Hadn’t heard of Dwight Macdonald or his cranky essay “Masscult and Midcult” until I saw the NYRB edition in my local bookshop. Picked it up, didn’t put it down. The title essay here is on middlebrow culture, on how mass culture is not culture at all but a manufactured, predigested product. It was written in a prepostmodern era (if such a thing exists)—no Warhol, no reckoning with Pop Art, etc. Despite its elitist tone, it’s fantastic stuff, very insightful, and if I disagree with a lot of Macdonald’s criticism (his picking on Norman Rockwell is especially mean), I love his methods.
Haven’t gotten to any of the other essays yet, with the exception of his short skewering of Ernest Hemingway. It begins with a parody (below), and ends with a thoughtful rebuttal by George Plimpton. Macdonald doing Hemingway:
Cradle to Grave by Eleanor Kuhns. Publisher’s blurb:
Will Rees is adjusting to life on his Maine farm in 1797, but he’s already hungering for the freedom of the road, and his chance to travel comes sooner than he expects. Lydia has just received a letter from her old friend Mouse, a soft-spoken and gentle woman who now lives in the Shaker community in Mount Unity, New York. To Lydia and Rees’s astonishment, she’s in trouble with the law. She’s kidnapped five children, claiming that their mother, Maggie Whitney, is unfit to care for them.
Despite the wintry weather and icy roads, Rees and Lydia set out for New York, where they sadly conclude that Mouse is probably right and the children would be better off with her. There’s nothing they can do for Mouse legally, though, and they reluctantly set out for home. But before they’ve travelled very far, they receive more startling news: Maggie Whitney has been found murdered, and Mouse is the prime suspect.
In Cradle to Grave, Eleanor Kuhns returns with the clever plotting, atmospheric historical detail, and complexly drawn characters that have delighted fans and critics in her previous books.
The Late Scholar is a new Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mystery. Publisher’s blurb:
When a dispute among the Fellows of St. Severin’s College, Oxford University, reaches a stalemate, Lord Peter Wimsey discovers that as the Duke of Denver he is “the Visitor”—charged with the task of resolving the issue. It is time for Lord Peter and his detective novelist wife, Harriet, to revisit their beloved Oxford, where their long and literate courtship finally culminated in their engagement and marriage.
At first, the dispute seems a simple difference of opinion about a valuable manuscript that some of the Fellows regard as nothing but an insurance liability, which should be sold to finance a speculative purchase of land. The voting is evenly balanced. The Warden would normally cast the deciding vote, but he has disappeared. And when several of the Fellows unexpectedly die as well, Lord Peter and Harriet set off on an investigation to uncover what is really going on at St. Severin’s.
With this return in The Late Scholar to the Oxford of Gaudy Night, which many readers regard as their favorite of Sayers’s original series, Jill Paton Walsh at once revives the wit and brilliant plotting of the Golden Age of detective fiction.
Roxana Robinson’s Sparta is new in trade paperback from Picador. Their blurb:
Conrad Farrell does not come from a military family, but as a classics major at Williams College, he has encountered the powerful appeal of the Marine Corps ethic: Semper Fidelis comes straight from Sparta, a society where every citizen doubled as a full-time soldier. When Conrad graduates, he joins the Marines to continue a long tradition of honor, courage, and commitment over the course of a four-year tour in Iraq. When we meet him, he has just come home to Katonah, New York. As Conrad attempts to find his footing in the civilian world, he learns how hard it is to return to the people and places he used to love. Gradually, he awakens to a growing rage and the realization that something has gone wrong.
Suspenseful, compassionate, and perceptive, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta “is a beautifully written novel that illuminates what happens when we’re estranged from the world as we know it” (Chicago Tribune).
Pierre, Herman Melville’s follow up to Moby-Dick, was, without a doubt, the most challenging, perplexing, befuddling book I read in school. I still don’t get it.
Still, I love Melville, and I love Maurice Sendak, so when I saw this unused copy of the Kraken addition for half-cover price at my favorite local used bookshop, I couldn’t resist.
Sendak’s bawdy illustrations recall William Blake to me—great stuff—although I’ll probably read Moby-Dick or The Confidence Man again before I make time for Pierre.
Read more about this edition of Pierre here.
The recent publication of Bruno Jasieński’s The Legs of Izolda Morgan offers another strong argument that Twisted Spoon Press is publishing some of the most fascinating—and most beautiful—books available today. Clothbound and handsomely printed, Izolda Morgan collects several of Jasieński’s futurist manifestos, an essay, stories, and satires.
Considered the enfant terrible of the Polish avant-garde, lauded by critics and scorned by the public, Bruno Jasieński suddenly declared the end of Futurism in Poland soon after his short “novel” The Legs of Izolda Morgan appeared in 1923. An extraordinary example of Futurist prose, this fantastic tale cautions against the machine supplanting the human while the human body is disaggregated into fetishized constituent parts. As central to Jasieński’s oeuvre, the text is situated here between two seminal manifestoes and the important essay “Polish Futurism,” which signaled the movement’s end in the context of its confused reception in Poland, the towering influence of Mayakovsky, and what set it apart from the futurisms of Italy and Russia. The condensed story “Keys” displays Jasieński’s turn toward satire to lambaste the hypocrisies pervasive in powerful institutions, and this is further developed in the two longer grotesques from his time in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Translated into English from the Russian for the first time, these two late stories expose the nefarious absurdity of racial persecution and warmongering and the lengths social and political structures will go to underpin them.
Roberto Bolaño’s The Insufferable Gaucho, which I’ve sort of saved for a few years—put off isn’t the right phrase, but sort of, knowing it as companion to Last Evenings on Earth, y’know, saved it for later—Roberto Bolaño’s The Insufferable Gaucho is very difficult to photograph. Very shiny.
I got Tamas Panitz’s poems Blue Sun a few weeks ago but didn’t get a chance to get into it until last night. Good stuff—I’ll try to write a proper review in the next week, but until then, here’s Charles Stein’s blurb, via publisher Inpatient Press:
The splitting of historiography into a brash imposition of history as ontology, history as willfully configurative, history as but a wistful desideratum — leaves the archetypal self little choice but to hive in the lucubrations of a poetry questing for self and history. Panitz’ book enacts such a questing. Its voice would be master of its walk to the extent that even in addressing another it might be strictly about its own business: a panoply of poetic measures, variable tactics of order, the exploration of ontological imponderables. The smartness of its utterance throughout is instructive and – something not so common these days – provides a species of written speech that will repay proper study.
Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic is new in trade paperback from Picador.
This (longish) blurb is from the author’s website, where you can also download an excerpt of the book and/or listen to audio of McCann reading from TransAtlantic:
In the National Book Award–winning Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann thrilled readers with a marvelous high-wire act of fiction that The New York Times Book Review called “an emotional tour de force.” Now McCann demonstrates once again why he is one of the most acclaimed and essential authors of his generation with a soaring novel that spans continents, leaps centuries, and unites a cast of deftly rendered characters, both real and imagined.
Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War.
Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave.
New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.
These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.
The most mature work yet from an incomparable storyteller, TransAtlantic is a profound meditation on identity and history in a wide world that grows somehow smaller and more wondrous with each passing year.
Earlier this month, my good friend sent me Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, a book-length interview between Oldham and musician Alan Licht. In the book, Oldham parses his identity from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the character he’s been performing (in different versions) for over a decade now. The book is fascinating stuff and strangely personal/weird for me—reading his oral history is bizarre, I guess, because I remember it all happening. Like, I remember buying the 7″s he talks about making; I remember puzzling over the early Palace LPs, trying to glean meaning from the covers, the personnel. Palace—Oldham—B”P”B—soundtracked so much of my high school and college days that I inevitably had a falling out with him/them/it—or maybe that’s not the right word…what is the term for the emotional intensity we feel toward certain albums, certain records imprinted in the back of our souls? (I used a line from “For the Mekons et al” for my Senior yearbook quote but the fucking yearbook staff fucked it up. But fuck a yearbook anyway). Ease Down the Road was the last Oldham record that I let get to me; intellectually, I realize that the stuff he did after is somehow superior—tighter, richer even—but it couldn’t sink in, I wouldn’t let it sink in, too many too-good memories already there, I don’t know. I saw him on the Superwolf tour; he deepthroated the mic during an R. Kelly cover, and after the show my wife remarked that he would never be welcome as a guest in our home. I thought that seemed harsh. I tried—years later, reading this book—to explain that it was just a character. No dice.
Teju Cole’s Open City is one of my favorite novels of recent years, so I was psyched when Every Day Is for the Thief (which is kinda sorta his latest—it was published nearly a decade ago in Nigeria) showed up in the mail earlier this week. I read the first fifty pages yesterday (about a third of this short book). Thief reads like a memoir-essay, its reportorial style engaged and critical but at times obliquely distant. Our unnamed narrator (surely an iteration of Cole himself) returns “home” to Lagos after fifteen years in New York. Interspersed are Cole’s black and white photographs (echoes of Sebald). Full review to come; for now, publisher Random Houses’ blurb:
A young Nigerian living in New York City goes home to Lagos for a short visit, finding a city both familiar and strange. In a city dense with story, the unnamed narrator moves through a mosaic of life, hoping to find inspiration for his own. He witnesses the “yahoo yahoo” diligently perpetrating email frauds from an Internet café, longs after a mysterious woman reading on a public bus who disembarks and disappears into a bookless crowd, and recalls the tragic fate of an eleven-year-old boy accused of stealing at a local market.
Along the way, the man reconnects with old friends, a former girlfriend, and extended family, taps into the energies of Lagos life—creative, malevolent, ambiguous—and slowly begins to reconcile the profound changes that have taken place in his country and the truth about himself.
In spare, precise prose that sees humanity everywhere, interwoven with original photos by the author, Every Day Is for the Thief—originally published in Nigeria in 2007—is a wholly original work of fiction. This revised and updated edition is the first version of this unique book to be made available outside Africa. You’ve never read a book like Every Day Is for the Thief because no one writes like Teju Cole.
Read the first chapter here.
I’d been wanting to pick up a collection of Grace Paley’s stories for awhile now. I wasn’t sure whether or not to pick up Enormous Changes at the Last Minute or The Little Disturbances of Man, so I just got both. The covers helped convince me, I’ll admit—I’m a sucker for Hopper, and John French Sloan is no slouch either. (I’m tempted here to launch into some vague critique of the covers that books by women get but nah).
I’ve already read most of Enormous Change, ingesting most of the tales while sitting in my car, waiting to pick my kids up after school, which seems like a perfect place to read it. Smart, odd, often sharp, scathing, precise, etc.—great stuff. I’ll try to do a full review but I’ve got a huge backlog. In the meantime, check out “Wants.”
Bhajju Shyam’s The London Jungle Book arrived a few days ago: Beautiful stuff. Full review to come, but blurb for now:
Hailed as a book that reverses the anthropological gaze, ‘The London Jungle Book’ is the personal story of Indian tribal artist Bhajju Shyam’s first encounter with a western city. Revised & fully updated to mark the 10th anniversary of that momentous journey, Bhajju’s rich art and poignant reflections are as relevant today as they ever were.