Monday, December 23, 2013

Top 5 books of 2013

After much deliberation, I've selected my picks for the Top 5 books of 2013:

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
James Salter, All That Is
Will Self, Umbrella
Anne Carson, Red Doc>
Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge


Set in the late 19th-Century in a mining town on the coast of New Zealand, The Luminaries revolves around a dead body and a missing fortune, with twelve men involved in the mystery and one out-of-towner who is pulled into the web of intrigue. Catton won the 2013 Booker Prize for the novel and should win tons more awards for it. I've read a number of books this year from the current generation of writing-school grads and found most of them to be exhausting and lacking in a unique voice. Catton spins the plot of The Luminaries through an allegory of celestial charts and cosmic revolutions and her commitment to this theme shines through beautifully in her writing. It's one of the best and most fun books I've read in ages. A more detailed review can be read here.


Where was James Salter when I was falling into the oeuvre of Philip Roth, looking for great American novelists and their related great novels? Salter's All That Is is his first novel in thirty-five years (that's probably where he's been), and in one swoop cuts through through the shenanigans of the old-world, uber-masculine great-American-males like Roth and Updike. All That Is follows Philip Bowman, a former naval officer who has worked his way up the ranks in a Manhattan publishing house. Salter doesn't have any hidden agendas or subtle incendiary themes here, he's just interested in a telling a sweeping bildungsroman of a complex character and his growth through America. This felt like a mid-century classic I'd never heard of, not of its time but lost somewhere in history. My full review can be read here.


(Umbrella was published in the UK in 2012, but released in the US early 2013). One of the most difficult books I've ever read, Will Self's Umbrella is a Joycean whirlwind through psychiatric medicine. Taking place in three timelines that actually switch between each other in midsentence, Umbrella will have you reading aloud to find temporal cluing in Self's magnificent array of voices. The book is an awe-inspiring riddle and perhaps should have won the Booker last year if the judges were given ten years to re-read the shortlist before making a selection. Not for the impatient or weak-willed, but an incredibly rewarding tome. A lengthy review can be found here.


Anne Carson writes with an elegance that I've rarely encountered in my reading. Her formal constraints and pitch-perfect voice turned a Greek myth about about a monster named Geryon into something relatable and deeply personal. I had the chance to meet her at an event at the NYPL and heard her read a lengthy addendum to Red Doc> that she wrote about a character's aimlessness after finally finishing Proust. She's an author that I'm trying to take very slowly -- her books are ones to simmer with, absorb, and re-read. A review can be read here.


Tied with The Luminaries for the top rank this year, Bleeding Edge is a stunner of a book that will resound spectacularly with readers depending on who they were in the year 2000. Me, I was a Nintendo kid in the middle of my teens, growing up essentially in tandem with technology's great advancements, but wasn't immune to the various fads and cultural manias that swept through the country. I remember dial-up internet, Geocities, Beanie Babies, the X-Files, the first signs of Pokemon, and really, to sum it all up, a world pre-Google and before the Apple-empire. Pynchon remembers all of this, almost as if the novel had been cryogenically frozen for 12 years and thawed now that we're deep into the digital frontier and political uncertainty. The book is your standard hysterical Pynchon mystery-fare, but written in a way that renders the millennium like historical fiction. Beneath the double-crossing and foul play of Bleeding Edge, it's bittersweet to see how far we've come in just over a decade.

I highly recommend each of these books. Perhaps you'll need some holiday reading during travels, or have a gift card or two to spend after Christmas. I wish you all a great holiday and New Year's and will see you next in 2014.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

2013: A Year in Reviews

As 2013 winds down, I thought I'd compile a list of the book reviews I wrote this year for I jumped around a little this year and reviewed a few things that weren't necessarily current releases, so instead of breaking titles down by their release month, I thought I'd list them in order of the ranking I gave them. It's fascinating to see this breakdown -- next week I've planned to feature my top 5 books of 2013 and realize now that some I've ranked relatively far from 5 stars are among my personal favorites of the year. It's a discrepancy I understand but find difficult to explain -- I guess it's because I try to consider not just my own opinions of a book but how I expect the general reading public will engage with the text. Not everyone will be able to crack Will Self's Umbrella, for instance... although I adored the book, isn't "brazen inaccessibility" a flaw that one should consider in a review? Stay tuned for my top five next week, which will likely include some books I've not written about.

5 stars:
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

4 1/2 stars:

The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen
Roth Unbound by Claudia Roth Pierpont
Red Doc> by Anne Carson
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa 
The Unknown University by Roberto Bolano
All That Is by James Salter

4 stars:

The Tragedy of Mr. Morn by Vladimir Nabokov
Tenth of December by George Saunders 
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beaumann
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Umbrella by Will Self
Momo by Michael Ende
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The End by Anders Nilsen 
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

3 1/2 stars:

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Enon by Paul Harding
Open Door by Iosi Havilio

3 stars:

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island by Edogawa Ranpo
Personae by Sergio De La Pava
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

2 1/2 stars:

Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

2 stars:

Loteria by Mario Alberto Zambrano

1 1/2 stars:

The Best American Comics 2013
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

Currently reading:
At Night We Walk In Circles by Daniel Alarcon

Currently listening to:

Friday, December 6, 2013

Marcel Dzama, Francis Picabia, and the Adoration of the Calf

The Canadian artist Marcel Dzama made a recent appearance at Book Court in Brooklyn to  launch two new catalogues of his work. One, Sower of Discord, is a career-spanning monograph produced beautifully by Abrams that features works from Dzama's early years with the Royal Art Lodge up through his forays into film and sculpture with David Zwirner Gallery. The second book, Puppets, Pawns, and Prophets was published in conjunction with Dzama's show at Zwirner's London space this summer.

Although I missed the event, I was able to pick up signed copies of both books. At the bookstore I discovered that each copy had a different drawing in it, including beasts, bats, red-lipped ladies and big vaudevillian heads. After much deliberation, I picked these two beauties:

I really like Marcel Dzama and I'm not embarrassed to admit to have been first introduced to his work through McSweeney's. He illustrated a Nick Hornby mix-tape-but-a-book called Songbook and had a portfolio of little prints called The Berlin Years published a year or so later by McSweeney's. They brilliantly (supposedly) snuck in five original drawings in five portfolios, causing The Berlin Years to become wildly collectible. His ink-and-rootbeer drawings of tree-men, outlaws, bears and bats struck the younger me as a quirky Henry Darger-esque world-building canon, but as I got older and started seeing Dzama's exhibitions in person, I realized that he was developing as an artist as I was developing as a viewer -- I began to see references in his work to other artists and eras that I had previously not yet learned about. His work got busier and more layered and he began experimenting more with various new forms. While his early drawings were fun and fascinating (an octopus in a tree, a four-person tree-man mariachi band, etc), now his work oozes meaning. Marcel Dzama's as fun an artist to watch evolve as his work is to look at.

In addition to some very fascinating sculptures, the Zwirner book has a number of exciting referential pieces. Let's take a look at one:

This is an iphone detail of a work from 2012 called "Opportunities mingling with combatants". It has lots of signature Dzama-esque cacophony and whimsy. The masked pianists, the striped corpses, and the conclave of mysterious figures in room 391. But wait, who's that singing backup?


It's none other than Erwin Blumfeld's "Dictator, Paris" (left), an important surrealist photo from 1937. Or could it be trickster-artist Francis Picabia's "Adoration of the Calf" (1941-1492, right)?


The Picabia link is a fascinating one. Although visually there's very little to link Picabia and Dzama, it's obvious that Dzama is influenced by Picabia's approach to surrealism, self re-invention, and dadaist subversiveness. Another clue is room 391, which typographically looks very familiar:

Picabia published a surrealist magazine called 391 from 1917-1924. This was in Picabia's phase of making strange mechanical artworks and long before he began painting from found photography. The above light machine/viewmaster reel actually makes an appearance in another work called "Myths, manifestos, and monsters" (2013) as the head of a figure. I pulled the below detail from amazon's page:

Absolutely fascinating. The calf-man, with an open tunic, can be seen here as well. I'll save a discussion of what all these connections mean for another day (as I've not yet moved past the excitement of discovering these links). I'll leave you with another untapped connection, a music video Dzama directed for a band called "Department of Eagles" (a title taken from Belgian surrealist Marcel Broodthaers's fictional museum, the "Departement des aigles"):

Currently reading:
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcon

Currently listening to:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Live from KCRW