Favorite Reads of 2015: #13 Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky


One of the noteworthy reading things I did in 2015 was to go back to Dostoevsky after years and years away. I did it with one of his late works, and definitely among the best things he ever wrote, Demons (alternatively translated as The Possessed). It’s a major novel of his coming in at over 700 pages, and possibly the book of his that has aged the best.

Demons concerns itself with the machinations of would-be revolutionaries in the middle of Russia’s 19th century, which, effectively, are petty members of the nobility of those who manage to exploit them to lead a nobility-like life. The plot centers around an attempt to foster a revolution in a small Russian town, and earlier this year I compared it to Krasznahorkai for the way in which the townspeople become caught up in their own madness, with predictably tragic results. This is a book that argues against nihilism by showing you just how awful that philosophy ends up being in pretty much everybody’s hands.

Possibly the most interesting thing about this book is the manner of its telling, which is through an outsider who observes the events from a distance and eventually becomes caught up within the machinations. The voice modulates quite a bit, from ironic to horrified to confused and distraught, and because the narrator only has so much knowledge you, the reader, get a very direct taste of the weirdness and perfidy on display in this story. It’s one of those stories that oftentimes feels bizarre, simply because you cannot fathom the motivations of the characters, even though you are aware that they are extraordinarily calculating and acting according to very clear motivations, albeit known only to themselves.

The book is fascinating both for its character portraits, whose insights into the nature of humanity are valuable to this day, and for what truth it manages to uncover about humanity as a political animal. In my read the book remains shocking and very humorous, and it does give a certain amount of historical insight into a period that remains very much relevant for Europe and Russia as historical entities. There is also one very outstanding scene where a puffed up “famous” novelist is entirely removed of his dignity, which I found very satisfying and will be very satisfying to many of you.

Subscriptions and Donations and Sales


As I sort of mentioned earlier this week, December is traditionally the time when all of your favorite publishers get those $$$ that let them keep giving you the books you love for the other 11 months in the year.

It would be immensely cool of you to spend a few of your hard-earned greenbacks on some of their wares this holiday season. This is in your own interest, as you are helping enable the publishers you love to survive another year so that they can keep giving you the books you love. And you are also spreading joy into the lives of people who work extraordinarily hard for pretty blah pay to give you those books. And you are also doing a huge favor to readers 10 and 20 years down the line, who will benefit from these publishers not having shriveled up and died amid a wave of apathy.

Anyway, if you want to do this, here are some recommendations. These are great gifts, or get one for yourself.

Archipelago Books. Subscribe. Holiday sale: 40% off all books through December 26th with the coupon code NEWSITE at check-out.

Open Letter Books. Subscribe. Holiday sale: 40% off with code BookSeason at checkout through Dec 31.

And Other Stories. Subscribe.

Verso Books. 50% off and free shipping on these titles through Dec 31.

Ugly Duckling Presse. Subscribe.

Wave Books. Subscribe.

Dorothy, a Publishing Project. All 12 books for $120.

Restless Books. Subscribe.

Melville House Publishing. Subscribe.

Music & Literature. Subscribe.

The Point. Subscribe.

The White Review. Subscribe.

Feed the Critic

I don’t know how widely this is known to people who aren’t lazy little litbloggers, but December is traditionally the “black friday” of the lame blogger world. In this month Amazon sales always go way up, ad revenues tend to spike, and this is also when the good readers of the world tend to open their kind hearts and pitch me a little change.

Which, all in all, makes for a nice little year-end bonus in the not-terribly-lucrative world of meaty literary criticism.

Not to get all “smallest violin in the world” about it, but doing this blog takes time. Yes, it’s fun to do, and it has benefits for me, and I enjoy pimping books I love, but it honestly does take a wee bit of effort to make this lame little blog happen every year. If you appreciate it and think it’s good for literary culture, please consider supporting it.

Anyway, if you’re a steadfast reader of this site and are so inclined to show your appreciation monetarily, now’s the best time. It’s easy. You can hit me directly with some Paypal love below. You can order some of your favorite 2016 titles through my Amazon links.* You can order gifts on Amazon here. You can buy The Latin American Mixtape, for yourself a total steal at just $2.99. There’s also Lady Chatterley’s Brother. Or order The End of Oulipo?, totally next-level literary criticism of the kind you’ve never read before.

* I know many of you have a completely justified and frothing hatred of Jeff Bezos and all of his projects. I understand! I put up the Amazon links in case you’re going to buy products there anyway, in which case doing so through my links will pretty much entirely kill Bezos’s razor-thin profit margin and hasten his demise. If you’d rather not purchase books from Amazon, find your local indie retailer here.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #12 Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks


Pound for pound, Where I’m Reading From is probably the most provocative book of contemporary literary criticism I read this year. This book presents a series of very concentrated meditations/arguments that were originally blog posts Tim Parks wrote for the NYR Blog. Arranged into groupings and laid out in a particular order, the posts cumulate very methodically and show clear evidence of a great deal of forethought. There are about 5 major lines of argument in this book, and they all collect around some of the major developments occurring with the novel form today.

Here Parks is arguing about the issues that are at the forefront of the novel’s development: what’s happening to it internationally, how the emerging international economy of literature is affecting its shape, the ongoing evolution of art and commerce in tandem, what the ultimate purpose of the novel form is, and if it’s worn out yet. Befitting blog posts, these essays are short and taut, but they manage to pack in quite a lot of detailed information, and the arguments presented here are precise and very interesting. There’s really no fat at all in this book.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of Parks’s answers, but I do think he’s asking the right questions. And even when I do disagree with him, his discussion of the questions is always illuminating and a spur to my own thought. If you’re at all concerned with questions surrounding the novel as a contemporary genre of writing and how it will be viable in the future, this is a book you need to read.

For a more in-depth discussion of this book, see my interview with Tim Parks.

SE What about international prizes, which of course have their role in this global economy of literary value? In terms of the good or the bad they can do, do you feel like they have certain nontrivial benefits, either to the writer or the audience, above and beyond their utility to the literary economy?

TP Let me say, right away, that I’d love to win a major literary prize. Why not? Money and prestige. The knowledge that people noticed and appreciated what you are doing, etc. However, in general I’ve long been convinced that prizes as they are functioning now are, for the most part, damaging. Books are not about winning and losing. There is no best book or best writer, though there are better books and worse books. Prizes like the Booker and the Pulitzer create the wrong kind of hype. Perhaps they increase sales here, but reduce them there. They encourage a certain public to constantly buy the kinds of books that win prizes, and I believe it is truly difficult for a genuinely innovative and controversial book to win a major prize. The only prizes I think have serious value are those for unpublished manuscripts. They give a chance to writers who otherwise might not have their work read. But I would say that. The first novel I published, the seventh I had written, won such a prize after rejection from more than twenty publishers, including the publisher who took it on through the prize. It went on to win other prizes and to be published in a dozen countries. It is still in print. But the prize that got it there has been ditched, because there is not sufficient glamour (winning/losing polarity) for prizes for first-time authors.

Briefly, About My Year-End List

Just wanted to take a second to make it blissfully, stupidly clear that the titles I’ve been putting up on my year-end list are extraordinarily subjective (verging on whimsical) and don’t at all represent a tally of everything I loved reading in 2015. To the degree that I’ve crafted this list at all, it’s mostly to steer clear from titles that have dominated the five bazillion other year-end lists currently in existence and that you’re probably already pretty well aware of and may in fact be reading at the moment.

So, for instance, The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector—duh!—I think I’ve already made my admiration for this book abundantly clear in a variety of ways. Of course you should read it! You know that!! No real need to ping it yet again on this list, even though it was clearly one of the best things I read in 2015.

And in addition, on these little entries I’ve been writing, I’ve been trying to go beyond just slapping down a bunch of titles and covers and to actually make a strong case for why you should take the time and read this book. Which, you know, takes some time to do well (or to at least try to do well), which again limits just how many titles yr beleaguered little blogger can feature here.

Basically, this list is me just saying, “Hey there, you look like the sort of person who reads this blog a lot. If you’re a person who can tolerate that high degree of proximity to my mental energies, maybe probably these books would be your thing. I really liked them! Here they are! Enjoy!!”

Favorite Reads of 2015: #11 Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo


Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

I first read Silvina Ocampo quite a while ago, at the time when I was living in Buenos Aires and any her fiction was virtually impossible to come by in English. It was a time when I was discovering so many greats that hadn’t quite yet made it in translation—Bioy, Sábato, Arlt, Saer, and even Aira, who was much better positioned than the other names on this list but still wasn’t really very well-known at that time—and it goes to show you that something good is afoot, as some of these names are now much better-known. Even with my so-so Spanish, I could tell that Ocampo was a hugely gifted writer.

This year Ocampo has finally gotten an English-language edition worthy of her talents, with the release (and pretty successful reception) of Thus Were Their Faces, a career-spanning collection of short fiction from the incredible NYRB Classics.

These stories are just plain eerie, creepy, and just a little bit evil, in the very best way that can be said. They have some genetic linkage to Clarice Lispector, in their highly original approach to depicting the lives of women, their feminism, their occult power, and their complete originality.

For more I’ll point you to my review at Music & Literature. Here’s a good quote:

To this day it is not hard to find people calling her Argentina’s “best-kept secret.” This may point to barriers for women in the heady modernist golden age, and it may also indicate barriers around the sort of fiction Ocampo wrote. Her influences are much harder to locate than those of Borges or Bioy—making it more difficult to situate her into a cultural lineage—and she chose subjects that courted marginality: child-narrators, the lives of animals, women’s couture, dolls, and madwomen. Borges, Bioy, and Ocampo all brought the surreal into the everyday, but whereas Bioy imagined how technology interfaced with his bizarre plots, and whereas Borges heroicized his adventure tales into master narratives that wrought new truths, Ocampo camouflaged her fantasies, as though they were microscopic details in yards of baroque wallpaper. If you blink at the wrong moment everything will look perfectly normal, yet once you do see that tiny seam in the fabric of what is, your eyes will see nothing else.

Ocampo was also an accomplished poet, and the volume of her poetry released this year should also be read.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 42

Fun fact. This issue contains our 1,000th article.


The Story of a Storyteller: On John Barth’s Collected Stories

The Story of a Storyteller: On John Barth’s Collected Stories

The four books of short fiction that John Barth has published (all now reprinted by Dalkey Archive as Collected Stories) offer a usefully synoptic view of Barth’s most signature moves as a writer of fiction—or at least those moves with which he is likely to remain most identified. Although Barth advises the reader in his brief introduction to Collected Stories that his “authorial inclination” has always been “toward books rather than discreet, stand-alone short stories,” the very ways in which he endeavors in each of these collected books to unify the series of “discreet” stories are revealing of Barth’s fundamental assumptions and ambitions. Thus, while it may be true that “short fiction is not my long suit,” as Barth puts it, these collected stories do reveal the ultimate purposes of Barth’s literary art.

Later John Barth: The Wrong Peak, the Reach for Magic, the Feminist Argument

Later John Barth: The Wrong Peak, the Reach for Magic, the Feminist Argument

The peak isn’t the one most folks point to. I’m speaking of John Barth, now in his mid-80s and debilitated, and of a career that stretches back to when he was a vigorous 25. At that age Barth published his debut, The Floating Opera, and just five years later came the work for which he’s most celebrated, The Sot-Weed Factor. I’d never deny that the 1960 novel was a watershed for American fiction, nor that what he accomplished over the following decade, in particular the stories of Lost In the Funhouse, established landmarks for what we now call Postmodernism. Nevertheless, the man’s career overall now suffers a misbegotten consensus. Too many critics—a catchall expression, I realize, but bear with me—hold that the author had shot his bolt by, give or take, 1972. That was the year he published Chimera, and the same ill-informed consensus considers the subsequent National Book Award as a kind of recognition for Lifetime Achievement, a late salute to Sot-Weed or Funhouse or both. Yes, the author was barely into his 40s, at that point. Yes, but whatever he published thereafter was at best hubristic overreach and at worst . . . well, see George Steiner’s treatment of LETTERS, a Neanderthal bashing in The New Yorker. That piece appeared in 1979, and from then on the buzz about the work, in the hive mind, fell away.

In Translation

From On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes

From On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes

I’ve left and returned a few times over the years—I don’t mean the village, but the bar; there have been periods when I’ve abandoned it entirely, but I’ve always come back in the end, to that stimulating daily journey, the one that prises me out of my solitude at the workshop in the evenings: down Calle de San Ramón where I live, along Calle del Carmen, Calle de la Paz, Paseo de la Constitución (formerly known as General Mola), and here I am—as on so many evenings for so many years—in Bar Castañer, my refuge: the protective gauze of cigarette smoke, which, today, like the snows of yesteryear, has vanished. You can’t smoke inside any more. Although, even after all these months of the smoking ban, the smell of nicotine that used to impregnate walls and tables may have gone, but other components of that comforting olfactory gauze linger on: the smell of old cooking oil, damp wool, sweaty vests and overalls, the smell of cheap beer and sour wine. All of these still allow me to recognise the place, to snuggle down in my nest and shuffle the cards. Lately, I’ve been coming almost every evening. Saying goodbye to all this was the dream of an empty-headed youth who ended up staying and who has, in the meantime, become a decrepit old man without ever passing through maturity.

From Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo

From Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo

At the moment when the wind gusts in from the south, the wind that arrives from Arizona, soaring up and across the several sparsely populated deserts and the dozen and a half settlements that over the years have been subject to an unstoppable exodus to the point that they’ve become little more than skele-towns, at this moment, this very moment, the hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from the poplar are subjected to a pendular motion, but not all with the same frequency—the laces from which each pair hangs are of different lengths. From a certain distance it constitutes a chaotic dance indeed, one that, in spite of all, implies certain rules. Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points, in balance. The closest thing to a tidal wave of shoes. This American poplar that found water is situated 125 miles from Carson City and 135 from Ely; it’s worth the trip just to see the shoes stopped, potentially one the cusp of moving. High heels, Italian shoes, Chilean shoes, trainers of all makes and colours (including a pair of mythical Adidas Surf), snorkelling flippers, ski boots, baby booties and booties made of leather. The passing traveller may take or leave anything he or she wishes. For those who live near to U.S. Route 50, the tree is proof that, even in the most desolate spot on earth, there’s a life beyond—not beyond death, which no one cares about any more, but beyond the body—and that the objects, though disposed of, possess an intrinsic value aside from the function they were made to serve.


A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

Early on in Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, the narrator offers this bit of difficult wisdom: “Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. . . . Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin.” It’s an implied celebration of literature, one that weaves itself into the fabric of Oblivion. Locked as we are within a given body, temperament, and time, literature can transport us, can transmute textual experience into an expansion of inwardness, an amplification of consciousness. The best books—which Agualusa’s charmingly melancholic novel approaches—haunt us and, indeed, cover us like “a different skin.” Here, however, writing is even more than that: for Ludo, the agoraphobic and mysteriously damaged protagonist, writing is a matter of life and death, a story she scrawls on the walls of her home with charcoal. Fragmented and densely layered, Oblivion unfolds within the possibility—and the tension—inherent between writing and identity, text and meaning, story and life.

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

Is there a more chastening figure in contemporary American letters than Marilynne Robinson? Is there anyone else who seems, by her small but distinguished oeuvre, to call into question our literary predilections—for Franzonian cultural diagnostics, for confessional self-help, for vast, historical, double-hanky weepers? Or, more generally, is there a writer whose very presence—her unironic devotion to Christianity, her almost creepy level of calm, her spiritual maturity, her belief—undermines our own hectic cultural preoccupations—with Twitter icons, racist presidential candidates, our daily NASDAQ of microaggressions? Perhaps the only person who offers the same level of rebuke to contemporary life is Cormac McCarthy, a kind of grumpy, nihilistic older brother. Together they stand like Easter Island statues, implacable in the bleak gulf stream of our culture.

Industrial Oz: Ecopoems by Scott T. Starbuck

Industrial Oz: Ecopoems by Scott T. Starbuck

In an epistolary keynote address delivered this past June, poet Aaron Abeyta tells the Association of American University Presses “perhaps we are all here to trace and collect words, to sow meaning; we collect that thing which people discard as ordinary and bring it to a page of life where it can flourish and be the map of human struggle and therefore an instruction as to how we can all survive.” When I read his letter, I am interested in who “we” are. On one reading, Abeyta includes himself with the academic book publishers he addresses, thinking of writers and publishers collaborating to bring pages to life. On another reading, Abeyta identifies with his high school teacher who, to address his unruly classroom behavior, gave the freshman the key to the cabinet with seniors’ books. In the cabinet he found Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, learned that he would “love books and their saving power”, and discovered his own career path to university professor. On yet a third reading, perhaps Abeyta’s “we” speaks of writers and specifically poets. Writers are, after all, the ones who collect language, that “which people discard as ordinary.”

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel

The Body Where I Was Born by Guadalupe Nettel

Part of what makes Guadalupe Nettel’s The Body Where I Was Born work so well is that, though it’s so autobiographical in nature that its protagonist has the same lazy eye that’s apparent in Nettel’s author photo, the Mexican writer treats herself as a stranger. Nettel’s life seems alien to herself as she tries to recall it accurately, and to convey it diligently to otherss. To a large degree, it’s a novel precisely about this alienness, and the emotional wooziness that can cause. The Body Where I Was Born is then a novel rooted in, but wary of, the memoir form.

Mirrors on which dust has fallen by Jeff Bursey

Mirrors on which dust has fallen by Jeff Bursey

Most books where characters openly debate the title theme would suggest sledgehammer finesse, but Bursey’s artistry here as in his 2011 debut lies in the shrewd, minutiae-driven exhibition of the obvious: liberation through transcription. Whatever’s being smuggled in, I doubt it’s message. More like the manipulations of a wry anti-novelistic sensibility: whatever he can get away with. At Johnny’s, over the course of several woozily digressive pages (a Bursey specialty), this image of purity is picked up, put down, interrupted, mauled . . . —but, taken on its own, it’s hard to see the purpose. A bull-session reproduced in admirable detail, if detailing not-too-bright conversation is in itself admirable, but Bursey doesn’t seem that interested in sounding these characters or presenting the dialog dramatically, as much more than detail work. The high burnish of this “super-realism” and its modest register leaves any obvious message-mongering at bay, and the conversation itself (including its planting) unresolved, in suspension. This formal adumbration of the bigger picture, so to speak, has a local correlative in the strong focus on moments of decision, transition, and sudden insights into roads taken and not.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #10 Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman


Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

Definitely one of the most important activist groups to come about in the Internet age is Anonymous. Not only has this group been instrumental in many of the most important grassroots, fight-the-power actions of the past 10 years, it has also made essential contributions to the aesthetics and culture of the Internet (lolz, anyone? Church of Scientology South Park episode?).

But, by its very design, this group is shadowy and poorly understood. One of the main tenants of being in Anonymous is that you do not attempt to self-aggrandize or otherwise glamorize yourself, or even reveal that you are in Anonymous, which means, number one, you don’t talk to the press.

These are the reasons that Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous is an important book, because she managed to get unprecedented access to the book (including even pasting in the contents of many chats that Anonymous members had during some of their most infamous campaigns). Understanding Anonymous from the inside out really puts much of Internet culture—and grassroots “street art” culture—into a new light. It also offers important new chapters on many of the manor political events of recent years.

So I would recommend this book even if it was a turgid, painful slog. But in fact it is the opposite of that. Coleman’s depiction of Anonymous is fast-paced, often laugh-out-loud funny (unlike most critics who write those words, I really mean that; I laughed as I read this book), hugely, hugely fascinating, and uncannily winds together many, many threads into a coherent and riveting narrative. This book is seriously fun to read. Fun. It’s just a great, great book, and you all should read it.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #9 Belomor by Nicolas Rothwell


Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

This is a book that definitely hasn’t gotten its due. So here’s a thing: if you’re sad that W.G. Sebald only managed to complete four “novels” in his lifetime, and you’ve read them all and you wish there were more, read Belomor. Which is not to say that Rothwell is a Sebald clone by any means, but the lineage is obviously there, and he is an author who can stand that comparison.

The book functions a little like The Emigrants, in that it consists of four narratives that only have thematic links (and, of course, the first-person voice telling these four stories links them as well). The first one is by far my favorite, a little Sebaldian yarn that implicates that Belomor canal (a pointless project (it was useless for commerce) dug by slave labor from the Soviet gulags and that may have killed as many as 25,000). It also brings in the Dresden firestorm and its legacy, as well as Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, which moved to Dresden in the 18th century, was stolen by the Soviets during the war, and has been relocated back to Dresden.

That should give some idea of the Sebaldian heft of this book. But it is not a primarily European focus: the Pueblo region of the United States and the wilds of northern Australia also figure prominently. This is an excellent, excellent book, hugely overlooked when it was published in 2014. I look forward to reading more Rothwell in 2016.

Favorite Reads of 2015: #8 A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari


Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

I turn to rhizomes.net to state the basic idea of A Thousand Plateaus:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the originary source of “things” and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those “things.” “A rhizome, on the other hand, “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (D&G 7). Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (D&G 25). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

To put it simply, this idea makes intuitive sense to me, and it accords very deeply with how I currently see the worlds of art and literature, as well as how function the book that I am currently most involved with.

A Thousand Plateaus is a very, very new book. Which is to say, its ideas will appear quite foreign, so it is a book to be read slowly, to be contemplated, and probably to be helped through by way of secondary texts and discussions. It is greatly worth the time involved.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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