Saturday, December 31, 2016

Books Read - 2016

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2016, in chronological order of completion. And as is the typical practice, I've provided links to posts I've written about those books. Annoyingly, continuing the recent downward trend, there were only four new posts this year. My plan-slash-hope had been to write something short about each book I read - inspired, so I thought, by our friend Clare, I was going to write 100 words about each book. Well, this didn't happen. There are many reasons, excuses, etc, but the fact is I just didn't write much. Some of them didn't inspire any ideas in me at all, but others did, and I simply did not take the time to explore them in writing. Other books I discussed with friends via email, and I didn't take the time to re-organize those thoughts into coherent essays.

In any case, following the list are comments and observations.

1. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
2. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (Ann Goldstein, trans.)
3. White Girls, Hilton Als
4. Otros Valles, Jamie Berrout
5. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, David Graeber
6. Counternarratives, John Keene
7. The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson
8. Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine (re-read)
9. Citizen, Claudia Rankine (re-read)
10. My Struggle, Book Four, Karl Ove Knausgaard (Don Bartlett, trans.)
11. Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales), Rasheedah Phillips
12. Self-Portrait in Green, Marie NDiaye (Jordan Stump, trans.)
13. Faces in the Crowd, Valeria Luiselli (Christina MacSweeney, trans.)
14. The World Is Round, Gertrude Stein (Clement Hurd, illus.)
15. Sassafrass, Cypress, & Indigo, Ntozake Shange
16. Spurious, Lars Iyer (re-read)
17. Dogma, Lars Iyer (re-read)
18. Exodus, Lars Iyer (re-read)
19. Bluets, Maggie Nelson
20. Unto the Last and Other Writings, John Ruskin
21. The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt (re-read)
22. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
23. My Struggle, Book Five, Karl Ove Knausgaard (Don Bartlett, trans.)
24. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett (re-read)
25. Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera (Lisa Dillman, trans.)
26. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.) (re-read)
27. Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair
28. Ladivine, Marie NDiaye (Jordan Stump, trans.)
29. What Is History?, E.H. Carr
30. No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, Janet Lansbury

In the first eight years of this blog, I'd included in this space an increasingly detailed statistical breakdown of my year in books. I abandoned the practice last year and don't see any good reason to pick it up again this year. In the event, there's not much to breakdown. This year I read only 30 books, many fewer than in any year I can remember in my adult reading life (well, except for last year: it turns out the facts show I read only 33 last year). Again - a lot of reasons: declining commuting time and attention deficits produced by reduced sleep, children, television, and social media, chief among them.

Of the 30, eight were re-reads of very short books (one exception: The Last Samurai). Of the remaining 22, most were also very short, four were books of essays (one of which - David Graeber's - was half read last year, if memory serves), one was non-fiction proper, and one was a short book about parenting (which was pretty useful, actually). The rest was literature, in one form or another - a few were ostensibly poetry, or poetry/essays, such as Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, I suppose. A few were novels, or short stories, or literary memoir of sorts. Two were volumes of Knausgaard's My Struggle. One was Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren.

A quick re-cap of the re-reads: Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai remains a fantastic novel, just as good now as it was when I read it upon release 15 years ago. Still, I'd forgotten much about it. I'd recommended it happily to several people, some of whom read it and liked it, but when I re-read, I was struck by how little of the experience of it I had remembered, even while pushing it on people. Claudia Rankine's pair of books - Don't Let Me Be Lonely and the widely discussed Citizen - are very much worth reading and re-reading and writing about. I read them both just last year, and I would not be surprised to find myself re-reading them next year - if only because I want to write about them - which I do. Right now all I can think of to say, some months on, is that they are special books. You should read them.

I re-read Lars Iyer's Spurious trilogy because I was in the mood for something smart and funny and easy to read (no offense lol), and they do not disappoint. When I read them the first time, I remember thinking Exodus was a drop-off from the first two, but upon re-read I felt quite the opposite. (Devoted readers will of course recall that I previously wrote about the second book in the trilogy, Dogma.) Beckett's Malone Dies is an obvious classic. I'd re-read Molloy last year, and plan to re-read The Unnamable before too long, maybe this year, maybe not, plus I still have plenty of other Beckett to read for the first time. Anyway, god, Malone Dies is great. Just some amazing, marvelous pages, dammit. My decision to re-read Handke's memoir about his mother who had committed suicide, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, was prompted by noticing a passing reference by someone on Twitter. I think about half of this book is a fascinating meditation on what it means to write about a life, especially someone else's life.

So much for the re-reads. And as a digression, often I include a list of books I read substantial portions of without being able to finish, for whatever reason. I won't do a full accounting this time, just some notes: this year I attempted a few different Henry Green novels - his style would take me for a few pages, but then I'd hit a wall and lose interest in the moment. I read fully 200 pages in Clarice Lispector's massive complete stories collection that New Directions published last year. The stories are easier going than her novels - speaking of which, I read and re-read several times over the first 10-15 pages in her The Passion According to G.H. - I enjoyed reading these pages, but they are difficult and I just could not get moving on the book. I picked up on a whim (at the World Bank bookshop, god help me) a Dalkey-published book called I, The Supreme, by Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos, which purports to be the writings of, and documents about, a 19th century Paraguayan despot. I read about 100 pages of it and got bogged down and frankly annoyed by the despot's referential and hyper-playful language.

Of the books that were new-to-me that I did finish reading... I loved loved loved Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, and managed to write about it. Her Bluets was nice, but did not have quite the same impact. A re-read is in order - and I plan to read other Nelson books too. Carson's famous The Autobiography of Red had pages I loved and pages that baffled me. I'd need to re-visit it, as well, for its own sake, but especially if I wanted to say anything about it. David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules is by turns brilliant and, honestly, stupid, sometimes on the same page. Somehow the stupidity seems to make the brilliance possible. It's hard to figure. Rasheedah Phillips is part of the Metropolarity collective, and her Recurrence Plot collection was frequently invigorating, just the kind of science fiction I'm looking for and I think we need more of. Anything I might say about Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress, & Indigo would likely be irrelevant or impertinent, but it's an interesting and unique novel, which is something. Signs Preceding the End of the World was getting a lot of hype, relatively speaking; I thought it was undeserving of it. With Faces in the Crowd, I've now read all three Valeria Luiselli books translated into English so far, and with all three there are pages I love, but I'm not sure they add up to much (again: re-reading may be in order). John Keene's Counternarratives, I felt, did deserve hype it has received, and I had some fleeting ideas for a post about it, yet nothing stuck. (Briefly: its stories each concern, in various different modes, slavery and its aftermath. They are never less than intriguing.)

I may still manage real posts about Dhalgren (nothing like what I expected, whatever that might have been; I'm very glad to finally have read it. I enjoyed the experience - it warrants a stellar reputation, but it seems to me that the content of its actual reputation is a mismatch for the real book), NDiaye's strange new novel Ladivine, and the John Ruskin Unto the Last collection, as well as a possible re-evaluation of Knausgaard's My Struggle project in light of reading the fourth and fifth books in the series (the fifth book has revived my flagging interest in the project; I liked it a lot more than the third and fourth installments).

If I had to name favorite books of the year - not counting re-reads, which are all great; I'd recommend each of them without reservation - I think it'd have to include:

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Recurrence Plot by Rasheedah Phillips
Ladivine by Marie NDiaye
Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair

And putting Whiteout at the bottom allows me the opportunity to specifically recommend that book, uncharacteristically the only proper non-fiction book I read this year. It was published in 1998, begins by showing that Gary Webb's reporting about the CIA and drugs was accurate and unfairly attacked and maligned by the big mainstream media outlets - the Washington Post in particular. It's not great prose, but it's packed with a lot of information. And it remains relevant to us today, both by, a, outlining the history of the CIA and US military working with not only drug dealers (honestly, the idea that massive amounts of drugs enter the United States without the US Government specifically allowing it strikes me as silly now), but with literal Nazis after World War II, and, b, the often direct complicity in covering up such activity, or not reporting on it, by newspapers such as The Washington Post, L.A. Times, New York Times, etc. One does wonder how we got in our current mess, doesn't one?

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Notes on The World Is Round by Gertrude Stein

The World Is Round is a children's book written by Gertrude Stein, published in 1938. The book was illustrated by Clement Hurd, who is best known as the illustrator for Margaret Wise Brown's children's classics The Runaway Bunny (1942) and, especially, Goodnight Moon (1947).

I've lately decided I am firmly pro-Gertrude Stein, but to date this is still just the third book I've read by her. I only recently learned of its existence, via Ethan's posts about it, and even then, I wasn't expecting to read it any time soon, except I came across the attractive 75th anniversary edition on display at the Children's Book Store here in Baltimore. This edition includes the original book - with its pink pages and blue text, as mandated by Stein - an afterword by Clement Hurd's wife, Edith Thacher Hurd (from 1986), and a new foreword by Thacher Hurd, their son (and incidentally a writer of children's books himself, including one of our old favorites, Art Dog). These two pieces, especially the afterword, tell the interesting story about the genesis of Stein's book and its production, in the context of the burgeoning and 'experimental' world of children's books in the 1920s and 1930s, including some letters between Stein and Hurd. Briefly, Margaret Wise Brown, a big admirer of Stein's, suggested to Young Scott Books that they invite literary authors to write children's books. Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Stein were asked; only Stein responded.

But never mind all that! How is the book? In many ways it makes perfect sense that Gertrude Stein wrote a children's book. Her vocabulary and her syntax tend to be simple. There's rhythm and repetition, like you'd find in many children's books.

[In my effort to include pictures from the book in this post - an Existence Machine first!! - I struggled mightily with formatting. I had wanted, e.g., pages 1 and 25 to be side-by-side, but it wasn't happening. So then I thought, well, ideally, I'd write something alongside each image, preferably something relevant and insightful or at least useful. Alas, no. At one point, I came back to this post, as it remained in draft status - where it remained for many months before being published, if we're honest, and we're nothing if not that - I stared at the blank space next to the page, and nothing was coming... I typed "what am I doing" - because honestly my god what am I doing.] [Incidental side note while we still have white space to fill: this book is one of the many places, but not the first, where the line "A Rose is a Rose is a Rose" appears.] [But anyway look at page 1! Isn't it lovely?]
It is in many ways delightful - in both classic children's book ways and Gertrude Stein ways. But I have to say: it's difficult to imagine many actual children reading the book or sitting still while it's read to them. The book concerns the adventures of Rose, and what she thinks and feels, her doubts and struggles, and among other things, her climb up a mountain with a chair, because why not. The language is simple, as one might expect from either Stein or a children's book. And it's repetitive in the way children's books often are, but especially the way Stein often is. [I know, I already more or less said that above. Pretend this is me being artfully repetitive like Gertrude Stein. Only pretend I'm using far fewer syllables.] Yet there is a lot of text, quite a lot for a children's picture book. Many pages are only text, and a lot of it, and one page in particular is essentially one paragraph, a wall of text. So you'd have to imagine either an especially precocious child, and/or an especially patient one. Still, it is frequently lovely, often funny, interesting, philosophical, occasionally bizarre, occasionally boring, and, again, it has a page that is a wall of text, much like you'd find in, like, The Making of Americans, or Kafka or Bernhard or something, not so much Goodnight, Moon. I love that page so much. Unfortunately, while many images from the book exist online, I could not find that one, so I took a photo of it myself. And here it is:

"Water yes and birds yes and rats yes and snakes yes and lizards yes and cats yes and cows yes, and trees yes and scratches yes, and sticks yes, and flies yes, and bees yes but not a Rose with a chair, all a Rose with a chair can dare is just not stare but keeping on going up there."


Notes on Self-Portrait In Green by Marie Ndiaye

Self-Portrait In Green came to my attention this Spring via a tweet from Aaron Bady, in which he linked to publisher Two Lines Press's special "Try Out Marie Ndiaye!" page. They described the book as "an utterly unclassifiable memoir that belongs on the shelf somewhere near Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red." As I had just gotten finished reading all three of those books, this seemed especially designed to attract me in particular. I had never heard of Ndiaye (who is apparently a big deal in France), but I loved those three books, to varying degrees, and it was cheap, so I ordered it.

In the event, having read the book twice, I'm not sure what to say about it. Granted, what do I ever know to say about a book anymore, right? When was the last time a blog post appeared here? Nearly seven months ago? Right. In that span, I've thought about writing about a number of things, planned several posts, opened drafts, written terrible sentences, but not found the time, or taken the time, or whatever, to do what it takes. But one common thread that has bugged me is the problem of expectations. I'm sort of obsessed with blurbs (can you be "sort of" obsessed with something?) - the work they do to manage and contain our reading experiences. Publishing copy, too: book flaps, webpages, ad copy, etc.

So, I began reading this book with incredibly high expectations - and it just doesn't measure up to them. In fact, it can't. "Measure up" is wrong - it just doesn't compare. It doesn't seem to be anything like those books, in any meaningful way. The comparisons are simply unfair, and in the end a bit annoying. And yet, they hooked me in, didn't they? - it was successful marketing! god help me - and I'm not at all sorry I read the book. But the whole enterprise rankles. And notice, too, that they call it an "unclassifiable memoir" - yet by the end of the page, have referred to it as a novel. Apparently, in this brave new post-James Frey (heh) literary (heh) world of the (relatively) massive successes of your Knausgaards and Ferrantes, there is simply no difference whatsoever between a memoir and a novel, a memoir and a fiction. For the record, Knausgaard's My Struggle books have always scanned to me as memoir, so naturally everyone calls them novels. Ferrante's Neapolitan series, meanwhile, scans as fiction, so naturally those books get taken as essentially memoir, to the point that it's apparently totally important that we know who she really is. In this case, I have gathered, from where I can no longer remember, that Ndiaye began writing Self-Portrait in Green as a memoir, and it became a fiction. A common enough occurrence, no doubt. So why not just call it both? Isn't that irritating? I think it's irritating.

(And yet, perhaps somewhat contradictorily, I do not have a problem with writing that is in fact unclassifiable. I call that, simply, writing - and it is in this sense that the commonality with Nelson, Rankine, and Carson, all three the real deal, as far as I'm concerned, is borne out.)

The book you say? How is the book? Hah, what an odd question. The book is pretty good, I think. I enjoyed it, rather a lot, on a sentence by sentence level. I enjoyed the texture of it, of those sentences (the term is borrowed from a friend). I'm not sure I understood the significance of all the green. There were women in green, throughout, and presumably the green meant something, but I couldn't tell you what it was. I'm not sure I care. Re-reading, I enjoyed the sentences even more—Ndiaye is a talented writer—but I remain more or less in the dark about the green. I'm ok with that.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Notes on Otros Valles by Jamie Berrout

I learned of Otros Valles from Ethan, who has posted some excerpts on his tumblr and in general praised it. The author describes herself as "a queer Mexican trans woman writer . . . from the South Texas border", which description fits the narrator as well, and as such, I feel it's not really for me, possibly not to read, but certainly not to discuss with any authority or attempt to explain, to write about at any length. But I wanted to mention it, and point interested readers in its direction. Here, I'll just say that, on the strength of the passages Ethan posted, I bought and read the self-published e-book, and I liked the experience of reading it. I appreciate that it is quiet and meditative. The narrator is concerned with being trans and Mexican and queer, and what that means, about family conflict and comfort, and friendship and loneliness, about intersectional oppressions and politics and history, and about writing. There isn't much in the way of plot or event, nor resolution. She might be interested in explaining things to herself, but she is not interested in explaining things to me.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Notes on White Girls by Hilton Als

Readers will remember my post on the 1992 essay collection Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, edited by the late Joe Wood, in which I reserved special praise for the entry by Hilton Als:
His essay is called "Philosopher or Dog?" and it begins in a manner that I initially found off-putting. But it finds a groove (or I found its groove) and by the end, I felt it was brilliant. It's a poetic meditation, if you will, on Malcolm X's mother, and the unfair uses he puts her to in his Autobiography. For example, he describes his mother, who was from Granada, as looking like a white woman, being more educated than his father, and even inviting occasional abuse for that reason. Als a) calls bullshit on all of that, but b) also tries to imagine her life, her politics. . . Among other things, it's a fascinating riff on the uses and distortions of autobiography and memoir.
Hilton Als was to that point unknown to me, though this may say more about my general tendency to ignore the New Yorker than anything else. In any case, I thought the essay was fascinating and knotty, and I was intrigued to learn that it was collected in Als' recent book of essays titled White Girls. What would it mean to collect an essay about Malcolm X, and his mother, in a book by that title? In the event, having now read the book, which includes essays ostensibly concerning Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, Michael Jackson, Eminem (and his mother), Louise Brooks, and Richard Pryor, among others, I don't really have a definitive answer, except that Louise Little was the white girl of Malcolm X's imagination. It remains a provocative question.

It could be said that the book's general over-arching subjects are race and gender and the construction of identity and self. And of micro-collectives - as in the long, sprawling, frequently beautiful first essay, which largely concerns a friendship evidently of central importance to the author (or narrator? later essays, in which Als writes first-person essays from the standpoint of identities not his own, retrospectively raise the question), a "we" to which he belongs, or belonged, the ways in which we each are part of numerous such entities known as a "we" - understood to those belonging to it, often obscure to those outside it. The Flannery O'Connor essay was personally gratifying - given my own blog post on her and on politics and racism some years ago (a piece long by blog standards, short for an essay in a book) - not that that's necessarily a good reason to appreciate writing, but in any case, I read it thinking yes, this is what O'Connor is doing in her fiction, and this is how to read her doing it.

Those two essays notwithstanding, about halfway through I was feeling somewhat adrift and disappointed in the book, despite liking much of what I had read to that point - but none of it, except perhaps that opening essay, or most of it anyway, seemed to be as effective or urgent as the Malcolm X piece - which incidentally holds up very well on re-reading. But the second half picks up considerably. In particular, two pieces dealing with Richard Pryor (one of which is in the voice of an imaginary sister of Pryor's) are very good and among my favorites in the book.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Notes on The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I thought I might try a new thing here: blogging. Possibly even about the books I read!

As of this moment, I've finished reading two books so far this year, both of which had figured to be the final book(s) of 2015, but were not, and only one of which will I write about here. (I saw a year-end post which said that any book worth reading is worth devoting 100 words to. Fair point. One hundred words isn't many; maybe I'll give it a try. Not that I expect to keep to it.) (Is this one hundred words yet?)

Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. In short, I loved reading this book. But what is it? A very slim volume (which helps, no doubt). Inside flap says it's "Memoir/Criticism". Sales categories bug me, but Nelson does do those things here. She writes about her own life - her attempts to get pregnant, her pregnancy, her relationship with her partner Harry Dodge, to whom the book is frequently addressed and who is "fluidly gendered" (that phrasing is taken from the intro to this interview with Nelson; I use it rather than "trans" if only because she writes about that term some in the book) - she writes about her roles as mother and step-mother - the messiness and physicality of all of these things. She writes about feminism and queer theory and poetry and writing: and about the former being just as worthy of critical attention as the latter.

I'll just offer one example from the book. Nelson tells the story of a seminar she attended as a grad student, in 1998, in which Jane Gallop was to present new material, and Rosalind Krauss was to respond to it. (Neither name was familiar to me. Nelson describes Gallop's work as having "evidenced a deep investment in Lacanian thought without seeming to have drunk the Kool-Aid", as seeming "to be learning everything there was to know about the [philosophical] boiler room so that she could blow it up". Krauss's work she knew less well but "gathered that everyone was invested in her theories about the modernist grid".) Gallop's presentation was a slideshow of resolutely personal photographs, about her husband and son and their lives, and commentary about the subjective experience of being photographed, combined with her experience as a mother. Nelson: "I liked that Gallop was onto something and letting us in on it before she fully understood it. She was hanging her shit out to dry: a start." But Krauss goes on the attack, accusing Gallop of a disturbing "soft-mindedness", in sharp contrast to her important previous work. Nelson: "The room thickened with the sound of one keenly intelligent woman taking another down. ... the tacit undercurrent of her argument, as I felt it, was that Gallop's maternity had rotted her mind—besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think than an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting."

Nelson was at that time neither a mother nor had any expectations of becoming one, but her sympathies were with Gallop: "I was enough of a feminist to refuse any knee-jerk quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity." In saying so, of course, Nelson is reminding us that such refusals have been a basic component of feminism, i.e., nothing new. However, the need to refuse such quarantining (and of not just "the feminine or the maternal", but also "the physical", "the medical", and any number of other "personal" categories people are encouraged to keep hidden, or told is outside the realm of thinking), and to assert its opposite, is perpetual. Maggie Nelson not only calls bullshit on such mindsets, but beautifully demonstrates throughout that it is bullshit.

I think The Argonauts is both important and beautiful. It is that elusive species, writing.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Books Read - 2015

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2015, in chronological order of completion. As usual, links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts. This year merely continued the recent trend of fewer and fewer new posts—there were only 9 new entries this year, down from 13 last year (and 25 the year before). Granted, there was an excellent reason for that: our son Malcolm was born smack in the middle of the year. Only two posts date since his birth, and the first of those was already in the works beforehand.

In any case, following the list are comments and observations.

1. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (John E. Woods, trans.)
2. Capitalism & Slavery, Eric Williams  
3. Sidewalks, Valeria Luiselli (Christina MacSweeney, trans.)
4. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson  
5. Wittgenstein Jr, Lars Iyer
6. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, Manuel De Landa
7. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary
8. The Portable Malcolm X Reader, Manning Marable & Garrett Felber, eds. (also, also)
9. Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, Joe Wood, ed.
10. Lila, Marilynne Robinson
11. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women & Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, Stephanie M. H. Camp
12. Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
13. Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan, Ian Bell
14. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (re-read)
15. Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine
16. Liberalism: A Counter-History, Domenico Losurdo (Gregory Elliott, trans.)
17. Extinction, Thomas Bernhard (David McLintock, trans.)
18. The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Gerald Horne
19. Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All, David Roediger
20. The Death of the Novel and Other Stories, Ronald Sukenick
21. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward E. Baptist
22. Molloy, Samuel Beckett (re-read)
23. The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO, Eddie Conway
24. Benito Cereno, Herman Melville
25. The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965, , Samuel R. Delaney
26. Patternmaster, Octavia Butler
27. Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, Marilynne Robinson (re-read)
28. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
29. Bog-Trotter, Dory Previn
30. Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed
31. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, volume one, Marguerite Young
32. The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli (Christina MacSweeney, trans.)
33. Hotel Andromeda, Gabriel Josipovici (re-read)

In the past, I've included in this space an increasingly detailed statistical breakdown of my year in books. This year, I find I just can't be bothered. I found those breakdowns alternately amusing, useful, and tedious—and this year, the prospect of assembling the data just filled me with dread, so fuck it.

That said, it remains important for me to keep in mind who writes the books I'm reading, and why. So the lack of stats this year should in no way be interpreted as my no longer caring about (some of) such statistical matters. Besides, not only were there fewer posts than ever, I read fewer books than at any time since I began reading in earnest (just over twenty years ago). This was also in part because the arrival of our son, an ankle injury I sustained three weeks after his birth, and an extended period of atypically extreme busy-ness at work all combined to mean I worked from home more often than not in the second half of 2015. That is to say, I no longer had my regular commute, also known as regular dedicated reading-time.

But still! I read some excellent books!

As the year began, I was wrapping up The Magic Mountain, and honestly it doesn't really fit here, the reading experience belongs more with 2014, but rules are rules. From there I moved right into Eric Williams classic study, the excellent Capitalism & Slavery, continuing my recent focus on American slavery and its aftermath. (Interestingly, it was only a little before reading his book that I learned that Williams had been a person of color. Which only goes to show you how difficult it can be to keep track of such matters.) Three more books explicitly about slavery were to come, ranging from a focus on day-to-day resistance (Stephanie Camp's Closer to Freedom), to a detailed history of what slavery was like and how it helped build American power and capital (Edward Baptist's deservedly widely read The Half Has Never Been Told), to a fascinating if knotty study about what the founders of the United States had really been concerned with in doing so (namely, preserving slavery) (Gerald Horne's The Counter-revolution of 1776; I'd begun reading this in 2014). I also read Seizing Freedom, David Roediger's provocative account, following on from Du Bois's insistence in Black Reconstruction that the enslaved freed themselves, of former slaves' ideas of jubilee in the wake of emancipation, what it meant for them, its influence on other movements (e.g., feminism) (which movements tended to abandon its wider implications), and how it was ultimately betrayed. In addition, Domenico Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History, while not explicitly about slavery, by tracing what liberal ideas actually entailed ends up being very much about slavery indeed.

I also continued my reading in more modern and/or recent African American history and black political writing - which, of course, is also part of 'slavery's aftermath', broadly speaking. This included George Jackson's prison letters, which, while frequently fascinating, were in total disappointing. I wish I owned copies of Assata and Angela Davis' autobiography and read the library copy of Jackson's, rather than the other way around, but so it goes. (Though I certainly will be buying those two, to have more readily to hand.) Manning Marable's Malcolm X Reader and an essay collection about Malcolm X, edited by the late Joe Wood, from 20 years ago, were read in the wake of remembrances of his assassination. They are both worthy volumes. I'd half-expected to soon read Marable's biography, but it didn't come to pass, not yet. Eddie Conway's short volume about COINTELPRO and the Black Panther Party - published while he was still in prison - is a pretty good intro to the topics (we'd had the book for a while, but I only got to it this year, somehow; Conway is now out of prison, and semi-regularly attends our Quaker Meeting here in Baltimore). And then later in the year, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' much-discussed, Between the World and Me. I realize lots of liberal white guy reviewers said it was really good and really important. So forgive me for thinking it excellent.

I read just three 'new' novels this year: Lars Iyer's Wittgenstein Jr (which maybe I didn't like as much as the Spurious threesome, but it's still plenty good enough), Marilynne Robinson's Lila (third book in the sort of trilogy that began with Gilead; I liked it very much, probably more than I did Home, the second book), and Valeria Luiselli's odd and entertaining, The Story of My Teeth.

The rest of the year's fiction reading, not counting three re-reads (Molloy - still great; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - still, uh, meh; and Hotel Andromeda - even better this time round!), and the library copy of Butler's Patternmaster (which I liked well enough, but was not overly thrilled by; this was the only science fiction of the year), was confined to the exciting category of Books I've Had On My Shelves For Years. This was partly because of available finances, and partly because - I mean, I've had these books for years, right? presumably some of them are worth reading? Actually, scanning the list, this didn't amount to too many different books. But, in this vein, I did finally read Bernhard's marvelous final novel, Extinction (leaving me with just one major prose work left, I think - The Lime Works? I'll have to check his bibliography), Ishmael Reed's fascinating and bizarre and confounding Mumbo Jumbo, and Melville's strange Benito Cereno (which dovetailed with the slavery theme). What started this practice off was finding Ronald Sukenik's overtly experimental story collection, The Death of the Novel, in a box in my basement. Totally meant to blog about it too. In any case, as often happens with such collections, it's interesting, entertaining, at times boring. Some of its incidental political content stuck out for me, as, if nothing else, just as suggestive of the creeping literary conservatism of the last 40+ years as the experimental nature of the stories themselves might.

In this last category, but really of necessity standing by itself, is volume one of Marguerite Young's huge novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, the reading of which fairly dominated the second half of my year. It really is an amazing surfeit of words - a strange, frequently beautiful, often exasperating 600+ (so far) pages. I hope to have something more substantive to say about it in a separate post later on, but suffice it to say... haha, as if Young herself would ever have used the expression "suffice it to say".... never mind, then, for now.

That leaves miscellaneous not-fiction - essays (Luiselli's nice little Sidewalks - I mean no condescension at all, and a re-read of Robinson's Absence of Mind - I'd meant a post or two dealing with it and her and possibly some Josipovici compare/contrast, but though something like that may still come, I have to admit her much-shared NYRB conversation with Obama kind of left a bad taste in my mouth, so we'll see) and theory/philosophy (Crary's 24/7 and De Landa's Thousand Years of Nonlinear History - both fantastic books, honestly; the former author of no relation to myself, which makes the fact that he wrote a book I could absolutely see myself writing, were I the kind of person who wrote theory, or books, or ever, rather interesting indeed) (and it's been way too many months since I read the De Landa, but I frankly loved reading that book - it's such a wide-ranging, almost freewheeling, recontexualization of just tons of all kinds of familiar and unfamiliar historical material) and memoir (Delany's and Dory Previn's - both intriguing and excellent reading experiences, in entirely different ways) and biography (the late Ian Bell's completion of his two-volume bio of Dylan, not as good as the first but not bad), and Claudia Rankine's two superb books of... what? essay-poems? prose-poems? I don't know. Citizen is the big one from this year, and it's deserves to be read, but if anything, I think I liked the earlier Don't Let Me Be Lonely even more.

And there it is. Thank you for reading.