Mount Analogue by René Daumal
My favorite read this year. Playful and soulful. Daumal died before he finished it, so it ends in mid-sentence, which is itself a perfect analogy of the accessible yet impossible Mt. Analogue that is at the center of the book.
There but for the by Ali Smith
An engaging novel about language, society, the overlooked, and so much more. Almost no plot to speak of, this novel sounds academic, but is actually a riot to read.
Piano Stories by Felisberto Hernández
The story ‘Stray Horse’ alone makes this one of the best books ever. The inner-life of objects, memory, and the battle between versions of the self slowly sprawls itself across this long meandering story. What a delight.
Gazelle by Rikki Ducornet
What I loved most about this book is that it showed me the real world in a magical way. It’s not magical realism, it’s just a magical perspective. I felt like a kid again.
Midwinter Day by Bernadette Mayer
A long poem written over the course of one day, this book hijacked my own thought patterns and made me live under the haze of its strange continuous rhythms of mundanities and insights. Awesome.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Re-reading this has been an eye opening experience on how much I missed the first time through (in my 20s), and how much more emotionally close to home these people’s lives and stories are now. I was totally blown away and need to revisit all of Woolf’s catalog now.
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
Philosophy written as a form of poetry, using the poetic image as a reverberating medium, Bachelard attempts to examine our deepest associations to those most intimate and secret spaces we’ve created in our imaginations. One of the most quotable books I’ve ever read.
I have longer reviews of these books and many other ones on Goodreads.
Trying something different this time… I’m going to actually list these in a somewhat loose order of personal significance. Full reviews of all books mentioned can be found on My Goodreads page.
The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
in which a difficulty is earned not by modernist wordplay, but by tackling mercurial and impossible ideas head on, and not without humor. A novel of ideas that is (among other things) also an argument against ideas (or at least against systematizing or simplifying them).
My Friends by Emmanuel Bove
in which the most simple, self-evident language is contained in a perfect novel of quiet humor, sadness, and crystallized beauty; a criminally underread masterpiece.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk
in which the life of one uncompromising SOB is laid out, showing all the seeming contradictions therein, which in the end turns out to be the perfect vehicle for his ideas (or perhaps the idea itself). A thought provoking book, in which I saw many parallels to Musil’s musings.
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar
in which the trick of hopping around randomly is ultimately trumped by the non-trick of great writing. As one Cronopios put it, this is a very serious game, one that you can put your whole life into.
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
in which a frustrating amount of things keep getting added to the to-do list, though nothing that truly matters is ever addressed; the uneasy feeling produced by this novel rings true for me, and in the end, though nothing is solved, I feel refreshed as if emerging from an ineffably sad dream.
The Atoms of Language by Mark C. Baker
in which a linguist explains the curious logic of all languages, how even the most radically different ones are made up of similar ingredients in different ratios. Also: find out why English is more similar to Indonesian than any other European language.
The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman
in which Ms. Kalman charms us with her drawings of dodos and superfluous tassels and ladies with big hair from the back and hats hats couches hats. A year of jottings and journalings by a quirky and interesting woman.
g-point almanac: passyunk lost & g-point almanac: id est by Kevin Varrone
in which is found the best contemporary poetry I’ve read in the last 5 years or so.
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
in which time-lapse photography is transfigured into written form, the episodes building one on another like a photograph superimposed, significances becoming apparent that aren’t there for the myopic characters themselves. Surprisingly affecting.
Speaking of the Rose by Robert Walser
in which sentences are like contortionists, able to keep your interest in all ways but what is actually being said (and sometimes in that way too).
A Few “I Must Also Mentions” (in no particular order):
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski
in which Ryszard shows us Africa around the end of colonialism (not that it ever ends). He makes it a great read as it is satisfying in many ways: as history, as memoir, as anthropology, and as travel writing.
Kabloona by Gontran de Poncins
in which Gontran, being French, and the year being 1938, travels to arctic Canada to study the Eskimos and writes this piece of anthropological gem, both interesting as a study of his whitey attitudes and as a study of the local population and their strange habits. This one is special, people… a highly entertaining book.
Broadsides from Other Orders: A Book of Bugs by Sue Hubbell
in which each chapter is lovingly dedicated to explaining away one little critter, often as common as the daddy longlegs or the less heard-of camel cricket which I’m sure lives in your basement as we speak, although “explain away” is inaccurate as there’s still so much we just don’t know about them.
Emigrants by W.G. Sebald Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald Vertigo by W.G. Sebald
in which Winfried Georg, being German, being inscrutable, lulls me into deep meditative conversation in which I stop caring what is being talked about. He often writes from a very serious place, of memory and architecture and place; his fiction is a combination of essay, memoir, old photos, and a lot of walking.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
in which Chris and husband decide to woo an acquaintance, Dick, by writing him love letters. This novel, which is obviously thinly veiled nonfiction, soon leads to a series of postmodern investigations taking the form of epistolary novel, feminist manifesto, art criticism, tell-all memoir, critical theory, personal essay, and diary. Bonus: makes for great reading in the men’s locker room.
Recollections of Things to Come by Elena Garro
in which magical realism was written before magical realism was even defined. And oh she does it so well, so much better than mr. marquez. This story, a political one but not in an annoying way, is told by the town itself. It is a devastating story, and one that made me read nonstop.
The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil
in which you will think it is another coming of age boarding school novel, but this one searches so deeply it reminds me of Rilke’s poetry, in its ability to wrestle with the most complex spiritual, philosophical, and psychological themes.
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
in which Fate smiled down on me and told me I had to read it as the copy I bought for $5 in Chicago was SIGNED by JB himself with the note: “for Jimmy or be that James”. A novel about religion but also about many things, he goes down deep into the empathy of every character and the result is powerful.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson Sun City by Tove Jansson
in which Ms. Jansson writes about childhood and old age with equal skill and a light touch; this writing serves its function without an ounce of fat. The episodic tales unwind around flawed yet human and lovable characters.
The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda
in which she writes about devastation in a series of incremental impressions from a naive character, but one whose grief, though she doesn’t understand it herself, also catches the reader by surprise.
Skylark by Dezs? Kosztolányi
in which a very ugly daughter and her parents have their routines disrupted when said ugly daughter leaves to visit a relative. A funny, sad book.
Pan by Knut Hamsun
in which Mr. Hamsun outdoes his own masterpiece Hunger, having written here an even better, more complex portrait of the mind’s infatuation and raw feverish irrationality.
Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist
in which so much is merciless and violent, and the people in these stories, poor things, are moved around by cosmic forces into monsters without their knowing it, swept up in the reconfiguration like a bit of bread in the bowels. The Marquise of O… in particular is one of the best stories I’ve ever read.
in which Argentinian writer (and we all know about them Argentinian writers) takes us on adventures involving surreal shape-shifting narratives, philosophical insights, and much attention to language (yes, it’s well translated).
in which I emerge from a fog of folklore and historic tangents infused w/ personal memories of a little boy Malte (read: Rainer in feeble disguise) all grown up and wandering the streets of Paris having excessive thoughts on death, poverty, and ghosts. WTF, Rainer? Is this really what you call a novel? Whatever, at least it’s fucking great.
in which a bunch of pirates end up accidentally kidnapping a bunch of kids. Poor pirates. These kids are merciless. Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing. I recommend this book for people who love kids. Bonus: many animals, death, and various other perfundities. Is that a word?
in which one, Frances Johnson, is introduced wherein she is worried about various contrivances say her warts or some other thing or where oh where her bicycle takes her. A very experimental novel, but also a touching and soft one too, which is nice to know: that that is still possible I mean.
in which a most boring college professor’s life is recounted in bibliographic and chronological order which sounds really boring but actually I have no idea how it snuck up on me and was just the most powerful book ever and made me cry and cry and cry.
in which Gustave my man Gustave writes his tercid prose is that a word tercid? does it mean turd-like? Well, no matter, this book that bowled me over with passage after passage, is about a woman who is never satisfied and almost never happy. Sweet lord, what a book.
in which something happens in New Orleans inside of the head of Binx Bolling who happens to have some ideas in there as well, and they knock around, and this book came out. Funny, I remember hardly anything about this book anymore.
in which Mary Maclane, a nineteen year old girl stuck in Butte Montana in 1901, writes a sort of definition of herself… or a manifesto, of sorts. She is a genius! She has a “peripatetic” philosophy inside of her “wooden heart”. She has a crush on a lady friend. She worships Napoleon and has 17 portraits of him.
in which the true story of Mary Bell, an 11-year old girl who killed 2 boys ages 3 and 4 many years ago, is finally revealed through intense writing and recounting of the events that followed the events preceeding, as well as through personal interviews with Mary Bell, who is now out of jail and has children of her own. Did I mention “intense”? This book is enough to give you a fever, and make you think twice about why children do the things they do. Was Mary Bell evil? Or was something else at work here?
in which the secret of happiness is revealed to be a state of mind achieved through unriveted attention, well-defined goals, clear feedback, and the perfect level of difficulty (not too hard, not too easy). A very interesting book, which doesn’t just stop at the science, but includes very human elements.
in which the horrid state of journalism is detailed in every way possible. Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, you realize that this book was written during Clinton’s era, and that things have gotten much worse with Fox News, Reality TV, and a bunch of other things that I don’t even want to think about. Someone kill me now.
in which Rainer Maria Rilke is very poet-like in the traditional sense of being inspired by angels while holing up in a castle for ten years. The Duino Elegies blew my mind, and I can’t believe I had not discovered Rilke until 2009. Get this translation, especially, it is superb, if I can say that.
The Making of Pre by Francis Ponge
in which Francis Ponge, being French, labors over the phenomenological atoms of rivers and plains, coming up with a meadow on which theoretical swords are crossed and yet one is felled in practice. Mr. Ponge, you killed me on the Pre, but this is a very interesting read. Bonus: lots of words vehemently crossed out.
in which nobody else got it but I did and started reading it all the way from the bookstore till I got home. Something about words or signs and what they pointed to, and how pretentious that is, and how like an academic with a tenure track going round and round. But more visceral, in my opinion, more stabby.
in which no word is the blip of its own passing, and Anne Boyer is a woman of sufficient means moving over the page with slight curtsies because, well, just because. I think I’m turning into Dawn with this review.
I try to watch this movie about once a year, and every time, I see something new to admire in it. It’s hard to sum up, because it has so much in it, but Reverse Shot has written a really good article on it.
2. What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming Liang)
Its humor and its sadness seem interconnected, or seem to flourish from the same place, making both emotions more painful. A film about alienation, as only the Taiwanese can do it. When I saw it last, I wrote this review:
A re-watch. This time, the movie was less funny, but more tender, and even sadder than before. I was struck by the sadness of seemingly awkward private gestures, the girl stuffing her face with crackers and bananas in a hotel room in Paris… the mother masturbating with the container of her dead husband’s ashes. The silence is not really silence but tapestries of odd rhythms. Sounds emanating from all corners to penetrate and intrude the characters. In fact, everything is a form of penetration while on the surface looking rather harmless: penetration as a substitute for connection. I was also a bit surprised by how much I related to the girl this time, more so than the other two characters. I thought her scenes were the saddest and most awkward. I imagined the movie as a musical composition (keeping tune to the odd beat of a watch being smashed against the railings) with 3 different parts (bass, alto, tenor?) played by the three different characters, all separate (and separated) but in synch, crescendoing almost literally as all three are brought to a sexual climax, although one that is illusively disappointing, perhaps inherently so because of what they’re expecting from it: human connection. And yet these three musical parts always remain alone. The last shots of this movie are some of the most memorable and affecting I have seen, with the father walking into a sunset… or what stands for a sunset in this movie: the carousel in the fairground, perhaps the same fairground that 400 Blows was shot, when Jean Pierre Leaud was pushed against the wall.
3. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Weerasethakul is one of the most promising new directors. I’m excited to see what he comes up with next. I wrote a short review of this movie on this blog before.
4. Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako)
A film from Mali by a director I haven’t seen enough of yet. One of the few movies I loved despite political themes being explicitly stated (here it is not preachy). I remember only the invigorating feeling of the narrative told in a jagged inventive manner, with all the energy of a new way of making movies.
5. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami)
A mother drives around town and has ten separate conversations. Kiarostami’s digital camera focuses on half of the story at any one time, but delivers so much raw emotion from these performances.
6. Bemani (Dariush Mehrjui)
Can’t find much on the internet; can’t even find a decent screenshot. I saw this at the Iranian film festival at the High Museum a few years back. On the surface it was about a few women and their struggles, but the way it was told was what impressed me. I can’t point to a single thing, but just the whole attitude and style towards filming reminds me of many other Iranian films where I feel like they are making movies for the first time, without relying much on staid conventions.
7. Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic)
If you watch movies for mood, then run out and watch this. It’s got plenty of story too: but one that is amorphous, mysterious, constantly on the line between creepiness and commonplace. Is it an allegory? A fairy-tale? A dream?
8. 2046 (Wong Kar Wai)
A sequel, of sorts, to In the Mood for Love. The first time I saw it I didn’t like it as much. ItMfL was a straight forward restrained love story. This movie, by contrast, was complicated and confusing. And what was up with those scenes of the future? But every time I watched it, I understood more of what was going on and loved it more as well. This is a wild tangled investigation of memory that grows on you the more you watch it. It is serpentine and layered and full.
9. Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
A film set in and about Afghanistan directed by one of my favorite Iranian directors. Really beautiful and depressing, it’s hard to describe the feeling this movie gives me. Why am I even trying to write about any of these movies? They are all so hard to describe with these damn words.
10. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch)
This film needs no description. You’ve probably already seen it and hate it.
11. The Visitation (Nathaniel Dorsky)
Screenshot Not Available.
One of the few shorts by Dorsky I was able to see at Andy Ditzler’s Film Love. This one is “about” aliens!
Remaining on the West Coast (once again San Francisco, specifically), next is Nathaniel Dorsky, an artist whose devout approach to the cinematic image transforms daily sights and sounds into wondrous moments of reverential contemplation, embodied through the use of “polyvalent” montage, which seeks to “redirect editing away from the dialectics that energized the Russian films of the 1920s and from the narrative demands of pop cinema, toward a refinement of viewers’ ability to perceive the subtleties of particular images and the complex webbing of interconnections between them.” (A Critical Cinema 5 pg. 79)
12. All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green)
Quirky indie-flick about young people angst, but actually good. There’s something amateur about it that I love, and something Terrence Malicky about the cinematography. Also, it has some seriously funny dialog.
13. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar)
Twisted love. Almodovar can be too heavy handed sometimes, or too dramatic, or his plots too contrived. But still, you gotta love this movie, which made me forget about all those flaws.
14. Half Moon (Ghobadi)
A surreal journey to find death, where moments of reality and moments of dream are indistinguishable in the vast landscape, and left open to interpretation. I loved this movie. Also from Iran. If you watch the YouTube video above, try to ignore that ugly name that scrolls across the screen. Whoever made that video put that in, but it wasn’t in the movie.
15. Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson)
My favorite PT Anderson movie.
16. La Pianiste (Michael Haneke)
Brutal and depressing. Not for the squeamish. Isabelle Huppert gives a great performance. I really liked Cache by the same director, but one Haneke is enough for any list.
17. L’Intrus (Clair Denis)
Obscure as fuck, but really good if you’re not too concerned with figuring out what everything means.
18. Inland Empire (David Lynch)
David Lynch at his scariest and rawest. I saw it in the theater when it came out and it was one of the most visceral experiences ever.
19. The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda)
Agnes Varda makes movies like nobody else. Her charm is too big to be contained off camera, and in this documentary about the history and continuation of gleaning her stamp is all over, which is the way I like it.
20. Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt)
A subtle and slow film. Relaxing with just enough tension to form the tatters of a story. More films should be like this, where the story unfolds so organically from the characters, the scene, and the mood.
21. Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (John Gianvito)
“The day will come when our silence will be more important than the voices you are throttling today.”
A simple concept and restrained execution. It’s a documentary with no voice-over narration; a chronological tour of important gravestones, from labor leaders to civil rights leaders to people who sacrificed themselves for these causes. These are mixed in with beautiful shots of trees rustling in the wind, and little pencil sketch animations. It sounds pretty lame in words, and perhaps for some it would be lame. It’s definitely not for everyone. It lasts for an hour but I felt like it was only 20 minutes. I highly recommend you try it and see if it’s for you.
22. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming Liang)
A sequel of sorts to What Time Is It There? in which things get a lot weirder. You’ll never look at a watermelon the same way again. Oh yeah, did I mention there are musical numbers? NOTE: this movie is intense and disturbing, and hard to appreciate, to some degree, without knowing the director’s previous work and obsessions. Consider yourself warned.
23. All About Lily Chou Chou (Iwai)
Japanese school kids can be mean. It’s all those uniforms they’re forced to wear.
24. Triplets of Belleville (Chomet)
Beautiful old-style animations, strange somewhat creepy story with an off-kilter sense of humor, and a happy ending. All you can ask for in a movie!
25. Five Dedicated to Ozu (Kiarostami)
This movie is five scenes, all with a static camera capturing things coming in and out of the frame. A good movie to meditate to.
This isn’t really an end of the year list, as these aren’t 08 movies (I only saw one 08 movie in 08) but rather movies I watched in 08.
Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The strangest and best film I saw in 2008 is this little Thai film from 2006. It’s a beautiful, meditative, funny, weird experience… completely unique, it’s one of those movies that absolutely cannot be described.
Variations (Nathaniel Dorsky)
This was an amazing and blissful movie. I saw this along with the other 3 excellent Dorsky shorts that Andy Ditzler showed at the Eyedrum for his Film Love series. Abstract juxtaposition of images that are oddly emotive and effective. Editing, pace, colors and light.
Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple)
One of the very best documentaries. You feel like you really went through it all by the end; it’s ugly and brutal and dirty, and features some of the most interesting people you wish you had met.