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2023 Reading Log


28. Amalie Smith. Thread Ripper. London: Lolli Editions, 2022. Translated from the 2020 Danish original by Jennifer Russell. A double-stranded novel (even the right- and left-hand pages are numbered identically) about 1) young, contemporary weaver undertaking a large digitally woven tapestry for a public building, and 2) Ada Lovelace, the 1830s mathematician who pioneered what we now think of as computer programming, who thinks about Penelope, who wove and then unpicked a shroud while putting off her suitors until Odysseus returned. The novel includes a number of photographs, some of which reproduce drawings and other works of art. One of the blurbs calls this a “dreamy” novel, which seems about right. The two strands often reflect on things that are woven, e.g., computer cords, DNA, language. And the weaver deeply ponders that nature of plants, which is the subject of her tapestry. Do plants think? How do they communicate? How are they different from animals? This was the most rewarding part of the novel for me.

27. Brian Dillon. Affinities. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2023. Essays on artists, photographers, writers, filmmakers, and other creative people, along with ten essays on the idea of affinities. I can only marvel at the smoothness and the naturalness of Dillon’s writing. Within each essay he corrals a range of other artworks or artists—the affinities he sees with his main subject. For a book that is deliberately short on images (usually only one per essay), Dillon shows the reader how to be a better looker, a better reader of images. Dillon’s essays open up new channels or circuits in my brain

26. Percival Everett. Once Seen. Los Angeles: Hat & Beard Press, 2021. This is Percival Everett at his slyest. In 2021, he had an exhibition of his mostly abstract paintings in West Hollywood at the Show Gallery. Rather than do a traditional catalog, Everett decided to reproduce his paintings within the context of a 100-year old issue of The Crisis, the magazine founded by W.E.B. DuBois for the NAACP. The February 1921 issue dealt with the subject of lynching and contained several articles and photographs. Everett had reproductions of his paintings placed where ads would have been in the magazine and had several pages added onto the end to serve as the actual catalog. Subversively brilliant, but gruesome.

25. Patrick Modiano. Villa Triste. Other Press, 2016. Translated from the 1975 French original by John Cullen. The mysterious, nameless narrator of Villa Triste recalls the summer of 1939, spent with an equally mysterious pair—a young aspiring actress, who was his lover at the time, and a strange, gay doctor who was being well paid to do something unknown, but clearly illegal and dangerous. As the three try to live the high life in a French resort town, the tension is palpable, both about the impending war and their own ability to carry on with their lifestyle. Like so many of Modiano’s novels, this one is filled with proper nouns—place names, bars, grand hotels, people—the stuff that nostalgia is made of. The narrator lost track of both of his companions soon after, but a newspaper clipping told him that the doctor committed suicide a few years later in his home, which he had named Villa Triste.

24. Danielle Dutton. A Picture Held Us Captive. Ithaca: Image Text Ithaca Press, 2022. A truly wonderful short (not even 48-pages long) essay with illustrations on ekphrastic writing, on how art’s purpose is to make the world strange so that we can appreciate it again, and how all of this helped her to write Sprawl, using the photographs of Laura Letinsky as a model for scenes in the novel.

23. Danielle Dutton. Sprawl. Seattle: Wave Books, 2018. I tried and failed to read this when it first came out. But this time around I found myself astounded at the writing and the haunting vision of the world that she creates, a suburbia that is claustrophobic and beautiful, pristine and pornographic, a bit like a neighborhood trapped underneath a bell jar. The book is a beautiful object, too, as is always the case with Wave Books.

22. Denise Rose Hansen, ed. Tools for Extinction. London: Lolli Editions, 2020. Eighteen very diverse pieces by eighteen authors responding to the coronavirus lockdown. Poems, mini-essays, stories, bits of diary. Naja Marie Aidt, Joanne Walsh, Enrique Vila-Matas, Jon Fosse, and Olga Ravn are just four of the writers included. Some of the pieces took me back to early 2020, which now seem like ancient history when we knew so little about the virus and we were so afraid of everything.


21. Kathryn Davis. Aurelia, Aurélia. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2022. Davis’ memoir, more or less about the death of her second husband, cuts back and forth between memories of their life together, her childhood, her reading, television programs, comic strips, and other topics that take on new meaning to her with his illness and death. Very short. I have not found myself able to get into her novels yet, but this was very engaging.

20. Patrick Modiano. Ring Roads. NY: Orion, 1974. Translated from the 1972 French original by Caroline Hillier. In the third and final of Modiano’s Occupation Trilogy novels, a man recalls his recalls his youth and times with his father. After having lost track of his father for a decade, he joins up with him and his band of petty crooks who live in the houses abandoned by their owners during the German occupation of France. His father, who fails to recognize him, needs to be rescued from the gang before he is murdered as being no longer useful. Ring Roads is a litany of place names—streets, bars, brothels, small towns,—conjuring up a lost era.

19. Carole Maso. The Art Lover. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990. A re-reading of one of my favorite books. Maso’s novel about a writer (much like her), the death of a father, and the onset of the AIDS crisis in New York City is filled with all kinds of imagery, including artworks, photographs, newspaper clippings, and drawings. Without quite realizing it, the narrator and the novel she is trying to write begin to spin out of control.

18. Françoise Meltzer. Dark Lens: Imaging Germany, 1945. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. Using paintings and a series of photographs taken by his mother, which all depict the post-war ruins of Germany, Meltzer initially discusses whether images like these can ever lead to an understanding of suffering. But then she enters into ongoing philosophical debates about how we should think about the German suffering that resulted from the Allied carpet-bombing of civilian populations. The most thought-provoking ideas, it seemed to me, completely transcended the discussion surrounding images.

17. László Krasznahorkai. The Last Wolf & Herman. NY: New Directions, 2016. Two short stories. My least favorite book by Krasznahorkai.

16. Robert Gottlieb. Avid Reader: A Life. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. Gottlieb was a publisher (Simon & Schuster, Knopf), editor (The New Yorker), writer, Trustee of both New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet, and all-around energizer bunny. Reading this memoir of his long, distinguished career exhausted me. The book is a name-dropping cast of thousands and a bit of an ego-trip, but it was entertaining throughout.

15. Philip Hoy. M. Degas Steps Out. Oxfordshire, Waywiser Press, 2022. Another very slim book—91 pages, many of which consist of film stills. In 2011, Hoy saw a nine-second segment of film by Sacha Guitry showing the painter Edgar Degas walking on a street in Paris with a woman more than a century ago. Immediately obsessed, he decided to deconstruct the film into 250 stills and conduct a forensic study into every aspect of the film clip—the who, what, where, and when of everything that appears in those nine seconds. Hoy comes up with some interesting facts and theories as a result of his research, but his book is massively overhyped by the 5-star reviews on Amazon and the book’s own back-cover blurbs. Hoy is so lost in the weeds that he doesn’t realize that he never once in his book mentions Degas’ first name, Edgar, which is only mentioned by others in footnotes and in the blurbs.

14. Enrique Vila-Matas. Because She Never Asked. NY: New Directions, 2015. Translated from the 2007 German original by Valerie Miles. This is a great little slip of a book (pocket book, 89 pages). At her request, Vila-Matas writes a story for the artist Sophie Calle to act out in real life. Or is he making all this up? Either way, it’s a great one-night stand.

13. Reiner Stach. Kafka: The Years of Insight. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch. The third and final volume of Stach’s astoundingly good biography of Kafka. To write this, Stach had to be completely conversant with several decades of European history of the early twentieth century and be adept in a at least a half dozen disciplines beside literature. On top of those talents, he writes so damn well. I am not a Kafka nut, but I have found this biography utterly enthralling—all 1,159 pages, and I have only read volumes two and three!


12. Patrick Modiano. The Night Watch. Bloomsbury, 2015. Translated from the 1969 French original by Patricia Wolf. The narrator is an unnamed twenty-year-old reluctant “blackmailer, thug, informant, grass, even hired killer,” who works for a gang of criminals during occupied France. One of his assignments is to infiltrate and inform on a Resistance group, who, in turn (and in ignorance of his real status), ask him to infiltrate his own gang and assassinate the leaders. In this fever dream of a short novel, Modiano lets his young uncertain thug think back on his short life and imagine the possible scenarios left his even shorter future. The second of Modiano’s Occupation Trilogy novels of the 1960s. At times, the narrator shared some characteristics with François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, from The 400 Blows, another French bad boy of sorts.

11. J.M. Coetzee. Diary of a Bad Year. NY: Viking, 2007. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek and slightly comedic book about the writing of this book, in which Coetzee seems to be making fun of himself as a writer-turned-“distinguished figure” and “pedant” who can barely stand to hug his sexy Filipino typist. Each page of the book has three sections: the “book” itself, which is purportedly a selection of “strong opinions” on political and other world topics commissioned by a German publisher; the author’s private thoughts, mostly about his book project and his typist Anya; and Anya’s private thoughts. Meanwhile, Anya’s boyfriend sets his sights on the author’s idle and not-so-modest bank account. I found it engaging but not consuming.

10. Robin Coste Lewis. To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness. NY: Knopf, 2022. This is a monster book—380 pages—of powerful poetry and an amazing collection of photographs that Lewis’ grandmother left behind in a suitcase beneath her bed when she died twenty-five years ago. The poems deal with Lewis’ grandmother’s generation, the Great Migration north, family, and Black life. The photographs depict Black people and Black life across the first half of the 20th century. The phrase “perfect helplessness” comes from Matthew Henson, a Black explorer (1866-1955) who went with Robert Peary on seven trips to the Arctic and is believed to have been the first of Peary’s men to reach what they believed to be the North Pole. (It probably wasn’t.) Parts of several poems in the book refer to Henson’s experiences. This is a rare book in which the poetry and the photographs interact in sophisticated, often unexpected ways.

9. Percival Everett. Assumption. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2011. “This messiah thing of yours—you in training or just your natural disposition?” This is a question that could be asked of many of Everett’s main characters, men who feel they must save some woman they perceive to be in distress. In this case, trying to help a succession of seemingly innocent women gets Deputy Sheriff Ogden Walker in a world of hurt. Set in New Mexico, Everett takes full advantage of the West that he knows and loves so well. The ending gets overly complex and I’m not sure about the way Everett pulls a sly one on the reader at the very end. But mostly this is Percival Everett at his top form.

8. J.M. Coetzee. Summertime. NY: Viking, 2009. The final section of his “autobiographical trilogy , this part dealing with the period of the early 1970s and his return from England to South Africa. Most of Summertime is told in the form of pseudo-interviews conducted between a scholar/biographer and five women who supposedly knew Coetzee during this time, several of whom report on their (more or less dismal) love affairs with him. Coetzee is humorously self-flagellating in his descriptions of his naive youthful self.

7. Typos: The Story of a Reluctant Artwork. Henley-on-Thames: Peculiarity Press, 2022. Buried in the credits on page 146 of this book purporting to be a monograph on the British artist Allun Evans is the sentence “All text by John Clark.” This is followed by the sentence “This is a work of fiction.” Nothing else in the book explicitly tells the reader that this is an elaborate hoax of monumental proportions. I can’t think of another book that illustrates a fictional artist’s work over several decades and includes elaborate texts about and an interview with that artist. Typos is a wonderfully on point parody of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms series.

6. Stephen Mitchelmore. The Opposite Direction. A self-published e-book of twenty posts from his blog This Space (, in which he discusses a number of books and book-related topics.

5. J.M. Coetzee. Youth. NY: Viking, 2002. The second of Coetzee’s utterly absorbing three autobiographical books in which he writes about himself in the third person. This one covers the time he spent in England in the early 60s working as a computer programmer, trying to write a thesis on Ford Maddox Ford, and wondering when he will ever grow up to be a writer and have an honest adult relationship with a woman. Coetzee is open about being an immature dreamer and a cad with women. He’s a slow learner, but reading philosophy and Samuel Beckett begins to give him some direction.

4. Percival Everett. Dr. No. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2022. Ralph Townsend, who calls himself Walu Kitu (Tagalog and Swahili words for “nothing”), is a Mathematics professor who specializes in the math of nothing. He is kidnapped by a rich man named Sill who has a James Bond villain complex and wants to rob Ft. Knox. Sill is convinced that the vault at Ft. Knox is empty, that the gold has all been moved elsewhere, which is why he has selected Walu Kitu as his accomplice. He wants to steal the nothing that is there. Everett has a field day in Dr. No with wordplay, puns, ribald limericks, utter nonsense, and a nice parody of Ian Fleming’s Hames Bond novels.

3. J.M. Coetzee. Boyhood. NY: Viking, 1997. The first of Coetzee’s three autobiographical books in which he writes about himself in the third person. This covers his life until he is a young teen in suburban Cape Town, South Africa and his father’s alcoholism has all but ruined the family. There is an honesty and clear-sightedness about the writing and occasionally he realizes that he is seeing all these troubled lives as if “from above, without anger.” The grounds are being laid for the writer to come.

2. Jenny Walker [pseud. for Charles Boyd]. 24 for 3. London: Bloomsbury, 2008. Writer and publisher (CB Editions) Charles Boyd takes on a female narrator who is both having an affair with an unnamed “loss-adjuster” and struggling with her sixteen-year-old stepson Selwyn. In the background, on the television and radio, are broadcasts of cricket matches, causing the narrator to try (unsuccessfully) to comprehend the rules and strategies of the game. As a result, she decides that cricket is somehow the metaphor for the way her life is going at the moment. The writing manages to be both amusing and smart, though I am not in a position to decide if Boyd has capably created a well-rounded, psychologically sound female character. This is a book that looks more lightweight than it really is.

1. R.J.B. Bosworth. Italian Venice: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. After my fourth trip to Venice, I wanted to better understand its history. Bosworth makes Venice’s early history fairly interesting, but he really gets going with World War II and after, when he has no difficulty pulling punches when he thinks someone is on the wrong side. But because Bosworth feels like he must cover everything-politics, culture, sport, etc.-the book stays at the 30,000-foot level. As a result, I don’t think I will feel like I know Venice much better the next time I visit. I would be better off having read the equivalent of Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents, her very personal book about Berlin.

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