Tom Clark stories (Book acquired, 4.09.2016)

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Extinction: A Radical History (Book acquired, 3.28.2016)

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I’ve been looking forward to this one. Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History is forthcoming from OR Books. Their blurb:

Some thousands of years ago, the world was home to an immense variety of large mammals. From wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers to giant ground sloths and armadillos the size of automobiles, these spectacular creatures roamed freely. Then human beings arrived. Devouring their way down the food chain as they spread across the planet, they began a process of voracious extinction that has continued to the present.

Headlines today are made by the existential threat confronting remaining large animals such as rhinos and pandas. But the devastation summoned by humans extends to humbler realms of creatures including beetles, bats and butterflies. Researchers generally agree that the current extinction rate is nothing short of catastrophic. Currently the earth is losing about a hundred species every day.

This relentless extinction, Ashley Dawson contends in a primer that combines vast scope with elegant precision, is the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole.

This attack has its genesis in the need for capital to expand relentlessly into all spheres of life. Extinction, Dawson argues, cannot be understood in isolation from a critique of our economic system. To achieve this we need to transgress the boundaries between science, environmentalism and radical politics. Extinction: A Radical History performs this task with both brio and brilliance.

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe (Book acquired, 2.22.2016)

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Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer (in English translation by Sarah Prybus) is new in hardback this month from And Other Stories. Their blurb:

Award-winning journalist Wolfgang Bauer and photographer Stanislav Krupař were the first undercover reporters to document the journey of Syrian refugees from Egypt to Europe. Posing as English teachers in 2014, they were direct witnesses to the brutality of smuggler gangs, the processes of detainment and deportation, the dangers of sea-crossing on rickety boats, and the final furtive journey through Europe. Combining their own travels with other eyewitness accounts in the first book of reportage of its kind, Crossing the Sea brings to life both the systemic problems and the individual faces behind the crisis, and is a passionate appeal for more humanitarian refugee policies.

Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (Book acquired, 3.07.2016)

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 I picked up Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights yesterday. (I was browsing the “H, classics” for something else, which I did not find, but I found this). Here’s the beginning of Joan Didion’s 1979 review in The New York Times:

“I have always, all of my life, been looking for help from a man,” we are told near the beginning of Elizabeth Hardwick’s subtle new book. “It has come many times and many more than not. This began early.” . . . “Sleepless Nights” is a novel, but it is a novel in which the subject is memory and to which the “I” whose memories are in question is entirely and deliberately the author: we recognize the events and addresses of Elizabeth Hardwick’s life not only from her earlier work, but from the poems of her husband, the late Robert Lowell. We study in another light the rainy afternoons and dyed satin shoes and high-school drunkenness of the Kentucky adolescence, the thin coats and yearnings toward home of the graduate years at Columbia, the households in Maine and Europe and on Marlborough Street in Boston and West 67th Street in New York. We are presented the entire itinerary, shown all the punched tickets and transfers. The result is less a “story about” or “of” a life than a shattered meditation on it, a work as evocative and difficult to place as Claude Levi-Strauss’s “Tristes Tropiques,” which it oddly recalls. The author observes of her enigmatic narrative: “It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, ‘I’ am a woman.”

This strikes an interesting note, a balance of Oriental diffidence and exquisite contempt, of irony and direct statement, that exactly expresses the sensibility at work in “Sleepless Nights.” “But after all, ‘I’ am a woman.” Triste Tropique indeed. By way of suggesting his own intention, Levi-Strauss quoted Chateaubriand: “Every man carries within himself a world made up of all that he has seen and loved, and it is to this world that he returns, incessantly.” In certain ways, the mysterious and somnambulistic “difference” of being a woman has been, over 35 years, Elizabeth Hardwick’s great subject, the tropic to which she has returned incessantly: it colored both of her early novels, “The Ghostly Lover” in 1945 and “The Simple Truth” in 1955, as well as many of the essays collected in 1962 as “A View of My Own” and all of those published in 1974 as “Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature.”

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure (Book acquired, 2.22.2016)

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I’m pretty excited about Hideo Furukawa’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure (new this month from Columbia University Press in English translation by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka). Columbia UP’s blurb:

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is a multifaceted literary response to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that devastated northeast Japan on March 11, 2011. The novel is narrated by Hideo Furukawa, who travels back to his childhood home near Fukushima after 3/11 to reconnect with a place that is now doubly alien. His ruminations conjure the region’s storied past, particularly its thousand-year history of horses, humans, and the struggle with a rugged terrain. Standing in the morning light, these horses also tell their stories, heightening the sense of liberation, chaos, and loss that accompanies Furukawa’s rich recollections. A fusion of fiction, history, and memoir, this book plays with form and feeling in ways reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn yet draws its own, unforgettable portrait of personal and cultural dislocation.

Read an excerpt here.

Three Books

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Professor Noah’s Spaceship by Brian Wilsdsmith. First edition hardback by Oxford University Press, 1980; distributed through Macmillan Book Clubs. Design, cover, and art by Brian Wildsmith. This book is too beautiful.

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See Again, Say Again by Antonio Frasconi. First edition oversized hardback published by Hacourt, Brace and World, 1964. Cover design, fonts, and woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi.

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Do You Hear What I Hear? by Helen Borten. First edition hardback reprint by Flying Eye Books, a division of Nobrow; the book was originally published in 1960. Illustration and design by Helen Borten. Nowbrow kindly sent me a copy of Do You Hear What I Hear?—the book is beautiful, the text is lovely—Borten’s technique is to represent sound—or rather the feeling of sound (which is to say, the feeling of the feeling of sound) through language and art. Like any great children’s book, Do You Hear What I Hearis best read out loud, and my five-year-old son loved it so much that I had to read it again to him immediately after the first reading. We’ve read it a few times since then. Great stuff.

He Wants (Book acquired, some time in February 2016)

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British author Alison Moore’s novel He Wants is getting a release on this side of the Atlantic from Canadian publisher Biblioasis.

From novelist Rachel Cusk’s review of He Wants two years ago in The Guardian:

Following her Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse, Alison Moore’s artistically pleasing second novel is a sort of Midlands Death in Venice, a story of ageing and thwarted desire in which a man drifts away from his moorings into Dionysian impulses, after a lifetime spent serving the values of the humdrum contemporary community in which he lives.

He Wants evokes a world that is purposefully pedestrian – the Dionysian impulses pertain to halves of shandy and the desire to taste a Swiss liqueur called Goldschläger – but its themes of self-realisation, identity and mortality are grand enough. Moore’s protagonist, a widower RE teacher who is approaching retirement, is intimately captured in the midst of a disintegration brought about by the loss of the structures that have thus far formed and maintained his personality: work, marriage and certain relationships that have created or reinforced his sense of existence.

William Golding’s The Inheritors (Book acquired, 2.19.2016, and pretty much finished this week)

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I picked up William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors last week on a colleague’s recommendation. It’s the story of a band of Neanderthals and their eventual encounter with predatory Homo sapiens. Golding’s Neanderthals seem to possess a near-telepathic power–they share “pictures,” comprising memory, sentiment, words, and ideas. The Neanderthals live fully in the moment, often struggling to recall “pictures” of past events. The viewpoint character Lok is something of a holy fool. His quest to retrieve a missing comrade often finds him laughing in terror.

Golding’s prose is, for the most part, an evocation of concrete contours—sure, there’s a metaphysical dimension to these Neanderthals (they worship Oa, a female spirit)—but Golding’s concern is primarily with capturing how the physical world might be understood through the senses and then converted into “pictures.” A longish passage to showcase Golding’s technique:

The bushes twitched again. Lok steadied by the tree and gazed. A head and a chest faced him, half-hidden. There were white bone things behind the leaves and hair. The man had white bone things above his eyes and under the mouth so that his face was longer than a face should be. The man turned sideways in the bushes and looked at Lok along his shoulder. A stick rose upright and there was a lump of bone in the middle. Lok peered at the stick and the lump of bone and the small eyes in the bone things over the face. Suddenly Lok understood that the man was holding the stick out to him but neither he nor Lok could reach across the river. He would have laughed if it were not for the echo of the screaming in his head. The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again.

The dead tree by Lok’s ear acquired a voice.

“Clop!”

His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig: a twig that smelt of other, and of goose, and of the bitter berries that Lok’s stomach told him he must not eat. This twig had a white bone at the end. There were hooks in the bone and sticky brown stuff hung in the crooks. His nose examined this stuff and did not like it. He smelled along the shaft of the twig. The leaves on the twig were red feathers and reminded him of goose. He was lost in a generalized astonishment and excitement.

Lok encounters a new kind of being (a human) wielding a new technology (a bow and poisoned arrows), and tries to fit them into his schema—but his “pictures” are insufficient. The concrete, sense-driven passage concludes in the abstraction of “astonishment and excitement.”

I’m about forty pages from the end of The Inheritors, and I’ve enjoyed it so far. It’s something like a sci-fi novel, really, or even something in the mode of Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman. Good stuff.

Why the hell did I buy William Vollmann’s Argall? (Book acquired, 2.12.2016)

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I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

First, I bought an ebook of William T. Vollmann’s really really long new novel The Dying Grass a few weeks ago.

I bought this ebook rather late at night, after rather many drinks, against rather better judgment—or, rather, no judgment. If I can reconstruct my thought process: I think I rationalized paying so much money for an electronic file would like, necessitate a commitment to reading The Dying Grass that I might not feel if it were, say, a review copy, or a copy obtained via store credit at my favorite local book shop. Well I’ve been reading the ebook, putting a little edent in it in little eincrements, but it’s still damn long, and our narrator William the Blind can be awfully opaque at times (not to mention the shifts in narrative).

Anyway, I’ve been reading the ebook, which does, I think (?) a nice job of preserving Vollmann’s occasional indulgence in Whitmanesque free verse (prose) style—but well, I sort of want the physical thing too. So I went by my local bookshop in the hopes of securing a copy (and also pick up some Valentine’s books for my kiddoes). No luck in the new hardback section, so they directed me to Historical Fiction, an area I rarely browsed. No luck for The Dying Grass, but there was a hardback copy of Argall there. All 736 pages of it.

Reader, I acquired it.

Why? I don’t know. I love the faux-Elizabethan prose that Pynchon deployed in Mason & Dixon (and I tolerated Barth’s in The Sot-Weed Factor)—and Vollmann’s has a different flavor that’s intriguing (and difficult). The story, the base story, is the Pocahontas story, which in Vollmann’s telling might go past the Pocahontas myth (more than Malick, more than Disney).

But when oh when am I going to get to the thing?!

I’ll close with a selection from Vollmann’s own review of his novel;  the review originally ran in the October 7, 2001 edition of The Los Angeles Times, and was later collected in Expelled from Eden:

“Argall,” whose story emblematizes a personified and of course feminine Virginia, is no better or worse than any of the other “Seven Dreams.” That is why nobody reads “Argall.” No one looks for “Argall.” No one can find “Argall.” Good riddance, say I. To quote from “Argall” itself (the reference is to a fellow who’s searching for Pocahontas’ skeleton), “had the critic found her, what would he have done? Coffined her, borne her back seaward to some brown Virginian marsh crowned by grey and yellow weeds? Locked her into his cabinet of curiosities? All he discovered was a menagerie of human and animal remnants. What power could have swallowed her so thoroughly, but ooze?”

Enough. Holding our noses, let’s try to take this menagerie of remnants on its own terms.

This book’s first sin, as you might have already gathered from the foregoing, consists in its so-called Elizabethan language, whose archaisms, variant spellings and preposterous figures of speech substantially impede the reader in any attempt to envision the ball in any uniform fashion. Here is a sentence plucked at random from the mess: “He search’d for an issue of fair water, there to make another well, for he misdoubted him not that the river they drunk from was somehow tainted with disease, yet could discover no convenient place to make his diggings.” Much time and trouble would have been saved, had this so-called novelist written what he meant: “In order to get more healthful water, he intended to dig a well, but couldn’t.” The arch apostrophe, the ignorant substitution of “drunk” for “drank,” the ink-wasting double negation, well, really all this makes me crave to spew.

American Candide (Book acquired and consumed this past week, like early-mid February 2016)

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So I ate this one up: Mahendra Singh’s American Candide is terribly funny, except when you stop and think about the satire and why the satire works, and you think, Aw hell, this is terribly sad. I consumed the thing in more or less three sittings. There’s a cliché, right—Better than it has any right to be—I mean, this thing could fall flat on its face, this transposition of Voltaire’s Candide to 21st century America (excuse me, Freedonia)—but Singh’s prose is adroitly devastating; like Candide, he offers a subject, a verb, and then pivots the object or next clause in some darkly satirical direction. Fun fun fun smart smart smart. My only quibble is that I wish Singh’s marvelous illustrations (with nods to Gustave Dore and William Blake, among others, I’m sure) we’re reproduced on full pages.

Back cover blurb:

Voltaire’s most famous literary creation, Candide, is now rebooted for the better-than-best of all possible worlds, 21st-century America. The globe-trotting misadventures of American Candide and his wingnut tutor, Dr. Pangloss, his totally hot BBW Cunegonde plus sundry suicide bombers, illuminati global warmers, insurance cults, sex-crazed illegal aliens and even the Senate Sub-Committee on Homeland Furnishings provides sufficient belly laughs to make exile, destitution, rape, murder and torture into something that happens to other, mostly foreign people, thank God.

 From the jungle slums of darkest Africa to the lily-white McMansions of American suburbia, the human condition wreaks havoc upon Candide and his friends as they search for an American Dream being held against its will in an undisclosed location. College-boy sissies will call it a Juvenalian satire upon America’s penchant for mindless optimism and casual racism but Candide says it’s really ‘rage against the rage, Voltaire-dude!’

United States of Japan (Book acquired, 2.02.2016)

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Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan — a “spiritual sequel to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle” — -is forthcoming from Angry Robot. Their blurb:

Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons — a group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest terrorist tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.

Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s tasked with getting to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something…kind of. He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than the censors originally suspected.d

A Splendid Savage (Book acquired, 1.29.2016)

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Steve Kemper’s biography of Frederick Russell Burnham, A Splendid Savage, is new in hardback from Norton. I interviewed Kemper a few years ago about A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, his biography of Heinrich Barth.

Norton’s blurb for A Splendid Savage:

A life of adventure and military daring on violent frontiers across the American West, Africa, Mexico, and the Klondike.

Frederick Russell Burnham’s (1861–1947) amazing story resembles a newsreel fused with a Saturday matinee thriller. One of the few people who could turn his garrulous friend Theodore Roosevelt into a listener, Burnham was once world-famous as “the American scout.” His expertise in woodcraft, learned from frontiersmen and Indians, helped inspire another friend, Robert Baden-Powell, to found the Boy Scouts. His adventures encompassed Apache wars and range feuds, booms and busts in mining camps around the globe, explorations in remote regions of Africa, and death-defying military feats that brought him renown and high honors. His skills led to his unusual appointment, as an American, to be Chief of Scouts for the British during the Boer War, where his daring exploits earned him the Distinguished Service Order from King Edward VII.

After a lifetime pursuing golden prospects from the deserts of Mexico and Africa to the tundra of the Klondike, Burnham found wealth, in his sixties, near his childhood home in southern California. Other men of his era had a few such adventures, but Burnham had them all. His friend H. Rider Haggard, author of many best-selling exotic tales, remarked, “In real life he is more interesting than any of my heroes of romance.”

Among other well-known individuals who figure in Burnham’s story are Cecil Rhodes and William Howard Taft, as well as some of the wealthiest men of the day, including John Hays Hammond, E. H. Harriman, Henry Payne Whitney, and the Guggenheim brothers.

Failure and tragedy streaked his life as well, but he was endlessly willing to set off into the unknown, where the future felt up for grabs and values worth dying for were at stake. Steve Kemper brings a quintessential American story to vivid life in this gripping biography.

Jowhor Ile’s And After Many Days (Book acquired, 1.27.2016)

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Jowhor Ile’s novel After Many Days is new in hardback next month from Tim Duggan Books/Penguin Random House. Their blurb:

Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal (Book acquired, 1.28.2016)

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Yann Martel’s novel The High Mountains of Portugal is new in hardback in the U.S. from Speigel & Grau.

Here’s the first two paragraphs of Urusla K. Le Guin’s review of the novel in The Guardian:

The High Mountains of Portugal, in Yann Martel’s novel of that name, turn out to be grassy uplands rather than high mountains; and the book turns out to be three stories rather than a novel. The stories, connected ingeniously, vary greatly in tone and quality. The first two display so little of the author’s narrative skill that they may offer more temptation to stop reading than to go on. Liking the last part of the book much better, I could wish that it stood alone.

In Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi, the author within the story tells us that he went to India with the intention of writing a novel set in Portugal. Then he met the Indian who told him the tale of Pi, and Portugal was forgotten. It’s recollected in the first part of this book in great detail: “He heads off down Rue São Miguel on to Largo São Miguel and then Rua de São João da Praça before turning on to Arco de Jesus.” This sort of street-rosary may delight Lisbon initiates but to others is made interesting only by the fact that the protagonist, Tomas, is walking backwards, and that he always does so. After some elaborate rationales for walking backwards, and a farcical encounter with a lamppost, we learn that he walks with “his back to the world, his back to God”, not because he is grieving for the sudden, recent death of his wife, his child, and his father, but because “he is objecting”.

Read the rest of Le Guin’s review.

Sebald/Purdy/Baxter (Books acquired, 1.05.2016)

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The Viceroys (Book acquired, 12.22.2015)

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Federico De Roberto 1894 novel The Viceroys is back in print again via the good people at Verso. This edition is translated by Archibald Colquhoun, with a foreword by Franco Moretti. Verso’s blurb:

A lost literary classic, written in 1894, The Viceroys is one of the most acclaimed masterworks of Italian realism.

The novel follows three generations of the aristocratic Uzeda family as it struggles to hold on to power in the face of the cataclysmic changes rocking Sicily. As Garibaldi’s triumphs move Italy toward unification, the Uzedas try every means to retain their position. De Roberto’s satirical and mordant pen depicts a cast of upper-class schemers, headed by the old matriarch, Donna Teresa, and exemplified by her arrogant and totally unscrupulous son, Consalvo, who rises to political eminence through lip service, double-dealing, and hypocrisy. The Viceroys is a vast dramatic panorama: a new world fighting to shrug off the viciousness and iniquities of the old.

Moretti’s blurb:
“A unique combination of naturalistic lucidity over the fate of impoverished aristocracies, and a Goya-like inventiveness in extracting from social disintegration a whole gallery of grotesques and monstrosities … a superb lesson in how coarse and rancid the collapse of a ruling class actually is.

Frankie Styne and the Silver Man (Book acquired, 12.09.2015)

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Kathy Page’s 1992 novel Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is getting a North American debut thanks to publisher Biblioasis. Blurb from the author’s website:

Frankie Styne, the successful author of a series of gruesome killer novels,  has lived  at 125 Onley Street for many years. Meticulous and obsessive, he lives a life of isolation, managing to keep both future and past at bay.

Next door, live Liz Meredith and her new baby, Jim. Liz has been told by her social worker Mrs Purvis that Jim has a rare disorder, and will never be like other children. But Mrs Purvis can’t see, as Liz can, that Jim already knows things no ordinary person could. Besides, Liz doesn’t want any help from the social services or from Tom and Alice, the couple at number 129. She wants to be left in peace so that she can imagine her way out of how things are.

When Frank’s solitary anonymity is threatened, he hatches a real-life plot which, as he begins to enact it, unexpectedly changes not only his own life, but also those of Liz and Jim. Sifting through our collective nightmares, Kathy Page has written a novel that is powerful, humorous, tragic and thoroughly surprising.