Sunday, December 20, 2015

Top 5 Books of 2015

It is always a challenge to narrow down a year's worth of reading to a list of only five books. Not only were there outstanding novels that I enjoyed beyond the five I will feature here, there are tons of books that I have not read this year: The Dying Grass, A Brief History of Seven Killings, A Little Life, My Struggle: Volume Four and Fortune Smiles come to mind as books that I will surely enjoy immensely but have not found the time yet to do so. 

This list is not what's "best" by my top favorites of a not-broad-enough swath of a year of contemporary literature. There are omissions, of course, both due to my arbitrary "eligibility" period (sorry Knausgaard) and my decision to pick only five (sorry to Will Self's Shark and to Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying, my six and seven). Still, I remain very excited to share with you, perhaps for a second time, these great books. In no particular order:

Ludmila Ulitskaya, The Big Green Tent

Not since Doctor Zhivago has there been a Russian epic of this scope and finesse. While Ulitskaya's story begins with Stalin's death in 1953 and carries into present-day, this is not a midcentury classic but is decidedly modern in its form. She jumps between plotlines like a illegal samizdat changes hands and sprints through timelines with a brazen disregard for a traditional epic's sense of drama. In The Big Green Tent, narrative "arc" is exchanged for a narrative "network"; it's a difficult read but an appropriate form for the politically expansive CCCP. My full review can be read here at Run Spot Run.

John Banville, The Blue Guitar

John Banville is one of the best living British writers and can command a sentence with masterful grace. His beautiful, vital prose contrasts dramatically with his protagonist in The Blue Guitar, the scummy, cheating Oliver Orme. He's a washed-out painter and a relentless kleptomaniac who, perhaps in an effort to maintain some semblance of the rakish dandy he once though himself to be, steals the wife of his friend. Wryly written in a manipulative first-person narrative, Banville lets a heartbreaking subtext seep through Orme's wretched tryst, revealing much more that his character would comfortably, intentionally share. My full review can be read here at Run Spot Run.

Tom McCarthy, Satin Island

I was shocked that this did not win the Booker Prize this year. I think McCarthy is a genius and that Satin Island has expanded the possibilities of what a novel can do. McCarthy writes as if he's challenging himself with an almost Oulipian level of constraints and limitations: 2010's C. was a dizzying and complicated novel about the history of communication, ranging from a school for the deaf to the dawn of radio, to seances and military transmissions. Satin Island trumps all that tenfold: this is a Kafkaesque novel about contemporary anthropology, written like a bureaucratic report, that manages to spin outward into a treatise about who we are as contemporary readers and writers and where to find artistry underneath our culture's glut of data. My full review can be read here at Run Spot Run.

Amitav Ghosh, Flood of Fire

The long-awaited conclusion to Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy Flood of Fire sticks its landing and delivers a finely composed epic of masterful storytelling of Tolstoyan caliber. The Ibis Trilogy follows the First Opium War between the Chinese and the British (all with India stuck in the quagmire): Ghosh's first volume Sea of Poppies began in 2008 and in seven years has sailed from the rural villages of India to Hong Kong's Pearl River, amidst British galleons and the threat of cannon-fire. Ghosh proves the vitality of a story and how a well-told tale can not just entertain but stay relevant throughout history. Exceptionally well-researched and flawlessly executed, Flood of Fire concludes what should be long remembered as an essential work of historical fiction. My full review can be read here at Run Spot Run.

Ander Monson, Letter to a Future Lover

I first discovered Ander Monson through his mind-expandingly good collection of experimental essays Vanishing Point. With Letter to a Future Lover he has become an essential voice and a beacon of hope for books and reading and critical theory. Letter to a Future Lover is a collection of short, two-page essays about marginalia and the often-unintended communication between readers across timelines. If I underline a passage in a book, and that same copy is read forty years later by someone who is similarly moved by the same words, the bond that's created between is is more powerful than anything its original creator may have ever imagined. As crazy as it sounds, Letter to a Future Lover is about those connections. My full review can be read here at Run Spot Run.

But there's more: "When possible, each of these essays was originally published (on a 6" x 9" card) back into the space (typically the book or library) that started it... Though they are bound here, no meaning is intended by their ordering." Absolutely fascinating, and enough for me to race out and by the last handmade, unbound limited edition of Letter to a Future Lover. That's the book's clamshell case above; I'll feature it solely here in a forthcoming post. It's a treasure of my collection.

I wish you all a happy holiday of family, books and fireplaces and will continue posting around this time next month. As always, thank you for reading.

Currently reading:
My Struggle: Volume Four by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Sunday, December 13, 2015

2015: A Year in Reviews

This year was stacked with some exceptional books, and below is a compilation of all the reviews I've put out there in 2015. This was a notable year for me in that I've started to expand my CV with some new publications, both in print and online. I'm particularly proud of the seven reviews I ran with Rain Taxi and the New Orleans Review, and intend to continue contributing to them in 2016. I am also very pleased to have transitioned from the now-defunct Contemporary Literature page to the far more stylish Run Spot Run and am thrilled to be a part of that crew. A lot of great reviews run there and they absolutely deserves a bookmark. Still, I'm consistently on the lookout for more outfits to write for, so if anyone has any recommendations please feel free to get in touch.

The below list is forty-five titles, and (of course) only features those books I've written about. Other notable reads of the year for me have been Between the World and Me, Lila, and over the summer I spent three wonderful weeks with The Count of Monte Cristo. Please take a look below and I hope you find something you like.

Originally appeared in the New Orleans Review:

Douglas Coupland, Kitten Clone
Carlos Gamerro, The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Peron
Michael Joyce, Foucault, in Winter, in the Linneaus Garden (forthcoming)

Originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books:

Masahiko Matsumoto, The Man Next Door (Volume 20, Number 1, print edition only)
Alejandro Zambra, My Documents (Volume 20, Number 2, online edition)
Anders Nilsen, Poetry is Useless (Volume 20, Number 3, print edition only)
Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic, A Gothic Soul (Volume 20, Number 4, online edition [forthcoming])

Originally appeared on Run Spot Run, April - December 2015, and Contemporary Literature, from January - March 2015

Five stars:

Ludmila Ulitskaya, The Big Green Tent (forthcoming)
Adrian Tomine, Killing and Dying
Amitav Ghosh, Flood of Fire
John Banville, The Blue Guitar
David McCullough, The Wright Brothers
Tom McCarthy, Satin Island
Will Self, Shark
Ander Monson, Letter to a Future Lover

Four stars:

Paul Murray, The Mark and the Void
Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open
Steve Toltz, Quicksand
Jesse Ball, A Cure for Suicide
Tadao Tsuge, Trash Market

Three stars:

Salman Rushdie, Two Years, Eight Moths and Twenty-Eight Nights
Patrick Modiano, So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood
Andrew O'Hagan, The Illuminations
Haruki Murakami, Wind/Pinball
Milan Kundera, The Festival of Insignificance
Mikhail Shishkin, The Light and the Dark
Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border
Anne Enright, The Green Road
Edward St. Aubyn, On the Edge
Ali Smith, How To Be Both

Two stars:

Edward St. Aubyn, A Clue to the Exit (forthcoming)
Umberto Eco, Numero Zero
Vladimir Sorokin, The Blizzard
Jonathan Franzen, Purity
Joshua Cohen, Book of Numbers
Mark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar
Toni Morrison, God Help the Child
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant
Peter Buwalda, Bonita Avenue
Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning
Mo Yan, Frog
Yu Hua, The Seventh Day

One star:

Jeanette Winterson, The Gap of Time
Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last
Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Age of Earthquakes

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Adrian Tomine, Killing and Dying (signed with drawing)

I think Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying is the best comic of 2015 and might even make it on my personal Top 5 of the year list alongside some outstanding novels. It's a fantastic example of the comics-as-literature concept that was such a new thing ten or so years ago: Tomine's stories would fit in effortlessly into a Paris Review and unflinchingly boast a literary prowess that could match that of authors like George Saunders, Donald Antrim and James Salter.

I wrote a long review over at Run Spot Run which can be read here. The book is a must for any fan of comics and contemporary fiction, and particularly keen readers will find a astonishing level of formal play at work in the collection's six stories. I highly recommend it.

Tomine was signing books at the Park Slope Holiday Book Fair this past Saturday, although I missed him on account of running int the Brooklyn "Jingle Bell Jog" at Prospect Park this past Saturday (and the subsequent slow brunch with fellow tired friends). However, I was able to pick up a signed-and-drawn-in copy of Killing and Dying from The Strand that was leftover from an earlier event. Pretty cool: this is "Barry" from "Go Owls":

Now, a digression: where is Killing and Dying on the New York Times' list of Notable Books of 2015? While I haven't seen today's book review, I think A.O. Scott's rave review ran in the same issue that they narrowed down their terrible list of top picks for the year to five each for fiction and non-fiction. Scott calls the title story (1/6 of the entire collection!) "one of the saddest and most perfect things I've ever read" ... but that's not good enough to be "notable"? To edge out the frankly pretty terrible Purity and God Help the Child, included likely due to their legacy alone? For that matter, where's Amitav Ghosh's Flood of Fire, Ander Monson's Letter to a Future Lover, Tom McCarthy's Satin Island, etc., etc., etc.? I'm currently reading Ludmila Ulitskaya's outstanding novel The Big Green Tent, and I feel like I'm the only person on the planet who's doing so. Where are its rave reviews? Maybe all of these will do what Richard McGuire's outstanding 2014 book Here did and appear on the NYT best-of list for the following year. Here's hoping for a notable 2016.

Currently reading:
Ludmila Ulitskaya, The Big Green Tent

Currently listening to:
The Vince Guaraldi Trio