Some of the Best Books I Read This Year (so far)

A few very free comments about these books and why I’ve taken the time to write about them.
Citizen: An American Lyric  by Claudia Rankine.
Beautiful, poetic and perfectly constructed. This powerfully astute book draws our attention to those things we should pay attention to, like everyday acts of racism and sexism, of bias and race and racial violence, and this book has only become more important in the wake of Ferguson.  This text remembers that images and words are essential to each other, and this poetry remembers that writing is a revolutionary act.  See also Rankine’s first book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.
Heroines by Kate Zambreno.
A smooth and hard-hitting account of how some women’s ambitions as writers have smashed into those same ambitions in men, and this book tells us quite unabashedly what this has lead to in the past.  Building a quick-paced narrative and essay, based on excellent research and close-readings, Zambreno places her own push to write amidst the historical perspectives of Zelda Fitzgerald, Jean Rhys, Vivienne Eliot and others.  And to many of us who feel this quiet, persistent and powerful suppression of female ambition (and ways of being in the world) – in ways that can feel outrageous, at times, to even mention – this books says clearly and with emotion too, these things that many know to be true but have not known how to (or had the time to) put into words.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
My first recommendation is that you start with George, definitely.  My second is to read this book co-currently with Smith’s Artful.  With both texts ingestedyou’ll pay attention to the world differently, walk in the world differently.  Art and literature are not separate here but, rather, art and literature are all about how we look, experience and interpret, and both give space for vast, fertile imagination in our creation and reception of knowledge and critical thought and evocation of emotion.  Ali Smith is amazing for how she does what she does.  It’s true that I resist her worlds for a good few pages, on some days, and then, they play in this wordless really compelling way in my mind and thinking for days and weeks after.  Smith continues to be a daring, smart wordsmith and storyteller who re-frames the possibilities of narrative and crossover with each new book.
Double Game by Sophie Calle
Calle is a female artist who is (role)playful, ambitious, self-confident and always aware of her place as subject and object.  Her art again and again records moments of the lives of others, exposes our small habits, the signifiers in all our lives, and creates tantalizing glimpses of what is witnessed (what she draws attention to and frames). She has a tremendous eye for the drama of small narratives and, this book – a playful call-and-response to Auster’s appropriation of her (into a character, Maria) – is a willful assertion of her authorship and her role as subject first, foremost and most lastingly.
The Queer Art of Failure by Judith/Jack Halberstam
Queering failure, queering quest and ambition with no small amount of writing on the revolutionary nature of animated narratives.   Those rumours about Frozen you’ve heard about, well, in some readings they might just be true.  This book is fearless and bold and reset something in my brain.  Failure is a key subject for all makers: the exuberance of it, the catastrophic bummer-ness of it.  Halberstam explores something else too – the otherness of failure as something to not only acknowledge but to seek out: failure not just as process but as a valuable place itself.  Halberstam’s book is not an easy read nor are some of the concepts included within its covers those I’d call-out about, and there are some things in here I disagree with, but as a way of re-considering the world and making, it’s a great place to spend some time.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay writes clear, deceptively plain prose (‘she said plain, burned things’) that reads the world and exposes our paradoxes, problematics and creates this really authentic, troubled and possible place for us to call out the BS  and then get on with the business of living while knowing and seeing just a bit more wisely than before.  Gay is uber astute and concise and I’m thinking few could write in the no-nonsense, totally effective way she does.  Implicitly, if we learn to read the world just a little as Roxane Gay does, we’ll be smarter and more capable of dealing with all the crap that’s out there and get on with making some good shit happen.  Her tweets are quick-witted and full of immediate reaction to the events in the world around us.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
So, it’s a bit long.  Get over it.  I put it on my list with AM Holmes’ May We Be Forgiven.  These texts are not perfect, but they certainly are exuberant and entertaining.
The Last Novel by David Markson
Well, it’s simply not the last novel, nor is it really a novel at all.  But a lovely pairing with Heroines for looking at the mess of creativity and success and being a writer (and in this case, an old, dying writer). If Shields’ deaf-ear-prose cut-up of Reality Hunger left you feel like there must be a better way to agitate how we connect things, then this book does that.
Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro
The title story.  Amazing.  The narrative voice and story structure is stunning like a great cake – layer upon layer of storytelling.  A exhilarating read, and this is a story to close read in order to figure out complex first person narration.
And What’s Next?
I have books I wasn’t so keen on, sure I do.  But the world and web are filled enough with vitriol and personal opinion masquerading as fact.  Face to face I’ll talk about those, but here, you get what has made me think, feel and act.
As I’m on research leave in the new year, the next eight months will be filled with reading, writing, walking, eating and traveling.  I’ve enjoyed writing this short post on my slow-web-time blog and I might do so again.  Watch this space, but maybe just occasaionally as it’s not a place I hang out too often.
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paradoxical frog

A few weekends ago, I was on an intense residency at Cove Park with PAL labs where we considered paradox.  I found I liked paradoxical humor:

‘A paradoxical frog is a frog that is one-third the size of its tadpole. This is a paradox you can touch.

This is not a paradoxical frog, but was at the residency with us:

wee wee frog

REM sleep is called paradoxical sleep because the electric brain patterns of this deep sleep most closely resemble those of our waking state. This is paradox you live.’

This week is writing and reading week and I’m reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Innoculation and Leslie Jamieson’s The Empathy Exams, and a friend’s work-in-progress essays.  I’m writing one novel: my own, my third. To work.

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am writing

abstractedRK_flamecloud

This summer I cleared the decks and made room for writing.  And that’s what the last five weeks have been:  mainly writing and some travel.  While on residency, I realized I needed to take out 1/3 of the novel – an entire storyline.  A week later I overhauled the narrative structure and now, a month further on, I have 79,000 words, which is my first full draft.  It’s been fabulous and full days of writing have been matched with full days of walking, because that’s what summer is like.  Slowly teaching will take hold with its seasonal reliability and autumn is the perfect time for honing the next draft and turning to new projects.

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Ramshackle travels

to Japan

Unknown

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Archive, Theft, Elegy

In February, I spent a quite a bit of time over a number of days watching Siobhan Davies’ dancers explore the idea of archive through their Table of Contents performance.  In Tramway’s intimate exhibition space fronted by big windows, the dancers’ exploration of the fallibility and possibility of archive was mesmerizing, welcoming and thought provoking, and the crafted, at ease nature of the project found its way into an essay I’d drafted but hadn’t found a way to complete.  This has become “Body as Archive” I & II – the first is a commissioned response to the Zembla exhibition at An Tobar on Mull and the second is a response to Table of Contents.

In the same week, I wrote a blog post for Kirsty Logan on Theft.  This is a longstanding interest of mine (as you can see from the blog post) and the idea of creative influence and sampling definitely crosses over with the idea of archive – for archives are at their best when they are discovered, re-enlivened and serve as a trigger or depth for another idea or project.

My collaboration with the artist Amanda Thomson is underway and the book is shaping up nicely.   Watch this space for images and perhaps even my own table of contents for direction is the moment you choose: two elegies.

I’m also teaching and working away at my next novel and when I’m not thinking of archive, theft and death, I’m thinking about prairies and fire…

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Autumn 2013

Summer has been hot (finally), full of writing, travel and a complete suspension of any sort of schedule whatsoever.  August was full of pre-semester practicals, the first three weeks in September too.  (oh, and Ramshackle was short-listed for the Scottish Mortgage Investments Awards, which is fabulous!)

Now the academic year has started and I turn to teaching and students and this particular balance with my own work (and with family)…

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Jay Parini, in his The Art of Teaching writes – with support from Robert Frost (who stated firmly that he was a poet, teacher and farmer – in equal measure) –  about having an essential balance in what we do.   We are more than one thing and these multiple elements of who we are and what we do are essential to each other and help define the directions we choose to take.

So it is possible to be a writer, a teacher, lover, a daughter, a runner, a friend and a bread-baker and they exist in the complete, dynamic living system that is me.

The novel I’m writing is in large part elegy (and elegy, we know, is all in largest part about the living).  The idea for this book emerged out of the emotion and experiences of my dad’s illnesses and a close friend’s brush with death and now, a few years later, the writing of it dovetails with my mother’s deep, mean illness.

I am thinking about balance and what we put out into the world.  How I’m quite private and still (daily) wrestling with how to be in the public sphere (and resistant to the constant need to create drama and presence, which is exhausting, can be inauthentic, and definitely takes me away from my writing) and this autumn I will be faced with pressures from some elements of self more than others.  I haven’t baked bread in six months, for instance, but I have been writing daily.  I’m a bit behind in my teaching prep, but I read ten books this summer, just for me, and last week I got to see my mom, which I wasn’t sure I ever get to do again.

Autumn is the cusp of the year, a time existing between when things are in bloom, fertile and when a winter quiet takes hold.  I saw the harvest moon from the plane on Wednesday night a week ago, above the clouds.  Autumn is full of new starts, of promises made and fulfilled, and it’s here we re-affirm commitments.  It is also colder and darker and full of focus.  I don’t have any big revelations to share, only that autumn is here and so are we.

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Autumn brings a bit more routine too:  Yesterday I was at Little Sparta & Brownsbank cottage with students, and my colleague Zoe, for a  relaxing day out.  Today, I have emptied the trash, taken the recycling over to be recycled, bought eggs and veg locally, am doing laundry, and my first loaf of bread is doing its first prove as we speak.

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august 2013

It’s been the best summer in years.  The RLS residency kicked it off during which I wrote, ate amazing treats from the local bakery, and went running.  On day 8, I’d created a new character, and on day 19 I committed literary murder by killing a main character while writing a new scene.   Unexpected.  Perfect.

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After the residency, we took a week’s holiday in Paris and Venice.  We walked everywhere and it was hot hot hot.   The Bienalle had some of the best art I have seen  in years.  Incredibly, disruptive video work; witty, smart and funny figurines by Fischli & Weiss.  Some angular and arresting book art as well. Quietly and brilliantly stunning work – excellent curation.

There’s lots coming up: the next novel is progressing well and I’ve been enjoying the writing; I’m also part of the Written Image collaboration with artist Anupa Gardner and it’s been fascinating to get to know someone while also attempting to make some excellent work; I have two other collaborations in the initial stages; and I’m writing a number of stories and essays.

We just spent five days walking on Skye, and seeing good friends, and of course there’s the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Book Fringe, David Sedaris, and despite the creeping in of cool to the air and of practical Uni work into this headspace, it’s still summer and I plan to enjoy it.

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