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.

Osvaldo Lamborghini/Mihail Sebastian (Books acquired, 10 Nov. 2020)

Two new “objects” in translation from strangish newish indie Sublunary Editions arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters the other day: Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini (translated by Jessica Sequeira) and Fragments from a Found Notebook by Mihail Sebastian (translated by Christina Tudor-Sideri).

Intrigued by the three-word blurb from Roberto Bolaño (“It scares me”) on its back cover, I read the two stories in Lamborghini’s Two Stories. I skipped César Aira’s introduction—I always skip introductions—and then after a few baffling pages, I went back to the introduction. Aira’s introduction didn’t exactly explicate the text for me. It did, however, read like a few pages from a Bolaño novel, describing a strange heroic exotic Argentine writer, a poet-artist romantically disposed to self-exiles. (I actually did a basic internet search just to make sure it wasn’t like, an elaborate fake. It’s not. Lamborghini was real, although he could have been a Bolaño invention.)

The texts of Two Stories are not exactly surrealist, not exactly automatic writing…Sublunary publisher Joshua Rothes described Lamborghini as “…a surrealist white hole… like de Sade and Lautréamont were sucked in by the surrealists, and Lamborghini’s what came out the other side.” Sublunary’s blurb describes the stories collected here as “an accurate sample of his work in much the same way that a bucket of seawater is an accurate sample of the ocean.”

I also started in on Mihail Sebastian’s Fragments from a Forgotten Notebook. Again, the whole affair has that romantic-Bolañoesque tinge to it. Sebastian presents the Notebook as a literal found object. Is it? Or is it invention? Here’s Sublunary’s verb, which begins with Sebastian’s introduction:

“One November evening (in circumstances that would take too long to narrate here) I found in Paris, on the Mirabeau Bridge, a notebook with black, glossy, oilcloth covers, like the ones in which grocers used to keep accounts. There were exactly 126 pages—commercial paper—filled with small writing, streamlined, without erasures. A curious reading, tiring in places, obscure passages, notations that appeared foreign to me, in fact even absolutely contrasting.”

Presented here for the first time in English, the late Mihail Sebastian’s debut book, seldom mentioned by scholars or even the author himself, Fragments from a Found Notebook casts an important light on a young writer—later to be known primarily as a diarist and documentarian—struggling with the identity of the I at the tip of his pen.

 

 

Three Books (Books acquired, 16 Oct. 2020–John Barth, Walker Percy, and Padgett Powell)

Chimera by John Barth. First edition 1973 hardback from Random House. Jacket design by George Giusti.

I couldn’t pass up this pristine first edition Barth today when browsing the used bookstore with my kids. I first read Chimera twenty or more years ago, as an undergrad, and it broke my brain a bit.

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy. Second printing 1972 trade paperback from Noonday. Cover design by Janet Halverson.

Earlier this year in the same used bookshop I came across a first edition hardback copy of Percy’s 1971 novel Love in the Ruins. I hadn’t read Percy at the time (I’ve since loved his later novel Lancelot and been kinda sorta iffy on his famous debut The Moviegoer), but Janet Halverson’s oh-so-seventies Schoolhouse Rock!ish cover grabbed my attention. I really wish I’d bought it now (I think it was six bucks). Two weeks ago I came across two more Percys (Percies?) with Halverson covers, but let them be. But not today—at least not for this copy of The Last Gentleman.

A Woman Named Drown by Padgett Powell. First edition 1987 hardback from FS&G.. Jacket design by Cynthia Krupat, using a photograph by William Wegman.

On the aforementioned-fortnight-last trip to the bookstore, I picked up, somewhat at random, Padgett Powell’s first novel Edisto. I finished it in three days, enjoying it very much, so I couldn’t pass up this copy of his slim second novel today.

Blog about book browsing on a Friday afternoon (and mostly looking at covers)

I’ve made a habit of prowling around my own shelves each week, trying to build a small stack of books I can part with. I then head up the street to trade the books in. Lately, I’ve done a decent job of leaving with far fewer books than I brought in to trade—hell, last Friday I came back with no books.

I always have a little mental checklist of books I’m hoping to come across. It mutates and swells, and I get lucky a lot of times. Sometimes I grab stuff at near-random. And other week’s are stale. Increasingly, I search for first editions and interesting mass market paperbacks, a reversal of a previous version of myself who found hardbacks clunky and mass market paperbacks cheap. Mass market editions tend to have wilder art, more interesting designs, and generally take more risks than contemporary, respectable trade paperbacks, as do older hardbacks. I ended up with three first editions. I was not especially looking for any of the books I acquired.

I was looking for certain books of course. Here are some interesting book covers I saw while looking for what I did not find.

I was looking for Walker Percy’s second novel Love Among the Ruins. I’d found a copy at this same book store last year—a first edition in beautiful condition with a really cool cover. I almost bought it (I think it was seven bucks) and now regret not having done so. I’m sure I’ll regret skipping on both of these Percy books, both of which have cover designs by Janet Halverson.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when I saw this hardback copy of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, but the font on the spine attracted me. Love the cover painting, which is by Richard Powers (I assume this is a different Richard Powers than the American novelist).

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when I picked up this Bantam collection of Mark Twain stories, which has a very cool uncredited Giuseppe Arcimboldoesque cover. Not sure why I picked it out. But I love the cover.

I was hoping to score a cheap paperback copy of one of David Marskon’s early novels when I came across this edition of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks with a cover by Ben Shahn.

I was looking for anything by Gerald Murnane when I found this beautiful edition of Robert Musil’s Young Torless.

The bookshop I frequent separates “Classic Fiction” from “General Fiction” (with some somewhat arbitrary distinctions, in my opinion)—so I checked under the “PE” section in general fiction for a stray Walker Percy (no luck). Never heard of J.Abner Peddiwell’s The Saber-Tooth Curriculum but I love the simple expressive cover.

Walking past “PE,” “PI,” “PL” etc. I stopped at section on James Purdy to check out this edition of The Nephew. I’ve never been able to get into Purdy—seems so sad—but I love this cover.

I was looking for an original edition of Charles Wright’s 1973 novel Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About; I have it in an omnibus, but I’d love a stand alone if I could find one. I did see this edition of The Messenger. The cover is terrible and boring and has way too much text on it. I found a copy of The Messenger a few months ago with a far more interesting cover.

I was looking for one of the William Melvin Kelley novels I don’t have. I found a bunch of mass market copy paperback versions of his first novel, A Different Drummer. The copy on the left has a cool cover. I think I like my new reissue better though.

I always look for a copy of David Ohle’s cult novel Motorman and I never find it. I do like this vibrant cover for Chad Oliver’s The Shores of Another Sea.

While I was in the sci-fi section, I passed by the Gene Wolfe area, and spied a complete hardback set of his seminal The Book of the New Sun tetralogy. I couldn’t pass up on a first hardback edition of the first in the series, The Shadow of the Torturer:

I also picked up a pristine first edition hardback copy of William Gaddis’s 1994 novel A Frolic of His Own. It’s the only Gaddis novel I’ve yet to read and buying a second copy seems like a good motivation to finally dig in.

I also came across a first edition hardback copy of Padgett Powell’s first novel Edisto. I’ve always felt ambivalent about Powell. He was the writer in residence at the University of Florida when I was an undergrad there in the late nineties. He’d taken the post over from Harry Crews, and I always resented that for some reason, brought that resentment to the few readings I attended, never made it through anything but a few stories. But this copy of Edisto was only four bucks. And check out the blurbs on the back:

There’s my guy Barthelme. And then Percy, who brought me to the store today. I’ll give it a shot.

 

 

 

Conrad/Hughes (Books acquired, 2 Aug. 2020)

So my son finished Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on Tuesday night, giving me a nice excuse to swing by the used bookstore on Wednesday to pick up the next two entries in the series, The Restaurant at the End of The Universe and Life, the Universe and Everything. I managed to find the same editions I read when I was his age. I gave my copies to one of my students some time in the early 2000s, back when I was teaching high school.

I found the Adams books almost immediately and had an hour to kill, so I strolled around, aiming not to buy anything. I’d been to the shop not a week before and picked up John Brunner’s 600+ page novel Last Stand on Zanzibar—but I thought I’d look for some interesting covers and maybe share them on twitter. And I did:

In the end though, I couldn’t pass up two books. First, I found a pristine first-edition Signet paperback of Joseph Conrad’s second novel An Outcast of the Islands with a striking Milton Glaser cover:

Then I came across a hardback first edition of Langston Hughes’ second novel Tambourines to Glory. At thirty bucks, it ate up the rest of my store credit, but it’s in excellent condition with no damage to the jacket and foxing only on the front flyleaf. It’s an old library book, but was fortunately spared any ugly WITHDRAWN stamps and appears never to have had a pocket in the back. Indeed, I’m not sure if the book was ever even read by anyone. Besides a few stamps identifying the library it once belonged to, the only mark in the book is on the front flyleaf:

Lincolnville is an historic black neighborhood founded by ex-enslaved people in the late 1860s. Famously, St. Augustine (and the “St. Augustine movement”) was a key location in the Civil Rights movement, and protests in the summer of 1964 when demonstrators jumped into the “whites-only” pool at the Monson Motor Lodge. Journalists captured racist motel owner James Brock pouring muriatic acid into the pool during the swim-in. A day after the world saw these images, the Senate passed the Civil Rights Act.

I wonder whose handwriting that is?

 

Three Books (Books acquired, 31 July 2020)

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The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback from Pocket Books (S&S), 1976. Cover art and design uncredited.

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Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts by Donald Barthelme. Mass market paperback from Bantam, 1969. Cover art and design uncredited.

I found a lovely copy of Donald Barthelme’s story collection Come Back, Dr. Caligari! a few weeks ago, and I’m pretty sure these two guys are twin triplets with that guy. (I found Caligari under “Classic Literature” in my local favorite sweetass bookstore; found these two in “General Fiction.”) No artist credited, which is a shame. I already own a copy of The Dead Father—maybe Barthelme’s best “novel”?—but I couldn’t pass up the mass market edition. I live with myself, but. I’ve read everything in Unspeakable —think — but again, great edition. This is probably the best starting point for Barthelme, with no fewer than five perfect or near-perfect short stories: “The Indian Uprising,” “The Balloon,” “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” “Game,” and “See the Moon?”

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Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis. English translation by William L. Grossman. Mass market paperback from Avon-Bard, 1978. Cover art and design uncredited.

I’m a huge fan of these Bard-Avon Latin American editions, and although this cover isn’t one of their weirdest, it’s not bad. I’m not sure if Grossman’s translation is the one to tackle, but I’m up for it.

Oreo/Orange (Books acquired, 13 July 2020)

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I’m like 50 pages from the end of Fran Ross’s 1974  Oreo and I simply don’t understand how this novel is so erased or ignored in most discussions of postmodern classics. (It could be ignorance—mine for sure—or erasure, or sure, structural racism in publishing and literary criticism—I mean, I feel like every list that compels someone to read Thomas Pynchon and Kathy Acker and John Barth and Stanley Elkin and Ishmael Reed and Robert Coover should include Fran Ross, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, Fran Ross’s only novel Oreo, why is there only one novel by Fran Ross, Oreo? What I’m trying to say is: Why didn’t I read this until now? Although reading it now has felt like a gift of some kind.)

This thing—Oreo, that is—zapped me on like page three or four with this ditty–

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I mean, c’mon!

I owe Oreo a proper write-up, if I can ever muster such a thing again, which maybe I can’t.

I also picked up, almost entirely at random, Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeeps. The spine and title struck me, I saw it was a Two Dollar Radio publication, and when I fished it from the shelf, I read Steve Erickson’s blurb and just went with it. Here’s Two Dollar’s blurb:

A girl with drug-induced ESP and an eerie connection to Patty Reed (a young member of the Donner Party who credited her survival to her relationship with a hidden wooden doll), searches for her disappeared foster sister along “The Highway That Eats People,” stalked by a conflation of Twin Peaks’ “Bob” and the Green River Killer, known as Dactyl.

I also found a Donald Barthelme collection with an Edward Gorey cover:

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Books acquired, 1 July 2020

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Scored a copy of William Melvin Kelley’s first novel A Different Drummer the other week, along with a copy of Steve Erickson’s novel Rubicon Beach. I was looking for the Kelley; I was looking for a print edition of Erickson’s more recent novel Zeroville (which I loved in audiobook), but there wasn’t one. Still, I can’t resist a Vintage Contemporaries edition. I’d been looking for a copy of Clarence Major’s My Amputations for a while now with no luck; I eventually broke down and bought one on Abebooks for five bucks. It turned out to be an old library copy with no dust jacket. No one ever checked it out. Check it out.

Delany/Spark/Etc. (Books acquired, 24-27 June 2020)

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Purged some shelves and brought a box of old books to my favorite spot earlier this week. I was looking for books by William Melvin Kelley and Clarence Major but no luck. I picked up yet another Muriel Spark title (I am still hungry for this flavor), and also picked up Samuel Delany’s Nova. I failed Delany’s cult novel Dhalgren, but maybe this earlier novel will work for me. Or I will work for it. Or…you know. Also: Got a bunch of art books today from a neighbor leaving the country. Good for her. (That’s my boy Coyote in the upper left.)

Books acquired, 8 June 2020 and 13 June 2020

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My birthday was last Sunday. My favorite bookstore is closed on Sundays, so as a treat to myself I browsed it Monday afternoon. I was looking for specific titles by Nalo Hopkinson and Kit Reed (no luck), as well as another Muriel Spark. I picked up Spark’s third novel, Momento Mori and read it this week. It’s a good book, but nowhere near the sharp excellence of Loitering with Intent. I also found a first edition paperback of William H. Gass’s first novel, Omensetter’s Luck. I should’ve left it for some kid to find—I have a Meridian first edition of Omensetter’s already—but I couldn’t. I hate the collector in me.

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I also picked up Charles Wright’s novel The Messenger, despite already having an omnibus that collects all three of Wright’s novels. Couldn’t help it; the mass-market cover was too good (although James Baldwin’s name doesn’t have to be quite that big, does it?).

Early in the week I got an email containing my daughter’s summer reading directions–Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist and Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States. I treated myself to another Muriel Spark–an especially short one, about a nunnery—The Abbess of Crewe. 

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Books acquired, 26 May 2020

I dropped by the bookstore yesterday to pick up some more books by Muriel Spark. I finished her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie over the Memorial Day weekend and was hungry for more. I picked out Loitering with Intent and The Girls of Slender Means, mostly because of the covers and titles.

I read about half of The Girls of Slender Means yesterday and this morning, and it’s really good. Set primarily “Long ago in 1945,” Girls focuses on a few months in the lives of some of the titular inhabitants of the “May of Teck Club.” The narrator dips between the consciousness of a few of these “girls of good family but slender means,” but focuses primarily on Jane Wright, a would-be member of the “world of books” whose 1963 phone calls to some of the other “girls” frames the narrative proper. It’s witty stuff, occasionally vicious, and even includes some literary hoaxing! I’ll probably finish it tonight.

I also picked up John Domini’s collection of literary criticism, The Sea-God’s Herb, which I’ve been wanting to pick through for ages now. When I spied the unbroken spine, I assumed it was new, but no–just unread. I opened it up to find the price and saw that not only was the book used (half cover price), it was signed by the author. On top of that, this copy was inscribed to another author, a somewhat-famous sci-fi writer (you might have seen a recent film adaptation of one of his novels). Anyway, it was a strange find.

Melville/Ishiguro (Books acquired, 13 May 2020)

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My beloved bookstore reopened this Monday. This past Wednesday, I donned my finest mask, got into the car for the first time in a while, and drove the 1.1 miles to my beloved bookstore, which reopened this Monday. I had done curbside pickup on a few books for my kids sometime early in April, but I hadn’t been into a bookstore since the middle of March.

The staff were all wearing masks, as were the few customers in the store (with the exception of two elderly patrons). The store is a sprawling maze of stacks covering close to 25,000 (very irregular, bendy, weird) square feet (it’s not a small space), and the stacks were marked for distancing.

I managed to find all the books on my list—two dystopian teen novels for my not-quite-yet-teen daughter, novels by Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman for the boy (who’s already finished both), a copy of My Brilliant Friend for my wife, who loved the filmic teevee adaptation (I gave my copy to my department head years ago, thinking she’d love it, but she never mentioned anything about it to me, and I don’t press), and two books for me: Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel The Unconsoled, which I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and Herman Melville’s fourth novel Redburn (which I’ve been meaning to read for awhile after reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s literary biography of Melville a few weeks ago). Edward Gorey did the Redburn cover, by the way.

Despite already being into four other novels, I started in on The Unconsoled. The novel reads like a hallucinatory series of side quests in the strangest first-person video game ever made–a novel of absurdity and art and time and memory, wherein the first-person narrator Ryder, on a mission he can never quite name or even possibly remember, constructs and deconstructs his (always-deferred) present “reality” on a moment-to-moment basis. The book is weird in the best way—it reminds me a lot of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, Anna Kavan’s Ice, João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner, and pretty much everything by Kafka. I imagine it will frustrate many readers with its refusal to cohere or to settle on a plot, but I’m digging it big time.

Charles Wright/Steve Erickson (Books acquired, 18 March 2020)

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A couple of days ago I took my daughter to the bookstore for what I imagine will be the last time for a while. She browsed the “Teen” section, which is new for both of us, and picked out a few books.

I picked up The Complete Novels of Charles Wright, which collects The Messenger, The Wig, and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About. I’m generally not a fan of omnibus editions, but I’m not sure how easy it is to get a hold of The Messenger or Absolutely Nothing (the bookstore had another copy of The Wig, which makes me think it’s in wider circulation). This Harper Perennial edition has no introduction, and I’m not crazy about the no-contrast cover, but it’s got a nice texture to it.

I also picked up Steve Erickson’s debut novel Days Between Stations, in part because Thomas Pynchon blurbed it (even though I wasn’t wild about the last novel I read because Pynchon blurbed it, Wurlitzer’s Nog), and also in part because I’m a sucker for Vintage Contemporaries editions, especially ones with covers illustrated by Rick Lovell.

Here’s Pynchon’s blurb:

 

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Steve Erickson has that rare and luminous gift for reporting back from the nocturnal side of reality, along with an engagingly romantic attitude and the fierce imaginative energy of a born storyteller. It is good news when any of these qualities appear in a writer– to find them all together in a first novelist is reason to break out the champagne and hors-d’oeuvres.

Pynchon also blurbed Jim Dodge’s novel Stone Junction (or wrote an introduction for it rather), which I’ve been looking for unsuccessfully for a while now—not because Pynchon blurbed it (which I only found out recently), but because I’ve heard it compared to Charles Portis. I was unsuccessful again this time.

I hope I’ll be able to get out of the house soon, but in the meantime I have more than enough reading material.

Blog about some books acquired, 13 March 2020

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After one week of abstinence I drove the mile or so to the used bookstore I go to too often and browsed.

I was specifically looking for the other Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake, the 1956 novella Boy in Darkness, and the unfinished Titus Awakes, completed by Peake’s wife Maeve after his death. I’m in the last few pages of Titus Alone, and I guess I don’t want to exit his proseworld just yet. Anyway, I went to this bookstore almost every week of February looking for Peake books with no luck after having picked up Gormenghast there on a lark a while back. I ended up buying the first and third of the Gormenghast trilogy online, because I couldn’t find them there, but today I found the complete trilogy in matching Ballantine editions. I did not find the other Gormenghast books though.

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As much as I hated to break up the triplets pictured above, I picked up the Ballantine Titus Groan and adopted it to fit my other Ballantine editions. There is a specific student I have in mind whom I think will love the Penguin edition of Titus Groan I’ll give him next week (even though my dog bit it).

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I’m obviously a sucker for covers, as any one who’s followed this blog for a while probably knows, and the Ballantine covers are better, I think—the Penguin editions of Peake’s trilogy are great, but they shy away from the bizarre nature of the narratives, tilting toward respectability.

Indeed, I like browsing in large part because I like the aesthetics of books, particularly older books. I absolutely loved this Edward Gorey cover for a 1957 edition of Joseph Conrad’s Victory—but I settled for a picture. I mean, I doubt I’ll read lesser-known Conrad at this point. But I love the orange and the blue, and Gorey’s handlettering:

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I often settle for just a snapshot of a beautiful cover, like this bizarre one for The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela. I didn’t pick it up a few weeks ago, but then wished I had.

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I had left it on the shelf like this, face outward. It wasn’t there today, and I wished that I had picked it up. Apparently it is brutal and was banned for a few years in its native Spain.

So well and anyway when I spied another Avon-Bard spine with a strange title I pulled it out, wowed at the cover, and dove in. Brazilian author Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s Zero instantly struck a chord with me. The book is typographically all over the place, with text offset in boxes or laid out in columns. There are diagrams, enormous fonts, glypsh, citations, footnotes, etc. The book is a dystopian satire that seems to be written in its own idiom. The translation is by Ellen Watson. The wonderful cover art is uncredited (as far as I can tell).

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I’ve never been able to get through Julio Cortázar’s famous book Hopscotch (despite many attempts), but I liked the short stories by him that I’ve read. I’m also a sucker for anything supershort, so when I saw his collection Cronopios and Famas (translated by Paul Blackburn), I was intrigued. I love a book in slices and morsels that I can snack on for a while (I’m really digging Gary Lutz’s The Complete Gary Lutz for the same reason). Most of the stuff in here is under three pages; much of it is much shorter too, like “Theme for a Tapestry”:

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While scanning for anything by Rudolph Wurlitzer (no dice), I spied the spine of Charles Wright’s The Wig. Wright has been on my radar for a while now, mostly due to Ishmael Reed’s consistent endorsement of him (in both fiction and nonfiction alike), and when I pulled the volume to reveal its beautiful cover, I saw Reed’s name on the margin (and on the blurb on the back), and had to have it. The cover art is by Phelonise Willie; design by Scott di Giolamo:

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