Self-Portrait — Patti Smith

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Riff on Recent Reading, 1.09.2012 (Gaddis, Vollmann, Dragons, Nausicaä, Patti Smith)

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1. Just Kids, Patti Smith

Really slowed down on this one, mostly because the spring semester hath begun, wreaking all sorts of destabilizing tasks on me. Momentum and reading habits will inevitably return. Anyway, Smith’s book is more or less a litany of famous meetings and infamous moments with lots and lots of descriptions of talismanic objects. The scene where she meets Allen Ginsberg is pretty cool. Smith presents herself as earnest, passionate, but also somehow at odds (or at least outs) with the whole Chelsea Hotel scene.

2. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Vol 1, Hayao Miyazaki

Completed the first volume of Miyazaki’s groundbreaking manga and started the second. The art is well crafted and distinct, but often extremely busy and even frenetic. It sometimes feels squashed in the panels, like it needs room to breathe. I can’t help but compare it to the film that followed, which is visually richer and more expansive. The film, in a sense, helps me to fill out the scope signaled in Miyazki’s inky illustrations.

The story in the manga so far differs subtly but significantly from the film; without adding spoilers (I think fans of the film will enjoy the book), the political dimension of the plot is heightened and gender roles are explored with greater concern. Nausicaä’s initial rashness is also presented with greater intensity (read: violent consequences). More to come.

3. Imperial, William T. Vollmann

Chapter 3 of Imperial, “The Water of Life,” is some of the best gonzo journalism I’ve ever read. Vollmann (along with an improbably game ex-Marine/hotel clerk) takes a raft—a cheap rubber dinghy, really—down the infamous New River, purportedly one of the most polluted waterways in North America. This river is filled with dead birds, dead fish, probably dead humans, lots and lots of garbage, industrial runoff, and lots and lots of human shit.

Of course, Vollmann can find beauty and strangeness and ugliness all at once:

The chapter does everything one wants from the book, and if you’re at all intrigued, there’s a version in the excellent Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, which is a good starting point for his work.

The next chapter, “Sublineations: Lovescapes,” is this awful emo exploration of a bad breakup and the following heartbreak Volls feels after. It was torturous to get through, the sort of thing that screams for an editor. It also underscores how deeply deeply deeply personal the book is to him, though. More to come.

4. A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin (audiobook read by Roy Dotrice)

Well goddam if I didn’t finally finish it. As I’ve lamented elsewhere in these e-pages, Martin’s fourth and fifth books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (I hate that name, by the way: Game of Thrones (without the indefinite article) is way cooler sounding) are bloated, sagging, overfilled beasts sorely in need of an enema. Still, Dragons picks up in its final third, and ends with some shockers that, if I remember them 12 years from now when he finally finishes the next one, I may want to read it. Roy Dotrice = a very gifted reader. A great audiobook (still, I can’t believe this one topped so many year end lists).

5. JR, William Gaddis  (tandem reading with audiobook read by Nick Sullivan)

Big thanks to Dwight at A Common Reader for suggesting the audiobook of JR read by Sullivan. I’m a few hours in; I’ve also been rereading bits immediately when I get home (I listen mostly in the car or on walks), retracing the lines that I’ve mentally underlined. Sullivan is a gifted voice actor who brings the many, many voices of JR to vivid life (that line seems hackneyed but it is in no way insincere. If I weren’t riffing I’d revise. If I weren’t riffing I’d edit parenthetical excuses. I’m gonna drink more red zin now). I’m reminded in some ways of RTE’s full-cast unabridged recording—performance really—of Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d read Ulysses twice before, but I feel like the full-cast production was an equally definitive version to the one in my head. Like Ulysses—especially the Sirens episode—JR is extremely aural; it’s mostly dialogue.

I’ve laughed out loud several times so far—had no idea the book would be this funny. Also, reading/hearing it, I can’t help but see how profoundly David Foster Wallace was influenced by Gaddis here: the bizarre corporate-speak, the disjunctive rhythms, the absurd humor, the satire on modernity, the ironic-earnest axis—even the passages of naturalistic description.

On deck: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, Open City by Teju Cole, Smut by Alan Bennett and more more more.

Riff on Recent Reading, 12.31.2011

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1. Donald Harington, The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks

I want to publicly thank blogger BLCKDGRD for sending me this book; it arrived in sections, the binding glue cracked, its abused condition surely a sign of love. I happened to be recaulking the margins of my screened in porch the day it arrived, so I used silicone caulk (along with c-clamp) to repair it.

The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks rightfully should have shown up on my Books I Didn’t Read in 2011 post, but it was doubly neglected, left under a pile of half-read books that I intend to keep reading: Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, the Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, a volume of stories by Breece D’J Pancake (two stories remain unread; I am sure they are awfully sad), Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma. In short, I didn’t want to own up to abandoning it because I intend to go back and finish it. I read a little over half of Harington’s big, rich, funny history of Arkansas, told through the lens of the species of spaces inhabited by the Ingledews and their fellow Stay Morons. The book is lively, deeply ironic, and stands with Kurt Vonnegut as perfect American satire.

2. Just Kids, Patti Smith

I found Just Kids, which was a Big Deal book in 2010, while looking for a copy of Lillian Smith’s The Killers of the Dream (don’t fret; I found that book too). I’ve loved Smith’s music since I was a kid; like The Talking Heads, she was hard to place, not outright punk rock, definitely not pop, very weird.

I usually read the first few pages of books in the store if I think I’m going to buy them; I ended up reading about 10 pages of Just Kids, taking it home, and then reading for a few more hours. I’m almost finished with it now.

Smith documents a fascinating time in a fascinating place (New York City’s art/lit/music scene in the late sixties/early seventies), but her perspective for most of the book is that of an outsider, a would-be artist struggling to help Robert Mapplethorpe become famous for his art. Smith is in love with literature, particularly Romantic French stuff.

She’s also an object fetishist; I can’t think of another book that details so many tchotchkes, so many surfaces, so many contours, so many things. She’s an aesthete. There are also several incidences of book theft. I’m not sure if I’ll write up a proper review of this book—it won the Nat’l Book award and made all the year end lists in 2010—but I have been enjoying it as a chronicle of creative energy.

3. Imperial, William T. Vollmann

There’s a strange shift between the first and second chapters of Vollmann’s massive book about Imperial County. The first chapter, “The Gardens of Paradise,” reads like a magazine article (and it was; it was published in abbreviated form in Gear in 1999)—lots of dialogue, short paragraph breaks, a spare, lucid syntax, but nevertheless rippling with verve. The second chapter, “Delineations” is a heady brew, a page right out of Ishmael’s big book, as we see Vollmann try to delineate or define his white whale Imperial. And yet he seems to realize that delineation is a fantasy:

People say it was miraculous that Christ walked across the water, and yet they don’t think twice when the same is performed by this entity invisible everywhere except in its representations, whose substance is comprised of equal parts imagination, measurement, memory, authority, and jurisdiction! Delineation is the merest, absurdest fiction, yet delineation engenders control.

The territory and the time Vollmann treks in just a few dozen pages astounds . . .

4. MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman

Okay—not really recent reading, although I did pick it up again and thumb through it before writing this piece; mostly, I wanted to try to write something about this book before the end of the year (I put it on my “best of ’11″ list, by the bye). This book is Spiegelman’s attempt to measure Maus: where it came from, how it was made, what making it did to him and for him—and to his family. Like Smith’s book, MetaMaus is very much about the creative process (forgive the hackneyed phrase)—only, where Smith breathlessly gushes in the glowing, enriching flames of art, Spiegelman guides us through the nitty-gritty nooks and crannies of how he made what is perhaps the signature work of comics art of the twentieth century.

The book is beautiful. Take a gander:

5. Pancha Tantra, Walton Ford

The index at the end of Pancha Tantra contains a series of citations that illustrate Ford’s paintings (hang on, the elements of that last phrase should be vice versa, right?). To wit:

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6. A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin (audiobook read by Roy Dotrice)

I really liked the first three Game of Thrones books (yeah, I know they have that long silly name; I’m not gonna write it). I listened to them on audio, all read by Roy Dotrice—who is a great reader—and I gave them a positive review. The first three books detail a world of Machiavellian scheming, a phallocentric, desacralized universe where power is constantly shifting and idealism will get you beheaded. The character development is excellent, the plots are engaging, and the prose is good enough.

The fourth book, narrated by John Lee, was almost too much to get through. Here are some words to describe it: bloated, plodding, sagging, lazy, meandering, over-expansive.

I’d heard that A Dance with Dragons was much better, knew that Dotrice was narrating again, and knew that the book picked up with some of my favorite characters who were left out of that fourth book (Tyrion, Danaerys).

I’m nearing the end—it’s much better than the last one, but not nearly as good as the first three. Martin could probably make the book a third shorter simply by cutting out the endless descriptions of food, the awful, gross sex scenes (actually, he can go ahead and keep those), and the terrible stock phrases. (How long do things last in ADwD? “Half a heartbeat.” Also, I would love to never hear the phrase “Much and more” again in my life. I’m not even kidding. And “Useless as the nipples on a breastplate” doesn’t need to show up more than once in your book).

Even with my gripes, there have been some good episodes so far, including a creepy cabin fever Sadean setpiece that reminded me of the South Africa episode of Pynchon’s V, which is like one of my favorite things in literature.

7. Various public domain books on Kindle Fire, including Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson

I got a Kindle Fire. I like it. I downloaded a bunch of obscure American Renaissance stuff—letters, reviews, essays—and have been scrolling over it quite a bit late at night. More thoughts on this device to come.

Patti Smith, Book Thief

Patti Smith’s story about stealing a book was published last month in The New Yorker; somehow we missed it. It’s good to see this blog return to its original mission sometimes. Here’s an excerpt, but the whole piece is lovely and moving:

The next Saturday, my mother gave me a dollar and sent me to the A. & P. alone. Two quarts of milk and a loaf of bread: that’s what a dollar bought in 1957. I went straight to the World Book display. There was only one first volume left, which I placed in my cart. I didn’t need a cart, but took one so I could read as I went up and down the aisles. A lot of time went by, but I had little concept of time, a fact that often got me in trouble. I knew I had to leave, but I couldn’t bear to part with the book. Impulsively I put it inside my shirt and zipped up my plaid windbreaker. I was a tall, skinny kid, and I’m certain every contour of the book was conspicuous.

I strolled the aisles for several more minutes, then went through the checkout, paid my dollar, swiftly bagged the three items, and headed home with my heart pounding.

Suddenly I felt a heavy tap on my shoulder and turned to find the biggest man I had ever seen. He was the store detective, and he asked me to hand it over. I just stood in silence. “We know you stole something—you will have to be searched.” Horrified, I slid the heavy book out from the bottom of my shirt.

He looked at it quizzically. “This is what you stole, an encyclopedia?”

“Yes,” I whispered, trembling.

“Why didn’t you ask your parents?”

“I did,” I said, “but they didn’t have the money.”

“Do you know it’s wrong?”

“Yes.”

(Just a Really Great Grab of) Books Acquired, 11.18.2011

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See, this is why I go to my favorite local bookshop at least once once. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s like a mile from my house). I read Lillian Smith’s memoir Killers of the Dream back in grad school, but I checked my copy out from the school library (being like, a poor grad student and whatnot, and Biblioklept not being established enough to rack up, uh, free books). Anyway, this is one of the best covers I think I’ve ever seen; Doubleday seems to be taking a cue from Penguin here. The design is simple, elegant, and appropriately horrific. Anyway, I picked up Smith’s book because I had wanted to use a few passages from it for a particular class I was teaching, but I when I looked for it I realized I didn’t it own it. So. Anyway. If you haven’t read Killers, I highly recommend it: “groundbreaking” would be an understatement here. Smith plumbs the strange hypocrisies of Jim Crow South; more straightforward than Faulkner but equally affecting.

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I have a little list I keep in my wallet. It’s ragged and rumpled, and some names are cribbed there in a meandering webby calligraphy that would prove to any team of forensic writing analysts that I cannot write by hand. Anyway, Michel Houllebecq (or, if we’re being honest, a bizarre corruption of that last name) has been on that list for a while—so I was happy to snap this one up. The cover is Ballardian, or maybe, more accurately, Cronenebergian (Cronenbergesque?). More forthcoming.

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Just Kids: Patti Smith: Robert Mapplethorpe: I was looking under Biographies for Lillian Smith: found this: c’mon, you know this won the Nat’l BA: (or the sticker should tip you): will check out the fuss: extraneous colon: :

Roberto Bolaño’s Chair/Arthur Rimbaud’s Fork and Spoon

Photos by Patti Smith

(Story at The New York Times Magazine).

Jonathan Lethem Talks to Patti Smith