Blog about some recent reading

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I am reading too many books right now.

The big book I am reading is Marlon James’s surreal fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf. I am a little over half way through this long, long book, which is by turns rich, dazzling, baffling, and befuddling. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a fantasy-quest novel set in a mythical medieval Africa. The story is told by Tracker, a detective under magical protection who uses his magnificent nose to search for a missing boy, Tracker is aided (and sometimes stymied) on this quest by a strange and ever-shifting fellowship of superpowered heroes and antiheroes, including a sad, talkative giant, a mysterious witch, and the titular Leopard. Leopard is a shapeshifter, and Tracker’s erstwhile partner, both in adventures and in love. “Fantastic beasts, fantastic appetites,” he remarks at one point, summarizing the novel’s horny program. “The more you tell me, the less I know,” another character remarks, summarizing the novel’s shaggy structure. Black Leopard, Red Wolf unspools its plot in the most confounding way. Tracker is hardly a reliable narrator, but we are not even sure if he is the primary narrator. He’s telling his tale to an Inquisitor, but the tale-telling spins ever on, each story a deferral. And those deferrals often open into other storytellers, who tell stories with their own embedded stories. James’s book is like a matryoshka doll full of blood and guts and fucking and surreal ceiling-walking demons. It’s as much a detective story as a fantasy, but for all its genre troping, it makes few concessions to its various genres’ conventional forms. Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf often feels more like playing a really long game of very weird Dungeons & Dragons campaign with an inventive Dungeon Master making wild shit up as he goes along than it does a cohesive and coherent story. I’m digging the play so far.

The other long book I’m reading—crawling through, really—is Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists. I loved the first 100 pages or so, but it’s turning into a slog. The novel’s climactic crisis, a mining disaster, occurs very early in the novel, an interesting gambit given that the novel is about an apocalyptic cult awaiting the end of the world. This apparent second crisis, a consequence of the first crisis, is then deferred. Coover explores this deferral and its consequences over a series of non-climaxes that we see through the eyes of the (many many too many) characters. There are little pockets of Origin that are fantastic, but too little humor to buoy the novel—it gets weighed down under its unwieldy cast and the authorial sense that This Is A Big Important Novel About Life. I will finish it though.

I loved loved loved Ann Quni’s novel Berg. I will do a full review of this marvelous weird claustrophobic novel when it comes out from And Other Stories in the U.S. this summer, but for now: Just amazing. The novel, originally published in 1964, begins like this: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…” That, my friends, is basically the plot. Berg is a grisly Oedipal comedy that will make some readers’ skin crawl. Great stuff.

Anthony Howell’s Consciousness (with Mutilation) is another strange one. It’s part memoir, part collage, part family history, often told in a dreamlike prose, but also sometimes conveyed with reportorial simplicity. Check it out.

I’ve also been reading Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, a discursive collection of essays, lists, little anti-poems, etc. More thoughts to come, but I really dig the feeling of reading it.

Finally, I picked up Leslie Fiedler’s 1964 book of criticism Waiting for the End this Friday. Fiedler begins with the (then-recent) deaths of Hemingway and Faulkner. Fiedler uses the deaths of these “old men” to riff on the end of Modernism, although he never evokes the term. Neither does he use the term “postmodernism” in his book, although he edges towards it in his critiques of kitsch and middlebrow culture, and especially in his essay “The End of the Novel.” In parts of the book, he gets close to describing, or nearing a description of, an emergent postmodernist literature (John Barth and John Hawkes are favorite examples for Fiedler), but ultimately seems more resigned to writing an elegy for the avant garde. Other aspects of Waiting for the End, while well-intentioned, might strike contemporary ears as problematic, as the kids say, but Fiedler’s sharp and loose style are welcome over stodgy scholarship. Ultimately, I find the book compelling because of its middle position in its take on American literature. It’s the work of a critic seeing the beginnings of something that hasn’t quite emerged yet—but his eye is trained more closely on what’s disappearing into the past.

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Books acquired (and not acquired) 8 and 15 March 2019

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On Friday, I went to my trusty local used bookstore to look, once again, for a copy of Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower. They had four new copies, all of Grand Central Publishing’s 2000 edition, the cover of which is frankly awful. I know I shouldn’t be so shallow, but…I’ll end up checking out the ebook from my library I guess. I like sci-fi books to look like sci-fi books, not like bland approximations of “literary fiction.” I like sci-fi covers like this edition of J.G. Ballard’s novel The Crystal World which I took a pic of in the shop (I already have a mass market paperback copy of the Ballard and couldn’t bring myself to get another one)—

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I unexpectedly picked up Anne Hébert’s novel Kamouraska. I’d heard P.T. Smith drop Hébert’s name a couple of times on Twitter, and she sounds interesting. (He wrote about Kamouraska here). The movie tie-in cover is awful, but for two bucks what the hell.

I also finally found another copy of Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark. I’ve been wanting to re-read Gray’s novel ever since I first read it five years ago. I lent my copy of the novel to someone who never gave it back. One of Gray’s illustrations for Lanark

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The previous week, I got two weird ones in the mail, Anthony Howell’s Consciousness (with Mutilation) and 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef, an 1893 cookbook reprinted by Cow Eye Press as a kind of in-joke on indie publishing.

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Here’s Cow Eye’s blurb:

Originally published in 1893 as a cookbook for the American housewife, 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef: With a new Preface from the Publisher has been revised, adapted, and reissued as a new work of fiction celebrating the principles of independent publishing.

The original 99 Practical Methods was by a pseudonymous author named “Babet,” and purported to be translated from the French by one “A.R.” After reading publisher Natalie Zeldner’s preface and the “New Preface from the Intern,” I wasn’t quite sure that Babet’s original book ever existed. It turns out it does exist, but the prefaces by Zeldner and the (now-supposedly-ex-)intern point to the project as something closer to an aburdist joke about publishing than a recipe book. There are recipes here, though—100 of them, actually—like this one:

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Cow Eye’s edition includes pictures, like this one of Samuel Beckett, with each recipe, that are often little oblique jokes, I guess. The edition does not include King Henry the Fourth’s Recipe for Stewed Chicken, which is included in the 1893 edition.

In her preface, publisher Zeldner laments that,

All anyone cares about anymore, it seems, is boiled beef. Boiled beef with the satisfying plot arc. Boiled beef with a light dash of novelty. Boiled beef prepared by celebrity chefs. Boiled beef with a titillating message and eminently discoverable hashtag.

So here you go, my friends: here’s your boiled beef.

Indeed.

Poet Anthony Howell’s Consciousness is another strange one. It actually includes another narrative in it, a novella by Mamdouh Adwan called Mutilation. In an author’s note, Howell points to Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as his work’s predecessor, and the collage technique has led me quite randomly through the book. Here’s Howell’s blurb:

Consciousness (with Mutilation) is a non-fiction novel. Every sentence that begins any paragraph within it also serves as the concluding sentence of another paragraph. The trigger for the text is an epileptic seizure the author experienced in April 2018. This event prompted an investigation of the meaning of continuity in individuals, families and states. Could we have been somebody else yesterday, or become somebody else tomorrow? Consciousness annexes a Syrian novella – Mutilation – within its pages; a novella by Mamdouh Adwan, first published in Damascus in 1971. Reading this book is to be drawn into whirlpools, perhaps to drown. It is self-analysis, but, since the author’s lineage is both Jewish and Quaker, it evolves into an analysis of Zionism, of which Howell’s grandfather was a proponent, and of the role of the British in the Middle East. Having experienced sudden lapses of consciousness, the author senses that “life is not a river. Life is a collage.” This book takes The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs and Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet for its literary forbears. In the way of ancient tragedy, the dilemma of the individual becomes the dilemma of the state, in this case Israel, and the author carries the reader into a world of smoke and mirrors, sustained by collage mediated through its formal constraint.

The Cow Eye Press people may wish to know that there is some small mention of cows in Consciousness, including the theft of an Arnesby Brown painting.