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Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Staff Picks 2015: Saelan

Being a graduate student and working in a bookstore is kind of like being a diabetic working in a candy shop: if I sampled as much of the stock as I wanted to, things would go very badly for me. Which is to say that I read a lot of academic books this year, and not nearly as many new titles from the store as I would have liked. Even when I was reading fiction, it wasn't always recent. The two books that probably marked me the most this year were Fernando's Pessoa's Book of Disquiet (published posthumously in 1982, long after the author's death in 1935) and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (published in 1974). One is a plotless, exquisitely described anatomy of a reclusive aesthete's melancholy fantasy life and the other is a masterpiece of utopian, feminist/anarchist sci-fi. I recommend them both very highly, even though they don't officially count towards my Top Ten list.

Fernando Pessoa - The Book of Disquiet; Ursula K. Le Guin - The Dispossessed

My Top Ten of 2015:

1. Cesar Aira - The Musical Brain

Argentine writer César Aira is always a delight -- his novels (of which he has written nearly 80) are powered by madcap energy and little regard for the laws of physics or causality. Naturally, his method lends itself extremely well to the short story format, so it's remarkable that The Musical Brain is his first collection of short stories in English, spanning twenty years of work. I was continuously dazzled by this book -- any time his flights of surrealistic fantasy threaten to go off the rails, he gives wings to the train car and elevates the story to another level of virtuoso dexterity. An acrobatic performance!

2. Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter, eds. - Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the 21st Century

You don't need to be a grad student studying the relationship between contemporary art and information technology (ahem) to appreciate the extent to which the internet has revolutionized the way we experience visual culture. Cornell and Halter's hefty reader isn't the first publication to tackle the subject, but it is the thickest to date, reviving a publication series initiated between MIT Press and NYC's New Museum in 1984 -- the first volume of which was the now-canonical Art After Modernism, an anthology that defined postmodernism in the visual arts for a generation. Whether this tome will have a similar impact remains to be seen, but if you're interested in reading about the use of social networking platforms in art making, what increasing surveillance means for culture, and what "post-internet" art might be, you should give this book a look.

3. Jaako Pallasvuo - Pure Shores

Jaako Pallasvuo is sometimes identified as a post-internet artist. His videos, performances, sculptures, drawings, paintings, and writing appear online and in galleries. He also, as I recently discovered, makes comics. Pure Shores is a kind of near-future love story, printed entirely in pink ink, between a successful but disillusioned author of young-adult fiction ("Occupy Narnia" and "The Lizard Apartheid" are a couple titles) and a bearded bear-type with a septum piercing (he identifies himself as an unemployed florist), clearly based on Pallasvuo himself. Pure Shores has the same of-the-moment quality as Walter Scott's Wendy series (Julien Ceccaldi's comics also come to mind), and both are savvy satires of contemporary "creative" culture, but Pallasvuo is more romantic and impressionistic than Scott. With a loose, almost careless line style that gives the whole book a storyboard quality, I initially assumed that Pallasvuo didn't care much about drawing (or maybe even comics), but he actually wrings surprising emotional punch and atmospheric effects from his technique. Like the rest of Pallasvuo's body of work, this comic is smart and sincere while also being complicated, contradictory, and dripping with feelings. I keep thinking about it. (Landfill press also puts out the impressive art-and-comics anthology Mould Map, the recent issue of which looks great.)

4. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams - Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work

From the authors of the controversial Accelerationist Manifesto comes a book-length treatise on the future of Left politics, if Leftists are willing to get futuristic. It's a bracing antidote to both the fatuousness of tech-friendly TED-talk culture and the wooly delusions of folk-political activism trapped in nostalgia and committed to ineffective and purely symbolic small-scale goals. I'm halfway through it right now and, while I think a number of points could be more persuasively argued, I am very much in agreement with their analysis and proposals. An important book.

5. Jacob Wren - If Our Wealth is Criminal Then Let's Live With the Criminal Joy of Pirates

Jacob Wren is a treasure. This slim little book contains two stories and an essay on Wren's perennial themes of autofiction and how to reconcile art and politics, wrought with his characteristic commitment, sensitivity, and self-reflexivity. Wren is also a performance artist whose late-2014 project, Adventures can be found anywhere, même dans la mélancolie, prompted me to spend the darkest part of Winter 2015 reading Fernando Pessoa's hypnotically despondent Book of Disquiet (see above). Thanks, Jacob!

6. Sophie Goldstein - The Oven

Sophie Goldstein was an intern at D&Q in 2013, and when she brought in her self-published comic House of Women, I was pretty blown away -- she was a comic artist to watch, I thought. Sure enough, with The Oven, her style has matured into total assurance. It's a thoughtful, stylish story about a post-apocalyptic commune where the protagonists flee to try and conceive a baby naturally, beyond the reach of the repressive future state. Things turn out to be not totally utopian. I can't wait to see what Sophie does next.

7. Jillian Tamaki - Super Mutant Magic Academy

Jillian Tamaki! I have to admit, I had a hard time getting into Super Mutant Magic Academy as a webcomic. I didn't really "get" Tamaki's sketchy, splashy line style and it was hard to grasp the overarching narrative one panel at a time. In book form, though, it's amazing. It's a mash-up of all the teen drama of Harry Potter and X-Men with the magic and superpowers treated as a mere sidenote to the angst and romance. As she already proved with This One Summer, coming-of-age is really her métier, and this is basically a masterpiece of the genre: hilarious, existential, and weird as hell. (Even weirder is her issue of Frontier, in which a mysterious mp3 spawns a rave cult in the late 90s. It's brilliant. Sadly, it is sold out.)

8. Enrique Vila-Matas - Because She Never Asked, The Illogic of Kassel, A Brief History of Portable Literature

It's been a big year for Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas. His latest novel, The Illogic of Kassel (based on his experience as a writer-in-residence at the most recent Documenta art event in Kassel, Germany) was published in English, and his cult classic, A Brief History of Portable Literature (first published in Spanish in 1985) was translated into English for the first time. Like Roberto Bolaño, with whom he was friends and to whom he is often compared, Vila-Matas' subject is literature itself and his erudite books delight in fictionalizing factual histories and treating invented ones in a documentary manner. Appropriately, Because She Never Asked, also newly-published by New Directions, recounts his non-encounter with Sophie Calle, an artist equally invested in blurring fact and fiction; he writes a story for her to enact, she eludes him. If you're a fan of Borges and you've not yet read Vila-Matas, follow the advice of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo": you must change your life.

9. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt - The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science 

Speaking of life-changing events, I remember the first time I ever looked at J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's food blog: it was a post about how to make the perfect boiled egg, complete with a scientific explanation of exactly what happens inside an egg when you boil it and a series of photos detailing every possible result based on a variety of methods. As a control-freak in the kitchen, his fastidious approach appealed to me on a deep level. More importantly, it ensured that I have never since boiled a bad egg. I've also taken to consulting him on every possible technical matter, from how (and why) you should spatchcock a Christmas turkey to why baking soda is the key to perfect pancakes. When I saw that his wisdom was going to be available in hardcover format, it was a no-brainer: I put one on order instantly. It hasn't left my kitchen counter since.

10. Kate Beaton - The Princess and the Pony

Kate Beaton is wonderful, so I knew before I saw it that I was going to get this book for my toddler, who is one and a half. As it turns out, though, she is obsessed with it. If I ask her where the fat pony is, she will go to her shelf, get the book, open the flaps, and jab her finger at the 25 tiled images of said pony that line the inside covers. When she's a little older, she may appreciate the story's message of self-assertiveness and inclusion. In the meantime, I'm pretty sure she gets the fart jokes.

More Books That I Look Forward to Reading, Hopefully Soon

Maggie Nelson - The Argonauts; Elena Ferrante - The Story of the Lost Child

Almost everyone I talk about books with has read, is reading, or plans to read The Argonauts and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. I haven't got to them yet, partially out of sheer contrarianism, though I don't doubt that I will find them as compelling as my friends and colleagues have.

Yasushi Inoue - Life of a Counterfeiter; Maxim Biller - Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz; Machi Tawara - Salad Anniversary

Pushkin Press is extraordinary. Their taste in both selecting their titles and designing the jackets is absolutely impeccable. These are the three titles from them that most attracted my attention this year.

Horacio Castellanos Moya - The Dream of My Return; Alejandro Zambra - My Documents; Clarice Lispector - Collected Stories; Silvina Ocampo - Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Stories

Other fiction I want to read, all incidentally (or not?) by Latin American authors. I guess I have a thing.

Check out the rest of the staff's Top Tens, too!

Helen // Kate // Daphné // Chantale // Kira // Alyssa // Julie

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