Argo Bookshop’s Best Books of 2012 – Part 2

Here’s part 2 of our Best Books of 2012. Today is Argo Co-Owner Jesse’s Top 15 for the year. Click on a book title to view a review or general/publisher information on that book.

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Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas (New Directions, 2012): The books on this list aren’t in any ascending or descending order, but if pressed I’d have to say that this is the book that most affected me and captivated my imagination all year. It is the story of an increasingly reclusive and anti-social retired Spanish publisher (also recovering alcoholic) set in the present. It is a deceptively simple avant-garde novel that tells a fairly straightforward story: pressed by a series of coincidences, restlessness and marital difficulties the publisher and three friends make a fateful trip to Dublin, where the publisher intends to hold a funeral for the Guttenberg era in Prospect Cemetery, where character Paddy Dignam is buried in Joyce’s fictional Ulysses, and gets much more than he bargained for. It’s about the sometimes harmful fanaticism for literature in a world it sometimes distorts and which seems intent on cutting it loose. It’s about the worlds of Beckett and Joyce and the pinnacles they represent in modern print. It’s about the particular brand of existential anguish that only literature can address, and about the power and limits of an art form that Borges’ described as “the sense of the imminence of a revelation which does not in fact occur”.

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Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry (Vintage UK, 2012): Already in possession of a cult following for his 2011 novel City of Bohane, a  kind of post-industrial western written in an imaginary Irish dialect,  Kevin Barry is an equally fine, if not superior writer of short stories. Readers may already be familiar with “The Fjord of Killary” which was published to great acclaim a couple years back in The New Yorker, and Montrealers have the great chance to be able to see this fine craftsman and entertainer in action at Concordia University this coming March.  Dark Lies the Island is being issued in North America in May 2013, but we carry import copies of this fine collection from the UK for anyone looking to acquaint themselves before this explodes on our own doorstep:

“A kiss that just won’t happen. A disco at the end of the world. A teenage goth on a terror mission. And OAP  kiddie-snatchers, scouse real-ale enthusiasts, and occult weirdness in the backwoods.
 Dark Lies the Island is a collection of unpredictable stories about love and cruelty, crimes, desperation, and hope from the man Irvine Welsh has described as ‘the most arresting and original writer to emerge from these islands in years’. Every page is shot through with the riotous humour, sympathy and blistering language that mark Kevin Barry as a pure entertainer and a unique teller of tales.”

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Homo Faber by Max Frisch (Harvest, 1994): I was awed by this swiftly plotted meditation on the cult of reason by the once famous but now largely unread Swiss writer Max Frisch, a novelist of ideas whose works bear similarities with other mid-twentieth century authors such as Camus and Sartre grappling with the “accursed questions” in an age of existential uncertainty. The story follows protagonist Walter Faber, a successful UNESCO engineer, through a series of suspiciously coincidental encounters and travels that ultimately culminate in a love affair that ends in total ruination. Throughout we are witness to Walter’s stubborn blindness to something that increasingly comes to resemble Fate, an Achilles Heel formed through his slavish predisposition to logic and a kind of technological fundamentalism. The inspiration for the Volker Schlondorff’s 1991 film Voyager, Homo Faber has the power and inevitability of Greek Tragedy.

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Killdeer by Phil Hall (BookThug, 2011): Killdeer is a heart-wrenching lyric testimony, bold dispatch on the spiritual crisis of contemporary Canadian poetry, regionalist manifesto, and much more. Unlike many other examples of “hybrid” writing this book of genre-bending “lyric essays” is utterly unpretentious and  imbued with a spirit of true generosity and grace. Hall is everyone’s charming, eccentric uncle shot through with the dark inscrutability of Paul Celan. Killdeer is an incredibly moving, humbling series of poems that I have revisited several times over the past year.

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Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (Melville House, 2008): This 86 page novella is a weirdly luminescent, beguiling gem. On the surface a cursory story about a failed love affair between two pretentious arty youngsters and its aftermath, Bonsai achieves incredibly distilled emotional resonance and depth through its use of seemingly arbitrary but meticulous syncopation and intertextuality. The closest points of comparison are the Argentinean Cesar Aira or Brazilian Clarice Lispector, yet this book is somehow unlike anything I’ve read before. Zambra is an exciting young voice to watch out for.

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Senselessness by Horacio Constellanos Moya (New Directions, 2008): Moya writes as if Thomas Bernhard was a sociopathic punk and had lived through the Latin American Nightmare to tell the tale.

Senselessness is the real deal, a visceral intellectual thriller by one of the most exciting International writers to be translated since Roberto Bolano:

“A sex-obsessed lush of a writer is employed by the Catholic Church to edit and tidy up a 1,100 page report on the army’s massacre and torture of the indigenous villagers a decade earlier. The writer becomes mesmerized by the poetic phrases written by the indigenous people and becomes increasingly paranoid and frightened, not only by the spellbinding words he must read, but also by the murders and generals that run his country.” – Wikipedia

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The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (FSG, 1984): Flannery O’Conner is one of those writers that upon first reading, one cannot forgive oneself for having not read them sooner. There is a palpable magic coursing through these pages, and each story is a miracle of character design and socio-cultural insight. Exemplars of the Southern Gothic mode, these stories are powerful indictments of the rampant Racism and warped Catholicism of the Deep South.

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Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard (Vintage, 2009): I admit to a prejudice here: Thomas Bernhard is probably my favourite novelist, and I try to read at least one of his books a year. I love his ranting, obsessive and paranoid narrators, his omission of chapters replaced by single long unbroken paragraphs, his hallmark use of repetition and phrases that pile clause upon clause, his indictment of Austrian provinciality and bourgeois cultural pretension, his thematic preoccupation with art, madness, and death, his ruthless and continuously roving intellect, and his refusal to abandon the true spirit of literary inquiry in a time defined by intellectual compromises, half-measures, double dealings and dull careerism. That’s all I’ll say, other than that Wittgenstein’s Nephew is vintage Bernhard, a powerful tribute to a difficult friendship, and perhaps the author’s most empathetic book.

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Poems 1959-2009 by Frederick Seidel (FSG, 2010): 

“The excellent table manners combined with a savage display of appetite: this is what everyone notices in Seidel. Yet he wouldn’t be so special or powerful a poet of what’s cruel, corrupt, and horrifying had he not also lately shown himself to be a great poet of innocence.”—Benjamin Kunkel, Harper’s Magazine

“The most frightening American poet ever—phallus-man, hangman of political barbarism—Seidel is the poet the twentieth century deserved.”—Calvin Bedient, Boston Review

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Henry & June by Anais Nin (Harcourt, 2001): This selection from the unexpurgated diaries of Anais Nin correspond to her intense affairs between 1931-32 with the famed Parisian expat Henry Miller as well as her infatuation with his wife June Miller. It is a record of daring artistic and sexual awakening filled with exquisite psychological insight and ruthless self-examination. Nin’s ever evolving, conflicted, contradictory and ultimately exploded sense of self is a wonder to behold throughout the course of the book, giving it the appeal of a novel. This is an erotic and inspiring journey of a woman striving to achieve, but continually just beyond the reach of self-knowledge.

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The Day of the Locusts by Nathanael West (New Directions, 2009): Forget Fitzgerald or Hemingway, Nathanael West is the true prophet of the American Dream in all its volatility, climaxing into a harrowing spectacle of shit and glitter. This may be the Hollywood novel par excellence, a spiritual precursor to the way we live now that has more in common with the works of Joan Didion, Jonathan Lethem and Don Delillo than West’s contemporaries. West’s writing is furious, incisive and takes on almost cartoonish vivacity in its serialized structure. Issued jointly by New Directions in a beautiful edition with the equally classic Miss Lonelyhearts, this is essential reading for lovers of classic American literature.

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Spurious/Dogma by Lars Iyer (Melville House, 2011/2012): Lars Iyer’s late capitalist satires of failed intellectuals poised before the permanent eclipse of the philosophic mind are like jumped-up Samuel Beckett for the Kenny Vs. Spenny generation. These books, the crux of which resolves upon the fraught friendship of buddies W. & Lars and their litany of insults are paranoid, apocalyptic and hilarious. Iyer has the rare gift, amply displayed here, of being able to expound on Blanchot and Kafka while making a dick joke. Spurious and Dogma form the first 2/3rds of a trilogy, the concluding volume of which, Exodus, is due January 2013. These books never fail to put a very large smile on my face.

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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Vintage, 2011): This Booker Prize winning novella is a brilliant meditation on the problems of the malleability of memory, personal legacy, and history. Part Bildungsroman, part psychological thriller, this is a taut and absorbing read with a real shocker of an ending that somehow manages to pull off its huge ambition. My first foray into the work of Julian Barnes and, I hope not my last.

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Every Night the Trees Disappear by Alan Greenberg (Chicago Review Press, 2012): What can I say? A brilliant, poetic account that delves into the heart of one of the strangest films ever made. Alan Greenberg, author of the acclaimed Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson (the first screenplay to be published by a major publishing house as literature), gives us a worthy companion to Herzog’s infamous film that Rolling Stone calls “[t]he best book on the making of a film ever written.” A real sleeper hit, this book should seriously appeal to not only fans of the film or Herzog, but lovers of adventurous and risk taking cinema everywhere.

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Hush Hush: Stories by Steven Barthelme (Melville House, 2012): Steven Barthelme’s irresistible stories describe pained and various searches for intimacy and connection between fumbling and addled men and women wounded by circumstance, but not beyond repair. Less deliberately iconoclastic than the work of his famous brothers Frederick and Donald, Hush Hush is an understatedly mischievous and eccentric work with great range and something for all lovers of short-stories. “Heaven” makes a strong bid for being my favourite short story of the year.

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