Some Great Books

Book Review
Some Great Books by Paul D'Agostino

I didn’t have a mandate to compile anything along the lines of a ‘Best Books of the Year’ list, so I didn’t. There are plenty of those out there already anyway. Some even feature hundreds of titles. Hundreds! The restraint is impressive.

Nevertheless, I’d be remiss if I didn’t spread the word a bit about some books I really did relish reading this year, so what follows is a short list of standout titles and a few words about each. Limiting my picks to 12 – plus a couple brief extras I couldn’t resist folding into the mix – seemed logical enough, and they appear here in no particular order. My selections run a gamut and include fiction, nonfiction, essays, critical theory, humor, architecture, art, material history, and a charmingly assembled byproduct of social media. Additionally, several of the titles are books in translation, and ‘excellent syllabus material’ for various types of courses, especially interdisciplinary ones, would be a viable subcategory for nearly everything included here.

Most of these volumes were published in the past twelve months, but a few are stamped with last or next year. More importantly, they’re all very good and worth looking into if my synopses intrigue you even slightly.

Happy reading, and happy further reading. And maybe, happy syllabus prep or happy gifting.

On that note, happy holidays, too, and happy New Year. Keep it all copacetic, if you can.



Ariel Dorfman, The Suicide Museum

Other Press

A compellingly reality-warping feat of narrative imagination, The Suicide Museum opens with a series of epigraphic quotes to set the stage, among which one of the most succinct proves to be the most curiously apt. It comes from Novalis: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” Ponder that for a moment, then dig in and let this unique blend of mystery-infused reality and fiction engulf you entirely. Predicated upon a peculiar research commission related to questions surrounding the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende during the 1973 coup – an event that ushered in 17 years of brutal dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, and one in which years of US intervention in Chile beforehand proved to be of more than minor consequence – The Suicide Museum is a personal yet also explosive narrative, eclectic and dynamic, that marches back and forth in historical contexts while posing gripping questions about the vicissitudinous textures of truth. Keep that Novalis quote in mind. You’ll keep coming back to it as this copious novel about politics, identity, ideology, accountability, knowledge, and historical lacunae rises up all around you.



Izumi Suzuki, Hit Parade of Tears, translated by Sam Bett, David Boyd, Helen O’Horan, and Daniel Joseph

Verso Books

Izumi Suzuki is considered by many to have been far ahead of her time as a writer of fantasy and science fiction – and to have lived far too brief a life, and to have remained under the radar for far too long. Providing a corrective to the latter, the delightfully bizarre and time-defyingly fresh stories gathered in Hit Parade of Tears are amusing and confounding conflations of somewhat straightforward and wholly inventive narrative modes in which people, people-like characters, and non-people-like presences appear and disappear, travel through time, change names and shapes, and talk to and around one another in ways that would be outrageously baffling if they weren’t also made so plain and mundane, and if there weren’t such an endearing strain of curious apathy among the protagonists even in thoroughly dramatic, at times tragic moments. Suzuki’s stories are funny, dark, bittersweet, and luminous. Kudos to Verso and the team of translators for their efforts to make this unique author’s words and legacy more diffuse.



Mario Fortunato, South, translated by Julia MacGibbon

Other Press

You know you’re digging into a sprawling, absorbing narrative when a book’s opening eight pages feature detailed genealogy trees filled with names and timelines of families, extended families, non-familial affiliations, and members of various households spanning several generations and centuries. Such an admixture of vastness and specificity characterizes much of Fortunato’s South, a notably 19th-century-inflected novel that deploys a fluidly roundabout way to tell the story, or stratified stories, of the manifold destinies of a number of southern Italian families, all set against the turbulent history of 20th-century Italy. An additional point of intrigue in all this is due to the particular tenor of the narrator’s generally omniscient, yet also curiously self-aware, mode of unfolding this expansive tale. The same voice that rather journalistically recounts, as backdrop, selected national and international goings-on is also the one that zooms all the way in to marvel, within the mind and heart of a certain Tamara, at the humble sweetness of how another character, something a general-purpose household assistant referred to as Luigi-known-as-Sciammerga, writes down exactly three adjectives, “in a crescendo of gustatory enthusiasm”, alongside each of the food items he purchases daily at local markets. Aside from the many endearing and wholly delineated characters, the novel’s broad narrative sweep is a pleasure in its own right. Translator Julia MacGibbon furnishes a lucid rendering of Fortunato’s prose, and South is the widely published writer’s first novel to appear in English.



András Szántó, Imagining the Future Museum: 21 Dialogues with Architects

Hatje Cantz

Imagining the Future Museum: 21 Dialogues with Architects is Szántó’s follow-up to his 2020 book, The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues, in which the polymathic cultural producer spoke with an international cohort of museum directors about their creative visions and, ideally, ever-more inclusive and community-engaged programming goals for the coming years. In this new volume, Szántó presents 21 conversations with 25 architects to consider how similar ideals might begin to materialize or promise sustainable adaptability even before ground is broken – if indeed there’s any ground to speak of, as a number of the discussions delve into ideas for virtual museum spaces as well. In a sense, Szántó’s overall quite similar questions posed to each of his interlocutors should make the dialogues seem a bit repetitive. Yet what results is a volume of exchanges that’s far more interesting and edifying in its full scope than it might otherwise be, for as a reader, you come away with a host of expert voices echoing ideas about how a great variety of structural configurations might make museums more open, engaging, and necessary, and less rigid, cloistered, and contingent. There’s plenty here that’s predictable but also novel, and with which you’ll agree and disagree, and all this makes it all a better read. As a bonus, the book also features fetching images of the architects’ sketches, proposal renderings, and realized projects. One of my favorite questions Szántó consistently poses prompts the architects to define museums in their own terms. Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi responds with brevity, profundity, and aplomb: “I think a museum is an environment that holds history, promotes the present, and sees the future.”



W. Michelle Wang, Eternalized Fragments: Reclaiming Aesthetics in Contemporary World Fiction

Ohio State University Press

It might seem axiomatic to posit that the extent to which we enjoy or appreciate forms and subjects when engaging with literature is tethered, on some level, to the extent to which a given text’s aesthetic qualities are what we’re appreciating. In throughly compelling and at times surprising ways, Eternalized Fragments does a fine job of elucidating how literary appreciation in this context both is and isn’t quite so simple, or at least not quite so circular. Wang’s disciplines of research, in addition to comparative literature, include cognitive science, psychology, neurology, and philosophy, and they all factor confluently into this intricately woven exploration of how taking pleasure in literature pertains to notions of beauty, ethics, and the sublime, and of how literary enjoyment can be synoptically linked to sparking and stretching the imagination in novel ways – as opposed to convoluting or problematizing imaginative modes, which some scholars see as a feature function of less aesthetically-pitched postmodern literature. I was enthusiastic to read this book on the strength of Wang’s authors of focus, so perhaps that’ll suffice for you as well. They include Italo Calvino, Jeanette Winterson, Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Arundhati Roy, Jennifer Egan, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, among others.



Sophia Giovannitti, Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex

Verso Books

The title of this remarkably intelligent, timely book might lead one to assume that it’s charged, subjectively critical, provocative. And it is, yet what it’s charged with is candor and emotion; in its critique, it’s as informed as can be, as well as measured, researched, and buttressed with ample experience and anecdote; and its mode of provocation is not one of shock value, but rather of complicating discourses by addressing them from multiple angles, such that provocative observations register as profoundly thought-provoking. As a sex worker and performance artist, as well as a gifted writer and agile intellectual, Giovannitti is uniquely positioned to expose the layers of exploitation and relative advantage that pervade the sex and art industries alike, and uniquely capable of deconstructing them to examine their commonalities. In this area of overlap, creativity and intimacy become commodity; interactions and relationships, ever questionably authentic, become transactional; bodies and emotions become matters of temporary exchange, and not always without the consequence of scarring. Giovannitti’s ranging yet consistently coherent discussion becomes even more resonant when it turns to questions of labor, compensation, and dependency in a more general sense, unraveling the ways in which work affects personal relationships in terms of resources, energy, and time. There’s even room here to provoke thoughts on love. Working Girl is incisive, insightful, and important.



Megan Baxter, Twenty Square Feet of Skin

Mad Creek Books / Ohio State University Press

There’s something about an exceptionally excellent collection of essays that makes you wish you could make it instantly appear before the eyes of fellow bibliophiles far and wide, especially those with whom you enjoy discussing books. Collections like these share something with, say, particularly wonderful history or science books, where you do everything you can to maintain active cognitive access to the composite information of every chapter, and where you sincerely wish you could do the same with three or four astounding facts, juicy anecdotes, or breathtaking passages extracted from each page. You know, the kind of book where you have to decide to never underline anything, else you’d end up underlining everything. Well, Megan Baxter’s Twenty Square Feet of Skin is just such a collection. I trust the title alone might’ve already ensnared your attention, as it did for me before I’d read the book, and I’m glad to report that sharing its point of reference is no spoiler at all, as it’s something Baxter imparts on the first page of the first essay, “A Deliberate Thing I Once Said to My Skin”: “The average adult lives within twenty square feet of skin, roughly the size of a large baby blanket, although shaped, of course, not like a blanket but like a human. A big canvas.” In this one chapter, in what you’ll soon come to identify as Baxter’s trademark elegant, poetic, intermittently digressive, consistently fresh and immersive prose, the author writes about the skin as an organ and intermediary of pain; about tattoos as documents, artwork, seasons, and wounds; about Byzantine Emperor Theophilos, Walt Whitman, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; and about mystics, relics, and “the distinctive hurricanes of our fingerprints.” In subsequent chapters, all of which are this interdisciplinary and rich, Baxter writes about aging, running, obsession, surgery, cooking, dog training, childhood reveries, CrossFit, life drawing, and gardening, referencing along the way Don Johnson, Lewis and Clark, Andrew Wyeth, Steve Nash, and Prince, among others – with many more cameos by the Bard of Democracy. In this splendid collection that’s a marvel of focus and thematic sprawl, Baxter writes about many things while always writing about, around, within, and through the lens of the body – as mediated by the sieve of the skin.



Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Aesthetics: Pasolini on Painting, edited and translated by Ara H. Merjian and Alessandro Giammei

Verso Books

Singular visionary and breaker of rules, intellectual and anti-intellectual, iconophile and iconoclast, person of deep faith and alleged heretic, and creative polymath whose range of pursuits would likely have been even broader if he hadn’t been murdered, in 1975, at just 53 years of age, Pasolini is known primarily as a director of a number of widely acclaimed, often controversial films including Accattone, Mamma Roma, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Decameron, and Salò. But Pasolini was also a poet, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, cultural critic, and fervent political activist. Most true fans of Pasolini know that much about him, but even among them, he’s not very well known as a painter and art writer as well, practices he sustained for decades alongside everything else – and in similarly aesthetically peculiar, at times contradictory ways. Indeed, peculiarity and contradiction are inherent to much of Pasolini’s multivalent output, distinguishing characteristics marking his distinct type of genius. In his artwork, this becomes manifest as he reckons with figurative painting, abstraction, multi-media approaches, and meditations on Modernism. In his art criticism, this manifests as a tendency to write about Renaissance masters and his peers and contemporaries in the same contexts, at times rather questionably, in prose and poetry alike – and frequently filtered through his own painterly predilections, which makes for novel insights, often, but also occasionally awkward criticism. And yet, customary evenness wasn’t really ever among Pasolini’s interests, and the strangeness of Pasolini’s aesthetic and art historical commentary is what makes this collection of writings, previously unavailable in English, such a rich trove of thoughts. Merjian and Giammei have done excellent work here as editors and translators, and their book features also a lengthy introductory essay of their own, a foreword by T.J. Clark, and a number of images of Pasolini’s artwork juxtaposed with works by those he looked to, worked alongside, and wrote about: Caravaggio, Romanino, Guttoso, Scialoja, Morandi, Piero, Zigaina, Tornabuoni, and Warhol, among others. Like certain scenes in Pasolini’s films, a certain image in Heretical Aesthetics, a photograph of Giacomo Manzu’s bronze sculpture David, will remain deeply embedded in your mind, as will Pasolini’s brief 1942 poem that is a trenchant ode to it.



Lauren MacDonald, In Pursuit of Color – From Fungi to Fossil Fuels: Uncovering the Origins of the World’s Most Famous Dyes

Atelier Éditions – d.a.p

Macdonald is an author, anthropologist, multidisciplinary artist, and designer with a background in textile science, fashion, and material culture, as well as the founder of a London-based textiles studio called Working Cloth. She brings all such experience and fields of expertise to bear in this marvelous, creatively conceived, and exquisitely executed volume that more than lives up to its ambitious extended title. Erudite and deeply researched, In Pursuit of Color is an account of various material histories through the lens of dyeing practices, as well as a field guide, a scientific compendium, an instructional manual, and a meditation on labor practices and the environmental impact of textile production. That seems like a lot to pack into about 250 pages. Indeed it is a lot. But it’s all there, ordered and elegant, and embellished with a vast array of illustrations, photographs, and specimen portraits. And if all that weren’t enough to stimulate your senses and satisfy your curiosities, the book also includes a slender standalone manual, Dying Principles and Procedures – neatly tucked into a flap inside the back cover – that distills and details select information treated more expansively in the book. In Pursuit of Color merits accolades as an excellent, informative book that’s both scholarly and accessible, and as a uniquely constructed creative achievement.



Fredric Jameson, Inventions of a Present: The Novel in its Crisis of Globalization

Verso Books

Cultural critic, political theorist, and philosopher Fredric Jameson has been writing about literature, ideology, and globalism, largely vis-à-vis the fractured understandings of individual subjectivity and communal identity associated with postmodern discourse, for over half a century now. In that time, he’s given readers – fans and detractors alike – a wealth of material to reckon with, most notably in books such as The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, and The Antinomies of Realism. In these and other books, and in the survey-type series of essays presented now in Inventions of a Present, Jameson examines the production, consumption, and aesthetic formations of literature as reflective of social commonalities – expressions of collectivity, shared identities, nationalisms, cosmopolitanisms, and capitalist globalisms. Yet within such increasingly stratified, potentially fragmented contexts, it isn’t always a cheerful time for individuals. An early essay in this new collection, “Allegories of the Hunter”, first published in 1972, explores power relations and notions of “genuine political literature” in James Dickey’s Deliverance and Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? In “Language and Conspiracy in DeLillo and Yurick”, from 1984, Jameson describes how characters in these authors’ works, rather than emblematic of some type of greater social entity into which they might be traditionally inserted, register as isolated subjects only marginally affected, at least narratively, by distant goings-on. An especially intriguing chapter in this collection, not least because it’s a somewhat different type of narrative vastness for Jameson to navigate, is “The Autonomous Work of Art: Utopian Plot-Formation in The Wire”. Here, Jameson probes the ideologically suggestive underpinnings of storylines from various seasons of this much beloved TV series to situate aspects of ‘idealized’ hyperlocalities – microcosmic senses of political or physical belonging in which ‘ideal’ might mean ‘merely ideated’, and the ‘utopia’ in question is indeed a ‘merely imagined’ non-place. All of that, of course, is situated within a gritty world of compounded struggles for influence, institutional skullduggery, and manifold flashpoints of aggression. The 19 essays in Inventions of a Present tap into literature and other cultural products from the past 50 years and then some, yielding abundantly chunky nuggets of Jamesonian thought for you to reckon with and chew on.



Helen Ellis, Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge

Doubleday / Penguin

Notions of target audiences might be of relative importance for publishing and marketing, and some readers might feel it’s important to be in one before considering digging into a book directed at one. But it’s not something I care to think about too much. The way I see it, you might know very well what you do like, but you never fully know what else you might like. Also, it’s often enough that something you’re convinced you will like, that really checks all your boxes, just lets you down. All of which is to say that, if there is a target audience for Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge, it’s pretty much the diametric opposite of me. But I read it anyway, and I couldn’t be happier that I did. It really only required diving into the first couple essays, “My Husband Snores and Yours Will Too” and “An Email to Our Cat Sitter”, to hook me into reading half of the book in one sitting. Earwax and Covid-19 make consequential bookends in the former. In the latter, the cats’ feeding and litter box antics are as relatable and hilarious as the letter’s meticulously detailed instructions and warnings. In other chapters, Ellis talks about watching Dynasty, becoming a plant person, collecting art, holding grudges for others, staying happily married, and the utilities of a “Red Lobster Approach” and an “Egg Salad Method” when it comes to discussing touchy subjects. Everything is humorous and heartfelt, clever and witty, insightful and touching. Ellis’s prose effuses genuine charm, and her comic timing is impeccable. There’s basically nothing to not like, whether you’re in Ellis’s target audience or not. You might even consider painting your walls coral.



Seeing Things, ed. Julian Rothenstein

Redstone Press

Culling together dozens upon dozens of interesting images and captions from Instagram posts is not exactly a novel book concept, but it’s almost never not at least a pretty good one. In the case of Seeing Things, it’s a particularly great one, thanks primarily to its astute editing and roster of contributors, which so happens to include Cornelia Parker, David Byrne, Roz Chast, Rachel Whiteread, William Kentridge, Nicole Eisenman, Neil Gaiman, Hari Kunzru, Jarvis Cocker, Peter Doig, Garth Greenwell, and Aveek Sen, among others. The list is long and stacked, and it includes a range of artists, writers, musicians, and other creative agents. Rothenstein’s cleverly assembled volume organizes entries by thematic chapters rather than by individual contributors, giving the book a sense of structure and aesthetic rhythm; Parker provides a lovey foreword; and writer Charles Boyle contributes a number of new texts that enhance the thematic grip of each section. And it’s all beautifully designed and laid out, from fonts to paper bond – and within the world of this book that glimpses into so many creative worlds, virtually nothing is wrong. Seeing Things brims with images of and captions about old books, found poetry, urban detritus, roadside allure, natural splendors, amusing juxtapositions, vintage ephemera, instances of pareidolia, circumstantial installations, and much else besides – you know, the kinds of things you, your friends, and your followers probably share on social media as well. And so, Seeing Things might well give you some pretty good book ideas of your own. I reckon Rothenstein, et. al. wouldn’t mind that at all. Nota bene: Prepare to fall in love, as Kamila Shamsie does, with an especially adorable and charismatic old pickup truck. It’ll at least make you smile, and it might well make your day – as ‘seeing things’ like this often does.





Olga Tokarczuk, “The Knight”, translated by Jennifer Croft

Words Without Borders

Provided any of my synopses above intrigued you at all, you might actually have to go out and buy, order, or in one way or another wait for a book before getting to enjoy it. So I’m including here something you can enjoy immediately, an utterly riveting story by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, nimbly translated by Jennifer Croft. It’s a short narrative, so I shouldn’t say too much about it – but you will feel the air in these rooms, and you will hear the characters’ words and silences, and you will see their movements and nuanced tics. And you might well be inspired to add more works by Tokarczuk to your 2024 reading list.



Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger and Stella Maris

Knopf / Penguin

I mentioned above that I would’ve been remiss to not compile this short list of books I enjoyed reading in the past twelve months. Now that the list exists, I’d be remiss to not include McCarthy’s final two books in it. Essentially a diptych published about six weeks apart near the end of 2022, these novels aren’t necessarily inextricably dependent on one another, but you’ll be rewarded if you just assume they are and read them in sequence. They were the first two books I read in 2023. I’d had them set aside for about a month to treat myself to them starting 1/1. I went on to spend the ensuing week or so miring in a sphere of narrative darkness that’s all but unrelenting – and as overwhelmingly psychological as it is, right from the jump, physical. The kind of darkness where you read a few extra pages before putting the book down in order to avoid letting something you just read furnish the most immediately accessible remnant image in your mind. The kind where you close the book at the end of a session of reading and set it down on the table and just stare at it in silence for a minute, then get up and slowly walk away. Yet there is enormous pleasure to be found in this darkness, thanks not least to the extensive story-within-a-story type of storytelling that welcomes all manner of terse, ostentatious, grave, mysterious, wise, wild, surreal, conspiratorial, scientific, and unhinged voices into the turgid swirl of the narrative at hand, and that gradually builds to a tempest of alt-chronologies, parallel timelines, and broadly far-flung settings spinning out therefrom. There are even certain passages that will make you laugh so heartily that you’ll almost disbelieve they’re in the same book that you were reading a few pages earlier. Which is to say, The Passenger and Stella Maris are one hell of a ride. There’s so much in them that registers with such cinematic vividness that they’ll almost certainly be a film or two, or maybe a season or two of a TV series, sooner or later. The Siblings would be my proposed title. Should any of that conjecture ever amount to reality, you might consider reading this set of novels beforehand. Also, whether or not you’re already a reader of McCarthy, you might consider reading “The Kekulé Problem”, a philosophical essay about language and consciousness the author wrote for the Sante Fe Institute, published several years ago in the journal Nautilus. It’s a curious pleat in the vast and varied tapestry of McCarthy’s prodigious output.

The Kekulé Problem


About the writer: Paul D’Agostino, PhD is an artist, writer, curator, and translator. You can find him on Instagram and Threads @pauldagostinostudio