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what you read what i read, part ii

because folks liked my last version of this, for your viewing pleasure, below are the books i read last week. it’s a pretty exciting list:

1. Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (Dalkey Archive, 2005): The twentieth century boiled down to painstakingly concise and shocking truths. No one is left unscathed or uncriticized in this book. Ourednik’s dry humor pairs well with sentences that are dense in their simplicity, that makes sense. For instance: “Psychiatrists said that in many people the First World War provoked traumas that had been previously hidden in the unconscious, and in the 1920s and 1930s the people started to be neurotic because they were not adapted to their inner or outer state, and in Europe in the 1960s, 25% of women and 15% of men were neurotic, and journalists called it the disease of the century. And in the 1970s the number of people suffering from depression also started to rise, and at the end of the century every fifth citizen of Europe was depress” (65). Every sentence in Europeana reads this way: biting, revealing, absurd, contradictory, a slap across an entire century’s big sweaty face.

2. Urs Allemann’s Babyfucker (Les Figues, 2010 but available now!): This is a book to talk about. This is a book you want to carry around with you, just so people can ask you what it’s about. Last week, as I was sitting at a cafe in South Bend, this slender volume lying on top of my usual stack of library books. It’s cover is a lovely yellow, it’s spine an unobtrusive pink. But the title! The title is what interests people most. So someone asks me: What’s that you’re reading? And I say: Babyfucker. Just like that. And that person responds: Hmm. There’s no follow-up question. I have to force their discomfort. I say: It’s a book about a man who fucks babies, or not. It’s this little Beckettian book, this man obsessed with the sentence, ‘I fuck babies,’ constantly repeating, ‘I fuck babies. That’s my sentence.’ Whether or not he actually fucks the babies is irrelevant to the reader, but to that person standing by your chair at the cafe, that’s the only question that matters. Here’s the thing, I haven’t even started touching the substance or the incredible writing in this book, but it’s all solid. This is an inadequate review of a truly stunning book, but I’ve only managed to do exactly what I’ve criticized that person at the cafe of doing: getting lost in the spectacle.

3. Shane Jones’s The Failure Six (Fugue State Press, 2009): I didn’t read this book last week. I read it today. This morning, in fact. Reminiscent of Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women, though the language does not jar radical displacement, this sick little fairy tale took me to a world without speech, a world of recycled bureaucracy, a place of tests and windows, foxes and leashes, men with green beards, extended onomatopoeia, geometric shapes everywhere, and certain execution. The thing is, Jones does all of this unassumingly. His writing is unadorned but somehow still poetic. This is a story about failure, but not just failing once. No, that would be too easy. These characters fail again and again, each time worse than the one before, each time more wary of punishment. I left this book feeling destitute, and that was ok by me. Shane’s gotten a lot of press lately because of the well-deserved love of his first book, Light Boxes, but people, don’t forget about this one! Love this one too! Shane makes me smile.

4. Jeff Clark’s Ruins (Turtle Point Press, 2009): [Note: I couldn’t find an image for this book, which is lame, because it’s gorgeous.] This slim volume of poetry is what I would want a volume of my poetry to look like, if I wrote poetry. First off, it’s hard cover, which seems like a rare artifact these days. The pages, some black some white, contain as many photographs as poems. But now to the poetry itself: many of the poems in this collection are conversations with other writers and artists, particularly the Surrealists. Clark’s poems cycle through repetition, each word carefully chosen, carefully placed. This is no surprise because Clark is also a book designer. He’s also got a lovely translation of Louis Aragon’s “Poem to Cry in Ruins.” If I knew more about poetry, I’m sure I’d say lots of smart things here, but alas, I’ll suffice to say I read & enjoyed this book a great deal and hope you will do the same.

5. Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquietude: Noah Cicero suggested I read this book. I don’t really remember how or why he suggested it (does context really matter?), but I read it and loved it. I’ve been told that I read the wrong version though. Published posthumously, this is a book of fragmented meditations on anything and everything but particularly loneliness. Though sometimes a bit too self-indulgent for my tastes, it’s a worthwhile read, for sure.

6. Mati Unt’s Things in the Night (Dalkey Archive, 2006): This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Seriously, it seems like I’ve liked everything I’ve read this week, and yes, I have, but Unt’s book is the whole package: sophisticated concept, moral questioning, and the writing itself!! This novel begins simply: “My Dear, I feel I owe you an explanation. / First, I have to admit that I have always had an interest in electricity.” From there, readers follow the narrator as he tries to write a book on electricity, while Estonia (and the world as a whole) creeps steadily towards disaster. Unt showcases his writerly breadth, moving between forms and styles, each one poetic and ominous. I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ve never read a hand-job scene like the one in this book! This is a book about humanity: its glory and faults, aspirations and promise of failure, and of course, the people who remain, here, in pause, waiting.

7. Steve Tomasula’s TOC (FC2, 2009): In my last post about my readings, I made it a point to say that I wasn’t including any books I read for school, but in this case, I feel like it’s necessary for me to mention TOC. I’m teaching Tomasula’s DVD novel tomorrow for my fiction writing workshop, and I can’t say how much I love this book! It’s visually stunning, cutting edge like drawing blood (& to think: if the technology had been ready for him, Steve would have had this out a decade ago!), and conceptually masterful. People haven’t paid much attention to TOC, but you should! Buy it!

So that’s me. What have you been reading?

  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

9 thoughts on “what you read what i read, part ii

  1. Sure you didn’t, Ryan. I know your kind: you were waiting for me to post, just so you could post right after me!


    I haven’t read Light Boxes (never got a copy!), but word on the street is that even our dear Mr. Jones prefers Failure…

  2. The Failure Six may be my favorite thing I have eye consumed this year.

    I really want to read Babyfucker. All I have heard is of smiles and laughs from it. Good ones. Not the shitty smiles and laughs.

  3. Ryan: that’s just scary, man. you should never type something like that, or press the publish button.

    Matt: what else can be said? we loves us some shane jones. & Babyfucker is worth it. i read it in one sitting. i also like small, pretty books, and it’s a very small pretty book!

    John: i’m pretty sure if you put your reading list up here, we’d all be put to shame. besides, most of the books on this list are fairly thin. many books but not very many pages.

  4. Thumbs up to Europeana. Have you seen Céline Bourhis’s interview with Patrik Ouredník. Here’s Ouredník answering what writers influenced his book:

    “Only one critic mentioned the name of Kurt Vonnegut when writing about Europeana, and he is an author to whom I owe a lot, especially Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions.”

    Makes sense to me.

    And more from Ourednik about how he conceived Europeana:

    In any case, my goal was not to conceive of the twentieth century as a theme—not even in the sense of a “reflection theme”—but as a literary figure. The primary question wasn’t to know what events, what episodes were characteristic of the twentieth century, but which syntax, which rhetoric, which expressiveness belonged to it, in what sense was it redundant, etc.

    I could simplify this: what were the key words of the twentieth century? Undoubtedly, haste (rather than ”chaos,” which is no more appropriate to the twentieth century than to any another). This meant, let’s try to write a hurried text. Another peculiarity of the twentieth century, I think, is infantilism—with everything that it implies, from the romantic-commercial image of juvenility to the refusal of taking the full responsibility of one’s acts and words. Let’s try then to write a childish text, a text that could have been told by a kid reciting his lesson or by the village idiot. Thirdly, this century has been explicitly scientific. This meant, let’s use a vocabulary more or less scientific, with all its contradictions and, if possible, with all its vacuity. These are the elements that gave birth to the form and content of the book.

    I’ve got The Failure Six on my queue and I can’t wait to read it.

    As for what I read this week: MLKNG SCKLS, by Justin Sirois, Kamby Bolongo Mean River, by Robert Lopez, Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing, and I’m halfway through Grammar Desk Reference, by Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson.

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