genius who bend the world to their will. I definitely think Dewitt is more right-on about how intelligence works in the real world when dealing with others. The appeal of this aspect of De La Pava’s writing is more that of fantasy than actual insight, despite its insistence on how smart and right it is. Certainly some of this is gendered; the fact that one of the main characters here is a woman doesn’t really negate that aspect so much as it amplifies the fantasy element further. This one has a lot of talk about Joni Mitchell’s work in the seventies, concluding with a dismissal of Charles Mingus as being “beneath her” as a collaborator which would be shockingly wrong if it weren’t coming from a dude who I think really loves like technical metal and bravura displays of technique in general. Mitchell, like Salvador Dali, another figure in the book, gets to be cited as this sort of genius figure that people defer to and gets to be really successful and generally understood as a genius. It's like he doesn't really have time for geniuses who aren't widely appreciated, but maybe he's trying to assert these values as a way of aligning himself with popular tastes for the sake of winning the understandings of a wider audience. (This is my view of what Pitchfork did when they gave Kanye West album of the year, by the way. They were already popular, but by flattering a mass audience's taste by agreeing with them they positioned themselves for still-greater cultural dominance.) For all the digressions and desire to dominate with opinions, there's still a lot of plot here, and overall it's pretty enjoyable. I had fun with it, though I don’t think there’s anything here as moving as certain passages in A Naked Singularity and Personae. Various parts of this actually reminded me of Vanessa Place’s LA MEDUSA, other stuff is like David Foster Wallace. The people who are vocally against DFW or Vanessa Place would really hate this but I think those people should be dismissed as boring scolds.

Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year Of Rest And Relaxation. Hot on the heels of reading Lost Empress, imagine my surprise on opening this one to find an epigraph from Joni Mitchell. People really love that lady. And people love Moshfegh too, if they're into "literary fiction" as it stands in 2018. That said, I would recommend this to people who maybe don't follow that world too closely, and I'd use the premise to do so: It's about a woman in 2001 New York looking to hibernate by taking a bunch of prescription pills, only to start acting out in a blackout sleepwalk state. The characters are unlikable and shallow and the whole thing Moshfegh does might not be "for you" but I feel like it's as good as "that thing" gets, it's a well-done enough take that I don't resent her her success or feel like someone whose work is weirder necessarily deserves better accolades. She's like the thing you'd point to as an example of the success of a system of MFA degrees creating stuff that seems objectively "good."

Cristina Rivera Garcia, The Taiga Syndrome. This one is also kind of like Ann Quin! It doesn't sell itself that way, instead acting like it's a mystery novel with a lot of politics, and things to say about fairy tales, but really it's got this sort of vague quest narrative that's really traveling to a landscape of inner/outer void and desolation.

Rita Bullwinkel, Belly Up. Damn, I dropped the ball on keeping up with doing these write-ups close to finishing the books in question and I barely remember this one at all. It's blurbed by Lorrie Moore. Looking at the back-cover descriptive text there's this thing about how "characters question the bodies they've been given and what their bodies require to be sustained" and I think this book made me realize I hate when books are pitched as being about bodies. Like, it feels like a reach in a sort of pretentious way to just say something is about what basically everything with characters is implicitly about. I shouldn't act like I hated this book because I think I mostly liked it but the things about it I remember I hated. There's a story with the premise that a teenage girl gets someone to walk around carrying her breasts because the economy is so bad it's easier to hire someone to do that rather than buy a bra. And another story that starts off talking shit on the state of Florida where I felt really strongly that the writer had almost certainly never lived there. Oh, there's a good story in here about corresponding via the mail with someone in prison.

Steven Millhauser, The Barnum Museum. I love Steven Millhauser, he's one of my favorite writers, I got this book as a Christmas gift ages ago and couldn't read it at the time for reasons I attributed to the typeface being bad. I don't think this is one of his best. He uses a lot of the same themes over and over so the things that are good in this one are sort of present in his other books. This one's published by Dalkey Archive and that might be what made me think of it as being maybe a little bit more detached and exercise-y than his later short story collections. Damn there's a real running theme to this year of me not really liking anything! I was maybe in kind of a bummed-out mood year all year.

Sabrina Orah Mark, Wild Milk. Oh, I really didn't like this one either! Like a sort of small-press "it's weird and poetic" thing that never really does anything and sort of feels primarily written for other people who do the same sort of not very successful thing. I wish I thought this was funny and not just tedious but no.

Kirsten Bakis, Lives Of The Monster Dogs. I enjoyed this enough to a point where I thought a lot of other people would like it. It feels very "nineties," maybe comparable to Katherine Dunn's Geek Love which I've never read. It's written as a collage of different people's journals, about a race of hyper-intelligent dogs being bred and given technological equipment that enables them to speak, and the story of how they both kill their masters, and then move to New York. The one human narrator is sort of constantly charmed by all the dogs and sort of ignores all the red flags, which are constant, but nothing bad ever really comes of it. It's got a nice tone to it, I found it charming as I wondered where it was going. This is the only book the author ever wrote and it's over twenty years old.

Jose Revueltas, The Hole. Recently translated and released by New Directions, this is a super-short novella, in a single paragraph, about prisoners arranging to get heroin smuggled into them, and how things go wrong. Written by a political prisoner and essentially about how fucked prison is from a political and humanitarian standpoint. Probably the reason I do not remember this very well is because of the circumstances under which I read it, waiting on the porch of my girlfriend's house while I was waiting for her to get there so I could help her move, basically immediately before we definitively broke up, overwhelm the memory. But also I was pretty excited about this one, and also pretty disappointed in it.

David Bunch, Moderan. NYRB Classics expanded this collection of short stories, all taking place in a sci-fi world that is essentially meant as just a parody of modernity: The world is covered in plastic, men are cyborgs with most of their humanity traded out, and are constantly at war. This is pretty repetitive in the point it makes but frequently really insane on a language level.

Hera Lindsay Bird, Hera Lindsay Bird. This woman wrote a poem about pyramid schemes I really loved. That led to me finding her Twitter feed, which eventually contained her retweeting one of the co-creators of Peep Show saying she's a genius, which led to me pulling the trigger and buying her book. It's pretty firmly in my wheelhouse, poems are explicitly labeled as being homages to Chelsey Minnis and Mark Leidner. There's a lot of jokes, I felt reminded of my own writing to a certain extent although she's much more sexual. I think a lot of people hate jokes and pop culture references in poetry, but I do not. I liked this and wish her every success, apparently one of these poems "went viral" but I wasn't a big fan of that one on its own though it's fine in the book. She explicitly identifies her theme as "you're in love and then you die" and that's great, it's true and that's plenty.

Taeko Kono, Toddler Hunting. Another one from New Directions, though they put this out in hardcover ages ago and just rereleased it in paperback. This one's pretty good, but upsetting. A bunch of short stories from the sixties mostly about women into BDSM, and frequently they're into fantasizing about children getting tortured as well. It's real weird in a way that makes you think "this is probably about the society it's written in on some level, it can't just be about this lady being real weird" but hard to know without being a part of that society. Still fascinating, although occasionally confusing on a level of "I can't keep track of these character's names."

Amparo Davila, The Houseguest. Another one New Directions just put out, this one's a collection of short stories by a Mexican lady that they REALLY oversell by comparing to Poe, Shirley Jackson, and Franz Kafka. The back-cover text really tries to sell it as being horrifying but the cover is just a drawing of pink chair on a light green background? I don't think they're actually trying to entice readers that are into horror. Every story is like half of a Daphne Du Maurier story, like Du Maurier would've waited until she had another idea to put into these before writing them. At least one of these stories has a "twist" or "surprise ending" that's just a total non sequitur. It's crazy that this is a selection of short stories that's the first stuff being brought into English when it reads so much like the dregs of someone's career, like the collection of previously uncollected works you'd do after someone really successful dies.

Anyway, that's enough negativity for one year I guess! I'm admittedly reading a book I don't really like right now and am imagining I will probably go back to this big collection of early Harry Mathews novels pretty soon. I hope you found something on this list to investigate you end up liking and aren't just someone who works for a publisher seeing me dismiss something you put out because you have a google alert set up and then you decide I'm an asshole. But you know, whatever, either way.

No comments: