Two signed William S. Burroughs novels (Books acquired, 15 Oct. 2022)

Huge huge huge thanks to my twitter friend Prabhakar Ragde for sending me his signed copies of two William S. Burroughs novels: Cities of the Red Night and Naked Lunch. Prabhakar is downsizing his book collection as he moves to Europe, abandoning, I guess, the totally-sane, rational heaven that is the U.S. of A.

Prabhakar got the volumes signed at a 1984 in-store appearance at Moe’s Books in Berkeley. (“He asked for my name, but I told him it was too hard to spell, so it’s just his signature,” Prabhakar told me.)

Thanks again, Prabhakar!

Three from indie press Whisk(e)y Tit (Books acquired, 8 Oct. 2022)

Good mail this past weekend from the indie press Whisk(e)y Tit, which continues to publish the Weird Stuff.

Aina Hunter’s Charlotte and the Chickenman was the first one I flicked through, and it seems very much up my alley—surreal, shapeshifting stuff. From the jacket copy:

It’s November 2, 2059 in Baltimore and Charlotte-Noa Tibitt, the downwardly mobile, adult daughter of a popular HelloCast lifestyle coach, feels like death. A few months back Charlotte and her Eurindigenous girlfriend scored a sweet subsidized apartment in a building chock full of fellow queer-radical-feminist animal rights activists. But when an unspeakable right-wing candidate again wins the US presidency, Charlotte seeks refuge in a luxury roof-top hotel bar and life begins to unravel.

So now it’s time to stop mourning. Get back on the bus, make a plan, start over.

I also am intrigued by Thomas Kendall’s The Autodidacts, which has a blurb from Dennis Cooper:

Thomas Kendall’s THE AUTODIDACTS is a brilliant novel — inviting like a secret passage, infallible in its somehow orderly but whirligig construction, spine-tingling to unpack, and as haunted as any fiction in recent memory.

David Leo Rice’s The New House also sounds like a Special Kind of Weird. Jacket copy:

A family of outsider artists roams the American interior in search of the New Jerusalem in David Leo Rice’s new dream novel, loosely inspired by the hermetic worlds of Joseph Cornell. As Tobias Carroll writes, “The childhood of Jakob, The New House’s young hero, is one unlike that of your typical coming-of-age narrative. His is a youth surrounded by prophetic dreams, religious schisms, and secretive conversations — plus some shocking scenes of violence. Rice’s prose creates a mood abounding with mystery and dread, and The New House would fit comfortably beside the likes of Michael McDowell’s Toplin and Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory in terms of disquieting portraits of sustained alienation.”

 

Mild derealization at the used bookstore (Books acquired, 23 Sept. 2022)

The first time that I remember having intense derealization in my adult life was when I spent a few hours cleaning out a large spare closet in the house my wife and I were then living in.

This was about sixteen years ago, close to the birth of our first child, our daughter, and I was removing from the closet boxes of nostalgia: high school and college papers, paintings and sketches, patches, guitar pedals, old issues of MAD Magazine, punk zines, stereo wire, soon-to-be obsolete audiovisual cables, record sleeves without records, 3.5 inch floppy disks, memory cards from abandoned cameras, rolls of film, tennis balls, band t-shirts I’d never fit into again, heavy stereo equipment, and so on and etc.

I was removing all these old things to make space for new things, a pattern that I’ve followed ever since. And well anyway, not an hour into the process I began to get an odd dizziness, a feeling that none of this was real. I was not thinking about any of the objects but something about their accumulated physicality overruled my subjectivity. I recall having to turn off the record I was listening to, drinking a lot of cold water, and lying down. But the sensation kept on, like a low-grade psychotropic trip.

I experienced similar misadventures later in similar circumstances—reorganizing large bookshelves, moving offices, more stuff with closets. I also began to (rarely) experience full-blown anxiety attacks later in life, usually triggered by driving an automobile over a large bridge or on a complex highway, and the feelings of derealization I’d previously experienced were a part of those attacks, but they were also accompanied by feelings of dread and difficulty breathing. Those kinds of attacks are awful; the derealization thing is just trippy and weird. And it happened to me today while I was browsing for books. I’m not sure if it was the closeness of the aisles or the smell or a certain book or the mild change in weather that we had in north Florida today, where the throbbing humidity and scorching sun relaxed to a cloudy eighty. I think it was the screaming child who triggered it though, thrashing around on the ancient cut carpet, slapping the carpet, kicking her feet like a swimmer. Her mother and siblings walked away from her, walked into another aisle of this mazelike used bookstore, while I completely lost and never regained the name of the author I was searching for in the “T” section of Classics.

From there I leaned into the unreality and made a nice little trip of it, reminding myself that if I am a little bit crazy, that makes me a normal American. I too have microplastics in my blood! I too feel the stress of the appearance of unrelenting, non-stop change!

I picked up two books: Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins and Osvaldo Soriano’s A Funny Dirty Little War. I mostly knew Marías from his “La Zona Fantasma” columns in The Believer, and I have read only one book by MaríasVoyage Along the Horizon, which I scarcely remember. But I know Roberto Bolaño was a fan, so I’d always meant to return and try again. Today, I saw a hardback copy of Thus Bad Begins (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) propped lazily up against a hardback copy of Hilary Mantel’s novel Beyond Black. Mantel died yesterday; Marías died a dozen days ago; both books had strayed from their author’s placards, not unusual in this wonderful sprawling store. So I picked it up. It’s probably not the best starting place for Marías, right? I’ll try. I love the title; I am shallow.

The title on the spine attracted me to Osvaldo Soriano’s A Funny Dirty Little War (translated by Nick Caistor), the goofy, menacingly violent cover intrigued me and the Calvino blurb and first three pages sold me.

I don’t have a conclusion for this blog. I still feel a little outside of myself.

 

Gwendoline Riley’s First Love and My Phantoms (Books acquired, 16 Aug. 2022)

NYRB is publishing two novels by Gwendoline Riley next month: First Love and My Phantoms. Both novels were previously published in the UK.

Blurb for First Love:

Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties married to an older man, Edwyn. For now they are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she tells of other loves and other debts, from her bullying father and her self-involved mother to a musician who played her and a series of lonely flights from place to place.

Drawing the reader into the battleground of her relationship, Neve spins a story of helplessness and hostility, an ongoing conflict in which both husband and wife have played a part. But is this, nonetheless, also a story of love?

And My Phantoms:
Helen Grant is a mystery to her daughter. An extrovert with few friends who has sought intimacy in the wrong places, a twice-divorced mother of two now living alone surrounded by her memories, Helen (known to her acquaintances as “Hen”) has always haunted Bridget.

Now, Bridget is an academic in her forties. She sees Helen once a year, and considers the problem to be contained. As she looks back on their tumultuous relationship—the performances and small deceptions—she tries to reckon with the cruelties inflicted on both sides. But when Helen makes it clear that she wants more, it seems an old struggle will have to be replayed.

From the prize-winning author of First LoveMy Phantoms is a bold, heart-stopping portrayal of a failed familial bond, which brings humor, subtlety, and new life to the difficult terrain of mothers and daughters.

Blog about some books acquired, 15 July 2022

 

I live in an old neighborhood filled with old people who are dying at a reliable rate, which means that there are frequent estate sales in the neighborhood. I walk the neighborhood pretty much every day, and if I see an estate sale sign, I’ll walk toward it and go through the house, looking at the items of the recently deceased, or recently relocated, or what have you, not so much interested in purchasing anything as I am trying to piece together a little bit of a life from objects, colors, totems. Sometimes the interiors of these houses remind me of being in my own grandparents’ homes back in 1985—homes built in the 1950s with few updates, some tasteful furniture, maybe a bit of fanciful wallpaper, a pink-tiled bathroom. Sometimes I might buy a knife or a tool or a mirror, or even get lucky with an old print or painting. And of course I always look through the books.

The books you might find in the homes in the estate sales in my neighborhood are generally predictable. There are bibles, a small selection of “great books,” classics, what have you, a few books that indicate the removed persons’ hobbies, old cookbooks with few or no color pictures. Often you might find the books of the eldest or middle child, selections from their freshman English course. Westerns, mysteries, a few art books.

Today I came across an estate sale not even a block from my house and meandered in. The man running the estate sale had sold me a large signed Alexander Calder print a few years ago, not realizing its full value; he had then called me repeatedly trying to sell me three more Calder prints which he had repriced and overpriced. He didn’t recognize me. The house was much smaller inside than I had expected, but beautifully furnished. There was a large framed photograph of Winston Churchill on the fireplace mantel along with a leather-bound collection of his memoirs. On the other side was an incomplete selection of Shakespeare plays, also bound in leather. Outside was a small shallow swimming pool, clearly original to the house.

The layout of the house—a brick midcentury ranch home, like almost all of the homes in the neighborhood—was very similar to my own house’s layout, and I could even see the use of the some of the same materials (particularly in the guest bathroom, which had not been updated). The first and second bedrooms suggested a couple who at some point had had two children, a boy and a girl, probably five or ten years older than I am. The last bedroom was being used as an office or study, and it was filled with books. There was a large electric Olivetti typewriter on the desk in this room, as well as a beautiful early 1980’s Bose sound system with a strange control box.

The first row of books I saw soured my hopes of finding anything worthwhile. It was mostly conservative stuff, including stuff by Charles Murray and David Brooks. Nothing fringe exactly, but still. There were also lots of books about travel and France in particular, including several plays in French (one by Moliere). This book case also held several books about writing—style manuals, thesauruses, etc., but also a book about selling one’s writing and a book on the publishing industry. The next book case was filled with paperbacks. Someone before me had fished out A Clockwork Orange and left it unshelved; it was the same edition I had read myself almost thirty years ago. The case held lots of sci-fi paperback—at least a dozen books by John Brunner and Robert Heinlein.

Near the bottom shelf was an oddity—a poorly-printed Clarice Lispector book, An Apprenticeship; or, The Book of Delights, published by the University of Texas in 1986. I have a matching copy of Lispector’s Family Ties.

The last shelf held mostly hardbacks, including lots of Steinbeck, Hemingway, and other twentieth-century American novelists. I picked up the first-edition hardback copy of Padgett Powell’s first collection of stories, opened it, and was surprised to find that it was signed by the author.

I wondered if I was in Cliff’s old study. Once I’d committed to taking the Lispector and Powell with me, it was easy to take the Library of America’s Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor.

I didn’t buy the beautiful deer antler knife from the kitchen, and I didn’t buy the Emory University Alumni coffee cup, although I wanted both, but I think that they are waiting for someone else.

 

Giado Scodellaro’s Some of Them Will Carry Me/Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night (Books acquired, 7 June 2022)

Two forthcoming titles from Dorothy both look promising.

(Parenthetically–I finished Dorothy’s recent publication, Caren Beilin’s Revenge of the Scapegoat the other night and found it confounding, upsetting, engaging, and very, very funny. Should have a proper review in the next few days, if I can commit to writing about a novel that zapped and perplexed me.)

Here’s the blurb for Giada Scodellaro’s collection Some of Them Will Carry Me:

Giada Scodellaro’s stories range in length, style, and tone—a collage of social commentary, surrealism, recipes, folklore, and art. What brings them together is a focus on experiences of black women in moments of dislocation, and a cinematic prose style saturated with detail: a child’s legs bent upon the small bosom of their mother, three-piece suits floating in a river, a man holding a rotting banana during sex, wet cardboard, a woman walking naked through a traffic tunnel. In language that is lyrical, minimal, and often absurd, the diverse stories in Some of Them Will Carry Me deconstruct contemporary life while building a surprising new reality of language, intimacy, and loss.

And here’s the blurb for Amina Cain’s essay collection, A Horse at Night (which I dipped into this afternoon):

In Amina Cain’s first nonfiction book, a series of essayistic inquiries come together to form a sustained meditation on writers and their works, on the spaces of reading and writing fiction, and how these spaces take shape inside a life. Driven by primary questions of authenticity and freedom in the shadow of ecological and social collapse, Cain moves associatively through a personal canon of authors—including Marguerite Duras, Elena Ferrante, Renee Gladman, and Virginia Woolf—and topics as timely and various as female friendships, zazen meditation, neighborhood coyotes, landscape painting, book titles, and the politics of excess. A Horse at Night: On Writing is an intimate reckoning with the contemporary moment, and a quietly brilliant contribution to the lineage of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own or William H. Gass’s On Being Blue, books that are virtuosic arguments for—and beautiful demonstrations of—the essential unity of writing and life.

Four Books (Barthelme, Burroughs, and Barry [Hannah])

If you follow this blog even semi-regularly, you may know that I frequently frequent Chamblin Bookmine. This sprawling bookstore, with an inventory of close to three million books (mostly used, and often very weird), is about a mile from my house, and in some small ways might constitute a mute coauthor of this blog. I don’t get to their second location, Chamblin Uptown (in downtown Jacksonville) that often, and even less during the last few years (for obvious reasons), but I went downtown to watch my nephew wrestle last Sunday, and stopped by. In addition to a pair of Ishmael Reed massmarket 1970s paperbacks, I fetched a small stack of first-edition hardbacks by Donald Barthelme, William Burroughs, and Barry Hannah.

I was thrilled to find a first-edition of Donald Barthelme’s first novel Snow White (Atheneum, 1970), with a jacket by Lawrence Ratzkin. The cover sans jacket is also nice:

Overnight to Many Distant Cities isn’t Barthelme’s best collection, but I couldn’t pass up a first edition (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1983). The cover features a photograph by Russell Munson.

So far this year, William S. Burroughs’ late novel Cities of the Red Night has been a reading highlight for me: apocalyptic, utopian, discursive, funny, and more poignant than I had remembered when I first read it two decades ago. I couldn’t pass up on a first-edition of its sequel, The Place of Dead Roads (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983) with a jacket by Robert Reed (working from an old uncredited photograph). I found an audiobook of Dead Roads at my local library, so I might give that a shot.

 

I also grabbed a signed copy of Barry Hannah’s semi-autobiography, Boomerang (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), with a cover by one of my favorite designers, Fred Marcellino. Here’s the autograph:

Marcellino also did the cover for another signed Hannah I have, Captain Maximus (wait, is this Five Books?):

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Four Books (By Ishmael Reed)

Seven years ago I came across three lovely 1970s mass market paperback Ishmael Reed novels. In the years since then, I’ve consumed most of Reed’s novels, even picking up an undervalued signed copy online. Two of my favorite Reed editions are from Avon Bard. This past Sunday, I came across two more Reed Avon Bard editions, and snapped them up, despite already owning them in hardback. While no designer or artist is credited, the signature on this edition of Flight to Canada clearly says “Andrew Rhodes”:

I’m pretty sure that Rhodes is the artist (and possibly designer) of the other Avon Bard Reeds I picked up years ago, Mumbo Jumbo

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—and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (the signature is clear on this one):

 

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We can also see “Rhodes” on the copy of The Last Days of Louisiana Red I picked up on Sunday. (This book also has the stamp of a guy who lives (lived?) in Perry, Florida, a stamp I’ve come to recognize over the years as a guy who, at least at one point, had very similar taste to my own. I have a lot of his old books and I wonder about him sometimes.)

Here are some reviews I’ve written of Reed’s novels over the past few years:

A review of Ishmael Reed’s sharp satire The Last Days of Louisiana Red

Blog about Ishmael Reed’s 1976 neo-slave narrative Flight to Canada

A review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s syncretic Neo-HooDoo revenge Western

A review of Ishmael Reed’s Christmas satire, The Terrible Twos

Blog about Ishmael Reed’s novel Juice! (Book acquired, 10 Dec. 2019)

New books by Caren Beilin and Cristina Rivera Garza from the Dorothy Project (Books acquired, 28 March 2022)

Two new enticing titles from the Dorothy Project: Caren Beilin’s novel Revenge of the Scapegoat and Cristina Rivera Garza’s collection New and Selected Stories. 

The Beilin seems like a picaresque surrealist joint, which is right up my alley. Press copy:

One day Iris, an adjunct at a city arts college, receives a terrible package: recently unearthed letters that her father wrote to her in her teens, in which he blames her for their family’s crises. Driven by the raw fact of receiving these devastating letters not once but twice in a lifetime, and in a panic of chronic pain brought on by rheumatoid arthritis, Iris escapes to the countryside—or some absurdist version of it. Nazi cows, Picassos used as tampons, and a pair of arthritic feet that speak in the voices of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet are standard fare in this beguiling novel of odd characters, surprising circumstances, and intuitive leaps, all brought together in profoundly serious ways.

I spent a half hour reading a few of the stories in the Rivera Garza collection, going from an older track to a few that haven’t yet been published in Spanish yet. The later stories seem more daring in form and content–exciting stuff.

New and Selected Stories brings together in English translation stories from across Rivera Garza’s career, drawing from three collections spanning over 30 years and including new writing not yet published in Spanish. It is a unique and remarkable body of work, and a window into the ever-evolving stylistic and thematic development of one of the boldest, most original, and affecting writers in the world today.

The collection seems like a great introduction to Rivera Garza’s three decades of work. The translations are by Sara Brooker, Lisa Dillman, Francisca González Arias, Alex Ross, and Rivera Garza herself.

Ballard/Burroughs/James | Hello/Night/Witch (Books acquired 25 Feb. 2022)

Dropped by my beloved sprawling used bookstore yesterday to pick up a new copy of Marlon James’s Moon Witch, Spider King. It’s not exactly the sequel to 2019’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf as much as it is a kind of parallel story to that novel. From the publisher’s description:

In Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Sogolon the Moon Witch proved a worthy adversary to Tracker as they clashed across a mythical African landscape in search of a mysterious boy who disappeared. In Moon Witch, Spider King, Sogolon takes center stage and gives her own account of what happened to the boy, and how she plotted and fought, triumphed and failed as she looked for him. It’s also the story of a century-long feud—seen through the eyes of a 177-year-old witch—that Sogolon had with the Aesi, chancellor to the king. It is said that Aesi works so closely with the king that together they are like the eight limbs of one spider. Aesi’s power is considerable—and deadly. It takes brains and courage to challenge him, which Sogolon does for reasons of her own.

I also couldn’t pass up a first-edition hardback of William S. Burroughs’s late novel Cities of the Red Night. I haven’t read it in at least twenty years, but I remember it as my favorite Burroughs novel. An excerpt, via The Floating Library–

The Cities of the Red Night were six in number: Tamaghis, Ba’dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana, and Ghadis. These cities were located in an area roughly corresponding to the Gobi Desert, a hundred thousand years ago. At that time the desert was dotted with large oases and traversed by a river which emptied into the Caspian Sea….

…The towns of Ba’dan and Yass-Waddah were opposite each other on the river. Tamaghis, located in a desolate area to the north on a small oasis, could properly be called a desert town. Naufana and Ghadis were situated in mountainous areas to the west and south beyond the perimeter of usual trade routes between the other cities…

….The inhabitants were divided into an elite minority known as the Transmigrants and a majority known as the Receptacles. Within these categories were a number of occupational and specialized strata and the two classes were not in practice separate: Transmigrants acted as Receptacles and Receptacles became Transmigrants.

To show the system in operation: Here is an old Transmigrant on his deathbed. He has selected his future Receptacle parents, who are summoned to the death chamber. The parents then copulate, achieving orgasm just as the old Transmigrant dies so that his spirit enters the womb to be reborn. Every Transmigrant carries with him at all times a list of alternative parents, and in case of accident, violence, or sudden illness, the nearest parents are rushed to the scene. However, there was at first little chance of random or unexpected deaths since the Council of Transmigrants in Waghdas had attained such skill in the art of prophecy that they were able to chart a life from birth to death and determine in most cases the exact time and manner of death.

Many Transmigrants preferred not to wait for the infirmities of age and the ravages of illness, lest their spirit be so weakened so to be overwhelmed and absorbed by the Receptacle child. These hardy Transmigrants, in the full vigor of maturity, after rigorous training in concentration and astral projection, would select two death guides to kill them in front of the copulating parents. The methods of death most commonly employed were hanging and strangulation, the Transmigrant dying in orgasm, which was considered the most reliable method of ensuring a successful transfer. Drugs were also developed, large doses of which occasioned death in erotic convulsions, smaller doses being used to enhance sexual pleasure. And these drugs were often used in conjunction with other forms of death.

I also couldn’t pass up a mass market edition of J.G. Ballard’s 1981 novel Hello America (with a nice cover by Tim White). I have not read Hello America. Yet.

Barthelme/Calvino/Garner/Jackson (Books acquired, 19 Nov. 2021)

Spent a spare hour this afternoon at the local used bookshop.

A few months ago I found a first edition of Donald Barthelme’s collection Forty Stories. This afternoon I picked up a first edition of my favorite Barthelme novel, The Dead Father. The jacket design–by Ruth Ansel–is really cool, which doesn’t really come through in the photograph. The back cover simply reverses the silver-black set up of the front cover; the spine reads bottom to top instead of top to bottom, like most U.S. titles.

I’ve never read Under the Jaguar Sun by Italo Calvino, but I picked it up because I enjoyed rereading three by Calvino earlier this year (and it’s very short and has a cool cover by Malcolm Tarlofsky).

I’d never heard of Alan Garner’s 1973 novel Red Shift until today. I always pull NYRB spines out, and the novel’s description on the back caught my attention. Part of the description:

In second-century Britain, Macey and a gang of fellow deserters from the Roman army hunt and are hunted by deadly local tribes. Fifteen centuries later, during the English Civil War, Thomas Rowley hides from the ruthless troops who have encircled his village. And in contemporary Britain, Tom, a precocious, love-struck, mentally unstable teenager, struggles to cope with the imminent departure for London of his girlfriend, Jan.

The blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin (“A bitter, complex, brilliant book”) made me pick it up. I love the NYRB cover, which has a My Bloody Valentine feeling to it, at least to me, but I also am a big proponent of genre covers–sci-fi/fantasy covers that might not be as “respectable” as the “literary” crossover covers that adorn works that live a second life. So I trekked over to the sci-fi/fantasy section to see if I could find another edition of Red Shift. This is what I found:

I regret not looking for the artist’s name now. I dig the Ballantine cover, but the NYRB edition was far more readable in the end.

From the sci-fi/fantasy section, I somehow wandered into U.S. history, staring at an endcap titled “Salem witchcraft.” I did not know that Shirley Jackson wrote a book about Salem—or Salem Village, as she points out in her initial note—a place that is not the same place as Salem—I did not know that Jackson wrote a book about the Salem (Village) witchcraft trials. I picked it up and started in and didn’t want to stop.

Apparently it’s a children’s book.

Barthelme/Delany/Rivera Garza (Books acquired, 24 Sept. 2021)

For a few months I’ve been slowly unloading boxes from my grandmother’s old house at my beloved used bookstore, browsing a bit, and coming back with books I don’t need.

Last Friday I found a hardback first edition of Barthelme’s Forty Stories, which is cool (it’s much more handsome and plain than the paperback Penguin Contemporary Fiction edition I have). I’ve been re-reading Barthelme’s Sixty Stories and writing blog posts about them that no one reads for a few weeks now.

I also picked up Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel The Taiga Syndrome, in translation by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana. Here’s publisher Dorothy’s blurb:

A fairy tale run amok, The Taiga Syndrome follows an unnamed Ex-Detective as she searches for a couple who has fled to the far reaches of the earth. A betrayed husband is convinced by a brief telegram that his second ex-wife wants him to track her down—that she wants to be found. He hires the Ex-Detective, who sets out with a translator into a snowy, hostile forest where strange things happen and translation betrays both sense and one’s senses. Tales of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood haunt the Ex-Detective’s quest into a territory overrun with the primitive excesses of Capitalism—accumulation and expulsion, corruption and cruelty—though the lessons of her journey are more experiential than moral: that just as love can fly away, sometimes unloving flies away as well. That sometimes leaving everything behind is the only thing left to do.

I picked up Samuel R. Delany’s novel Babel-17 too, maybe in part of a continued attempt to get into his stuff, despite stall outs, shrugs, and, Hey, that was okays, and maybe just because of this cover:

The book’s Wikipedia entry notes that, “Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart noted that Babel-17 was one of his early literary influences, and was an important part of the crafting of the band’s hugely successful 2112 album.”

Well there you go.

Three by Carol Emshwiller (Books acquired, sometime last week)

Small Beer Press had a warehouse sale last month, so I ordered two by the late avant-garde sci-fi writer Carol Emshwiller. I ordered Carmen Dog, which is what I take to be her most lauded novel, based on this blurb from Ursula Le Guin:

Carol is the most unappreciated great writer we’ve got. Carmen Dog ought to be a classic in the colleges by now . . . It’s so funny, and it’s so keen.

The pub’s blurb:

The debut title in our Peapod Classics line, Carol Emshwiller’s genre-jumping debut novel is a dangerous, sharp-eyed look at men, women, and the world we live in.

Everything is changing: women are turning into animals, and animals are turning into women. Pooch, a golden setter, is turning into a beautiful woman–although she still has some of her canine traits: she just can’t shuck that loyalty thing–and her former owner has turned into a snapping turtle. When the turtle tries to take a bite of her own baby, Pooch snatches the baby and runs. Meanwhile, there’s a dangerous wolverine on the loose, men are desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, and Pooch discovers what she really wants: to sing Carmen.

I also ordered a story collection, Report to the Men’s Club. Small Beer’s blurb:

 What if the world ended on your birthday — and no one came? What if your grandmother was a superhero? What if the orphan you were raising was a top-secret weapon, looked like Godzilla, and loved singing nursery rhymes? What if poet laureates fought to the death, in stadiums?

A day or two before they showed up, I found a copy of Emshwiller’s 2005 novel Mister Boots in the YA section of my local bookshop. I launched into it and I don’t think it necessarily reads as YA-as-genre, but it’s the kind of weird shit I would’ve loved to get a hold of as a sixteen year old. Blurb:

Bobby Lassiter has some important secrets—but it’s not as if anyone’s paying attention. It’s the middle of the Depression, and while Bobby’s mother and older sister knit all day to make money, Bobby explores the California desert around their home. That’s how Bobby finds Boots. He’s under their one half-dead tree, halfdead himself. Right away he’s a secret, too—a secret to be fed and clothed and taken care of, and even more of a secret because of what he can do. Sometimes Boots is a man. Sometimes he’s (really, truly) a horse. He and Bobby both know something about magic—and those who read this book will,

Le Guin also blurbs this book.

I hate to admit that I had never heard of Emshwiller until last month. In a strange moment of synchronicity, Joachim Boaz, who blogs at Science Fiction and Other Suspect ruminations, reviewed a bunch of older Emshwiller stories this July. On twitter, he described Emshwiller as “an author who should be a feminist science fiction icon.” I’m excited to read more.

Anna Seghers’s short story collection, The Dead Girls’ Class Trip (Book acquired, 14 May 2021)

NYRB have a collection of Anna Seghers’s short stories coming out next month. The Dead Girls’ Class Trip is both translated and edited by Margot Bettauer Dembo and includes an introduction by German author Ingo Schulze. There are sixteen stories in the collection, some quite long and others quite short. Many have ominous titles, like “Jan Is Going to Die,” “Shelter,” “The End,” “A Man Becomes a Nazi,” and the title story, of course. I read a shorter tale the other day, “The Square,” and it was a depressing little ominous microfiction. I also read “The Three Trees,” three micros arboreally bound. The first piece, “The Knight’s Tree,” condenses history, humor, and despair into a few sentences:

The Dead Girls’ Class Trip drops mid June from NYRB. Their blurb:

Best known for the anti-fascist novel The Seventh Cross and the existential thriller Transit, Anna Seghers was also a gifted writer of short fiction. The stories she wrote throughout her life reflect her political activism as well as her deep engagement with myth; they are also some of her most formally experimental work. This selection of Seghers’s best stories, written between 1925 and 1965, displays the range of her creativity over the years. It includes her most famous short fiction, such as the autobiographical “The Dead Girls’ Class Trip,” and others, like “Jans Is Going to Die,” that have been translated into English here for the first time. There are psychologically penetrating stories about young men corrupted by desperation and women bound by circumstance, as well as enigmatic tales of bewilderment and enchantment based on myths and legends, like “The Best Tales of Woynok, the Thief,” “The Three Trees,” and “Tales of Artemis.” In her stories, Seghers used the German language in especially unconventional and challenging ways, and Margot Bettauer Dembo’s sensitive and skilled translation preserves this distinction.

Four novels by the sixties avant-garde novelist B.S. Johnson (Books acquired the first week of May, 2021)

I think the first time I heard of the British experimental novelist B.S. Johnson was some time around 2008 or so, when New Directions republished his “book in a box,” The Unfortunates (1969). I thought it sounded like a cool but maybe gimmicky idea at the time, and then Johnson dropped off my radar until more recently. I started to see his name pop up when I’d search out more information about the British avant-garde novelist Ann Quin, whose novel Berg I consider perfect.

So I asked around and ended up finding an online copy of Picador’s omnibus reissue of three of Johnson’s novels: Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966), and House Mother Normal (1971). I also ordered Johnson’s penultimate novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) (as well as a copy of The Unfortunates which has yet to arrive).

I tucked into the omnibus last week, starting with Albert Angelo, which I think is the superior of the three novels the edition collects (I’ve still got a final third of Trawl to go, but I can’t see it turning a corner). AA is an experimental pastiche, a bildungsroman that ironizes the künstlerroman. Our hero Albie, trained as an architect, makes his so-called living as a substitute teacher in some of London’s rougher schools. His narrative is an assemblage of stream-of-consciousness, dramatic dialogues, advertisements, and other rhetorical techniques—including literally cutting out parts of a few pages.

Albie is angry and witty and generally good company throughout the brief novel. Albert Angelo will resonate with teachers who remember those rough first years—sympathy with the students, anger at the system, but also a realization that they are in a kind of battle to earn the respect of their pupils. (Near the end of the novel, we get a litany of student essays that Albie has assigned. The subject: Albie himself. Student reviews are, for the most part, scathing.) Johnson’s assemblage is impressive, energetic, and still feels fresh over fifty years later.

House Mother Normal is also a lively novel, with an energy we might not expect in a novel subtitled A Geriatric Comedy. The novel takes place over a few hours in a single day in a nursing homes, telling the same “narrative” from the viewpoint of eight residents—as well as the titular house mother. Each resident (and the house mother) gets twenty-one pages to relate their version of the days events. Or, more accurately, we dwell in their consciousness for those twenty-one pages. Some residents are of clearer minds than others, but together, they offer a fragmented minor Sadean saga that is both abject and occasionally moving.

Trawl is a more “traditional” novel, at least in the modernist sense. Unlike House Mother Normal and Albert AngeloTrawl takes a straightforward, stream-of-consciousness first-person tack, detailing three weeks the narrator—a version of Johnson himself—spent on a deep-sea trawler in the Barents Sea. It’s a sort of memoir, loosely figured around the various women that the narrator has successfully or unsuccessfully bedded, with dips into his childhood billeted away from his London family in World War II. In between, we get snapshots of life on the trawler. The unifying theme of the book is shame, paralleled with the narrator’s desire to create a work of Great Art. The narrator peppers his memoir with interjections that the whole thing is boring, worthless, and meaningless. Like I mentioned above, I haven’t gotten to the end of Trawl, but it became a slog about a third of the way in. Johnson’s narrator hems and haws, hedges and defers—and comments on his hemming and hawing. It seems to approach the confessional style of American poetry in the l950s and 1960s without revealing too much. I don’t know. There’s something guarded about it, even as it tries to be a naked affair. I’m hoping I like Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry more. Here’s publisher New Direction’s blurb:

In a brief but productive career, B.S. Johnson (1933-73) was recognized as the most original of the English experimental writers of his generation. Combining a bellicose avant-gardism with pointed social concerns, he won the praise of critics and fellow writers as well as a readership not usually gained by a literary maverick. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry is Johnson’s most broadly humorous book, though as readers will discover, his humor has a bite. Christie is a simple man. His job in a bank puts him next to but not in possession of money. He encounters the principles of Double-Entry Bookkeeping and adapts them in his own dramatic fashion to settle his account with society. Under the column headed “Aggravation” for offenses received from society (the unpleasantness of the bank manager is the first on an ever-growing list), debit Christie; under “Recompense,” for offenses given back (scratching the façade of an office block), credit Christie. All accounts are to be settled in full, and they are — in the most alarming way.

Books acquired, May Day 2021

Every year, within a week or two of Mother’s Day, our family likes to get a place in a proximal walkable beach town. Some place not too far a drive from our simple ranch home near the mighty northward-flowing St. Johns River, some place not too touristy, some place with nachos and beer and etc. St. Augustine Beach is a favorite and frequent spot, but this year we opted for St. Simons Island, a sea island off the Georgia coastline. We did not do a trip in 2020, for obvious reasons, but the wife and I have been fully vaccinated for weeks now, and we knew we’d be more or less outside for the entire weekend, so the fam drove an hour north. It was the first time we’d been out like this since March of 2020, when we stayed on a houseboat on Jekyll Island (the sea island immediately north of St. Simons). It was a nice, chill weekend—fried fish, golf carts, minigolf, the beach (with thousands of dead jellyfish to amuse the kids).

The Literary Guild of St. Simons was also having their annual spring sale–basically a Friends of the Library sale, if you know what that is. If you don’t: outdoors, lots of flat boxes of books, books, books. I ended up picking up more than I should have—I haven’t even done any of these stupid “books acquired” posts for the last three books that came in (including the lovely book I was reading this weekend, Rachel Eisendrath’s Gallery of Clouds)–but I have it on no small authority that these semi-annual Guild sales help fund most of the SSI library’s budget. (Also, as is often the case with these things, it was cheaper to add a book or two than not to.)

So: Top of stack to bottom:

The Finishing School, Muriel Spark. This is, I believe, the last novel Spark wrote. It came out in 2004; I read a bunch of her earlier stuff last year (and her early novel The Bachelors this March), but it was the mid-period novel Loitering with Intent that I thought the best. I’m not sure if this last novel has the best reputation, but Kakutani hated it, so maybe I’ll dig it. (Oh, and this edition is an ARC!)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Suskind (trans. by John E. Woods). I loved the 2006 film adaptation. No idea if the book is any good, but the story is all kindsa fucked up.

This Is Not a Novel, David Markson. Look, I already own a copy. But I have a friend who doesn’t (I think).

Outline, Rachel Cusk. I think this is the first of these, right? Admittedly I avoided Cusk’s trilogy, which seemed overhyped (like Knausgaard, maybe?), but for a dollar I’ll give it a shot.

The Middle Ground, Margaret Drabble. A pristine first edition of a mid-period Drabble novel which is perhaps a take on Mrs. Dalloway. Drabble was nowhere on my radar until a few weeks ago when I read that the experimental British novelist B.S. Johnson included her on a list of (then) contemporary British writers he esteemed as writing “as though it mattered.”

Private Lives in the Imperial City, John Leonard. I mostly knew Leonard’s work as a reviewer for Harper’s—his column “New Books” was a go-to for me for a decade, and I wouldn’t presume to say I learned anything from him about writing book reviews (he would be horrified if he cared enough to be horrified), but I thought him an exemplary critic. But mostly fun to read. I didn’t even know about his New York Times column, “Private Lives,” which he wrote between 1977 and 1980. I had no idea what Private Lives was about—I just loved the spine (and then the great cover, featuring a Frank Stella painting)—but most of all I knew I wanted a book by John Leonard. I ended up spending a nice chunk of Saturday reading through the columns, which read like witty, snarky, intimate blog posts—stories about friends, relatives, exploits in New York and abroad. Leonard hates parties; Leonard hated Blow-Up; Leonard finds compassion for a loudmouth on a coast-to-coast flight. This might be the gem in the batch.

The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy. Hey. Look. I own it. But I don’t own it in first edition hardback, right? I recall it as my favorite of the so-called “Border Trilogy.”

Picked Up Pieces, John Updike. I’ve never been a big fan of Updike’s fiction, but I’ve always found something to admire in his criticism and nonfiction. He’s holding a turtle on the cover of this edition. The final section is called something like “One Big Interview,” and the last question asks him which animal he most admires, and he answers that it is the turtle.

I’m pretty sure that the Leonard and Updike (and probably the Drabble) all came from the same collection—there was basically a near-complete set of pristine first-editions of Updikes and John Cheevers, as well as a heavy dose of Philip Roths—all in impeccable condition, tidy jackets, no foxing, clearly read, but unmarked.

Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco. There was also a first-edition of Foucault’s Pendulum in hardback, which I should’ve picked up instead.

Chester Himes/Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi (Books acquired, 28 Dec. 2020)

Picked up Chester Himes’s The Real Cool Killers and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler today. I did not find the novel I was looking for but I found these.

Here’s publisher Dorothy’s blurb for Fra Keeler:

 …a man purchases a house, the house of Fra Keeler, moves in, and begins investigating the circumstances of the latter’s death. Yet the investigation quickly turns inward, and the reality it seeks to unravel seems only to grow more strange, as the narrator pursues not leads but lines of thought, most often to hideous conclusions.

I loved the first Chester Himes novel I read, A Rage in Harlem. Here’s Anthony Bucher’s somewhat dismissive non-review in the 6 Sept. 1959 issue of The New York Times:

I think I’ll be on the loving side, but we’ll see.