Monday, December 27, 2021

Top Books Of Recent Years

In the past I've done brief write-ups of all the books I read in the period of time since my last set of write-ups, and that slowly became too exhausting to contemplate, so I am not going to attempt that again. I did want to mention books that were new, at least, so here's the list of my favorite books released in the past two years. My attention span was sort of fried by the COVID era and I found reading older books often incredibly difficult. By only talking about newer books, this should also function as something of a top ten for the year, though it runs a little long, and includes books published in 2020, as I find the hardcover format gross and often find myself waiting for copies of books to become available at the library. Some are works in translation that are older still. These days, with film in particular, any "best of the year" seems provisional or else false, as many of the best works are on the festival circuit and do not receive much in the way of a real release; discussing books in an honest way that doesn't favor the publicity cycles of major publishers means accounting for work others read earlier.

When We Cease To Understand The World by Benjamin Labatut. Part of my affection for this book surely comes from how it does something interesting with the essay form without including the personal: The first chapter is sort of like Patrik Ourednik's Europeana in the way it lays out information to make a far-reaching point. A note in the back says that chapter contains only one paragraph of fiction, which the subsequent pieces increase, but as a reader I appreciate feeling that the point being made is rooted in the real. The whole book, with its cast of historical scientists being bedeviled by the elusive truths they pursue, is the sort of shit I'm into. A bunch of people are saying this book is good, I'm not riding for any obscurities here. I only wish the NYRB edition made some slight edits to the British spellings of an earlier publication.

Hollow by B Catling. This is historical fantasy, blurbed by Alan Moore, released straight to paperback by Vintage, though Catling has had two books printed by a smaller British press since his Vorrh trilogy concluded. My friend Adam, who says Catling is maybe his favorite living male writer of fiction, says those books were good but it makes sense this is the one a major publisher would bring out. It involves monks and mercenaries and a breakdown of reality as demonic creatures created by Bosch for his paintings emerge into the real world. The Vorrh books also included historical personages -- Raymond Roussel, William Blake -- and here the presence of Bosch's work allows for some neat bits of art criticism. This is an immersive, engaging read I read on a bus and liked a lot. I feel like most of the smartest people I know IRL that are fun to talk to definitely prefer genre writing to the sort of literature that gets talked about in Harper's, which makes sense, because Harper's is increasingly an awful magazine, a legacy publication steered by an old reactionary. 

I bring this up by way of getting into a digression about how a piece Christian Lorentzen wrote about how smart people learn about books from book critics was completely full of shit self-congratulation from someone who should know he works in a dying field and no one cares about what he does, but seriously: No one finds out about books from book criticism, book critics are largely obligated to all talk about the same high-profile releases from big five publishers that have enough of a promotional push a reader could just as easily find out about them by walking into any bookstore. I have another digression about the cultural discussion of books coming further down the list.

Harrow by Joy Williams. I realized this year that "environmental collapse" is the ideal literary subject matter for our era, both because it is the crisis we face that supersedes all others, but also because "environment" is a synonym for "context," and "context collapse" is also one of the conditions we face. A place of context collapse is also where Joy Williams' characters gnomic dialogue seems to emerge from, these issuances that have nothing to do with conversation as generally practiced. This book strikes me as "late style" for Williams, which I don't think reviews addressed. It's really weird, and while I enjoyed it a lot, it's probably closer to The Changeling than any of her other books, and while that may be my favorite of hers, that's not a popular opinion. I really enjoyed a large amount of stuff on pretty much every page, although the ending is particularly cryptic. Maybe I did myself a disservice by rushing it. I justified the expense of buying this in hardcover by giving it as a gift to a friend for her birthday, and I look forward to buying a paperback for myself to reread in a year's time.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Very funny, very insightful, and made me cry. Do I think it's weird to call this a novel when it takes it as a given you know all the characters from Lockwood's memoir? Yes. But I read an early draft of some of the material talking about the internet, presented as an essay and that blew me away, and the form of a novel can include all the weird shit it wants. Lockwood's almost certainly the best writer of my generational cohort, and her wide acclaim is both well-deserved and feels borderline inexplicable in terms of how hard it is to imagine older people making sense of her argot. But, for the record, this is what it's like, to be alive and engaging with the internet! It's weird too that she'll talk about reading the writing of Lisa Carver and a few other people she doesn't refer to by name. It's almost like within the world of the book, writers who know what the internet is don't have names, their essence is just an utterance of this larger supercontext, but that might not be as hard and fast rule in the way I'm describing it. The book also moves away from the internet talk into discussion of the tragic and holy, which could be what people who find the talk of memes baffling respond to; Lockwood's register can encompass everything.

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin. There are popular books about the internet that are either autofiction or close relatives to it, but Schweblin avoids these forms to come to an understanding of what the internet actually is that seems far more accurate: It's a system of mass surveillance that allows people to be voyeurs, and then feel connected through that. This novel employs what would be a science fiction conceit if the technology didn't 100% exist right now. This seems maybe the best way to address one of the defining elements of reality today, and of course, as the nineties predicted, it's a collection of different narratives with no real main character. I liked this more than Fever Dream, the author's novella from a few years back that received some acclaim.

Death In Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh. This is probably Moshfegh's best book to date. An old woman encounters something inexplicable, and makes up a world she projects onto her surroundings accordingly. Obviously, this is a potent metaphor for what's going on in the world, but it never presents itself as such, instead just being a very old-fashioned dark comedy about a person who has to go to the library to look up what's happening.

The Glassy Burning Floor Of Hell by Brian Evenson. A new collection by the contemporary master of horror short stories. This earned an endorsement from R.L. Stine on Twitter, which is funny. Back cover copy tries to make it seems like this is mostly about ecological horror, which is not true. I'm pretty sure one of the stories in here directly connects to Evenson's novel Immobility.

Eleven Sooty Dreams by Manuela Draeger. I am on the record as being a fan of the French author Antoine Volodine, who has a very weird project, where that name is a heteronym, and he has others, one of which is Manuela Draeger, who sometimes appears as a character in books credited to Volodine. Draeger's In The Time Of The Blue Ball, published in the U.S. by Dorothy, A Publishing Project, is a pretty whimsical collection of three short stories (which are individual books in a series for children in France), and is a very intriguing introduction to the whole project in itself. This book is Draeger's first book for adults, and while there's still some whimsy to it, it gets closer to the Volodine subject matter of failed leftist revolutions and Bardo states between life and death. Honestly I've already forgotten most of the details but this is a good one. That I'm forgetting it probably has something to do with its dreaminess, which is a feature not a bug, as they say.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor. We love a descent into hell that doubles as social realism, right? This one begins with the discovery of a dead witch, and each chapter expands the purview of what's going on, to include more darkness as it reveals more plot detail. I realized a lot of New Directions books don't have any plot -- Their biggest hit in the nineties was Sebald, after all -- but this one does. Have since grabbed an Anna Seghers collection NYRB Classics issued in part because Melchor had a blurb on the back, but I wasn't able to find my way into that one at all.

Machines In The Head by Anna Kavan. This is an NYRB Classics collection of an author I already knew I loved. This is a "selected stories" that includes stuff from books I've already read, but the selections are well-chosen, and the pieces I hadn't read before are good. If you just read this and the recent Penguin edition of Ice, (and I highly highly recommend you read Ice if you haven't yet) that's maybe a better approach than tracking down a bunch of books published in England by Peter Owen.

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler. Oyler's a fun critic, appreciated by all for her willingness to talk shit. That no one talked shit on this book was taken as an indicator that she wrote a really great book, but really the book's flaws are pretty evident. It's willing to be tedious in its scene-setting for the sake of mimetic detail, to increase the reader's sense that what they're reading must've really happened. Book people are maybe just willing to let her be the mean one, and look on admiringly from their positions of cowardice. The authorial voice of this book is an extension of her critical persona, and while I find that voice an amiable companion, it seems that readers forgive these excesses because they're so self-consciously presented, which is not the same thing as a book being without flaws. It's enjoyable enough, some of the jokes are funny, she knows what she's doing.

There was this "what do you want to see more of in books" survey at, I want to say The Rumpus, from which an Ottessa Moshfegh quote (about wanting less prescribed morality) went briefly viral. One of the people solicited for an opinion was Emily Gould, who said she wanted more examples of authors having fun, citing Oyler's "Middle Section (Nothing Happens)" heading as something she liked a lot and found delightful for its indulgent play with form, instead of a straightforward seriousness. I just want to say, if that's what you're seeking out, you should try reading a comic book, cartoonists make these kinds of throwaway jokes all the time.

Slapstick by Pete Toms. Pete Toms is a cartoonist, and we follow each other on Letterboxd, and he self-released this book digitally. It's a "comic novel," in the sense of being funny, but it's all prose, aside from its cover he drew. I like a little more linguistic bravado but it's pretty clear he's going for jokes and laying out everything in as straightforward a manner as possible. Anyway you can pay $3 to download this inventive collection of goofs. This list is short on obscurities if you're a book person, so if you're a book person who's heard of everything here throw this man a bone and get some laughs. People are writing work that reflects virtues totally absent in mainstream literature publishing, and then they have to self-publish it, because work that's accessible and entertaining and interesting isn't seen as viable by major houses, nor does it fit in with the tightly-defined aesthetic preferences of small publishers.

Vernon Subutex 2 and 3 by Virginie Despentes. I have mixed feelings as to whether these books are good or not, since on a level of language, the writing is incredibly simplistic and prone to cliche. This allows the books to read quickly, and keep their focus on characterization, and the movement between disparate characters to show how they view and interpret one another is pretty clever and insightful stuff. The books do not hesitate to discuss their characters and politics, many of which are aging men who've become increasingly right-wing. There are plot elements and movements towards the magical which reinforce the corniness of the prose and make me self-conscious about recommending it or considering it good.

One thing that's interesting about the books is that, after all of the groundwork laid, treating the characters' attitudes as this background radiation, the third book not only involves frequent mention of terrorist attacks, and captures 2016 as a cascade of rock star deaths, it ends with, and this is a massive spoiler, a mass shooting killing off almost all of the book's major and minor characters. This made me think of how Michael Chabon and his wife were supposedly going to adapt an article about the Ghost Ship fire into a TV show, and got shouted down by the community of survivors. I remember, when that happened, thinking "That just isn't how TV works. The tragedy of mass death, of people who know each other tangentially, and many of them are inspiring and lively, and then they just die in a fire, that's not television, that's not how narrative works." It's fascinating to me that these books do the work of having their narrative work in exactly that way, and not only have they been adapted into a French television series, but within the narrative of the books the tragedy gets turned into a television series courtesy of one of the people who set the tragedy in motion capitalizing on it. I'm willing to give Despentes credit for the commentary being pointed, partly because the whole series begins almost as a riposte to High Fidelity, with a Gen-X-er's record store going out of business and leaving him adrift in the world. For as much as I find off-putting about these books, it does seem to be in service to a vision and perspective I find valuable.

I Wished by Dennis Cooper. George Miles, the inspiration for a five-novel cycle of Cooper's, gets another book from Cooper where he tries to lay out what's special and important about this boy he knew who died, with a bit less transgressive violent sexual content than in the earlier books (though there remains a scene of parental sexual abuse, and it's a little unclear to me if this is being presented as something the real George Miles experienced). The best parts of this book are incredibly gentle, though it still kind of feels like a digestif for those who've read a bunch of Cooper's other books rather than an accessible introduction to an intimidating body of work.

I'm not going to list other books I read and felt more ambivalent towards. I wish I'd gotten around to reading Garielle Lutz's Worsted and Atticus Lish's The War For Gloria. The Lish should show up at the library one of these days, a friend has a copy of the Lutz I can probably borrow. I'm not claiming to have a great handle on the world of books, this is more of an accounting of the work I already knew to pay attention to than anything else.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Favorite records of the second half of 2021

Rather than doing a firm "best records of 2021" post, consider this the continuation of a list I began in the middle of the year. Again, I'm not necessarily trying to offer a firm or definitive ranking, as the fact that I'm not reshuffling those earlier entries among these for a definitive numbered order should indicate. There are small sub-sections based around genre for the sake of aiding a reader trying to understand what parts of this list they will agree with enough to explore further.

However, right up top, before discussing anything else, I have to acknowledge an archival release, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live In Seattle. It might be easy to lose track of how good John Coltrane is, if you live in record-collector-head-land, where obscurity is a virtue. If you're used to appreciating tapes released by Alice Coltrane during her ashram days, being reminded of the monumental quality of A Love Supreme takes a different set of ears, almost. Like, by being attuned to the small and quiet, the large and forthright announces itself in such a way that you don't feel the need to engage with it. The way jazz works within the moment so often resists the album statement that the existence of a great album, while it might be useful to the uninitiated, almost seems besides the point. Recasting A Love Supreme as something more far out, one is reminded of some very fundamental truths about the power of music. 

I hesitate to use language to characterize any of those powers, besides to suggest that they're beyond genre, as the rest of the list should indicate.

Lil Ugly Mane - Volcanic Bird Enemy And The Voiced Concern. Totally different sound and vibe than what listeners have come to expect from this artist, coming closer to trip-hop or nineties alt-rock. It's interesting that these influences come from roughly the same chronological period as the Memphis rap sounds on Mista Thug Isolation, like the idea of "progression" as a linear path is being resisted, in favor of a sideways or serpentine movement. I get why people are disappointed in this or didn't vibe with it, as it forsakes impressive technical rapping and storytelling for an almost sentimental approach that always defuses itself with irony, self-loathing, and aggression, but for me it's a very comforting record.

NTsKI - Orca. I am not familiar enough with contemporary J-pop to say how close or how distant this is from the genre's mainstream. I know Miharu Koshi, who gets a song from the eighties covered here. There's an atmosphere being conjured here, and it's immaculate. The attention to production detail that's a hallmark of the Orange Milk label is present, though this is certainly more accessible than most of what they release.

Damiana - Vines. Whitney Johnson from Matchess/Simulation, in a duo with Natalie from TALSounds/Good Willsmith. One thing I hope to never do again is livestream a concert, an entertainment option that emerged over quarantine. However, one of the best sets I saw in this genre was performed by Damiana -- not even in the same room, rather, the two of them had separately recorded music they imagined would sound good with what they thought the other person would do. Obviously this is more doable when you are doing sort of droney/loop-based stuff than any other kind of music, but still the fact that it succeeded so well seems to suggest a telepathic bond between the two ladies. Both play as backing band on the new Brett Naucke record (which I have no strong feelings on), as well as...

Circuit Des Yeux -io. I almost went up to New York for the record release show for this album, but couldn't find a place to stay or another person who would want to go. Anyway, I did a lot of explaining what this music is like, in a way I thought would intrigue the uninitiated. An artsy balladeer, sorta like Scott Walker, voice sorta like Weyes Blood. It was the record label Unseen Worlds (on Twitter) that compared this record to Portishead's Third which is maybe the best comparison point though. The show would've featured orchestral arrangements and probably would've been sick as hell.

Sylvie Courvoisier/Mary Halvorson - Searching For The Disappeared Hour. Piano and guitar duets by two of the best in the game, fully adept band leaders on their respective instruments. I don't really have the time for solo instrumental records but a duo twisting shapes atop each other really engages close listening.

Don Cherry - The Summer House Sessions and Organic Music Theatre. Two more archival releases, coinciding with an exhibit of Moki Cherry's visual art at Blank Forms I regret not making it up to. (I was supposed to go with friends, plans fell through.) Don Cherry's music in this era is some of my favorite music of all time, and these two records, from 1968 and 1972, delineate that Cherry was moving so much in his own direction it's not really fair to characterize these works as being from the same era. Both approach the late-sixties communal utopia ideal in different ways. In 1968 he's stepping beyond "free jazz" to create a global music, and in 1972 he's gone several steps beyond that, to something closer to a folk music that's not beholden to a particular skill level but is incredibly moving. There's a handful of jazz musicians who have worked in radically different contexts and redefined genres through their sensibility a handful of times. It speaks to an openness and vision which is instructive and inspiring, and I'm truly grateful for works like this, that both fill in the portrait of a man now deceased and point to still unexplored landscapes.

Artifacts - ...And Then There's This. Great jazz trio, featuring Tomeka Reid on cello and Nicole Mitchell on flute. Mike Reed plays drums. The drumming is so restrained as opposed to most jazz drumming, which I often find a bit much. Mitchell is an incredible flautist, which maybe gets lost when she's leading big bands through concept albums about Octavia Butler. I love Tomeka Reid in most contexts, a student of Abdul Wadud who seems specifically interested in the in-the-pocket grooving of his work on the first two Julius Hemphill records, she holds down the lower end like Charles Mingus while also positioning the work in this chamber music space. The combination of restraint and melody makes me hear it almost like rap instrumentals or something, like the space being created is open to wherever your imagination wants to take you. Other tight records to be put out by Astral Spirits this year include Strictly Missionary's Heisse Scheisse. I interpret the band name as a Black Eyes reference, which it probably isn't, but they work a sort of jazz-funk-rock register with Wendy Eisenberg on guitar and it's not completely impossible one or two people in the mix might be fans of the weirdest band ever signed to Dischord. I also liked Equipment Pointed Ankh's Without Human Permission, which was co-released by Sophomore Lounge, and features Chris Bush from Caboladies, members of Tropical Trash and State Champion, and Shutaro Noguchi, who put out a proggish ECM meets indie rock solo record on Feeding Tube a few years back. That's from a sub-imprint of Astral Spirits that handles non-jazz, as the presence of synth and persistently rockish drumming marks it maybe a little bit closer to an instrumentals-only Faust or something.

Black Dice - Mod Prog Sic. One of my favorite bands, who are not just a "they need no introduction" proposition,  but actually an oft-returned-to reference point for the type of noise I like, that which does not present its overpowering qualities in monochrome black, but in variegated bright collage palette. They played a show in Philly I actually did go to, and while it is sad/weird/unsurprising they are still raging and playing incredible dance music while their audience is mostly men now aged and self-conscious to a point where they no longer elect to engage the music physically, the band themselves are doing all the right things, in an unforgiving culture of listening.

Hairbrushing - Unlisted Natural. One of the best solo "noise" or synthesizer records from an act previously unknown to me I've heard in quite some time. Not really sure how to be articulate about it besides saying it sounds like there's more than one person playing! And while there are guests it's not specifically on the tracks where they're present this effect takes place. How about: Like if Black Dice's "Beaches And Canyons" went spelunking instead. Or I think of a lot of these sounds as emanating from electrified slinkies, or microphones in the beaters of a stand mixer. Hailing from Louisville, much like Equipment Pointed Ankh, whose record this exists in the same universe as. I should also point out the new Olivia Block record, which I've only just begun spending time with but really enjoy.

Heta Bilaletdin - Nauhoi. It's easy to forget about Fonal records, and their documentation of Finland's psychedelic music scene, because so much of the work they release is of a high quality, but it exists in a world all of its own. This record, with its bubbling electronics, rich with rhythm and incident, is continually a "what am I listening to again?" experience. I'm not sure if the vocals on this are singing words in a language I don't understand or if they're genuinely wordless, or if they're electronically processed and cut up in a way where they'll deliberately unintelligible. There's a mystery to it certainly but it never becomes completely abstract, always remains rooted in the fundamentally approachable. Sort of comparable to those algorithmically generated images that look like photos of a living room that are slightly blurry that on closer inspection don't show any recognizable objects, but if they were a real space you could hang out in and have an OK time.

Stice - Satyricon. Duo of electronic production and vocalist, a la VVAQRT, but far more antic, both musically, and in terms of the performance style of the vocals. Songs are short, somewhat aggressive, but moving through a lot of territory - Maybe the most relevant reference point I can drop is that the vocalist was once romantically involved with and in a band with Machine Girl. I bought this in part because it came with a minicomic that's an illustrated lyrics sheet. Lyrics discuss piss, cum, shit, etc. Wire's "Mr. Suit" is momentarily interpolated, maybe accidentally. There is a sort of cultivated obnoxiousness to this that I can imagine aging poorly but I had these songs and their plentiful hooks running through my head a lot.

Boldy James/The Alchemist - Bo Jackson. I listed the Armand Hammer record The Alchemist produced on my first half of the year list. I truly hate that I'm at a point of alienation or disinterest from rap where the stuff I like within the genre falls within such narrow parameters. The other rap I enjoyed (from Ka, Mach-Hommy, Benny The Butcher, the Aesop Rock/Blockhead collab) is all pretty close to this small spectrum where Griselda's on one side and Backwoodz is on the other. The exception being when I got excited about RX Nephew's ten-minute song "American tterroristt" and texted a bunch of friends about it. Maybe this is fine for a dude of my age and ethnic background, and at least I'm keeping track of rap by checking in with Passion Of The Weiss and not The Needle Drop. The rapping's good, the production's good.

King Woman - Celestial Blues. Others will call it doom metal, but to me this feels like the heavier end of nineties grunge, like Soundgarden or something, to me, but with a lady singing. I don't mind it though, I'm on board. Still others call it shoegaze, which the band objects to on a "there's just reverb on the vocals" basis. That does temper the occasional screaming.

The Body And Big Brave - Leaving None But Small Birds. Two of the only heavy bands I routinely engage with and enjoy, who both made their own records this year of note, make a collaborative record together, but in an unexpected twist, it's a folk record, bordering on the sort of thing you could imagine playing at a coffee shop. Goth-toned, crows on bare branches, vocals slightly shrill, rhythms the sound of drummers used to hitting hard.

Mega Bog - Life, And Another. I think I hung out with this lady in college a little bit? I might have given her my copy of the Bone omnibus. The person I'm thinking of was definitely better friends with my friend Evan, who has since gone on tours with Mega Bog. Anyway, I didn't keep in touch, she may not have been making music when I knew her, and the intervening years' earlier Mega Bog records didn't connect with me, (I definitely talked with Evan through her doing a a solo set until we were told specifically to stop) but for whatever reason this clicks. This has some orchestrations, but it remains rooted in a Slapp Happy fandom of the lowkey freakout.

Macie Stewart - Mouth Full Of Glass. You might know Macie from Ohmme, one of the best live indie rock acts currently around, or you might know the name from various improv contexts, like these weird Astral Spirits tapes in duo with Lia Kohl. This is an orchestrated indie folk tape, maybe not too far off from the Mega Bog record but a bit more inclined to the overtly pretty. Peaceful spring day music, with finger-picked guitar and the percussive qualities of hand on instrument captured with engaging daylight clarity.

Insides - Soft Bonds. Was unfamiliar with this band, who've been around for quite some time. Before Insides, they were two-thirds of a group called Earwig, who put out a record in the early nineties on a sub-imprint of 4AD designed for more abstract music. Pretty sure the two members are a couple, this record has a certain intimacy/sexiness to it, that seems rooted in the atmosphere of the winter... The feeling of being in bed with someone while a blizzard rages outside your windows. Skin-to-skin contact even when not actually fucking music. A record to turn to when you want to relax, that's also the threshold of a discography one can explore when one wants to hear new music that explores similar territory.