Three Books

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Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis. 1985 first-edition hardback from Knopf. Jacket design by Sara Eisenman; jacket illustration by Dagmar Frinta.

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The Dog of the South by Charles Portis. 1985 trade paperback from Windstone Trade. Cover art by Linda Bordelon; no designer credited.

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True Grit by Charles Portis. 1968 hardback Book Club from Simon & Schuster. Jacket design by Paul Davis.

I picked up a 1985 Vintage Contemporaries edition of Charles Portis’s first novel Norwood this summer and promptly snorted the thing up my brain. I then sought out the rest of Portis, and read most of it, with the exception of Gringos, which I’m, I don’t know, saving, if that makes sense.

True Grit might be the best of the novels, from a technical standpoint. Walker Percy’s blurb on the back of my copy compares it to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and he’s not wrong. Mattie Ross’s is as achieved and engrossing and complex as Huck’s, a wonderful layering of author-narrator-speaker. The prose is beautiful and Mattie is an endearing American hero. I wish I had read it years ago. I’ll make sure my kids don’t repeat my error. Like Huck FinnTrue Grit seems like a book one returns to like an old friend, only to find the friend has changed in some deep way. (But of course it’s only you that’s changed you old bastard, reading now through older dimmer eyes.)

While True Grit is likely Portis’s best novel, my favorite in the quartet I’ve read is The Dog of the South, a road trip novel, shaggy, grotesque, and very, very funny. It reads like a novel that Barry Hannah was never quite sober enough to manage—or maybe that’s unfair (I love Hannah, godbless his soul)—maybe what I mean is that Portis’s loose ironic folk-blues ballad of a novel has more structure than Hannah’s jazz. Anyway, I loved Dog, but in spite of and because of its faults.

Masters of Atlantis is the strangest in the quartet. It’s a novel about con-men and poseurs, secret societies and secret scams, capitalism and the price of knowledge. Again, a very American novel, whatever that means. Atlantis has a Pynchonian paranoid vibe and a Pynchonian zaniness. It also belongs to the American tradition of grifter novels (think of Melville’s The Confidence-Man, or Baum’s Oz, or Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or Gatsby, etc.). Atlantis, told in a third-person voice, feels a bit more distant than the first-person immediacy of True Grit or The Dog of the South, or even the third-person voice of Norwood, which hovers around its protagonist’s brain pan and eye line, and doesn’t flit much farther. Atlantis also covers a hearty lifetime of secret society shenanigans. It’s a loose, shaggy epic, and seems to sprawl beyond its 250-odd pages. In any case, I ate it up, just like I ate up the other three. I waited far too long for Charles Portis, but I suppose late is better than never. Highly recommended.

Three Books

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Taking Care by Joy Williams. 1985 trade paperback from Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

I read this book earlier this year. It’s really great. I reviewed it on this site, writing—

These are stories of domestic doom and incipient madness, alcoholism and lost pets. There’s humor here, but the humor is ice dry, and never applied as even a palliative to the central sadness of Taking Care. Williams’ humor is something closer to cosmic absurdity, a recognition of the ambiguity at the core of being human, of not knowing. It’s the humor of two girls eating chips on a beach, unable to decide if the people they are gazing at are drowning or just having a good time.

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Norwood by Charles Portis. 1985 trade paperback by Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Rick Lovell.

Norwood isn’t the best book I’ve read so far this year but it is the book I most enjoyed reading, and after reading it, I sought everything else by Portis (consuming everything so far except the late novel Gringos, which I’m sort of holding onto as like…I dunno? A consolation prize at some point? Is that grim?). I picked Norwood up on a wonderful whim this summer, possibly simply because it was a Vintage Contemporaries edition (and slim). I’m so glad I did. Great read.

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Cathedral by Raymond Carver. 1989 trade paperback from Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie. Cover illustration by Garnet Henderson.

This was the first Vintage Contemporaries edition I ever bought. I bought it when I was maybe 17, sometime in the late nineties, I guess, and I was always vaguely embarrassed of the cover, especially when I used it in not one but two college courses at the end of that decade (Carver was still very cool in that era. He seems to have fallen out of favor. Good for him!) Henderson’s ultra-literal cover of the story “Cathedral” is…something. (I still prefer Lovell’s whimsical work, which is more, uh, I dunno, metaphysical (?)). I circled four short story titles on the table of contents for some reason: “A Small Good Thing,” “Where I’m Calling From,” “Vitamins,” and “Cathedral.” All great numbers. I also am fond of “Feathers” and “Chef’s House,” but I didn’t circle those titles. The rest of the stories I don’t remember, although I’m sure I read them at least once or twice.

Jackson/James/Portis (Three books acquired, 5 Sept. 2019)

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I had not intended to pick up any more books.

I’d been cooped up all week, or kinda sorta cooped, with a very mild cabin fever. This cooping and fever were the fault of Hurricane Dorian, which was slowly slowly slowly heading our way, although in the end, at least for us, not really. I’m deeply thankful and also very sorry for the many people who did meet Dorian. It fucking sucks.

We kept power and internet and everything though, and we also kept our kids, as school and work was cancelled, and everything closed down. We enjoyed a few rare 73 degree bike rides and pretended it was fall. We played card games and pretended like the power had gone out, although our air was coolly conditioned. We invented chores. I culled some books, a whole bankers box full. And I think the four of us (moi, wife, daughter, son) grated on each other after four days of this.

I got out for a bit on Thursday to do some made-up errands, including dropping off the culled books box. I said to myself, We will just drop off the box of books and then drive to the Publix to pick up our meds. We will not browse. I dropped off the books, and then I said to myself, We will browse, but we will not acquire. So I browsed, sticking at first to the weird margins I rarely visit of this big sprawling used books—travel writing and food writing, historical fiction and short story anthologies—before saying, Hey, maybe they have a copy of Charles Portis’s Gringos. They had a copy of Charles Portis’s Gringos. I said to myself, You will regret it if you don’t pick this up. (That same morning, I had tried to make a go at John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the hopes of getting more Portis flavors, after finishing True Grit a few days ago. Alas, it didn’t take. Maybe later? I don’t know. I want to read Gringos.)

As I was picking up Portis I overheard a mother and her daughter trying to find Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. They were not in the right place. They were in the westerns, an aisle or two over. The daughter was telling the mother how much anxiety the book produced in her. They turned into my aisle, still struggling against the alphabet, when the mother said to the daughter, We just need to find somebody who works here. I do not work there but I said, Hawthorne is down there, and pointed roughly east, where only a few meters away were literally hundreds and hundreds of copies of The Scarlet Letter. This indication was too vague though, and a few steps in the general direction were needed. The mother and daughter team found their way to Hawthorne though, and I lingered in the Js, where I remembered that I’d been meaning to read Shelly Jackson for years now. I had wanted to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle but there were no copies. There were two copies of The Haunting of Hill House. I got the one without the Netflix logo on it.

My eye is very good at scanning NYRB spines, and, while picking at Jacksons, I spied a book called Negrophobia by Darius James. I had never heard of Negrophobia, but the title alone warranted a pull. I opened the book up somewhere in the middle, flicked through—visually wild, cut up and strange, it reminded me a bit of Burroughs or later avant garde stuff, like Kathy Acker. I flipped it over. Kathy Acker blurbed it. Paul Beatty blurbed it. Kara Walker blurbed it! (More visual artists should blurb books.)

I picked up all three books of course. Then I went home and read another chapter of Sylvia Warner Townsend’s The Corner That Held Them.

 

Blog about some recent reading, some books acquired, Hurricane Dorian, etc.

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I am on my second or maybe third dark and stormy and I have cleaned the house twice from top to bottom two days in a row now and I am ready for my kids to go back to school, which was cancelled through Thursday for Hurricane Dorian. My own school, by which I mean my employer, cancelled classes throughout the week, but I’ve been emailing students and trying to maintain some kind of continuity after this weird disruption. We have power here in NE Florida and all seems well. This ride has been a lot easier than Irma.

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I finished Charles Portis’s famous novel True Grit this afternoon and I must confess it might be my favorite of the four I’ve read by the maestro. I shed a little tear for Little Blackie at the end, and also maybe for Rooster Cogburn. My thought is that I wish I’d read the book years ago, before I’d seen the two film adaptations, both of which are, like, fine, but neither of which capture the pure voice of Mattie Ross. Great stuff. I need to read Gringos next, but maybe I’ll wait a bit.

I have been switching between True Grit and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s nuns-in-the-English-fens-in-the-age-of-the-Black-Death The Corner That Held Them and I love both—both are funny, dry (and wet when they need to be). The Corner That Held Them packs in so much storytelling; pages go on for decades with a sprightly and imaginative and droll clip. I’ve been enjoying it so much I went up to my favorite used bookstore, big box of old books in tow, to find more. I picked up Lolly Willowes, which I understand is excellent, and which I will get to posthaste.

I had burned up most of my credit at this particular bookstore, but the box I done brung afforded me enough trade to not only pick up Lolly Willowes but also a first-edition hardback of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

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I also got copies of Antoine Volodine’s Writers and Bardo or Not Bardo in the in the mail this week. I don’t rightly recall buying them online, but I know that after finishing In the Time of the Blue Ball by Volodine’s pseudo-pseudonym Manuela Draeger, I went through my Volodines for references to Draeger. I found references in Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, but couldn’t find my copy of Writers and then remembered that I gave it to a friend who seemed to promptly move a hundred miles away afterward. (He said he thought it was good.) Anyway: Bardo soon or not soon.

I read Keiler Roberts’ graphic memoir Rat Time yesterday and loved it so much I wrote about it immediately.

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The hurricane is not so bad for us.

Read “Damn!” an early short story by Charles Portis

“Damn!”

by

Charles Portis


If Sanford T.’s daddy hadn’t got killed that night I guess we’d still be with the carnival. What we was doing was hauling old man McClerkin around the country claiming he was Jesse James and charging fifty cents a head to come in and see him. We had to pay Mr Mooney thirty per cent of the take to travel around with his carnival but we was making good money anyway. That all come to an end the night Jesse got drunk and fell out of the Ferris wheel on top of a cotton candy stand. We tried for awhile having Sanford T. billed as Bob Ford but he wasn’t old enough to fool anybody and we had to close up. Mr Mooney kept us on to bark for the freak show but you talk about some hard folks to get along with, that’s freaks. We was about ready to quit anyhow when the alligator boy busted Sanford T.’s leg with a crow bar, something you might or might not expect out of a alligator boy. The carnival left us stranded in Montezuma, Arkansas, where Sanford T. was in the hospital and I guess that was the best thing that ever happened to us. The reason for that initial is that he’s got an older brother named Sanford too. His folks just liked the name I guess.

I was setting on a bench in front of the courthouse reading Billboard when this old, weasel-eyed man comes up and sets down beside me.

“I hear you’re a carny,” he said.

“Well, you hear right, old man. Only I’m not working right now.”

“You got any money?”

I reached in my pocket and held out a half-dollar.

“Naw, naw,” he said, “I didn’t mean nothing like that. I’m the one what ought to be giving you a half. I want to talk business.”

“All right, start talking.”

“You innarested in making some money?”

“Now look, if you’re some kind of con man you ain’t talking to no farmer.’’

I finally pulled it out of him. He had a little place just outside of town where he bottled patent medicine and he wanted to sell out because his health was failing him and his doctor told him he better move out west if he wanted to live.

“How come you don’t take this medicine and save yourself a trip?” I asked him.

“Well, you see, that’s what’s wrong with me now. This is liver emulsifier, that’s what I call it, ‘Bethel Liver Emulsifier’, and my liver is so stout now that it’s overworking my other organs. I’ve got the liver of a 21-year-old boy, believe it or not. Of course you’re a layman and wouldn’t understand all about how it works. Has to do with bile flow and all that.”

“You got me there all right,” I said.

“And besides, my daughter out in California is about to worry me to death to move in with her. I’m willing to take a big loss on a quick deal.”

Read the rest of “Damn!” at Bookanista

Blog about some recent reading

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Let’s start with the meat in the middle: Charles Portis. Why hadn’t I read Charles Portis until 2019? Maybe I initially dismissed the idea after first seeing True Grit (1969) with John Wayne. I know I was a bit more interested after seeing True Grit (2010), but I still didn’t quite realize that Portis is like Cormac McCarthy or Barry Hannah, picaresque and hilarious, a scion of the dirty south. I picked up his first novel Norwood at a tiny wonderful little bookstore in Portland Oregon this summer, prompted by its being in a Vintage Contemporaries edition more than anything else. I loved its energy and humor, and picked up copies of The Dog of the South and Masters of Atlantis, and promptly read them. (I couldn’t find a decent looking copy of True Grit and ended up ordering one on AbeBooks for four bucks.) I’ve heard Masters of Atlantis referred to as the masterpiece, and I thought it was very funny and even Pynchonesque (and also really relevant in its evocation of con artists and scammery), but Dog of the South was the most affecting of the three novels. A kind of bizarre road trip novel, Dog is told in first person narration by an asshole loser who, like most asshole losers, doesn’t realize that he’s an asshole loser. By the end of the novel he won me over though, and even grew as a person (I hate that I wrote that sentence). Dog’s shagginess is a small virtue; Master’s shagginess is unexpectedly grand. Norwood seems like a trial run at both, but also wonderful and grotesque. I read the first part of True Grit yesterday and loved the voice. I need to do a proper Thing on Portis, but for now, color me a Portishead.

I read Fernando A. Flores’ debut novel Tears of the Trufflepig last month, which I picked up after reading J. David Gonzalez’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The concept of the book—a very-near future where drugs are legal and cartels have taken to trafficking “filtered” (genetically-altered) animals is fascinating—but the prose and structure left something to be desired. Trufflepig suffered perhaps from its proximity to my reading Anna Kavan’s Ice and Portis’s Norwood.

I read the first chapter of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 historical novel The Corner That Held Them today. Amazing stuff: Ironic, mordant, energetic, and surprising. Set primarily in a spare humble corner of 14th century England, Corner starts with a cuckold murdering his wife’s lover, “sparing” her, and then founding a nunnery in her honor when she dies. Warner’s prose shuttles her nuns into the Black Death plague with bathos and wit. Really loved what I read.

I read In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Draeger this weekend and loved it too. There are three tales in the collection, translated by Brian Evenson and Valerie Evenson. Draeger is one of Antoine Valodine’s pseudonyms, but also one of his characters—a concentration camp librarian who invents tales for the camp’s children. The stories are whimsical with a dark edge, an edge perhaps provided if one know more of Volodine’s project (encapsulated neatly in Writers). The Draeger stories focus on a detective named Bobby Potemkine and his dog Djinn, and they are lovely.

I continue nibbling at Chris Ware’s forthcoming opus Rusty Brown. “Nibbling” is not the right verb—look, I’m gobbling this thing up. It’s astounding: funny, painful, gorgeous, maybe the best thing he’s done to date.

Kilian Eng’s Object 10 simply happens to be at the bottom of the pile. It too is gorgeous.

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Blog about some books acquired

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My family and I spent a wonderful week in Oregon at the end of July. We visited friends who live in Portland, where we based our stay, and we drove to the coast, to Mount Hood, and to all kinds of beautiful places. It was really fucking lovely.

Among all the gardens and forests and breweries and record shops, we managed to fit in some bookstores too, of course.

The first was Melville Books, right off of Alberta Street, tucked away just a bit. Our rental house was a block from Alberta, and we got there early in the afternoon and took a stroll. Melville Books is pretty new. The owner-proprietor was making a wooden “Open” sign while he chatted with me about his stock and his experiences scouting and buying used books. He was really friendly, and the small store was very well curated.

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I picked up Charles Portis’s first novel Norwood there on something of a whim. I’ve never read Portis, but I know his fans love his stuff, and I couldn’t pass up the Vintage Contemporaries cover. There was also a hardback copy of True Grit in stock at Melville that I now regret not having picked up. Norwood is hilarious, and has evoked in me a need to read more Portis.

I actually went to my local used book store today to get some stuff for my kids (and maybe just to get out of the house), but the only copy of True Grit they had in stock was a Coen Brothers film adaptation tie in. I did pick up copies of Masters of Atlantis (in hardback) and The Dog of the South though.

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We also visited Powell’s, of course. I wasn’t expecting it to be as big as it was. Powell’s is a very well-stocked general bookstore, but I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t find more weird or rare stuff there (I think my local place, Chamblin Bookmine, has spoiled me).

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I picked up a first-edition hardback of Donald Barthelme’s “nonfiction” collection Guilty Pleasures for just a few bucks.

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It includes one of my favorite Barthelme pieces, “Eugenie Grandet.” It also includes quite a bit of his collage work.

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I also picked up a hardback copy of Barry Hannah’s High Lonesome. I’ve read a lot of the stories in here (collected in Long Lost Happy), but some are unfamiliar. Also, the cover is by the photorealist painter Glennray Tutor, a Southern contemporary of Hannah’s. Tutor did the covers for several other Hannah volumes.

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Over in the sci-fi section of Powell’s I found some books by the Strugatsky brothers, which I’ve been into lately. I’ve heard Monday Starts on Saturday is good, but the cover for this edition is so godawful bad that I couldn’t go for it. That’s what library e-books are for, I guess. (Really though, a blank white cover would have been better.)

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I ended up picking up The Doomed City instead, which I might try to squeeze in before the end of summer.

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I was impressed with the art books collection at Powell’s but also disappointed not to find anything by Remedios Varo or Leonora Carrington, other than recent editions of their fiction—no real art books though. I was happy though to see a shelf recommendation for Margaret Carson’s recent translation of Varo’s Letters, Dreams & Other Writings though. I sent a pic to Margaret, who was really generous to me with her time in recent interview about her translation.

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I visited a few other bookshops, not so much as destinations, but rather in happy accidents in the neighborhoods we visited—but I restrained myself from picking anything else up. (And no, I didn’t make it to Mother Foucault’s, unfortunately, although many folks told me to. Next time.)

We visited Floating World Comics the same day as Powell’s, where I picked up a copy of Kilian Eng’s Object 10. I’ve been a fan of Eng’s for years, sharing his images on the blog and following him on Instagram. I hadn’t realized though that Floating World was his publisher. Object 10 is lovely.

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I also picked up a pack of 1993 Moebius trading cards there for a dollar. I haven’t opened them yet though. Saving it for a treat later. It was neat to see copies of Anders Nilsen’s Tongues in the wild, too. I had reviewed the title awhile back for The Comics Journal, but I hadn’t realized that Nilsen lived in Portland. We also checked out Bridge City Comics on Mississippi, which had a nice selection of dollar comics that I indulged my kids in.

Portland was fantastic in general. The only real disappointment came when we visited the Portland Art Museum expecting to see a major Frida Kahlo exhibit. Unfortunately, we misread the dates—the show starts next summer. The museum has a nice collection though. Just a few pics of some pieces I liked:

Rip Van Winkle (1945) by William Gropper:

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The Fair Captive (1948) by Rene Magritte

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and The Femminiello (1740-60) by Giuseppe Bonito.

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Here’s the museum’s description of this unusual painting:

Owing to widespread social prejudice, cross-dressing was rarely depicted in European art until the modern era. This recently discovered painting from the mid-eighteenth century is a testament to the exceptional and long-standing acceptance of cross-dressers known as femminielli in the great Italian city of Naples. The term, which might be translated “little female-men,” is not derogatory, but rather an expression of endearment. Femminielli come from impoverished neighborhoods, as is evidenced by this individual’s missing tooth and goiter, a common condition among the poor in the Neapolitan region. Although femminiellicross-dress from an early age, they do not try to conceal their birth sex completely. Rather than being stigmatized, they are deemed special and are accepted as a “third sex” that combines the strengths of both males and females. In particular, femminielli are thought to bring good luck, so Neapolitans often take newborn babies to them to hold. Femminielli are also popular companions for an evening of gambling. This association is represented by the necklace of red coral, which is similarly thought to bring good fortune. Neapolitan genre paintings (images of everyday life) frequently feature a grinning figure to engage the viewer. Here, we are invited to consider the artist’s playful inversion of traditional views of gender, which contrasts the pretty young male with the more masculine femminiello.

Maybe we’ll get back to the Pacific Northwest next summer and see the Kahlo then.

Anyway so well—

Like I said, I went to the bookstore today, not looking for myself (promise!) except that I did stop and browse Portis briefly, picking up the aforementioned copies. When I got home, I had a package from NYRB containing The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It immediately interested me when I flicked through it—seems like a weird one. NYRB’s blurb below; more to come.

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Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them is a historical novel like no other, one that immerses the reader in the dailiness of history, rather than history as the given sequence of events that, in time, it comes to seem. Time ebbs and flows and characters come and go in this novel, set in the era of the Black Death, about a Benedictine convent of no great note. The nuns do their chores, and seek to maintain and improve the fabric of their house and chapel, and struggle with each other and with themselves. The book that emerges is a picture of a world run by women but also a story—stirring, disturbing, witty, utterly entrancing—of a community. What is the life of a community and how does it support, or constrain, a real humanity? How do we live through it and it through us? These are among the deep questions that lie behind this rare triumph of the novelist’s art.