Staff Picks 2019: Saelan

December 6, 2019

Staff Picks 2019: Saelan

As somebody who writes criticism, I've always gravitated towards writing with an essayistic flavour (even in fiction), so I've been very happy to observe the recent boom in autofiction, memoir, and autocriticism -- which shows no signs of abating, to both the fascination and consternation of commentators. It's gotten to the point that almost everything I read, no matter the genre, is autobiographical to some extent. Some of my reading this year took a meta-look at this theme: why are we so obsessed with ourselves, and what does it even mean to be a "self" under internet-saturated late capitalism? Many of the books on this list also live at the intersection of life, literature, work, politics, and (to a growing extent, probably because I'm ever-more conscious of not being that young anymore) death.

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The Topeka School

Ben Lerner

From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the...

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It's been a pleasure to watch the evolution of Ben Lerner's quasi-autobiographical character across his novels, from the feckless young slacker-poet abroad (frankly, an asshole) of Leaving the Atocha Station to the author as mature, engagé intellectual in 10:04, pondering newfound success and now, in what makes the third volume in an unofficial trilogy, looking back at his Kansan adolescence as the child of hippie-ish psychologists.

Lerner's gift in all these books is to articulate how life, language, literature, and politics intersect, and he's become increasingly surgical in his reflexive examination of his own subject position as a straight, white, male writer. For anyone who's ever been annoyed by Lerner's strenuous need to parade his erudition and prove his bona fides, The Topeka School offers an intriguing look at how he got that way: a high school debate champion (he really did win the nationals) suspended between midwestern teen toxic masculinity and his educated parents' progressive ideals and high expectations.

Moreover, the book's 90s milieu serves as a prehistory of our contemporary woes, with competitive debate and white-boy rap fandom as allegorical ancestors of today's revanchist white supremacist patriarchy and corruption of political language. As a whole, these three books are likely to be remembered as one of the major literary ouevres of the era.

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Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being

Amy Fung

In that moment, I felt closer to whiteness than not. I was completely complicit and didn't think twice about entering a space that could...

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Amy Fung is an accomplished art critic, but despite its memorable title, this book has little to do with art writing per se. Rather, it's an investigation of Canada's colonial politics (especially as they operate, masked by good intentions, within Canada's artistic milieu) from the perspective of a first-generation immigrant settler (Fung moved to Alberta from Hong Kong at age 9). Part memoir, part "long-form land acknowledgement," Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being is one of the most unique and necessary books I've ever read about what it means to live as an artist, writer, and human being on Indigenous land.

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Seasonal Associate

Heike Geissler

How the brutalities of working life are transformed into exhaustion, shame, and self-doubt: a writer's account of her experience working in an Amazon fulfillment...

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This strange and fascinating book is an autobiographical account of the author's brief stint as a worker at an Amazon fulfillment warehouse in Germany, with all the petty indignities and spirit-crushing futility of technologized capitalism rendered in personal terms. What makes the book so unique, though, is how Geissler never offers the reader full access to her interiority: most of the book is told in the second person (it happens to a "you," not an "I") and she capriciously changes aspects of the story on the fly, as she pleases. Is it a memoir? Experimental journalism? A singular book.

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The Outline Trilogy

Rachel Cusk

“These novels are among the most important written in this century so far.” —The Globe and MailRachel Cusk’s ambitious Outline trilogy has received acclaim...

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I finally got into Rachel Cusk this year, just in time for her trilogy to be released in a single volume! These novels, constructed out of chance conversations with strangers, have the crystalline psychological clarity of Elena Ferrante, but her elision of herself as a character (she is merely an "outline," as the title of the first book suggests) and constant skipping between diverse characters and perspectives gives the series a mysteriously elliptical quality. Endlessly fascinating and punctuated with frequent moments of profound insight.

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Who Killed My Father

Edouard Louis

This bracing new nonfiction book by the young superstar Ã?douard Louis is both a searing j’accuse of the viciously entrenched French class system and...

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In Edouard Louis' previous autobiographical novels (or novelistic memoirs), his bigoted working-class father was mainly a villain. In this slim book, he looks for recognition and reconciliation, trying to understand his own queer youth in provincial France by coming to terms with how his father, his body ruined by a life of manual labour, was also a victim of the collapse of the social democracy under French neoliberalism. While his attempt to reframe his father as a figure of working-class oppression in order to indict the hypocrisy of French elites occasionally feels like a direct rewrite of Didier Eribon's Returning to Reims (Eribon was one of his mentors), the polemic is well-timed: people like Louis' father are currently sporting yellow vests in the streets of France in the largest general strike in decades. 
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Natasha Stagg

Essays and stories on fashion, art, and culture in the New York of the 2010s.We were supposed to meet Rose McGowan at Café d'Alsace...

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Natasha Stagg is a regular contributor to various art magazines and cultural journals (Spike Art Quarterly, Texte zur Kunst, n+1, DIS, Affadavit, and others) and works in fashion and branding as a day job. This volume collects various pieces (fiction and non) on style, celebrity, sex, and art while offering an aslant perspective on the punishing, precarious conditions of life in the hyper-gentrified New York of the last decade. A kind of Chris Kraus disciple for the Instagram era, Stagg's auto-criticism is just cynical enough to survey the toxicity of her social field without completely internalizing its mores.

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk

"Extraordinary. Tokarczuk's novel is funny, vivid, dangerous, and disturbing, and it raises some fierce questions about human behavior. My sincere admiration for her brilliant...

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I've had a copy of Tokarczuk's Flights beside my bed since she won the Booker International last year, and I had already pre-ordered Drive Your Plow before the Nobel nomination came in, but I'll admit the award did bump this book to the top of my pile. Its wonderfully eccentric aging protagonist, a woman living in a remote Polish village who passes her time calculating horoscopes and translating Blake with her young protegé, witnesses a series of deaths and becomes convinced that animals are taking vengeance against local hunters. Occasionally recalling J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (in which an aging female protagonist discomfits her family and peers with unwanted yet impassioned lectures on animal rights), this philosophical thriller has made me eager to read all of Tokarczuk's other work.

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The graphic novels I loved most this year were also all autobiographical. Julie Delporte's beautiful This Woman's Work, her third (and possibly best) book, impressionistically renders the life of the artist as a young woman, hovering around the quandaries of whether to have a child and how to earn a living, with references to Moomin creator Tove Jansson (who the book was initially planned to be about).

Daria Bogdanska's excellent debut, Wage Slaves, recalls the punk-autobio comics of Julie Doucet and Walter Scott as it narrates the struggles of an art-school immigrant in Sweden trying to unionize her under-the-table job at an Indian restaurant. An artist to watch!

All the characters in James Sturm's Off Season are dogs (or look like them), but his poignant, slice-of-life story about a crumbling marriage set during the 2016 election (with a Bernie-supporting husband pitted against his pro-Hillary wife) is delivered with such finely observed realism it's almost painful to read.

Keillor Roberts' Rat Time is the fourth collection of her beguilingly affectless comics about being a bipolar artist-parent and I'm continually compelled by how perfectly her visual style matches her anecdotal storytelling.

My favourite comics of this year, though (in fact, the last several years running) are the ones that Jaakko Pallasvuo posts on his Instagram. I'd say that somebody should publish a book of them, but he already made a comic about that.

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Cesar Aira

Soon enough you realize that you are no longer twenty years old, because right away you are no longer young ... and by the...

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On Contemporary Art

César Aira

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Cesar Aira

Artforum is certainly one of César Aira’s most charming, quirky, and funny books to date. Consisting of a series of interrelated stories about his...

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I also read not one, not two, but three books this year by the Argentinean César Aira, one of my favourite living authors. (It helped that they were all short, as his books tend to be). Technically a collection of short stories but more like a series of personal ruminations, Birthday finds Aira pondering the passage of time as he marks his fiftieth birthday; On Contemporary Art is a lecture that Aira gave in 2010, in which he offers a characteristically quixotic theory of art that's too delightful to ask whether or not it's accurate; Artforum, another anthology of short pieces (officially released next year), follows Aira's obsession with the art world's most authoritative magazine, and his misadventures (some charmingly quotidian, some outright surreal) pursuing copies of the beloved object.  

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Nothing Fancy

Alison Roman

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • It’s not entertaining. It’s having people over. The social media star, New York Times columnist, and author of Dining...

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Lateral Cooking

Niki Segnit

A groundbreaking handbook--the "method" companion to its critically acclaimed predecessor,The Flavor Thesaurus--with a foreword by Yotam Ottolenghi.Niki Segnit used to follow recipes to the...

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Hetty McKinnon

This beautifully illustrated vegetarian cookbook by bestselling author Hetty McKinnon features modern, easy, and healthy recipes for a new generation of families.Dreaming up flavorful...

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Here's a handful of cookbooks that have wowed me this year. Like everyone else, I'm enamored with New York Times and Bon Appetit columnist Alison Roman, and her new book, Nothing Fancy, delivers a great assortment of unpretentious recipes for gatherings (or just yourself).

Lateral Cooking is the new book from Niki Segnit, author of the indispensible Flavour Thesaurus. This book attempts to do for technique what her previous one did for flavour combination: it offers an array of methods and explains how each only requires minor tweaks in order to realize countless different kinds of dishes. Perfect for detail-oriented kitchen nerds like myself.

Finally, Hetty McKinnon's Family delivers exactly the kind of hearty vegetarian comfort food that we cook most in my house: a new classic! 

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Everything is Relevant

Ken Lum, Kitty Scott

Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life, 1991-2018 brings together texts by Canadian artist Ken Lum. They include a letter to an editor,...

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As 2020 approaches, I'm looking forward to hand-selling this excellent collection of writings (out in January) by one of Canada's most justly celebrated artists, Ken Lum -- also the first book to be published by the nascent Concordia University Press. For more details, check out my forthcoming review in C magazine!

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Finally, every year there's always a list of books I want to read and haven't got to yet. With any luck, I'll manage to finish a few of these titles before 2019 comes to an end...

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Jodi Dean

When people say “comrade,” they change the worldIn the twentieth century, millions of people across the globe addressed each other as “comrade.” Now, among...

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Lost Children Archive

Valeria Luiselli

"Impossibly smart, full of beauty, heart and insight . . . Everyone should read this book."--Tommy OrangeFrom the two-time NBCC Finalist, an emotionally resonant,...

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The Man Who Saw Everything

Deborah Levy

Longlisted for the 2019 Booker PrizeAn electrifying and audacious novel about beauty, envy, and carelessness by Deborah Levy, two-time Man Booker Prize finalist.It is...

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Benjamin Moser

One of the New York Times’ 17 New Books to Watch For in September One of the Washington Post’s Ten Books to Read this...

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Essays One

Lydia Davis

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Trick Mirror

Jia Tolentino

A breakout writer at The New Yorker examines the fractures at the center of contemporary culture with verve, deftness, and intellectual ferocity—for readers who’ve...

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