Around January 1 I had intended to post this list of books I was particularly awed by, but it seemed a bit much to tack on to my two previous retrospective posts for the bygone year (2015 in favorite pre-1900 books, and 2015 in favorite post-1900 Books).
Now, of course, I figure, what the hell, am I going to let this draft languish? What’s a blog for anyways?
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True Histories (c. 160 A.D.) – Lucian (trans. Keith Sidwell, 2004)
Lucian’s tale is one of the first surviving instances of that rare genre known as the Menippean satire.
The Discourse of Lorenzo Valla on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine (1443) – Lorenzo Valla (trans. Christopher B. Coleman, 1922)
A Looking Glasse for the Court: A dispraise of the life of the Courtier, and a commendacion of the life of the husbandman (1539) – Antonio de Guevara (trans. Sir Francis Bryant, 1548, 1575)
The blackface Gothic letterface & the facsimile reproduction drove me a little crazy.
Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) – John Lyly (abridged)
I first read this text years ago in university when I was researching Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which Shakespeare parodies the excesses of Lyly’s Euphuism. But I returned to it this year for reasons to be disclosed at a later time.
Life Is a Dream (1635) – Pedro Calderón de la Barca (trans. Gwynne Edwards, 1991)
The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles (1966) – Nancy Mitford
Fifteen years before this book appeared, Nancy Mitford had translated the French classic La Princesse de Clèves (1678). What court gossip!
‘Letter to Sor Filatea de la Cruz’ (c. 1690) – Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (trans. Edith Grossman, 2014)
What Maisie Knew (1897) – Henry James
Apalache (1976), Both (1982), The Middle Passage: A Triptych of Commodities (1976) – Paul Metcalf
Metcalf’s historically-inflected textual collages defy classification. Only one more of Metcalf’s major works remains before I’ll have read everything he published (or nearly so): I-57.
With few annotations, and even fewer qualms, I offer the crème de la crème of my year’s reading — books published after 1900, that is. (See also my 2015 pre-1900 reading list.)
Henry IV (1922) – Luigi Pirandello (trans. Mark Musa, 1995)
This short play blurs the lines between madness and sanity. It might have been my mood, or what was going on in my life at the time, but it had me almost fearing for my own sanity, not just the character’s. Wonderfully disturbing. At Librivox you can listen to or download a free audiobook version, with volunteer voice actors.
Ladies Almanack (1928) – Djuna Barnes
Distinguished for its raunchy, parodic Elizabethan style, and accompanied by the author’s illustrations, this tiny tale was written for Barnes’s patroness Natalie Barney and her sapphic coterie. “Now this be a Tale of as fine a Wench as ever wet Bed,” it begins The full title, in good Renaissance tradition, is Ladies Almanack, showing their Signs and their tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers. Written and illustrated by a Lady of Fashion.
The Best of S.J. Perelman (mid-20th century)
Marginalia on Casanova (1939) – Miklós Szentkuthy (trans. Tim Wilkinson, 2012)
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) – Ernest Hemingway
I’ve never felt drawn to Hemingway’s novels, but when I saw this on a bargain rack, there was no question we were going to go home together. I was not disappointed: the old man in his lonely skiff, lulled by illusions and pushed past the point of exhaustion, had me in tears through the final pages. If Moby-Dick is too long and too arch for you, maybe just go here.
Goethe and One of His Admirers (1956) – Arno Schmidt (John E. Woods, 1990)
Acquaintance with Grief (1966) – Carlo Emilio Gadda (trans. William Weaver, 1969)
This is the only book in recent memory that had me doubled up in tears with laughter. I did not understand everything I read. As with Moby-Dick, I had the impression that certain of the book’s baroque excesses were excessive by design, verging on a sort of self-parody. But it’s hard to say. Incidentally, this work proved unfinishable for Gadda — the last section is in draft form, far less complex in its syntax than the sections preceding it. Unlike That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, which I haven’t read, this book is sadly out of print; I paid dearly for my copy. Translator William Weaver achieves a rare feat here, of making the work feel like it is essentially his.
The Temple of Iconoclasts (1972) – J. Rodolfo Wilcock (trans. Lawrence Venuti, 2000)
Pas Un Jour (2002) – Anne Garréta
Garréta got a lot of attention and positive press this year for her book Sphinx, which Deep Vellum published in Emma Ramadan’s translation. So far I’ve read Ciels liquides and this book, which stands out as my favorite of Garréta’s. The narrator reflects back on her (or is it his?) different loves, carnal and platonic. The chapter changes for every lover, along with the style. The preface and the afterword ground the book in its governing conceit (notice I did not say constraint).
Out Stealing Horses (2003) – Per Petterson (trans. Anna Borne, 2005)
Oh, this book had me crying too. J.M. Schreiber and P.T. Smith recommended it to me, how could I resist?
Fragments of Lichtenberg (2008) – Pierre Senges (trans. Gregory Flanders, unpublished)
Years ago Dalkey Archive announced this translation as forthcoming and it looked like it was going to come out this past August/September, but, alas, it has fallen off the map again. Through a little conniving I managed to obtain an ARC of the book. (So did Charles Boyle.) M.A. Orthofer reviewed it, with admiration.
An Honest Ghost (2013) – Rick Whitaker
As I said in my write-up of the book: “This novel is built from sentences culled from other books: it takes them out of context, and fits them together into a new mosaic form.” A form of experiment or paradoxically unoriginal writing. Well worth the detour.
Loitering (2014) – Charles D’Ambrosio
Some of these personal essays, like “Seattle, 1974,” “Documents,” “Orphans,” “This Is Living,” “Misreading,” are just flooring in their emotional power and weird, casual poise.
I am proud to announce the list of the year’s 8 best books in the fiction category. I’ve read none of these, but little does that matter, right? Anyhoo, here’s what’s piqued my curiosity in the English-American publishing world, either from reading reviews, hearing author interviews, or whatever else. And who can tell, one day I might even read one.
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse – Iván Repila (trans. Sophie Hughes, Pushkin Press)
Signs Preceding the End of the World – Juri Herrara (trans. Lisa Dillman, And Other Stories)
Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s (Boxed Set) – ed. Sarah Weinman
I Can Give You Anything But Love – Gary Indiana (Rizolli)
Vertigo – Joanna Walsh (Dorothy Project)
The Door – Magda Szabó (trans. Len Rix, NYRB Classics)
The Dying Grass – William T. Vollmann (Viking)
The Book of Numbers – Joshua Cohen (Random House)
The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson (Graywolf)
Kenneth Cook’s short novel Wake in Fright (1961) is, according to its publisher, the “original and greatest outback horror story.” J.M. Coetzee acknowledges it as a “a true dark classic of Australian literature.” So, naturally, I was interested and sought it out.
I found it horrifying and suspenseful, but also humorous at times. For the book’s entirety, the protagonist, a young schoolteacher, finds himself stranded in a tiny outpost town of New South Wales, near what Cook ominously calls “the Dead Heart,” that is, the uninhabited interior of Australia. On his way home to Sydney, he spends a night in a mining town called Bundanyabba (or “The Yabba,” as the locals call it; apparently modeled on Broken Hill, where Cook had jobs as a journalist in his twenties). The schoolteacher goes on a little spree that depletes his savings, leaving him broke, without any way to get home or anywhere to stay for the six long weeks ahead of the Christmas break. Thus, he finds himself dependent on the hospitality of the locals of The Yabba, who ply him with beer after beer, and take him on a ultra-violent nocturnal kangaroo hunting trip. (Dare I tell you that a film adaptation, directed by Ted Kotcheff, can be viewed on YouTube?)
So this book takes the form of an alcoholic nightmare, and it set me thinking of the other classic books in this vein. On Twitter I asked what other books people would consider classic novels/novellas of alcoholism, in addition to two that sprang readily to my mind: Appointment in Samarra and Under the Volcano.
So, for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of making lists, I compiled the answers. This list stakes no claim to exhaustivity, especially as it includes only a few works written in languages other than English, but I would be glad to include any suggestions readers might have. You can leave those in the comments, or on Twitter.
L’assommoir (1877) – Emile Zola – via @AmateurReader
The Sun Also Rises (1926) – Ernest Hemingway – – via @olivia8k
Tender is the Night (1934) – F. Scott Fitzgerald – via @olivia8k
‘A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle’ (poem) (1926) – Hugh MacDiarmid – via @issekinicho
Appointment in Samarra (1934) – John O’Hara
The Thin Man (1934) – Dashiell Hammett – via @levistahl
The Lost Weekend (1944) – Charles Jackson – via @noctambulate
The Iceman Cometh (1946) – Eugene O’Neill
Under the Volcano (1947) – Malcom Lowry
The Drinker (1950) – Hans Fallada – via @
Wake in Fright (1961) – Kenneth Cook
A Fan’s Notes (1968) – Frederick Exley – via @olivia8k
Post Office (1971) – Charles Bukowski – via @olivia8k
Moscow to the End of the Line (1973) – Venedikt Erofeev – via @theuntranslated
Disturbing the Peace (1975) – Richard Yates – via @
Ironweed (1983) – William Kennedy – via @noctambulate
Pushkin Hills (1983) – Sergei Dovlatov – via @issekinicho
Jernigan (1991) – David Gates
I was thinking about reading The City of God by St. Augustine, but I got bogged down by the question of what edition to procure: I ended up at Goodreads looking at the various editions and user reviews, and, although I am normally most stringent about attribution and intellectual property matters, I’m going to make an exception and indulge myself in a little game Edwin Turner of Biblioklept likes to call “selections from [ ] reviews of [ ].” (If you’re one of the authors of the selection I’ve quoted from this page & you object to this use of your review without proper attribution, kindly notify me & I’ll act accordingly.)
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Selections from reviews of St. Augustine’s The City of God
4 stars just for style alone.
I stumbled across Augustine when I was teenager and I remember this being much more profound.
He’s too tough on sex. Even marriage sex is shameful?
I had no idea what I was getting into when I began this book. It sometimes felt like it would never end, but it was a great experience.
His arguments are piss-poor and he cherry picks evidence in a manner which comes across as being childish and willful. It definitely gave me a better understanding of why Christianity is such a fragmented belief system. Any religion which claims unfocused crap like this as being “foundational” is going to have huge problems down the road.
I found myself getting annoyed by the superfluous wording and repetition of a thought.
I wanted to read this book for several reasons: obviously it is classic and also I enjoy reading Augustine, but at the same time I am sometimes puzzled why we so earnestly labor to prove that America was the new Israel? I think that this book would be helpful to American christians, as I see parallels in our “expression” of Christianity in America with the decline of morality within our society as well.
The City of God is a work of almost infinite tedium. Augustine indulges every half-baked whim of biblical exegesis, shoddy philosophy, selective reasoning, and fanciful speculation that pops into his head. Many readers have mistaken this random mishmash for depth of thought.
It’s so perfectly organized and clear, despite the convoluted subject matter, and sometimes so charmingly snarky, it just made me want to go back in time and hug him. His theology is a little disappointing, though.
Six is the perfect number?
He thought he found a giant’s tooth. Probably a dinosaur?
He does have some awesome insights though, so it was definitely worth reading. Also, all that Dark Ages pessimism and lack of scientific knowledge–it was expected (obviously), but still really sad. Made me want to go back in time (again), pat him on the back, and explain to him how a magnet works.
Needless to say, my lack of faith remained unshaken in the end.
He assumes a 6000 year old earth
In summary, Augustine gets a hug and a pat on the back, because despite being more than a thousand years old, his work has more personality than most things written today.
Of the books I read in 2014, these are the ones I most enjoyed, which I will certainly reach for again:
On Monsters and Marvels (1582) – Ambroise Paré (trans. Janis L. Pallister)
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1959) – Erich Auerbach
La Princesse de Clèves (1678) – Madame de Lafayette
Jacob’s Room (1922) – Virginia Woolf
If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) – Chester Himes
The Inheritors (1955) – William Golding
The Grifters (1963) – Jim Thompson
The Buenos Aires Affair (1973) – Manuel Puig
The Use of Speech (1980) – Nathalie Sarraute (trans. Barbara Wright)
Ciels liquides (1990) – Anne Garréta
Ghosts (1990) – Cesar Aira (trans. Chris Andrews, 2008)
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000) – Cesar Aira (trans. Chris Andrews, 2006)
La Réfutation majeure (2004) – Pierre Senges
As for the year ahead (though my predictions always turn out wrong), here are some of the texts I’m gearing up for:
True Stories – Lucian
A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542) – Bartolomé de Las Casas
Hadji Murad – Leo Tolstoy
History of English Prose Rhythm – George Saintsbury
The Flanders Road – Claude Simon
Passing Time – Michel Butor
Waters of Potowmack – Paul Metcalf
stories – Flannery O’Connor
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
Pop. 1280 (1964) – Jim Thompson
Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) – Hubert Selby, Jr.
The Death of the Detective (1974) – Mark Smith
Pas un Jour (2002) – Anne Garréta
various works – Pierre Senges
The Infatuations (2013) – Javier Marias (trans. Margaret Jull Costa)
The Coming of Print, 1450-1800 – Lucien Febvre
…. including these other titles, which I really think I should re-read.
La Princesse de Clèves (1678) – Madame de Lafayette (trans. Nancy Mitford (1951), New Directions)
The Trial (1913) – Franz Kafka
Jacob’s Room (1922) – Virginia Woolf
Molloy (1951) – Samuel Beckett
Hind’s Kidnap (1969) – Joseph McElroy
Coming Through Slaughter – Michael Ondaatje
A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1978) – Danilo Kis
Cigarettes (1987) – Harry Mathews
Austerlitz (2001) – W.G. Sebald
Here’s wishing the best of years in reading — and all else — to you and your loved ones in 2015. (And thank you, reader, for reading this blog. Without you… it would just be a letter in the void.)
As last month, not a particularly satisfying month on the reading front. The stand-out was the Flannery O’Connor “Revelation,” and also parts of Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker, which I greatly admire, despite some profound reservations and a nagging sense of boredom.
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius (re-reading, in progress)
“Melanctha” – Gertrude Stein (in Three Lives, 1909)
A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie (in progress)
“Revelation” – Flannery O’Connor (in Everything that Rises Must Converge)
Miss Doll, Go Home (1965) – David Markson (stalled)
introduction to The John McPhee Reader
Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation – Gérard Genette (passages)
Whore (2001) – Nelly Arcan
Hysteric (2004, trans. 2014) – Nelly Arcan
Fatal Flaws – Jay Ingram (skimmed)
Writers (2010) – Antoine Volodine (trans. 2014)
Room Temperature (1990) – Nicholson Baker (in progress)
Vathek – William Beckford (stalled)
Re-reading in Dubliners (“Grace,” “A Painful Case,” “A Little Cloud”), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Maldoror, Actress in the House, The Letter Left to Me, The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett, The Moviegoer, etc.
A month of frustrations, with some high points: Virginia Woolf’s writing fills me with wonder, as does Golding’s The Inheritors. Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years is long overdue for me, because I’ve known about it and its subjects (Apollinaire, Rousseau, Jarry, Satie) for over 5 years and remained deeply curious about them with every new thing I learned; I’ll have a post or two on it soon. The Silence of the Lambs I read on the endorsements of D.F. Wallace & Steve Donoghue, & it’s great fun & quite masterful–a rare excursion into the thriller genre for me.
On the basis of a few strong endorsements I picked up The Deer Park & The Invention of Morel–both I thought were a total waste of time, as is all of Baudrillard’s work (though it was once, circa 2004, so dear to me). The Deer Park is colossally boring, a shameless exploitation of mid-America’s anxieties: marriage, heteropatriarchy, les demi-mondains, society prostitutes, kept women, homosexuality, and other transgressions. Chejfec’s books, two of which I’ve read, are interesting, but not compelling enough to re-read. The Invention of Morel I probably brought too many expectations too.
The best books are the ones that deserve to be re-read. There’s a truism for you.
By the way, yesterday, I had the funny double occurrence of looking up an unknown word in a dictionary (nada), then googling: all the results reference the writer’s use of this rare cryptic word in the passage that served as the starting point for the search:
1) Michel Butor referred to Apollinaire’s ornithological pihis, which we learn might be thought of as a mythological bird from China with only one wing, – they fly in couples! ; – and
(2) Woolf employs the cryptic jacmanna in chapter 5 or so of To the Lighthouse – obviously a plant, shrub, or tree, I thought, but googling provided results to discussions of how what’s going on in the painting of Lily Briscoe has an indeterminate quality (or something like that). I’ll have to look back. Woolf’s prose takes my breath away.
To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf (begun, currently reading)
The Invention of Morel (1940; trans. R.L.C. Simms) – Adolfo Bioy Casares
The Deer Park – Norman Mailer (abandoned; what a bore!)
The Banquet Years – Roger Shattuck (so excellent!)
The Inheritors (1955) – William Golding (profound & original)
Blow-Up and Other Stories – Julio Cortazar
The Abortion: An Historical Romance (1966) – Richard Brautigan (skimmed)
“Apollinaire,” “Research on the Technique of the Novel,” “The Novel as Research” – Michel Butor Inventory: Essays (trans. 1968, R. Howard)
The Silence of the Lambs (1988) – Thomas Harris
The Ecstacy of Communication – Jean Baudrillard (skimmed)
The Dark (2000; trans. 2013 H. Cleary) – Sergio Chejfec
Re-reading in Hind’s Kidnap, Murphy, Ms. Dalloway, Slaughterhouse-Five, Recollections of the Golden Triangle, and Siddhartha.
various poems – Catullus (trans. P. Green)
Jacob’s Room – Virginia Woolf
Manhattan Transfer (1923) – John Dos Passos (abandoned at about p. 80)
Solar Throat Slashed: The Original Unexpurgated 1948 Edition – Aimé Césaire (trans. Arnold & Eshleman, 2011; re-reading)
Blow-Up and Other Stories – Julio Cortazar (some stories)
Little Disturbances of Man – Grace Paley (some stories)
Radio (2002) – Tonu Onnepalu (trans. Adama Cullen, 2014)
Between Two Worlds (2008) – Sergio Chejfec (skimmed)
“Tenth of December” (2012) – George Saunders
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The Woolf, Paley, Onnepalu, and Chejfec were highlights this month. There’s more Woolf and Chejfec ahead for me. Lots of good acquisitions at an Ottawa used book sale, at a local branch library, including lots of Woolf’s books (amazing to think that Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves all came out or were written, I think, correct me if I’m wrong, in the decade 1922-1932.
Poem 61 – Catullus
On the Genealogy of Morality (1887) – Friedrich Nietzsche
“Ward No. 6” (1892) “In the Ravine,” “A Boring Story” – Anton Chekhov
The Approximate Man and Other Writings – Tristan Tzara (begun; trans. & ed. Mary Ann Caws)
“The Country Doctor” (1910s?) – Franz Kafka (trans. W. & E. Muir; re-read)
“Ten Indians” and “In the Indian Camp” – Ernest Hemingway
Zeno’s Conscience (1923) – Italo Svevo (trans. W. Weaver, 2001; abandoned at p. 120)
Break of Day – Colette (skimmed)
Sanctuary (1931) – William Faulkner
The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) – Cleanth Brooks (partial)
Cronopios and Famas – Julio Cortazar
The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) – John Steinbeck (re-read parts of)
Something Happened (1966) – Joseph Heller
‘The Island,’ ‘Firebird,’ ‘Willie’s Throw,’ ‘and nobody objected…’, ‘Mountaineers Are Always Free!’ (1985-1991) – Paul Metcalf (all of these most fantastic)
“Beyle, or Love is a Madness most Discreet” (1990) – W.G. Sebald (in Vertigo, trans. M. Hulse; re-read)
Some poems by Charles Bernstein from Recalculating and All the Whiskey in Heaven
A few unpublished stories of friends
Earlier this week, Dalkey Archive Press published a brief, up-to-date version of their list of titles published (some forthcoming). It’s organized by country and much easier to browse than their website. Very handy, and worth a look — Dalkey’s catalog never ceases to amaze.
Their spring catalog of forthcoming titles is out too.
“The Marquise of O.”, “The Earthquake in Chile,” “Betrothal in San Domingo” (1810?) – Heinrich von Kleist (trans. David Constantine)
“The Nose” (1840?) – Nikolai Gogol
The Black Spider (1842) – Jeremias Gotthelf (trans. Susan Bernofsky)
A Season in Hell (1873) – Arthur Rimbaud (trans. Bertrand Mathieu; re-read)
Prancing Nigger (1924) – Ronald Firbank
Time Regained (1926) – Marcel Proust
Poets in a Landscape (1957) – Gilbert Highet
The Buenos Aires Affair (1973) – Manuel Puig
A Hall of Uselessness (2011) – Simon Leys
I threw the question out on Twitter, “is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) the greatest single work of literary criticism ever written?” I think it probably is, but I was hoping some other readers might contradict me or suggest some other worthy candidates for the distinction. Then I thought about it some more. So here’s some whoppers of literary criticism; I’ve read only a handful of these, and I’m sure as hell missing a lot in the few years between 335 B.C. and 1930 A.D. So, as always, comments are welcome and encouraged, below or on Twitter (@jsief).
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Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) – Erich Auerbach
History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) – George Saintsbury
Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong
Anatomy of Criticism (1957) – Northrop Frye (suggested by @bswbarootes)
The Novel: An Alternative History, 2 vols. (2010) – Steven Moore
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1989) – Roberto Calasso (trans. Tim Parks)
Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) – William Empson (suggested by @JustinPfefferle)
The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) – Cleanth Brooks (suggested by @bswbarootes)
The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and Critical Tradition (1953) – M.H. Abrams
Biographia Literaria (1817) – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) – Wayne C. Booth
The Sense of an Ending (1967) – Frank Kermode
The Counterfeiters, The Stoic Comedians, The Mechanic Muse (1968-1987) – Hugh Kenner
The Banquet Years (1955) – Roger Shattuck
Classical English Rhetoric (2010) – Ward Farnsworth
At his blog, D.G. Myers has a
pretty damn good long bibliography of American fiction of the sixties (+600 titles). This period in American publishing seems to have been an unprecedented explosion of literary innovation, and it seems equally overlooked by those who are enthusiastic and by those who deplore the state of literary fiction in America today.
An awful lot of forgotten authors in there, although – as Daniel Green pointed out on Twitter – a few are still missing: Ronald Sukenick, Gilbert Sorrentino, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Marguerite Young, William Goyen, Richard Farina… Even I had to remind Myers of Harry Mathew’s place in there, one of the greatest living American writers in my book. No such bibliography, the moral may be, can ever be complete.
I’ve added to the links in the sidebar and organized them by type. In particular check out some of these fantastic, free audio resources:
In almost every case, the archive/repository is vast, almost overwhelmingly so. Particularly so with Michael Silverblatt’s excellent show Bookworm — the archived episodes go all the way back to early 90s, with high-quality recorded conversations with Norman Mailer, Don Delillo, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, W.G. Sebald Laszlo Kraznahorkai, Rick Moody, Will Self, David Foster Wallace, you name it, it’s there, on and on and on to no end.
If I go blind, I’ll be relying on these.
After doing the year-end round-up recently, I’ve started to keep better track of what I’m finishing, just dipping into or looking back at, or abandoning midway through. Roughly 1,500 paper pages read this month, 9 or so complete books.
La Princesse de Clèves (1678) – Madame de Lafayette (trans. Nancy Mitford (1951), New Directions)
Haunted House (1930) – Pierre Reverdy (trans. John Ashbery (2007), Brooklyn Rail/Black Square)
Return to My Native Land (1939; 1956) – Aimé Césaire (trans. Clayton Eshleman and A. James Arnold, Wesleyan UP, 2013; trans. Anna Babstock & John Berger, Archipelago Books, 2014)
Solar Throat Slashed (1948) – Aimé Césaire (trans. Clayton Eshleman, Wesleyan)
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1959) – Erich Auerbach (Princeton)
The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarmé’s Coup de dés (2012) – Quentin Meillasoux, (trans. Robin Mackay, Urbanomic/Sequence Press)
L’Autre modernité (2012)- Simon Nadeau (Boréal)
The Examined Life (2012) – Stephen Grosz (Random House)
The Traveler’s Tale (2013) – Byron Ayanoglu (DC Books)
Begun or dipped into
Jacques the Fatalist – Denis Diderot
Père Goriot – Honoré de Balzac
The Quotable Kierkegaard – Søren Kierkegaard (ed. Gordon Mortimer, Princeton UP, 201?)
The Collected Poems of Constantine Cavafy – Constantine Cavafy (trans. Aliki Barnstone, W.W. Norton)
Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs (1969) – Joseph McElroy
Mulligan Stew (1979) – Gilbert Sorrentino
The Living End – Stanley Elkin
Every time I go to Ohio, I make a point to stop at Dark Star Books, a great used bookshop in Yellow Springs I’ve blogged about before. My latest trip yielded more good finds: two books by Lynne Tillman, Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience (trans. William Weaver), Stanley Elkin’s The Living End, and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (Harper & Row, 1968). As soon as I glanced at the cover, I recognized the painstakingly detailed and ornate artwork of James Spanfeller.
I recognized the style, and the face, from the incredible dust jacket of Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs (Harper & Row, 1969). Click on the image, zoom in, and look closely; you’ll see grasshoppers, pupae, birds, and more there in Hind.
Both these books were produced under the editorship of legendary editor David Segal, who was at Harper & Row before moving to Knopf in about 1970. A little light research shows that James Spanfeller also did these other book illustrations — each quite exceptional, I think. Photos culled from a Google Image search.
I also see, for those who are interested in digging deeper, that Spanfeller did illustrations for Pages from Cold Island by Frederick Exley, Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, Quill by Robert Steiner, and various other books by Larry Niven, May Sarton, and Julia Cunningham. Various other great illustrations are online here.
I’m going to hop on the bandwagon for a sec, and tell you what 2014 books you can be excited about. Didn’t used to do this kind of thing, but it’ll take me 15 minutes to rattle this one off, so… lifting descriptions of these books freely from publisher’s websites, here we go…
The list of books read this year, ordered chronologically by date of original publication. In bold are works I consider well worth their time, and even a second read. Also included is a list of what I project I’ll read (or want to read) in the year to come. (Why, by the way, in the flood of “year-end reading lists” that bloggers flood the Internet with as soon as December hits, don’t I see others making lists of what they envision ahead in the year to come? My projections from last year from last year turned out to be risibly inaccurate to what I eventually read, and so I for one wouldn’t place much stock in what I say I’ll read… For now these French classics look like bliss.)
Was it even a war, or something else?… I’ve stewed too long in my outrage to be eloquent or tactful. Writings on the history and non-fiction of the bloody war are legion, proliferating as we speak. Too much for me. Here’s a list of resources for the Iraq/Afghan wars in fiction.
I don’t read enough books as they come out to pompously draw up a “best books of the year” list, but I do take in a lot of contemporary criticism, so I’m deluged with commentary on the big releases of the year as well as some of the little ones. I don’t think I will ever touch The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, or Bleeding Edge, The Flamethrowers, The Kraus Project, or any of the other books that I’ve read so much about this year, but here are some of the books that I might eventually track down.
Brief notes on our favourite kids’ books of late, including the Toot and Puddle series by Holly Hobbie, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williamsby Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine; or The Hithering Thithering Djinn by Donald Barthelme.
In my devotion to McElroy’s projects I went far, to obsession some would say. But who can say what’s normal, insane? I read all the interviews and essays I found referenced. In these interviews, I found myself crossing numerous references to texts and authors that were totally unknown to me. I had to know more, had to read more. Tom LeClair’s interview with McElroy and the essay ‘Neural Neighborhoods…’ are both rife with mentions of marginal works, which I chronicle here. The list appears below, the source key follows.
Avid readers of McElroy will find the following a handy resource for tracking the literary background against which McElroy sees himself. Where I can, I provide a few notes about the work in question.
NN=“Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts” (1974 essay by McElroy)
JC=Joshua Cohen’s audio conversation with McElroy for a Triple Canopy event
SS=”Socrates on the Shore” (2002 essay by McElroy in Substances, Revue Francaise d’Études Américaines 93: 7-20.)
ACH=Tom LeClair’s interview (in Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists; This book includes interviews with Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Don Delillo, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, etc.)
BM=Bradford Morrow’s interview in Conjunctions (1987)
MC=Marc Chénetier, Flore Chevaililer, and Antoine Cazé’s 2001 interview, “Some Bridge of Meaning,” in Sources, fall 2001
Bill Wilson, Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka (1977; 133 ps.)
This collection of stories, written using language and viewpoints partly medical and scientific in nature, shows certain similarities to J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), at least in its concern with pathological and modified human bodies. Accordingly, Wilson’s prose’s register of bio/medical terminology reflects his concern with pathology: entelechy; neoteny; seriatim; naevus; pelagic; tunicates; enuresis; cortisone; hypospadias; pemmican; adrenergics; sigmoidoscopy; saprozoic. These are not stories for everyone. They are brutal and detached from human intimacy, incisive as a surgeon’s scalpel’s cuts. Think, if you have read it, of J.M. Coetzee’s short fiction The Vietnam Project, comprising the first half of Dusklands (1974).
Charles Newman, New Axis: or the ‘Little Ed’ Stories (1966; 175 ps.) (NN)
Tales from a small MidWestern community that interlock, intertwine, interlace. Each story conveys the experience and POV of a single character who is glimpsed obliquely by others in other stories. This ‘interlocking points-of-view’ technique, while it forms an integral part of many, many novels, stands out particularly in The Sound and the Fury (1929) by Faulkner, Impossible Object by Mosley, and in A Smuggler’s Bible by McElroy. Charles Newman was the founding editor of TriQuarterly where some of William S. Wilson’s and Joseph McElroy’s short work first appeared.
Nicolas Mosley, Impossible Object (1968; 219 ps.) (NN)
‘One of the most fascinating novels of the last generation,’ according to McElroy. No brief summary could do this book, which consists of eight short stories alternating with intensely bewildering three-page intercalary chapters, justice, successfully characterize the paradoxical wager at the heart of the book. ‘Words were a vulgarity. One’s duty was to love those whom one loves’ (175).
If you don’t know Mosley at all but are curious, you might find this website of John Banks, with interviews with Mosley, to be a useful resource.
After Impossible Object I quickly read Catastrophe Practice (1979), itself a triumph of hope and positivity, despite its ‘theatre of the absurd’ qualities which exist alongside Mosley’s incisive critical essays describing his vision and ambitions; and alongside a novella which concludes the book. American literature scholar Tom LeClair: ‘N. Mosley is a throwback, a modernist mastodon whose project for fiction surpasses in grandiosity that of any American writer I know.’ Dalkey has a large selection of Mosley’s books in print; recommended to explore them a little here.
Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas (1811) (NN) (free text here)
Thrilling, fantastic, and awesome. A two-hundred-year-old text that is just as modern and entertaining now as ever. It’s about one upright citizen’s insistence on justice in the face of corrupt officials. I’ve heard that for Ragtime (1974) E.L. Doctorow borrowed some situational elements from this short novella.
Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ (1853) (JC) (free e-book)
If you’ve read this story, you know how unforgettable, eloquent, and bewildering it is–among the best stories ever written. If you are unfamiliar with this story, read or listen to it this week. Free audio version available from Librivox.
Michel Butor, Degrees (1960) (NN; 351 ps.)
This nouveau roman centers on a Paris school teacher who devises a project to meticulously record the totality of what happens to certain of his colleagues and pupils. Because his project attempts totality, it fails and he loses his psychic stability. Apparently an inspiration for A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), McElroy’s first novel.
Michel Butor, Mobile (1962; 319 ps.)
Not your typical travel book! Highly idiosyncratic and elliptical in its form, Mobile represents Butor’s experience of traveling in the U.S.A. when Eisenhower’s highway project was not yet old. This book makes extreme demands on the attention of the reader and provides singular rewards.
Knut Hamsun, Mysteries (1892; 340 ps.) (ACH)
Early modernist, experimental text that was praised early on by Henry Miller. About a man named Nagel who turns up one day in a small Norwegian village and stirs things up a bit.
Mailer is a somewhat neglected author today, but he was a public intellectual and a strong voice in the time of his celebrity. But what of Mailer ought one read?; not all Mailer is good Mailer, there is too much Mailer. Why Are We in Vietnam?, Of a Fire on the Moon, and parts of An American Dream are written with an incandescence that very few writers can equal. ‘The Man Who Studied Yoga?’ is a very good short story (in Advertisements for Myself).
William H. Gass, ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’ (c. 1960, 1964 ?) (NN)
Gass said once that he self-consciously composed this story on the structure of a musical composition. It attempts to convey the monotony of living in a small MidWestern town through repetitions, the very lack of action, lack of plot. Sound interesting? Gass’s language makes this, and the short story collection of which it is a part, a masterpiece of American literature.
Paul Metcalf, Patagoni (1971)
In ‘Neural Neighborhoods’ McElroy describes Patagoni as ‘a short history of North American Henry Ford and River Rouge… coupled with a rambling trip into South America under a weird metaphor of brain and body.’ The Jargon Press publication is an unusually beautiful, and somewhat rare, book-object. Coffee House’s 3 volume Collected Works of Metcalf has it, of course, in the 1st volume. (Note from 2016: I have since read nearly all of Metcalf’s work, and found it truly awesome. Here are some more posts tagging or discussing Metcalf.)
The story ‘State of Grace,’ Brodkey’s first published story, available in the collection First Love and Other Sorrows, is beautiful, eloquent, and touching; it even involves some plausible time travel, a real kick-in-the-pants. I have not read any of Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, but this beautiful appreciation of Brodkey surely makes me want to.
Jerome Charyn, A Child’s History of the Bronx (NN)
An excerpt from this unpublished novel was published in Statements 1, edited by Ronald Suzenick, of the Fiction Collective. From what I can tell it’s a playful, ribald colonial historiography (17th, 18th century) of Manhattan. Not something I recommend going the extra mile to consult.
Italo Calvino, “Priscilla,” from t zero
Imagine a cell thinking through how it feels to divide into or to combine with another cell, as in meiosis and mitosis. Calvino has done just that.
D.H. Lawrence, Selected Stories: (BM)
‘The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter’; ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’; ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’; ‘The Prussian Officer’
Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down (1966) (NN)
Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper and Suttree
Uwe Johnson, The Third Book about Achim (NN)
Von Dodderer, The Demons (ACH)
Henry James, What Maisie Knew (free here)
Henry Miller, Colossus of Maroussi (1958)(ACH)
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962) (ACH)
Dow Mossman, The Stones of Summer (1973)
Mark Smith, The Death of the Detective (1973)
Günter Grass, Dog Years (ACH)
William Golding, The Inheritors (ACH)
J.G. Ballard, Crash (NN)
Hortense Callisher (NN)
Leonard Michaels (NN)
Donald Barthelme (numerous)
Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (1971; 75 ps.) (ACH)
Dedicated to the children of the author (‘Maud and Fergus’), this collection of ten poems deploys an inventiveness of language and evokes an intensity of pathos that are rarely attained by even the best poets. The first printing by Houghton Mifflin includes amazing illustrations as frontispieces to each of the poems. This tiny book might be said to constitute some of the finest American poetry from the latter half of the 20th century.
Gary Snyder, “Good Things That Can Be Said for the Iron Age” (1970) (NN)
Retrieved from the vast Internet, here, the poem itself:
A ringing tire iron dropped on the pavement
Whang of a saw brusht on limbs
the taste of rust
A.R. Ammons, Collected Poems (ACH)
Philosophy and other
John Custance, Wisdom, Madness, and Folly (1952)
This book is referenced numerous times in McElroy’s first novel A Smuggler’s Bible. It’s a first-person account of madness and delusional revelations, and of a hospital stay. The book is really quite extraordinary, and also hard to find.
James Henry Breasted, Ancient History (1916)
A titular precedent for McElroy’s novel of the same name. The narrator, Cy, frequently digresses on ancient history (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Babylon, etc.) during the course of his book-length monologue. Ancient History is his school textbook, it seems.
E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) (ACH)
An awesome book written with strong and pragmatic convictions. As an economist Schumacher worked with Britain’s National Coal Board for twenty years. On the one hand, Schumacher’s book is a vehement critique of econometrics, and on the other it’s a re-definition of what economists and human beings ought to use to evaluate, understand, and (from a policy perspective) guide behavior. Schumacher’s assertion that ‘We must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small-scale units’ (80) informed the writing of Women and Men. Perhaps this is the only book I know whose back cover identifies its proper classification as ‘Economics / New Age.’
John Ruskin (ACH)
J.M. Keynes (ACH)
Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968)
Martin Heidegger, ‘Building, Thinking, Dwelling’ (1950 or ’54; mentioned on KCRW’s Bookworm)
Eugène Marais, The Soul of the White Ant and The Soul of the Ape (ACH)
Paul Kammerer, The Law of Seriality (ACH)
Paul Valéry, Eupalinos, or the Architect (SS)
Stanley Crawford, Mayordomo
The following books provided a research basis in the development of Plus, as acknowledged on the book’s copyright page:
Lehninger, Bioenergetics: The Molecular Basis of Energy Transformations (1973, 2nd ed.)
Noback, The Human Nervous System (1967)
Weiss, Principles of Development (1969)
All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.