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Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Value of the Negative Review

I pontificated this into a thread on Facebook, and it sounded more or less worthwhile to me, so I thought I would copy it here and expand on it a bit.

I disagree with the idea of “I won’t review a small press book I didn’t like.” First of all, unless a book is complete garbage, a mixed review that attempts to tease out what does and does not work will often make me want to read a book much more than bland praise. If a book has sufficiently engaged someone that they will spend the time to think through their feelings on it, then it is often a deep book that I will find compelling in some ways (and maybe I will like it more than them). It’s usually when we are wrestling with our feelings that we produce the best criticism.

Secondly, every author needs rigorous and honest critics. None of us write perfect books, we can all profit from people making intelligent critiques of what we have done. Authors only become better writers if people take the time to critique weak spots and help make their work more rigorous and in-depth.

All that said, hatchet jobs may have some place (yes, they’re fun, and it comes with the territory when you’re as big as Auster), but they are rarely of any lasting value for anyone—critic, author, or audience.

I do understand the idea of just letting a book die from lack of attention, and certainly this is something that tends to happen in the great majority of cases, intentionally or not. I don’t necessarily disagree—oftentimes I do this myself when something just doesn’t seem interesting enough to critique in any meaningful way. But if the author is someone I’ve cared enough to take an interest in, then in almost all cases it will be worth both of our time to sit down and write out my honest feelings about the book. I will have gained from the rigor of working out my thoughts, and the author will gain from the second perspective on his/her work.

My review of Javier Marías’s latest novel, Thus Bad Begins, is a good example. Certainly it is not a bad book, and I could have given it a rather honest if bland positive review. But of course if you look around the web you will see many, many such reviews of that book. There was no need for another. And, in fact, I felt that there was some ground for critique: yet, Marías is a gifted writer who would be hard-pressed to write a bad book, but this one was rather weak when placed against his other novels, and it is filled with repetitions of things he has said better elsewhere. (Also, for whatever reason, I found the typical Marías sexism must more jarring in this one.)

So I gave it a mixed review, partially to be completely honest, partially as a way to impart my feelings to other writers who are not as good as Marías but who may gain something from reading an honest critique of him, and partially to tell Marías himself that he’s beginning to repeat himself. (I have no idea if the message ever reached Marías, although I do know he has read and admired other things I have written about him.) Obviously, in the small press sphere the chance is much, much greater that a writer will read your critique, and possibly take it to heart.

Being the author of two published books and many, many essays, I know that reading a negative critique of your work is a bracing experience. I have read negative reviews of my own work. It’s not a fun thing. I take other people’s feelings seriously, and I do not criticize a fellow writer lightly. When I do critique, I try to do it with dignity and respect.

But I do think that the shock of reading a negative review of one’s own writing does wear off fairly quickly—what is much less ephemeral are the lessons you learn about your own work, which are not things you can figure out for yourself. These lessons take your arguments and art to a deeper level, they force you to be more rigorous, and they keep you honest. In short, they make you a better writer and probably a better person.

Of course, honest criticism is also the mainstay of the writer/editor relationship, and that is one of the great sources of improvement for a writer. It is not a common thing to find an editor with the time and capabilities to truly analyze your work word by word and to make deep and lasting critiques, but every time I have come upon such an editor I have gained greatly. It may be in many ways easier and safer to just blindly praise and copyedit as an editor (and sometimes this must be done, particularly in the small press world), but you are always doing your writers a service if you give them a rigorous and deep response to the work they have taken so much pain and effort to labor over.

William James Teaches You to Believe

For the third and latest installment of my column over at Literary Hub, I went to the American philosopher William James for a little inspiration amid a very depressing political moment for this country.

James wrote was is probably the best American philosophical essay on why you should have faith in things, and it has long been a work that has inspired me. In addition to that, he liked through the Civil War (as a young man, no less), which makes our current mess pale by comparison.

So, I think there’s a lot to him that’s pertinent for us right now. Enjoy, and column #4 is in the works.

Recent Pings: The Missing Books, The Surrender

Edwin Turner, aka Biblioklept, did a nice interview with me regarding The Missing Books. In it, I talk about the origins of the project, the different sorts of books that exist in it, whether or not the project if fiction or nonfiction, what makes a missing book “missing,” if I’ve ever stolen a book, and lots more. Here’s a bit:

I was also always interested in books that seemed to push up against the boundaries of the categories. Like The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, which I place under the heading of “lost books”—is it really lost, or did Pessoa complete it? Well obviously Pessoa never “finished” it in the sense that most books are finished, but then again, Pessoa’s life project arguably rebuts the whole notion of finished books as we tend to construe them. And also, The Book of Disquiet is arguably a journal of sorts, and are those ever completed? George Steiner also makes an interesting case when he argues for Disquiet as a complete work by telling us that “As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie.” So I was also always on the lookout for titles that seem to render these categories less stable, the better to contemplate what they actually mean and whether or not there really is such a thing as a “missing book.”

If you want to read The Missing Books, I’m offering a pretty sweet deal right now: you can get the Latin American Mixtape and The Missing Books for $4.99.

The details of the offer are all right here, or just get it below.

You can also order just The Missing Books—which has been featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed. Do that right here:


Kindle ($4.99)

In other news, Eric Karl Anderson, aka The Lonesome Reader, had some nice things to say about The Surrender.

I appreciated that Anderson looked at this book as one about the nature of desire (this was one of my intentions in writing it), and I also liked that he discusses how much I delve into my dialogue with film and books as an integral part of my journey. It’s very important to me that I see art as something that plays a material role in our lives, and I like to take the opportunity to examine that process in writing.

One of the most touching things is the way Esposito describes the evolution of his identity in sync with the theory, literature and films he consumes. He meaningfully enters into a dialogue with those whose ideas feed into his experience helping him to better articulate his own desires. It made me aware of why reading feels like such a vital part of my life and how all the feelings produced from the things I read aren’t just abstract concepts, but things that apply directly to my day to day life. I think this book makes a perfect companion to Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts” which I only read recently. Both reflect strikingly on the dynamics of gender in a deeply personal and intelligent way.

Some Favorite Movies of 2016

I thought it’d be fun to run down some of my favorite movies watched in 2016. These are not all new releases; in fact, this will be a pretty heavy non-2016-release list.

These are more or less in the order I saw them this year (as well as memory serves). I’m only recording films that I saw for the first time in 2016.

tree

Tree of Life by Terrence Malick

This is cinema at its most maximalist and self-indulgent. Yeah, it’s a little too long, it’s got a little too much weirdo/mystical shit going on, but Malick does create a imagistic language and visual grammar all his own (and which has already been transparently ripped off). And he does a pretty good job turning the Book of Job into a cinematic fable for our times while also cutting in a good deal of the scientific explanation of all existence. So, it should be experienced.

paths

Paths of the Soul by Zhang Yang

This is a feature movie with documentary aspects following a group of Tibetan villagers making a 1200-mile pilgrimage to Lhasa. Not only do they walk the entire way, they do so kowtowing, which means that they throw themselves onto the ground roughly ever 5th step. This is an incredible thing that people actually do, and it takes months (if not more) to complete a pilgrimage, turning the journey into a way of life itself. A remarkable story and a well-made film that takes you into a completely different way of life.

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Embrace of the Serpent by Ciro Guerra

This feature by Colombian director Guerra was one of the most visually and psychologically shocking movies I’ve seen this year. It tells twinned narratives, one about a sick explorer being led through the jungle by an Amazonian shaman to retrieve a life-saving substance; the other occurs roughly 30 years later, when the same shaman is used by a scientist as a guide. Elements of Werner Herzog, 2001, Apocalypse Now . . . this is a must-see.

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Alice in the Cities in Wim Wenders

This early feature (1974) may be my favorite Wenders movie yet. It’s about this European journalist who has been given a trip through the U.S. to write a magazine story but who gets so existentially dislocated by the source material that he ends up writing nothing. Told to return to Germany by his irate editor, he ends up shepherding a young girl who has been abandoned by her mother. Wenders’s outsider’s view on the U.S. is profound (particularly its mediation), and the movie has a strange texture all its own.

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Chimes at Midnight by Orson Welles

Welles playing Falstaff! What else needs be said? This is Welles’s cinematic adaptation of Henry IV, and it’s a pretty staggering film. The famed war scene is worth the price of admission, as is the moment when the newly crowned King Henry V turns his back on the old man. Welles plays this material for a nostalgic, elegiac reading of Shakespeare’s famed play.

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Hitchcock/Truffaut by Kent Jones

Documentary based on the famed book of the same title. There’s a lot of candid Hitch in this one (Jones makes heavy use of the original recordings of the conversations between Hitchcock and Truffaut), as well as lots of homages to what the book has meant for the generations of filmmakers after it. Good fun.

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Ixcanul by Jayro Bustamante

17-year-old Kaqchikel-Guatemalan María is going to be married off to a wealthy, middle-aged farm-owner. This doesn’t go over too well with her, and she tries to run away with a ne’er-do-well her own age who’s going to the U.S. But instead ends up pregnant and alone. A very beautifully shot, moving film, and one that takes you deeply into the culture of indigenous Guatemalans.

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Lola Montès by Max Ophüls

Late Ophüls! This is the director’s last completed movie, and it’s incredibly strange. Based on a real-life Irish dancer and courtesan and affaired with Franz Lizst and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, climbed to the heights of European society, and then ended up lost and abandoned in Gold Rush California where she dramatized her own bizarre life in a surreal circus show. (The movie takes place in New Orleans.) This movie is visually stunning and incredibly provocative on subjects including fame, media, the male gaze, and the representation of femininity and the female.

voyage

Voyage of Time by Terrence Malick

This should be experienced as an IMAX just to know what it feels like. As a spectacle dedicated to the cosmological/mystical explanation of all life and being, it’s pretty intense, and it’s also an incredibly beautiful thing to witness.

moonlight

Moonlight by Barry Jenkins

One of the best new releases of 2016, hands down. This is a triptych based around the life of African-American Floridian Chiron—three different actors play him as a child, adolescent, and young man, and in each 35-minute vignette we get insight into the person he is at the time and the circumstances that are shaping him. It’s a very nuanced portrait of a life, one that treats identity and male homosexuality with a degree of subtlety and complexity that I have rarely (if ever) seen in a motion picture.

hollywood-sign-and-city

Los Angeles Plays Itself by Thom Andersen

A cinematic essay (and a pretty long one at that) about all the ways that Los Angeles has been depicted or otherwise used in films. It reminded me in some very good ways of Chris Marker and Mike Davis, and it also revealed a lot to me about film, famous locations in Los Angeles, and the ways that place-identity is constructed in movies. This is a fun one just to watch, but also one you can think about pretty in-depth.

Art vs. the Authoritarian Mind

The second installment of my column at Lit Hub is now online. This one deals with the Nobel Prize–winning poet and essayist Czesław Miłosz and art’s role in interpreting and resisting the authoritarian mind.

In addition to other things, this marks the beginning of something I will be continuing to address with this column: the importance of continuing to make and promote art in these dark times. There’s a lot of malaise and hopelessness in the artistic community right now (I get it, I feel it too), but I think there’s a very, very strong case for why art is hugely important at a time like this; indeed, maybe more important than ever at times like this. So I begin making that case with this column.

One other thing I want to start talking about here: the value of ridiculing Trump and his goons. Yes, I know, what’s going on right now is terrible; it’s no laughing matter when anti-Semites are targeting Jews, when people of color and the LGBT community are the targets of hate crimes. I don’t think that sort of thing should be made light of at all. But we should ridicule Trump for the petty little man that he is. Part of the authoritarian power is the power of intimidation, the power of the reputation to cow resistance. Authoritarians bank on the people doing their work for them by psyching themselves out and losing the battle before it even starts. Eroding that fearsomeness very concretely erodes an authoritarian’s power, and art has traditionally been quite good at doing just that. So this is a part of its role in resistance.

A few recommended books that go along with this week’s column:

The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (tr. Jane Zielonko)
Native Realm by Czesław Miłosz (tr. Catherine S. Leach)
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet by Rebecca Rischin
Europe Central by William T. Vollmann
Blueprint for Revolution by Srdja Popovic
A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit

The Requirements of the Moment

As I mentioned in this post, I’ve decided to spend more time writing ostensibly politically themed pieces, in addition to the pure literature/aesthetics writing that you’ve probably come to expect from me if you follow this site and my writing.

There’s no other way to put it: the historic nature of the recent Presidential election has left no other course than this. This is a time when we all have to make our voices heard to protect the things we love about America, so I’m going to do my part.

As part of this, I’ve inaugurated to fortnightly Lit Hub column about the importance of the humanities during a time like this, and the role that they will play (politcally and otherwise) in these dark years. The first entry in the column is here.

Just in case you’re wondering, this writing doesn’t come out of a vacuum. Way back when I did my undergrad degree, it was a double major in Poli Sci and Economics (I barely studied literature or art at all in university). Questions of governance, economy, civics, society, etc, etc are in my roots, and I have always taken a very keen interest in American and global politics. I read lots of books on these topics every year, I keep up with the news like a minor political junkie, and I’ve always engaged in our government as a citizen.

This is something I’ve taken pains to separate out from my literary writings (although I’m quite opinionated on the subject if you follow me on Twitter), but no more. This is a time when voices in the literary and artistic communities need to come forward to support the values we believe in and ameliorate the harm of divisive politics. I hope you all will be with us.

Issue 46 of The Quarterly Conversation

Lots of good stuff in this issue.

If you like what you see, take a second to support these websites.

Features


Mario Bellatín: Between Hermeticism and Communion

Mario Bellatín: Between Hermeticism and Communion

It’s difficult to find adjectives that will bear the full oddity of Mario Bellatín’s books. But it’s at least possible to say they are remarkably elastic—usually slim in size but containing a stretched-waistband world of absurd characters, uncanny scenarios, and endless transformations. In Bellatín’s accounts of reality, nothing remains what it is for very long, nothing is cataloged properly or fixed in place. Soon enough it shifts shape, or inverts. Male to female, fanged to toothless, indecent to prim, alive to dead; Central Europe becomes California, a beauty salon an aquarium and a hospice, a roadhouse an underground railroad for Jewish refugees.


The Scrim and Fog of Translation

The Scrim and Fog of Translation

The pieces of writing in the couplet of new essay collections by Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei and The Ghosts of Birds, though varying in their tactical scopes, share an overall strategic concern: no cultural labor is truly free from its source. This applies to translation as much as it applies to the manufacture of history. All of the antecedent things that evolve across the ether surrounding their precedents are forever tethered, although often by an invisible tissue of strange virtual possibility. Weinberger, with great sensitivity, explores the notion of that tissue just as much as the cultural objects it engenders.


Beyond Malcolm and Garnett: The Possibilities and Limitations of Translation

Beyond Malcolm and Garnett: The Possibilities and Limitations of Translation

This past June, in an essay (“Socks”) in the New York Review of Books, the writer Janet Malcolm, best known for her writing about psychoanalysis and her legal battles with the former director of the Freud Archives, added wood to discussions—some long burning, some more recently ignited—about the ideal approach to translation. Ever combative, Malcolm writes that “a sort of asteroid has hit the safe world of Russian literature in English translation. A couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English.” Most specifically, Malcolm claims that this couple’s, and Marian Schwartz’s, recent translations of Tolstoy are vastly inferior in approach and readability to the classic translations done by Constance Garnett a century ago.



Interviews

The Edwin Frank Interview

The Edwin Frank Interview


Great literature is literature that remains news, and there’s a way to publish things that can cast a new light on things we take for granted in our own time. The metaphors I tend to think of are somewhere between the vinyl bin, where you can flip through and there’s a whole range of music and so on, or the repertory film theater that can move from Japan to B movies and so on. So that was always the idea, but at the beginning it was very much about reprints, and that was true for two or three years. Partly because the series was doing well there was a moment where it seemed right to begin acquiring books and doing new translations of books.



In Translation

From The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol

From The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol

As Flann O’Brien, he wrote two masterpieces: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman; a novel written in Gaelic, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), a sort of requiem in a whisper for a language on the verge of extinction, and for the last inhabitants who still speak it, descendants of warrior kings and talented poets, degraded to a condition in which the difference between their life and that of pigs whose breeding sustained them was scarcely perceptible; as well as two minor novels written in his waning years, The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, and the play Faustus Kelley. He was a personality with three faces: a public functionary, an avant-garde novelist known only by a tiny handful of enthusiasts, and the author a popular column in Dublin’s most important newspaper. Journalism ended up invading his creative faculties, by making him famous and unhappy, by turning him into a creation of his pseudonym.



Reviews

The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei

The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei


We’re all familiar with unreliable narrators, those first-person storytellers whose words we are not sure we can trust. In The Invisibility Cloak, Ge Fei takes this to the next level: he gives us an unreliable narrator in an unreliable career struggling with unreliable characters in an unreliable country. What is reliable in The Invisibility Cloak is the translation. This is Canaan Morse’s first full-length novel, but he is one of a new generation of ambitious translators who are redefining standards of quality in writing English without sacrificing accuracy in treating the Chinese.


Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon

Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon

In Jung Young Moon’s novel Vaseline Buddha, the narrator lurks in every one of its paragraphs, constantly disrupting the flow of his own narrative whenever it shows a hint of becoming a full-fledged story. “Free-wheeling” might be too modest a phrase to capture the excess of freedom the narrator exhibits in his chaotic romp. Jung has taken the wheel of narrative from his book and hid it, or perhaps he has destroyed it. His carriage will never get the reader from point A to point B. Our trickster guide will teleport his visitor through broken images in an elliptical dance around what is beyond language. To borrow Wallace Stevens’ line, Jung frolics through the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria

Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria


The 2013 publication of Martutene earned Ramón Saizarbitoria his second Euskadi Literature Prize and helped to cement his status as one of the patriarchs of Basque literature. A grand and audacious novel, Martutene is just over 800 pages and presents a nuanced perspective of the contemporary Basque experience. History, politics, language, and culture ripple through the characters’ daily interactions. Saizarbitoria dramatizes the best and worst of the contemporary Basque experience—national pride and cultural intolerance, as well as gastronomy and terrorism.


Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet


For those familiar with canonical texts of Haitian literature, the translation of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1957 novel La Danse sur le volcan into English is a long time coming. Vieux-Chauvet is a key figure of Caribbean literature, known for interlacing charged subjects such as slavery, colonialism, erotic desire, racial injustice, and the influence of Vodou in Haiti, and it is surprising that, until now, only her famous trilogy of novellas Amour, colère et folie—originally published by Gallimard in 1968 with the support of Simone de Beauvoir—has been translated. From a writer whose most frequent subject is the psyche of Haitian women during violent and politically charged moments of Haiti’s history—she herself fled the Duvalier régime after the publication of her trilogy—Dance on the Volcano is an intimate rendering of the Haitian Revolution and a nuanced portrayal of the brutality that resonated across all realms of society in the colony of Saint Domingue at the turn of the 19th century.


The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane


In the novel The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy, by Paulina Chiziane, fidelity is not scarce but actually in abundance. The reader just has to broaden their definition of what being faithful is, especially when the author puts it to the test in a story where five women realize that they all have been married to the same husband. This renewed concept of fidelity will have little to do with blind obedience because by the end of the story the women begin to have more faith in their own abilities to acquire work, new relationships, and independence on their own terms.


Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca

Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca


Colonel Lágrimas is ambitious and something to remember. It tells the story of a hermit attempting to cipher the monstrosity that is 20th-century history into an intimate code. The novel is an exploration of obsession, genius, madness, and of the futility of historical meaning in the face of a past in ruins and the gargantuan archive that remains. Loosely basing his novel on the life of the great mathematician Alexander Grothendiek, Fonseca takes advantage of that biographical silence that was Grothendiek´s final decades. Colonel Lágrimas fills this biographical void with a bursting yet elegant flight of crazed and creative power.


Pieces of Soap by Stanley Elkin

Pieces of Soap by Stanley Elkin


There is an unfortunate shortage of grotesquerie in literary criticism. Prudish intellect has somehow muscled the burping body from the realm of books, as if we do not read and write, too, through the revelations and failures of our flesh. The grand critics have already assembled in holy raiment—Trilling, Wilson, Kermode, Ozick, Wood—to lay a white cloth over the roughly hewn table of literature, smoothing over its splinters, its sap. While of obvious merit, their collected work is, in itself, something like a history of manners: spotless, chaste, the well-planed beams of a gleaming critical edifice. This is not necessarily a knock against them (I read much of their work with admiration); call it rather a lingering desire for something supplementary, a meaner model, runny as an egg or rich as butter, words to stain lips and lapels, to pass gas (as Gass’s does), flippant, bloated, savage, overcooked but rarely overwrought: a criticism of both gut and guile. Such a mode would, of course, need its exemplar, its Falstaff, comingler of erudition and eructation. Such a mode, finally, needed only Stanley Elkin.


Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems by Yoshimasu Gozo

Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems by Yoshimasu Gozo


Because he prizes concept over medium, I would argue that Yoshimasu is an artist before a poet. If a project needs to be visual, he is a photographer and filmmaker, as in gozoCiné, ethereal short films that mix sound, music, and spoken word with shaky, sometimes filtered images. If the concept requires an aural element, he’s a musician and chanter with what has been called “a unique ‘vocalization’ recitation style, which relies upon a highly rhythmic delivery and intense vocal modulations.” If the concept requires language, he is a poet, but even then he is not limited to one language, or even to language at all.


In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi

In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi


As the new collection In Praise of Defeat, deftly translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, shows, Laâbi’s early poems are poems of protest and of incarceration. They powerfully evoke the need for poetry to bear witness. Laâbi was jailed in Kenitra Prison 1972 for because of his writing and as a co-founder of Souffles, the influential literary journal. He was sentenced to ten years and served eight, spending some of that time in solitary confinement. His poems detail the torture that he suffered. The powerful poem “Beneath the Gag, the Poem,” an excerpt of which appears in In Praise of Defeat, is at once account of torture and incarceration, a cry to humans and poets to bear witness, and evidence of the transporting power of metaphor.


Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó


It has taken a while for Szabó’s work to see the light of day. Her first novel in English translation, The Door, published by Columbia University Press in 1995 did not cause much of a stir. It wasn’t until the success of Len Rix’s retranslation of The Door ten years later with publisher NYRB Classics that she started to see some success. Whether this was due to the merits of the new translation, the marketing skills of the publishers, or just down to the whims of fortune, Szabó is finally having her moment in the English-Speaking world. Previously Szabó has been popular in German translation, and in her native Hungary she is considered one of the major writers (although even the Hungarians had to wait until after the Stalinist era, when the ban on publishing her books was finally lifted). Now with the U.S. arrival of Iza’s Ballad, in George Szirtes’s crisp, polished translation, American readers are starting to see that The Door was only the tip of a much larger iceberg.


A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar

A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar


Raduan Nassar’s A Cup of Rage has been a cult classic in Brazil since its publication in the late 1970s, but was not published in English until last year. From the first page, which opens in media res, it is apparent why Nassar has achieved such renown in his homeland, despite only publishing two novels before retreating from public life: his prose moves with a violence, vitality, and sexual energy that burns like a splash of acid. At only 45 pages, it barely meets the expectations of “novel,” yet the experience and reward of reading it are equal to that of a much longer fiction. Constructed of seven one-sentence chapters and anchored by a vitriolic, brutal center-piece, A Cup of Rage is a book to be read in the span of a single sitting—even if its density conspires against that.


You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett

You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett


In You Must Change Your Life, Rachel Corbett writes a dual biography of monumental figures in the artworld, a book that feels comprehensive but that only requires under 300 pages (30 of which are notes). We get to know both the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the sculptor Auguste Rodin as persons and artists, as Corbett relates their marriages, major works, and personal crises. To add new dimension to these biographies, she illuminates how their relationship is at the heart of Rilke’s most famous book in the U.S., Letters to a Young Poet. So framing their story presents and questions the advice Rilke gives about the artistic life, its sacrifices and burdens, and its implications for love, marriage, and family life. Corbett also traces significant ideas about the new science of psychology, turn-of-the-century Europe, and artistic developments.


Support CR, TQC

I’m going to keep this brief. Running Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation takes time, energy, $$$, etc. There’s a great audience and community around these sites, and I love to do them. I have no intentions of stopping, but if you are in a position to support these sites, that would make keeping them around so much easier.

There are some really easy ways to support. Skip on down below to learn about those.

I’m hoping to make this blog in particular extra fantastic in 2017. One of the things I’m eager to do next year is lots more short interviews on the site. That’s in addition to the usual mix of lists, brief essays, recommendations, and assorted odds and ends.

Here are a few of the posts you may have enjoyed so far this year (+ the “interesting new releases” list and my rundown of favorite reads of the year):

And here are the ways to support these sites.

Number one, the easiest thing is to just do your regular Amazon shopping after visiting Amazon through my links. You get your stuff, I get a kickback, and we probably entirely kill Jeff Bezos’s razor-thin margins. Everybody wins!

Another nice thing would be to purchase one of my ebooks for yourself. You get some great reads, I get a little of your money, unbeatable deal for everyone.

Right now I’m offering a pretty sweet buy on the Latin American Mixtape and The Missing Books. That is 35,000 words for just $4.99.

You can read the whole deal right here, or just get it below.

The Missing Books——which has been featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed——can also be purchased separately:


Kindle ($4.99)

And, of course, Paypaling me a little funds is always nice.







24+ Books That Have Shaped My Understanding of the 20th and 21st Centuries

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Probably most people who know me through this website know me primarily as an arts and literature person. That is my profession, and that’s mainly the way I’ve oriented this website, but I’m also heavily into politics. My undergrad degree was in Political Science and Economics, and I still read a lot in those disciplines, even if that reading tends not to make it to this blog.

Well, with the state of the world as it is, maybe it’s time to feature a little more of those kinds of books on this site.

So, with that in mind, here’s a list of books that I think can go a long way toward helping understand exactly where we are now in the world, politically speaking, and where this all might be headed. This is not an exhaustive list; it’s a very idiosyncratic, personal, and probably incomplete list of the books that have shaped my vision of the world.

Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Barrington Moore

“Fascism” and “Nazi” are two words that are getting thrown around quite a bit right now. Well, this is basically the book on where fascism in Europe came from, why some societies went toward fascism, while others went toward democracy. In terms of understanding the contemporary drift toward authoritarian leaders, this is worth roughly a million thinkpieces on the Trump voter.

Postwar by Tony Judt

World War II was basically the Big Bang that exploded out into the world we live in today. You can’t understand our current globe without understanding what that war did, how the West recovered from it, and how the resulting global order evolved over the decades. Tony Judt’s Postwar is basically the single best text for comprehending this.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

I just gave you Postwar, and now this: what I consider the definitive novelistic response to the Second World War

Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty

I look at this as the essential companion volume to Postwar. Basically, the long European conflict now known as World War I and World War II opened the way for an economic regime unlike any that had ever existed in Europe. This is where the middle class and the postwar wealth, freedom, and (relative) equality came from. Piketty lays it all out, as well as explaining why this order looks to be regressing to something much more 19th-century.

Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer

The decision to go to war is one of the gravest a society can make, particularly when said society has more destructive firepower than the next 10 combined. It’s hard to know just when war is warranted (if it ever is). Michael Walzer is one of our nation’s leading political philosophers, and this is his major statement on these questions. The thoughts here, as well as the discussion of major historical examples—including many from the signal conflicts of the 20th century—is essential.

Ryszard Kapuscinski

It’s hard to pick any one book by Kapuscinski, since he tended not to write large, all-encompassing volumes (maybe his “tyrant trilogy”—The Emperor, Shah of Shahs and Amin (unfinished) comes the closest). But in terms of understanding what was happening in the developing world in the 20th century his body of work is essential.

The Master Switch by Tim Wu

Knowledge is power, information is capital. Facebook spread more fake election news than real. If this rings true to you, then you want to know who’s controlling the information you get and how. Tim Wu has written a pretty definitive account of how the major media of our age—radio, TV, film, the Internet—have all pretty much taken a similar path in terms of who controls them and to what end.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer

Fascism, Nazis, Hitler, these are all common points of comparison nowadays. If you want to see what the genuine article was and how it came to exist and eventually be exterminated, this is the book you need. It’s very big, and also addictive.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

If The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is the nonfiction you read on Nazism, this is the fiction. How German is it? Where does radicalism come from? How deeply is fascism embedded in the West’s cultural DNA? This is the book to read on these and other related questions.

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

An essential text on the USSR. I’m not sure if the sell an unabridged edition any more (the link goes to an abridged, recent edition).

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

The essential novel of the totalitarian mind. This and Orwell’s 1984 go together like peanut butter and milk. And also, probably, The Captive Mind, which I’m reading right now, and of course the work of Hannah Arendt.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

The key text on the struggles of the oppressed peoples of the 20th century.

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

One of Freud’s most famous texts, also very readable and probably one of his most relevant works today. Basically, what impulses led human beings to work together in communities, and what impulses are threatening to tear those bonds apart?

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Not a book about the 20th century per se, in explaining how the world map got to be as it stands is explains the deep roots of modernity and thus gives a very deep look into societies in general. A great, hugely illuminating read.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama

Don’t be intimidated by the title: this book is very easy to read, ad hugely fascinating. Basically, it’s an authoritative account of what makes democracies tick, how they have been given stability and strength, and how these qualities have been detracted from. The sections on the U.S. are of great importance right now.

Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

This is a key work for processing how the order of the early 21s century transformed in the years after the war and turned into the postmodern, heavily mediated present. Essential reading for figuring out how we process political realities at the moment.

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault

How does the modern nation-state enforce its values? How does it generate the power it uses to control its citizens? Where do these things come from (historically)? This is the book to read on those questions. Contains Foucault’s discussion of the “panopticon,” definitely one of the most famous pieces of writing Foucault ever made.

The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi

One of the core texts of Keynesian economics and a great education on where the industrialized world came from. Still one of the best cases against the “self-regulating” market.

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama

The French Revolution is basically the big bang of the modern values core to any Western-style democracy. This is the best single-volume popular account.

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand

This is the story of American thought in the post–Civil War era. Basically, Menand covers much of the groundwork for the various strains of thought that have come to dominate America thought in the realms of politics, science, education, and philosophy in the 20th century.

River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit

My favorite Solnit book, and a great read alongside the Menand. Basically, where to modern concepts of time and distance come from? (Photography, the railroads.) And how have they shaped the modern perception of the world and life?

Rise to Globalism by Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley

How did America become a world power, and what did it to with that power once it had it? A very strong single-volume narrative of American foreign policy from the era of the Nazis through 9/11.

The Faith of the Faithless by Simon Critchley

A great book about how belief in God has become belief in State in the 20th century. Also about how authority is legitimatized in the modern nation-state. On these and similar questions I would also recommend Simone Weil. And you’d probably also want to have Sartre on existentialism in here, too.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

This book is so foundational to feminism in the 20th century that even if you haven’t read it, you’ve kind of already read it, because so many ideas that are now second-nature originally came from it.

Mark Danner

Mark Danner’s reporting on Bush-era war crimes and abuses in the NYRB was the best reporting I read on the subject. He’s published some volumes collecting these pieces, plus a lot of other reporting from all around the world. I recommend it.

Black Friday for the Litblog

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I hope you all (in the States) are having a sweet Thanksgiving holiday, in spite of the fact that politics is a total shitshow right now. Regardless, I want to take the momentto thank everyone for reading this site (and The Quarterly Conversation!).

Running CR/TQC takes time, energy, $$$, etc, so it’s actually really, really rewarding to see that there’s a pretty sizable audience for this little litblog, and its online journal cousin. Thank you for being here!

And while I’ve got all your attention, this is also my moment to ask you all to give a tiny bit back so I can make CR 2017 fantastic.

One of the things I’m eager to do next year is lots more short interviews on the site, in addition to the usual mix of intriguing lists, brief essay on fascinating books, recommendations rundowns, and assorted odds and ends.

As a reminder, a few of the posts you may have enjoyed so far this year (+ the “interesting new releases” list and my upcoming favorite reads of the year):

If you dig that stuff & wanna say thanks by giving a little something back to me, this is your moment.

(As always, no one should feel obligated. If you can’t afford to or just don’t want to, don’t worry about it. And if you’re one of those people who has already donated, bought via the links, etc, THANK YOU YOU RULE!!!)

Number one, the easiest thing is to just do your regular Amazon shopping after visiting Amazon through my links. You get your stuff, I get a kickback, and we probably entirely kill Jeff Bezos’s razor-thin margins. Everybody wins!

Another nice thing would be to purchase one of my ebooks for yourself. You get some great reads, I get a little of your money, unbeatable deal for everyone.

Right now I’m offering a pretty sweet buy on the Latin American Mixtape and The Missing Books. That is 35,000 words for just $4.99.

You can read the whole deal right here, or just get it below.

The Missing Books——which has been featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed——can also be purchased separately:


Kindle ($4.99)

And, of course, Paypaling me a little funds is always nice.







Thank you in advance for everything. And I hope to see you here for my “best reads” breakdown next month, plus all the fab-ness of CR 2017.

THE SURRENDER

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


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

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 . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

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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