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Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Staff Picks 2013: Saelan

Unlike my colleague Helen, who was inspired to read more fiction, poetry, and comics after finishing her MA, I've spent this year totally swamped by grad school, which has made it hard for me to fit in any pleasure-reading. This is extra frustrating when I spend my time at work surrounded by amazing books that I really want to read. Which is not to say that I haven't been reading, but most of the titles I consumed in 2013 aren't super fun for a list like this. And, of course, there's older titles -- I think the book I enjoyed most this year was Lydia Davis' Collected Stories, which came out four years ago. But here's ten of this year's offerings that I managed to find time for.


Exodus, Lars Iyer

Exodus is the third book in Iyer's pseudo-autobiographical trilogy about a couple of hapless British academics named Lars and W. who spend most of their time drinking while waiting for the apocalypse. Though it's ostensibly the concluding volume, Exodus doesn't bring a lot of closure to this black-comic saga, which, from the first book (Spurious) has mostly been composed of wonderfully recherché insults and circular banter. A combination of Withnail and I and Samuel Beckett for the age of austerity and internet culture. If you're interested in reading a really long essay about why I think Iyer is one of the best authors of our young century, click here.


Trendy Wendy, Walter Scott

Earlier this year, Walter Kaheroton Scott blessed us all with the second volume of his utterly perfect Wendy series, "the fictional narrative of a young woman living in an urban centre, whose dreams of contemporary art stardom are perpetually derailed by the temptations of punk music, drugs, alcohol, parties, and boys." Though he's re-located to Vancouver and started publishing Wendy on Hazlitt, every new comic from him is greeted by a unanimous "OMG, SO TRUE" from everyone I know who's ever been to art school. Trendy Wendy saw his style grow considerably, with a refinement of his expressionistically minimal linework, a deeper engagement with Wendy's conceptual art milieu, and the addition of Wendy's native friend Winona, who provides an opportunity for Scott to address his indigenous heritage.


My Dirty Dumb Eyes, Lisa Hanawalt

As you may have noticed, Hanawalt's book is an across-the-board staff favourite at D&Q this year, probably because a) she draws real good and b) she is so damn funny. For me, it's the combination of frequently sophisticated references with crude sex and potty humour that makes her so delightfully absurd -- for example, her cinematic sex fantasies inspired by Terence Malick...has anyone ever imagined being pleasured by a lens flare in a gently swaying field of wheat before? Let alone drawn a picture of that? I'm going to assume no.


The Childhood of Jesus, J.M. Coetzee

Since Coetzee's written a number of lightly-fictionalized autobiographies in the last few years, you might be tempted to think this book is either about his own childhood or that it actually attempts to retell some Biblical episodes. Nope. Coetzee is a master of the complex moral fable, but this is perhaps his most inscrutable work to date -- a tale that doesn't tell you how to live, but examines the very grounds (or lack thereof) on which anybody could collectively agree on such matters. Up there with Aldous Huxley's Island in terms of weird utopian/dystopian scenarios, and sparring with Kafka for a work most likely to be interpreted in a million different, probably conflicting ways by eager literary students. An engaging puzzle.


A Schoolboy's Diary, Robert Walser

I discovered and fell in love with Robert Walser a few years ago, so I was delighted when the ever-reliable NYRB brought out this collection of unpublished stories and new translations this year. A contemporary of Kafka, Hermann Hesse, and Robert Musil, Walser was a Swiss writer with a gift for the gently absurd. If the praise on this book's jacket from Susan Sontag (who called him "a Paul Klee in prose"), W.G. Sebald, William Gass, and J.M. Coetzee doesn't persuade you, let me add my endorsement: Walser is amazing. Also includes an intro from the estimable Ben Lerner.

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner's first novel, Telex from Cuba, told the story of the Cuban Revolution from the perspective of the American expats stranded there. Her second novel shows her to be committed to a certain kind of visceral historical novel, this time set between the New York art world and the radical politics of Italy in the 1970s. It has a protagonist who's a motorcycle racer and uses her bike to make Earth Art in the Utah desert. If you need to know any more than that to make you instantly want to read this, then you and I simply have different tastes.

When Attitudes Becomes Form: Bern 1969, Venice 2013 (Fondazione Prada)

Something you should maybe know about me: I'm currently working on a doctorate in art history, with a focus on the legacy of conceptual art. So, when I heard that the Prada Foundation in Venice would be restaging one of the first and most influential exhibitions of conceptualism, originally curated by Harald Szeeman (one of the pioneers of what would become today's style of globe-trotting independent curator), I was pretty excited. And indeed, the show turned out to be one of the highlights of my first-ever trip to the Venice Biennale. It was an exact replica of the original install, with the Bern Kunsthalle recreated in minute detail inside of an existing Baroque palazzo in Venice by architectural guru Rem Koolhaas and detail-obsessed conceptual photographer Thomas Demand, both hired by Italian curator Germano Celant. The enormous catalogue for the show contains virtually every heavy-hitting scholar in the field of contemporary art and exhibition history. This thing is heavier than a Venetian paving stone and could crush most IKEA coffee tables. Approach with caution.


The Whispering Muse, Sjón
Sjón is an Icelandic novelist, poet, and playwright who's also collaborated with Bjork. This year, a number of his celebrated books were published in English for the first time. The comparisons to Borges, Calvino, and Haldór Laxness drew me in, and by the first page I was already hooked, when the hilariously idiosyncratic narrator introduces us to the Danish journal Fisk og Culture, which he published single-handedly for twenty years, hoping to convince the world of the superiority that the Nordic race has attained through their traditionally high consumption of seafood. If the sentence, "I refer anyone who may be interested to my book Memoirs of a Herring Inspector (pub. Fisk og Kultur, Copenhagen, 1933)" strikes you as an excellent species of humour, this book is for you. But I may be more susceptible than most towards the discreet charm of fake academic citations.



24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary

This slim little book from heavyweight art historian and media scholar Jonathan Crary is less of an academic treatise and more of an extended, highly erudite rant about how smartphone-enabled, fully networked and globalized consumer capitalism is inserting all of human life into a nightmarish insomniac matrix. Bleak and a bit hyperbolic, but what it lacks in rigour, it makes up for with broad insight and constant quotability.

Lose 5 and Very Casual, Michael Deforge

Deforge is quite simply one of the most prodigious talents in Canadian comics today. Both of these comics are indisputably genius-level in terms of sheer weirdness, originality and haunting, existential depth, but they're really just appetite-whetters for next year's full-length hardcover, Ant Colony, forthcoming from D&Q, which will absolutely destroy your mind in the best possible way. Few comics have ever devastated me like Deforge can.


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