Category Archives: tqc favorites 2013

TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: Scott Esposito

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Scott Esposito, who edits The Quarterly Conversation.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

The Plains and A History of Books by Gerald Murnane

I read these in preparation for an essay I wrote on Murnane for the journal Music & Literature (in itself a favorite read). The short novel The Plains is the book many consider to be Murnane’s finest. For me, he’s all about making maps of memory out of words, and The Plains may very well have the most challenging, irrational geography of them all. It is remarkable and beautiful, quotable on almost every page. I also read his collection of short prose, A History of Books. I frankly don’t know what to call these works: essays, short stories, memoir . . . none of those and all of them seem right.

The Letters of William Gaddis

A remarkable book for so many reasons, but my favorite—seeing the day-to-day life of a true outsider genius, to watch this great man find his artistic way, develop a circle of trusted friends, and discover the true meaning of his life’s work.

My Struggle Vol II by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This volume is all about how Knausgaard falls in love with the woman he eventually marries, and it is foremost an extremely insightful, very moving and passionate description of the first months of a deep romance. But there is so much more in this book. Here Knausgaard invokes Dostoevsky and talks about his desires to live as an Ubermensch, versus the conformist dictates of modern society (as well as what he fears are his own inclinations toward conformism). It is a very honest, serious discussion of this question, the scenes in which he embodies this conversation on the page are among my favorites of the first three books of the sextet.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

2013 will forever be remembered as the year I first read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. What else is there to say? This is one of the greatest books I will ever read. Six individuals collectively narrating their lives as one long mutual monologue, aging from children to seniors. Woolf masters, simply masters, six individuals who, collectively approach universality. A true masterwork by one of the 20th century’s most radiant geniuses.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson has an awful lot to say about myth, science, America, literature, creativity, religion, the academy . . . she says it very well here, and frequently very originally. These pieces will re-arrange your mind, and the writing is beautiful.

The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell by Carlos Rojas

This book is at once three things: an immaculately styled novel; a riddle on the level of Borges; and a compelling and original vision of hell. This is the sort of book you can live inside for quite some time.

George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time by Peter Dimock

This novel does a very rare thing: it is unabashedly and passionately political (and not only that, discussing the most important subject of our time—September 11, 2001 and the utterly destructive and futile War on Terror it unleashed), yet this politicking does not in the least diminish its literary experimentalism, which is of the highest order. A book that makes high art and high politics coexist—I never knew it could be done until Peter Dimock did it.

The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Essays and The Infinite Conversation by Maurice Blanchot

2013 was also the year that I got deeply in to Maurice Blanchot’s essays, namely The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Essays (in Lydia Davis’s translation) and The Infinite Conversation. There is so much to say about these works . . . I think I most appreciate Blanchot’s deep insights into what precisely writing is—how it occurs and what it means for the life of the writer—as well as his use of Western myth and archetype to articulate this process and the experience of reading.

Blow-Up by Julio Cortázar

Read “Axolotl” first, because it’s the first story in there and because you really owe yourself. If at that point you don’t feel like reading further, the next step would be to have your head examined.

The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Marcom

I read this slim masterpiece in a few spellbound hours. From the epigraphs all the way through to the very last line, it was one of the most passionate, aesthetically whole books I read this year. Here form and substance are just as they should be—clearly and unambiguously one, just as thoroughly as the two bodies that entwine on almost every page (though never growing tiresome). A book that requires a most uncommonly honest author, a book of true insight into one of the rarest, most fleeting parts of the human condition.

The Girl with the Golden Eyes and Colonel Chabert by Balzac

Most anything you read by Balzac will be better than things not by him. That is just the way it is. His books always seem to begin with some description on French life that is utterly beside the point from perspective of plot yet is so aesthetically appealing that it just has to be in there. For The Girl with the Golden Eyes it’s a description of Parisian life; for Colonel Chabert, it’s the dialogue of clerks in a law office, showing just how amazing merely doing one’s job can be.

A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald

This is a collection of Sebald’s early essays. They stand somewhere between the academic criticism he wrote for the first decades of his life and the increasingly strange critical narratives he wrote in the last decades. A bridge I didn’t want to cross so much as gaze out from.

Cuentos by Roberto Bolaño

Before tackling this sizable book I hadn’t read much of Bolaño in Spanish, and nor had I read many of his short stories. So I was doubly in for a treat.

Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

This book is a vault that opens up to contain an entire world. The question Krasznahorkai seeks to answer is how substances of this Earth become divine—that is, not of it—merely by the force of human artistry and the processes of civilization. For anyone who has ever stared at a grand work of art and felt all else in the world strip away for a moment, this book is for you.

How German Is It? and Eclipse Fever by Walter Abish

This year was my introduction to Walter Abish, a writer who reminds me of Harry Mathews for his Oulipian tendencies, his exceedingly quirky plots, and his economical, utterly effective sentences. I never quite figured out what the “it” in the title of the first book referred to—the Holocaust, obviously, much much too obviously, but also so much more. And the latter is a tragicomedy set in Mexico (one of the most tragically comic countries on the face of the Earth) and starring . . . wait for it . . . a literary critic. Shudders.

A Schoolboy’s Diary, Berlin Stories, Selected Stories, Microscripts, The Robber by Robert Walser

A short piece I was writing for the TLS and a flight to New York City finally got me to read virtually all of the short prose of Walser that has been translated so far. It was a bracing few weeks into one of the most singular literary minds of the 20th century. Of Walser, Benjamin said something along the lines that his prose disappears behind you as you read it. Indeed, and never so much as in his short fictions.

Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle

These are Ruefle’s essays. I think I admire them most because they each have the feel of something Ruefle just put together in a spare hour or so. I mean that they feel so incidental, so stitched together with whatever happened to be at hand, so casual in their composition. That sense of casualness is very difficult to obtain, particularly when you are attempting to capture quantities as elusive as those Ruefle is pursuing here.

Personae by Sergio De La Pava

Personae is very, very far away from De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, yet they are clearly the work of the same literary intellect. Both show the same aching honesty and the same drive toward literary artistry and genuine risk-taking. I hope De La Pava never stops taking risks as a writer.

The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys

To think that before this year I had never (to my knowledge) read Simon Leys. As though I had said—this year I drank my first cup of coffee, or this year I saw my first flake of snow. Leys is just as essential. After him, your literary world will not be the same. So convenient then that NYRB Classics has collected nearly 600 pages of his essays for you in one volume. What are you waiting for?

The Collected Stories by Lydia Davis

Immersing yourself in the work of a great writer is a sure way to discover that writer’s faults. Davis is a great writer, great enough that I cared to keep reading her and reading her and reading her until at long last I had seen past the brilliance to her weaknesses. So few writers can maintain a reader’s interest that long. So few can make serious enough aesthetic statements to inspire serious disagreement. And barely any can stand up to 30 years’ worth of work being consumed in one long python-like meal.

Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu

The authentic heir to Pynchon was born in Bucharest and penned the first volume of his might trilogy in the last 1990s. I hope they sell a ton of these so Archipelago manages to translate the other two or else I might have to learn Romanian.

The Aeneid by Virgil (translated by Robert Fitzgerald)

There is so much to this book—the language, the series of unforgettable set-pieces, the eternal truths about civilization, wandering, love, comradeship—but here is my favorite: Virgil does a thing I’ve only ever seen Milton do, which is to take a story whose end is already foretold—foretold because an omnipotent deity has already ensured the final outcome—to take such a story and make it ring with a riveting suspense that is perhaps the greatest argument we have that free will does exist.

Parallel Lives by Plutarch

Plutarch wanted to know why the great men are great (alas, it’s all men here), so he condensed their lives down to about 30,000 words each, telling them through the incidents that best revealed their inner character. The result is historically fascinating, frequently full of the pathos of Shakespearian tragedy, and incredibly educational. Plutarch also twins most of his lives—one Greek, one Roman—perhaps to show how much was borrowed, or how civilization develops, or just how much history repeats.

Dante’s Inferno (translated by Robert Pinsky)

Truly and indisputably the work of a mind unprecedented in the history of the world, and never to be repeated again. And Pinsky does a remarkable job with it.

Mind by John Searle

This is John Searle’s short account of Western humanity’s understanding of where consciousness comes from, starting with Descartes and ending with Searle and his contemporaries. Searle grapples with some of the biggest questions—causality, free will, idealism vs materialism—and for each he gives very well-thought-out, very original arguments.

The African Shore, Severina, The Good Cripple, The Pelcari Project, The Beggar’s Knife by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

This was the year I discovered Rodrigo Rey Rosa. He is a complete and utter minimalist, which means that you can read everything of his that’s been translated into English in a couple of days. So you could read them all maybe ten times in a month. Perhaps 100 or so times in a year. And yet you still won’t know what holds these tiny worlds so strongly together.

The World Viewed by Stanley Cavell

A philosophic inquiry into just what movies are—experiences, remembered memories, little chinks of postmodern consumer experience—and then a collection of readings of many of the major directors and films in some of the most beautiful critical language you will read. When I want to be inspired I open a page at random and read whatever it is I underlined there. I inevitably find an aphorism worthy of hours.

Siamese and Through the Night by Stig Saeterbakken

Two devastating novels by a Norwegian admired by, among many others, Karl Over Knausgaard. The first, about a blind, dying man living in a bathroom, strains toward Beckett. The second, my favorite Saeterbakken so far, is a story of suicide that moves toward horror.

Nay Rather by Anne Carson

A remarkable essay on translation, and then a beautiful demonstration of the principle of constraint used in literary translation. You probably knew that translation could amaze you, but did you think it could move you?

TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: Patrick Kurp

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Patrick Kurp, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is a review of Uncollected Poems by R.S. Thomas.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

David Yezzi: Birds of the Air (Carnegie Mellon University Press)

Just when you thought poetry was as moribund as Linear B, Yezzi reminds us of the virtues readers once expected of poems and poets: narrative, formal mastery, linguistic energy and wit. His blank-verse monologues are short stories in an age when that form, too, is almost dead. In “Dirty Dan,” dedicated to his late friend Tom Disch, Yezzi says “we’d people / the vastness with our stories and we’d laugh.” In Yezzi’s rousing company, we do.

Ed. Jonathan F.S. Post: The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht (The Johns Hopkins University Press)

Dead these nine years, Hecht seems in his letters more alive than almost any living poet. Like his poems, Hecht’s letters are funny, learned, scabrous, gossipy and wise, making him a veritable Proust of American verse. The darkness always shines through. Writing of his great poem “Green: An Epistle” to the poet L.E. Sissman, Hecht asks: “How can we recognize evil if we are untainted with it ourselves? Who is not tainted with it; and who, in the end, can be a reliable witness?”

Ed. Erik Reece: The Guy Davenport Reader (Counterpoint)

A smartly chosen sampler of our best essayist’s work in many genres, and a good place for tyros to get their bearings. Davenport remains sui generis, offending and sometimes flattering every literary tribe. He possessed the rarest of qualities in a writer – independence militantly indifferent to reputation and fashion. When he said his friend the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard “had invented himself,” Davenport was writing autobiographically. He was our Ruskin, though sane, and never wrote a boring, stupid or dishonest sentence.

Ben Downing: Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

You’ll wish you had learned about Janet Ross (1842-1927) years ago. She was a writer but her chief work was her life and the expatriate community in Florence. She knew everyone from Mark Twain to Bernard Berenson. Downing is a fine poet, his prose is comparable and there’s no feminist tokenizing of his subject: “Though intelligent and learned, especially for an autodidact, she was by no means brilliant. She had little imagination or inner life, and she made no towering contribution to humanity.” Praise the Lord!

Terry Teachout: Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books)

The relentlessly multi-tasking Teachout brings to Ellington, a cipher of a man, a jazz musician’s insight and a critic’s willingness to dispense with correctness, whether political, racial or musical. Teachout isn’t taken in by this slyest of dogs nor his putative admirers. Teachout’s research is exhaustive, not exhausting, and he never forgets to keep the story moving. Marvel at the way the author demythologizes Ellington without diminishing him, juggling mini-profiles of Duke’s great sidemen. The best, most readable jazz biography since Pops, Teachout’s 2009 life of Louis Armstrong.

TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: Daniel Medin

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Daniel Medin, who is Senior Editor of The Quarterly Conversation.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

1. Dodge Rose by Jack Cox (forthcoming, Dalkey Archive)

The most singular work of fiction written in English that I encountered this year. Difficult to summarize what it does in so little space, though in addition to being a Great Australian Novel–in less than 200 pages–Dodge Rose is a funny and profound take on the legal language of property and ownership. For a sense of what Cox manages on a smaller scale, seek out his story “The Fisherman” in issue 6 of The White Review. You can even sample Dodge Rose in a recently published volume of The Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted to new writers. It may take a while for the entire book to appear, but remember this young author’s name: Cox is a brilliant and utterly original novelist, renewing the labors of Beckett and Joyce in exhilarating ways.

2. The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pie by Eugene Ostashevsky; E.O. portfolio for issue 81 of Schreibheft; An Invitation for Me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky (translated by E.O.); and poems by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko (trans. by E.O. and Bela Sheyavich) in issue 2 of The American Reader.

Ostashevsky is the rightful heir of the wonderful OBERIU writers. I’m terribly fond of his poetry–and behind it, his sensibility and witz–and will read everything he deems fit to print, translations included. (“The Conversation of the Hours” by Vvedensky was, by itself, a highlight of 2013’s readings.)

3. Teaching is a privilege for numerous reasons, among them its opportunities to study beloved authors in the company of fresh readers. Last spring I revisited two of my favorite novels, Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pécuchet for a course on Gustave Flaubert. These hours were richly rewarded, as were those devoted to Three Stories, the Correspondence, and two very different biographies: the elegant and largely synthetical Life by Frederick Brown; and Pierre-Marc de Biasi‘s often fascinating work of genetic criticism. The latter’s occasional abuses of scholarship (e.g. tallying the number of times Flaubert refers to a horse in his books, or the total hours he spent on horseback during a visit to Africa) are easily offset by insights generated by De Biasi’s careful examination of the manuscripts. De Biasi also demonstrates convincingly that the most famous line attributed to Flaubert–Madame Bovary, c’est moi–is in all likelihood apocryphal.

4. The Zibaldone by Giacomo Leopardi (edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino and rendered into English by seven translators)

I’ve not read this from cover to cover, and may, in fact, never make it through every sentence of the work. But I’ll own this book longer than most of the titles that came into my possession in 2013. And the parts I have been through–several on repeated occasions–rank Leopardi, in both his vision and sensitivity to human suffering, alongside Schopenhauer, Beckett and Bernhard.

5. I’ve focused mainly on titles that aren’t eligible for the Best Translated Book Award, since I’ve had the opportunity to write about those elsewhere. But it would feel amiss to omit Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer (trans. John Keene), Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg (trans. Humphrey Davies), Hella S. Haasse’s The Black Lake (trans. Ina Rilke), and–especially–László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below (trans. Ottilie Mulzet) from any discussion of resonant readings.

TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: Jacob Silverman

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Jacob Silverman, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is a review of Futility by William Gerhardie.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

1) “Bough Down” by Karen Green

The first book by artist Karen Green, who is the widow of David Foster Wallace, took me by surprise. Not because this book of prose poems and small collages is so finely written, but rather because Green manages to talk about what is on everyone’s mind — her husband’s suicide — in ways that are beautiful, allusive, and moving. “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound” — lines like these have a special artfulness, a sensory vividness (“that sound”) that will make you cringe even as your heart sinks.

2) “The Culture of Narcissism” by Christopher Lasch

Written by the eminent sociologist in the late seventies, “The Culture of Narcissism” — written in the aftermath of a disastrous war, during an economic malaise when people had little faith in government and when the counterculture had given way to a culture of ironic display and self-celebration — remains remarkably current. Skip the reactionary sections on feminism and family, but stay for the trenchant analysis of media culture, identity-as-performance, and how modernity creates a crisis of self-consciousness.

3) “The Image” by Daniel J. Boorstin

More than 50 years old, this is another work of social criticism that, if it doesn’t fully explain our current media culture, does a lot to trace its antecedents. Reading Boorstin’s book, you see how the media began to cover events that were increasingly covered in layers of artifice — “pseudo,” in the author’s description — laying the groundwork for our present society, in which invented controversies, fake viral media, press conferences, and other artificial events curry more power and attention than any story of famine, war, or injustice.

TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: John Domini

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from John Domini, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is a review of Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

Ten, Anyway: reluctant but heartfelt, a list of a year’s good, obscure reading for The Quarterly Conversation

Lists are odious, brainless, even cruel—and also handy, irresistible, only natural. The depth and insight of actual criticism has always meant more to me than any Top Ten. I can’t deny, however, that even Walter Benjamin celebrated his own select few (Kafka and Proust both owe him a debt), and even Vladimir Nabokov, in his brief piece “On Inspiration,” trotted through an inventory of the colleagues he respected most (including a surprising name or two, like John Barth). So when TQC requested I tote up my year’s most rewarding reading and post the results, who was I to act the snob?

Rather than refusing, I’ve used a filter. I’ll grant that plenty of fine titles appeared on New York’s commercial presses. I’ve read McBride’s National Book Award winner, The Good Lord Bird, and here’s another glass of champagne (though didn’t anyone else feel that the novel returned too often to the same satiric note?). Still, granting that much, I don’t see how another list of the biggies on FSG and Knopf will add anything. Instead, I’ll offer a double-handful my favorite small- and independent-press reading over the past year. Small-press, everyone! Note, too, that a few of the titles aren’t exactly 2013. Caveat emptor.

1) George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, Peter Dimock (Dalkey Archive, 2013). An impossible text, a set of instructions rather than a story, yet Dimock pierces the heart of the callousness and tragedy of America under Bush II.

2) Cataclysm Baby, Matt Bell (Mudluscious Press, 2012). Bell has gone on to bigger things, but this brutal and poetic abecedarium remains his key work, the one where he forged his apocalyptic redemption.

3) The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (Archipelago Books, 2014). J.M Coetze translated, and this woman’s vision of slavery and escape, alive with the terrors of both, invites comparison to no less a book than Waiting for the Barbarians.

4) Mira Corpora, Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio, 2013). A miracle: a bildungsroman that leaves what it’s building in ruins, that trashes its hero’s metanarrative like a take-no-prisoners postmodern, and yet, in the reading, proves exciting, swift, and altogether a delight.

5) Cannonball, Joseph McElroy (Dzanc Books, 2013). The old dog, McElroy, performs a spectacular new trick, tracking how two SoCal youngsters are perverted by the country’s Iraq misadventure, and the Gospels along with them, all in challenging prose spirals.

6) Scouting the Reaper, Jacob M. Appel (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). Sensational short stories, realism of rare imagination — zoo penguins and teen runaways, anyone? — distinguished throughout by a prodigious gift for rendering personality on a thumbnail.

7) Train Shots, Vanessa Blakeslee (Burrow Press, 2014). Our newly stunted America discovers itself in a trailer park, with connections damn close to surreal. Every one of these stories glistens some conversation teetering between cruelty and crying for mercy.

8) The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men, Gabriel Blackwell (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013). A Pale Fire prank, false lit cum false footnotes, and a brilliant collusion of Lovecraft’s monsters and the monstrous reality of life at poverty level.

9) Submergence, J.M. Ledgard (Coffee House Press, 2013). Sumptuous clash-of-culture material which, like Dimock’s, forages for a few incidences of the ethical and the good, even in ravaged Africa.

10) Jagannath: Stories, by Karin Tidbeck (Cheeky Frawg, 2012). Fantasy to set your back-hairs bristling, the dream-stuff close to terror even when the story’s a romance, and the best enact old myths with a jaundiced, up-to-the-minute awareness.

TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: Geoff Wisner

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Geoff Wisner, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is a review of Forest of a Thousand Daemons by D.O. Fagunwa.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

Early in 2013 I landed a new day job with an engineering company based in New Jersey. My two-hour megacommute gave me more time for reading, beginning with several books by Henry Petroski, the John McPhee of engineering. (In books like The Control of Nature, of course, John McPhee is himself the John McPhee of engineering.)

Some of the books I read this year I would recommend enthusiastically if only you had a reasonable chance of finding them. I read some of the more obscure works of Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Mission to Gelele, Two Trips to Gorilla Land, Vikram and the Vampire, and Goa, or the Blue Mountains. I also bought and burrowed through the four-volume 1952 edition of The Diary of George Templeton Strong—foolishly discarded by the University of West Florida.

For an essay on the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra I read through all the fiction available in English, and uncovered a telling image that recurs in nearly every one of his books. (When will someone translate Crazy Scalpel and Bastards’ Fair?)

I did read some books published in 2013, however, and some of my favorites are listed below.

African Fiction

NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names.
The rude, brave, honest children in this first collection of stories by the Caine Prize winner are immediately believable. Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina offer a fresh view of contemporary Zimbabwe.

Chinelo Okparanta, Happiness, Like Water.
After the first couple of stories, I thought I had this book figured out: cautious, well-made tales of women’s victimization. I nearly set it aside. But the young female narrator of the next story, “Fairness,” is a bit twisted, and with “Story, Story!” Okparanta turns out to be a more devious and surprising storyteller than I would have imagined.

Other Fiction

John Kenney, Truth in Advertising.
The hero of this sharp, funny novel is an ad man on the edge. The next big ad campaign could make his mark, his bosses tell him. It’s worth reading the book to enjoy his explosion on page 290 when someone says that once too often.

Norman Rush, Subtle Bodies. After three works of fiction set in Botswana, at the age of 80 Norman Rush has published his first novel to be set in America. A kind of high-brow Big Chill, in which a death brings together a group of college friends, Subtle Bodies has the same high energy, antic wit, and political astuteness that marked his blockbuster novel Mating.

Short Stories of John Updike (Library of America).
Edited by my old friend Chris Carduff, this handsome two-volume set brings together some of the 20th century’s best short fiction. I had read most of these stories before, so I jumped to the end for the heartbreaking final tales that appeared in My Father’s Tears.


William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection.
Friedkin directed three of my favorite films in a row: The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer. If you like them half as much as I do, you will enjoy the fascinating backstories told here. As unsparing with himself as with the studio executives who made his life difficult, Friedkin recalls a time when authenticity in moviemaking mattered more than high-tech gloss.

Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy.
You’ve seen the eerie photos of the ruins, but what is it really like to live in Detroit? This edgy account covers the urban underbelly of a city where firehouses don’t have poles because the brass has been sold for scrap. I won’t forget the homeless man whose body has to be chipped out of several feet of ice.

Amy Wilensky, Farewell, Fred Voodoo.
“Fred Voodoo” is the dismissive name Western journalists gave to the man in the street in Haiti, a person they are often too busy and self-observed to talk to. Amy Wilentz has spent years getting to know Fred Voodoo and his friends and relatives, and although no longer as romantic about Haiti as she once was (as he remarked to me this year when I asked her to sign my copy of The Rainy Season) she is one of the best observers of that fascinating country.

Geoff Wisner, African Lives.
Well, if Norman Mailer could advertise himself . . . It would be dishonest to deny that reading my page proofs of my new anthology African Lives was a highlight of my year. Most of the credit goes to contributors like Bessie Head and Binyavanga Wainaina, but as the editor I’m pleased with the way I was able to arrange the selections so they follow the countries of Africa from A to B and the continent as if it were a printed page.

TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: Taylor Davis-Van Atta

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Taylor Davis-Van Atta, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is an essay on the fiction of Stig Sæterbakken.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

1. Seiobo There Below — László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet

A novel in 17 episodes, Seiobo There Below explores our insatiable desire to be loved, to achieve transcendence through any means, and to glimpse, however fleetingly, the sacred—and why we continually fail in our attempts to attain satisfaction. A kind of counterweight to Krasznahorkai’s other works so far available in English, which deal in madness and melancholy, Seiobo There Below is my favorite of the five and a major achievement for its author, its translator, and its editor.

2. Take a Closer Look — Daniel Arasse, translated from the French by Alyson Waters

Comprising six “fictions,” each a creative response to the definitive interpretation of a famous painting, Take a Closer Look is a daring investigation of the act of criticism and of our attempts to engage art with an appreciative eye. In challenging the widely accepted readings of each painting, Arasse exposes the many obstacles that obscure our appreciation of the paintings’ multiple (possible) meanings and of their creators’ (likely) true intentions. The book is beautifully illustrated, and Arasse’s erudite, quick, and often humorous prose is presented in a graceful translation by Alyson Waters. Take a Closer Look is the most creative and inspired book I’ve read about the act of thinking about art since Energy of Delusion by Viktor Shklovsky.

3. The Obscene Madame D — Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo

The first of Hilst’s books to appear in English, The Obscene Madame D is a lean and supercharged novel about an ostensibly mad woman—the titular Madame D, the “D” standing for dereliction—who, following the death of her lover, chooses to live out the remainder of her life in a nook under the staircase, choosing to exist in an increasingly abject state in a perverse pursuit of self-knowledge before finally choosing the dereliction of that pursuit as well. The Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first attempt to radically challenge the limits of taste, form, and language. To our benefit, two more of Hilst’s novels—Letters from a Seducer and With My Dog-Eyes—are scheduled to appear in English in the coming months.

4. Through the Night — Stig Sæterbakken, translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella

Sæterbakken’s last published novel centers around Karl Meyer, a middle-aged man who, prompted by the sudden suicide of his teenage son, is forced to confront his past disgraces and contemplate his complicity in his son’s death, all while enduring overwhelming feelings of grief. Raw, dark, and uncompromisingly honest, Through the Night features some of Sæterbakken’s finest writing and is perhaps his most powerful literary statement.

5. Five Modern Nō Plays and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea — Yukio Mishima, translated from the Japanese by Donald Keene and John Nathan, respectively

These two books served as my introduction to Mishima, whose work I’ve wanted to read for a long time. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is the story of a thirteen-year-old boy whose rabid devotion to his mother, who has recently taken a lover, leads him and his band of friends to commit a series of increasingly brutal acts. As commanding a performance as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is, Mishima’s powers of insight and style are all the more heightened and focused within the strict form of the Nō drama. The five plays in this collection all draw from traditional narratives/folk tales but bring a modern sensibility to the centuries-old form. Both of these books are seamlessly translated.

Honorable mentions:

Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark, Can Xue’s Five Spice Street, Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History, Vol. 2, Jáchym Topol’s Gargling with Tar, Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happen to Modernism? and Infinity: The Story of a Moment, and Octavio Paz’s The Other Voice.

TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: Madeleine LaRue

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Madeleine LaRue, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is an essay on the fiction of Jáchym Topol.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Knopf)

I did practically nothing (or wanted to do practically nothing) between January and April but read Anne Carson. Red Doc>, the sequel to her much-loved Autobiography of Red, is one of her strangest, most enigmatic, and most haunting works. Even after dozens of re-readings, it has never failed to surprise me, nor to somehow elude me.

Fair Play by Tove Jansson (NYRB Classics)

Like all the best of Tove Jansson’s work, Fair Play is quietly full of life, presenting stories about everything from hanging art on the wall to accidental bird regicide with wise and melancholy humor. The novel is based on Jansson’s life with her partner, the Finnish artist Tuulikki Pietilä, and is one of the only convincing love stories I’ve ever read.

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai (New Directions)

I reviewed Seiobo There Below for The Coffin Factory earlier this year, and now can only say that even among Krasznahorkai’s already magnificent oeuvre, this is a novel with very few rivals.

The Enchanted Wanderer by Nikolai Leskov (Knopf)

Leskov’s thrilling stories sometimes belong as much to fairy tale as to nineteenth-century realism, but this odd combination only strengthens their appeal. In Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation, English readers can finally understand why Leskov is considered the greatest of Russian storytellers.

TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: Andrew Seal

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Andrew Seal, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is an essay on Franco Moretti.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

One novel I read this year could have given its title as a theme to nearly all my reading: Nadine Gordimer’s The Late Bourgeois World. This short novel, disquieted yet limpid, is Mrs. Dalloway set on the fringe of an anti-apartheid resistance cell, and like Woolf’s creation it balances a probing intelligence with a circumspection that never relents, the weight of an ambient middle class decorum.

Many who advocate for a more experimental literature probably consider this a world well lost (and the tradition’s current avatars, like Jonathan Franzen, do not help), but do we know what it was?

Two giants of literary criticism and theory, Franco Moretti and Fredric Jameson, issued their answers this year, and both are astounding works of insight and energy: Moretti’s The Bourgeois and Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism.

But in some ways the sharpest answers to questions of literary history are always to be found in new literature rather than new criticism, and it seems to me that Karl Ove Knausgård’s much ballyhooed My Struggle is in essence an experiment in writing a full-throated bourgeois work under conditions which make that kind of work incoherent. I think it succeeds in ways that I am still sorting out, and I am very excited to see where it goes as more volumes become available in English.

Yet the most interesting framings of this question are being written by women, and I found Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers to be an incredibly effective triptych in this regard. All three depict women attempting but unable to gain traction in a world of art: unable because the forms of resistance and accommodation which men before them customarily used to advance themselves are either unavailable to them as women or are losing their meanings and force among the crumbling bourgeoisie. Bohemianism, radicalism, selfishness, snobbery, promiscuity: are these any longer the traits of genius, or of an unredemptive instability? How are the rules different for women, and how are the rules just different now?

TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: Andrea Scrima

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Andrea Scrima, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is an essay on Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

Herta Müller, Niederungen (Nadirs)

As she attempts to make sense of the brutal reality around her, a child narrator escapes the claustrophobia of village life and its everyday cruelties to inhabit the lyrical dimensions of her own imagination. The poetic force of Nobel laureate Herta Müller’s language was already apparent in Nadirs, her first published work describing the lives of the German-speaking Banat Swabians in the hopelessness and dread of communist Romania. Following years of struggle with censors under Ceaucescu’s dictatorship, an uncensored version was finally smuggled to the West, where it found instant acclaim. The original uncut version was published for the first time in 2010.

Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis has a peculiar genius for dissecting metaphysical quandaries into distinct slices of sober language that twinkle with wry humor. As with Müller and the Nobel Prize, the fact that Davis won this year’s Man Booker is enough to make me believe in just rewards in literature again. Like a brain tonic, Davis’s pared-down language purifies the mind of excess verbiage. Her observations are sly and ruthless, her sentences deeply satisfying. No one can ever read enough of Lydia Davis, which is why I recommend reading everything, all of it, and as often as possible.

László Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below

I’ve struck it lucky this year: two of my more remarkable reading experiences were books I was invited to review. Seiobo There Below is a colossal work that stands on its own, seemingly outside of time. Otherwise known for his dark, apocalyptic visions, Krasznahorkai has pushed himself to the limits of the imagination in this extraordinary study on the nature of the sacred in art and civilization. As the protagonists of these short works of incantatory prose search for a higher meaning in art, they stumble over a luminous immanence they can barely countenance. You can read my recent review of Seiobo There Below in issue 33 of The Quarterly Conversation.

Einar Schleef Tagebuch 1981–1998

I’m including someone in my list who has not yet been translated into English: Einar Schleef, the brilliant East German dramatist, writer, painter, set designer, and actor. Elfriede Jelinek called him one of the two greatest minds Germany produced in the post-war period; the other was Fassbinder. Reading his journals from 1981 to 1998 brings back the somewhat surreal years in West Berlin leading up to and immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall—and reveals a mind that perceived far beyond history to the mythological and tragic in the human condition. I am hoping these words will implant themselves in someone’s mind: read Einar Schleef and translate him as soon as possible.


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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