Category Archives: favorite reads 2010

Favorite Reads of 2010: Wonder by Hugo Claus

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

Quoting myself, Wonder book is a little more difficult to write up in short form than some of the other titles I’ve discussed lately because there isn’t really a dazzling conceit to the book. It’s simply about a man driven insane by the Nazi legacy in Belgium. (And it’s interesting to note that this is the second straight year the BTB longlist features a European title that deals centrally with collaborationist war guilt; last year was The Darkroom of Damocles, a fine book in its own right, from the Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans.) It somewhat reminds me of Senselessness since there is so much overlap among the themes, the claustrophobic writing style, and, quite frankly, the outright mastery of language (though the narrators are very different personalities).

As to the language, Claus’s abilities are astonishing, so much so that I’m eager to read his poetry (of which he wrote over 1,000 pages). I don’t want to give away too many plot points, but it becomes clear fairly early on that the book we are reading is the writing of a mild-mannered middle school teacher trying to reconstruct a series of events that was sparked by an odd confrontation with a ravishing woman at a masked ball and that ended with him unclothed and raving in the street.

It’s clear that as the narrator writes this book he still isn’t nearly cured (nor does he seem to have a firm grip on the events in question), and so, among other tools Claus uses to evoke the decayed mental state of the book’s author, he frequently shifts between the first-, second-, and third-person. That’s only a small part of the gymnastics going on over here. So much of this book rests on implication and innuendo (which is wholly appropriate to a book in which you’re not meant to ever be sure how much of it is a hallucination), yet it hardly ever feels like Claus is not getting his point across. These are the kind of rich, labyrinthine sentences that can be read very quickly if you’re eager to get through the plot (which is quite tense and gripping), but that also reward a second, slow look by yielding up all kind of revelations and ponderables.

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

Favorite Reads of 2010: About a Mountain by John D'Agata

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

My reading divides into 3 kinds of books: 1) the books I just don’t care for; 2) the books that are pleasing but ultimately forgettable; and 3) the books that force me to reckon with them. Of the three kinds, the third is indisputably the best. Even when the ultimate reckoning does not come out in their favor, these are books that have seduced me to live in their world, and I will not forget them easily.

I liked About a Mountain so much that I wrote a fairly long essay on D’Agata, and even though I ultimately had a mixed opinion of Mountain, I would recommend it above most books I read this year.

It’s a wonderful attempt to reinvent the book-length essay, a contemplation of the ugly black maw within which this country sat in the 2000s, and an impressive collection of high-wire set pieces. It has guaranteed that whatever John D’Agata next publishes I will read with great anticipation.

Favorite Reads of 2010: Prose by Thomas Bernhard

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

If you come to my house and look at my bookshelves, you can very quickly and easily distinguish the gods from the demigods and lesser beings. The gods simply take up more space, and they do so in the shape of rows of books with their names on them. Thomas Bernhard is a god, and right now he has a 7-book tract of shelf that will surely grow very, very soon.

Prose is his first story collection, originally published in 1967 and, amazingly, not once translated into English until 2010. It was worth the wait. This is Bernhard being Bernhard (as he always was)–the endless paragraphs; the mordant, suicidal, probably insane narrators; the incredible mastery of language. With Bernhard the novels are the big game, but in a way these stories are nicer than the novels because they’re so much more compact, yet still maintain a lot of the flourishes and impact, just without the level of repetition that you tend to get in some of the looser novels.

It’s a shame that Bernhard has taken so long to be discovered in English (he did most of his writing in the ’60 – ’80s and died in 1989); but there is at least one nice thing about it–there are still “new” Bernhard books out there to be discovered (and even the previously translated ones are often out of print and await a publisher to make them new to us again). Prose is one of those “discoveries” and it was certainly one of the best things I read this year.

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

Favorite Reads of 2010: Mimesis by Erich Auerbach

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

Mimesis is one of those titles that everybody talks about so much that you begin to get the idea that to not have read it is some horrible mark against you, like having a third eyeball, or, even worse, a copy of Shift: A Novel (Gate of Orpheus Trilogy) in your hand. But then you actually look at this brick of literary criticism, and you begin to think that it’s one of those books that people more often claim to have read than actually read.

But no. While I’m not going to go so far as Borges did with his praise of Dante and declare that to not read Mimesis “is to submit to a strange asceticism,” I will say that this is a very enjoyable book. And in fact, in a short epilogue Auerbach shows himself to be a true forefather of creative criticism when he declares that–far from an impediment–the fact that he was cut off from a proper library while writing Mimesis and couldn’t conduct rigorous scholarly research was probably the most important reason that the book came out as good as it did.

Once you get going in it, Mimesis is not that hard of a read, and it is essential. The book is basically Auerbach’s history of realism in Western literature, starting with the Odyssey, passing through the Bible (and if you read nothing else of this book, read the famous first chapter, where he contrasts the narrative strategies taken by each of those books–essentially the two paths of realism in Western lit), then through Augustine, medieval French literature, and finally on to names that will be more familiar to most of us–Cervantes, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Woolf, Proust.

The book is an amazing work of literary history–it’s a cogent, blow-by-blow, heavily illustrated argument for how modernist realism developed throughout the ages. Auerbach chronicles it step by step with books that epitomize (or in fact made possible) each innovation in literary realism. As if that were not enough, it also features some wonderful close readings. You read it as much to hear what Auerbach has to say as to see how he looks at a text–what he deems important, what sets him off–and then you (should) begin to look for these things in your own reading.

Favorite Reads of 2010: Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 by Franco Moretti

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

If you pick up Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 and flip through it, it’ll look like something you might see in The Believer. Your eye will be drawn to all these interesting diagrams with suggestive titles like “Colonial wealth in British sentimental novels.” First you’ll ponder those, and then when you sit down to actually read this book, you will find that it is literary criticism, albeit literary criticism of the best kind possible–genuinely innovative and genuinely readable. (And in fact, Moretti has something rare in an academic critic–a fresh, engaging prose style.)

So what is this book? Well, let me tell you. Franco Moretti is an unabashed lover of the 19th-century novel (he says his favorite book of all is Pere Goriot by Balzac). That’s great for a lot of reasons, but it’s kind of a bad thing if you’re a professional academic. After all, what’s left to be said about the 19th-century novel?

Faced with this questions, Moretti’s two options were thus: cultivate his nest in some godforsaken plot of land that no one else would even think about touching (maybe the epistolary strategies of the canine fiction written by Jane Austen’s aunt’s daughter’s husband); or find some way to write about the good books that no one had ever come up with before.

Moretti chose the latter, and from necessity was born his singular, statistical approach to literary criticism. This book is something like Guns, Germs, and Steel meets The Western Canon, wherein Moretti crunches the numbers and discovers how geography was destiny for not only the great European writers of the 19th-century but also European fiction as a whole.

The best part about Atlas is Moretti’s readings of his own data, which go far beyond the book s at hand to make interesting statements about literature in general. The book is hugely readable and hugely illuminating. It might just hook you on Moretti’s brand of lit crit and get you deep into his backlist.

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

Favorite Reads of 2010: All Souls by Javier Marias

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

You could actually put just about all of Marias’ books in this spot. (I’ve read 5 of them this year, counting Your Face Tomorrow as one novel and counting Manana en la batalla piensa en mi, which I’m 2/3 through and must be the longest Spanish-language book I’ve ever read.) I’ve come to love the work of Javier Marias this year, but if I were to ding him for something it’d have to be that his style can be a little loose at times. Part of this is, I think, just a matter of differences of opinion–Marias likes that maximalist kind of prose where he lets his words stream on for pages and pages, and I prefer novels that pare back to a nice arid essentiality.

All Souls stands out in my mind for being Marias’ minimalistic novel. Aside for some short stories and novellas, it’s the leanest, tightest work of Marias’ I read this year.

It also stands out for having the most successfully complex structure. Other books of Marias’ that I read tend to have a fairly straightforward structure, perhaps enlivened somewhat by lengthy digressions here and there, but All Souls actually makes structural jumble part of its artifice. It’s a form that Marias works quite well, though one it looks like he won’t be returning to any time soon (All Souls was an early book, and his recent ones have not been nearly so structurally complex).

But at any rate, Marias is definitely a major writer, one of a clear originality that asks you to set aside lesser concerns and grapple with his books on the highest level. If you haven’t tried him yet, do so next year!

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

Favorite Reads of 2010: Correction by Thomas Bernhard

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

Thomas Bernhard does a strange kind of realism. His books tend to be extremely intense character studies of 2 – 3 people, yet they are told entirely through the obsessive monologue of a single character, so everything about all of the characters studied in his books is flattened into a single narrative voice. (And, in fact, all of Bernhard’s books sound similar, so really everything is flattened even further into Bernhard’s prose style.) Even though his books range rather broadly over place and time, everything in them exists in a sort of perpetual present, kind of like if you went to see a one-man/woman play and the performer played all the different roles in the same manic depressive voice.

Correction is perhaps the most intense variant of this approach of Bernhard’s that I have yet read. I’m not quite sure just what it is, but all of the typical Bernhardian claustrophobia, misanthropy, obsessive compulsiveness, and just plain misery all feels so much more so in this particular book. You read the end of Correction with a sense of exhaustion, a sense of hardly being able to read another word despite having read some 300 pages (and despite, if you’re like me, having rifled through the last 50 or so).

The other distinctive thing about Correction would be that it deals with a signature Bernhard theme–negation–in a much more explicit and rigorous way than the other Bernhard books I’ve read. The book is all about a suicide who “corrected” his life’s writings into ever smaller chunks of text, until he finally did the ultimate correction by killing himself. The narrator of this novel is his friend, who is speaking from within his dead friend’s creepy, tiny parapet that is stuffed with his papers. As the novel progresses our narrator becomes more and more possessed by the voice of these insanity-instilling papers that are sitting all around him.

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

Favorite Reads of 2010: Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, edited by Reza Aslan

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

When was the last time you read an anthology cover to cover? What about a 700-page one? For me the last–and the first–was Tablet & Pen. I read this anthology cover to cover, and in fact I did most of that reading in 8-hour bouts of extreme concentration while on a transatlantic flight. Any book that can induce that kind of concentration in that kind of circumstance is doing something incredibly right.

Tablet & Pen is essentially a one-stop guide to 20th-century Middle Eastern literature (with the Middle East being broadly conceived). The readability comes from the fact that a solid 90% of this anthology is simply great literature, as well as the fact that editor Reza Aslan did a wonderful job laying it all out and adding in enough scaffolding to make it all cohere into a comprehensible whole.

Favorite Reads of 2010: The Culture Industry by Theodor Adorno

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

This is essentially Adorno’s best essays on what he termed “the culture industry”—how capitalistic society creates and sells popular entertainment and lifestyles to pretty much every single person within its purview. These essays originally defined the term “the culture industry,” and they are still very important today. Adorno’s overarching argument here is that the culture industry is out to colonize every last second of your culture and your “free time” in the name of capitalistic profit. He’s right. This is a book about the way you perceive your society and the way it wants you to perceive it, and the possibility of getting outside of the influence of the latter to do the former.

Every single essay in The Culture Industry is still relevant today (though the one on TV has probably worn the least well of all; for an honorable sequel see David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram, collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing); and even the parts of this book that are no longer quite so relevant are nonetheless prophetic of things that happened roughly 20 – 30 years after they were written.

If you spend any amount of time at all thinking about the following things, The Culture Industry will change the way you think: the shotgun marriage between art and commerce, the place of art in a capitalistic society, the uses and abuses of entertainment; what comes after late late capitalism; the decline of politics in the modern democracy. Or if you simply care about how the humanities might justify themselves and their existence without resorting to trite observations about their material benefits to civilization, then you should most definitely read Adorno.

These essays can be difficult, but their difficulty is a measure of the depth of thought involved. An easier style would have led to more cliched, disposable observations. These essays persist in part because they’re hard, because the things that are said here cannot be parsed into simpler forms. If you give them time and effort, the rewards are immense.

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

Favorite Reads of 2010: The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira


All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

If I could be King for one year, what I’d do is call together 10 or 15 of the best Spanish-languge translators I could find, and I’d set ’em loose on Cesar Aira. Between the translators’ skills, Aira’s naturally beautiful writing, and the fact that his novels tend to be very short, with any luck we’d get through a good quarter of the 80+ Aira titles that remain to be translated into English.

Maybe we could even establish the Cesar Aira Press and just publish Aira titles exclusively over the next 5 – 10 years. His books are all so different from one another that I bet we could cultivate different readerships for each one (plus the people who already know and love Aira and will read whatever he publishes). And given Aira’s continuing (even accelerating) productivity, he’d keep us busy after we polished off his backlist.

To see why I’m such an Aira adherent, go ahead the look at The Literary Conference, the one Aira title to make its way into English this year (New Directions has plans for more next year, one hopes, more thereafter). Reviewing it in The National, I wrote:

The kernel of the plot is the idea to take a cell from Fuentes and clone it into an army, a metaphor for Aira’s own status as a prolific writer, firing off experiment after experiment and conquering his rivals by sheer ubiquity.

Later on there will be further conflations of fiction and reality: a play-within-the-novel (authored by César Aira, of course, and performed at the literary conference in his honour) about Eve as a “clone” of Adam; a love story involving a beautiful woman from Aira’s past; and, last but not least, enormously destructive worms that make mincemeat of the Venezuelan army.

That’s a lot to fit into 85 pages, and Aira is indeed an author who loves to keep multiple balls in the air at once, yet he has a way of making his novels feel extemporaneous and fun despite the heavy metaphors and philosophical implications seething out of almost every sentence. Aira writes with what Italo Calvino called “lightness” – a quality the latter held in the highest esteem and which he likened to Perseus (the writer) beheading Medusa (reality) while viewing her through a mirror and standing on the “very lightest of things, the winds and clouds”. Aira is just the kind of writer to assault reality while seeming to dance about around it on a current of nothingness. His wispy books rarely run far beyond 100 pages, and he continually employs an ironic, bemused tone that can turn even the heaviest matters to comedy.

All my favorite reads of 2010 collected here.

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