Books I’ll (probably) never finish (yet return to again and again)

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A week or so ago, I wrote about the books (specifically novels) that I can’t seem to finish despite beginning them five, six, seven plus times. In that post, I noted that there “are certain books I’ll probably never ‘finish,’ that I have no aim of finishing,” and hence didn’t include in my silly little list. Such titles seemed to need their own post.

“Finish” is probably the wrong verb to use to denote the act of reading, in traditional sequence, all the words on all the pages of a grand great novel. I have never really “finished” the books that I’ve read the most times from cover to cover—books like Adventures of Huckleberry FinnTheir Eyes Were Watching GodMoby-Dick, UlyssesBlood Meridian2666. Something about such books remains somewhere inside of me, unfinished (in contrast to the many, many novels—most often contemporary “literary” fictions—that I truly finish by reading and then jettisoning from memory). The great books that I’ve finished are unfinished. Something of the really great novels wriggles around in the background of consciousness, whispering, howling.

Putting together a little list of books I’m always reading but will likely never finish was not difficult, although I should clarify that I’ve intentionally left off a good number of critical texts—stuff like Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.—as well as the letters, notebooks, and journals of writers that I return to again and again. I tried to stick to novels. But are the works pictured/listed here—Tristram ShandyThe Anatomy of MelancholyDon QuixoteFinnegans Wake, and 1982, Janine—are these actually novels? The question is complex and productive, but I’ll answer it with the simple, “Yes, but– 

(And yet, parenthetically: That the novelness of these novels is suspect is perhaps a key to why these are the works that fascinate me, that these unnovelly novels make me stumble; I resort to shelving them, grab for critical interpretations, guides, commentaries, etc.—in the hopes of…of what?)

Joyce’s Finnnegans Wake is a nice starting place for this little list. The novel’s famous opening line (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”) actually completes the novel’s “final” (non-)sentence (“A lone a last a loved a long the”). So Finnegans Wake is a loop, an infinite jest. Over the past decade, I’ve dipped into the book again and again, using Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key as a friendly guide. I’ve learned to have fun with Finnegans Wake, taking something from its language, its connections, its syntheses, while abandoning the pretense that I’ve anything to gain by trucking through it at full speed just to “finish” it.

I pick up Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman less often than I used to, having recovered from trying to understand it. The novel seems to me proof that the term “postmodern” is simply a description of a way of seeing, and not a set of aesthetic conditions. Also, I love that Sterne loves the dash—

It’s perhaps a great moral failing on my part that I’ve never made it past the first few chapters of the Second Part of Don QuixoteI’m familiar with it, largely by way of Nabokov’s lectures and summaries. Anyway, I fail to understand Don Quixote; I fail to read it rightly.

Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine doesn’t have the same reputation as the other novels I’ve listed here; its inclusion wasn’t so much an afterthought but a realization—I bought it four years ago and have yet to shelve it. It’s always on a coffee table, the edge of a sofa, next to my bed, cooing, Start again. I start reading it and then I skip ahead to its weird black heart, then I read from the end, then I go back to the beginning. Then I put it aside, having made no “progress.”

I don’t know what Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is. Is it a novel? (Wait. I think we went through this above). I first encountered it as a bewildered undergrad, checking out an old huge hardback edition from the library. I made a small dent (aided by Ritalin). All that Latin is Greek to me. In his preface to the NYRB edition, William H. Gass advises, “Be prepared to proceed slowly and you will soon go swiftly enough. Read a member a day; it will chase gloom away.” I have not read a member a day, but I do like to pull Melancholy from the shelf late at night, after a few glasses of wine, and dip into it somewhere. I will never finish it.

And yet I’ve retained more from these unfinished novels than most of the contemporary fiction novels I’ve read. Anna Livia Plurabelle. The priest burning poor Quixote’s beautiful books. The marbled pages, the blacked out pages, the squiggles of Tristram Shandy. The typographic explosions in 1982, Janine. The dirty bits. The lists. The force of language, above all.

In a sense, not “finishing” these grand weird novels keeps them vital to me, present somehow, promising in their possibility, taunting and tantalizing in their pregnant unfinishabilty.

White Mythology (Book acquired, 6.17.2016)

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W.D. Clarke’s White Mythology comprises two novellas, Skinner Boxed and Love’s Alchemy. The physical book itself is beautiful, filled with epigraphs and images, occasional font shifts, and intriguing chapter titles (“The Pynchon Method,” for example).

Here’s the blurb:

Dr. Ed’s head should be spinning: a long-lost ‘son’ has just been sent over to his office by the temp agency, his shopping-addicted wife seems to have disappeared, and the clinical trial that he is running for a revolutionary new anti-depressant might well be going off the rails. But Dr. Ed is in control of everything, including himself.

Thus begins “Skinner Boxed”, the first of two thematically linked novellas that comprise White Mythology. In the second piece, “Love’s Alchemy”, five narrators deliver stories of betrayal that are nested like Russian dolls, stories that span an attempted seduction in Tokyo in 1987 back to a brotherly schism that erupts during a bottle rocket game of “war” in 1970s Massachusetts. From boys who poison their teacher’s plants to men who compulsively urinate into rivers, these strange (and strangely connected) monologues drop the reader into the pitch-black dunk tank of the soul.

You can preview White Mythology at Clarke’s site.

What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?

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What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?

I asked this question on Twitter a few days ago (and then asked it a few more times, probably annoying some of the nice people who follow me), and I’ll write a bit about some of the responses later this week. I’m hoping too that some of this blog’s readers will share the novel (or novels) they’ve opened the most times without actually ever finishing.

I got to dwelling on the question a bit after talking with two friends, separately, over the past few weeks, both of whom were having a tough time with Gravity’s Rainbow. Up until last year, Gravity’s Rainbow would easily have been my first answer to this question. How many times did I try to read it between 1997 and 2015? Probably like, what, once a year? At least? And while I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow is the best starting place for Pynchon, the book is endlessly rewarding, and fits nicely into a little mental shelf comprised of books I made plenty of false starts on before finally finishing (Moby-DickUlyssesInfinite Jest…titles that cropped up on Twitter in answer to my silly question).

Gravity’s Rainbow impacted me so much that I immediately reread it. But I don’t think I would’ve gotten there if I hadn’t read more Pynchon first—and honestly, if I didn’t trust certain critics, if I didn’t trust the book’s reputation. But what about all the books I keep cracking open but can’t quite crack into? Am I missing something? I’m probably missing something.

I rounded up most of the novels I could think of that I’ve tried to read at least four times (conspicuously absent is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I’ve tried to read, hell, what four times? Five including an audiobook?)—I’ll riff a little on them. (As an aside: There are certain books I’ll probably never “finish,” that I have no aim of finishing, which I’m not riffing on here—I’ll write about them separately. The include Tristram ShandyThe Anatomy of MelancholyDon Quixote, and Finnegans Wake).

 Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, yet I can’t get past Ch. 6 of The Marble Faun. His pal Melville’s Moby-Dick is easily one of my favorite books, one that I return to again and again, and yet I can’t seem to get through Pierre without skimming. I “read” the book in grad school, but I didn’t really read it. I’m fairly determined to read both of these, if only to ameliorate my shame as a would-be completist.

Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is another book I’m determined to finish (at some point, not now! Not today!—is there another translation besides the Moncrieff?!). If the bookmark in the edition above is true, I made it to page 43 on my last attempt (stopping in the middle of a chapter—never a good sign).

By my wholly unscientific calculations, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is the book I’ve started and quit the most times. It’s not even a novel. It’s barely a novella. I should be able to finish it. Maybe it’s a stamina issue. Maybe if I could just sit and read it in one go…

I’ll never finish Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, but I tried to finish it repeatedly because I, uh, took it from a bookstore without, uh, purchasing it first—the only time I ever did such a thing. When I was a kid. A stupid kid. I confessed (on this blog, years ago—not to the store. The store is gone).

I think I might have read too much Thomas Bernhard too fast, because I keep stalling out on The Lime Works. To be fair, it’s almost impossible for me to read Bernhard in hot or warm weather, and I live in Florida, so the Thomas-Bernhard-reading-weather window is slim. Next winter.

Watching Tarr’s film adaptation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango was difficult enough. (No, I did not do it one sitting). I tried. I tried. I doubt I’ll ever try again.

My Struggle, Book 1. Again, I tried, I tried. Several times. I can’t get down with Knausgaard.

I’ve tried to read Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual every summer for a few years now, and I’m not really sure why I can’t get past Part I (about 75 pages or so in). Every time I start into Life, I feel as if I’m missing something, as if some of its humor or complexity is lost on me. Maybe I need something like A User’s Manual for Life A User’s Manual.

I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of titles (I’m really great at not finishing novels)—but these are the ones that stand out in recent years.

By way of closing: I’m almost finished with Stanley Elkin’s 1975 novel The Franchiser, which would’ve been on this list just a few months ago.

And again, I’d love to hear what novel (or novels) you’ve started the most times without finishing (yet!).

 

Three Books

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The Dead Father by Donald Barthleme. Penguin paperback, 1986. Cover design by Todd Radom; cover illustration by Lonnie Sue Johnson.

Saturn, Orpheus, Lear, Nobodaddy. A sleeping undead giant, a quest. Good angry fun. I’ll say it’s my favorite Barthelme today (answers will change in the future).

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Fathers and Crows by William T. Vollmann. Penguin paperback, 1992. (An enormous paperback—990 pages—it flops slightly on the scanner, refuses to square up neatly). Cover design by Daniel Rembert employing a detail from a painting titled Le Martyrs des missionaires Jesuites (credited to “Anonymous”).

Different fathers, maybe, than the ones celebrated today, Father’s Day, the conceit I’ve lazily tied my Three Books post to…Jesuits. Or maybe they are the fathers. How many times have I tried all of this novel? If you’re interested in Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series, start with The Ice-Shirt or The Rifles instead.

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King Lear by William Shakespeare. Edited by R.A. Foakes. Arden, 1997. Cover design by Interbrand Newell and Sorrell; illustration by the Douglas Brothers.

Lear is maybe my favorite fictional father. I don’t know why. The man is a fool, but a pitiable one. Maybe I just love the play that much—its abjection, its darkness, its insanity. Out vile jelly, etc. Happy Father’s Day!

 

 

What I Believe — Paul Cadmus

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A reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence (William H. Gass)

Stendhal’s The Red and the Black

Boston, 1943. I am about to go down to the submarine base to test out for the school there. I have come into possession of the Liveright Black and Gold edition. (What a wonderful series. I loved them all. There was Jules Romain’s The Body’s Rapture, a kooky, overwrought book, I know now, but it was sex, and it was French. There was Remy de Gourmont’s The Natural Philosophy of Love, more sex, more French. There was Balzac’s The Physiology of Marriage, more sex, more French. There was Stendhal’s own On Love, ditto. There was The Collected Works of Pierre Loüys, double dots, double ditto. There was Alexandre Dumas’s The Journal of Madame Giovanni, which was simply French, a disappointment. And The Red and the Black, like checker squares.) Anyway, I am lining up New London in my train table’s sights, and scanning the novel I have bought because of the series it is in, thinking that I’m not going to like climbing a rope through all that water, and thinking that the first chapter, a description of a small town, is commonplace, ho-hum, and will I be put in a pressure chamber at sub school like a canned tomato? When suddenly, I am suckered into Stendhal, and no longer read words (against all the rules of right reading I will later give myself), but barrel along like my own train, a runaway, holding my breath oftener and oftener, aware only of a insistently increasing tension, and it is not because I am underwater; it is because I am inside the magic of this narrative master. The Charterhouse of Parma would do exactly the same thing to me, except that I didn’t let a sub school come between us, but covered its lengthy length as nearly in one sitting as might be managed, snacking at the edge of it as though it were on a TV tray. That sort of gluttonous read is rare, and never happens to me now, when I read, because I read to write or teach or otherwise to talk, and not because I am a reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence.

From William H. Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” part of A Temple of Texts (2006). The essay in question is not so much an essay as it is/was a catalog to “inaugurate the International Writers Center” at Washington University.

The last sentence is what matters most to me; when I read it I nodded, or maybe didn’t nod, maybe just acquiesced in some other way, physically.

Who wouldn’t love to read like that again?

(Maybe persons young enough to not know that they are in fact reading like madpersons, seduced, etc.).

I tip my glass for gluttonous reads.

I would love to be a reading madman again, and not one who reads to write or read or otherwise talk.

 

Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta” — James Hill

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James Hill’s illustration for “The Birthday of the Infanta” by Oscar Wilde. From The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde, Heritage Press, 1968.


“The Birthday of the Infanta”

by

Oscar Wilde


It was the birthday of the Infanta.  She was just twelve years of age, and the sun was shining brightly in the gardens of the palace.

Although she was a real Princess and the Infanta of Spain, she had only one birthday every year, just like the children of quite poor people, so it was naturally a matter of great importance to the whole country that she should have a really fine day for the occasion.  And a really fine day it certainly was.  The tall striped tulips stood straight up upon their stalks, like long rows of soldiers, and looked defiantly across the grass at the roses, and said: ‘We are quite as splendid as you are now.’  The purple butterflies fluttered about with gold dust on their wings, visiting each flower in turn; the little lizards crept out of the crevices of the wall, and lay basking in the white glare; and the pomegranates split and cracked with the heat, and showed their bleeding red hearts.  Even the pale yellow lemons, that hung in such profusion from the mouldering trellis and along the dim arcades, seemed to have caught a richer colour from the wonderful sunlight, and the magnolia trees opened their great globe-like blossoms of folded ivory, and filled the air with a sweet heavy perfume.

The little Princess herself walked up and down the terrace with her companions, and played at hide and seek round the stone vases and the old moss-grown statues.  On ordinary days she was only allowed to play with children of her own rank, so she had always to play alone, but her birthday was an exception, and the King had given orders that she was to invite any of her young friends whom she liked to come and amuse themselves with her.  There was a stately grace about these slim Spanish children as they glided about, the boys with their large-plumed hats and short fluttering cloaks, the girls holding up the trains of their long brocaded gowns, and shielding the sun from their eyes with huge fans of black and silver.  But the Infanta was the most graceful of all, and the most tastefully attired, after the somewhat cumbrous fashion of the day.  Her robe was of grey satin, the skirt and the wide puffed sleeves heavily embroidered with silver, and the stiff corset studded with rows of fine pearls.  Two tiny slippers with big pink rosettes peeped out beneath her dress as she walked.  Pink and pearl was her great gauze fan, and in her hair, which like an aureole of faded gold stood out stiffly round her pale little face, she had a beautiful white rose.

Continue reading “Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta” — James Hill”

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant FriendI’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. I love Ferrante’s novel, by the way. More one-star Amazon reviews].


 

ugh

Odd book

too wordy

so violent

so bummed

Depressing

It’s a series

stupid critics

Maybe terrific

I was so board

Did outline it all

I loved this book

It simply ended!!

So many characters

Too many characters

Not so Good this time

like Twitter on steroids

angst-filled adolescence

I’m an uncultured swine

Everyone in our book club

reading it for my book club

the ending was a dirty trick

there are over 40 characters

Riddled with punctuation errors

Chick lit with no plot or substance

This book is an exercise in despair

I was looking forward to this trilogy

by far the worst book I have every read

Of course it’s a matter of personal taste

the characters were not very nice people

I consider family sagas my favorite genre

endless clusters of names, names, names

Italian names that are difficult to remember

the characters are unlikable (and confusing)

we finished it only because it was Book Club

I damned near tore out what’s left of my hair

too many characters none of whom are likable

a story of domestic violence and male dominance

This book could not have been written by a woman

the main characters are interdependent in a very sick way

Boring and couldn’t Finnish it despite raves from others.?

Just couldn’t get past the violence and disrespect of people

found myself having to look back to figure out who was who

the two central characters may have been intended to be complex and interesting (and may be across the series) they were boorish and flat

the narrator was dryly describing events, as opposed to us being shown what happens through her interaction with characters and the world around her

the struggle of two smart intelligent girls to escape their poor brutal neighborhood in vain

basically a long list of long Italian names and stereotypes

one of my favorite books is The Brothers Karamazov

Just one self-absorbed observation after another

This book could not have been written by a man

WAY too many characters to keep track of

One of the best books I have ever read!

discussing it at my book club this week

an indulgent description of characters

the words did not flow in an easy way

If there were a zero stars rating

I read a lot in a variety if genres

her prose is dry and impersonal

meandering, fancy Chick Lit

it is the first part of a series

I am an English teacher

the characters are dark

what a very long book

choppy and uneven

too many charactors

more of a YA book

tooooo long !!!’n

laborious at best

like a soap opera

wonderful book

my book club

dix no finish

pure drivel

Pure trash

Three Books

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Their Familyby Warren Fine. 1972 first edition hardback from Knopf. Cover illustration by James Grashow; cover design by R.D. Scudellari. I’ll admit I had to have this because of the cover alone, although its subject matter–an American frontier journey–is also a point of interest

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Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. 1973 Penguin paperback. Cover design by David Pelham. I first read Star Maker when I was maybe 12 or 13—in the middle of what I now think of as a massive gorging of sci-fi and fantasy novels, a kind of rushed reading I’ll maybe never be able to return to. I haven’t read it since then but would like to revisit it later this summer.

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The Franchiser by Stanley Elkin. 1988 trade paperback by Nonparelil Books. Cover illustration by Joan Elkin; cover design by Louise Fili. After a few false starts I finally got into The Franchiser. I’m about half way through. It’s fucking great—a funny but scathing critique of America that seems utterly prescient (in the same way that Gaddis’s J R is a predictor novel, not just a zeitgeist novel).

 

Three Books

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How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey. Third edition paperback from Drag City (DC 124). No designer credited.

I first read Fahey’s collection in 2000 or 2001, when it first came out—a good friend lent it to me and I returned it. Later, he loaned it to another friend who did not return it. I bought the book last summer while visiting the first friend (he took me to the Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop in Brooklyn). Fahey’s book is sorta memoir, sorta fiction (at times), all weird and good. There’s a wonderful chapter about Fahey’s work on Michaelangelo Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point that culminates in Fahey and Antonioni getting into a fistfight.

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Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy by Will Oldham and Alan Licht. First edition trade paperback from W.W. Norton. Cover design by Faber using a painting (of Oldham) by Becky Blair.

The friend who lent me the Fahey book insisted for months that I pick up Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy; when I kept neglecting to find it, he eventually just sent it to me. The book is basically the edited transcripts of discussions between Oldham and Licht. While there’s a heavy focus on Oldham’s music (and his acting career), the book is ultimately about creation and the artistic process. It is one of the better books about music that I’ve ever read. (A “Cosmological Timeline” at the end of the book begins in 1778 with Captain James Cook’s discovery of the “the Hawaiian tradition of surfing” and ends in 2011 with Jennifer Herrema changing RTX into Black Bananas).

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Sign ‘O’ the Times by Michaelangelo Matos. A 33 1/3 book from Continuum, 2004. No designer credited.

I bought this at a Friends of the Library sale maybe 10 years ago. Matos’s take on Prince’s 1987 double album weaves music history and music criticism into personal memoir. The book ends with Prince seeing Matos seeing Prince at an Ohio Players’ show in 1997.

From this darkness packs of mad dogs will emerge, vipers, scorpions, enormous sea serpents (From Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name)

I made the dark descent. Now the moon was visible amid scattered pale-edged clouds; the evening was very fragrant, and you could hear the hypnotic rhythm of the waves. On the beach I took off my shoes, the sand was cold, a gray-blue light extended as far as the sea and then spread over its tremulous expanse. I thought: yes, Lila is right, the beauty of things is a trick, the sky is the throne of fear; I’m alive, now, here, ten steps from the water, and it is not at all beautiful, it’s terrifying; along with this beach, the sea, the swarm of animal forms, I am part of the universal terror; at this moment I’m the infinitesimal particle through which the fear of every thing becomes conscious of itself; I; I who listen to the sound of the sea, who feel the dampness and the cold sand; I who imagine all Ischia, the entwined bodies of Nino and Lila, Stefano sleeping by himself in the new house that is increasingly not so new, the furies who indulge the happiness of today to feed the violence of tomorrow. Ah, it’s true, my fear is too great and so I hope that everything will end soon, that the figures of the nightmares will consume my soul. I hope that from this darkness packs of mad dogs will emerge, vipers, scorpions, enormous sea serpents. I hope that while I’m sitting here, on the edge of the sea, assassins will arrive out of the night and torture my body. Yes, yes, let me be punished for my insufficiency, let the worst happen, something so devastating that it will prevent me from facing tonight, tomorrow, the hours and days to come, reminding me with always more crushing evidence of my unsuitable constitution. Thoughts like that I had, the frenzied thoughts of girlish discouragement. I gave myself up to them, for I don’t know how long.

From Elena Ferrante’s 2012 novel The Story of a New Name. English translation by Ann Goldstein.

2070 — John Currin

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Postal Child / Queer and Alone (Books acquired, 05.05.2016)

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I love the covers of these two new titles from new indie Whisk(e)y Tit.

Here’s the not-blurb for Joey Truman’s Postal Child:

Whitey Whitlock had an ear for the birds. He could whistle their songs as well as they could. He did so on his route. He talked to the birds.The birds talked back.

Whitey was a black man. He was called Whitey because the index finger on his left hand was white. A birthmark. His first name was Esmerelda. Middle name Torno. His last name was Whitlock because his mom’s last name was Whitlock.

His mom was high when Whitey was born. She was also high when she named him. Esmerelda was the name of her sister, the only person in the world who ever treated her decently, and Torno was short for tornado, because that’s how it felt when Whitey came out.

Whitey’s mom had a penchant for the cocaine.

She was a good mom though. Albeit an inconsistent mom.Whitey learned how to deal with her mood swings and her ever-present hangovers. By the time he was three he could make his own breakfasts. By the time he was eight he could get himself to school. By the time he was ten he was doing all the shopping and housework. By the time he was twelve he could do all the paperwork that allowed him and his mom not to starve or be homeless. On one of the pubescent days leading up to his thirteenth birthday he woke up to find his mom dead on the couch.

And the blurb-blurb for James Strah’s Queer and Alone (which about, by the way, Whisk(e)y Tit publisher Miette threatens/offers to “tattoo the entire text to your torso while smoking clove cigarettes” (not sure who’s doing the smoking there)):

Monrovia. Bali. Bombay. Cayman Islands. Hollywood. The names of faraway places dot the pages of Queer and Alone like thousands of islands in a deep blue sea. Indeed, the hero – or is he an ironic anti-hero? – of this novel is a man literally at sea. He is Desmond Farrquahr who boards a steamer bound for Hong Kong by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Looking for experience, taking in the sights, hoping. For what?

Queer and Alone is a wildly exuberant travelogue as monologue, an eccentric American’s view of tourism. One might call it a “scatalogical romance,” with a story and a girl in every port. “It’s all part of the novel experience of being there,” Farrquahr wordplays with the reader. As narrator of the novel he shows off incredibly sly linguistic gifts that turn even the slightest image or sound into the dazzling rhythms of word magic.

Whether it’s describing racial fantasy films in Africa, investigating murder in Bombay, or seducing stately women in staterooms, Farrquahr manages to have the most ingenious takes on culture. In one of the most funny scenes in the novel the narrator is seen eating several (dis)courses of a chopstick dinner that makes the ideologies of both East and West seem like entangled sesame noodles. Tourism moves closer to zany anthopology whenever Farrquahr acts as guide.

Desmond Farrquahr is a very queer fellow if judged by any conventional standards. But isn’t the world itself a queer place these days?

Beach Read — Karen Hollingsworth

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I conclude now I have no inner resources (Reading/Have Read/Should Write About)

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For twenty years now Berryman’s line I conclude now I have no inner resources has been plinking around the inside of my dumb skull. The line is plinking like crazy lately, as I shuffle final exam essays into some kind of order (what order?) that might align with my ability to offer the student, the writer, some meaningful note, some suggestion for improvement, some revelatory remark. Plink plink plink. No inner resources.

It is bad to start with a complaint so I will dress up the preceding paragraph (I dress it mentally) as an apologia. (Why the hell did I decide to write about books online?!).

I’ve been reading some really great books lately, folks. People, yes, you, listen. It’s not true that I have no inner resources. I am unstuck as a reader. I’m all gummed up with what I’ve read. Well-fed. And yet I go to scribble out a, like, review and plink plink plink. Nothing.

But like I said, the reading’s been really good. From the bottom up:

Let me strongly recommend American Candide by Mahendra Singh. I recommend this book for people who enjoy laughing at tragedies that should otherwise make them weep. You can and should purchase this book from Rosarium.

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Illustration to American Candide by Mahendra Singh

Above American Candide in the stack so lazily pictured above is Yuri Herrera’s neon noir novella The Transmigration of Bodies, which I also highly recommend. I managed a few words on it here.

If you were to describe Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle 1956 book to me, I might politely decline with a small gesture of my hand. It’s about a guy who takes mescaline and writes about the experience and he draws these pictures and then he later takes “Indian hemp” and compares it— you might say to me, you, knowing as you know that I dig weird books, but I would cut you off at with an em dash, polite but firm, Not interested in drug novels these days (and besides dude, you know that Aldous Huxley did kinda the same thing at kinda the same time). And then you, having the book with you might press it into my hand, declaring, No, look

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—and I would say Thanks and consume the book in two sittings.

And so after a few years of false starts, I finally broke through the second chapter of Stanley Elkin’s satire The Franchiser. The many years of recommendations, exhortations (and scoldings) to read The fucking Franchiser were correct and good and now appreciated, as I work my way into the novel’s rich fat middle—but I admit it was Mr. William Gass who finally sold me on a commitment. I read his introduction published elsewhere—in A Temple of Texts—and that was that.

Thanks to Jon for sending me Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay collection The Language of the Night. The collection collects the collective introductions to Le Guin’s so-called Hainish collection, which I read this winter, and wrote about here. Not one of my editions featured the reflections Le Guin (or more likely her editors) called “Introductions” in later essays, and reading the Hainish intros is, in a very slight sense, like rereading those books. Lovely.

Last and never least: Tom Clark’s The Last Gas Station and Other Stories. I’ve thought often of Clark’s poems as stories pretending to be poems so maybe these are poems pretending to be stories. Or maybe I have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. (Plink plink plink). I read most of them except for the longest one, “Incident at Basecamp,” which I will save save save for the future, an old habit, maybe a bad habit, that, to read all but one story in a collection, to maybe keep the collection afresh somehow or not wholly discovered—eh? Plink plink plink. Wag.

How crowded is the universe (Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser)

“How crowded is the universe,” his godfather said and moved the plasma arm vaguely. “How stuffed to bursting with its cargo of crap. Consider, Ben. You could have been a pencil or the metal band that holds the eraser to the wood, the wire of lead that runs through it. The black N in ‘Number 2’ stamped along one of its six sides. Or one of its six sides. Or the thin paint on another. You might have been a vowel on a typewriter or a number on a telephone dial or a consonant in books. There are thousands of languages, millions of typewriters, billions of books. You might have been the oxygen I breathe or the air stirred by this sentence. It is a miracle that one is not one of these things, a miracle that one is not a thing at all, that one is animal rather than mineral or vegetable, and a higher animal rather than a lower. You could have been a dot on a die in a child’s Monopoly set. There are twenty-one dots on each die, forty-two in a pair. Good God, Ben, think of all the dice in the world. End to end they’d stretch to the sun. Then there are the rich, the blooded with their red heritage like a thoroughbred’s silks. You might have been a stitch in those silks, a stitch in any of the trillions of vestments, pennants, gloves, blankets, and flags that have existed till now. Let me ask you something. How many people live? Consider the size of their wardrobe over the years. A button you could be, a pocket in pants, a figure on print.

“—I was discussing the rich. There are many wealthy. More than you think. I’m not just talking beneficiaries either, next of kin, in-laws, distant cousins, the King’s mishpocheh, the Emperor’s. But the rich man himself, the wage earner, the founder. Fly in an airplane in a straight line across one state. You couldn’t count the mansions or limousines, you couldn’t count the swimming pools. So many, Ben. You’re not one of them, and not one of the family, and still you exist. I am talking the long shot of existence, the odds no gambler in the world would take, that you would ever come to life as a person, a boy called Ben Flesh.

From Stanley Elkin’s 1975 novel The Franchiser. After a few false starts, I finally got into the rhythm and voices in this strange and very funny novel of Ben Flesh, who “patrolled America” as, well, a franchiser. It was when Ben’s (fairy)godfather goes on a rant about the, uh, miracle of existence that I fell for the novel.

Books acquired, almost for their covers alone, 4.25.2016 (Elkin, Fine, Michaux)

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I swung by my favorite used bookstore this afternoon; it’s right near the grocery store and I needed to pick up some mint and some ricotta. I was hoping to pick up Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend at the bookstore. I started the audiobook of My Brilliant Friend today, after finishing the audiobook of Adrian Jones Pearson’s novel Cow Country  this weekend. (Full review of Cow Country forthcoming but a real quick review: great performance/reading of a very strange book which I enjoyed very much, but which I also suspect will have very limited appeal. Cow cult classic to come). But so anyway, I’m really digging the Ferrante, and decided I wanted to obtain a physical copy to reread passages (and maybe share some on this blog). My store had several copies of four of Ferrante’s novels–but no Friend. While scanning the section, my eye alighted (alit?) on a strange-looking hardback spine—Warren Fine’s Their Family. I turned it around and the cover…well, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Knopf, 1972—a few years before Gordon Lish was to become editor there, sure, but interesting bona fides I suppose. Fine does not seem to be beloved by anyone on the internet, and his books seem to have failed to go into second printings of any kind. The Fs are near the Es, and I glanced over the works of Mr. Stanley Elkin, who has his own section there, somehow. I finally broke through the second chapter of his novel The Franchiser this weekend (it’s all unattributed dialog, that chapter, sorta like Gaddis’s JR); I’m really digging The Franchiser now that I’ve tuned into the voice. (It also helps to not try reading it exclusively at night after too many bourbons or wines). Again, the spine of the novel looked interesting so I flipped The Dick Gibson Show around and, again, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle I found in the “Drugs” section—which I was not perusing (because I am no longer 19)—well I guess I was perusing it, but that’s only because it happens to be right next to this particular bookshop’s collection of Black Sparrow Press titles, which I always scan over. Anyway, the Michaux’s Miserable Miracle was turned face out; NYRB titles always deserve a quick scan, and the cover reminded me of a Cy Twombly painting. Flicking through it revealed a strange structure, full of marginal side notes and doodles and diagrams and drawings. And oh, it’s about a mescaline trip, I think. You can actually read it here, but this version is missing all the drawings and sidenotes.

Oh, and so then I forgot to go pick up the ricotta and the mint.