Category Archives: tqc favorites 2012

TQC Favorites of 2012: Madeleine LaRue

Madeleine LaRue reviewed Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin in the Winter 2013 issue of The Quarterly Conversaiton.

The bleak, poetic universe of László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango absorbed me completely. I am continually in awe of the sense of urgency in Krasznahorkai’s books, and of the harsh beauty of his unstoppable sentences.

I was also hugely impressed with Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair. Such an ambitious tangle of stories might easily have become unwieldy or simply irritating in the hands of a less masterful storyteller, but Shishkin proves himself a worthy heir to the best of his Russian predecessors.

Ivan Vladislavić’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories is not only a gorgeous physical object, but also a charming meditation on writing and not-writing. I came to Vladislavić via A Labour of Moles, his marvelous contribution to the Cahiers Series, and found the same imagination, good humor, and preoccupation with the dictionary in these new stories.

Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories provided hours of delight: Walser’s joy in life in the city is contagious, and his insight into modern life disarming. I was won over by his whimsy and also by the melancholy intelligence behind it.

Finally, though it is not the author’s most recent work, I must mention Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red because it was so unexpected and so wonderful. Identified as “a novel in verse,” the book imagines the life of Geryon, a red winged monster from Greek mythology, falling in love with his killer Herakles against a backdrop of active volcanoes.

TQC Favorites of 2012: Francois Monti

Francois Monti is the European Editor of The Quarterly Conversation.

2012 was the year life caught up with literature, but I’m still happy I managed to force some commitments to make way for a few great books. Here is a short selection, in chronological order of reading:

Yuri Herrera – Los Trabajos del Reino & Señales que precederan el fin del mundo: two fantastic short novels about two phenomenon that have a huge impact on both Mexico and the United States : the former deals with drug overlords, the latter with illegal immigration. Novel length prose narco-corrido and the mythical adventures of coyotes: if you only read one Mexican author next year, go for Herrera. Unfortunately, you’ll have to do it in Spanish.

Kevin Brownlow – The Parade’s Gone By. 44 years later, no one has published a better essay on American silent movies. Brownlow met them all (well, the ones that were still alive) and had them talking. Packed with fantastic insights and invaluable testimonies, this book will have you rush to Criterion or Eureka’s website. If only we could get an updated version, with everything Brownlow learned since 1968…

Lowell Edmunds – Martini, Straight Up. In 1981, nobody cared about cocktails. Not even Tom Cruise. Lowell Edmunds, Classics professor at Rutgers loved his martini and decided to write this short and fascinating study. It remains to this day the only cocktail book published in a Cultural Studies collection that I know of. The only negative thing I could say about it is that the writing (ah, Academia…) is a bit dry. No pun intended.

Juan Francisco Ferré – Karnaval. Now, let’s imagine Coover’s Public Burning with Strauss-Kahn instead of Nixon . . . A master of the world called Edison. DSK transformed into God K. God K (the last hope of dying social-democracy?) decides to take on the world and defeat the system. Weird and wonderful at the same time. Obviously. And I haven’t even told you about the book’s central pages: a (fictional) documentary on the Strauss-Kahn case. One of the interviewees is one Harold Bloom. “Shakespeare wrote about this,” he says.

TQC Favorites of 2012: Malcolm Forbes

Malcolm Forbes reviewed Greg Baxter’s The Apartment in Issue 30.

The first real stand-out read of the year was The Little Russian by Susan Sherman (Counterpoint), a debut novel which was so accomplished it felt like a mid-career high. Authors like Hilary Mantel and Emma Donoghue are doing wonders to re-galvanize interest in the historical novel, but Sherman’s contribution deserves merit for focusing on less well-trodden terrain, namely the Ukraine and its bloody suffering at the beginning of the last century. There are no real stylistic tricks on offer, simply good old-fashioned storytelling.

On the other hand, Hari Kunzru displayed ample literary dexterity in Gods Without Men (Knopf), a multistoried mind-bending adventure that has (justifiably) drawn comparisons with the works of David Mitchell. Kunzru caused a literary splash with his first novel, The Impressionist, and just seems to get better and better.

I was pleased to discover that NYRB Classics was releasing another book by the ever-beguiling Robert Walser. Berlin Stories is a misnomer—the book is rather a collection of articles which Walser wrote during his short but eventful stay in the German capital—but we can’t fault the content. It was particularly interesting for me as I currently call Berlin home, and most of Walser’s shrewd observations still hold true today.

Another impressive non-fiction title was Masha Gessen’s The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Riverhead). Stuffed full of facts, anecdotes and bitter truths, this is crucial reading for anyone interested in modern Russia and its democratic disintegration. It is also a masterclass in journalism. Gessen wrote this expose while based in Russia, and continues to live there; we should applaud not only her indefatigable research but also her immense bravery.

Finally, I managed to find time for something less contemporary. 2012 was the 200th birthday of Dickens but also the centenary of Death in Venice. I shunned the Dickens hullaballoo for Mann and at long last read his masterly novella. Mann’s star has fallen in recent years. Readers are put off by his supposedly starchy style and bouts of prolixity. Worse, Death in Venice is a turn off for a hysterical minority who reduce its plot to its bare bones (elderly man falls in love with young boy), recoil and reach instead for Lolita (at least Nabokov had the sense to make his novel of child-love a pitch-black comedy). It should go without saying that Death in Venice is no apologia for anything unsavory, and Mann’s prose is compelling, beautiful and entirely stodge-free.

TQC Favorites of 2012: John Lingan

John Lingan wrote on concert films for the Fall 2012 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.

Little, Big by John Crowley and The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer: The former is an epic, almost gothic contemporary fantasy set mostly in a shape-shifting New England mansion that’s inhabited by fairies. The latter is a dark, two-character parable set in 17th-century rural Poland. But in their final pages, Little, Big and The Slave both ultimately expand into powerful metaphors for how myths arise and endure. Crowley’s prose is lush while Singer’s is hard and sparse, but both of these novels contained the most impressively realized worlds of any book I read this year. They are also superlative romances. These are the books that I wanted to press into the hands of every reader I know.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. I hadn’t read Bellow in years, and had somehow never read this one, the last of his agreed-upon masterpieces. There’s actually a fair amount of plot, though you wouldn’t know it. Narrator Charlie Citrine buries the “present” story in waves of flashbacks and remembrances, philosophical asides, and hilarious descriptive riffs. His inability to tell a linear story mirrors the book’s larger concerns about the ways in which people depend on and disappoint each other through selfishness. My most-underlined book of the year.

James Agee: A Life by Laurence Bergreen. Dwight Garner is working on a new biography of my increasingly favorite writer, which I await hungrily. But this out-of-print book from the late ’80s is a masterful life, full of quotations from Agee’s many unfinished and rare works, like a long story about the disintegration of his first marriage and the science fiction script he wrote for Charlie Chaplin. Agee is a hard character to love or sympathize with, but Bergreen’s interpretations of his subject’s doomed life and scattered work are absolutely engrossing.

My Life by Isadora Duncan. Here we have over-writing elevated to an art form–or rather “Art form,” since, as Dorothy Parker noted, Ms. Duncan invariably capitalizes the word. I know nothing about dance but read this on my wife’s recommendation. I plan to push it on my daughter around age 13 or so, in hopes she might be inspired by Duncan’s vaunting self-esteem and feminine pride. I could literally quote any page, but let’s go with this description of the first time she had sex with the love of her life, Gordon Craig:

So must Endymion, when first discovered by the glistening eyes of Diana, in tall, slender whiteness, so must Hyacinthus, Narcissus and the bright, brave Perseus have looked. More like an angel of Blake than a mortal youth he appeared. Hardly were my eyes ravished by his beauty than I was drawn toward him, entwined, melted. As flame meets flame, we burned in one bright fire. Here, at last, was my mate; my love; my self — for we were not two, but one, that one amazing being of whom Plato tells in the Phaedrus, two halves of the same soul.

TQC Favorites of 2012: Taylor Davis-Van Atta

Taylor Davis-Van Atta contributed an essay on Stig Sæterbakken to the Winter 2013 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.

1. Barley Patch & A History of Books by Gerald Murnane
I’ll package these two books as a single recommendation because Murnane wrote them more or less concurrently and they read as companion volumes or as a sort of hall of mirrors. Nobody I know of writes even remotely like Murnane, an author who is forever obsessed with the way in which his mind forms and re-forms (and re-forms over and over again) memories as patterns of images, and moreover how his mind then transmutes these patterns into highly structured, multi-layered literature that precisely mimics “the contour of thought.” A perennial candidate for the Nobel (in no small part because a good deal of his work has been translated and hailed in Sweden), I think Murnane is set to begin cultivating a solid readership in the States and elsewhere over the next couple of years provided U.S. publishers continue to take on his work and/or his Australian publishers continue to digitize and disseminate his back catalog. His eleventh book, Border Districts, is set for publication in Australia in 2013.

2. Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
For me, Satantango is the publishing event of 2012. Satantango is not quite the chaotic, labyrinthine experience that Krasznahorkai’s later novels War and War and The Melancholy of Resistance are, but we are still offered the unique pleasure of plunging into those long, fractured, turbulent sentences and watching a simple story quickly turn nightmarishly dark and complex. Hats off to the great poet and translator George Szirtes for his rendering. I’m very much looking forward to reading Seiobo There Below in 2013 (New Directions).

3. Perspectives USA, vol. 1, ed. James Laughlin (1952)
I admire the ambition behind this publication as much as the material presented in it. Founded in 1952 by James Laughlin with funding from the Ford Foundation, Perspectives USA was a cultural magazine launched with the mission of countering popular world perception of U.S. culture (i.e. Americans as nothing but a bunch of oversexed, Beach Boy-crazed, rollerskating gum-chewers). “Various misconceptions exist about American culture abroad,” Laughlin writes in the introduction to this first volume, “and a distortion of its values has built up, quite as often by the shortcomings of its own phenomena (Hollywood, comic books) as by antagonistic political propaganda. It will be a main function of Perspectives to show that the spiritual and artistic elements in American life have not been sterile.” A really incredible undertaking, the magazine was published quarterly and each volume published simultaneously in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish (!) and distributed around the world. The contributors are familiar to any reader of those early New Directions years: WC Williams, Faulkner, Marianne Moore, Kenneth Rexroth, Edward Dahlberg, etc. The magazine lasted only 16 issues and ended after the Ford Foundation cut off funding, citing Perspectives as having “had limited impact.”

4. The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 by Steven Moore
For years I’d been hearing rumors about some ambitious, multi-volume project Steven Moore had undertaken to propose an alternate history of the novel, so my hopes were running high when this first volume was announced. Suffice it to say, even with my hopes ramped up, what Moore has produced in this volume far exceeded my expectations. Over some 700 pages, Moore covers long form literature dating from the Ancient Egyptians (beginning with “Tale of Sinuhe,” written in 20thC BCE) to Japanese and Chinese behemoths written around 1600CE — and all of it written before Don Quixote, which was proclaimed by Harold Bloom as “the first modern novel” and widely adopted as such since. An Alternative History is a truly astonishing achievement that not only blew the walls from my conception of the novel form (which I though was pretty liberal to begin with) but that, even more remarkably, offered a radical type of criticism and way of talking about books that I had not previously encountered. Moore’s style is as ambitious and forceful and revolutionary as his argument. This is a book I’ll return to for many years to come. I understand that Volume 2 of this remarkable is set to appear soon, perhaps as early as 2013.

5. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle
Maddeningly brilliant. Just ask Michael Silverblatt, who had Ruefle on as a Bookworm guest twice (a rare achievement for any writer) this past year. Ruefle is, to my mind, America’s greatest living poet and these lectures (many of which I had the great privilege of hearing Ruefle deliver) provide rare insight to the elusive mechanics of poetry and her inner-workings. Ruefle’s eleventh (I believe) book of poetry, Trances of the Blast, is set for release in 2013 (Wave Books).

TQC Favorites of 2012: Daniel Medin

Daniel Medin is the Senior Editor of The Quarterly Conversation.


1. László Krasznahorkai: Satantango (New Directions)
I love Krasznahorkai’s dark discerning humor, and was delighted to discover that this novel retains its power – and savage funniness – after rereading. It also contains scenes of uncommon beauty. Refracted glory to George Szirtes for his translation: sentence for sentence, Satantango has to be one of the most striking books published in English in 2012.

2. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi: The Colonel (Melville House)
Unspeakably dark history of a revolution that devoured – and continues to devour – its children. Rains as hard here as it does in Krasznahorkai, and there’s as little forgiveness. The novel has haunted me for months, perhaps because its violence is by no means exclusive to Iran.

3. Kirsty Gunn: The Big Music (Faber)
A wise, generous and formally ambitious book about Scottish fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and music-making. Its structure is modeled after the classical compositional form of the highland bagpipe (and inspired by the great modernists). Remarkable glimpses of the inner lives of women and men, lives that repeat themselves with variations – like the theme of a piobaireachd – from one generation to the next.

4. Yi Mun-Yol: The Poet, trans. Brother Anthony of Taizé (Harvill)
A portrait of nineteenth-century Korean poet Kim Pyong-yon that lets in the inventions and interpolations of its author. Normally, that kind of description would put me off, but there are no “look at me!” hijinks in this novel. Despite a brisk and dry delivery, Yi Mun-Yol evokes the miseries of exile effectively. The same stands for his unsentimental representation of the mysteries of creative conception.

5. Alfred Döblin: Berlin-Alexanderplatz (dtv)
Revisited this classic while teaching in Berlin last summer. Berlin-Alexanderplatz resounds with robust dialogue that performs miracles: you’re reminded of the impending catastrophe every chapter, yet weep when the worst comes, punctually, to pass because the characters have been brought to life so successfully by their language alone. I’ve heard rumors that a new translation is underway. If true, this is a cause for celebration. Eugene Jolas’s version, while valiant, is now more than eighty years old, and it fails to capture the sound and smoke of the original. The time’s ripe for more English readers to discover Döblin.

Everything Else

Nescio: Amsterdam Stories, trans. Damion Searls (NYRB Classics)
Was reeled in by the first two sentences of “The Freeloader.” (See for yourself; they’re in the Amazon preview.)

Szilárd Borbély: Poems
Little of his writing has appeared to date in English – just a few translations from Berlin-Hamlet in New Order: Hungarians of the Post 1989 Generation, an anthology edited by George Szirtes. Efforts are afoot to remedy this lack. Borbély’s simply too good to remain in the shadows; his champions include Krasznahorkai and Nádas, so hopefully the situation will change soon.

William H. Gass: Life Sentences (Knopf)
His ‘review’ of Rainer Stach’s biography is the gutsiest take on Kafka in ages.

Tacita Dean: Selected Writings 1992-2011 (Steidl)
Although known principally for her work in film, Dean is also an excellent writer. Her reflections on projects about W.G. Sebald, Mario Merz et al. merit a wider readership.

Maria Soudaïeva: Slogans (Olivier)
This volume collects a hundred pages of militant calls to action by a Russian author who, according to Antoine Volodine’s preface (he is listed as translator, but I suspect that Soudaïeva is yet another heteronym), committed suicide in 2003. Her slogans are about as effective, as revolutionary propaganda, as, say, a story by Platonov. They’re also the sort of thing you can imagine in the hands of a Bolaño protagonist. The strangest, most original work of prose I encountered in French last year.

TQC Favorites of 2012: K.T. Kahn

K.T. Kahn reviewed Inland by Gerald Murnane in our fall 2012 issue.

1. Ice by Anna Kavan
Kavan creates a world that is the stuff of nightmares, blending reality, dreams, and fantasy in an uncanny, unsettling way. Kavan certainly deserves a much wider audience.

2. Zazen by Vanessa Veselka
A truly prescient novel that taps into many political, social, and personal anxieties prevalent in America today. Veselka’s prose is raw, unflinching, poetic: Zazen is a truly remarkable debut novel. Veselka has said that Zazen arose from her inability to process the 2004 school hostage crisis in Beslan; as an analysis of our culture of violence, her novel is eerily relevant and a necessary read in the wake of the recent Newtown, CT tragedy.

3. Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
A maddening, prophetic book: Krasznahorkai is a master at plumbing the depths of humanity as well as despair. See my review of Satantango in the LARB:

4. The Walk by Robert Walser
W. G. Sebald called Walser “a clairvoyant of the small,” and The Walk is a tremendous, wide-ranging meditation on life in microcosmic scenes.

5. The Plains by Gerald Murnane
Both ars poetica and an analysis of cultural identity, Murnane’s The Plains is perhaps the best place to begin with this enigmatic and often elusive author.

TQC Favorites of 2012: Scott Bryan Wilson

Scott Bryan Wilson is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.

*Death of a Hero (1929) – Richard Aldington – Penguin Classics is issuing a new edition of this next year; think Stoner-level bleak/intense about war

*The Keys to Tulsa (1991) – Brian Fair Berkey – the author completed this one novel before dying of a brain tumor; it’s incredibly funny and sharply written

*Crime and Punishment (1866) – Fyodor Dostoyevsky – you see, this guy commits a senseless murder OKAY I KNOW I KNOW I should have read this years ago

*Fathers and Sons (1862) – Ivan Turgenev – see above, except for the murder part

*The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759) – Samuel Johnson – a weird fucking book

*Satantango (1985) – Laszlo Krasznahorkai – heresy alert: I like the film better; also, I really wish New Directions had had it proofread

*Charles Olson: Allegory of a Poet’s Life (2000) – Tom Clark – an excellent biography of the great poet; Clark is really fighting to hide his dismay with Olson toward the end of the book

*Herman Melville: A Biography (2 volumes – 1996 & 2002) – Hershel Parker – 2000+ pages of awesome minutiae on the master

*The City and the Mountains (1901) – Eca de Queiros – about a rich, young, bored Peruvian living in Paris and it’s still awesome

*Pamela (1740) – Samuel Richardson – jesus christ

TQC Favorites of 2012: Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey’s most recent review for The Quarterly Conversation was of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard in the Winter 2013 issue.

#1: My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. This hit me where I write and in what I think of family relations. To the first: the play of ideas mixed with the recitation of events is powerful. Too few writers think that ideas can be exciting, and they belabour plot and character instead. To the second: the re-appraisal of family relations means more to me now than it might have five years go, for example, and how Knausgaard approaches that topic, with reservations and with something bordering on the heedless is incredibly engaging. Intellectually appealing and emotionally rewarding.

#2: Infinity: the story of a moment, by Gabriel Josipovici. Yet another book by this masterful writer that makes you question the solidity of just about everything. Nothing is the same inside me by the time I get to the end of his fictions. I should be used to the way he handles dialogues and monologues, yet it always delights. He surprises by being an adventurer. Why he isn’t read more is baffling. His humanity and his graceful prose are there for everyone to enjoy.

#3: Reticence, by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Autotportrait, by Edouard Levé. Is it cheating to combine two? Two compact French novels that offer new ways of telling stories, while containing unchecked paranoia and mortality, that also allow for amusement, disquiet, and investment.

#4: In Red, by Magdalena Tulli. Short, visionary and ominous, with no real interest in character but with a deep look into humanity.

#5: A Struggle for Life, by Llewellyn Powys. This collection of essays takes a reader back to the end of the 19th century and up to the Second World War. His control of language combines with a considered view, perhaps formed by his illness from TB, of what life offers everyone right now, from birds and lions to human interactions, if we just turn outwards. A good corrective for when I forget the value and purpose of the senses or the importance of contact with human and non-human animals.

TQC Favorites of 2012: Erica Mena

Here are the 5 picks from TQC Poetry Editor Erica Mena.

1. The Keep by Emily Wilson
This book demands to be consumed slowly, word by word. Each poem a dense wordscape that must be read and reread, immersed in and languished over. Its rich and lush and slow. Luxurious.

2. Voyager by Srikanth Reddy
An immense work. Haunting, lyric, and perhaps the most successful erasure I’ve ever read. The three erasures construct three different takes on the horrors and strangeness of the twentieth century. The third, the bulk of the book, moves the fastest for me and is the most narrative, telling a surreal story embedded in the nightmare-scape of a world confronted with its own capacity for destruction. Still, it avoids the angst and irony so much of contemporary writing turns to to engage with the legacy of violence left for us by the past century of mechanized warfare. And finds a kind of faith despite it all, in the very ability to relinquish faith. Stunning.

3. Unoriginal Genius by Marjorie Perloff
Required reading for anyone engaged in contemporary poetry.

4. I’ll Drown My Book ed. Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place
An impressive anthology of conceptual women writers.

5. The Whole of Poetry Is Preposition by Claude Royet-Journoud, translated by Keith Waldrop
Like so many reflections on writing, this is highly personal. We learn about the author through his subject, always, but there is an autobiographic impulse at work here. He writes about his process, his preferences for solidity over surrealism, how italics seem phallic to him, his fear. It’s intimate and revealing in a way that actual autobiography and even memoir can’t be. It’s revealing of detail with chronology. Without plot, which as he says, “is the tissue that separates and realigns four or five character-words” (18). And this seems much more indicative of a living mind to me – the scattered and yet linked thinking about oneself, reflecting on the very act you’re engaged in. In some ways the book is a record of the writing of the book, while insisting that it isn’t: “No manuscript shows any real state of the text in process of becoming.”


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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