Buy Some Damn Books


If you work in publishing, or you review books, design books, etc, and you don’t buy books on a regular basis, you’re not supporting your industry.

I get it, I get it. We all like free books. I have tons of free books just sitting around. People come to my home and burst out into laughter at how many books I have. Fact is, publishing can be a pretty lonely, poorly paid place to make your living, and free books are a nice perk of the industry. No one’s saying that you have to individually purchase every single book you plan to own (although pretty much everyone who doesn’t work in publishing does just. that). All I’m saying is, if your first thought after “I want to read that!” is “who can I ask for a free copy?,” something’s wrong. Don’t go browse a book in your local indie and then make a mental note to track down the publicist later on.

It’s true, free books aren’t the worst expense a publisher will incur. It’s probably somewhere around $3 to print each copy, plus about $3 or so to mail it to you. (We’ll leave our costs of editing, acquisitions, etc.) But you still are taking those $6 out of their pocket, plus denying them whatever a bookstore would have paid them for it, plus the fact that the bookstore will restock a book if their initial order sells out (and will return it if it doesn’t sell).

One time I was in a bookstore with a fellow publishing professional. A ready super great person, someone I consider a lion of the industry who has done a ton of good things for books. We came upon such-and-such book, and I was all like, “This book is awesome. You have to read this!” He duly picked it up and made his way to the cash register. On the way he stopped, turned to me, and said, “You know I can get any book I want for free, right?” He kinda weighed the option for a moment. And then he bought it.

I get it. It’s a pride thing. We all want to feel like we can use our pull to get some favors every now and then. And also: publishing isn’t exactly the industry that is going to leave you with the highest disposable income for something like a new $25.00 hardcover that you’ll read in an afternoon. OK, I understand. I’m not saying you can’t score a free book every now and then. But you should really support your industry, particularly the small publishers who are doing tiny print runs and scraping by. Be a good citizen of the literary community. Spread good karma.

Disclaimers apply: if you’re planning on reviewing the book or otherwise doing some reasonably serious publicity for it, you’re entitled to a free copy. If for some reason you need to read the book before publication, same thing. If publicists just send you things for no clear reason, no need to send them back if you can’t use them. Etc, etc. And sure, get a few favors every now and then. That’s fine. But support your own damn industry.

And if you do get a free copy of something and you happen to like it, make a point of sharing that information. Post something to Facebook, send out a tweet. It will take you under a minute and you’ll have made at least 3 people’s days (author, publicist, editor). Or you could even tell someone about the book over dinner or blog about it. Be a good member of your literary community. Don’t be that guy free riding on everyone else’s enthusiasm and hard work.

The Cover of My Struggle 5


This would appear to be it. A bit intense. Not sure what it is. (Anyone know? Speculations?)


Some people have identified it as Spiral Jetty. Which makes me wonder, why would Spiral Jetty be on the cover of Book 5?

Found here.

Book 4



So it begins. Good so far.

On My Shelves: David Foster Wallace


I’ve read most of everything by or about David Foster Wallace (not counting the mountains of academic prose dedicated to him). Here are my copies of these books.


Here’s where it all started: one of Wallace’s two undergrad honors theses and first novel, The Broom of the System. As you can see, I got the fancy re-issued edition. (As to Wallace’s second honors thesis, more in a bit.)


And here’s his first story collection, Girl with Curious Hair. This one includes the infamous “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” of which Wallace later said:

Twenty-five year-olds should be locked away and denied ink and paper. Everything I wanted to do came out in the story, but it came out just as what it was: crude and naive and pretentious.

I was a little kinder in my judgment of it. This collection also contains the rather hilarious “Little Expressionless Animals,” which includes Alex Trebek as a character and is about a Jeopardy! champion who just can’t lose.


Next up is Infinite Jest. This was back when I wasn’t writing in my books, so you can see I used a lot of sticky notes to mark passages I wanted to come back to. Kind of strange that the Seattle Times gets the front cover rave. I bet that’s different now.


I also found this list of terms paperclipped in, apparently to help me through Gately’s fever-dream sequence toward the end of the book when he starts speaking in terms that I knew nothing (or very little) about at the time.



Next up is A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I still don’t really get the cover of this book.


The title essay is one of the funniest of Wallace’s I’ve ever read. And of course it contains this one, to which I still continue to return:


Then there’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a bit of an outlier for Wallace:


Following that was one of Wallace’s more maligned books, Everything and More a book on the concept of infinity.


This was part of the “Great Discoveries” series, wherein famous authors were asked to write on a subject of their choice (and which has led to more than a few oddball titles). I liked this book a lot, as it made math interesting to me in a way few books have (and infinity is an inherently Wallac-ian concept that he really does a lot with in this book), but mathematicians have taken Wallace to task for what they say is a poor understanding of the math. I wouldn’t know.


Next up was Wallace’s last major fictional work, the short story collection Oblivion. Here’s a shot of a spread where I circled two words very important for Wallace’s line of thought, audience and performance.



Then came Consider the Lobster, Wallace’s last essay collection. My copy is a galley.

And here’s a page from the infamous talk radio essay, “Host” (actually not that hard to follow).


These last two were both posthumous releases, both appearing in 2011: Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, and Wallace’s other honors thesis, Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.



Not pictured here are This Is Water, a commence address delivered to Kenyon College in 2005, somehow padded into a 144-page book, which obviously was a smart marketing move (I’m sure the sales surge every spring), Both Flesh and Not, the drawer-clearing uncollected essays that I may purchase one day if the mood happens to strike me at the right time, and Signifying Rappers, which I’ve never actually seen in person.

There are also some adjacent works. One day I received in the mail the impressive Elegant Complexity.


The cover looks a little like Infinite Jest, and the book is nearly as massive. It’s a scene-by-scene summary of the entire book, with helpful notes, guides to characters and themes, etc:


And in the back there are some short pieces toward interpretation and final thoughts about the book’s unresolvable issues.


Then there’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is essentially a transcript of recordings journalist David Lipsky made while driving around with Wallace on his Infinite Jest tour (the recordings were for a magazine profile that never saw the light of day). My copy is the galley I got for the mixed review I gave to the book in the LA Times.


And then there is Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s readable and informative (though a little boilerplate) biography of Wallace.


Not pictured here is The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, a collection of rather good academic writing on Wallace (plus some remembrances by famous authors like Don DeLillo) edited by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou. I did read this book (I interviewed Lee about it for Bookforum), but my copy is electronic, not printed.

The Strange Beauty of Book 4

USA - Art - Karl Ove Knausgaard

Elaine Blair has a worthwhile essay on My Struggle in the current NYRB. The essay covers some topics that I haven’t really seen a ton of attention given to so far in the writing about My Struggle, mostly to do with the way the books process time and Knausgaard’s love of portraying minutia in them.

Much as there is to praise about Blair’s essay, one thing that I do find a little unsettling here (and Blair is definitely not alone in this) is how she willfully transforms Knausgaard’s weaknesses into strengths:

And then there is the beauty of Book Three itself. In the earlier volumes, Knausgaard’s insistence that we witness all the steps the narrator takes to cook his dinner, from turning on the oven to forking the finished product onto his plate, sometimes seemed an irritating exercise in literary estrangement. But the young Karl Ove’s attention to his dinner is in perfect keeping with the child’s perspective, in which details of such daily events are a real source of interest and the focus of attention. It’s as though we were finally let in on the secret referent of Knausgaard’s style.

Book Four is another long plunge into the past, this time into adolescence. It is distinctly unbeautiful, the most sloppily joined and repetitive of the volumes so far, but its repetitions have a darkly comic energy that is unique to Book Four.

I suppose that for Book Three there is something to this argument, but as to Book Four, Knausgaard has been pretty forthcoming in saying that it’s beneath his talents (and many critics have agreed). You don’t have to look hard to find interviews where he has said that it was essentially hackwork that he can’t bear to read any longer. Of course, we can take these comments with a grain of salt (Knausgaard is media-savvy, and we should always be wary of letting the author comment on his/her own work), but Blair very willfully turns even these remarks to his benefit:

This is one of few intrusions that the forty-year-old Karl Ove makes in Book Four. As is often the case in My Struggle, Karl Ove’s reflection seems inadequate or even contradictory to what we’ve just experienced with him. The narrator’s companionable intelligence is one of the great pleasures of My Struggle. Yet almost none of that intelligence is gathered into concentrated thought. Knausgaard has described the style of the narration as “infantile,” “idiotic,” and “not to my standard”—meaning that a lot of the writing is underworked, and that the narrator engages only in as much intellection as he really would have in the moment. Knausgaard has said that he could only let himself go and capture the feeling of the flow of his life if he did not closely edit and revise the manuscript. The result is a book that doesn’t think in the way that we expect novels to, which can be hard to get used to. You wait for some sort of deeper consideration of what’s happening, and it may come but more likely it will not—the book, like the life, keeps moving.

I suppose this is plausible. I’m open-minded to this sort of thinking. But I would say that it’s at least as equally plausible that Book Four just isn’t very good, that is was hastily written, not well-edited, and let go as it was to satisfy a ridiculous publishing schedule Knausgaard had put him self upon during a time of enormous stress and pressure.

In all honesty, I enjoyed reading Book Four, but I thought Books One and Two were vastly superior as works of literature. I took Four for what it was: the middle portion of an immense novel. Which is to say, considering it in context I think you can make an argument for it, and you can be more forgiving with its weaknesses that you would if you were reading it on its own. But you still have to be honest that its shortcomings are, well, shortcomings.

I’m fascinated by critics like Blair who will create rationales to explain how these shortcomings are actually strengths (and in other interviews Knausgaard has been a willing participant in this, just as much as he has willingly antagonized Book Four). But, it’s my opinion that, ultimately, these critics are fooling themselves and have gotten a little too caught up in this phenomenon that has taken our little literary world by storm. I could well be wrong about that (time will tell), but I think critics would be better off if they showed a little more skepticism about My Struggle. Yes, it is a major literary work with much interest to it and many strengths. But there is no need for all of the six books that compose this work to be equally good, and we can admit it as a worthy, interesting work of literature while still acknowledging some serious flaws.

Krasznahorkai and Dostoevsky


Many years ago I read a lot of Dostoevsky—the books I chose to read were what you would call his “greatest hits,” i.e., Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov. I read these books so long ago that now it’s almost as if I didn’t read them at all. I’m such a completely different reader and thinker that I feel like I’d need to experience them again to really claim that they are part of the reading I do these days.

But anyway, the point is that my experience with Dostoevsky is ancient, and for a long time I held off reading any more of him (perhaps unduly influenced by Nabokov’s heavy scorn). So I think it’s noteworthy that I recently came back to him. I was curious to see what sorts of impressions he would make on me now, and I was also interested to read something completely different from what I had been reading. (I think a massive 19th-century Russian novel is going to be pretty different from whatever you happen to be reading at the moment.)

The book of Dostoevsky’s I chose was Demons. I wanted something sizable that would live with me for a while, and I didn’t want to re-read something of his I’d already read. So my choices were pretty much either that or The Idiot.

I chose Demons because it seemed to better suit my mood at the time, and also because a couple of years ago I had seen Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy, which is very much like Demons in some significant ways. The Coast of Utopia may be the very best work Stoppard has ever done. It’s all about the Russian revolutionary class in the mid-19th century—that is, about their rampant Francophilism, the many competing political doctrines that no one can really settle on (not least of which because no one really knows what they mean in practice), the Tsarist repression, etc, etc. It’s kind of Stoppard’s master statement on idealism in politics and the human quest for a more perfect society. It’s an extraordinarily compelling work, that rare piece of literature that seems to have equal amounts of insight into the personal and the historical (and their intersections). (And the main character of the first play in the trilogy is a literary critic. So how could I not be taken?)

Demons covers similar territory—that is, revolutionary politics, idealism, human attempts to build a better social order, etc—and I was interested to see how Dostoevsky’s depiction of the revolutionary political class in Russia at the time compared with Stoppard’s. Obviously, there are some big differences here: Dostoevsky was writing contemporaneously with these developments, whereas with Stoppard it was all well over a century in the past. Dostoevsky was a Russian, whereas Stoppard is an Englishman of East European extraction. And Dostoevsky wrote novels, whereas Stoppard is a playwright.

Demons did prove to be an interesting counterpoint to The Coast of Utopia, but that’s ot what I would like to talk about here. For what I did not anticipate with Demons was how much it would reference another beloved contemporary author: Laszlo Krasznahorkai. With hindsight, this realization is not much of a surprise: Dostoevsky is always interested by the ways in which (and reasons why) the baser instincts of humans are allowed to be released into action, and he also is interested in the social systems of control that attempt to keep those base instincts in check. This is, of course, precisely what we find in books like Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War & War, which give us exacting accounts of how human order gives way to chaos and disaster. And, unsurprisingly, if you look at interviews with Krasznahorkai, you will find him listing Dostoevsky as an influence. Jonathon Sturgeon also perceptively referenced Demons in his review of Seiobo There Below.

In many ways, Demons feels very much like a book Krasznahorkai might have written. It is all about an incident in a provincial town in Russia, where the prevailing order gives way to social chaos, which then enables arson and murder. At first, the sizable book (nearly 700 pages in my edition) seems to be a shaggy tale, darting about here and there for no clear reason. It’s only after a couple hundred pages that you begin to see that Dostoevsky is carefully introducing us to several of the key nodes crucial to maintaining order in the fabric of society in the town. He is also introducing us to the individuals who will eventually become responsible for tearing down that order. Dostoevsky is sensitive to what motivates everyone to act as they do, what are their prevailing interests, what codes they live by, what ideas influence them, what people they are susceptible to. All of this is in service to showing exactly how order is maintained, and then showing how it can be made fragile and eventually fall apart. The action of the book climaxes about 500 pages in, where the provincial power brokers are subjected to unimaginable indignities by the townspeople, which then opens the door for escalation, which eventually leads to chaos and destruction.

I don’t want to muck through the parallels here with Krasznahorkai in painful detail, but I think it’s safe to say that if you are familiar with his work, you should be able to note some of these parallels based on the short description I’ve provided. I find Demons a fascinating counterpoint because of course so much is different: Krasznahorkai is working in a communist (or even post-communist) environment, whereas Dostoevsky is pre; the two writers have very different approaches as regards characterization, structuring, the level of allegory they will tolerate, their stances on the role played by spirituality, and of course their ultimate interpretations of what this all means and how it is possible. And then, not least of all is the very different approach of each writer to the sentence and the paragraph.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 40

Live. Here’s your TOC:


Bloomsbury in Buenos Aires

Bloomsbury in Buenos Aires

Based on the two-volume Cuentos completos published by Emecé in 2000, Balderston’s NYRB Classics edition, Thus Were Their Faces, selects from each of the seven volumes of stories that Ocampo published in her lifetime. Two-thirds of the stories—twenty-eight out of forty-two—are drawn from two collections published in 1959 and 1961 respectively. The early fiction is somewhat under-represented. Ocampo’s first collection, Viaje olvidado (1937; “Forgotten Journey”), the only book of stories she published prior to marrying Bioy (though she was probably already living with him when she wrote many of the stories), is both more female and more feminist than the work she produced after she had co-edited the anthology of fantastic literature.


The Daring Young Women on the Flying Trapeze

The Daring Young Women on the Flying Trapeze

Sphinx is a typical love story only in the way that it’s the tale of two people who have fallen in love, and things don’t go smoothly. Beyond that, there is something drastically different going on here. I’m afraid I’ll have to let the cat out of the bag: as reader, you have no idea of the gender of either half of this romantic equation. This information is artfully withheld by the author (and again in English by the translator, Emma Ramadan). While explaining the constraint at play is necessary to us for the purposes of this review, I’ll refrain from a full-out spoiler by not unveiling the final solution to the enigma. In Sphinx, which is told in the first-person, there are two principal characters. I, the genderless “me” of the narrator, and the object of this person’s desire, A***.


On Trying to Write About Tomas Tranströmer

On Trying to Write About Tomas Tranströmer

“I’ve been there,” says a crooked, camphor-scented woman seated next to me on the bus from Manhattan to Philadelphia (“The bus negotiates the winter night”†); her voice has an odd pitch to it, part Cockney, part eastern seaboard. She nods her head toward the cover of the book I’m holding. “I see it sometimes in dreams,” she goes on, “but I would never, ever return to it willingly.” It was Tomas Tranströmer’s The Deleted World. The Nobel laureate has said that his poems are “meeting places”: I meet Alice, then, on a two-hour bus journey, during which she recounts her own deleted world.


Death in Ishiguro

Death in Ishiguro

The final reckoning we make is with our memories. One we have navigated every test life has given us, and all that lies on our horizon is eternity, at this point we must square with what we have wrought in our years. This is the scythe that comes to cut us down when all else in life is done. The tale of that judgment is what Ishiguro gives us. It is the story of that scythe, a lifetime in the making, arcing through those deeds long past to see if it can strike us down.



In Translation

“Piñata” by Daniel Saldaña París

“Piñata” by Daniel Saldaña París

Alicia didn’t go in for moderation, and was even excessive in many ways, but she was just what I needed at that time, the only relationship that could give me back some form of enthusiasm for Madrid and so postpone my return to Mexico, which I’d been announcing to family and friends during the last months, fed up as I was with my solitude and, more specifically, my single state.




Life Embitters by Josep Pla

Life Embitters by Josep Pla

Published in Issue 40 Life Embitters by Josep Pla (trans. Peter Bush). $20.00, 600 pp. Archipelago Books. Life Embitters by Josep Pla (1897-1981) is a collection of stories containing landscape descriptions, sociological judgments of the behavior of his fellow Catalans, and ventures into the mores of England, France, and Germany. Aside from Pla’s Preface, there […]


A Brief History of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas

A Brief History of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas

The art movement was one of the early twentieth century’s great revelations. In conditions of war and economic collapse, of revolution and social engineering, artists and writers increasingly banded together under common manifestos to promote an aesthetic agenda. The romantic image of the lone creator, progressing an artistic craft out of a singular style, gave way to the collective. Of course, more personalities also meant more confusion, especially where Tristan Tzara’s and Breton’s camps were concerned. As –ism piled upon –ism, it became increasingly difficult to keep everything straight: What are the rules? Is anyone in charge? Who’s a member? And are they sexually available? Indeed, there’s an aspect of the Rabelaisian carnival at the center of the early manifesto era; the exchange of ideas, urges, and bodies unifies the collective, making it whole and self-aware through pleasure, pain, and laughter. For Enrique Vila-Matas, somewhere in the tangled network of Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and their attendant bodies is A Brief History of Portable Literature.


Fairy Tales by Robert Walser

Fairy Tales by Robert Walser

If it can accurately be said that Robert Walser is a writer enamored of restriction, one would do well to remember that in his works distillation becomes a form of literary grace. That irreducibility is part and parcel of Fairy Tales, a collection of dramolettes in which Walser’s trademark irony and delightfully playful language belie a pointed deconstruction of traditional dramatic and mythic forms.


Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto

Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto

In 2008, the celebrated Mozambican writer Mia Couto received the kind of gift that writers pray for: a real-life experience full of danger, drama, and supernatural overtones, seemingly custom-made for a book. A biologist by profession, Couto was responsible for fifteen young environmental field officers who were sent to Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado as part of an oil company’s seismic exploration. Around that time, a series of fatal lion attacks broke out in the same area. Hunters were sent from the capital to protect the field officers, who were traveling on foot and sleeping in tents. Local people suggested there was something uncanny about the killer lions, and the hunters deduced that these dark suspicions grew from buried social conflicts.


Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah

The unnamed narrator of Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found drifts through her days and the lives of people around her as if they are an out of focus background. The narrator observes her own actions, uncertain of her motivations, while she works as a temp at a university, “the kind of clerical work that anyone could have done without any special qualifications or expertise.” Her job is dreary, her education useless, her mother an alcoholic, her father absent, her older brother leaving for janitorial work in Japan; her little sister is the only hopeful member of her family. She resents all of this, dryly, wearily.



“A Sort of Masterpiece”


A quote from John Banville on the latest Georges Simenon book to make it into English, The Mahé Circle (nice cover).

The Mahé Circle is a sort of masterpiece; one says “sort of” because the book does not call itself to our attention in any purely literary way. Simenon’s uniqueness is that he created high literature in seemingly low forms. This novel, like most of the romans durs, reads like a piece of pulp fiction: it is brief, fast-paced, with an air of the slapdash that is, however, wholly deceptive. True, Simenon wrote fast, and revised little. Yet his artistry is supreme. The account in this book of old Madame Mahé’s descent into illness and death is a sublime piece of writing, as good, in its unforced and unemphatic way, as anything in Proust or even Flaubert.

The Dream of My Return


At Words Without Borders I’ve reviewed The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated by Katherine Silver.

I think this is definitely the book of Castellanos Moya’s that looks and feels most like Senselessness, which probably many (most?) would consider his best so far. It’s not nearly as paranoid or frenzied as Senselessness (which is actually pretty cracked), and the slower boil of The Dream of My Return gives Castellanos Moya an opportunity to think about paranoia in different ways. Plus, this book is about El Salvador, not Guatemala, and it seems to follow Castellanos Moya’s personal biography much more closely.

Anyway, it was good, one of my favorite of his for certain. Have a look at the review if you’re a fan, or think you could be one.

“Nothing makes me passionate . . .”

From Alejandra Pizarnik’s journals, July 1960. She was 24 and in Paris.

Read in Music & Literature #6.


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