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Optic Nerve

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  2,959 ratings  ·  505 reviews
The narrator of Optic Nerve is an Argentinian woman whose obsession is art. The story of her life is the story of the paintings, and painters, who matter to her. Her intimate, digressive voice guides us through a gallery of moments that have touched her.

In these pages, El Greco visits the Sistine Chapel and is appalled by Michelangelo’s bodies. The mystery of Rothko's refu
Kindle Edition, 208 pages
Published April 9th 2019 by Catapult (first published June 26th 2014)
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Average rating 3.94  · 
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 ·  2,959 ratings  ·  505 reviews

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lark benobi
Apr 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who love reading Álvaro Enrigue and Alice Munro
From the first page, I was immediately and intensely endeared to the narrator of Optic Nerve. I would follow this narrator on any reading journey, wherever she would lead me, because the places she leads me, sentence by sentence and chapter by chapter, are unexpected, wonderful, startling, and humane.

The chapters hang together loosely. There is no plot to speak of. And yet the pieces and digressions come together again and again to become something whole and true.

The novel situates you in the m
May 23, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art, argentinian
This was fascinating. It's called a novel but it's its own genre really. The first-person narrator reads so true you'd swear it's memoir.

That narrator has studied art and each chapter features an artist or artwork that she explains, mixed with some literary quote and ongoing personal reflection. What plot there is is piecemeal.

A neat little summary from me is impossible and a larger exposition would ruin it for you. And you should read this.

But let me share some of the paintings that are feature
“Good, bad, what kind of gauge is that?” says Matías. “Either one likes a thing, or one does not. That is all. Now, get your lips around this mint julep and try telling me it isn’t art.”

Optic Nerve is a tricky book to categorise. Comprised of personal reflections narrated by an author-stand-in, it’s tempting to use the term autofiction. But in lieu of a plot, there are briskly-written digressions into art history—including potted biographies of big names like Rothko or Toulouse Lautrec—which sub
Jerrie (redwritinghood)
Apr 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is the second book that I finished today that I would call weird and wonderful. The narrator relates episodes from her life through various works of art and the stories of the artists. Wonderful writing about art and life, in general. My only complaint is that I would have liked the parts to be more coherent and fit together more logically. As what might be called experimental fiction, however, this is one of the better examples.
This book should have done so much more for me than it actually did.  I'm a bit of an art history geek, so autofiction about an art geek musing on various paintings sounded like it was going to be a dream, but I think the execution left a lot to be desired.  I found the art history lessons engrossing, as expected, but Maria Gainza's life (or the life of her fictional stand-in, I guess) never really dovetailed into her art lessons to form a cohesive narrative.  This ultimately felt a bit disjoint ...more
Feb 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
This novel is shortlisted for the 2020 ToB.

This novel is about a woman, an art historian, an art lover, who is reminiscing about her life. As an art lover, much of this reminiscing revolves around her favourite painters and anecdotes from their lives.

There is no plot, but this novel is far from boring, in fact it is hard to put down once you start.

The anecdotes and tales are told in no particular order, one story about a painter may lead to some completely different memory from the woman’s past
Jan 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I was initially torn between a 4 or 5 star rating. In the end, this is such a little gem of a novel that I simply had to give it the max. Special, original - it might not appeal to everyone but I loved it.
Julie Ehlers
Billed as a novel by its publisher, Optic Nerve reads more like a series of personal essays, each of which focuses on a different painting and its artist. Interwoven with the tales of the artists are episodes from the narrator's life and the lives of people she knows. It's a short book and it doesn't sound like much, but I'm a novice when it comes to fine art and I loved having a reason to learn more about it. I also liked the voice of the narrator and felt that her personality, while somewhat e ...more
Feb 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Is it a novel? Or maybe short stories? Auto-fiction? Personal essays? At the end of Optic Nerve, I still wasn’t sure what exactly it was I’d read, but it didn’t make it any less engraving. For want of a more accurate descriptor, this book is a meditative tour through a series of artworks, both well-known and not so. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this alongside my exploration of the referenced art online. I’m not always especially moved by visual art, but the way that Gainza locat ...more
52 Weeks of Women of Color
2020 Tournament of Books

"Everything is a story." Art is a mirror reflecting life off its surface.

Please do not approach Optic Nerve as a simple novel where the reader is led from one plot point to the next. Instead, envision a narrative in which art rather than being a mere recording of historical events, serves as an impassioned plea for individual stories to be heard.

Gainza admits that Optic Nerve is in part her story with bits of her life adding color to the pag
May 02, 2020 rated it liked it
[3.5 stars]

This book is an unusual mix of non-fiction essays/histories of artists through the ages and a sort of meta-fictional memoir of a woman who is affected by these artists and how they tie into her life in various moments or experiences. It's unclear if the "I" of the stories is Gainza herself, a fictionalized version, or just totally made up. But it reads quite like a memoir and the weaving between the narrator's stories and those of the artists is seamless. I do think this is book would
Anna Luce
Apr 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: art lovers
★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

“I am a woman hovering at the midpoint of life, but I still haven’t lost my touch completely: it is within my power, for instance, to flit from the Schiavoni painting in the National Museum of Fine Arts to the Miguel Carlos Victorica they hold in the Sívori Gallery. In other words, to make the shift from childhood to old age in an instant. ”

A series of interesting vignettes that juxtapose the lives of famed and lesser-known artists to the experiences of the people in our narrator'
Katia N
Mar 21, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a bit unusual, but successful piece of auto-fiction from Argentina. The author is the art critic. The book blends the reflections of her alter-ego's personal life with the fragments about the artists and paintings. I found her perception of art fascinating, really thrilling sometimes. Her knowledge seems to be boundless and she brings the artists alive in a very economic, but self-sufficient fragments which are never trivial. I liked it especially when she talked about the Argentinian ar ...more
Anita Pomerantz
Jan 19, 2020 rated it liked it
This book had so much potential. I loved the idea of it. An art lover in Buenos Aires reveals aspects of her own life through her relationship to art. Her story is interwoven with anecdotal tales of the artists that are meaningful to her.

I just finished, and really wavered between 3 and 4 stars, but in the end had to settle upon three.

My art background is nil, but I actually loved the anecdotal stories about the artists. It would have been great if the book had been illustrated, but it didn't r
Katie Long
Feb 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
As many have noted, this takes a form that is hard to pin down. Classified as a novel by the publisher, at times it feels like an essay collection, a memoir, and a short story collection, but never really does it feel like a novel. I suppose that doesn’t matter when I enjoyed it so much. In each chapter, Gainza writes of an artist whose story in some way paralells a story from the narrator, Maria’s, life (which are often drawn from Gainza’s own experiences). It’s in the clear and observant way M ...more
What a great little book from Argentinian author and art historian Maria Gainza. It was hard to classify this one; is it fiction, auto-fiction, an art history lesson ? For me it was a delightful little jaunt around some famous (and not so famous) paintings and how they can resonate with events in your own life. It’s a unique discourse on the art of seeing and along the way you get some intriguing details on the lives of Rothko, El Greco, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gastave Courbet and many others.
Thanks t
Feb 04, 2020 rated it liked it
The most interesting and engaging portions of this collection are focused on discussions of particular artists, the works they created, and the lives they lived. Following in close second place are tales of the colorful, kooky famiy members and friends of the author. All combined these make up quite a cast of characters and I enjoyed learning about them.

Sadly, I was not so interested in Maria Gainza herself. Although the book appears to be an invitation to peer deeper into what makes her tick, s
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Here's one from the Tournament of Books shortlist, a debut novel from an Argentinian art critic translated to English. Each chapter uses an artist that connects to an event in the narrator's life, which makes it feel more like memoir in essay but it is categorized as fiction. I am a person who has always struggled with ekphrastic poetry but in longer form, it really worked for me, even though it took forever to read because I had to look up all the artwork. Surprising and different.

Catapult sent
Alison Hardtmann
Jan 20, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: library-book
Before I became pregnant I could be very persuasive, I'd do anything (anything) to get my way, but lately all of my husband's replies had been starting with the word "no."

This novel centers on a woman's life, through the paintings that she loves. Each chapter recounts one aspect of her life; an event, a friend, a character trait, interwoven with her encounter with a piece of art and some details of the artist's life.

. . . Santiago had given me an autobiography to read, and he was planning on br
Inderjit Sanghera
May 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Gainza takes is through a kaleidoscope of different painters, each colouring a different part of her past; the intense colouration of Rothko reflected in the issues to her eyesight which cause her to see the world in a different, cerebral, almost intense light, the lachrymose and-in the eyes of other people- grotesque Toulouse-Lautrec a reminder of her ephemeral relationship with a student Japanese girl and the wild, untamed seascapes of Courbet of her equally wild and tragic cousin. In this exq ...more
Jun 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I think the translator did a wonderful job putting Gainza’s words into English. So major kudos to Thomas Bunstead for his work.

I am not big on comparisons, but Gainza’s work reminds me of Mary Gaitskill, whose work I enjoy. I hope that Catapult options more of Gainza’s work and publishes it in English.

The main character of this story has an eye for art and she describes her adventures to see certain works.

What moved me the most about this story is that I know how the character feels. The first
Feb 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
From the 2020 Tournament of Books, a fascinating novel from Argentina about a woman who is deeply involved with art, art history and the visual arts' role in our lives. I'm not an art person or even that visual, but I love reading fiction where I learn things, so I enjoyed looking up the paintings our protagonist talks about being affected by and learning about the artists. A short, different novel that goes down easy and leaves a pleasant after-taste. :-) ...more
Robert Blumenthal
May 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was barely a novel, more of a set of essays about how art can influence our lives. In each chapter, the author tells a bit about the life of our narrator, a middle-aged woman living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We do learn a bit about her--her marriage, her friends, her connection to art. It is far from linear and much more episodic.

That being said, the writing and translation are very good. Lacking a strong narrative drive, the information into events in artists' lives and how they int
Feb 16, 2020 rated it liked it
Short stories... 🙄
Jan 29, 2020 added it

Nope. Not going to waste my time on another plotless book more interested in ruminating deeply into obscure works of art.
Bradford Philen
May 17, 2019 rated it it was ok
I really wanted to get into this book, but just couldn’t. The references to the art work and the art history was interesting, but I couldn’t get into the narrative or connect with the protagonist.
Jun 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
I am rounding this up to four stars having read the praising reviews of some other goodreaders who I respect. I had chosen this book as a most anticipated early in the year and I think this was a case where my expectations were different than what I read, so I felt a little disappointed. The idea of using essay like discussions of specific artworks to help illuminate the main idea sounded wonderful to me. The episodes did not jell into a whole for me however, and the result felt more like a coll ...more
This book is a marvel! So happy that it was selected for the Tournament of Books; otherwise I'd have missed out on it. There's no linear plot in this novel at all. It's more akin to ruminations by the narrator on various events in her life and on paintings and artists that have meant something to her. But I was blown away by the narrator's depth of feeling and perceptiveness about life and art, her family and humanity. The novel requires an internet window at hand to research the artists and wor ...more
“I felt like running to the little girl in the picture and throwing my arms around her. I know, I know, this is about as far from hard-nosed criticism as you can get, but isn’t all artwork-or all decent art-a mirror? Might a great painting not even reformulate the question what is it about to what I am about? Isn’t theory also in some sense always autobiography?”

This was an interesting book. Is it a memoir? Essays on art history? Or is it, as it claims on the front cover, a novel? I failed to fi
Jessica (thebluestocking)
I enjoyed parts of this autobiographical fiction tale. The individual tidbits were interesting, centering around art history and tying in with a piece of Maria’s story. But I did not think they added up to more than the sum of the parts. Also, I think audio was probably not the best format for this, as it made looking up the artists and art infeasible.

#tob2020 #tob #tob20
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Tournament of Books: Semi-Finals and Zombies 79 136 Oct 30, 2020 08:45PM  
Tournament of Books: Optic Nerve 23 141 Feb 19, 2020 09:26PM  
Goodreads Librari...: Optic Nerve English edition needs English description 3 224 Sep 12, 2018 11:25AM  

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María Gainza nasceu em Buenos Aires, na Argentina, onde foi correspondente do The New York Times e da ArtNews. Por mais de dez anos colaborou regularmente com a revista Artforum e o suplemento Radar do jornal diário Página/12. Orientou cursos para artistas e ateliers de crítica de arte, e foi coeditora da coleção Los Sentidos sobre pintura argentina. Em 2011 publicou Textos Elegidos, uma seleção d ...more

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“Isn’t all artwork—or all decent art—a mirror? Might a great painting not even reformulate the question what is it about to what am I about? Isn’t theory also in some sense always autobiography?” 5 likes
“I never used to resort to quotations very much but in these past months I have read like a convict—yes, a convict, that’s the word. I have also realized that being good with quotations means avoiding having to think for oneself.” 4 likes
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