Category Archives: favorite reads 2015

Favorite Reads of 2015: #13 Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of the noteworthy reading things I did in 2015 was to go back to Dostoevsky after years and years away. I did it with one of his late works, and definitely among the best things he ever wrote, Demons (alternatively translated as The Possessed). It’s a major novel of his coming in at over 700 pages, and possibly the book of his that has aged the best.

Demons concerns itself with the machinations of would-be revolutionaries in the middle of Russia’s 19th century, which, effectively, are petty members of the nobility of those who manage to exploit them to lead a nobility-like life. The plot centers around an attempt to foster a revolution in a small Russian town, and earlier this year I compared it to Krasznahorkai for the way in which the townspeople become caught up in their own madness, with predictably tragic results. This is a book that argues against nihilism by showing you just how awful that philosophy ends up being in pretty much everybody’s hands.

Possibly the most interesting thing about this book is the manner of its telling, which is through an outsider who observes the events from a distance and eventually becomes caught up within the machinations. The voice modulates quite a bit, from ironic to horrified to confused and distraught, and because the narrator only has so much knowledge you, the reader, get a very direct taste of the weirdness and perfidy on display in this story. It’s one of those stories that oftentimes feels bizarre, simply because you cannot fathom the motivations of the characters, even though you are aware that they are extraordinarily calculating and acting according to very clear motivations, albeit known only to themselves.

The book is fascinating both for its character portraits, whose insights into the nature of humanity are valuable to this day, and for what truth it manages to uncover about humanity as a political animal. In my read the book remains shocking and very humorous, and it does give a certain amount of historical insight into a period that remains very much relevant for Europe and Russia as historical entities. There is also one very outstanding scene where a puffed up “famous” novelist is entirely removed of his dignity, which I found very satisfying and will be very satisfying to many of you.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #12 Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

Pound for pound, Where I’m Reading From is probably the most provocative book of contemporary literary criticism I read this year. This book presents a series of very concentrated meditations/arguments that were originally blog posts Tim Parks wrote for the NYR Blog. Arranged into groupings and laid out in a particular order, the posts cumulate very methodically and show clear evidence of a great deal of forethought. There are about 5 major lines of argument in this book, and they all collect around some of the major developments occurring with the novel form today.

Here Parks is arguing about the issues that are at the forefront of the novel’s development: what’s happening to it internationally, how the emerging international economy of literature is affecting its shape, the ongoing evolution of art and commerce in tandem, what the ultimate purpose of the novel form is, and if it’s worn out yet. Befitting blog posts, these essays are short and taut, but they manage to pack in quite a lot of detailed information, and the arguments presented here are precise and very interesting. There’s really no fat at all in this book.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of Parks’s answers, but I do think he’s asking the right questions. And even when I do disagree with him, his discussion of the questions is always illuminating and a spur to my own thought. If you’re at all concerned with questions surrounding the novel as a contemporary genre of writing and how it will be viable in the future, this is a book you need to read.

For a more in-depth discussion of this book, see my interview with Tim Parks.

SE What about international prizes, which of course have their role in this global economy of literary value? In terms of the good or the bad they can do, do you feel like they have certain nontrivial benefits, either to the writer or the audience, above and beyond their utility to the literary economy?

TP Let me say, right away, that I’d love to win a major literary prize. Why not? Money and prestige. The knowledge that people noticed and appreciated what you are doing, etc. However, in general I’ve long been convinced that prizes as they are functioning now are, for the most part, damaging. Books are not about winning and losing. There is no best book or best writer, though there are better books and worse books. Prizes like the Booker and the Pulitzer create the wrong kind of hype. Perhaps they increase sales here, but reduce them there. They encourage a certain public to constantly buy the kinds of books that win prizes, and I believe it is truly difficult for a genuinely innovative and controversial book to win a major prize. The only prizes I think have serious value are those for unpublished manuscripts. They give a chance to writers who otherwise might not have their work read. But I would say that. The first novel I published, the seventh I had written, won such a prize after rejection from more than twenty publishers, including the publisher who took it on through the prize. It went on to win other prizes and to be published in a dozen countries. It is still in print. But the prize that got it there has been ditched, because there is not sufficient glamour (winning/losing polarity) for prizes for first-time authors.

Briefly, About My Year-End List

Just wanted to take a second to make it blissfully, stupidly clear that the titles I’ve been putting up on my year-end list are extraordinarily subjective (verging on whimsical) and don’t at all represent a tally of everything I loved reading in 2015. To the degree that I’ve crafted this list at all, it’s mostly to steer clear from titles that have dominated the five bazillion other year-end lists currently in existence and that you’re probably already pretty well aware of and may in fact be reading at the moment.

So, for instance, The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector—duh!—I think I’ve already made my admiration for this book abundantly clear in a variety of ways. Of course you should read it! You know that!! No real need to ping it yet again on this list, even though it was clearly one of the best things I read in 2015.

And in addition, on these little entries I’ve been writing, I’ve been trying to go beyond just slapping down a bunch of titles and covers and to actually make a strong case for why you should take the time and read this book. Which, you know, takes some time to do well (or to at least try to do well), which again limits just how many titles yr beleaguered little blogger can feature here.

Basically, this list is me just saying, “Hey there, you look like the sort of person who reads this blog a lot. If you’re a person who can tolerate that high degree of proximity to my mental energies, maybe probably these books would be your thing. I really liked them! Here they are! Enjoy!!”

Favorite Reads of 2015: #11 Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo

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I first read Silvina Ocampo quite a while ago, at the time when I was living in Buenos Aires and any her fiction was virtually impossible to come by in English. It was a time when I was discovering so many greats that hadn’t quite yet made it in translation—Bioy, Sábato, Arlt, Saer, and even Aira, who was much better positioned than the other names on this list but still wasn’t really very well-known at that time—and it goes to show you that something good is afoot, as some of these names are now much better-known. Even with my so-so Spanish, I could tell that Ocampo was a hugely gifted writer.

This year Ocampo has finally gotten an English-language edition worthy of her talents, with the release (and pretty successful reception) of Thus Were Their Faces, a career-spanning collection of short fiction from the incredible NYRB Classics.

These stories are just plain eerie, creepy, and just a little bit evil, in the very best way that can be said. They have some genetic linkage to Clarice Lispector, in their highly original approach to depicting the lives of women, their feminism, their occult power, and their complete originality.

For more I’ll point you to my review at Music & Literature. Here’s a good quote:

To this day it is not hard to find people calling her Argentina’s “best-kept secret.” This may point to barriers for women in the heady modernist golden age, and it may also indicate barriers around the sort of fiction Ocampo wrote. Her influences are much harder to locate than those of Borges or Bioy—making it more difficult to situate her into a cultural lineage—and she chose subjects that courted marginality: child-narrators, the lives of animals, women’s couture, dolls, and madwomen. Borges, Bioy, and Ocampo all brought the surreal into the everyday, but whereas Bioy imagined how technology interfaced with his bizarre plots, and whereas Borges heroicized his adventure tales into master narratives that wrought new truths, Ocampo camouflaged her fantasies, as though they were microscopic details in yards of baroque wallpaper. If you blink at the wrong moment everything will look perfectly normal, yet once you do see that tiny seam in the fabric of what is, your eyes will see nothing else.

Ocampo was also an accomplished poet, and the volume of her poetry released this year should also be read.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #10 Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman

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Definitely one of the most important activist groups to come about in the Internet age is Anonymous. Not only has this group been instrumental in many of the most important grassroots, fight-the-power actions of the past 10 years, it has also made essential contributions to the aesthetics and culture of the Internet (lolz, anyone? Church of Scientology South Park episode?).

But, by its very design, this group is shadowy and poorly understood. One of the main tenants of being in Anonymous is that you do not attempt to self-aggrandize or otherwise glamorize yourself, or even reveal that you are in Anonymous, which means, number one, you don’t talk to the press.

These are the reasons that Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous is an important book, because she managed to get unprecedented access to the book (including even pasting in the contents of many chats that Anonymous members had during some of their most infamous campaigns). Understanding Anonymous from the inside out really puts much of Internet culture—and grassroots “street art” culture—into a new light. It also offers important new chapters on many of the manor political events of recent years.

So I would recommend this book even if it was a turgid, painful slog. But in fact it is the opposite of that. Coleman’s depiction of Anonymous is fast-paced, often laugh-out-loud funny (unlike most critics who write those words, I really mean that; I laughed as I read this book), hugely, hugely fascinating, and uncannily winds together many, many threads into a coherent and riveting narrative. This book is seriously fun to read. Fun. It’s just a great, great book, and you all should read it.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #9 Belomor by Nicolas Rothwell

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This is a book that definitely hasn’t gotten its due. So here’s a thing: if you’re sad that W.G. Sebald only managed to complete four “novels” in his lifetime, and you’ve read them all and you wish there were more, read Belomor. Which is not to say that Rothwell is a Sebald clone by any means, but the lineage is obviously there, and he is an author who can stand that comparison.

The book functions a little like The Emigrants, in that it consists of four narratives that only have thematic links (and, of course, the first-person voice telling these four stories links them as well). The first one is by far my favorite, a little Sebaldian yarn that implicates that Belomor canal (a pointless project (it was useless for commerce) dug by slave labor from the Soviet gulags and that may have killed as many as 25,000). It also brings in the Dresden firestorm and its legacy, as well as Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, which moved to Dresden in the 18th century, was stolen by the Soviets during the war, and has been relocated back to Dresden.

That should give some idea of the Sebaldian heft of this book. But it is not a primarily European focus: the Pueblo region of the United States and the wilds of northern Australia also figure prominently. This is an excellent, excellent book, hugely overlooked when it was published in 2014. I look forward to reading more Rothwell in 2016.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #8 A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

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I turn to to state the basic idea of A Thousand Plateaus:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the originary source of “things” and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those “things.” “A rhizome, on the other hand, “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (D&G 7). Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (D&G 25). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

To put it simply, this idea makes intuitive sense to me, and it accords very deeply with how I currently see the worlds of art and literature, as well as how function the book that I am currently most involved with.

A Thousand Plateaus is a very, very new book. Which is to say, its ideas will appear quite foreign, so it is a book to be read slowly, to be contemplated, and probably to be helped through by way of secondary texts and discussions. It is greatly worth the time involved.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #7 Reading / Writing Julien Gracq

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I’m not sure how to classify Reading / Writing Julien Gracq. You could call this a book of sixteen essays on literary subjects, which doesn’t tell you very much but may be the may you can say for sure.

These essays are composed of fragmentary chunks of thought that Gracq collects under subjects like “Literature and Painting,” “Landscape and the Novel,” and “Literature and History,” and he freely draws from all forms of artistic endeavor. There may be some sort of clear progression through and/or among the fragments that make up each essay, but that logic is very obscure. I didn’t really care, as Grazq’s intelligence is compelling on almost always a sentence-by-sentence level, and most definitely on a paragraph-by-paragraph level. You can just read the book for these insights alone and not even try to find a larger argument to each of the essays, or to the book as a whole.

True to the title, what Gracq considers most profoundly here are the experiences and aesthetics of reading and writing. His capacity to keep making fresh insights on these two subjects page after page (the book is some 400 pages long), and to not descend into repetition or the banal, is remarkable. If you care about either of these two topics, you should read this book.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #6 Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama

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There are very few books that I read this year, or in any other year, that are as humbling as this one. Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay is truly the work of a master scholar who has dedicated a lifetime to his task and has marshaled decades of learning and research in order to make a lasting statement about human societies.

The inquiry of this book can be state simply: Fukuyama simply wants to know why in some places the political order remains solid and enduring, while in others it is nearly impossible to maintain, always crumbling and melting away to chaos.

His answer is much more complex to explain, although the general thesis can be summed up: societies that have succeeded in building certain modern institutions can enjoy a steady political order, whereas others that depend on more traditional forms of organization find it difficult to do so. Note that “modern institutions” does not necessarily mean 20th-century states: one of Fukuyama’s key examples is ancient China, which he indeed identifies as one of the world’s first successful states.

Once Fukuyama has explained his theory of why some states thrive and others decay, he then relentlessly examines state after state after state: imperial Germany, 19th- and 20th-century America, Britain, France, Denmark, Argentina, Costa Rica, Nigeria . . . The erudition in this volume is immense, and part of the joy of this book is simply reading all of the fascinating case-studies and learning about far-flung parts of the Earth.

This book is really for anyone who wants to understand what sorts of political orders human beings seem predisposed to, both of the successful kind and of the failing. It is for those curious about why civilization exists at all, why some have become great, and why some in our own era, including the one from within which I today write, seem to be failing.

It is also a book to make many literary writers more comprehensible, or at least to complement their own inquiries. On that score, I would say it would sit well beside, for example: László Krasznahorkai, W.G. Sebald, Wolfgang Hilbig, Thomas Mann. Read it beside Ton Judt’s Postwar.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #5 Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard

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I’ve heard people tell me that Gathering Evidence may be Bernhard’s best. I’ve read seven of his books—which is only a fraction of what he produced—and it’s clearly the best so far. It’s a staggering, staggering work.

The first reason you must read this book is for Bernhard’s depiction of the caves he and his fellow Austrians stood in for hours as makeshift air raid shelters during World War II. If anything is a plausible root of Bernhard’s lifelong sense of paranoia and panic, being forced to stand in these cramped, pitch-black quarters for hours as a child as people fainted and the threat of being buried alive loomed, this would be it. This is frightening, frightening shit. In fact, his whole evocation of wartime life in Austria is amazing and must be read as something to help comprehend how the world could have come to such a juncture, and just how horrible that war was.

But that is just one small part of what is a monumental autobiography of Thomas Bernhard. It is written in five parts, each part roughly 80 pages long, and the sense of structure and voice that Bernhard conjures in this book could well make for a lifetime’s worth of apprenticeship. Bernhard is telling his adolescence and young adulthood, but he is doing so by fixating on just a handful of central incidents, and I mean “central” in a very uncentral way. At times it is difficult to grasp just why Bernhard fixates on the things he does, but of course this is true to how we remember our lives and how we construct ourselves from the things that happen to us. Bernhard is “gathering evidence,” after all, and I’m sure he wonders just as much as we do.

Some of the best parts of this book are in Bernhard’s evocations of the medical procedures he was made to go through for his bad lungs (I had to stop reading at many points in order not to faint), as well as being left to die in a ward that was mostly full of tubercular cases on their deathbeds. There are also strange philosophical asides where Bernhard begins to espouse something like a personal philosophy, or an ethics, but for the life of me I can’t figure out if he means us to take these as the things he believed in his youth, or statements of the mature man who writes the book. It is an important difference, one that I think he purposefully obscures, but regardless they are profound, provocative, and utterly Bernhard.

And then of course there is the voice of this book, which could very well carry me along if Bernhard had chosen to spend 400 pages narrating the drying of paint on a wall. Who else is so expert at constructing a a plot out of the way his narrator sounds? What other voice of the last 100 years sounds so true? And perhaps never truer than in this book.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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