Blog about some recent reading

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From the top down:

I came across a battered and beautiful copy of Mervyn Peake’s novel Gormenghast by chance a few weeks ago and asked Twitter if the trilogy was any good. The answer was a very enthusiastic, even cultish Yes. I still can’t believe I’d never even heard of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy until recently—I grew up reading fantasy novels, and Lord of the Rings, the novel that Peake’s trilogy is often compared to, is and was one of my favorite novels of all time. The comparisons to Tolkien though aren’t particularly convincing, beyond the time period the novels were published, and their both being trilogies. Peake’s novels are grungier, wordier, thicker somehow; he plasters word on word on word building a baroque and grotesque world that is rich and full yet nevertheless opaque. He refuses to explain, but he shows. I read Titus Groan, the first novel in the trilogy, in a bit of a fever, feeding on its thickness. It reminded me of Dickens and T.H. White, but also Leonardo’s grotesque caricatures and Aleksei German’s film adaptation of Hard to Be a God. So much abjection! I have failed to discuss the plot: It’s a castle plot, whatever that means. There are insiders and outsiders. An outsider is trying to make his way not just in but also up: That’s Steerpike, the villainous hero of Titus Groan, and Iago-like intellect whose machinations Peake doesn’t just tell us about, but actually harnesses for us to ride around after. Little Titus Groan barely shows up in his eponymous volume, but so far in Gormenghast there’s been a lot more of him, which is cool, even if there’s been less Steerpike so far, which is not so cool. I’m about halfway through and really enjoying it. The novel vacillates between tones, dwelling just a bit-too-long on a bathetic romance before whirling again to other matters: a feral child, assassinations, an exiled retainer in the wild. Great stuff. The books are illustrated by the author:

Peake’s Gormenghast books have been my “big” read so far this year, but I’ve slipped in other texts too of course. Dmitry Samarov’s Music to My Eyes is a sort of love-letter (“love” is maybe not the right word) to the Chicago music scene; it also functions as a memoir of sorts. The vignettes and short essays make for quick and entertaining reads. The book is also illustrated by the author; here is his picture of David Berman:

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I have been slowly making my way through the stories in Anna Kavan’s collection Machines in the Head, which is available (today!) now from NYRB. I have a full review coming next week, but it’s Good Weird Stuff. If you pick it up, I recommend skipping to the later stories and working backwards—Kavan eventually absorbs the Kafka-anxieties that permeate the earlier texts and synthesizes it into something all her own. The book is not illustrated by the author.

The Great American Novelist Charles Portis died yesterday. I pulled his books out, took a pic, wrote a post. Of his five novels, I’ve yet to read Gringos. I ended up reading the first 60-odd pages of it last night, after having pulled it down, and the sentences are too good to not keep going. Portis’s command of voice is amazing, and I love that he’s returned to the first-person here—in this case, the voice of Jimmy Burns, an American living in Merida, working as a part-time tomb raider, but mostly just helping out gringos and Mexicans alike. Gringos is both comic and ominous, cynical and joyful so far. I will keep going. The book isn’t illustrated, but here’s a taste of the prose, from a page I doggeared last night:

And so little fellowship among the writers. They shared a beleaguered faith and they stole freely from one another—the recycling of material was such that their books were all pretty much the same one now—but in private they seldom had a good word for their colleagues.

The notation is about alien-Mayan-conspiracy books, but I think it works as a take on literature in general.

The spine down there at the bottom with its own glyphs is Anasazi, a graphic novel by Mike McCubbins and Matt Bryan. It’s really, really good—I’ve read it twice now, and I have a review planned for The Comics Journal next month. I wrote about it a bit here,  saying;

The joy of Anasazi is sinking into its rich, alien world, sussing out meaning from image, color, and glyphs. The novel has its own grammar. Bryan and McCubbins conjure a world reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels, Charles Burns’ Last Look trilogy, Kipling’s Mowgli stories, as well as the fantasies of Jean Giraud.

This book is, of course, illustrated by the authors:

img_5001Blog about some recent reading

Speak! Speak! — John Everett Millais

Speak! Speak! 1895 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Speak! Speak!, 1895 by John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

Posted in Art

RIP Charles Portis

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RIP Charles Portis, 1933-2020

The Arkansas Times and other sources have reported that the novelist Charles Portis has died at the age of 86.

Portis published five novels in his life: NorwoodThe Dog of the SouthMasters of Atlantis, and Gringos, but he’s most likely well-known for his 1968 bestseller True Grit, which has been adapted to film twice. The first adaptation (1969), starring John Wayne, is a much broader affair than the Coen Brother’s 2010 take, which does a better job conveying the novel’s sharp humor. Neither can touch the novel, of course.

Walker Percy blurbed True Grit, comparing it to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and he’s not wrong. Told in Mattie Ross’s clipped, witty, yet still-the-slightest-shade-naive voice, True Grit’s narrative voice echoes Huck’s, and is equally achieved and engrossing, a wonderful layering of author-narrator-speaker. The prose is beautiful and Mattie is an endearing, enduring American hero. True Grit is a novel that teens and adults alike will love, and revisit, each time finding it changed. I’m very sorry that I was forty when I first read it, but I can make sure my daughter doesn’t overlook it. True Grit is probably a perfect novel.

Portis’s first novel Norwood (1966) is the first novel I read by him. This impossibly-large but slim novel is the picaresque tale of Norwood Pratt, who kind of bumbles his way across the South after being discharged from the Marines. Portis taps into the same grotesque fount that fed Faulkner and Flannery, Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers, but he converts that fuel into something more exuberant, energetic, and joyful than anything those authors ever produced.

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Eleven years after True Grit, Portis published The Dog of the South, which might be my favorite of the four I’ve read by him. This is a shaggy dog, a road trip novel, ribald, grotesque, and very, very funny. It reads like the novel that Barry Hannah was never quite sober enough to manage, a loose ironic folk-blues ballad of a novel with more structure and tighter refrains than Hannah’s wild jazz. Dog may have some faults, but it’s a wonderful read, and its ending reverberates with earned pathos.

1985’s Masters of Atlantis is probably the consensus favorite among Portis fans. Easily the most sprawling of his book, both in geographical scope and time, Masters is a novel of con-men and poseurs, secret societies and secret scams, capitalism and the price of knowledge. Despite an international cast, like Portis’s first three novels Masters is a very American novel, whatever that means. There’s a Pynchonian paranoid vibe and a Pynchonian zaniness to Masters—the novel reminds me very much of Pynchon’s underrated Against the Day. Masters of Atlantis also belongs to the American tradition of grifter novels, like Melville’s The Confidence-Man, Baum’s Oz books, the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and even  The Great Gatsby. (It’s more fun to read than any of those.) Told in a third-person voice, Masters feels positively epic compared to the first-person immediacy of True Grit or The Dog of the South, or even the third-person voice of Norwood, which hovers around its protagonist’s brain pan and eye line, and doesn’t flit much farther. Masters is a loose, shaggy epic that seems to sprawl beyond its 250-odd pages.

I have yet to read Portis’s final novel Gringos (1991), which centers on expatriate Americans living in Merida who raid Mayan tombs and hunt UFOs (this may be an inaccurate description). I secured a copy when I was on my Portis binge, but when I finished Masters of Atlantis, I had to pause. Like many readers who fall in love with an author—especially an author with such a slim oeuvre—I tend to read greedily, voraciously, as the cliche goes. Finding Portis at forty felt like a bizarre gift from nowhere (a gift from the author himself, of course). I read all of Cormac McCarthy in my late twenties, an act I now regret. It’s not that I can’t re-read McCarthy—I do all the time—but unless we get another novel, it’s like, That’s it. When I truly fell in love with Pynchon and Gaddis, in my thirties, I consumed their novels, of course, re-reading books like Gravity’s Rainbow an J R—but also leaving one, y’know, in my back pocket, metaphorically: Bleeding Edge and A Frolic of His Own, respectively. Gringos is on the same mental shelf as those volumes, but I’ve taken it down from the actual shelf it was just-until-now resting upon, a to-be-read stack.  I used the adjective final in the first sentence of the previous paragraph to describe Portis’s 1991 novel Gringos. It’s possible that there are more novels, of course, finished or otherwise, and I have to admit that I’ll look forward to seeing them. In the meantime, I’ll start Gringos.

 

“Lincoln Theatre” — Langston Hughes

 

“Lincoln Theatre”

by

Langston Hughes


The head of Lincoln looks down from the wall
While movies echo dramas on the screen.
The head of Lincoln is serenely tall
Above a crowd of black folk, humble, mean.
The movies end. The lights flash gaily on.
The band down in the pit bursts into jazz.
The crowd applauds a plump brown-skin bleached
blonde
Who sings the troubles every woman has.
She snaps her fingers, slowly shakes her hips,
And cries, all careless-like from reddened lips!
De man I loves has
Gone and done me wrong …
While girls who wash rich white folks clothes by day
And sleek-haired boys who deal in love for pay
Press hands together, laughing at her song.

Parson Weems’ Fable — Grant Wood

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Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939 by Grant Wood (1891–1942)

The Centurion’s Servant — Stanley Spencer

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The Centurion’s Servant, 1914 by Stanley Spencer (1891–1959)

Two by Dmitry Samarov (Books acquired 7 Feb. 2020)

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Copies of Dmitry Samarov’s latest books, Soviet Stamps and Music to My Eyes showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters the other week. I started in on Music to My Eyes, a kind of fragmentary memoir told in sketches (both verbal and literal) of the Chicago music scene. The determiner “the” in the previous sentence is wrong, of course, as is the singular noun “scene” — Samarov’s book shows the diversity of the city’s music, even if fans will be able to connect the dots between bands like Eleventh Dream Day, Mekons, and Brokeback. There are stories that float around Nick Cave, Arto Lindsay, Neko Case, and many, many others. Samarov’s brief chapter on the Silver Jews ends with an anecdote about not getting to meet Berman in 2018. The final lines are heartbreaking: “Maybe there’ll be more songs. Then I could stop being mad at him for walking away too soon.”

Here’s Samarov on U.S. Maple, who made some of the strangest music ever during that weird slice of time from the mid-nineties to the mid-aughts. U.S. Maple is by far the most confounding live band I’ve ever seen; it’s easy to throw around the word deconstruction, but their live performances were deconstructions of rocknroll:

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Read my 2012 interview with Dmitry Samarov.

East Village Apartment II — Salman Toor

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East Village Apartment II, 2017 by Salman Toor (b. 1983)

Lover’s Leap — Kyle Dunn

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Lover’s Leap, 2019 by Kyle Dunn (b. 1990)

“Sophocles” — Gordon Lish

“Sophocles”

by

Gordon Lish

from Self-Imitation of Myself  (1997)


Take egg. Boil until hard-cooked. Crack shell. Hold under running water. Remove shell. Set shell aside. Peel away white. Set white aside. Use heel of spoon to mash yolk in midsize mixing bowl. Add one teaspoon heavy cream, one tablespoon granulated sugar, one teaspoon confectioners’ sugar, three teaspoons almond extract, dash salt. Blend until blended consistency has been achieved. Set mixture aside. Take half cup shortening, two cups sifted flour, one teaspoon salt, four tablespoons ice water. Press with fork. Melt two sticks unsalted butter and fold in. Add two teaspoons vanilla extract. Shake in ground cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. Cover with dampened towel and set aside in warm, dry place. Core eight apples. Cream three bananas. Take one cup sour cream, half cup sweet cream, quarter cup molasses. Blend three tablespoons dark brown sugar with quarter cup unsalted butter. Add half teaspoon baking powder. Turn when bubbles appear. Set mixture aside. Heat bacon drippings, peanut oil, and corn oil in shallow frypan. Drain excess onto brown paper bag. Pour remainder into buttered casserole. Sprinkle with paprika. Pat dry. Remove from pan. Allow milk to “billow.” Cut in four servings of finely chopped cabbage. Put seven egg yolks, two pints buttermilk into large mixing bowl. Beat until ingredients are thoroughly moistened. Resolve butter while gradually adding sugar. Add egg mixture to hot milk in saucepan. Set aside and take two tablespoons strained orange juice and eight-ounce jar apricot preserves. Cut pecans coarsely. Pour and spoon into prepared pan. Add half cup condensed milk, half cup evaporated milk, whole cup skim milk. Cook until substance has clarified. Let cool before refrigerating. Then bring gently to boil. Stir in apples and “shave” top with well-chilled knife. Beat vigorously until thick. Set this aside. Crush four vanilla beans with curd mallet. Divide with scissors into one-inch pieces. Transfer mixture to baking tin. Core more apples. Fold in eggs. Fold in pecans. Beat until stiff. Where’s your cooked egg white? Don’t forget your cooked egg white! Cut shortening into safflower oil. Remove cabbage from double boiler. Steam and then spread until surface is crumbly. Beat with whisk. Set aside. To begin sauce, take one quart okra, two pints tomatoes, two chopped onions, salt and pepper to taste. Take off skin and slice thin. Shake until greens are engulfed. Combine and keep beating. Prepare greased sheet. Allow contents to regroup. Dice and remove grated walnuts. Mixture is “ready” when peaks appear. Set aside and boil without stirring. Is it brittle? Discard and start again if brittle. What happened to vanilla beans? Crush more vanilla beans. Take creamed bananas. Pat dry. Remove from bowl. Lift gently. Combine. Fold back towel. You dampened it, didn’t you? Didn’t you dampen it? You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t dampen it! You took this for a joke and didn’t fucking dampen it, did you? See the brittleness? Weren’t you warned? You were warned, weren’t you?

Take egg.

No, forget it — don’t take egg.

Go get eight pounds stewing meat.

Hack away gristle.

Hack away suet.

Rip out bone.

The Seeress of Prevorst — Gabriel von Max

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The Seeress of Prevorst, 1892 by Gabriel von Max (1840-1915)

“My Days Are Numbered” — Rick Moranis

“My Days Are Numbered”

by

Rick Moranis

Published in The New York Times, 22 Nov. 2006


The average American home now has more television sets than people … according to Nielsen Media Research. There are 2.73 TV sets in the typical home and 2.55 people, the researchers said.

— The Associated Press, Sept. 21.

I have two kids. Both are away at college.

I have five television sets. (I like to think of them as a set of five televisions.) I have two DVR boxes, three DVD players, two VHS machines and four stereos.

I have nineteen remote controls, mostly in one drawer.

I have three computers, four printers and two non-working faxes.

I have three phone lines, three cell phones and two answering machines.

I have no messages.

I have forty-six cookbooks.

I have sixty-eight takeout menus from four restaurants.

I have one hundred and sixteen soy sauce packets.

I have three hundred and eighty-two dishes, bowls, cups, saucers, mugs and glasses.

I eat over the sink.

I have five sinks, two with a view.

I try to keep a positive view.

I have two refrigerators.

It’s very hard to count ice cubes.

I have thirty-nine pairs of golf, tennis, squash, running, walking, hiking, casual and formal shoes, ice skates and rollerblades.

I’m wearing slippers.

I have forty-one 37-cent stamps.

I have no 2-cent stamps.

I read three dailies, four weeklies, five monthlies and no annual reports.

I have five hundred and six CD, cassette, vinyl and eight-track recordings.

I listen to the same radio station all day.

I have twenty-six sets of linen for four regular, three foldout and two inflatable beds.

I don’t like having houseguests.

I have one hundred and eighty-four thousand frequent flier miles on six airlines, three of which no longer exist.

I have 101 Dalmatians on tape.

I have fourteen digital clocks flashing relatively similar times.

I have twenty-two minutes to listen to the news.

I have nine armchairs from which I can be critical.

I have a laundry list of things that need cleaning.

I have lost more than one thousand golf balls.

I am missing thirty-seven umbrellas.

I have over four hundred yards of dental floss.

I have a lot of time on my hands.

I have two kids coming home for Thanksgiving.

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Annunciation — Gely Korzhev

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Annunciation, 1997 by Gely Korzhev (1925-2012)

My Parents — David Hockney

My Parents 1977 by David Hockney born 1937

My Parents, 1977 by David Hockney (b. 1937)

And I blessed it, because it was the signal of my release | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for February 11th, 1840

February 11th.–I have been measuring coal all day, on board of a black little British schooner, in a dismal dock at the north end of the city. Most of the time I paced the deck to keep myself warm; for the wind (northeast, I believe) blew up through the dock, as if it had been the pipe of a pair of bellows. The vessel lying deep between two wharves, there was no more delightful prospect, on the right hand and on the left, than the posts and timbers, half immersed in the water, and covered with ice, which the rising and falling of successive tides had left upon them, so that they looked like immense icicles. Across the water,however, not more than half a mile off, appeared the Bunker Hill Monument; and, what interested me considerably more, a church-steeple, with the dial of a clock upon it, whereby I was enabled to measure the march of the weary hours. Sometimes I descended into the dirty little cabin of the schooner, and warmed myself by a red-hot stove, among biscuit-barrels, pots and kettles, sea-chests, and innumerable lumber of all sorts,–my olfactories, meanwhile, being greatly refreshed by the odor of a pipe, which the captain, or some one of his crew, was smoking. But at last came the sunset, with delicate clouds, and a purple light upon the islands; and I blessed it, because it was the signal of my release.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for February 11th, 1840. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Prospectors — Nigel Cooke

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Prospectors, 2013 by Nigel Cooke (b. 1973)

Anasazi (Beautiful and bewildering graphic novel told in its own glyphic language, acquired 6 Feb. 2019)

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A week or so ago, Mike McCubbins offered me a review copy of Anasazi, the graphic novel that he made with Matt Bryan. He sent a link to the Anasazi’s Kickstarter page. I skimmed over the art, was impressed and immediately interested, and then read their blurb:

Anasazi is a nearly wordless 212 page, 8″ x 8.5″ full-color cloth-bound graphic novel. Its a story of war, assimilation, and cultural divisions on a colorful alien planet that combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, mythology, world history, and horror.

…16 chapters. 16 words.  There is no English dialogue or exposition in Anasazi. Instead each chapter heading contains an alien language glyph along with a non-English word or phrase meaning and its literal English translation. These glyphs then appear as dialogue throughout the story.

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The art, overview, and the concept of a story told in glyphs intrigued me, and I trusted my intuition not to read the brief “What’s the story?” section of Anasazi until after I’d read the novel. I read it twice; once the night it showed up, and then again the next morning. The story synopsis (three short sentences) hardly spoils the narrative, but it offers enough context for anyone wholly lost to find their footing.

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The joy of Anasazi is sinking into its rich, alien world, sussing out meaning from image, color, and glyphs. The novel has its own grammar. Bryan and McCubbins conjure a world reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels, Charles Burns’ Last Look trilogy, Kipling’s Mowgli stories, as well as the fantasies of Jean Giraud.

The sixteen English words in Anasazi are all chapter names, and all are loan words, as the novel’s title suggests. Some (“M’Aidez,” “Sheol,” “Melaina Chole”) were more familiar to me than others (“Zinduka,” “Gweilo,” “Shuv”), and all take on a strange tone in the novel, as if the glyphs the characters speak are rough transliterations of something far more refined than our alien ears could comprehend.

I really enjoyed Anasazi, and I aim to have a full review soon. But I plan to read it a few more times first.