Category Archives: year in review

Books of 2016

These are the books I read in 2016, according to my Goodreads account. I put an asterisk (*) next to the ones I loved a lot. I read 83 books.

*My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout)
Killing Mr. Griffin (Lois Duncan) [reread; childhood favorite]
Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger (Louis Sachar) [reread; childhood favorite]
The Dark Portal (Robin Jarvis) [reread; childhood favorite]
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (J.K. Rowling)
Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut) [reread]
El Sicario: Confessions of a Cartel Hit Man (ed. Molly Molloy, Charles Bowden) [non-fiction]
Acceptance (Jeff VanderMeer)
ShallCross (C.D. Wright) [poetry]
Authority (Jeff VanderMeer)
*The Secret History of Costaguana (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)
Annihilation (Jeff VanderMeer)
Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life (Luis Alberto Urrea) [non-fiction]
I Hate the Internet (Jarett Kobek)
*Animal Farm (George Orwell) [reread]
*Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (Luis Alberto Urrea) [reread; last read almost 10 years ago) [non-fiction]
The Friend Who Got Away (ed. Jenny Offill, Elissa Schappel) [non-fiction]
My Struggle: Some Rain Must Fall (Karl Ove Knausgård)
Autumn (Ali Smith)
Umami (Laia Jufresa)
The Power of the Dog (Don Winslow)
Harmless Like You (Rowan Hisayo Buchanan)
Conversations With Friends (Sally Rooney)
Beast (Paul Kingsnorth)
Everyone is Watching (Megan Bradbury)
*Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)
At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel (William C. Rempel) [non-fiction]
The Beach (Alex Garland)
The Bunker Diary (Kevin Brooks)
My Struggle: Dancing in the Dark (Karl Ove Knausgård)
*The Cartel (Don Winslow)
Feast of the Innocents (Evelio Rosero)
White Tiger on Snow Mountain (David Gordon)
***One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabo) [yet another reread]
The Argonauts (Maggie Nelson) [non-fiction]
My Struggle: Boyhood Island (Karl Ove Knausgård)
The Vet’s Daughter (Barbara Comyns)
The Frangipani Hotel (Violet Kupersmith)
***Pond (Claire-Louise Bennett)
The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juárez (Sandra Rodríguez Nieto) [non-fiction]
*Hot Little Hands (Abigail Ulman)
The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty)
Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin)
Lovers on All Saints’ Day (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)
Foxlowe (Eleanor Wasserberg)
The Loney (Andrew Michael Hurley)
The Hollow of the Hand (PJ Harvey) [poetry]
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates) [non-fiction]
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths (Barbara Comyns)
Them: Adventures with Extremists (Jon Ronson) [non-fiction]
Not Working (Lisa Owens)
*How Should a Person Be? (Sheila Heti)
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (Neil Gaiman)
Citizen (Claudia Rankine) [poetry]
*Hot Milk (Deborah Levy)
Human Acts (Han Kang)
Blind Water Pass (Anna Metcalfe)
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Jon Ronson) [non-fiction]
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend (Matthew Dicks)
Coma (Alex Garland)
Dinosaurs on Other Planets (Danielle McLaughlin)
Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life (Roald Dahl)
Animals (Emma Jane Unsworth)
The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Óscar Martínez) [non-fiction]
*My Struggle: A Man in Love (Karl Ove Knausgård)
Bonsai (Alejandra Zambra)
Elizabeth is Missing (Emma Healy)
Chess Story (Stefan Zweig)
The Shore (Sara Taylor)
River of Ink (Paul M.M. Cooper)
Natural Histories (Guadalupe Nettel)
Aura (Carlos Fuentes)
Signs Preceding the End of the World (Yuri Herrera)
*Faces in the Crowd (Valeria Luiselli)
*Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Max Porter)
But You Did Not Come Back (Marceline Loridan-Ivens) [non-fiction]
Crow (Ted Hughes) [poetry]
My Documents
(Alejandro Zambra)
The Vegetarian (Han Kang)
A Wild Swan and Other Tales (Michael Cunningham)

To see books read from 2009-2016, click here.

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Filed under lists, year in review

Notable Books of 2015

In terms of Best Books I Read in 2015, Elena Ferrante takes the cake by far, unquestionably. Other stand-outs (in no particular order) include:

  • IFFP-winner (of both the shadow jury AND “real” prize!) The End of Days (Jenny Erpenbeck)
  • The Serialist (David Gordon)
  • In the Beginning Was the Sea (Tomás González) and The Dead Lake (Hamid Ismailov), two IFFP books that have lingered long in my memory
  • 10:04 (Ben Lerner); The First Bad Man (Miranda July); The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro); All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews); all badass contemporary novels I thoroughly enjoyed.
  • A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel) was the most impressive book in terms of ambition, achievement, and just plain FUN. A Little Life would come in second, minus the fun (replaced by cathartic fascination…!).
  • The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Iván Repila) = Most Haunting
  • A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgård), Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offhill), and Sisters By a River (Barbara Comyns) had the biggest effect (for now) on my own writing.
  • A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler) was my most comforting cup of familiar tea.
  • And finally, Wallflowers (Eliza Robertson) and We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Thomas Morris) are two kickass and inspiring short story collections. In full disclosure, I know both of these authors, but I wouldn’t bother mentioning their books on this blog if I truly didn’t FERVENTLY believe that their books are THAT good. Highly recommended, both of them.

Here are some other books I read last year (not yet discussed on this blog) that stood out to me:

A Little Lumpen Novelita (Roberto Bolaño)

“Everything seemed as clear as could be and as entertaining as a TV show and still I was close to tears.”

I’ve reviewed almost every single Bolaño book I’ve ever read on this blog and see no reason to break the trend with his latest opus to be translated, the arguably minor work A Little Lumpen Novelita. Minor Bolaño is still enjoyable Bolaño, though, especially for a card-carrying fangirl such as myself. A lot of Novelita sounded very familiar to The Secret of Evil, but I’d have to compare the texts side-by-side in order to officially verify this.

Themes of Novelita include bodybuilding as art, orphanhood, sight and cinema. I liked the first part, with the sister and brother befriending the refugee bodybuilders, but the second half definitely sloooows down. Thankfully the book is short, so it’s not really a problem. Is the main theme of this work the innate appeal of the visual? The triumph of cinematic storytelling? With this in mind, it’s interesting that the book itself (as said before) is so slow–it’s basically all set-up, a VERY anti-Hollywood crime tale. Nevertheless, the last paragraph still worked as an effective pay-off for me (is anybody better at writing those long, hypnotic, breathlessly long sentences than Bolaño?).

With both this book and The Secret of Evil, would it be safe to ask if Bolaño’s post-2666 work was entering a phase or taking an interest in a more avant-garde style, in the sense of an almost Knausgård-esque obsession with the mundane (as opposed to the plot-driven, almost crime novel set-ups of Savage Detectives, Distant Star or even 2666)? An interesting question to consider, but since this is one of the last books Bolaño published, it’ll be hard to ever say for sure.

The other thing this book made me think about was the question of belief when reading–what books ask us to do. I’ve already started and abandoned a book in 2016 (Fates and Furies), a very critically acclaimed and popular novel that I nevertheless unfortunately just couldn’t get through (I REALLY TRIED!). Some of it might just have to do with personal preferences in terms of style: I tend to prefer the easy, minimalist, straightforward readability of Chekhov, Carver, Bolaño, Vonnegut and Ferrante (that being said, I love Faulkner, Borges and Woolf, so am by no means a purist). And yet I just couldn’t deal with Fates and Furies because it came off as so “written” to me–I was aware of the author on every page. The Author Writing, Being Writerly. The writing itself was amazing: very flow-y, great similes, but in the end I didn’t believe or care about the story. I never got lost or absorbed or obsessed with in it the way I got lost in Ferrante, and ultimately it just didn’t feel worth the time or effort.

It’s such a tricky feeling to describe–the way a novel asks you to “read” it, what it wants you to believe–and yet it feels so integral to my experience as a reader. I was thinking about how this notion of belief in the fictional is just one reason among many that Don Quixote is The Best Book Ever (talk about a book I really should reread this year!). I remember that some of the most interesting parts of Quixote is when he appears startlingly lucid and self-aware, leading to questions of how much is he really lost in his vision of a knight-errant world, or how much of it is a deliberately crafted illusion for him–an escape versus a genuine delusion. I guess ultimately I prefer books that come off as delusions to me–obsessive dreams I sink into–rather than well-crafted, admirable, lyrically-written escapades.

Family Life (Akhil Sharma)

This is definitely one of the best books I read last year, if not THE best after Ferrante. I learned so much about both writing and reading from this book. I especially recommend this article by the author–captivating, astonishing stuff.

What I most admired about this book is the plot. Basically, there is none. The plot is family life. The family suffers, but it doesn’t fall apart, not really. Instead they plod on and try to endure, just like us all. More and more I’m finding myself intrigued by books that aren’t traditionally plotted (hellooooooo Knausgård and Lydia Davis). It feels to me like there’s a lot of exciting, interesting potential to explore with this. Forget traditional plot twists and build-ups and convenient revelations and coincidences. YES YES YES to momentum, energy, obsession and drive (especially on the level of the sentence).

Other things I loved about this book: the dark, dark humor (“You’re sad?” the father says at one point to the narrator. “I want to hang myself every day.”) The narrator’s visions of God-as-Superman. The brutally tender scenes with the brother (an antidote to the way we turn our eyes away from illness, suffering, and decay in everyday life). The Chekhovian writing style, the page-turning readability. The classic-yet-surprising and subversive immigrant story, the tender details and painfully honest depiction of the local Indian community.

I can’t believe I didn’t read this book earlier!

Pnin (Nabokov)

This book is absolutely fantastic and made me want to read ALL of the Nabokov now, immediately. I very nearly finished Pale Fire before leaving for India and getting derailed–yet another book I will have to return to and finish!

I first listened to an excerpt of Pnin via Aleksandar Hemon’s reading of the first chapter on the New Yorker fiction podcast, which I highly, highly recommend. It’s definitely a brilliant introduction, especially with the discussion that follows. Sadly, I didn’t take notes when reading this book (I read it on the plane to Colombia in one sitting), but what I remember standing out to me is the hysterical humor, the wonderful use of detail (no wonder Hemon is a fan; his short story “Islands” will never not be exemplary to me in this regard); the brilliant parallels with Quixote; the oh so relevant themes of exile, home and immigration, the dancing back and forth between comedy and tragedy… oho man. I would totally reread this. Dare I say… I may even prefer it to Lolita?!?

Martian Time-Slip (Philip K. Dick)

My old friend Philip. What would I do without him? What a classic Dickian read. Set on (where else?) the Wild West-esque Mars, we follow a cast of characters, including a union boss who controls the water supply, a schizophrenic repairman, local Martians who resemble Australian Aborigines, and an autistic child who is ultimately responsible for the titular “time-slip” (the sections narrated from his perspective are definitely some of the most admirably demented). This wasn’t the best Dick novel I’ve read (Dr. Bloodmoney and VALIS are still up there for me) but when do I not enjoy reading him? Even the bland female characters don’t bother me. Themes include the blurring of madness with reality, the question of what it means to be sane, and again that debate about belief, about what makes something “true,” if reality is just whatever we choose to believe (“The mind is its own place” and all that jazz). I will never get bored of reading stuff like this–science fiction as an intellectual debate or exercise.

Also, there’s paragraphs like this one:

Both boys had pets, Martian critters that struck him as horrid: praying mantis types of bugs, as large as donkeys. The damn things were called boxers, because they were often seen propped up erect and squaring off at one another in a ritual battle which generally ended with one killing and eating the other. Bert and Ned had gotten their pet boxers trained to do manual chores of a low calibre, and not to eat each other.

Love it.

Ban en Banlieue (Bhanu Kapil)

This book is nuts. I didn’t enjoy my experience of reading it, but I would still recommend it, but more as an intellectual exercise. I’ve never had a reading experience like this book before. I’ve never read a book like this before, period. It’s not even a book per se–it’s a collection of notes, jottings, thoughts, and fragments of a failed novel, a book that never came into being, a Failed Book, a novel that doesn’t exist and never will. It’s more like a performance art piece than a proper book, really (and indeed, the final book is apparently based on performances done by the author). Basically, Kapil is obsessed with the idea of telling the story of Ban, a young dark-skinned schoolgirl, as she walks home from school during the first moments of a riot in 1979 London. As the riot begins, Ban lies down to die.

…That’s pretty much it. That’s the whole book. The book returns to the gesture again and again, circling around it, describing it, relentlessly, obsessively: the image of this girl lying down, at certain points turning into soot, diesel oil, dirt, meat.

I sympathized with and admired this book because more than anything else, it shows that writing IS REALLY ****ING HARD AND YOU HAVE TO BE A  REAL BADASS MOTHER****ER IF YOU WANNA DO IT. If you wanna write a novel, you better not be shitting around because the writing process is going to eat you up and leave you gasping, raw, and bruised in sight of the most painful revelations from the innermost core of your Jungian Shadow-being. To me, this book shows how certain images (in this case, that of a brown girl lying down as the world around her burns) can grab an author and never let you go–it becomes a compulsion; you HAVE to write about it, you have no choice. But how to bring that image into being? How to turn it into a novel or a story you can share? How do you put it into a narrative, shape it, craft it? In this case, the author wasn’t able to do so–she wasn’t able to get past the singular image. As the author writes at one point, “I want a literature that is not made from literature,” and that is SO… FREAKING… hard to do. Instead of literature, she’s done something else with this book. I have no idea what it is or how to talk about it. But due to its sheer force of will, determination, and doggedness, this book earned both my admiration and respect.

The Musical Brain (César Aira)

(Thank you New Directions for the review copy of this book!)

Another one of the best books I read last year. This may be one of the best César Aira books I’ve read, and would serve as a jolly good introduction to anybody unfamiliar with his madcap visions.

One of the highlights of this collection is the sheer diversity contained within. It’s like twenty mini-Aira novellas contained within one volume, twenty glimpses into utterly unique universes that are often reminiscent of Cortázar at his best and most experimental. There’s nostalgic childhood-themed pieces about intricate games (“A Brick Wall,” “The Infinite”), contrasted with the sheer utter insanity that is the title story (think 1950’s horror movie cross-bred with Philip K. Dick and Duchamp). There’s creepy Kafkaesque fables with unsettling endings (“The Cart,” “The Dog”). There’s even a story that reads as half-fairy tale, half contemporary political allegory (“Acts of Charity,” placed near the end of the collection and arguably one of the strongest pieces).

A strange continuity links these stories. We are informed more than once that nine is the maximum number of times a piece of paper can be folded in half, and there are at least two cameos by a polyhedron. There’s an obsessions with numbers and precision throughout, with the micro and macroscopic, eternity and ephemerality. Non-human characters include a subatomic particle, a shopping cart gone rogue, a melancholic ovenbird and drops of Renaissance-era paint that flee the Mona Lisa and go around the world having adventures (and that’s just a cursory summary, believe me…).

Originality and innovation are clearly important to Aira: “human creativity,” he writes near the collection’s end, “was inexhaustible.” To put it plainly, the inventiveness and unpredictability of these stories is a big reason they are so enjoyable to read. “Only the unrepeatable was truly alive…” Now that’s an Aira call to arms if there ever was one.

*

To wrap up this post, I guess I’ll give a shout-out to books I didn’t enjoy, even though I don’t like being a hater (god knows that writing a book is hard enough… authors deserve credit “just” for that!!). Off the top of my head, When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds was not my cup of tea, despite reviews in The Rumpus and NY Times that made me believe that it would be. I wonder if I am sort of over that whole “quirkily experimental” form of writing–maybe I just plain prefer the dark nihilistic “quirkiness” (and just plain mental beserk FUN) of César Aira. Anyway, all of this doesn’t mean that Mystical Creatures isn’t a book (or genre even) that other people won’t enjoy–I totally own up to it being a matter of taste.

I also did not enjoy The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Reading this book made me realize what a blessing George R.R. Martin is, and how spoiled I’ve been by the Song of Ice and Fire series. It may have ruined other fantasy novels for me forever. The Blade Itself started promisingly enough–I basically just wanted a guilty pleasure read, something to read mindlessly on buses or planes or late at night when trying to fall asleep.  Gradually, though, I lost interest due to too many fight scenes and (most importantly) the utter lack of interesting female characters. Too much of a boy’s club for me.

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Filed under Aira, books, Phillip K. Dick, review, year in review

Books of 2015

These are the books I read in 2015, according to my Goodreads account. I put an asterisk (*) next to the ones I loved a lot. I read 82 books, including 10 poetry books.

A Little Lumpen Novelita (Bolaño)
Martian Time-Slip (Philip K. Dick)
***The Wonder Spot (Melissa Bank) [re-read; an all-time fave]
*Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut) [re-read; an absolute classic]
*Family Life (Akhil Sharma)
Purity
 (Jonathan Franzen)
Public library and other stories (Ali Smith)
A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgård)
Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy)
Under the Net (Iris Murdoch)
Slade House (David Mitchell)
The End of the Affair (Graham Greene)
*Sisters by a River (Barbara Comyns)
*The Story of the Lost Child (Elena Ferrante)
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (John Le Carré)
*****The Accidental (Ali Smith) [reread]
*We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Thomas Morris)
*The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Iván Repila)
Night Train (Martin Amis)
Summer Will Show (Sylvia Townsend Warner)
The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler)
A View of the Harbor (Elizabeth Taylor)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain)
Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)
A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara)
*A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel)
*Pnin (Nabokov)
Ban en Banlieue (Bhanu Kapil)
*All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews)
The Lost Daughter (Elena Ferrante)
Troubling Love (Elena Ferrante)
The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro)
*10:04 (Ben Lerner)
The Wallcreeper (Nell Zink)
When Mystical Creatures Attack! (Kathleen Founds)
*The First Bad Man (Miranda July)
Bobcat (Rebecca Lee)
Devotion (Dani Shapiro)
*The End of the Story (Lydia Davis)
Shantytown (César Aira)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)
Zone (Mathias Énard)
The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie)
Conversations (Cesar Aira)
Señor Que No Conoce La Luna (Evelio Rosero)
*The Days of Abandonment (Elena Ferrante)
Bloodlines (Marcello Fois)
*Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Elena Ferrante)
*The Story of a New Name (Elena Ferrante)
*The Musical Brain (César Aira)
A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler)
Reasons to Stay Alive (Matt Haig)
Look Who’s Back (Timur Vermes)
Tiger Milk (Stefanie De Velasco)
While the Gods Were Sleeping (Erwin Mortier)
F (Daniel Kehlmann)
The Last Lover (Can Xue)
By Night the Mountain Burns (Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel)
The Ravens (Tomas Bannerhed)
In the Beginning Was the Sea
(Tomás González)
The Dead Lake (Hamid Ismailov)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Haruki Murakami)
The Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris) [reread]
*My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)
The Devil Underground (Nadja Drost)
*The Serialist (David Gordon)
The Scatter Here Is Too Great (Bilal Tanweer)
Young Skins (Colin Barrett)
*The End of Days (Jenny Erpenbeck)
Wallflowers (Eliza Robertson) [beautiful & bad-ass writing!]
Dept of Speculation (Jenny Offil)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (Hilary Mantel) [especially “Comma“]

POETRY
The Book of Joshua (Zachary Schomburg)
*The Art of Falling (Kim Moore)
Alien vs. Predator (Michael Robbins)
Come On All Ye Ghosts (Matthew Zapruder)
Trances of the Blast (Mary Ruefle)
*Fjords vol. 1 (Zachary Schomburg)
Scary, No Scary (Zachary Schomburg)
*Sorrow Arrow (Emily Kendal Frey)
Stag’s Leap (Sharon Olds)
Lunch Poems (Frank O’Hara)

[RE]READ FOR FUN: Men at Arms, Feet of Clay (Terry Pratchett), Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card), A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons (George R.R. Martin)

I didn’t keep good track of books I started but didn’t finish this year, but off the top of my head I can say I read significant amounts of  Middlemarch (George Eliot), Story of My Teeth (Valeria Luiselli), My Documents (Alejandro Zambra), Blue Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson), The Unknown University (Roberto Bolaño) and God Help the Child (Toni Morrison). These are all books I enjoyed and would be interested in eventually completing. I wonder if I’m getting stricter in my reading–I’m less likely to abandon books mid-way through than I used to be, simply because if it doesn’t hold my interest early on, I don’t bother.

To see books read from 2009-2015, click here.

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Best Books of 2014

I read 101 books last year!! I feel proud of this but I’m not sure if I will set that kind of specific goal for myself again (i.e. read x number of books in 1 year). I found myself reading a lot of short books (Rodrigo Rey Rosa was especially great for this) because it meant I could finish them faster and thus meet my “quota,” while long books like Underworld I sort of gave up on (though I did manage to read The Luminaries, Ulysses, and re-read 2666). It was really helpful having a set goal, though. It helped me stay focused and motivated. In terms of Reading Goals for 2015, I want to read more books in Spanish that haven’t been translated (I’m gonna aim for between four and twelve, starting with Juan Villoro’s El testigo) and one book of poetry per month. If I end up reading between fifty and sixty books total for the year, cool.

If I had to choose a single Best Book of 2014, it’d be a tie between Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s The African Shore and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers. I also have to say all the Cortázar short stories I read this year were amazing and basically exist in a category of their own (i.e. a higher plane of existence the rest of us can only dare to dream of inhabiting). I also loved Dani Shapiro’s self-help book on writing, and Mary Ruefle’s poetry and essays. But here are some other books (ones I haven’t talked about on this blog) that also stood out to me as pretty excellent works of literature.


Under the Skin (Michel Faber)

Well, this book blew me away. I loved the movie and after watching it immediately wanted to read the book, which shocked me by how different it was (as in, COMPLETELY different). But like the movie, I loved how the book was so disturbing, creepy, unforgettable, haunting, insert other exclamatory adjective here. This book is a masterful example of how to pull off an otherworldly narrator. The moment in which the word “Mercy” is scrawled into the ground by one of the characters is one that I think I will never forget; reading it almost gave me goosebumps. What does it mean to be merciful? What does it mean to be human? In terms of sympathizing with characters, should we root for what is alien or for what is familiar? Post-Elizabeth Costello Coetzee would dig this book, I think. So would Jonathan Safran-Foer. I hope those comments don’t make it sound like I’m implying that this book is a parable for vegetarianism, or a cry of arms against mega-scale meat farming. Though it very well could be those things, as well as a commentary on immigration. Who knows? Does it really matter when the writing is this good? I would recommend this book to pretty much anybody who wants to read something exceedingly creepy that will (can’t believe I’m actually writing this, but here we go!) crawl under your skin and refuse to leave.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

Another creepy, spectacular book recommended to me by my friend S. who also recommended Under the Skin and May-Lan Tan to me and has thus pretty much cemented her reputation as someone with exceedingly excellent literary taste. I would love to assign this book to read in creative writing classes. Just look at this opening paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

That voice!! I was instantly hooked. This is the kind of book that makes you remember why you love to read–you stay up until 2.30am even though you have to get up at 7AM the next morning because you just simply HAVE to find out what happens next. The way this book slowly but surely unveils its weirdness is exemplary. I wish I could extract a mathematical formula that explains how this book crafts suspense and develops its plot so that way I can just copy it myself. I guessed the “twist” revelation of this book early on, but even so that didn’t matter to me; I still couldn’t tear myself away. What truly elevates this book into the realm of the spectacularly weird classic is the unconventional, haunting ending. Is it a victory? A feminist triumph against the demands of society? Or a horrendous descent into madness? The book doesn’t tell, but ends with the chillingly sing-song phrase of “We are so happy.” This book is like the stories you hear late at night at sleepovers in sixth grade but then never, ever forget.

Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. Forget bingeing on Netflix; epic sci-fi trilogies about Mars are the way to go. I read Red Mars several years ago but amazingly still remembered just enough about what happened in it to read this book with relatively little confusion. The one problem I had while reading this is that boy, there sure are a lot of descriptions of Martian geography and landscapes. You can tell that the author did a ton of research and wanted to include EVERYTHING. No wonder the permaculture-loving, Biology-major Burners I lived with in Ecuador in 2008 loved these books. But even though I found myself occasionally skimming the descriptions of rock and crater formations and lichen growths, I still found this book (and its follow-up Blue Mars, which I’m currently reading) utterly, completely fascinating. Writing a dissertation about the representation of history in these books would be da bomb. The main conflict in the series is set up between the Greens–the people who want to “terraform” Mars, or transform it into a livable habitat similar to Earth–and the Reds,  the people who want to keep Mars the same, as untouched and uninfluenced by humans as possible. It’s such a relevant, urgent question, one that reminds me of this classic Radiolab episode (a show that has provided me with infinite small talk fodder for parties). Is it our responsibility to mold Earth the way we best see fit? Or is the world better off without us? This book does what science fiction does best–it raises very contemporary-feeling questions about futuristic societies that function as uneasy and uncomfortable parallels for our own.

School for Patriots (Martín Kohan)

This book was powerfully narrated and is an excellent example of how to write a novel about a fucked up historical period in an interesting, genuinely innovative way, as opposed to descending into some heart-rending classic cliché weepy plot about a Family Torn Apart By Violence and other such nonsense. Too bad the summary on the back cover SPOILS EVERYTHING (if you get this book, DON’T READ THE BACK COVER). Set in Argentina during the Falklands war, this book follows the teaching assistant María, who seeks to win the approval of her supervisor by attempting to catch male students smoking in the bathroom. Her efforts to catch the students leads to her spending most of her time hiding in the stalls, until things cumulate in a climax you may think is predictable, but just you wait–it’s not. The way this book indirectly deals with Argentina’s Dirty War, espionage, conformity and desire for power is masterful. What an amazing lesson this is in the power of fiction to “show” as opposed to “tell.” I learned way more about corruption from this book than any philosophical essay or news article could ever teach me. All in all, this book is a brilliant parable about state-enforced violence, in which much remains unspoken and unsaid, lurking uneasily beneath the surface of things.

How To Be Both (Ali Smith)

Ali Smith! Will I ever not like you? How do you do it? How does writing like this get done? What can I even say about this book? It’s two interconnected stories–one is historical fiction (narrated in a thoroughly modern voice) set in 15th-century Italy with much Shakespearean gender-bending and picaresque wandering. The other story is set in the present day, with all of its glories such internet advertisements, Edward Snowden-inspired fears about surveillance, and child pornography watched obsessively over and over again on ipads. There’s mothers and death. Gender and difference. Time-traveling ghosts. Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ is sung;  twin strands of DNA are studied. We think of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, George Eliot and George Sands. We confront classic Ali Smithian questions (yes, like Kafka and Orwell, I am turning Ali Smith into a literary adjective): what does it means to be properly compensated for art? Does art actually do anything in terms of helping us dealing with the world and all its grief-causing horrors? Or does “poetry make nothing happen“? Why do things have to be one or the other? Why CAN’t it be both? My God, what questions! What a book!

The Humans (Matt Haig)

This is definitely the crowd-pleasing, feel-good, comfort-food book on my list, a perfect read for a Saturday afternoon that you want to spend curled up on an armchair drinking tea, not doing anything other else than reading for five hours straight. I read this soon after reading Under the Skin and it felt compulsively appropriate. I find it fascinating that the author wrote this after a severe anxiety disorder (based on the afterword)–it feels SO appropriate. I definitely related to the narrator’s observations about human nature, especially after he read Cosmo magazine and experienced social media. A highly enjoyable read.

Randall (Jonathan Gibbs)

A very entertaining, thought-provoking novel. It reminded me of Bolaño with its parallel universe of artworks and artists, so effectively evoked it was impossible for me to tell what was Real and what was Fake. I loved how this book took risks (such as the final section, which is told from the perspective by a character who has yet to narrate, and its riddle-like final sentence) and yet was well-plotted in a very satisfying way, almost like a detective story. The other big pleasure about reading this is that I know absolutely nothing about contemporary art and this book was a fascinating introduction. I’ll certainly never think about the color yellow in quite the same way again. I especially loved the central question that the book kept circling around: “Is there any art in here, or does it just look like art? And is there a difference?” Food for thought, indeed.

Things to Make and Break (May-Lan Tan)

Fabulous language, melancholy tone. Like a demented, more emotional Miranda July. Summarizing the plots feels like a disservice–characters fall in love with stunt doubles, listen to Iron Maiden, participate in bizarre crucifixion rituals in the woods, have filthily rude hot sex, stalk a boyfriend’s exes based on nude photos, go on dates with couples dying of cancer. Ehh, see? I can’t do it justice!! But this is definitely one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve read. I can’t wait to see her read in April!

Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

This was definitely one of THE best books I read this year–possibly one of the best books I’ve read ever, which is saying a lot. The premise is so simple–a house in Germany that hosts generation after generation of inhabitants–but the execution is simply stunning. While I didn’t always understand what was going on (there were at least two chapters I had to read twice), it didn’t feel like a problem. For me, it was worth it. Considering that hardly any of the characters have names in the second half of the book (most tellingly, the Holocaust victims do), the author does an amazing job of inserting sneaky little signs and telling characteristics that allow us to remember characters from chapter to chapter. The most powerful chapters for me were “The Visitor,” “The Girl” and “The Architect’s Wife.”

Fuck me, this book! The cold, factual narration, such a complete contrast to the emotional devastation that takes place! The way violent, traumatic incidents explode at the end of chapters, shocking you like a punch in the stomach (see, I have to resort to cliché in order to describe it, I’m failing to capture the appropriate words)! The epic themes of Exile, Time, History, Family, Identity! The experiments with time and structure! The hypnotic rhythm of the gardener’s chapters, the way they remind us of the daily tasks of life that are maybe the only things that keep us going and provide continuity in the face of the brutal, unstoppable forces of history. PLEASE READ THIS if you want to experience the absolute nuts, groundbreaking shit that fiction is capable of–a small tiny hopeful light in a dark dark world. Here are my two favorite Mrs. Dalloway-esque passages:

Things can follow one after the other only for as long as you are alive in order to extract a splinter from a child’s foot, to take the roast out of the oven before it burns or sew a dress from a potato sack, but with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less, with more and more left behind, and sooner or later you just stop and sit there, and then all that is left of life is life itself, and everything else is lying in all the ditches beside all the roads in a land as enormous as the air, and surely here as well you can find these dandelions, these larks.” (pg. 103)

In the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music.” (pg. 108)

What a book! What a year!!

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Filed under Ali Smith, books, review, Rio Plata, short stories, year in review

Books of 2014

These are the books I’ve read in 2014, according to my Goodreads account. I put an asterisk (*) next to the ones I liked a lot. The total number of books I read was 101 (!!), thus meeting my goal of reading 100.

Behind the Attic Wall (Sylvia Cassedy) [childhood fave re-read]
*Distant Star (Bolaño) [re-read]
Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
A Change of Light (Julio Cortázar)
*Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)
Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)
*We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)
*The Emigrants (W.G. Sebald) [re-read]
Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations (Mónica Maristain)
Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe (Chris Andrews)
School for Patriots (Martín Kohan)
Things to Make and Break (May-Lan Tan)
The Humans (Matt Haig)
*Dear Boy (Emily Berry)
*Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee)
Dubliners (James Joyce)
Nightwood (Djuna Barnes) [LOVED the last three pages!]
Randall (Jonathan Gibbs)
The Inland Sea (K.J. Orr)
Lolita (Nabokov) [re-read]
*Under the Skin (Michel Faber)
The Trial (Kafka) [re-read]
*Ulysses (James Joyce)
The Beggar’s Knife (Rodrigo Rey Rosa)
A Tale of the Dispossessed (Laura Restrepo)
*Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (Mary Ruefle)
*The Delicate Prey (Paul Bowles) [particularly “The Echo”–what a story!!]
*How To Be Both (Ali Smith)
Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned’ (Lena Dunham)
Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
(David Bayles & Ted Orland)
*We Love Glenda So Much and Other Tales (Julio Cortázar)
*Delirium (Laura Restrepo)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)
Ideas of Heaven (Joan Silber)
I Remember (Joe Brainard)
Good Offices (Evelio Rosero)
Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia (Michael T. Taussig)
Leaving the Sea (Ben Marcus)
No One Writes to the Colonel (Gabriel García Márquez)
An Evil Cradling (Brian Keenan)
Leaving the Atocha Station (Ben Lerner)
Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson)
When the Emperor Was Divine (Julie Otsuka)
Absalom, Absalom! (William Faulkner) [re-read]
*Still Writing: the Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life (Dani Shapiro)
*The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner) [re-read]
*Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
Leaves of Grass: the First Edition (Walt Whitman)
Friendship (Emily Gould)
Congo (Michael Crichton) [re-read]
The Lost World (Michael Crichton) [re-read]
*Selected Poems (Mary Ruefle)
Speedboat (Renata Adler)
Severina (Rodrigo Rey Rosa)
***As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) [re-read]
Personae (Sergio de la Pava)
And the Heart Says Whatever (Emily Gould)
The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
*The Buddha in the Attic (Julie Otsuka)
*The Accidental Tourist (Anne Tyler) [re-read]
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (ZZ Packer)
Taipei (Tao Lin)
Death and the Maiden (Ariel Dorfman)
Once You Break A Knuckle (D.W. Wilson)
One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (Lucy Corin)
The Good Cripple (Rodrigo Rey Rosa)
*Bark (Lorrie Moore)
The Pelcari Project (Rodrigo Rey Rosa)
Ways of Going Home (Alejandro Zamba)
*Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (David Shields)
*The African Shore (Rodrigo Rey Rosa)
Another Country (Anjali Joseph)
Ubik (Philip K. Dick) [re-read]
Collected Stories (Lydia Davis)
Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri)
The Wise Man’s Fear (Patrick Rothfuss)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
War By Candlelight (Daniel Alarcón)
Our Lady of the Assassins (Fernando Vallejo)
*The Informers (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)
******Saint Maybe (Anne Tyler) [reread]
Oblivion (Hector Abad)
Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
*Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (D.T. Max)
Hey Yeah Right Get A Life (Helen Simpson)
Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers (Anne Lamott)
Austerlitz (W.G. Sebald)
Clever Girl (Tessa Hadley)
Operation Massacre
(Rodolfo Walsh)
Wilderness Tips (Margaret Atwood)
All the Fires the Fire (Julio Cortázar)
Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Gabriel García Márquez) [re-read]
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (James Lasdun)
***2666 (Roberto Bolaño) [reread]
If This Is A Man (Primo Levi)
The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia (Michael Jacobs)
*The Rings of Saturn (W.G. Sebald)
The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton)
How to Stay Sane (Phillipa Perry)
The Color Master (Aimee Bender)

Books I started, read a significant amount of (i.e. +50 pages) but didn’t finish: Underworld (Don DeLilo), The Secret History of Costaguana (Juan Gabriel Vásquez), Giving Up the Ghost (Hilary Mantel), Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha (Tara Brach), The General in His Labyrinth (Gabriel García Márquez). These are definitely all books I would love to finish in the future!

I also read ten Redwall books.

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Filed under lists, year in review

Books of 2013

These are the books I’ve read in 2013, according to my Goodreads account. I put an asterisk (*) next to the ones I liked a lot. The total number of books I read was 86, the best year I’ve had since 2009, when I first started keeping track.

The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)
***A Naked Singularity (Sergio de la Pava)
Black Vodka (Deborah Levy)
Tenth of December (George Saunders)
*All Dogs Are Blue (Rodrigo De Souza Leao)
MaddAddam (Margaret Atwood)
White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin (Michael W. Clune)
The Childhood of Jesus (JM Coetzee)
Open City (Teju Cole)
By the Sea (Abdulrazak Gurnah)
The Castle (Kafka) – read back in high school
*May We Be Forgiven (A.M. Homes)
Micro (Michael Crichton)
The Periodic Table (Primo Levi)
Summer Blonde (Adrian Tomine)
Shoplifting from American Apparel (Tao Lin)
*Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
The Illustrated Man (Ray Bradbury)
***Runaway (Alice Munro)
*NW (Zadie Smith)
Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson)
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Zadie Smith)
Anagrams (Lorrie Moore)
The Book of My Lives (Aleksander Hemon)
Other Stories and Other Stories (Ali Smith) – “The hanging girl” is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read!
More Terrible Than Death: Drugs, Violence, and America’s War in Colombia(Robin Kirk)
The Emigrants (W.G. Sebald)
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Philip Pullman)
The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (Cesar Aira)
***Hawthorn & Child (Keith Ridgway)
I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)
A Winter Book (Tove Jansson)
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
*Oblivion (David Foster Wallace)
Feed (M.T. Anderson)
V for Vendetta (Alan Moore)
*What I Talk About When I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami)
Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
In Persuasion Nation (George Saunders)
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (George Saunders)
The War of the End of the World (Mario Vargas Llosa)
*Bring Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel)
*Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
*The Summer Book (Tove Jansson)
*The She-Devil in the Mirror (Horacio Moya Castellanos)
The Father Thing: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick #3 (Philip K. Dick)
Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Garry Leech)
In Evil Hour (Gabriel García Márquez)
Memories of my Melancholy Whores
 (Gabriel García Márquez)
***Hypothermia (Alvaro Enrigue)
Beyond Lies the Wub: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick #1 (Philip K. Dick)
Down By the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family (Charles Bowden)
*The Armies (Evelio Rosero)
The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
***One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez) [re-read]
Amy’s Eyes (Richard Kennedy) [re-read] (children’s book)
Little House on the Prairie series (Laura Ingallas Wilder) [re-read]
My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind (Silvana Paternostro)
*Artful (Ali Smith)
The Secret of Evil (Roberto Bolaño)
Free Love and Other Stories (Ali Smith)
Heliopolis (James Scudamore)
The Art of Subtext (Charles Baxter)
*Ghostwritten (David Mitchell)
News of a Kidnapping (Garcia Marquez) [reread]
What I Know (Andrew Cowan)
*Jacob’s Room (Virginia Woolf)
*Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams and Realizations(Robert A. Johnson)
The Voyage Out (Virginia Woolf)
After the Quake (Murakami)
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence (Geoff Dyer)
There But For The (Ali Smith)
Empire of the Sun (J.G. Ballard)
Law of the Jungle: the Hunt for Colombian Guerrillas, American Hostages, and Buried Treasure (John Otis)
*The Question of Bruno (Aleksander Hemon)
Elizabeth Costello (JM Coetzee) [reread]
*The Art of Political Murder (Francisco Goldman)
***The Sound of Things Falling (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)
*Death of a Suicide (David Vann)
Child of God (Cormac McCarthy)
The Master (Colm Tóibín)
The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)
*Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)
Woes of the True Policeman (Bolaño)
Summertime (JM Coetze)

Books I read a significant portion of but for whatever reason (time, laziness, losing it on the bus) never technically finished (i.e. read every page): Family Ties (Clarice Lispector), Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me (Javier Marias), The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick Volume 5- Little Black Box (Philip K. Dick), The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick Volume 4: The Days of Perky Pat (Dick), Tyrant Memory (Horacio Castellanos Moya), The diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923 (Kafka), Montano by Enrique Villa-Matas, Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction (edited by Alvaro Enrigue), Love and Other Obstacles (Aleksander Hemon–this was the bus victim ):)

Children’s books I reread (a favorite treat of mine!): Five Children and It, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Tripods trilogy, Beyond the Burning Lands trilogy, The Boy in the Dress (can’t remember the author but a really cute book!), a ton of Tintin books, a ton of Momintroll books.

To see books of 2012 click here.
To see books of 2011 click here.
To see books of 2010 click here.
To see books of 2009 click here.

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Filed under lists, year in review

Best Books of 2013

2013 was an interesting year (are they ever not?). 2012 was very much about new beginnings, fresh starts–moving to England, starting an MA program, thinking of myself as “a writer” who dedicated significant portions of my daily time to writing for the first time in my life. 2013 was more about Keeping Calm and Carrying On. But Things Definitely Happened. I walked in Spain for 10 days. I adopted a cat (!!!). I ran a half-marathon. I co-taught a class. I started work on a book. I got accepted to a PhD program. I think 2014 will be more about following through, and actually finishing. I’ve already signed up for the Edinburgh marathon on May 25th. What else will happen? What other adventures await? Will I survive my Saturn Return? Irregardless, ready or not, here we freaking go. La dee freaking dah. As my man P.K. Dick writes in Galactic Pot-Healer, “I’m not much, but I’m all I have.”

This year I also read quite a bit. As of today I’ve officially beat 2009 (82 recorded books), my most fruitful year of reading since I began this blog, thanks to all those long commutes on the Max out to Hillsboro.

What’s also good about this year in reading is that for whatever reason, I  feel like I read a lot of amazing books this year. Here are the ones that stand out to me the most:

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A Naked Singularity (Sergio de la Pava)

Definitely the best book I read this year. Might even be one of the best books I’ve ever read, or maybe I’m still basking in the post-read glow. I devoured all 800 pages of this in 3 days, a epic binge akin to the time I watched the entire first season of The Wire, sick as a dog in bed in Ecuador.

I love huge, epic, ambitious, sprawling books like this. Books that want to do, say, show everything. Books like Infinite Jest, 2666. In this one, we get digressions on:

  • boxing
  • the effect of media on society
  • the nature of evil
  • the nature of ambition
  • the Honeymooners
  • a day-in-the-life depiction of being a public defender in New York City
  • the War on Drugs
  • how to make the perfect empanada
  • how to commit the Perfect Crime
  • the death row system in Alabama

This book is  like a legal/criminal thriller for David Foster Wallace or Paul Auster fans. We even get a delicious reference to Moby Dick via an incredibly creepy character named La Ballena (the Whale). The first 40-60 pages of this is brilliant, some of the most effective characterization done through dialogue that I’ve ever read. I think that’s what I loved most about this book–the dialogue, and how there was so much that HAPPENED. This book was damn entertaining to read! Dialogue is great, you know? So are event-filled plots.

What I also loved most about this book was its anger and passion–I can’t speak for Mr. De La Pava (though it’s worth noting that he, like his narrator,  also works as a New York public defender), but this book is FUCKING PISSED about the current racist oppressive state of society, especially in regards to the War on Drugs and jailing policies. I love that shit. Bring on the passion, bring on the pissed-offness. That’s what art is for. What’s even more incredible to me is the story behind this book: seven years to write, rejected 88 times by agents, eventually self-published and rescued from internet obscurity by crusading internet bloggers. What an inspiration. What a novel. I will definitely be on the lookout De La Pava’s next works for years to come. Best of all (saving the best for last) …. he’s Colombian!!! VIVA COLOMBIA!!! VIVA LA LITERATURA!!!!

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All Dogs Are Blue (Rodrigo de Souza Leao)

I’ve never read anything like this before. It is literally the voice of madness, sitting on a page. It’s hard to write about this book without commenting that the author himself was schizophrenic, wrote the manuscript while institutionalized, and committed suicide before the book was published. I’ve read so many memoirs that try to approximate the experience of addiction, of madness, but they always do so from a certain point of distance–as in I went through this, but I recovered. I’m better now. Things are different, things have changed. In this book… forget it. You’re right in the thick of it. You’re wading through the paranoia, the conviction that you’ve swallowed a chip that is monitoring your actions. You’re hanging out with your imaginary friends, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. You’re watching your father cry because of how you trashed the family living room. Gaining weight from your medication. It helps that the book is so short (I believe less than 100 pages)–I doubt as a reader you could take much more of its intensity.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a book with an extremely strong narrative voice, and who is interested in themes & depictions of ‘madness’. I also feel like the entire book is worth reading for the last chapter alone–wow, do we get teleported UFO-style to some seriously ballsy shit here. Not since Juan Pablo Villalobo’s Quesadillas have I felt like a book has thrown all traditional narrative caution to the wind, shoved attentiveness to ‘literary realism’ into the Fargo woodchipper. This book was seriously written by someone with nothing left to lose. All art should be this risky.

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May We Be Forgiven (A.M. Homes)

This book is seriously some of the darkest shit I’ve read in my life. I have a pretty bleak sense of humor, but boy, did I feel bad laughing at some parts in this. It is a picaresque nightmare of one horrifying hilarious event after another happening to our hapless narrator. I love A.M. Homes when she is like this–when she’s hanging out in the “vagina pink” room with a crack-smoking couple in Music For Torching, for example, or with the cancer-afflicted doctor in her short story “Do Not Disturb”. In the first 50 pages, we get an adulterous affair, a bloody car accident, a brutal murder and a family member on trial. Essentially, Everything Falls Apart and Changes. At that point you literally look up from your warm snug place on the couch and are all like….. WHERE ON EARTH can we go from here? And the answer is, a lot of places. None of which we expect. The secret files that contain Nixon’s attempts at short stories, for example. A lesbian affair between a teacher and her student. Patrolling Internet sex date sites. A do-good trip to South Africa. A missing dead girl. Even if the black humor is not your cup of tea, I find it hard to believe you could read this book and be bored.

What really carries this book, though, is not its episodic unpredictability, but rather the emotional relationship between the characters, most tellingly between the narrator and the children he becomes responsible for. It helps that the children are PEOPLE–they are not cartoony or cutesy. They are extremely well-developed as characters (again, through dialogue–DIALOGUE IS KEY!), and ultimately the way their relationship developed with the narrator is what really made me want to keep reading. It almost reminded me of Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe at times. Ultimately, this is an extremely commendable, risky piece of writing that balances the bleakest darkest shit of humanity with Little Miss Sunshine sincerity, a complicated balancing act that Homes successfully pulls of. There’s so much that could have gone wrong here, so much that could have been trite or twee or turned into overkill, but  somehow, magically, Homes makes it all work.

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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Murakami)

Honestly, this may have to be my pick for the book that influenced me the most this year. I love self-help books, and this one is like a three-in-one deal. You get super zen, sparsely-written Murakami advice not only about running, but also about writing, and conversely about Life In General. What’s not to love? The one maybe teeny tiny bad this about it is that while at the same time it inspires you, it also runs the risk of making you feel super undisciplined and lazy. It could be a lot worse, though–thanks to Murakami’s simplistic, unpretentious writing style, he makes it sound extremely doable. It’s almost like you’re hearing the voice of an extremely calm, soft-spoken therapist, who encourages you to eat lots of fish and vegetables, go to bed early and not drink too much.

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Hypothermia (Alvaro Enrigue)

Definitely wins the prize for book I wish I’d written. Go read my glowing review of it on Litro! Thanks to my gushing  Enrigue ended up following the review editor on Twitter.

What other books did I love this year? Well, there was Olive Kitteridge and Hawthorn & ChildWhite Out: The Secret Life of Heroin by Michael W. Clune (which I hope to give its own post when I get back to England…), Bring Up the Bodies and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell (I almost never read historical fiction, and I know nothing of English history that isn’t vaguely represented in Game of Thrones, but irregardless I loved this books. Almost as good as Sacred Hunger, another book I really need to reread), The Armies by Evelio Rosero and The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (unforgettable depictions of Colombian violence), Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (Virginia FTW!), The Question of Bruno by Aleksander Hemon (probably my favorite author I’ve discovered this year; he really deserves his own post), The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman (brilliant obsessive detective non-fiction), Death of a Suicide by David Vann (brutal and unforgettable Borgesian fictional memoir).

I also read a lot of Philip K. Dick short stories this year. Bless him. I could probably read nothing but Philip K. Dick the rest of my life and die a pretty happy girl. Not totally, 100% completely satisfied (I’d need some Faulkner-Garcia Marquez-Borges-Bolaño goodness to round things out), but pretty well-sated. My favs: “The Last of the Masters” (a robot-as-Jesus in a post-apocalyptic wasteland overrun by anarchists? How could I NOT like this?!), “The Father Thing” (a creepy horror story I am unlikely to forget anytime soon–it’s about every kid’s worst nightmare, your parents being replaced by impostors), “The Golden Man” (Dick’s version of X-Men, with kinky sex and a fun twist ending–too bad it apparently got turned into a shitty Nick Cage movie)… I better stop there or else I’m just going to go on and on.

Bring it on, 2014!!!

Bring it on, 2014!!!

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Books of 2012

These are the books I read in 2012, according to my Goodreads account. I put an asterisk (*) next to the ones I liked a lot.

The Imperfectionists (Tom Rachman)
*The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara) [reread]
*Dance With Snakes (Horacio Castellanos Moya)
The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)
*Swimming Home (Deborah Levy)
No Country For Old Men (Cormac McCarthy) [reread]
Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins)
Adrian Mole: the Prostate Years (Sue Townsend)
Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
Leaf Storm 
(Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
*We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families 
(Philip Gourevitch)
Number9dream (David Mitchell)
*Pedro Paramo 
(Juan Rulfo) [reread]
The Massacre at El Mozote 
(Mark Danner)
***Senselessness 
(Horacio Castellanos Moya)
The Final Solution 
(Michael Chabon)
A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr.)
Andean Cocaine: the Making of a Global Drug (Paul Gootenberg)
Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography (Dominic Streatfield)
Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields (Charles Bowden) 
*Soldiers of Salamis 
(Javier Cercas)
The Dark Is Rising sequence (Susan Cooper)
Watership Down (Richard Adams)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O’Brien)
*This Is How You Lose Her 
(Junot Diaz)
The Wasp Factory 
(Iain Banks)
The Year of the Flood
 (Margaret Atwood)
Down the Rabbit Hole (Juan Pablo Villalobos)
*Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) [reread]
*New York Trilogy (Paul Auster
The Third Reich (Roberto Bolaño)
Snowdrops (A.D. Miller)
*Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood) [re-read]
Bartleby & Co. (Enrique Vila-Matas)
*The Hour of the Star (Clarice Lispector)
*Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg)
The Bhagavad Gita (Penguin classics edition)
No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories (Miranda July)
The Art of Happiness: A Book for Living (His Holiness the Dalai Lama)
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Jared Diamond)
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation (S.N. Goenka)
*Man’s Search for Meaning (Victor E. Frankl)
The Varieties of Religious Experience (William James)
My Stroke of Insight (Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor)
The Dharma Bums (Jack Kerouac)
Out of Captivity (Ingrid Bentacourt)
Captive: 2,147 Days of Terror in the Colombian Jungle (Clara Rojas)
Citizens of the Dream (Cary Tennis)
Now Wait for Last Year (Philip K. Dick)
*The Insufferable Gaucho (Roberto Bolaño)
The Gnostic Gospels 
(Elaine Pagels)
The World’s Religions (Huston Smith)
Buddha: An Autobiography (Karen Armstrong)
Snuff (Terry Pratchett)
Suddenly a Knock at the Door 
(Etgar Keret)
***Jesus’ Son 
(Denis Johnson) [re-read]
Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man (Bill Clegg)
Lit (Mary Karr)
The Night of the Gun (David Carr)
1Q84 (Haruki Murakami)
*The Case for God 
(Karen Armstrong)
The Stand (Stephen King)
*Everything That Rises Must Converge (Flannery O’Connor)
*Varamo 
(Cesar Aira)
Letters to a Young Poet (Rilke)
Los cachorros 
(Mario Vargas Llosa) [sort of a re-read; read it in high school]
The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World (Pema Chodron)
Game Change 
(John Heilemann)
*Just Kids 
(Patti Smith)
I, Robot 
(Isaac Asimov)
*Drown (Junot Diaz)
Carpe Jugulum
 (Terry Pratchett)
*The Pale King 
(David Foster Wallace)
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
The Marriage Plot 
(Jeffrey Eugenides)
Obama’s Wars 
(Bob Woodward)
The Waves 
(Virginia Woolf) – started in 2011

I count 77 books. A couple of these are books I didn’t read EVERY single page of (mainly the non-fiction ones about drugs & religion) but I still spent enough time reading and skimming them that I feel like they count as being read… >:D Here are books I read a bit of but didn’t finish a significant amount: Nature and the Human Soul (Bill Plotkin); Feast of the Goat (Mario Vargas Llosa); Exegesis (Philip K. Dick); Tweak (Nick Sheff); The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Paulo Freire); Moby Dick (Herman Melville) [SO CLOSE!!]

To see books of 2011 click here.
To see books of 2010 click here.
To see books of 2009 click here.

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Soundtrack 2012

I listened to this song a lot while getting dressed in my room in Portland, getting ready to go to work in Vancouver.
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Soundtrack for 2011

Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains” (The Arcade Fire)

I’ll always associate this song with when I first heard it, covered by my friend’s band in that greenly lit Thai restaurant, in the cold dark days of early January.

Changing” (Airborne Toxic Event)

The song that got me really into listening to and singing along earnestly car radio. I also liked their follow up single, “All I Ever Wanted.” It’s funny to hear that the second song has strings in it, because thanks to the Volvo’s broken left speaker I’ve never heard them before.

Lost in the World” (Kanye West)

The song I always choose at the Side Street bar jukebox when I’m there with my friends. Haha. Who will survive in America?

In the Dark Places” (PJ Harvey)

I’m kind of like the main character in Howard’s End, in the sense that I hate war, but I love soldiers. Particularly works of art about them and their struggles. I like how the phrase “in the dark places” can be expanded to mean many other things, not just World War I trenches or Iraqi hideout holes.

Born This Way” (Lady Gaga)

Haha. Maybe the best theme song for my year? I feel like I spent a lot of this time thinking about building self-esteem, cultivating positive self-image, self-care and practicing that good ol’ compassion muscle. And this song seems to be a good theme song for all that. I’m on the right track baby…

Float” (Flogging Molly)

An oh so famous songs that I’m kind of surprised that I never heard before until this year (thanks car radio). Anyway, I feel like it has another good, positive, relevant message. Plus I really like the moral of the muñequito in the video.

Just A Dream” (Nelly)

A little embarrassed by how much I like this song. Haha, whatever. I just like the mixture of both melancholy and melody. But why is it Nelly of all freaking people who sings such a good relationship song?! “But hey, I guess that love wasn’t enough” sounds like a self-platitude or mantra straight out of my Dr. Barbara relationship self-help book.

Dreams” (Fleetwood Mac)

Another song I can’t believe I’d never heard before until this year. Another gift thanks to car radio.

The King of Carrot Flowers-Part I” (Neutral Milk Hotel)

This song will always make me think of summer at Sauvie’s Island, playing it on my friend Jennifer’s ipod, feeling like the entirety of my August trip to Colombia lay before me.

Calamity Song” (The Decemberists)

My Infinite Jest theme song. Haha. I love its apocalyptic sensibilities. If I had to make this track list into a mix CD, I would probably call it “In the Year of the Chewable Ambien Tab.”

You and I” (Lady Gaga)

Oh god, another song that got me through some rough times, specifically this gender-bending live version. I can’t even explain why I like this song so much. Its country vibe, for one. And I like how in the radio edit, “Nebraska” is replaced with “Oregon,” so that the lyric becomes the following: There’s only three things Imma worship my whole life / It’s my daddy, Oregon and Jesus Christ. Hehe! Basically my face looks is the same as  David Grohl’s (see minute 3:00), throughout this video.

Star Whisperer” (Tori Amos)

Tori’s grand opus from her latest album. I expect to expand in personal impact and meaning for me after I get to see her LIVE this WEDNESDAY in SEATTLE!

Down in the Valley” (The Head and the Heart)

A great Pacific Northwest band that my friend A introduced me to; mellow guitars and strings and lovely tinkling piano will always put me in a fall loving mood.

Hair” (Lady Gaga)

Her Bruce Springsteen moment: I just wanna be myself and I want you to love me for who I am…

Cough Syrup” (Young the Giant)

This song always plays right when I’m leaving work. ALWAYS! It’s CREEPY. It also makes me think of Infinite Jest. I also like howling along with the singer’s oh so earnest vocals.

I Fought the Law” (The Clash)

Ahh, my revolutionary song. I honestly don’t feel like it’s an understatement to say that the Clash literally saved my life in November. They were all I listened to on my ipod. All. Day. Long. There was just something about their mouth frothing energy that I really love, and that I really needed. Big Country’s “The Crossing” album was also a lifesaver, and what I listened to on endless replay walking down the Morro Bay beaches of Thanksgiving.

Somebody That I Used To Know” (Goyte)

I hesitate including this song, namely because I don’t really enjoy listening to it?! Those lyrics are just HARSH! But the part when the girl starts singing is pretty genius; when I first heard it on the radio my jaw dropped that we were getting to hear “her side of the story,” so to speak.

Running to Stand Still” (U2)

I’ve been listening to this song a lot lately. I dunno, maybe because Tori covered it in New York. Maybe because it reminds me of all the sad addict stories in Infinite Jest. Maybe because it’s just a nice, mellow, powerful song to close the year with.

Other artists I liked listening to this year but who were a bit overplayed: “Sail” by AWOL Nation, “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People, Coldplay’s “Paradise,” and Adele (of course). I also liked Florence + the Machine’s “What the Water Gave Me“–I’ll probably buy the album/see her live. I also listened a lot to this song and probably should have included it on the list above:

Everything passes
Everything changes
Just do what you think you should do

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