Book Shelves #42, 10.14.2012


Book shelves series #42, forty-second Sunday of 2012

Couldn’t really get a good pic of the whole shelf, so in portions, starting with a spread of postmodernist favorites from years past. Julia Kristeva was a particular favorite of mine in grad school, but her Portable stands up well outside of, jeez, I dunno, theory and deconstruction and all that jazz; there are plenty of memoirish essays, including a wonderful piece on Paris ’68 and Tel Quel &c. Sam Kimball‘s book The Infanticidal Logic of Evolution and Culture still maintains an important place in the way I approach analyzing any kind of storytelling. Love the cover of this first American edition of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, which I bought for a dollar years ago at a Friends of the Library sale:


I may or may not have obtained the The Viking Portable Nietzsche through nefarious means in my sixteenth year. In any case, it’s not really the best intro (I’m partial to The Gay Science), but it’s not bad. The Plato I’ve had forever. I never finished Bloom’s The Western Canon, although I’ve returned to it many times in the past five or six years, as I’ve opened up more to his ideas. I wrote about many of the books on this shelf, including a few by Simon Critchley.


The book I’d most recommend on this section of the shelf—indeed, the entire shelf—is Freud’s The Future of an Illusion:


The end of the shelf moves into more pop territory, including two good ones by AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin. You might also note Reality Hunger, a book that I am increasingly afraid to go back to, fearing that I probably agree more with Shields’s thesis, even if I didn’t particularly like his synthesis.


Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States is an overlooked gem that should have gotten more attention than Shields’s “manifesto.” He shares a bit of Georges Perec (whose writing helped spark this project of mine):


James Wood’s How Fiction Works got my goat: 


From my review:

Like most people who love to read, both academically and for pleasure, I like a good argument, and Wood’s aesthetic criticism is a marvelous platform for my ire, especially in a world that increasingly seems to not care about reading fiction. Wood is a gifted writer, even if his masterful skill at sublimating his personal opinion into a front of absolute authority is maddening. There’s actually probably more in his book that I agree with than not, but it’s those major sticking points on literary approaches that stick in my craw. It’s also those major sticking points that make the book an interesting read. I’d like to think that I’m not interested in merely having my opinions re-confirmed.

Books Acquired a Few Weeks Ago, Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month


Short stack of fat books from Picador this month.

Some highlights:


Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising piqued my interest last year when it came out in hardback. I am a buff of the American history. From Kevin Boyle’s review in the NYT last year:

. . . Horwitz has given us a hard-driving narrative of one of America’s most troubling historical figures: the fearsome John Brown, whose blood-soaked raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va., in October 1859 — a “misguided, wild and apparently insane” act, in the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s words — helped to push the nation into the most devastating war it would ever endure.

In Horwitz’s telling, Brown was set on the road to Harpers Ferry from birth. His parents were fervent Calvinists who raised their children to see life as a constant struggle against sin. Much of the battle was personal: Brown’s earliest memory, from age 5, was of being whipped by his mother for having stolen a handful of brass pins. But it was political as well. The Browns believed that the devout had to bear witness against the sins of the nation. And there was no greater sin, they said, than the institution of slavery. So Brown’s father turned the family home in northeast Ohio into a stop on the Underground Railroad. And he turned his son into an ardent abolitionist.

Horwitz moves nimbly through Brown’s deepening involvement in the movement in the 1830s and ’40s, setting his devotion alongside the growing national conflict over slavery’s place in a country ostensibly dedicated to equality. Abolitionism was then dominated by pacifists like Garrison, who insisted that the evil could be destroyed by moral suasion. Brown didn’t agree. In 1837 he gathered together his wife and three teenage boys — the eldest of 20 children he would father — and asked who among them “were willing to make common cause with him in doing all in our power to ‘break the jaws of the wicked and pluck the spoil out of his teeth.’ ”


Edie Meidav named her third novel Lola, California, which I think is a pretty great name for a novel. Ellen Wernecke reviewed it in hardback for The AV Club last year and gave it an “A” (NB: I almost always disagree with AV Club’s reviews and I think grading books is a ridiculous gesture. Still):

A decades-old murder in New Age-inflected Berkeley forces a reunion between two high-school best friends in Edie Meidav’s textured, disquieting third novel. Lola, California plumbs the rise and fall of a friendship, finding its terrifying resonance for the adults it produced. Former Berkeley professor and ’70s guru Vic Mahler sits in a California prison with brain cancer, an unwitting cause célèbre for opponents of the tough new death penalty under which he is sentenced to die. Even though he won’t see her, a lawyer named Rose, who practically grew up in Vic’s house, believes she can secure him a stay so he can die in peace. After they met at 14, Rose and Vic’s daughter Lana were so inseparable, they called each other by the same name, Lola, sharing clothes and secret dances; even when sneaking out on Lana’s parents or Rose’s foster mother, they always went home together. After Vic’s arrest, Lana walked out of her best friend’s life, moving to L.A. and changing her name. The former best friends reencounter each other at a hot spring where Lana has moved with her new boyfriend, who hopes to follow in Vic’s footsteps.

AV Club Interviews Daniel Clowes


The AV Club interviews comix creator Daniel Clowes. (Read our review of Clowes’s hilarious and acerbic book Wilson)From the interview—

The A.V. Club: People often ask musicians if they listen to their old albums or filmmakers if they watch their old movies, but do you reread your old comics?

Dan Clowes: I try not to. [Laughs.] It usually doesn’t lead to anything good. The only way I can ever experience them really is if I completely forgot what they were about. Once I send it off to the printer, I try to never look at the work again, if I can help it. Usually when I put together a book like this DeathRay hardcover or that Ghost World special edition, then I have to reread it and see if there is anything I want to change or any re-coloring I want to do. That’s when I’m faced with the actual work. When I’m working, I’m too close to it. I’m sort of inside, and I can’t see it at all. So when I have that experience of rereading it years later, it’s jarring.

The AV Club Interviews Lynda Barry

The AV Club’s Tasha Robinson interviews comix legend Lynda Barry. In the (rather lengthy) interview, Barry discusses teaching her craft–

It’s a really hard thing to teach students. The two things I always try to teach them is, one, you have to stay in motion. It doesn’t mean that you have to just write blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Write the alphabet. You have to stay in motion. And the other thing is, when you get stuck, don’t read over what you just wrote. Especially if you have a computer. Maybe by hand is not so bad, but with a computer, what happens is… My experience has always been that there is a point when the story just stops. Always. You know, it’s just like when you’re dancing. There’s a time when you’re fake-dancing, because the groove has stopped. Then you’re back in the groove. So if people understood that that’s a natural part of making something, and they knew what to do during that time… But what people will do if they’re writing on a computer is, when that time comes and it’s quiet for a minute, they panic and go back and start fixing stuff above it that was not even broken. You can’t start to fix something until you know what it’s for, you know? So I always try to get my students to just sustain the state of mind for a certain amount of time. Even though I use 24 panels for my students, they’ll have seven minutes to just sustain this open state of mind while they’re writing, keep their hand in motion. But it’s really tough to get them to believe me, to just to even give it a try. And then once they do, it’s really fun.

My Year of Flops — Nathan Rabin

Let me admit biases up front: for the past few years, I’ve looked forward every Wednesday to Nathan Rabin’s regular column at the AV Club,“My Year of Flops,” where he reviews–and reappraises–some of the worst-received films of all time. I’m also a fan of Rabin’s other columns, “THEN! That’s What They Called Music!” and “Nashville or Bust,” as well as the general tone of the AV Club, which he no doubt helps set as its head writer. I also thought Rabin’s memoir The Big Rewind was pretty good. So, I’m probably not the most objective person to review Rabin’s new book My Year of Flops, which comprises 35 of Rabin’s past columns, 15 new entries, and interview snippets with some of the actors who had the (mis)fortune to turn up in these flops. I’ll do my best to assess how well these columns–most of which were written for the internet–hold up as a book.

So, what, exactly, constitutes a flop?  There are the biggies here, of course, infamous studio-busting career-killers like Heaven’s Gate, Battlefield Earth, and Ishtar;  the batshit crazy weirdfests that were destined to become cult classics, like Southland Tales, Howard the Duck, and The Apple; the disposable movies made to be forgotten, like Bratz: The Movie; there are forgotten and overlooked oddballs, like Robert Altman’s teen sex comedy, O.C. and Stiggs, and Gospel Road, where Johnny Cash tells the life story of Jesus. All of these films share disappointing (or non-existent) box office results as well as general critical disapproval (or at least bewilderment). As part of his revisionist project, Rabin ends each entry by declaring the re-appraised film a “Secret Success,” a “Fiasco,” or a “Failure.” Tellingly, most of the time Rabin finds his subject to be a “Fiasco.” He’s willing to take each film on its own terms; he’s also incredibly open to viewing each film in a way that transcends the trappings of its marketing to an intended audience.

Take, for example Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a film macho novelist Norman Mailer thought it would be a totally sound idea to not only write but direct. Rabin’s initial analysis derides the film for its cardboard characters, debased gimmickry, and embarrassing dialog. By the end of his reassessment, however, Rabin has given the would-be thriller a new life as “a darkly comic, horror-tinged melodrama about the emptiness of excess and the soul-crushing costs of pursuing endless pleasure.” His review rests not on a personal ironic vision, but rather on a willingness to see Mailer’s own ironic vision at work behind (and in front of) the camera.

In the same way, Rabin is able to put aside–even while acknowledging–the dreadful reputations surrounding films like Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate. Even though the latter film essentially destroyed both its studio and the maverick filmmaking style of the 1970s, Rabin finds in it more than a slight redemption–he finds a flawed masterpiece, a gorgeous treatise on Manifest Destiny that doesn’t deserve its reputation. Similarly, Rabin would have us believe that Istar actually is funny. Both of these entries are remarkable not just in their clear revisionist goal, but also for how instructive they are. In both write-ups, Rabin reveals much of how movies are made, and how movies are made flops–the ways that infighting, firings, and studio expectations can damn a film before it even premieres.

While My Year of Flops is instructive in its criticism, it’s also very entertaining. Rabin has a keen sense of satire, and if he occasionally tips into snark, it’s always earned (and if you have a problem with a writer being snarky at the expense of Battlefield Earth, well, you’re probably a prig anyway). A great illustration of how Rabin combines his sense of humor with his instructive criticism in his coinage of the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”–

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors, who use them to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl serves as a means to an end, not a flesh-and-blood human being. Once life lessons have been imparted, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl might as well disappear in a poof! for her life’s work is done.

Cameron Crowe is particularly guilty of employing the MPDG trope, but you can find her pretty much everywhere you look–at least in the domain of rom-coms. Rabin proposes the term in his first entry in the series (also the first entry in the book) a review of Crowe’s much maligned Elizabethtown. Rabin finds it to be a Fiasco. In a move that sums up both Rabin’s program and his generous spirit, Rabin concludes My Year of Flops by re-reassessing Elizabethtown–he now dubs it a Secret Success. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that a critic should-be a starry-eyed optimist who finds the best of all possible worlds in each work, I do think that it has become far too easy to outright dismiss someone’s hard work. We live in a hyper-mediated age that moves too fast: all propositions are disposable, including the arts. Rabin, in taking each work on its own terms, does a service to both criticism and creativity.

Rabin’s own columns might, of course, fall prey to this disposable age. Today’s columns and blog posts are meant to be consumed quickly; although the best might find a life of new clicks in cyberspace, most are tomorrow’s virtual bird-cage liners. The blog-book is thus a tenuous grasp at some permeability–or at least respectability. My Year of Flops is fun, energetic, and insightful, but it does not bear sustained reading. The entries are best consumed one at time, probably between other tasks (or other books). It’s a great book for the john. Still, in an ideal library, My Year of Flops would stand squarely along side any other work of film criticism (it’s certainly sharper than anything by Leonard Maltin or Gene Shalit). Ultimately, Rabin does here what all great critics do–he makes a case for the works he’s appraising. He makes you want to see his Secret Successes and even the Fiascos (and, at times, even the Failures). I’ll even forgive him for making me watch The Apple. Recommended.

New(ish) Memoirs from Nathan Rabin, Sloane Crosley, and James Ellroy

Nearly a  year after earning good reviews, Nathan Rabin’s memoir The Big Rewind is now available in paperback (the cover sports the claim that the book now includes “EVEN MORE BITING WIT AND UNWISE CANDOR”). Rabin, if you don’t know, is the head writer for the AV Club, a website I am hopelessly addicted to; he’s also responsible for some of the site’s best regular columns, including “My Year of Flops,” where he revisits films that, y’know, flopped, “THEN! That’s What They Called Music!,” where he subjects himself to listening to and writing about those NOW! CDs, and “Nashville or Bust,” a year-long analysis of country music from an avowed hip-hop fan. If I sound prejudicially predisposed to liking Rabin’s memoir, I am. I can’t help it. In The Big Rewind, Rabin revisits the various pop culture touchstones through which he lived his strange, often sad life–so Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs becomes the lens through which he details his thankless years working for Blockbuster and Nirvana’s In Utero is a key to understanding Rabin’s time in a group foster home. There’s a story arc–depression, a missing mother, suicide attempts, redemption–and plenty of irony to keep it under control. At the same time, there’s too much heart in Rabin’s writing for you not to care. Recommended. The Big Rewind is new in trade paperback from Scribner.

Sloane Crosley’s new collection of memory essays, How Did You Get This Number, finds the witty, observational young lass being witty and observational in and out of New York City–but mostly in. There are trips to Portugal and Paris, and a weird wedding in Alaska. There’s a remembrance of all the childhood pets that didn’t make it. There’s a story about buying furniture of questionable origin off the back of a truck. At times Crosley’s archness can be grating, as dry observations pile one upon the other, but her gift for exacting, sharp detail and her willingness to let her guard down at just the right moment in most of the selections make for a funny and compelling read. I’m still not sure why there’s no question mark in the title, though. How Did You Get This Number is new in hardback from Riverhead Books.

I just got my advance review copy of James Ellroy’s forthcoming memoir The Hilliker Curse, so I haven’t had time to read much of it, but the story so far is morbidly fascinating (like, you know, an Ellroy novel. But this is real. Because it’s a memoir). In 1958, James’s mother Jean Hilliker had divorced her husband and begun binge drinking. When she hit him one night, the ten year old boy wished that she would die. Three months later she was found murdered on the side of the road–the case remains unsolved. The memoir details Ellroy’s extreme guilt; his sincere belief that he had literally cursed his mother pollutes his life, particularly in his complex relationships with women. Full review forthcoming. The Hilliker Curse is available September 7th, 2010 from Knopf.