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Favorite Reads of 2016: Hitchcock by Truffaut

I’m sharing some of my favorite reads of 2016. See them all here.

Possibly the greatest film book ever (a Sight & Sound poll of 51 critics had it tied for 2nd place) Hitchcock by Truffaut is definitely the greatest single book on Hitchcock.

For Truffaut’s generation of filmmakers, Hitchcock was the ultimate master, so the young director proposed a series of interviews covering ever film Hitchcock had ever made. The result is an absolutely engrossing journey into Hitchcock’s mind (he’s quite candid and pans a lot of his own films) and a distillation of his art.

If you’re at all into film, this is an absolute must-read. And even if not, this is just a purely entertaining, fascinating book.

Favorite Reads of 2016: My Struggle Volume 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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I’m sharing some of my favorite reads of 2016. See them all here.

I admit, Knausgaard was losing me. Volumes 3 and 4 of My Struggle have things to recommend them, but on the whole they just didn’t have the megawattage that made Vols 1 and 2 such a revelation. Fearing the worst, I picked up My Struggle Volume 5 with a dutiful heart (once you’re 2,000 pages in, that’s no time to cut your losses), and it turned out to be really, really good. You can read my full explanation of why this book works here.

I’m actually really, really looking forward to Volume 6, which, apparently (god does Don Bartlett deserve a rest) isn’t going to hit in 2017 but rather 2018!

Favorite Reads of 2016: Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto

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I’m sharing some of my favorite reads of 2016. See them all here.

Zama has been a long time coming, and it’s definitely worth it. This novel is just about perfect, and it’s become a source of almost unanimous admiration among Latin American authors. To see the kind of enthusiasm and major star power behind this book, have a look over here.

The precision of the writing in this book is just remarkable (and congrats to Esther Allen on a beautiful translation); it’s philosophically deep; it’s witty; it’s existential and futile, but not in a cheap, cynical, or otherwise shallow way. If you dig Beckett, Kafka, etc, etc, do yourself a favor.

Favorite Reads of 2016: Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin

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I’m sharing some of my favorite reads of 2016. See them all here.

Yes, Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed is a 600-page book of interviews with Werner Herzog. Yes, 600 pages worth of hardcover text is a hell of a lot of time to spend with anybody.

But you’ve got to admit, Herzog is one hell of an intriguing dude. He’s got a lot of ridiculous stories. Like the time he overstayed his visa in the U.S., broke his leg, and ended up staying with an rural U.S. family that he just happened to meet for months. Or the time he ate his shoe at the premiere of Errol Morris’s first documentary. Or, you know, that time he dragged an enormous ship over a mountain in the middle of the Peruvian jungle to make a movie.

More than just Uncle Werner spinning yarns (some of which I’ve got to guess aren’t exactly true), this is just an amazing film book. It covers all of Herzog’s films, which in itself is a major accomplishment, and you’ve probably missed a few (there are well over 50, including many, many obscure ones), so it is a wonderful way to catch up. And Herzog does prove himself something of a film theorist (despite his protestations that he’s just a regular guy who despises all those eggheads), and he’s got some fascinating ideas about the point of film.

Most of all, this is just a fun read. If you’ve got the time, you can easily knock out a hundred pages of this book in a day. It’s fun!

Favorite Reads of 2016: Trouble in Paradise by Slavoj Žižek

I’m sharing some of my favorite reads of 2016. See them all here.

I sometimes think of Žižek’s books as a series of cultural readings in search of a thesis. It’s not that Žižek doesn’t have a thesis for each book, it’s more that he prefers to let it well up through the texture of his prose. The read attraction of his readings of the ever-evolving products of global capitalism. You come for the readings and the riffs, and somehow you end up getting a thesis by the end.

Which is to say, in my reading Žižek either succeeds or fails by the quality, freshness, and contemporaneity of his riffs, and by that standard Trouble in Paradise is a big hit. In the brief introduction alone we get compelling readings of Ernest Lubitsch’s classic films, the latest Batman reboot, South Korean culture vis a vis global capitalism, “Gangnam Style” (not to be missed), the hermaphroditism of North Korean dictators, and (of course) an old Jewish tale. That’s 20 pages.

By the end of the book, Žižek has wound many of the major political and cultural global developments of the past 5 years into a pretty compelling theory of where capitalism is, and where it is headed. He has even woven in a pretty good defense of Marxism, which Žižek still believes in and still holds out hope for.

Just in terms of sheer density of information, quotables, and educational value, this is a book well worth the time of anyone who cares to think about what are dominant systems governing our world and where they are headed. I completely recommend it.

Favorite Reads 2016: Die a Little by Megan Abbott

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I’m sharing some of my favorite reads of 2016. See them all here.

Megan Abbott is definitely a noir writer worthy of anyone’s time. Earlier this year I made my introduction to her work with Die a Little, and I wrote it up. Strong recommend.

One of the reasons I love editing The Quarterly Conversation is that it opens up so many authors I would never find out about otherwise. Having some of the best, most open-minded, engaged readers in our world writing reviews and essays of top notch writers is a little like having my own private research staff cluing me in to great stuff. For a writer who thrives on creative influence as much as I do, this is incredible.

Case in point, last issue Angela Woodward (a very interesting writer herself) intro’d me to Megan Abbott with this essay. After editing it and publishing it, I knew I had to check Abbott out.

The elevator pitch for Abbott is that she does feminist noir. That’s a reductive label, but it’s a powerful way to coordinate what makes Abbott’s fictions feel so interesting to me, so I’m just gonna go with it.

Favorite Reads 2016: Roger Lewinter

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I’m sharing some of my favorite reads of 2016. See them all here.

Roger Lewinter was a discovery for me this year, thanks to New Directions releasing two titles: The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude.

Probably one of the easiest points of comparison for Lewinter is W.G. Sebald: they have that same fragmentary feel, there’s the eccentricity of following your own obsessions (no matter how small, personal, and obscure), there’s that sense of hidden currents connecting the world of the work, and there’s that first-person narrator who both is and isn’t the author.

Of course, that’s just one point of comparison. Lewinter is an original, so I don’t want to play up the Sebald comparisons too much. What is most immediately striking about these books is the intricacy of the text: not only are Lewinter’s sentences generally long, they are syntactically very complex. They don’t have the sort of baroque order that tends to rein in long-sentences-makers like Proust or Bernhard, and nor are they run-on sentences masquerading as long sentences, as in an book like Mathias Enard’s Zone.

Rather, Lewinter’s sentences are rather chaotic, accelerating in some places and slowing down in others, never reliably moving at a given speed or direction. Lewinter also makes use of all punctuation at his disposal (often in creative ways). These are books that take a little time to get used to, although once you grasp the art of reading Lewinter’s sentences, you will find that they are exceedingly carefully constructed, and the short pieces that make up each of these books are very well-conceived (as are the books as a whole). (Credit to Rachel Careau for amazing translation work.)

If you’re someone who loves language, do yourself a favor and enjoy these remarkable books. And if you’re just someone who loves goo books, do the same.

Favorite Reads 2016: Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

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Suddenly Russia is very, very on trend! If you want a volume of insight into the post-Soviet mind, there are probably few if any books that would do you better than this.

Were this all that Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich did, that would be much more than enough. But this in fact is only the first important thing this book does. The narratives in this book have such emotional power, such range, such philosophical depth, such insight, such observations. Did I mention they are also simply beautiful and engrossing to read?

In addition to this, Alexievich knows how to engage with Russia’s long history—it’s not for nothing that this book prominently features Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor discussing the riddle of freedom in its opening pages. Although Second-hand Time does not always address Russia’s history with that directness, it is true that this is a concern throughout. Alexievich knows how to channel the big arguments regarding the major historical forces of the region and the 20th century into these stories, but to do it lightly, so as to never compromise the individuals who are sharing their lives with her.

Few books I’ve read this year are both so absolutely necessary and such an incredible reading experience. Read this!

Favorite Reads 2016: Sculpting in Time by Andrey Tarkovsky

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Sculpting in Time by Andrey Tarkovsky is one of the best books I’ve read on art in a long time. This isn’t a terribly long book (250 pages) but it took a very long time to read because in each paragraph—and often each sentence—you will find something to linger over, an observation, aphorism, confession, explanation, whatever, and it will require some time to reflect on just what you’ve read.

If you know Tarkovsky’s films at all (e.g. Stalker, Solaris), you know they are meditative, incredibly shot, lyric, romantic, profound. As a writer he’s very much the same, moving through his work with a very refined style that nonetheless feels very, very taut, as though Tarkovsky has distilled his language down to the most essential words possible.

At the heart of this book is Tarkovsky’s argument about the way time functions in cinema (he sees his work as the filmmaker as “sculpting time”), which in itself is a powerful and provocative way to look at film, but I find it hard to look at Sculpting in Time as a film book per se. You could get equal good out of it if you were a poet, painter, philosopher, essayist, humanist . . . anyone who is sensitive to beautiful things will really feel that this book is intensely powerful.

I was surprised what a true discovery this book is. An obvious must-do for anyone who cares at all about film, but really I hope that everyone who reads this takes the opportunity to experience this incredible meditation on art.

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.

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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