Books: Eight Scholars, Curators, Writers, and Artists Choose the Year's Outstanding Titles

Artforum International, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Books: Eight Scholars, Curators, Writers, and Artists Choose the Year's Outstanding Titles


"William Finnegan is a gentle masculinist. His prose brings a gorgeous humility to riding impossible mountains of water."--Trey Ellis

TREY ELLIS

To those who don't do it, much of the appeal of surfing--like being a cowboy or an astronaut--is in being seen as a surfer. But then there's William Finnegan, who was an early witness to the surf revolution, from Old Man's at San Onofre, California, to the never-ending wave machine off Waikiki, Hawaii, all before he'd left middle school. In his extraordinary and now Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (Penguin, 2015), Finnegan relates in sharp, complicated, moment-to-moment fullness a half-century of wave riding and thinking about wave riding all around the world and almost always anonymously and out of the public gaze. But what truly elevates this memoir is its introspection. Finnegan, a longtime staff writer and war correspondent for the New Yorker, describes a peripatetic life lived achingly full--yet he remains scrupulously ""full of himself. Men writing about manly pursuits can be treacherous territory, veering into self-aggrandizement. Finnegan, however, is a gentle masculinist. His prose brings a gorgeous humility to riding impossible mountains of water, and to his obsessive, almost desperate need to find answers inside the next barrel, or the next set sweeping in from the horizon.

TREY ELLIS IS A NOVELIST, SCREENWRITER, PLAYWRIGHT, ESSAYIST, AND ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT THE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF THE ARTS. (SEE CONTRIBUTORS.)

JESSICA MORGAN

Picked up at my excellent local bookstore, McNally Jackson (long may it last!), Maja Haderlap's novel Angel of Oblivion (Archipelago; first published by Wallstein Verlag as Engel des Vergessens in 2012) is inflected with a staccato rhythm--a rush of present-tense observation--that reveals the writer to be a poet at heart. Set in the Carinthian countryside, which harbors a lesser-known European history--that of the Slovene-speaking minority in Austria and their resistance to Nazi occupation--Haderlap's first-person story is authored with the intense sensorial recollections of a child. Caught between the earthy, pagan spiritualism of the narrator's grandmother's existence, which would have remained unchanged but for the violence wreaked on her family and their neighbors during the war, and an increasing desire to enter the modern world through education and urbanity (represented by the German language that was also spoken by her parents' and grandparents' oppressors), Haderlap underscores the significance of language and the barrier it presents to forgetting. The book's relevance is its articulation of the long-lasting burden of cultural and semantic chasms that--even generations later--are far from resolved.

JESSICA MORGAN IS THE DIRECTOR OF DIA ART FOUNDATION IN NEW YORK.

LIZ LARNER

Since Joan Didion's Where I Was From (2003) and Richard Rayner's The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California (2008), I'd been wanting to read a book about the development of ideas on nature in America. I found it in Jedediah Purdy's deeply considered and finely laid out After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). To begin reading it is to open and decipher a compressed and encrypted file on a history of ideas about what nature means at the heart of the Anthropocene. Purdy draws on law, letters, philosophy, science, social science, politics, and aesthetics; from Locke, Rousseau, and Burke, through Jefferson, all the way to the recent past of the ecological age's beginnings, the urgent catastrophe of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), and our contemporary moment, after "crisis had become the normal state of affairs," closing with ideas about nature and the posthuman from Rosi Braidotti, among others. Somewhere in between, Purdy manages to give a history of private property--how "each version of nature has its economy. …

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