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?