2017 in books and music

Snow Bunting at North Point State Park, Maryland, USA. © 2016 S. D. Stewart

Snow Bunting at North Point State Park, Maryland, USA. © 2016 S. D. Stewart

Following surgery to repair a pelvic fracture in January I was unable to put weight on my left leg for three months. One might think this would have resulted in a higher read count than usual for the year, but in fact my total fell short of my average over the past few years. Part of this was actually due to a concerted effort to slow down and read more leisurely. However, another reason was that once I was fully mobile I simply did not want to sit around reading, so I ended up reading much less in the second half of the year, though toward the end as bird migration tapered off and the weather grew colder my pace did pick up again.

Below is the list of books I assigned 5-star ratings on Goodreads in 2017. A number of books I rated 4 stars probably deserve a place here, too, but I had to draw the line somewhere. In the 4-star category I will mention the two Julien Gracq novels I read as being particularly noteworthy (The Castle of Argol and The Opposing Shore). Regrettably I believe both of these are out of print in English translation. However, I’m happy to report that NYRB has just reissued Gracq’s moodily atmospheric novel A Balcony in the Forest, so there’s hope now for future republication of his singular work in English.

In general this year was a good one for reissues of some of my favorite buried writers. Mid-20th century British avant-garde women writers fared especially well in 2017. Much of Leonora Carrington’s writing finally came back into print as part of the centennial celebration of her birth year, including short fiction collections in both U.S. and British editions, as well as her harrowing memoir Down Below and her children’s book The Milk of Dreams. A biography by Joanna Moorhead also appeared in the spring.

A 50th anniversary edition of Anna Kavan’s novel Ice came out from Penguin in the U.S. this fall. As the 50th anniverary of Kavan’s death approaches there has been a small surge of interest around her work. For example, the journal Women: A Cultural Review devotes its entire current issue to exploring various themes in Kavan’s work. Hopefully this new scholarship will help prompt Peter Owen to finally reprint Kavan’s mysterious novel Eagles’ Nest and the kaleidoscopic short fiction collection  A Bright Green Field, both of which have inexplicably been languishing out of print for years. (For more on Anna Kavan visit the House of Sleep).

Finally, the brief but bright shooting star of Ann Quin’s literary career received a much-deserved coda when the subscription-based UK publisher And Other Stories released a collection of her unpublished stories and fragments, which includes the powerful (though incomplete) manuscript The Unmapped Country. This fragment had previously appeared in shorter form in the long out-of-print Beyond the Words anthology. (Note that non-subscribers will need to wait until mid-January 2018 for the official publication of this volume). While the publication of this book is a boon for Quin fans, it’s probably not the best place to start with her writing. In fact, her four published novels are all quite different, so it’s tough to suggest a starting point with Quin. On an initial recommendation, I began with Tripticks and actually did not care for it but still sensed there was something drawing me to Quin. I found that in Passages, which I consider to be her masterwork. Three comes in second place, followed by her debut, Berg. Thankfully, all of Quin’s novels remain in print courtesy of Dalkey Archive Press, bless their dedicated hearts.

I will just mention one other reissue of note, tangential to Ann Quin. In April, the micro press Verbivoracious Press (VP) published the first volume of an omnibus edition of Alan Burns’ novels. Burns was part of a loosely connected band of British avant-garde writers in the 1960s that included Ann Quin, as well as B.S. Johnson, Eva Figes, Rayner Heppenstall, and others. His novel Europe After the Rain draws interesting parallels to Kavan’s Ice and the relationship between the two novels is investigated in an article by Leigh Wilson in the previously mentioned issue of Women: A Cultural Review. In the past, VP, which specializes in reprinting ‘exploratory literature from Europe and beyond,’ also reissued a volume collecting two of Heppenstall’s novels (review), and many other experimental gems, including much of Christine Brooke-Rose‘s output.

2017 5-star books (in order read):

Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts / Reb Anderson
The Passion of New Eve / Angela Carter (Review)
The Poor Mouth / Flann O’Brien (Review)
The Plains / Gerald Murnane (Review)
The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Review)
When the Time Comes / Maurice Blanchot (Review)
Snow Part / Paul Celan (Review)
S.S. Proleterka / Fleur Jaeggy (Review)
The Way of Chuang Tzu / Thomas Merton (Review)
The Rings of Saturn / W. G. Sebald (Review)
Alejandra Pizarnik: A Profile / Alejandra Pizarnik (Review)
Old Rendering Plant / Wolfgang Hilbig (Review)

Full list of books read in 2017 can be found here.

2017 soundtrack:

Barn Owl (and solo work by Jon Porras and Evan Caminiti)
Belgrado
Drab Majesty
Emma Ruth Rundle
Gate
Goat
Grails
Grouper
ISIS
Keluar
Kodiak
Marriages
Nadja
Neurosis
Portion Control
Scorn
Tim Hecker
Yellow Swans
…and too much post-punk to list (mostly by way of this finding aid)

favorite films watched in 2014

My film-watching habits are erratic to say the least, and there are often long periods where I don’t watch any films. I cannot claim to be a particularly informed or sophisticated viewer. I don’t see many films when they debut in the theater, relying instead on Netflix to manage my film viewing. If a film catches my eye in the media when it first appears, I add it to my queue for when it’s released on DVD. Other than that, I watch older films as they randomly come to my attention, through books, other people’s lists, interviews, etc. Often I watch films based on a particular actor or director. If I find someone I like, I’ll at least flirt with completism (a few examples are noted in the list below). But I don’t spend nearly as much time researching films to watch as I do researching books to read. As a result, I sometimes experience lackluster periods in my film viewing. This year, for example, was not particularly inspiring, and it was actually a little tough to come up with the arbitrary 10 I’ve included here, especially since I separated out the documentaries. Except as noted, I’ve included links to trailers, although in general I have some ambivalence toward trailers. The Bergman ones are notably bad, but they at least provide a taste of the films. I would’ve linked to the IMDB entries instead, but the ads on that site are oppressive. But enough apologies, here’s the list:

(Organized in descending order of film release date)

1. The Imitation Game (2014) – Benedict Cumberbatch – One of my favorite contemporary actors. This film was inspired by the book Alan Turing: The Enigma. I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment on how much the film departs from it. Seen in the theater.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Wes Anderson [director] – I place this one above both The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Unlimited, but still not at the level of his finest work.

3. Ida (2014) – Dark subject matter filmed in black and white, atmospheric, i.e. the sort of film I tend to automatically like. Seen in the theater.

4. I Used to Be Darker (2013) – Matt Porterfield [Baltimore filmmaker] – I’m not sure how much I’d like Porterfield’s films if they weren’t filmed in Baltimore. That said, I liked this one more than his first two, and the Baltimore setting seemed less important this time. It was also fun to recognize someone in the film whom I wasn’t expecting to see.

5. The Iceman (2013) – Michael Shannon – Another favorite actor. This film is much more violent than most that I watch, but I made an exception because of both Shannon and Winona Ryder.

6. Dirty Pretty Things (2002) – Audrey Tautou – I watched this because I like Tautou, but Chiwetel Ejiofor is equally good here, if not better. The trailer is awful, especially the voice-over, so I linked to the film’s website instead. I don’t recommend watching the trailer if you’re thinking of seeing the film, as it distorts the storyline. Also, the film’s title is incongruous with its content.  I’m still puzzled by the title.

7. The Apostle (1997) – Robert Duvall – My film watching was especially sporadic during the 90s so I’m still catching up on the classics from that decade.

8. Persona (1966) – Ingmar Bergman – Still working my way through Bergman.

9. Winter Light (1963) – Ingmar Bergman – Ditto above. This is my second favorite of the Trilogy, the first being Through a Glass Darkly.

10. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) – Alain Robbe-Grillet [screenwriter] – Robbe-Grillet is known for his groundbreaking fictional work as part of the Nouveau Roman Movement. Some of his novels are favorites of mine and knowing he also wrote screenplays, I was curious about those. This is considered his masterpiece, and I found it to be deserving of that reputation.

Documentaries:

1. From One Second to the Next (2013) – Werner Herzog [director] – This link points to the full film. It’s only about 30 minutes long and is worth watching in its entirety, especially if you have ever used your mobile phone while driving. Herzog is a brilliant filmmaker whose other documentaries and feature films are also highly recommended.

2. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012) – Harry Dean Stanton – Another favorite actor. This documentary is less about Stanton as a person, and more about his skills as an actor. It’s a somber portrait of a man who has made a career out of acting natural in his many roles, yet without giving much of himself away. In this age of celebrity, few actors anymore are known to the public almost exclusively through their work. Stanton has managed to be one of those rare exceptions, though likely not without exerting significant effort in maintaining his privacy.

3. Last Days Here (2011) – An often painful-to-watch, yet redemptive portrait of Bobby Liebling, the singer of cult doom metal band Pentagram, who spent decades struggling with drug addiction, to the detriment of his music career.

belated lists for 2014

Happy New Year! Here are my belated lists of favorite books read and music listened to in 2014. Neither list is in any particular order. My reading slowed down in autumn when I took on Reiner Stach’s Kafka biographies. They ended up being my top favorites for the year, reminding me once again of my love for a good literary biography. As for music, it wasn’t a big year for new discoveries, but plenty of indulging in old favorites and a few newer passions from recent years. I tend to listen to music seasonally, so not all of these are in rotation year-round. I also plan to post a list of favorite films for the year, but that will take some extra time to compile as I don’t always make notes of what I watch.

Books

Completed reads: 72
Abandoned reads: 4

1. Kafka: The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach
2. Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach
3. The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie: Three Novels by Agota Kristof
4. To Whom It May Concern by Raymond Federman
5. The Will to Sickness by Gerhard Roth
6. Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész
7. Yes by Thomas Bernhard
8. It Then by Danielle Collobert
9. Selected Poems of René Char by René Char
10. Life, End of by Christine Brooke-Rose
11. I Am Lazarus: Stories by Anna Kavan
12. Topology of a Phantom City by Alain Robbe-Grillet
13. Mauve Desert by Nicole Brossard
14. Song of the West: Selected Poems by Georg Trakl
15. A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser

Music

1. The Smiths
2. The Cure
3. Swans
4. Grails
5. Nadja
6. Jesu
7. Om
8. Lycia
9. Caudal
10. Boards of Canada
11. Gravenhurst (thanks, Dan; RIP Nick Talbot)
12. Nick Drake (mostly Pink Moon)
13. Skinny Puppy (mostly Remission, Bites, Rabies, & The Singles Collect)
14. Front Line Assembly (mostly The Initial Command & State of Mind)
15. Slowdive, with Low [live show with JFaunt ♥]
16. Helicon’s 29th Annual Winter Solstice Concert [live show]
17. Danny Paisley & The Southern Grass, with Chester River Runoff [live show]

variation on the list a la cpz

1. Baltimore orioles (the bird, not the team) on Falls Road and in my dream.
2. Scorching 60 miles (through the rain) to Gettysburg for the bluegrass fest.
3. Long solo rides in the county.
4. Snotty cyclists in the county who don’t wave: you are a nasty festering sore on the otherwise beautiful thing that is cycling.
5. Cyclists in the county who wave: you are awesome.
6. Hanging out with B&L: I love you.
7. More sightings of the noisy but elusive catbird.
8. Summer at my house.
9. Drivers who scream at me to use the bike trail while I’m riding on Falls Road: go to hell. It is my legal right to ride on the road, and I will ride there if I damn well please.
10. Drivers in general: go to hell. And take your blasted cars with you. Seriously, I’m at the end of my rope with you people.
11. Cookies from AR.
12. Patricia Piggleton.
13. Free vegan feast from the Hare Krishnas, even if they did try to convert me.
14. Bill Monroe.
15. Thomas Merton.
16. Dear friends in Colorado.
17. Commuting on my Nishiki.
18. Every Friday Dessert Club, despite its recent hiatus.
19. My legal counsel *heart*.
20. Living the life of Scorchy McScorcherson.

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