2017 Reading Round-Up, #11-19


11. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury, 2016)

This was a book I appreciated more and more after I finished it. I think I resented the tidiness of the ending when I finished it (as I did with the other Levy novel I read, now that I think of it), but setting that aside, the atmosphere was established so vividly via the setting (a young woman and her hypochondriac mother seeking a cure from an eccentric doctor on the Spanish coast) and the young narrator’s perspective (a moment of transition, when everything is a question for her – her relationship with her family, her sexuality, her future). The novel is a collage of elements and tricks, unclassifiable, in a way. I was thrown by the surrealist touches, but they were also quite funny (the eccentric doctor and his clinic, for example), and I appreciate better in retrospect.


12. Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2006, original 1992)

Ferrante’s first novel. Claustrophobic and disturbing, a slim volume. The themes of the sex and violence coursing through Naples, motherhood, the abuse of women are here in a more dream-like, turgid form than in her later work.


13. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (Penguin, 1999)

I still don’t know what to make of this novel. It’s absolutely bleak, a difficult read. And unexpectedly, a convincing plea against animal cruelty. It calls on the reader to ask ethical questions and come to their own moral conclusions or judgments of the protagonist, because the author never does. I’d like to talk to someone about it.


14. Man Ray’s Montparnasse by Herbert R. Lottman (Harry N. Abrams, 2001)

I was surprised to see this was published as recently as 2001. The writing style and approach feels a bit older. I would have guessed an original publication date in the 1960s (how he wrote about the women in the scene, for example, or his delicacy around more personal details). This is neither an academic book or a full biography of Man Ray, but only covers his Montparnasse years, around 1920-1941, when WWII drove foreigners out. In this account, Man Ray is depicted as a workhouse, a Brooklyn guy always working as a commercial photographer to support his art, and a natural monogamist, with fascinating women. While interested in the ideas and play of the Dadaists and Surrealists, he opted to stay out of the often petty internal fighting. A fascinating life, as he took everyone’s portrait at some point.


15. Watchmen, written by by Alan Moore, art by Dave Higgins (DC Comics, 1987)

I’m still behind the graphic novel canon, but at least I’ve read this essential volume. It holds up in our time – dark, apocalyptic, disillusioned in tone. The scenes of Doctor Manhattan on other planets, fed up with humanity, were my favorite. I also loved the integration of other sorts of writing – letters, news articles, old comics – as a way of giving information. The art is fantastic – detailed, masterful – it goes without saying.


16. Black Vodka by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories, 2012)

I like that seduction was a current through these stories. The way that another person’s “otherness” seduces, whether they are from another culture, speak another language or are entirely “other” in their way of being. Sometimes what’s inscrutable is also what spells out the end of the relationship.Levy, as a British writer, is certainly seduced by Europe. So much of her writing is set on “the continent,” perceived through British eyes.


17. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories, 2012)

In my year of Deborah Levy, this is probably my least favorite of the four books I read. The set-up was a bit too contrived (two English families summering in southern France are upended by the appearance of a young woman who shows up naked in the villa pool one day), the secondary characters too secondary, and the ending  bit too easy. I know the aim in tone was for one of disjunction, an “off” feeling (in the dialogue, the uneven pacing), but this didn’t quite work for me, either. I do like how Levy explores sexual dynamics throughout her work, in particular from young women’s perspectives, and these were the parts that grabbed me in this novel; a scene, for example, of the deranged young woman viewed by the teenage daughter in the family.


18. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (Black Irish Entertainment, 2002)

The only self-help category I read is “creativity” – I’ll admit it! This book is a good pep talk. I’m keeping it around for future consultation. My biggest takeaway was importing the “lunchpail mentality” you have towards paid work (go in even if it’s raining, even if you’re tired) to your own endeavors. Don’t bail out on yourself.


19. The Keep – Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2006)

This was a fun contemporary take on the gothic novel, also a really clever frame narrative (I won’t describe to avoid spoilers). Egan inhabits male narrators really effectively – it’s a question always on my mind when reading (if a man is writing as a woman, and vice versa), and I stopped thinking about it in this book.

Books Read in 2011, Part II

I read 21 books in 2011. Here are #1-10, ranked from most insight/pleasure/ideas/inspiration derived from to least enjoyed…


1. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974) – Grace Paley

The story “Distance” changed what I thought it was possible to do with a short story. The voice most of all, how she just launches in. How it spans a period of time, how the narrator tells her own story as well as her son’s in one breath. How Paley is not afraid to say anything.

The “Faith stories” – Faith isn’t entirely likable, but she inhabits her. There is something weak about her – the way she is with men. The relationship between Faith and her parents.

A flavour of Brooklyn, Manhattan in the 1950s & 60s, tenement dwellers, urban people – Jews, latinos, blacks. The currents of activism, how they coursed through moms in the parks, too.

Sentences from “Distance”:

“Still, it is like a long hopeless homesickness my missing those young days. To me, they’re like my own place that I have gone away from forever, and I have lived all the time since among great pleasures but in a foreign town. Well, O.K. Farewell, certain years.”

“But don’t think I’m the only one that seen Ginny and John when they were the pearls of this pitchy pigsty block. Oh, there were many, and they are still around holding the picture in the muck under their skulls, like crabs.”

From the story “Debts”:

“There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.”

From the title story (it’s a prose poem a character wrote):

“The kids! the kids! Though terrible troubles hang over them, such as the absolute end of the known world quickly by detonation or slowly through the easygoing destruction of natural resources, they are still, even now, optimistic, humorous, and brave. In fact, they intend enormous changes at the last minute.”

2. On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977) – Susan Sontag

I started underlining passages & dog-earing pages, but it started happening on every page. So prescient & thought-provoking – so much of what she says is still (or more) applicable in terms of information/image overload, the manufacturing of nostalgia, the reign of irony, the fulfilment of the Surrealist ideology, the 20th century as the American century.

She is not afraid to bring the personal into her essays – her account of seeing photographs of WWII concentration camps as a child is her starting point in one essay. How it changed her, but how she still considered it exploitation, at some level.

Sontag is so opinionated, but nothing ever emerges as categorically good or bad, thank goodness. She’s clearly fascinated by photography, but unflinching about what it has taken away from (or how it has altered, transformed) human consciousness, our sense of reality, as well. 

Quotes (out of many many possible options):

“Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography, its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation.”

One that strikes me as appropriate to Tumblr:

“The course of modern history having already sapped the traditions and shattered the living wholes in which precious objects once found their place, the collector may now in good conscience go about excavating the choicer, more emblematic fragments.”

 3. Just Kids (HarperCollins, 2010) – Patti Smith

This book made me want to write, to collage, to love creative people, to not be afraid to hero-worship artists of the past (at the very least for their art), to call myself an artist, at least in my own mind. She is a hopeless romantic, not afraid to say so. I was also encouraged by how out of touch she actually felt with her own time, at times (the Warhol Factory people), was instead living with Rimbaud, her own vision of poetry. Reminded me of how Bob Dylan, seen as the bard of his time, spent years with early 20th century America (Guthrie). How Mapplethorpe affectionately called her “Soggy” because of her weeping bouts. How confusing she found her own time, and being young.

Her androgyny seems to have spared her some of the typical difficulties women face in “artist circles”. She has her own beauty, but I didn’t get the sense she was relegated to a sexual plane. Maybe also because many were gay artists… Especially vivid was the section on life at the Chelsea Hotel. Also loved her account of her love affair with Sam Shepard.


“In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos – the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?

I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.”

4. La increíble y triste historia de la Cándida Erendira y su abuela desalmada (1972)- Gabriel García Márquez 

I read this in Cartagena, the prefect setting. “Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes” and “El ahogado más hermoso del mundo” are my favourite Márquez stories. They’re like prose poems, the image is in the end, what he’s after. (An ancient man with enormous, shedding wings in a cage, being fed like a chicken every day by a practical small-town woman; a gigantic man washing ashore & being bathed, dressed, beloved & mourned by an entire little town by the sea.)

I wasn’t crazy about the title story, his interest in rape, the deflowering of young women, but it’s almost as if he finds a kind of beauty in it, the traveling carnival air the story takes on.

5. Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey (2010 reissue, first published 1988) – Lawrence Blair, with Lorne Blair

An adventure that doesn’t seem possible today. I was fascinated by the insights into the various cultures they visited on different Indonesian islands. Also how the people living in the thickest jungle survived through constant movement. There is a spiritual core to the book that makes you feel connected to the author, to the beautiful world out there & to the people he writes about.

6. Fellini on Fellini (Delta, 1977, first published in German, 1974) – Fellini 

Essays, interviews, forewords for books: assorted thoughts by Fellini. I learned about his interest in Jung, his take on the 60s-70s (he was revolutionized by the sack dress!), the idea of the artist, his process of making films. Ultimately a hungry, curious, positive view of life. 


“We live in an age that has made a cult of methodology, that makes us weakly believe that scientific or ideological ideas have the edge over reality, and that is suspicious of fantasy, of individual originality, in other words of personality.”

7. Los detectives salvajes (1998) – Roberto Bolaño

The experimental form (different narrator in each chapter) took some getting used to -there’s no thread to hold onto, really. But it becomes dreamy, film-like. It’s about the loss of the Poet, youth, the Idea of Revolution. Made me feel as if I should read it a couple more times.

8. Madame Bovary (1856) – Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis (2010)

Oh, the dangers of reading. How the ideas, imagination, fictions become preferable to reality… Sympathetic to the life of a woman, and then to M. Bovary, too. Luminous translation.

9. A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) – Jennifer Egan

Ambitious, ballsy, engrossing, philosophical. About the passage of time, but the book itself is not excessively long – yes!

10. Too Much Happiness (2010) – Alice Munro

Short stories, first I’d read by Munro. They go to unexpected places, but with an expert hand. Many touch on death & grieving, but in a genuine way, not to give a narrative gravitas (I’ve found this is to be a go-to device with others to suddenly give an otherwise empty story meaning, raising the stakes, but doesn’t feel grounded).