Three Books with Stickers on Them (Books Acquired, Sometime Last Month)

My daughter, six, brought home some books from the library a few weeks ago. “These are good,” she reported, showing them to me. “They have medals on them.”

In the last weeks of last month, I got behind three bemedaled or bestickered books (okay, these aren’t really stickers anymore, but I don’t know what to call the stickers—blazons? Emblems? Medals?)—here they are:


Jim Crace’s Harvest, beblazoned with a Man Booker Finalist blazon. From The New York Times’s review earlier this year:

In its poetry of the precarious hereafter, “Harvest” calls to mind J. M. Coetzee’s finest and most allegorical novel, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Like Coetzee, Crace asks large questions: How will ordinary people behave when ripped from their mundane routines, cut adrift from comforting old verities? What suppressed capacity for cruelty may surface? What untested gift for improvised survival?


Next: Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, bemedaled with an Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 medal. I don’t know what 2.0 means here, but the sticker I’ll admit is immediately off-putting. I also originally read the title as The Twelve Tribes of Hottie, also off-putting. The actual premise of the book seems really good though. From The New York Times again:

When the country was too distracted to notice, caught up as it was with two world wars and the Depression, a great movement of people, of some six million African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South, was upending the social geography of the country itself. The Great Migration would figure into much of the literature and music of 20th-century urban life — Wright, Ellison, Baldwin and Coltrane — and, decades after it ended, it still lives in myth and shadow, casting a spell upon race relations to this day and captivating the lives and imaginations of its descendants.

Still, there has been no novel like “The Grapes of Wrath” that looks squarely at this migration, which might have been the promise and yet not the purpose of so raw and intimate a book as “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” the debut novel of ­Ayana Mathis. The story it tells works at the rough edges of history, residing not so much within the migration itself as within a brutal and poetic allegory of a family beset by tribulations. The narrative opens in 1925, as Hattie Shepherd, a 17-year-old wife and mother newly ­arrived in Philadelphia from Georgia, ­administers mustard poultices and droplets of ipecac to save her infant twins from the pneumonia that has crept into their limp bodies. Because of her desperate circumstances in the cold of the North, she loses her twins “in the order in which they were born.”


Finally, Olen Steinhauer’s An American Spy, bestickered with A New York Times Notable Book sticker. You know what? Im just gonna go ahead and borrow from The New York Times review again:

Not since John le Carré has a writer so vividly evoked the multilayered, multifaceted, deeply paranoid world of espionage, in which identities and allegiances are malleable and ever shifting, the mirrors of loyalty and betrayal reflecting one another to infinity. In this intensely clever, sometimes baffling book, it’s never quite clear who is manipulating whom, and which side is up.

So three books, all from major houses, all garnering accolades (in the form of stickers!), and all prominently and favorably reviewed by The New York Times. I’m sure there’s nothing troubling in this at all.


Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald

Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald:

IS LITERARY GREATNESS still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.

Vertigo, the third of Sebald’s books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that, The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder—delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald’s voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all-undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.

In W. G. Sebald’s books, a narrator who, we are reminded oc­casionally, bears the name W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality of nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory or news from a world irretriev­ably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.

Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls “W.” in his books (and the dust jacket identifies for us as Wertach im Allgau), settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author in­cludes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in The Rings of Saturn and the photo on his new passport in Vertigo. Continue reading “Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald”

Young Woman in Kimono, Reading — Emile Bernard

The Weird and Wonderful World of Charles A. A. Dellschau

I was looking for an image to accompany a riff I wrote on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day. The riff circles around the skyship adventurers The Chums of Chance, characters who are both “real” in the novel and also “literary” — that is, they are the stars of dime novels that other characters in the novel read. I was hoping that maybe some creative soul had created a Chums of Chance book cover that I could use with the post. Through a few basic searches and a Metafilter board, I found my way to something far more intriguing—the strange watercolor and collage pieces of Charles August Albert Dellschau.


Here’s a little background on Dellschau (from John Foster’s excellent article–chock full of images!—at Observatory):

It turns out that the drawings/watercolors were the work of one Charles August Albert Dellschau (1830 – 1923). Dellschau was a butcher for most of his life and only after his retirement in 1899 did he begin his incredible career as a self-taught artist. He began with three books entitled Recollections which purported to describe a secret organization called the Sonora Aero Club. Dellschau described his duties in the club as that of the draftsman. Within his collaged watercolors were newspaper clippings (he called them “press blooms”) of early attempts at flight overlapped with his own fantastic drawings of airships of all kind. Powered by a secret formula he cryptically referred to as “NB Gas” or “Suppa” — the “aeros” (as Dellscahu called them) were steampunk like contraptions with multiple propellers, wheels, viewing decks and secret compartments. Though highly personal, autobiographical (perhaps!), and idiosyncratic, these artworks could cross-pollinate with the fiction of Jules Verne, Willy Wonka and the Wizard of Oz. The works were completed in a furiously creative period from 1899 to 1923, when air travel was still looked at by most people as almost magical. Newspapers of that period were full of stories about air travel feats and the acrobatic aerial dogfights of WWI were legend.


Verne, Oz, and steampunk are all clear comparisons. I’d add to them the manic spirit of Kurt Schwitters’s collages, the buzzing claustrophobia of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and the cartoony contours of turn-of-the-century comics.It also reminds me of Luigi Serafini’s surreal cryptoencyclopedia, Codex SeraphinianusAnd of course, Dellschau’s work resonates strongly with Pynchon’s novel Against the Day, more ludic than lunatic. His work shows an obsession fueled by science and science fiction alike, as well as a frankly adolescent sense of line, proportion and color. I love it. See more here and here.



The following is the complete text of an email someone sent me today:

I give you permission to publish this anonymously. Do you do that?


It seems that I have stolen many books. Let me elaborate on these and the occasions on which I thieved.

Although packs of baseball cards such as I used to steal from gas stations as a young boy are not books per se, this is how my thieving began. Perhaps. Or perhaps my thieving began further in my past than my memory now reaches.

I stole from a university library Omensetter’s Luck by William Gass–an earnest accident that I did not seek to right after I noticed I had escaped with it and that the magnetic gate had not reacted with its electronic screeching to alert the responsibles.

From the same erudite friend I stole The Captive Mind by Milosz, and also Le Parti pris by Francis Ponge. Perhaps Grass’s The Tin Drum too.

From an institute in France I stole an edition of selections from Apollinaire’s Alcools, as well as a Surrealist anthology. And both of André Breton’s Surrealist manifestos. From my host family I stole a book of Blaise Cendrars’s poetry.

Accidentally from a bookstore I stole Washington Square by Henry James. Honest.

From a library I stole Nicholas Mosley’s Serpent, as well as a book called The Art of Not Working, or some such title.

I have probably stolen ten or so other books. Titles escape me. That’s not too bad, I suppose.

Oh yes, I also stole that book Marilyn Manson wrote in the 1990s, and I gave it as a gift to a romantic interest. How unromantic this seems now.

I think I stole many books as an adolescent. Some of these I placed in my pants, held against my abdomen by the pressure of my pants waistline or belt. I think I stole numerous books related to sex when I was young.

I don’t think I’ve hardly ever borrowed a book and not returned it.


I give you permission to publish this anonymously. Do you do that?


You know, I don’t normally do that (i.e. this), but I guess I could start.

If anyone else feels like anonymously confessing to book theft, email me.



I Review Paperback Island, Marshall Brooks’s Love Letter to Books and the People Who Make Them


There’s something gently elegiac about Marshall Brooks’s Paperback Island, which collects over a dozen essays on reading. While Brooks’s essays on books, libraries, publishers, and the friendships that hold all of them together are never dour, they nevertheless evoke a world now shifting into the realm of memory alone.

It’s fitting then that the starting point for the book is beat legend Tuli Kupferberg’s funeral. Here, Brooks runs into Susanna Cuyler, who lends him her apartment in New York just so he can read her book Not Just Another Voice there: “There was no overlooking the fact that her apartment and her book are virtually one,” writes Brooks. This early detail hooked me, encapsulating so much of the themes of time, place, and friendship that Paperback Island emphasizes.

The lead essay in the collection is “Paperback Island.” Here, Brooks relates an adolescent friendship codified in books: “Besides symbolizing the excitement of what books can mean to people, especially young people who are in the process of formulating their own world, these books are all that remain to me of this once close friendship.” Brooks renders the transformative power that this bookswapping friendship had on him, set against the backdrop of the culture shift of the late sixties and early seventies:

Informationally, and in other ways as well, the early 1970s prefigured the Internet. Vast amounts of information, heretofore beyond the reach of the masses, became available. The visually compartmentalized newsprint portions of Harper’s Magazine and the encyclopedic paperbound Whole Earth Catalog come immediately to mind, as does the collectively-produced—via the Boston Women’s Health Collective—1970 paperback, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Design-wise, they all accelerated the absorption of information from off the printed page in completely innovative ways, which today’s web pages perforce echo. In conjunction with FM radio, foreign films, Super 8 film, Swinger cameras, stereo records, tape cassettes , early video, offset printing, the 1976 Freedom of Information Act, and such empowering movements as Women’s Lib, etc. , they revolutionized the lives of everyone, and youth culture in particular.

It would perhaps be easy for Brooks to have crammed his book with anecdotes illustrating the effects of these changes, but instead Paperback Island focuses on something much more personal, following the tone of its eponymous essay. There are memory-essays for Tuli Kupferberg, James T. Farrell, and Sidney Bernard, whose rogue journalism collection This Way to the Apocalypse I am now on the lookout for. In the background of all of this looms Harry Smith, the poet-publisher and founder of The Smith, where Brooks cut his teeth in the seventies. Smith’s influence on Brooks resonates in loving passages like this one:

A legendary figure in the American small press movement, Harry more than fulfilled the role of patron-protector for countless contributors to his press. He impressively looked the role, too, nowhere more so than when he grandly made the circuit at small press fair . . . The Smith published scores of unknown and neglected writers . . . The press resembled nothing else in the publishing world large or small partly for this reason. I had always assumed that a place exactly like it existed, somewhere. That it had to. (Why else write, really?) A place where poetry counted for everything. Fate, in its greatness, encouragingly provided for its existence, and Harry Smith supplied that place.

It’s that sense of place that comes through so strongly in Paperback Island, whether Brooks is describing the offices of The Smith or the hotels that James T. Farrell adored. Brooks also captures the strange ways that microlibraries evolve from place, time, and friendship (he inherited many of Farrell’s paperbacks). I think most bibliophiles will instantly understand Brooks’s impulse to collect, catalog, keep the tomes.

And of course there are the bookshops, the wanderings, the meanderings, the notes on books and how we find them. A late riff on visiting a Boston Barnes & Noble finds Brooks picking up a Nook and reading a passage from Austen’s Pride & Prejudice—his first time with an e-reader. The moment is not couched in resentment or alienation but simply experience—encountering an old book in a new way.

I should point out that Brooks has illustrated Paperback Island with photographs—of people, places, books—the things that make the book. (Books are made out of other books, some writer said). The photos are printed in rich color and add a documentary dimension to the book. Here’s a striking image of the closing of the Upper West Side branch of Shakespeare & Company—an image that perhaps captures more of the elegiac underpinnings of Paperback Island than I can do in words:


Paperback Island is shot-through with bibliophilia, a love of books that encompasses writers, readers, libraries, and publishers, yes—but also the mechanics of the book, the physical properties. It’s a love letter to books and the people who make them—and not just the writers and publishers, but the readers who make them, preserve them—and the friends who pass them on, make sure that others read them.

In a latter essay, “Physical Allure of the Book,” Brooks writes, “My friend Roger Skillings became a writer on account of picking up a Penguin edition of James Joyce’s Dubliners in a train station in Rome.” I’ll end this write-up in what I take to be the spirit of Brooks’s book, sharing a little anecdote of my own about a book I can’t part with.

In 2002 I was wandering Jimbocho, an area of Tokyo crammed with nearly 200 bookshops. I found, lying in the gutter but unsullied, a paperback Penguin Book — The Essential James Joyce, edited by Harry Levin. I glanced around, trying to see if the book was somehow connected to a nearby vendor, but it didn’t seem to be for sale. In any case, I surreptitiously slipped the book into my bag and walked on. I read “The Dead” on the train ride home. I’ve kept the book to this day, even though I have no need of a Joyce digest. I can’t help it. I love it.


Lydia Davis Wins the 2013 Man Booker International Prize

Lydia Davis has won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize—and the £60,000 that go with it.

Here’s Davis’s short story “Money” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (and also in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)

I don’t want any more gifts, cards, phone calls, prizes, clothes, friends, letters, books, souvenirs, pets, magazines, land, machines, houses, entertainments, honors, good news, dinners, jewels, vacations, flowers, or telegrams. I just want money.

According to the Man Booker press release,

Sir Christopher Ricks, chairman of the judges, said her “writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind. Just how to categorise them? They have been called stories but could equally be miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorisms or even apophthegms, prayers or simply observations.” Davis then is not like any other writer and she follows, and contrasts with, the previous winners of the prize -Ismail Kadaré, Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro and Philip Roth.

I love love love Davis’s work, including her essays, and am glad to see her win the money and the award. Maybe it speaks to a shift in what people are willing to accept as fiction. Or maybe not.

If you’re at all interested in Davis’s work, I highly recommend The Collected Stories,  which collects her first four volumes (read my review if you need more persuasion).

Here’s Davis reading some of her stories:

You can also read some of her work here.

“Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” (Moby-Dick)

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths—Starbuck!”

But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.

From “The Symphony,” Chapter 132 of Melville’s Moby-Dick. The speaker is, of course, Ahab.


Andrei Tarkovsky: The Collector of Dreams (Book Acquired, 12.29.2012)


Layla Alexander-Garrett’s memoir Andrei Tarkovsky: The Collector of Dreams is new from Glagoslav. Their blurb:

The Sacrifice is Andrei Tarkovsky’s final masterpiece. The film was shot in Sweden, during the summer of 1985, while Tarkovsky was in exile; it turned out to be his final testament. Day after day, while the film was being made, Layla Alexander-Garrett – Tarkovsky’s on-site interpreter – kept a diary which forms the basis of her award-winning book Andrei Tarkovsky: The Collector Of Dreams. In this book the great director is portrayed as a real, living person: tormented, happy, inexhaustibly kind but at times harsh, unrelenting, conscience-stricken and artistically unfulfilled.

I’ve been riffling through it over the past few days. Alexander-Garrett describes her time with Tarkovsky in vivid detail—there’s a concrete richness to the book, and the author doesn’t try to psychoanalyze or interpret or otherwise interpose herself between the reader and the subject. More to come.

Book Shelves #53, 12.30.2012 (Final Entry)

Book shelves series #53, fifty-third—and final!—Sunday of 2012: In which I take a few photos at random.

I somehow managed to squeeze 52 weeks of shots out of all the book-bearing surfaces of my home (—oh—I did one week from my office).

For the last in this series (yay!) I simply walked through the rooms of the house, took a few shots, and then put them in digital frames.

For the most part, my method was thoughtless, although I did grab a pic of a bookcase new to our house (second pic, top left) that dominates my son’s room.

I also took a pic of Perec’s essay collection because one of his essays inspired this (awful, awful) project.

From that essay, “The Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books”:

We should first of all distinguish stable classifications from provisional ones. Stable classifications are those which, in principle, you continue to respect; provisional classifications are those supposed to last only a few days, the time it takes for a book to discover, or rediscover, its definitive place. This may be a book recently acquired and not read yet, or else a book recently read that you don’t quite know where to place and which you have promised to yourself you will put away on the occasion of a forthcoming ‘great arranging’, or else a book whose reading has been interrupted and that you don’t to classify before taking it up again and finishing it, or else a book you have used constantly over a given period, or else a book you have taken down to look up a piece of information or a reference and which you haven’t yet put back in its place, or else a book that you can’t put back in its place, or else a book that you can’t put back in its rightful place because it doesn’t belong to you and you’ve several times promised to give it back, etc.





So, what did I get out of doing this project?

1. Photographing books is difficult—I mean physically. They all reflect light differently.

2. Doing a regularly-scheduled project is difficult.

3. I have too many books.

Okay. That’s it. Finis.

Book Shelves #52, 12.23.2012

Book shelves series #52, fifty-second Sunday of 2012: In which, in this penultimate chapter, we return to the site of entry #1.

The first entry in this project was my bedside nightstand. This is what it looked like back in January:

This is it this morning:


This is the major difference:


The Kindle Fire has changed my late night shuffling habits.

Here are the books that are in the nightstand:


I read the Aira novel but completely forgot about it, which I’m sure says more about me than it.

Have no idea why this is in there:


But it’s a fun book. With pictures! Sample:


Finally, Perec’s Life A User’s Manual—this is one of my reading goals for 2013. It seems like a good way to close out this penultimate post, as one of Perec’s essays inspired this project

“Every library answers a twofold need, which is often also a twofold obsession: that of conserving certain objects (books) and that of organizing them in certain ways”

—Georges Perec, from ”Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books” (1978)