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Thursday, 4 December 2014

Staff Picks 2014: Saelan

Each year at the end of the year, the Librairie Drawn & Quarterly staff members post our Top 10 books of the year! This was a big year for me: I wrote the comprehensive exams for my PhD and became a father in the same week! Since I’ve been on parental leave for the last few months, I haven’t been around the store as much, but I did find time to read some books.

Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else (David Balzer)

It's easy to dismiss the buzzwordiness of our present, hyper-curated condition, in which any and every act of selection can be certified as "curation," but in this slim-yet-expansive book, art critic and writer David Balzer makes the case that the rise of selection, organizing and display as privileged varieties of cultural labour tells us something significant about the way we live. This book is among the first to be issued in Coach House's "Exploded Views" series of nonfiction books, and Balzer justifies the series title: he condenses a sweeping history and a lot of heady ideas into an extremely readable morsel that I've continued to think about long after reading. (See my longer review here).

Ant Colony (Michael Deforge)

Oh, man. What more is there to say about this mythical beast of a comic that hasn't already been said? Young Deforge has already had a meteoric career and this is definitely his masterpiece: a chilling, psychedelic journey into epic, existential horror that's occasionally reminiscent of Jodorowsky's weird-ass, acid-trip movies. But, you know, with ants.

My Struggle: Book 1 (Karl Ove Knausgaard)

This year, I joined millions of Scandinavians (and a growing number of English-speakers) in the collective phenomenon of Knausgaard-mania. One man's microscopic attention to his own (quite mundane) existence becomes almost inexplicably compelling over the course of a few hundred pages -- so much so that I was disappointed when it ended (rather abruptly, too). Thankfully, I've got five more volumes to go.

10:04 (Ben Lerner)

I adored reading Lerner's breakout first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, as it recounted the quasi-autobiographical misadventures of a young American poet on a fellowship in Spain as he struggles with being outside of his linguistic comfort zone, ponders the relation between art and politics, obsessively dissects his own apparent failings, and pledges never to write a novel. Having failed wonderfully to prevent himself from the latter, his second novel sees him doubling down on self-reflection: it's all about his struggle to write a second novel after the surprising success of his first. While being very much about him, it's also a book about forms of collectivity and the difficulty of accessing them. What makes 10:04 such a great book is largely how Lerner is able to inscribe giant, thorny political issues (American imperialism and anthropogenic climate change, for instance) at the level of individual lived experience. But there's also a lot about Walt Whitman, illness, memory, Donald Judd, and sentient octopi. It's an amazing book.

Sweet Affliction (Anna Leventhal)

Anna Leventhal has read at several D&Q in-store events this year (including her own super-fun book launch) and every time I thought, "Damn, these stories are great." It took me most of the year to get around to actually reading her book, but it lived up to my expectations! It's her first short story collection and it features a series of loosely interlocking tales about Montreal punks, activists, and misfits growing up or growing older. Leventhal has a terrific ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for observation. In part, I couldn't help loving these stories because of how recognizable I found all the characters and settings, but Leventhal's bittersweet wit (she's frequently hilarious) should captivate anyone, not just those who've been young in Montreal.

Marx: An Illustrated Biography (Corinne Maier & Anne Simon)

Okay, I bought this in part so that my daughter can learn about class struggle as early as possible, but Corinne Maier and Anne Simon's treatment of Karl Marx's life and times is so much more than just a great primer on the basics of Marxist political economy. The book is almost impossibly charming in its depiction of Marx's intellectual development, family life, financial struggles, and intimate friendships, with inventive storyboarding and really first-rate illustration. It's a sweet and inspiring book that visualizes big ideas without ever being didactic. Mainly, it's a great story, beautifully told.

The Second Sex (Michael Robbins)

Robbins' debut book of poetry, Alien vs. Predator, marked him as a major new voice in American poetry: brash and irreverent but as educated in the poetic tradition as he is immersed in the flotsam of pop culture. His poetry felt alive to me in a way that hardly any has in a very long time: pyrotechnic and immediate, both sophisticated and gut-level. Reading it was like watching an almost parodically virtuosic guitar solo, with winking recognition of its own forays into wankery. So the bar for his second volume was pretty high. Maybe too high: if this feels like a sophomore slump, it's just because it's not the first time we've seen his style of literary acrobatics in action. It's also a bit more reflective, a bit more confessionally, lyrically autobiographical (whereas, in Alien v. Predator, the "I" was shifty and absurdist). Still great, in any case.

Wendy (Walter K. Scott)

How do I love Wendy? Let me count the ways. Ever since Walter Scott started bringing his photocopied zines into the store, I haven't been able to get enough of his painfully funny, all-too-familiar stories of art-school debauchery (as an Art History student for nearly a decade, as well as part-time critic and regular vernissage attendee, every situation Scott's hapless heroine falls into is oh-so-on-point). His serialized comics, when they appear on Hazlitt, are regularly the highlight of my week. Now, Koyama Press has finally anthologized all of his long-form comics in one volume for convenient enjoyment. A nice bonus of having it all together is getting to watch Scott's thematic and artistic maturation (if not Wendy's): his economic line style keeps getting more evocative at the same time as characters like Winona (Wendy's grounded native pal) and Screamo (her hard-partying gay roommate) get more page time and depth. Vice had it right: Wendy truly is the realest voice of my generation.

Beautiful Darkness (Fabien Velhmann & Kerascoët)

When we only had this book in French, I recall paging through it and mistaking it for a cutesy children's fairy tale. Imagine my surprise when I actually read it in English and discovered how deeply creepy it really is. Grimmer than Grimm's, Vehlmann and Kerascoët's world of princesses and magical creatures distills the true essence of old-fashioned fairy stories: the proximity of death and fear of the unknown. The beautiful illustrations have an intimacy with cruelty and decay that's shocking when juxtaposed with the narrative furniture of more innocuous stories. Like Deforge's Ant Colony, this one continued to chill me long after I finished it.

Polyamorous Love Song (Jacob Wren)

For what it's worth, I finished this book in the hospital during my partner's 48-hour labour. Even if I'd read it in more prosaic circumstances, though, I don't think I'd forget it. Jacob Wren is an endlessly fascinating individual: no writer I can think of is so sincere in their pursuit of questions about the value of art and its relation to life. Like most of his writing, Polyamorous Love Song straddles the boundary between essay and fiction, art and literature (Wren is also active as a performance artist). He asks himself difficult questions about why we make art and what we hope it can do while also offering a rollicking, sometimes absurdist sci-fi adventure featuring an organization of terrorists in mascot costumes and a virus that only kills political reactionaries. It's a book that defies boundaries and categorization: Wren's art is total or not at all.

2014 Releases I’m Excited to Read (But Haven’t Yet)

Syllabus (Lynda Barry), Can’t and Won’t (Lydia Davis), Everywhere Antennas (Julie Delporte), Sculptor's Daughter (Tove Jansson), Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Patricia Lockwood), Something You Were, Might Have Been, or Have Come to Represent (Jay Winston Ritchie), The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Astra Taylor)

Not pictured is Jay Winston Ritchie's How to Appear Perfectly Indifferent While Crying On the Inside, which I did read and really liked. An honourable mention!

For the Little One

Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition (Tove Jansson), A Cat Named Tim and Other Stories (John Martz), Who Did It? (Ohara Hale) 

2013 Releases I Read and Loved This Year

9.5 Theses On Art and Class (Ben Davis)

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island (Suehiro Maruo)

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