Category Archives: favorite reads 2015

Favorite Reads of 2015: #4 The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

Thank God we have Marilynne Robinson to stick up for unfashionable opinions. And thank God we have her to remind us what “America” means, aside from all those things we think it means. I’m talking about cultural roots, about John Calvin, about the Transcendentalists, about unironic Christian belief, about the rural salt of the earth that for all intents and purposes stopped existing in this nation sometime shortly after we electrified the countryside.

But forget all that for a moment. What I really want to tell you about The Givenness of Things is how it sticks a shiv in the side of every techno-utopian, STEM-obsessing, materialist asshole who has ever given you a tight grin after hearing that you decided to major in a humanity. I have never read a living author make the case for the value of the humanities as well as Robinson does. She comes across as so completely rational, so calm, so purely kind and loving and quietly brilliant about the way she tells the kind of people who’s life goal is to build a driverless car to go fuck off.

We need an author like Robinson to remind us of everything that was forgotten while we were chasing the trends. A writer to remind us that, first and foremost, we are living creatures, and we will always be flesh and blood no matter what. A writer who can synthesize half a millennium of cultural thought in some 20 pages and not come off as sounding rushed or superficial. A writer who is truly conversant with the joy that anyone in this line of work should never lose touch with, and who has reminded us of that fact with every single book, going back now over three decades.

Why would you want to deny yourself a chance to see Marilynne Robinson’s mind at work? These are essays unlike any other essays being published right now, the opportunity to interface with an intellect whose time on this Earth we are all fortunate to share.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #3 Aliens and Anorexia by Chris Kraus

Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

Technically I read Aliens and Anorexia at the very end of 2014, but it was too late to include in my favorite reads of last year, so, hence. And I’m in the middle of Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor right now, which could as easily end up on my 2015 list.

I think I may have finally figured out how to describe Kraus’s voice as a novelist, which would be to call it the outsider’s view of the inside of the elite artworld establishment. Her characters are outsiders, and that’s more often than not because they just can’t do what it takes to be insiders. They hang out with Félix Guattari to watch the fall of Romanian Communism on CNN, and they’re just as smart and talented and dedicated as their colleagues in the spotlight, but they just lack the capacity to go there themselves. This generally comes across as healthy amounts of past trauma mixed with self-sabotage, a plain inability to function very well in that world, and a complete lack of interest in the kind of politicking and bullshit it takes to get what they world can give them.

Kraus writes amazingly well on the psychology of this individual, and she can also do biting satire, both of this person and the worlds they’ll perpetually be on the outside of. Kraus in conversant with the major strands of modernist and postmodernist theory and philosophy, and she can bring these elements into the book in poetic and organic ways (see the Guattari above, or the excellent use of Simone Weil in Aliens and Anorexia, which you can read more about here.)

And then there are her plots, which are bizarre and gripping and just scoot right along on the power of these immensely honest, likable, and perceptive third-person narrators. These are just great books, books that are fun and witty and deeply intelligent and edge, books that try to figure out complex moralities and that deeply care about human beings. Most of all, books that want art and literature to be about something.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #2 Counternarratives by John Keene

Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

The pieces in this book, which is comprised stories and novellas, are really just exquisite. One of the most apparent things about Counternarratives is that John Keene writes in a really lush, twisty register that runs counter to the very minimalist spareness that’s in style right now. I’d say that one of the reasons that spareness is currently au courant is because it’s far easier to master—and easier to teach in an MFA course—than the one Keene has chosen for these works. This is not a voice for beginners or dabblers, but, that said, Keene knows exactly how execute this sort of writing.

The pieces in Counternarratives were written over the course of years, and many have been published independently in various journals, but they all fit together so perfectly that they must have been written with some idea that they would one day form a larger whole. I think this sense of continuity is exactly what my friend Brad Johnson, bookseller extraordinaire at Diesel, a Bookstore, means every time he calls this book an “American Seiobo.” Each piece in Counternarratives has an independent life, but it’s also part of a larger project that’s moving forward through time and existing at various points of the New World, and inside of a wealth of different minds.

I would also suggest William T. Vollmann’s historical fictions of the Americas as a reference point for Counternarratives, for that’s exactly what this book is: fictions that begin with the colonization of Brazil and continue right up through the early 20th century, ending with a Beckettian alternate past/future. What’s truly astonishing is how Keene masters the voice of each era, not only finding the correct words and sentence structures but also being aware of the manners and preoccupations and methods of conveying information that would pertain to numerous different classes of individual writing in different forms at many different points in history. If a masterful novel is content to give you maybe 3 or 4 lifelike, idiosyncratic voices (at the most), Counternarratives gives you about 15, and they are all genuine, independently existing human beings, not mere pastiches or cheap impersonations.

And as the title suggests, these voices are the ones that have not been collected in the historical record. In effect, Keene is creating documents that fit into spaces where these voices might have existed, had they had the chance (and the education) to leave a written record of themselves. And this too is part of Counternarratives’ canvas: depicting these struggles to have a historical voice and to leave a mark. In fact, that very well may be the great theme running through this great book: the struggle to have a voice and to leave one’s mark on the world. It is a most human struggle that goes on today.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #1 Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann

Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

Mann considered Joseph and His Brothers his “pyramid,” the monument that would withstand the decades and centuries as smaller works were ground to dust. Indeed, it is enormous: sixteen years to write, 1500 pages, four volumes, and it recounts one of the central stories in all of Western civilization.

Yet it is probably the least-read of Mann’s major books. I myself had read almost everything else of Mann’s of similar status before I got around to it this year, and I only did finally come toward it because of a fascination of the ancient world and its religions.

Although the story of Joseph is a central story in the Judaic and Christian religions, Mann did not write this book out of a religious fervor (his spirituality seemed to be more attuned to “peaceable homoeroticism“). Rather, Mann here is interested in the status of myth in our culture, how these religious stories came to dominate all life in the West, and how Western culture discovered its god. He is also utterly compelled by the ancient world, reading countless books to master its details so that he could render this alien landscape as precisely as possible.

Needless to say, this is not the Bible you may have been taught in Sunday school. The book’s 40-page prelude (“Descent into Hell”) is Mann at his most Borgesian, pondering just how much of our own history we can possibly know, and where exactly history descends into rumor and folktale before it stops entirely at the boundaries of the written record. He also wants to know how these stories have come down to us, and why in this form. Throughout the tetralogy, Mann draws freely from pagan and gnostic belief, as well as his own bizarre, 20th-century imagination.

This is a massive, deeply intellectual work, although the storytelling is brisk and vivid, and Mann’s sharp sense of irony is evident throughout. Which is to say, Joseph and His Brothers is as much as a bizarre old page-turner as are all of Mann’s large books. It fascinates, and jabs, on every page. It is indeed a pyramid: climb to its heights and you will see new things.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


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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