The Hundred-Year House (Book Acquired, 6.19.2014)

Books

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Wonderful cover on Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, new in hardback from Penguin this summer. Blurb from the author’s site:

When Doug’s mother-in-law offers up the coach house at Laurelfield, her hundred-year-old estate north of Chicago, Doug and his wife Zee accept. Doug is fascinated by the house’s previous life as an artists’ colony, and hopes to find something archival there about the poet Edwin Parfitt, who was in residence at Laurelfield in the twenties (and whose work happens to be Doug’s area of scholarship). When he learns that there are file cabinets full of colony materials in the attic, Doug is anxious to get to work and save his career—but his mother-in-law refuses him access. With help from friends, Doug finally does access the Parfitt file—only to find far stranger and more disturbing material than he bargained for.

Doug may never learn all the house’s secrets, but the reader does, as the narrative zips back in time from 1999 to 1955 and 1929. We see the autumn right after the colony’s demise, when its newlywed owners are more at the mercy of the place’s lingering staff than they could imagine; and we see it as a bustling artists’ community fighting for survival in the last, heady days of the 1920s.

Through it all, the residents of Laurelfield are both plagued and blessed by the strange legacy of Laurelfield’s original owners: extraordinary luck, whether good or bad.

 

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Books Acquired (Second Week of June, 2014)

Books

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Two historicalish fictions.

First, Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain, which is new in trade paperback; the hardback received good reviews last year. Pub’s blurb:

The wonderful new historical novel set in seventeenth-century England from Rose Tremain, author of Restoration (shortlisted for the Booker Prize), The Road Home (winner of the Orange Prize) and Trespass (a Richard & Judy pick). Merivel has been called ‘wonderfully entertaining’ (Guardian Books of the Year) and ‘an unadulterated delight’ (Independent) and has been shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

The gaudy years of the Restoration are long gone and Robert Merivel, physician and courtier to King Charles II, sets off for the French court in search of a fresh start. But royal life at the Palace of Versailles – all glitter in front and squalor behind – leaves him in despair, until a chance encounter with the seductive Madame de Flamanville, allows him to dream of a different future.
But will that future ever be his? Summoned home urgently to attend to the ailing King, Merivel finds his loyalty and skill tested to their limits.

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Also: Peter Tremayne’s The Seventh Trumpet:

When a murdered corpse of an unknown young noble is discovered, Fidelma of Cashel is brought in to investigate, in Peter Tremayne’s The Seventh Trumpet

Ireland, AD 670. When the body of a murdered young noble is discovered not far from Cashel, the King calls upon his sister, Fidelma, and her companion Eadulf to investigate. Fidelma, in addition to being the sister of the king, is a dailaigh—an advocate of the Brehon Law Courts—and has a particular talent for resolving the thorniest of mysteries.

But this time, Fidelma and Eadulf have very little to work with—the only clue to the noble’s identity is an emblem originating from the nearby kingdom of Laign. Could the murder be somehow related to the wave of violence erupting in the western lands of the kingdom? The turmoil there is being stirred up by an unknown fanatical figure who claims to have been summoned by “the seventh angel” to remove the “impure of faith.” Fidelma and Eadulf, once again grappling with a tangled skein of murder and intrigue, must somehow learn what connects the dead noble, a murdered alcoholic priest, and an abbot who has turned his monastery into a military fortress. When it appears that things cannot get more complex, Fidelma herself is abducted, and Eadulf must rescue her before the mystery can be solved.

The Art of Joy (Book Acquired, 6.16.2014)

Books

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This is pretty cool: Goliarda Sapienza’s huge novel The Art of Joy, in English translation for the first time by Anne Milano Appel and published by Picador.

Their blurb:

Rejected by a series of publishers, abandoned in a chest for twenty years, Goliarda Sapienza’s masterpiece, The Art of Joy, survived a turbulent path to publication. It wasn’t until 2005, when it was released in France, that this novel received the recognition it deserves. At last, Sapienza’s remarkable book is available in English.

The Art of Joy centers on Modesta, a Sicilian woman born in 1900 whose strength and character are an affront to conventional morality. Impoverished as a child, Modesta believes she is destined for a better life. She is able, through grace and intelligence, to secure marriage to an aristocrat without compromising her own deeply felt values, and revels in upsetting the rules of her fascist, patriarchal society. This is the history of the twentieth century seen through the perspective of one extraordinary woman.

Got into a bit of it this weekend and it looks like good stuff; if your interest is piqued, you might want to check out Emily Cooke’s New Yorker piece for more. From Cooke’s essay:

What exactly the art of joy consists of isn’t immediately evident. At the outset, the novel reads less like a handbook on happiness than like a sadomasochistic Italian novelization of “The Joy of Sex.” It opens with a girl, called Modesta, who is born in 1900, in Sicily, to modest circumstances and immodest predilections, masturbating to the screams of a resented disabled sister, whom Modesta fantasizes is deliberately rending her own flesh. Masturbation gives way to cunnilingus by a tall neighbor boy, which gives way to intercourse, with Modesta’s deflowering, at the age of nine, by a stranger who claims to be her father. Perhaps the “joy” part hasn’t begun yet. But, wait, she rather likes it, at least until he sticks “something hard … into the hole where the pee-pee came out.” Immediately after the rape, the family’s hut goes up in flames, the casualty of a fire that Modesta has lit accidentally/on purpose. The worst casualties are Modesta’s sister and mother, locked in a bedroom by the prodigal father. Modesta has a chance to unlock them; she does not take it. The father is gone for good. Dispatched to a convent, this “poor tormented child,” as the nuns gullibly call her, fakes seizures in order to secure the comforting bosom of the Mother Superior, Leonora, who likes to titillate herself and her charge with stories of the persecuted Saint Agatha. Her bosom, St. Agatha’s was torn from her chest with “red-hot forceps” and “arranged … warm and tremulous, on a silver tray.” The lurid description gives Modesta “a thrill of pleasure” “so intense and protracted” that she has to grit her teeth to avoid a cry. When she discovers that the nun won’t put out—Leonora ventures only a “few timid caresses” and punishes Modesta for having witnessed her masturbating—infatuation turns to anger. “I hate her, I hate her,” she shrieks, alone in her cell, then brings herself to orgasm. All this before Modesta has reached the age of eighteen, and the book a tenth of its length.

 

Charles Burns’s Sugar Skull (Book Acquired, 6.06.2014)

Books, Comics

 

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Got a bound black and white proof of Sugar Skull, the final book in Charles Burns’s Tintin-punk-rock-Interzone trilogy. Out from the good people of Pantheon this September.

Back cover image:
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So I went back and reread X’ed Out and The Hive and then yeah I read Sugar Skull. I’m going to wait to read a finished color copy to do a full review but, good great weird stuff.

A tender moment:

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Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories (Book Acquired, 6.09.2014)

Books

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William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories is new in hardback from Penguin this July. I’ll have a review then, but for now, publisher’s blurb:

Supernaturally tinged stories from William T. Vollmann, author of the National Book Award winner Europe Central

In this magnificent new work of fiction, his first in nine years, celebrated author William T. Vollmann offers a collection of ghost stories linked by themes of love, death, and the erotic.

A Bohemian farmer’s dead wife returns to him, and their love endures, but at a gruesome price. A geisha prolongs her life by turning into a cherry tree. A journalist, haunted by the half-forgotten killing of a Bosnian couple, watches their story, and his own wartime tragedy, slip away from him. A dying American romances the ghost of his high school sweetheart while a homeless salaryman in Tokyo animates paper cutouts of ancient heroes.

Are ghosts memories, fantasies, or monsters? Is there life in death? Vollmann has always operated in the shadowy borderland between categories, and these eerie tales, however far-flung their settings, all focus on the attempts of the living to avoid, control, or even seduce death. Vollmann’s stories will transport readers to a fantastical world where love and lust make anything possible.

Brando’s Smile (Book Acquired, 6.02.2014)

Books

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Brando’s Smile, a biography by Susan L. Mizruchi. Publisher’s blurb:

Susan Mizruchi presents the Marlon Brando you’ve never met.

When people think about Marlon Brando they think of the movie star; the hunk; the scandals. Susan L. Mizruchi finds the Brando others have missed: the man who collected four thousand books; the man who rewrote scripts, trimming his lines to make them sharper; the man who consciously used his body and employed the objects around him to create believable characters; the man who used his fame to foster Indian and civil rights. From Brando’s letters, audiotapes, and annotated screenplays and books—many never before available—Mizruchi gives us a complex person whose intelligence belies the high-school dropout. She shows how Brando’s embrace of foreign cultures and outsiders led to brilliant performances in unusual roles—a gay man, an Asian, and a German soldier—to foster empathy on a global scale and to test himself. In portraying a fuller Brando, Mizruchi portrays an even more fascinating man.

Masscult and Midcult (Book Acquired Some Time in May)

Books

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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:

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Cradle to Grave (Book Acquired, 5.27.2014)

Books

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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 (Book Acquired, 5.27.2014)

Books

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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.

Sparta (Book Acquired, 5.19.2014)

Books

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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).

Maurice Sendak’s Erotic Illustrations for Herman Melville’s Pierre (Book Acquired, 5.09.2014)

Art, Literature

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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.

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Bruno Jasieński’s The Legs of Izolda Morgan (Book Acquired, 5.01.2014)

Books, Literature, Writers

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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.

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Publisher’s blurb:

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.

 

 

A manifesto:

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Roberto Bolaño’s The Insufferable Gaucho (Book Acquired, 05.05.2014)

Books, Literature

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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.

Blue Sun (Book Acquired, Like Maybe Three Weeks Ago)

Books, Poetry

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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.