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)

‘the source we have forgotten’

The road. When I could drive no more for weariness I huddled in the back of the car and uneasily dreamed for a few hours but I did not do that often, I was in a frenzy that precluded rest. I felt that I was in a great hurry but I did not know I was speeding toward the very enigma I had left behind–the dark room, the mirror, the woman. I did not know this destination exercised a magnetic attraction on me. I did not know I could not stop.

In the mornings, the ground was white with hoar frost for it was now late October and a crimson sun rose over plains that rolled as far as the pale hem of the sky. There were no trees. The radio in the car fed me an aural pabulum of cheapjack heartbreak; this nasal country music was interspersed with voices that sang the praises of innumerable articles of consumption and sputtered out frequent news bulletins. The Harlem Wall grew longer, taller, thicker; the National Guard was on permanent call. Riots, incendiarism. I could not have picked a worse time for my trip. Only fatality could have possessed me to go high-tailing off in such troubled times, fatality and the unknowable impulsion of the destination ahead of me, a destination of which I was entirely ignorant although it had chosen me long ago for our destinations choose us, choose us before we are born.

And exercise a magnetic attraction upon us, drawing us inexorably toward the source we have forgotten. Descend lower, descend the diminishing spirals of being that restore us to our source. Descend lower; while the world, in time, goes forward and so presents us with the illusion of motion, though all our lives we move through curvilinear galleries of the brain towards the core of the labyrinth within us.

—Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

2016: my reading crisis year

This year I suffered a crisis of faith in reading fiction. It began early this summer and lasted for several months. At its deepest point I thought I might not ever read another novel. Its origins lay in a complex amalgamation of factors, including a long run of uninspiring reads, the completion of the final stages of a three-year writing project, and a profound deepening of my Zen Buddhist practice. The details of how these factors intersected are of a personal nature that I won’t explore here. Ultimately, however, I weathered this crisis and am pleased to report that I returned to fiction this autumn, albeit with a radically altered view of how I approach my reading and what I hope to extract from it. Perhaps I will write more about these changes in the future, but for now here are the highlights from my reading year, most of them from before the crisis hit. Most links are to my Goodreads reviews, but in cases where I didn’t write a review I’ve provided a publisher link when available.

I enjoyed spending more time with the British avant-gardists of the 1960s, including B.S. Johnson (Travelling People), Ann Quin (completing my reading of her slim output with Berg & Three), Alan Burns (Europe After the Rain & Dreamerika!), Rayner Heppenstall (The Greater Infortune / The Connecting Door), and those others included in the excellent anthology Beyond the Words.

The lost American Modernist Margery Latimer captured my attention, although after reading most of her published output, I found that We Are Incredible was the only work of hers to linger long with me.

Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists was an expected winner in the spring. I look forward to moving on to the sequel The Brunist Day of Wrath, of which I’ve already read a tantalizing excerpt in Conjunctions (#60) a couple of years back.

At the end of the summer I confronted my crisis head-on and approached fiction again through the lens of some old favorites, namely Thomas Bernhard and Marguerite Duras. It was a bittersweet experience with Bernhard, as I was closing out his novels with his final opus, Extinction, and I had a mixed reaction, as I discuss in my review. With Duras, I discovered a new favorite of hers in Summer Rain, which regrettably appears to be out of print, though easy enough to find on the used market (or through interlibrary loan).

But it was Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren that truly immersed me in the wonders of fiction again. This one had been on my to-read list for several years, but its length led me to keep putting it off. I knew, though, that the frenetic pace of my reading had contributed to my crisis and I suspected that a long book might force me to slow down and allow proper digestion to take place. My hunch was correct, for Delany’s storytelling, while compelling and highly readable, demanded the downshift in pace that I so desperately needed to make. Review here.

Other favorites from the year:

Kassandra and the Wolf by Margarita Karapanou – defies description.

Tales of Galicia by Andrzej Stasiuk

The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz – one of those books whose word count belies its depth. Plot materializes like a squid undulating in its own inky emissions.

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf – “The paths we really took are overlaid with paths we did not take. I can now hear words that we never spoke. Now I can see her as she was, Christa T., when no witnesses were present. Could it be possible? –The years that re-ascend are no longer the years they were. Light and shadow fall once more over our field of vision: but the field is ready. Should that not amaze us?” (p. 23)

My reading goal for 2017 is to maintain a more leisurely pace—no more gobbling down prose like a pig at the trough. I want to allow literature to seep into my consciousness and take root instead of finishing with restless haste before moving immediately onto the next book. I see more long books in my future, where there is space to lie down and rest awhile, where the last page doesn’t come too soon, leading me to veer off in yet another direction before first taking stock and reorienting myself.

‘he walked arm in arm with his shadow’ (éric chevillard)

[note: cursory statistical analysis reveals this blog would receive heightened traffic if it contained more practical advice on ‘all weather bike commuting,’ but instead it chiefly contains impractical, infrequent, and largely unread text such as the following…]

aural darkness in june. a way to refuse the heat. alice. another merciful release. a spiral of silence. another five minutes in this chair. jabès with his name in his pain but his pain with no name. writing about the book and its hold over us. the power of the word. meanwhile duras is looking at the time. ‘it was ten o’clock. in the evening. it was summer.’ and what could maria call the time opening ahead of her…’this incandescence, this bursting of a love at last without object.’

been here too long. here early / leave late / write in boxes / move on wheels back uphill. two legs, four legs, crossing thresholds over and over. sidewalks of daily desolation. tedium in quin’s ‘city where every street declares its defeat.’ consider bernhard and his ‘born barricade fanatics’the shared ‘desire to barricade ourselves from the world.’

but then there is jabès in unwilling exile from his beloved desert. everyone in some form of exilemental, physical, spiritual—feeling incapable of return. like robin about whom the baron thinks ‘there was in her every movement a slight drag, as if the past were a web about her, as there is a web of time about a very old building.’ and yet nora saying ‘robin can go anywhere, do anything, because she forgets, and i nowhere because i remember.’ because what bliss it would be to forget, right, to not always be dragging that chain of keyless padlocks behind. two (mis?)interpretations of another’s experience. dangers of outside looking in. but what of robin. what of robin. on the floor barking like a dog. a shattered mirror. surrendered to expectations. a final transition to conditioned response. or the ultimate shedding of humanity’s heavy carapace.

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]

kafka: ‘in a different realm’

“It is conceivable for a writer to take the pulse of his era and make it come alive in language and images, yet still be out of his depth when it comes to palpable engagement with the world, although this constellation is exceedingly rare. Far more often someone who is truly at home in two worlds is misunderstood as being ‘out of touch’ in the public, social cosmos, which he shapes and endures in combination with others, and in an interior psychic space dominated by feelings, dreams, fantasies, associations, and ideas, which he inhabits alone. Anyone whose experience inside his head offers as vast and constant a stream of impressions as the world outside cannot stay focused on the here and now. But where is he then? In a different realm.

An individual who appears to be out of touch with reality is rarely in the privileged position of being able to open and close the subtle locks between inside and outside at will. The vortex pulling him inside his head is always palpable, but the reality principle demands that he remain perpetually alert; people expect him to limit himself to things that can be communicated. Anyone who starts talking about daydreams on the street, in a store, or at the workplace alienates people, no matter how intense and meaningful those daydreams are. He remains alien because he understands and acknowledges a second world, and for the most part, and to his detriment, he remains just as alien in that interior world for the same reason. He is present, but neither here nor there.

That condition can culminate in insanity, and Kafka justifiably feared winding up insane throughout his life. But it has little to do with the accomplishment society expects of the individual. Someone who is alienated from the world might function perfectly well as a craftsman, attorney, teacher, or politician, or as a vice secretary of an insurance institute, and his struggle to balance himself—poised like a man with one foot off the ground—can easily remain hidden from view, without a trace, as it probably has in thousands upon thousands of brains.”

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Years of Insight

field report 3

Today the clouds demand close observation. Why is everyone not looking at the clouds. Absurd. All colors today are vivid: the dark and choppy white-flecked waters of the harbor, the green sloping lawn of the former Civil War lookout, the red of the restaurant roof below it. Now is the time when the first psithuristic hints of the autumnal approach appear. Observance and acknowledgment of this occurrence is essential.

A passing child of about 7 says, apropos of nothing: ‘I hope I get a lawnmower soon…a real one…vrrrrrm [presumed lawnmower noises].’ His family chooses not to acknowledge this proclamation. Theory: this is not the first time it has been uttered.

A large black dog (LBD) enjoys the grassy, treed oasis behind the seafood restaurant, complacently chewing a tennis ball as its person paces in circles while jabbering on her mobile phone.

Shirtless males run on the promenade.

Tourists relentlessly take photos of a boat, the so-called ‘Last Survivor of Pearl Harbor,’ by far the most photographed object in the vicinity.

My doppelgänger walks by, as he is wont to do.

Midway through the reading period, sudden drama rushes in when cigar-smoking man (CSM) arrives on his bicycle, only to find LBD lying in the exact spot where he traditionally sets up his legless portable chair. For a few moments the air crackles with anticipation. However, this soon dissipates as, undaunted, CSM approaches the occupied territory and sets up his chair immediately adjacent to LBD. Soon, the fragrant scent of cigar smoke floats upon the strong breeze as CSM cracks open his book, occasionally casting a shrewd eye upon LBD, who pants in patient oblivion as its owner continues chattering.

On the return trip, while walking, a man pauses to execute a precise ballet move: a half-knee bend followed by a jump in place, arms outstretched. The grace of this move is surprising given the man’s overall GISS. He then taps a light pole with the thick book in his left hand. Further on, he thumps the book in his hand like a revival preacher, resulting in a few turned heads. A strong temptation rises to follow him for research purposes, but alas, recess is over.

allure of the cover

The Calm Ocean Some books demand to be read based on their covers alone. Such is the case with The Calm Ocean by Gerhard Roth, which I was surprised to find sans ugly hardcover binding on the university library’s shelves. The bright red background initially draws the eye, which may then focus on the fox, specifically the head, also depicted in primary color. Illuminated by the rising sun (or moon) behind it, the highly stylized fox is looking back across the face of the book, into the unknown. The eye might now wander up to the title of the novel, which seems to contradict the rural scene represented on the cover. One begins to wonder about this contrast, and whether the fox is significant in any way, as well as what the title says about the book.

The Austrian writer Roth is a relatively new discovery for me, thanks to a recommendation last year from a friend over at Goodreads. Roth’s early work falls into the broad soup of ‘experimental’ fiction, lacking the more traditional trappings found in realist fiction. But he grew closer to realism over the years, though I find his take on it to be palatable. It’s as if he took the experimental skeleton he crafted as a younger writer and hung some strange costumes on those angular bones. Murky and sometimes even hallucinatory, Roth’s post-experimental fiction is not to be overlooked simply because it began to dress in new and bizarre realist outfits. Of course I say this while now reading only my second of these later works (the first Roth book I read, The Will to Sickness, was much more experimental; the second one, The Lake is a later work). But I have a feeling (partly based on other descriptions/reviews I’ve read), that I am right about Roth in this regard.

In his writing, Roth is concerned with sifting through the social and political culture of his home country of Austria, both past and present. Most of his books resemble mystery novels, at least superficially. They are not traditional mysteries at all, though, and readers who simply must find out all the details of what happened should probably stay away. At this point in my reading of the book, The Calm Ocean already recalls the The Lake in that it also concerns a man away from home, in an unfamiliar provincial place, feeling disoriented and alienated. Since my reading thrives on characters like this, I was drawn in immediately. I’m still early on, but I already know that it will live up to the promise of the cover.

Roth has completed two ambitious cycles of works, each of which consists of novels, essays, and documentary volumes: Die Archive des Schweigens (The Archives of Silence) and Orkus (Hades), the former consisting of seven works, and the latter of eight. Unfortunately, many of these works are still unavailable in English, though Ariadne Press has been doing an admirable job in bringing some of them into English translation, with their focus centered on ‘Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture & Thought’. Hopefully these current offerings from Ariadne, as well as Atlas Press and Burning Deck (each of which has published one of Roth’s earlier books in English), will grow in popularity among English readers and thus attract more translation efforts in the future. Roth certainly ranks with Thomas Bernhard as a contemporary Austrian writer very much worth reading (Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Handke being two others on my list of to-reads).

books!

Since I shut down my Goodreads account, I plan to post more book reviews and bookish thoughts here. This doesn’t mean the blog will morph into a reading blog, but as I’m experiencing a bit of a creative impasse at the moment, there may be more book talk in the near future than anything else. Curiously, even when I’m in a fallow creative writing period I find it possible to write about books. I think this is related to the schismatic phenomenon between reading and writing (creative writing, that is), so that during times of heavy reading one cannot write, and during times of heavy writing, one cannot read. Thomas Bernhard spoke of this (I will have to dig up the quote, as it is typically extreme, and hence, amusing), as have other writers. So, rather than let this blog languish during those times, which is what has occurred in the past, I will endeavor to post about books and writers.

There are a few books I originally wrote reviews of on Goodreads that I will be highlighting, interspersed with whatever books of significance to me that I have recently completed.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the elusive Gil Orlovitz.

And in the meantime enjoy this song by Caudal…it’s soothing in a rhythmic, hypnotic way.

Edit: Found the Bernhard quote. It’s from his memoir Gathering Evidence.

“When I am writing I read nothing, and when I am reading I write nothing. For long periods I read and write nothing, finding both equally repugnant.”

my austrian gorge

I rung in the New Year with a vicious bout of gastroenteritis. It felt like 2012 was clawing its way out of my body. And now that it is gone I am empty. Perhaps it is good to start another year empty. Fill me up, 2013.

People say don’t take your health for granted. Every time I am ill I am reminded of this. For the world seen through sickened eyes is not the same as that seen through healthy eyes. One moves through life with somnambulistic motions. Gone are the little tendrils of thought so often coursing off in all directions. A single-mindedness takes over. I must drink some water. I must lie down. I must walk the dog. I must lie down again. Mere survival. Reading becomes impossible. Too much focus required. Staring into space becomes commonplace. Or glazing over in front of the telescreen. Anything to dull consciousness of the ill feelings.

Yesterday I worked from home. I was not well enough to return to the office, but there was work to be done, and I felt capable of doing it. Besides, the last thing I wanted to do was spread this plague to anyone else. I always find that I am more productive and efficient when I work from home. I’m not sure why this is. It may be that I am able to work in front of a window at home. One might think that this would lead to distraction and daydreaming but such is oddly not the case. I find it comforting. My bird friends come to visit, alighting in the crepe myrtle branches and hopping about on the porch roof. It keeps my spirits up and my mind focused on task. At the office I sit in a dim windowless womb in front of two screens, impassively observing my soul die a laborious death, each email and meeting appointment a tiny wound I am too dulled to deflect (in his typically dark style, Thomas Bernhard once wrote: “Instead of committing suicide, people go to work”).

Coming out of illness now, I am feeling tentative. My diet remains bland and simple. I miss coffee. The world still seems an unforgiving place. Outside the wind howls, chilling my weakened frame. But I can read again, and I find solace in Bernhard’s novel Correction. It is the perfect book for right now, with its hypnotic cadence, repetition, lack of paragraph breaks, dark subject matter. I feel poised above a rushing gorge in the Austrian wilderness.

Perhaps this is the worst 2013 had to hurl at me. Toxins now purged, I feel ready.

Soundtrack to this post:

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry — Nothing Wrong
Shipping News — Flies the Field
Metroschifter — Schift-Ship

  • Recent Posts

  • Navigation Station

    The links along the top of the page are rudimentary attempts at trail markers. Otherwise, see below for more search and browse options.

  • In Search of Lost Time

  • Personal Taxonomy

  • Common Ground

  • Resources

  • BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS