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.

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.