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.

 

Cursed Forest — Kilian Eng

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Cursed Forest by Kilian Eng (b. 1982)

Blade Runner film poster by Kilian Eng

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Videodrome film poster by Kilian Eng

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Escape from New York film poster — Kilian Eng

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Chase — Kilian Eng

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David Bowie — Kilian Eng

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Palace Life — Kilian Eng

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Mad Max: Fury Road film poster by Kilian Eng

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Untitled — Kilian Eng

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Untitled — Kilian Eng

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Heavy Metal — Kilian Eng

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2001: A Space Odyssey Posters by Kilian Eng

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Untitled — Kilian Eng

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The Terminator (Film Poster) — Kilian Eng

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A Riff Jodorowsky’s Dune (And Some Lovely Film Posters)

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Fans of Alejandro Jodorowsky and will likely already be familiar with the story that unfolds in Jodorowsky’s Dune, a new documentary by Frank Pavich. The short version: After the success of his midnight cult films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky moves to a castle in France to turn Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune into a film. Jodorowky put together a group of “spiritual warriors” to aid him in this quest, including the core team of Dan O’Bannon (who went on to create Alien), H.R. Giger, and the French artist Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, whose character designs and storyboards are the concrete manifestations of Jodorowsky’s vision. Jodorowsky also sought out Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Pink Floyd, and Mick Jagger, among others. The project resulted in a tome the size of several phonebooks, including paintings, designs, technical solutions, and a storyboard by Moebius—but no film. Studios shied away from Jodorowsky, daunted in no small part by the film’s proposed fourteen hour running time. Dino De Laurentiis eventually bought the film rights and handed the project to David Lynch, resulting in 1984’s admirable failure Dune.

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Jodorowsky’s Dune enriches and enhances the mythic status of Jodo (as he’s affectionately called by half the interviewees) and his non-film. Most of this enhancing comes from Jodo himself, whose shaman-presence radiates through the screen, charming the camera and the viewer. Here is someone spinning his own legend, telling stories he’s told a million times before, it seems, but weaving them into a more definitive tapestry—one that covers over half-truths, poses, and outright fraudulence. Like any great con-man, Jodo believes in his own bullshit and makes his audience want to believe it as well. His little stories—promising to buy off Orson Welles with a personal chef and plenty of wine, snapping at Pink Floyd while they wolf down hamburgers, a fateful across-the-room meeting with Mick Jagger, dueling with Dali—these anecdotes are the real life-force of the film.

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The other talking heads (and occasional disembodied voices) in the documentary offer a more nuanced, reality-based perspective, although it’s always clear that Jodo’s core team of “spiritual warriors” were willing to do whatever he asked of them (including Jodo’s son, who was to play the starring role of Paul Atreides—he had to endure several years of intense martial arts training). Jodorowsky’s influence on H.R. Giger and O’Bannon is especially clear, and the film makes a strong case that many of the concepts that landed in Jodo’s Dune-film-tome eventually showed up all over subsequent sci-fi and fantasy films.  

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Moebius is sorely missing here. He’s repeatedly (and correctly) credited as a genius, but his overall influence on the project is understated, and unless I blinked and missed it, there is no footage of him in the film—not even a voiceover (conflicting film rights?).

Perhaps what’s most significantly missing from the film is Frank Herbert. Early on, Jodorowsky admits that he hadn’t read Dune, just had the plot summarized by a friend. As the film progresses, it becomes evident that Jodorowsky probably never bothered to read the book. “I was raping Frank Herbert…but with love,” he declares at one point. Of course, it’s Jodorowsky’s Dune—not Herbert’s Dune.

The film also avoids spending much time on Lynch’s Dune, which is probably for the better. Still, there’s a wonderful moment near the end when Jodorowsky shares his thoughts on Lynch’s take (spoiler: He agreed with pretty much every other critic).

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Jodorowsky is clearly still angry that the film was never made. Like a magician practiced in misdirection, he spends much of the film hiding his wounded ego. His performance conveys the appearance—but not the spirit—of candor. In a rare moment that feels honest though, he grasps the tome he made with his spiritual warriors and expresses how much he would like somebodyanybody—to make the film.

Do we actually want Jodorowsky’s Dune? Isn’t it somehow better for the myth to exist, the chimera, the idealization, the-could-have-been? The filmmakers of Jodorowsky’s Dune offer us a version or a template or a guide. They do a wonderful job of synthesizing disparate materials into a unified audiovisual experience. Animation and original music bring the storyboards and concept art into vivid life, and Jodo’s voice commands and directs the viewer’s imagination. And this is the real joy of Jodorowsky’s Dune: A chance for the viewer to imagine, along with its shaman-author, the film that never happened.