Category Archives: recommended reading

Recommended Reading: Berger, Herrera, Poetry via Robert Hass, Abstract Expressionism

Some things I’ve read and liked recently.

A Little Book on Form by Robert Hass — For my full thoughts on this book you can just read my review in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here I’ll say that this book is equally an education in poetic form and in Hass’s remarkably, idiosyncratic literary mind. This is a primer of sorts, but it’s also a book you can just read straight through, it’s that engaging, and interesting on every page.

The Fate Of A Gesture: Jackson Pollock And Postwar American Art by Carter Ratcliff — This is basically a bird’s-eye of the American art world in the wake of Pollock, as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism, along with American art, took over the art world from Europe. It’s thorough, cover a lot of territory, and doesn’t sacrifice depth to do it.

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera — I don’t want too say too much about this, as I’ve got a review on the way, but it’s good, as were Transmigration of Bodies and Signs Preceding the End of the World. More congrats to Lisa Dillman on the translation.

To the Wedding by John Berger — People recommend this book to me so much. It’s a strange, very tragic love story. A memorable read (only Berger could have written this), and reminded me very much of the things I like best about Michael Ondaatje—the imagination, the surprising turns, the fleetness, the energy, the tone.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún — this one won’t be out in the States till September; I received a copy of the UK edition from the author himself while in Houston earlier this year. It’s a short lyric, incredibly taut novel about a disgraced filmmaker who worked with Leni Riefenstahl, and then left his life behind by taking his family to Bolivia. Also it’s also not about that at all. It’s a strnge, compelling character study of this man’s two daughters, one of whom fought with Che’s army in Bolivia (Habsún is a Bolivian). But it is more about life, the choices we make, being a daughter, being a sister. A strange, very interesting novel—I liked it so much I’m in the middle of an interview with Hasbún. And an excellent translation by Sophie Hughes.

Recommended Reading: Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, James Gleick, Javier Marías, Abdellatif Laabi, André Breton, Tobias Carroll, Alex Beam, Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson

It’s been a very busy time writing-wise around here, so the blogging this month has been very light. My apologies for that. Though, if it’s any consolation, the next issue of The Quarterly Conversation (which has been absorbing some of the energy that might have otherwise gone to blogging) is going to have a ton of great stuff in it.

Anyway, I’ve been reading some good things this month, so let’s share a few of those.

First off, I enjoyed Absolutely on Music a book of conversations between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa on the subject of classical music. It was a really pleasant read, and a nice change of pace for Murakami, showing a new and very skillful side of his intellect. You can read more in a review I wrote of the book for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Just this week I’ve been knocking away Time Travel, the latest book by James Gleick. What I admire about Gleick is his indefatigable research and his ability to synthesize large amounts of information from a wide variety of disciplines to create his own nuanced picture of a subject. Also, his subjects tend to appeal to me—The Information, his previous book, brought all sort of great ideas to mind. Gleick is something like a sample menu: he doesn’t pursue any one idea into a huge amount of depth, but he does give you tons and tons of samples of all kinds of ideas, all in one place, and in a very readable, witty package. So that’s what I like about him.

I also recently finished Thus Bad Begins, the latest novel by Javier Marías. I’ve got mixed feelings, which are going to be explained in an upcoming review, but for now I will say you could do a hell of a lot worse. Certainly if you dig Marías’s thing, this book is for you.

While I’m mentioning Marías, I should also recommend To Begin at the Beginning, his Cahier, just released. It’s a wonderful little document, and the illustrations, by Cuban artist Wifredo Lam are absolutely stunning.

Earlier this month I did an event with Donald Nicholson-Smith, the translator of In Praise of Defeat, a selected poems from the entire 40-year career of Abdellatif Laabi. Laabi is perhaps the major North African poet of his generation, certainly the leader from Morocco, and there’s been something of a Laabi renaissance in English in recent years. These are well worth your time.

Another thing I’ve been dipping in and out of are the Manifestoes of Surrealism by André Breton. These are very loopy, often frustrating texts, although there is also tons and tons of gold in here. With a mind like Breton’s, you’ve just got to take the good with the nonsense. Certainly there’s a ton in here to think about, and interfacing with Breton’s intelligence for a while will do wonders to anybody’s noodle.

Also, I was very pleased with Tobias Carroll’s first collection of short fiction, Transitory. These stories are mostly set in hipster New York, but they have a very interesting feel to them, almost like you’re back in the old New York of the Henry James era. Carroll kind of combines the old and the new in his own way, and there’s a unified aesthetic here. The premise of each story is always intriguing, and Carroll tends to do a lot with them. Were I to make a critique, it would be that in some of these pieces I wish Carroll had gone a little bit further in penetrating to the depths and complexities of the really ripe situations he’s created here. But that’s more a hope for his next book of stories, and not a knock to this one.

Lastly, I’ll just put in a plug for The Feud by Alex Beam, about Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson’s infamous feud over Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin. It’s a great story, and one that’s very illustrative of translation. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’d be very surprised if it disappoints.

Recommended Reading: Svetlana Alexievich, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Curzio Malaparte, Enrique Vila-Matas

Recommended Reading is a collection of some books I’ve read recently that I’m recommending to you. It’s just stuff I’ve liked, nothing to do with release dates, theme, etc, etc, just great books. Read more here.


Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (tr Bela Shayevich)

This book is one of the most humanizing, acute things I’ve ever read about the Soviets and what Russia has become in the post-USSR era, but more than that it is first and foremost awe-inspiring literature. As I said in my review:

What is most important about Alexievich is that even though she treads deeply into the Russian psyche, her books have immense humanistic power. Like her other books, “Secondhand Time” is told through oral monologues, and its stories transcend national boundaries: the mother remembering the teenage son who committed suicide, the woman who leaves her husband for a murderer serving a life sentence in a remote prison, the delicate son with the macho father who forces him through a hellish military enlistment, the immigrant who has fled civil war only to find a life of depredation and degradation.

Alexievich grapples with some of the biggest questions in life, politics, and nation (she foregrounds the work with some questions from Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor), and her book is remarkably touching and full of wisdom-lines from people who have lived through the very most life can throw at a person. An incredible read.



There is basically one book on film that there’s 100% approval of, and this is that book. It is a week-long series of interview that Francois Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock, covering his entire career output. Hilarious, creep, incisive, eye-opening, absurd, frightening . . . it is all of these things, an homage to the art of film by two of its greatest practitioners.


The Skin by Curzio Malaparte (tr David Moore)

Curzio Malaparte was a fascist in support of Mussolini, the only Italian journalist to report for the Eastern Front in the Ukraine (and who did so with such honesty that he got himself in trouble), a communist after the war, and a man with a beautiful house on Capri that he designed himself and that Goddard used in his film of Moravia’s Contempt. He also named himself “Malaparte” in opposition to Napoleon’s “Bonaparte.”

An eccentric gentleman, you might say, and The Skin is a book about Naples during the war that is every bit as repulsive, honest, visceral, cynical, hopeful and original as you might expect from such a man. As I remarked previously, I can’t say I “liked” The Skin, but it was a remarkable and necessary reading experience.


Because She Never Asked by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Valerie Miles)

When I interviewed Valerie Miles about this novella, she told me that it was Vila-Matas’s favorite piece of his own writing because it contained elements of his entire career, crunched and refracted in on themselves. It was also a thing Vila-Matas wrote about a near-death illness, so it came out of very intense circumstances that provoked deep reflection.

I can see all of these elements in this book, which is a “collaboration” of sorts with the Sophie Calle, who also “collaborated” in a similar way with Paul Auster. It’s Vila-Matas at his most coy, his most seductive and feinting and impenetrable.


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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