What books does William T. Vollmann find himself returning to again and again?

William T. Vollmann is the interviewee in the New York Times feature “By the Book” this week. It’s a fun read (he chooses Sappho to write his life story, which cracked me up). From the piece:

What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

I often reread certain parts of my Oxford Revised Standard Bible, which I recommend for the maps and footnotes. The parables of Jesus are haunting in the fashion of certain Zen koans. And the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, and the way it leads to young Joseph’s conceit and fall, is of gripping psychological interest. When she was very young I used to tell my daughter about the coat of many colors, and she would say: “But, why, Daddy? Why did they throw Joseph underground?” — “Because they were jealous.” — “Why were they jealous?” — “Because his father loved him more than the others.” She and I would follow the story backward and forward; its elegance was so perfect that my little child could understand it.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg always inspires me to try to be myself. Here is one of his powerful aphorisms: “I believe that man is in the last resort so free a being that his right to be whatever he believes himself to be cannot be contested.”

I love that fountainhead of Norse myth and saga, the Elder Edda. It is, after all, part of my ethnocultural heritage. Its glorification of ruthless and often pointless cruelty troubles me, and I refuse to identify with that. But I can enjoy the delicate eeriness of other ghost stories without reveling in gruesome murders and wailing horrors, so why can’t I drink in the strangeness of Skirnir’s ride down to Hel on his quest to win the giant maiden? Moreover, the Norse ethos privileges steadfast endurance in the face of pain, bravery in the face of inevitable doom, and loyalty. These qualities would well become all of us mortals, and may grow more relevant once climate change really kicks in.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

[Editorial note: Today is Roberto Bolaño’s birthday–he would’ve turned 62. The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of his masterpiece 2666. To be clear, I am a huge fan of 2666—I’ve written about it extensively on this site. But I never posted a review on Amazon. More one-star Amazon reviews.].

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Awful.

Boring!

Nothing.

No Point.

No Story.

No characters.

This is not a story.

Felt it was too dark.

endless culs-de-sac

There is no premise

Numbing dumbness.

As a Literature major,

incoherent and rambling

Disconnected and tedious.

The joke is on me, I guess.

written in a type of journalese

this novel (if it can be called that)

an obtuse novel with no real point.

I would rather stick forks in my eyes

stilted, awkward, and difficult to read

I would prefer to be boiled alive in oil.

900 pages of words that mean nothing.

multiple pages are spent describing dreams

delivers little if any enjoyment to the reader.

900 pages of distinctly non-literary masochism

I hated the spewing of authors I’d never heard of.

The writing or words are geared towards intellectuals.

Imagine this: you’re dreaming a dream that never ends.

it’s one of those pretentious books for pretentious people

a sprawling, formless, utterly pretentious bloated drudge

bloated streams of consciousness which negate themselves

no subtle meassage that is worthy of discussion or thought

I can see how this might have been written by a very ill man.

boring, repetitive, pointless, misogynistic, indulgent blather

I’ve never experienced a book which was so devoid of reward.

little or no substance in terms of an overall message or theme

a pointless study of odd obsessions and the meaningless of life

On xx date, the body of xxx was found, mutilated in the dumps.

I spent most of my time looking up defintions to 100’s of words.

this book is a GRUESOME and HORRIFICALLY VIOLENT book.

Bolano could not care less what the general public thinks of his book

has little of note to say about the meaning of life or the human condition

I am hard pressed to believe that the other reviewers even read this book.

The largest section of the book is basically 300+ pages of autopsy reports.

You will read the words “vaginally and anally raped” over and over and over

This book would make a great table leg, coaster, or booster seat for a small child. Continue reading “Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666”

“The Girls of Herland” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“The Girls of Herland,” below, is Chapter 8 of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel Herland, a feminist utopian novel that was serialized during its author’s lifetime, but not published in one volume until 1979.  This chapter can, I believe, stand alone or serve even as an introduction even to Herland, depsite coming rather late in the text, but readers who wish more context/want the whole thing can legally download Herland via Project Gutenburg.

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“The Girls of Herland”

by

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

At last Terry’s ambition was realized. We were invited, always courteously and with free choice on our part, to address general audiences and classes of girls.

I remember the first time—and how careful we were about our clothes, and our amateur barbering. Terry, in particular, was fussy to a degree about the cut of his beard, and so critical of our combined efforts, that we handed him the shears and told him to please himself. We began to rather prize those beards of ours; they were almost our sole distinction among those tall and sturdy women, with their cropped hair and sexless costume. Being offered a wide selection of garments, we had chosen according to our personal taste, and were surprised to find, on meeting large audiences, that we were the most highly decorated, especially Terry.

He was a very impressive figure, his strong features softened by the somewhat longer hair—though he made me trim it as closely as I knew how; and he wore his richly embroidered tunic with its broad, loose girdle with quite a Henry V air. Jeff looked more like—well, like a Huguenot Lover; and I don’t know what I looked like, only that I felt very comfortable. When I got back to our own padded armor and its starched borders I realized with acute regret how comfortable were those Herland clothes.

We scanned that audience, looking for the three bright faces we knew; but they were not to be seen. Just a multitude of girls: quiet, eager, watchful, all eyes and ears to listen and learn.

We had been urged to give, as fully as we cared to, a sort of synopsis of world history, in brief, and to answer questions. Continue reading ““The Girls of Herland” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman”

A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare’s (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Shakspeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakspeare’s. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakspeare is unique. No man can imagine it better. He was the farthest reach of subtlety compatible with an individual self,—the subtilest of authors, and only just within the possibility of authorship. With this wisdom of life, is the equal endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He clothed the creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if they were people who had lived under his roof; and few real men have left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they spoke in language as sweet as it was fit. Yet his talents never seduced him into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one string. An omnipresent humanitycoördinates all his faculties. Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will presently appear. He has certain observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence, and which he disposes all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and strength. But Shakspeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities: no cow-painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small, subordinately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong, as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other. This makes that equality of power in farce, tragedy, narrative, and love-songs; a merit so incessant, that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other readers.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Shakspeare; Or, The Poet.” (And yes, he uses that two-e variant of Shakespeare’s name).

Reading backwards (Oscar Wilde)

There is a great deal to be said in favour of reading a novel backwards.  The last page is, as a rule, the most interesting, and when one begins with the catastrophe or the dénoûment one feels on pleasant terms of equality with the author.  It is like going behind the scenes of a theatre.  One is no longer taken in, and the hairbreadth escapes of the hero and the wild agonies of the heroine leave one absolutely unmoved.

From the “Sententiae” section of A Critic in Pall Mall.

Maya Angelou (Books Acquired, 3.18.2015)

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Random House is reissuing Maya Angelou’s seminal memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in both hardback and paperback with the original 1970 cover (love love love the cover). The Complete Poetry is also new (in hardback); love how the cover matches Caged Bird.

The paperback reissue of Caged Bird features a new foreword by Oprah Winfrey.

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From The Complete Poetry:

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Infinite Fictions (Book acquired 2.10.2015)

ESL — James Jean

ESL-painting

February — Michael Sowa

february

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

After a few false starts over the last decade, I finally submerged myself in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon in those bourbon-soaked weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. I read the book as a sort of sequel to the book Pynchon wrote after it, Against the Daysimply because I read Against the Day in 2013, before M&D. Both books are excellent, and seem to me more achieved in their vision than Inherent Vice or V or Vineland. The obvious comparison point for the pair though is Pynchon’s other big book (and, by reputation, his Big Book) Gravity’s Rainbow which I haven’t read since my freshman year of college—which is almost the same as not having read it at all. I intend to read it later this year (or maybe earlier?), but I also haven’t read The Crying of Lot 49 since my undergrad days either (which is to say, like, coming up on twenty years jesus). I’m about half way through and not zapped by it really—there are some funny jokes, but it’s just not as rich as Mason & Dixon or Against the Day (which is not meant to be a complaint, just an observation. And while I’m observing stuff parenthetically: What most bothers my attention most as I read are the reminders of David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, which I have reread more recently than TCoL49).

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (collected in My Sister’s Hand in Mine)

What to say about Jane Bowles’s only novel? It goes: Propelled on its own sinister energy it goes, its vignettes flowing (or jerking or shifting or pitching wildly or dipping or soaring or sneaking) into each other with wonderfully dark comic force. I’ve sketched a full review I hope to be able to write, but for now let me excerpt a paragraph from Negar Azimi’s essay “The Madness of Queen Jane” from last summer in The New Yorker:

When it was first published, in 1943, “Two Serious Ladies” received lukewarm, even baffled, reviews. Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

Wharton’s line should intrigue, not repel readers. And: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, that’s completely untrue—the book is about women searching for something, but something they can’t name, can’t conceive in language but can perhaps imagine. These women are on the brink of all those things one can be brinked upon: abysses, madness, abysses of madness, etc. But: “The book is about nothing” — well, okay, Two Serious Ladies resists unfolding in the way in which we expect narratives to be about something—Bowles withholds exposition, clarification, and motivation—well, okay, not withholds, but rather hides, or obscures, or enshadows.

I don’t have the verbs for this book.

But I loved reading it, feeling estranged from it while simultaneously invited into its darkness, bewildered by its transpositions, as Jane Bowles moves her verbal camera from one character to another—Wait, what? Okay, I guess we’re going over here now?!—its picaresque energy a strange dark joy. More to come.

William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, a collection of essays edited by Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes

I’ve been dipping into this kind of at random, but it’s very rewarding, and I think it would make a surprisingly good introduction to Vollmann. To be clear, academic criticism is never a substitute for, y’know, reading the author’s actual texts, the range here covers voluminous Vollmann. And look, I’ll be honest, I’ll probably never read Argall, so I very much appreciated Buell Wisner situating it for me in his essay. One of the treats of this book is how an academic essay like Wisner’s—a well-researched close reading with 64 reference notes—is followed by a reflective and informal piece by Carla Bolte on designing Vollmann’s books (“Bill’s books are not for everyone. We all know that,” she offers at one point). Good stuff, more to come.

Dockwood by Jon McNaught

I owe this marvelous book a proper review. Dockwood is a kind of visual prose-poem, tranquil, meditative, autumnal. The book is its own total aesthetic; McNaught uses color and form to evoke feeling here, with minimal, unobtrusive dialogue that functions more as ambiance than exposition. Lovely.

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Nude Study (Reading) — Kenyon Cox