Categories are bad news (Barry Hannah)

 WT: Do you read magazines?

BH: If someone would rave about a story in the New Yorker, I’ll read it. But you get a lot of that Woody Allen–New Yorker–Hamptons fiction. My [students] have to send off to the little magazines. I get the sense that only grad students read those.

WT: Writer’s writers?

BH: I don’t like that term, because I wouldn’t buy somebody’s album on a dare if they called him a musician’s musician. I don’t write to be a writer’s writer. I don’t want to be like the little-magazine writer. I don’t want to be that.

Categories are bad news. Being Southern will just kill you sometimes. It’s not always a graceful adjective. Sometimes it means, don’t bother because it’s gonna be [sings a lick from dueling banjos]. It’s gonna be: porch, banjo, Negroes. There’s a canned dream of the South that a lot of people get into, and I’ve resisted that stuff my entire so-called career. Ready-made Southernism just disgusts me, just makes me nauseated. I mean, you can’t see a movie without hearing that goddamned slide guitar. Shit, I’m just so tired of it.

 

From Barry Hannah’s interview with Wells Tower in The Believer.

The Special Pleasures of Guest Room Reading

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A few years ago, The New York Times ran a little wisp of an article describing the pleasures many readers take in reading “the moldy, dog-eared paperbacks found on the shelves and bedside tables of summer guest rooms.” The article features writers explaining how, staying somewhere, they reach for books they’d normally never pick up, like Wells Tower describing how he ended up reading The Bridges of Madison County. Like most ardent readers, I take a book (or two or three, or, more recently, a Kindle loaded with hundreds) with me anywhere I’m going to stay a night—but I’ll invariably read something I find in the room I’m staying if possible.

Sometimes I’ll end up reading something terrible—once, staying at a beachfront condo, I read an entire serialized Annie Oakley novel even though it was awful. Other times a stay prompts me to pick up a book I’d never reach for in my civilian life. For example, in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains a few years ago I read a naturalist field guide for the area, written and published in the 1950s. More often than not, guest room reading leads me to read much faster and stay up reading much longer than I normally would, simply because I’m trying to finish the book before I leave. This is how I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores in one long sitting (the book was my uncle), and how I ate up John Barth’s novel The End of the Road in friend’s mother’s childhood room—the book was hers, she had lots of cool books, and I wished I could’ve read more.

The other night, staying with some longtime friends, I reached for a brittle yellowed Peanuts collection on the nightstand by my bed. There were a few volumes of prose and poetry there, but Charles M. Schulz’s comics seemed more likely to make it through the haze of half a dozen beers. Plus, I’ve always loved Peanuts. I read the book entire, an arc beginning with the gang heading off to summer camp and ending, more or less, with Snoopy’s failed attempts at writing.

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Like many kids, I grew up with Peanuts, reading Schulz’s work in the paper and also in collected volumes that my grandparents would give me (my grandfather was an especially big fan). The comics were often funny—not funny like my favorite at the time, Gary Larson’s The Far Side to be sure—but they were just as often full of melancholy or even despair, a despair that was mediated, but not necessarily assuaged by, the consolations of friendship.

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I read as gently as possible, trying (and not always succeeding) to prevent any more pages from falling out of the collection. I mentally bookmarked several panels and a few entire strips to photograph the next day to maybe share on the blog. The next morning it occurred to me that I own almost a half dozen Peanuts collections—but I probably hadn’t picked them up in years. And I suppose this is one of the strange pleasures of guest room reading—that it might reintroduce us to an old favorite—but that seems like too pat a conclusion to me. I’ve found over the years that I’m just as likely to remember an awful book I read at random as a guest—and that for some reason the experience of reading someone else’s books—in a guest room, at a river house, in a cabin, at a hostel—is somehow always heightened. I don’t have a distinct explanation, other than the very obvious and simple one that I usually read in the same few places—a chair in my living room, a couch, my office, the bed, the bath, my back porch—and that reading other people’s texts in unfamiliar places estranges what I think of as reading—and that estrangement is invigorating. And pleasurable. 

Book Shelves #14, April 1, 2012

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Book shelves series #14, fourteenth Sunday of 2012.

This is a strange shelf: it’s the bottom shelf of the ladder book shelf I’ve been photographing over the past few weeks, and it’s probably the least organized so far. There’s also a higher ratio of unread books on this shelf than in previous shelves. Anyway, left to right:

I was far more enthusiastic about Jonathan Lethem just a few years ago. I still think The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn hold up (they do in my memory, anyway), but Chronic City was awful (then why is it still on my shelf) and You Don’t Love Me Yet is one of the most pointless, silly, and gross books I’ve ever read.

I had good intentions to read John Crowley’s Little, Big and  Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco and John Wray’s Lowboy and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love: I’m actually pretty sure I got all these novels around the same time. They must have been in a stack that eventually got shelved here during a reshelving.

I’ve read at least five or six more Margaret Atwood novels than the ones here, but have no idea where they are (likely a combination of cheap mass markets that I gave to friends or lost).

Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! is an underread gem. Chris Adrian: Again, I was more enthusiastic about his work a few years ago, but I think it holds up. Also, would the person who borrowed my first edition hardback of The Children’s Hospital please return it? Padgett Powell’s slim novel is not bad.

Will Self’s Great Apes holds the distinction of being the ickiest novel I’ve ever read. Horrifying stuff. I bought it at an airport—in Bangkok? LA? Houston? I really can’t remember—I was returning to the US from Thailand and had bought the cheapest possible plane ticket—one that would basically keep me en route for three days, sleeping on planes and in airports. Anyway, Self’s nightmare book is bound up in that experience: it’s a riff on Kafka; dude wakes up to find that he’s become a chimp. It’s just so gross on so many levels. (Maybe I should add that I find seeing chimps dressed as humans to be the acme of perversion).

The Wells Tower collection is gold.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is gold, but I never got past the first 20 pages of number9dream, which seemed to really bite from William Gibson. I loved both the Tom McCarthy books, particularly C. Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a bit overrated and Baudolino’s first half is not bad, but it just goes on and on and on . . .  but it’s funny.

Wells Tower, Garbage Man

Over at The Paris Review Daily, Chris Flynn asked a few authors to discuss odd jobs they’d held, including Biblioklept fave Wells Tower, who worked briefly as a garbage man. He also slang marijuana for a while, but that’s not in the anecdote. Anyway, we love Tower’s short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (review here) and hope he’ll put out a novel soon. Here’s his trash story—

When I was nineteen, I worked briefly as a garbage man. My boss’s name was Puddn’. He was a vast, sunbaked person with such a pronounced Southern accent that I couldn’t understand much of what he said. The job’s oppressions were what you’d expect: maggots, smells made worse by the summer heat. By the end of each day, I hated everyone who owned a garbage can. I did not hate Puddn’, though, who made many gifts to me of the wonders he found in the trash: penknives, silver cutlery, old watches, some of which I keep with me still.

Wells Tower on Barry Hannah

Wells Tower profiles Barry Hannah in a 2008 issue of Garden and Gun. A taste

Barry Hannah’s fame is of a peculiar kind. Ask people about him, and either they’ll say they’ve never heard the name (despite his nominations for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize) or they’ll get a feverish, ecstatic look before they seize you by the lapels and start reeling off cherished passages of his work. Echoes of familiar Southern tropes appear in Hannah’s novels and short stories: outlandish violence, catfish, desperate souls driven half mad by lust and drink. But in Hannah’s fiction the South becomes an alien place, narrated in a dark comic poetry you’ve never heard before, peopled with characters that outflank and outwit the flyspecked conventions of Southern lit. A Civil War scribe whose limbs—save his writing arm—are shot off. A serial killer who looks like Conway Twitty and makes his victim suck a football (“moan around on it some”) before beheading him. A Wild West widow who lashes a personal ad to a buzzard in hopes of finding a man. In Hannah’s panoramas, you’ll find hints of William Faulkner, rumbles of Charles Bukowski, and the tongue-in-cheek grotesquerie of David Lynch. But the fierce inventiveness of Hannah’s prose makes him something sui generis entirely, a writer who renders the project of comparison a farce.

The Best Books of 2010

Here are our favorite books published in 2010 (the ones that we read–we can’t read every book, you know).

Sandokan — Nanni Balestrini

A dark, elliptical treatise on the mundane and inescapable violence wrought by the Camorra crime syndicate in southern Italy.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned — Wells Tower (trade paperback)

Tower’s world is a neatly drawn parallel reality populated by down-on-their-luck protagonists who we always root for, despite our better judgment, even as they inadvertently destroy whatever vestiges of grace are bestowed upon them.

The Union Jack — Imre Kertész

Kertész’s slim novella explores a storyteller’s inability to accurately and properly communicate spirit and truth against the backdrop of an oppressive Stalinist regime.

BodyWorld — Dash Shaw

Shaw’s graphic novel is sardonically humorous in its psychoanalytic/post-apocalyptic visions. It’s a sweet and sour subversion of 1950’s comics and contemporary conformist groupthink politics. Witty and poignant, it advances its medium.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — David Mitchell

An unexpected historical romance from postmodern poster boy David Mitchell. Thousand Autumns is a big fat riff on storytelling and history and adventure–but mostly, Mitchell’s Shogunate-era Japan is a place worth getting lost in.

C — Tom McCarthy

“I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature,” McCarthy said in an interview this year. “For me, that’s what literature’s always done.” C, our favorite novel of 2010, seems plugged into the past and the present, pointing to the future.

Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel (trade paperback)

Who knew that we needed to hear the Tudor saga again? Who knew that Thomas Cromwell could be a good guy?

The Ask — Sam Lipsyte

A mean, sad, hilarious novel that simultaneously eulogizes, valorizes, and mocks the American Dream.

X’ed Out — Charles Burns

Charles Burns does Tintin in William Burroughs’s Interzone. ‘Nuff said.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis — Lydia Davis

An epic compendium of, jeez, I don’t know, how do you define or explain what Davis does? Inspection, perception, mood, observation. Tales, fables, riffs, annotations, skits, jokes, japes, anecdotes, journals, thought experiments, epigrams, half-poems, and would-be aphorisms. Great stuff.

“The Landlord” — New Fiction from Wells Tower

The New Yorker has published a new short story by Biblioklept fave Wells Tower. It’ called “The Landlord” and would have fit fine in Tower’s collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. An excerpt from the story–

My daughter has come from Los Angeles to live with me. Rhoda is thirty-one, and she used to work in advertising, but now she’s a painter and a maker of other art that I’m not sure how to describe. Her field is bummers. Rhoda’s past exhibitions include leukemia-cluster art, floating-yuan art, water-rights art, and mental-health-funding-cuts art, which was piles of clothes painted bronze and rigged up with speakers that yelled. She has also made a lot of hand art and hair art. Eight years ago, shortly into her new career, while getting the hang of a radial-arm saw, Rhoda severed the index, middle, and ring fingers of her left hand. The surgeons reattached them, and Rhoda recovered nearly complete range of motion, but the shock of the injury caused some of her hair to fall out. She keeps her head shaved close now, a style that improves the plainness of face she inherited from me. Bald, she looks about fifteen years older than she is, but also terrifyingly smart and owlish, Lady Malcolm McDowell.

“My Kushy New Job” — Wells Tower Slings Hash(ish) in Amsterdam

Biblioklept fave Wells Tower details his temp job working in an Amsterdam weed bar in his new GQ article, “My Kushy New Job.” A few quotes from the essay–

At quarter of nine on a Wednesday morning, I report for my first shift. I’ll be working at de Dampkring on the Handboogstraat, a cheery alley just off the Damstraat, a heavily touristed promenade connecting the Flower Market to Dam Square. The Handboogstraat shop, a cozy enclave that can comfortably seat thirty or so, is a study in Art Nouveau psychedelia. Lava-lamp swirls predominate. The coffee bar is nearly overwhelmed by a biomorphic plaster mass aglow with party bulbs. The shop is pleasant and trippy in a somehow classic fashion. It’s like being inside the lovely bowels of Toulouse-Lautrec.

And later–

By midafternoon, my hands are sufficiently caramelized with THC resin to merit ejection from a major league pitcher’s mound. Rubbing my thumb against my forefingers rouses little rat turds of hashish. There’s probably enough intoxicating filth that gnawing my fingertips would affect my mood, but I don’t nibble them, taking seriously the house prohibition against dealers getting high on the job. Though other employees gripe about the policy, I hardly need a hit of anything. Simply working here makes me feel, in the worst possible way, as if I’m stoned to the limits of my capacity. The mere act of weighing the product, which must be done with ticklish exactitude, to the hundredth of a gram, while the customer rails at you—”Big buds! What’s with all the shake? I’m not paying for that stem!”—is an occasion for nervousness and paranoia of the first order. A third or so of the customers buy hash, most of it cheap stuff, which is hard as a boot sole and requires a kitchen knife to apportion. If you don’t nail a perfect gram on the first chop, you have to make the weight by laboriously shaving brown flour into the scale pan while the customer volubly wonders who let this fumbling idiot behind the bar.

Devoid of Original Content, We Offer Instead These Links

Barbara King has to forget everything she thought she knew about Rick Steves after reviewing his new book Travel as a Political Act at Bookslut. Here’s a taste of her review:

The book is an eye-opener. Steves describes himself as a traveler and “a historian, Christian, husband, parent, carnivore, musician, capitalist, minimalist, member of NORML, and a workaholic.” The marijuana habit (I have discovered) has been headlined for a while now; the reveal here is Steves’s brand of forthright liberalism.

Promising not to “take the edge off” his opinions, Steves embraces geopolitical philosophizing “with the knowledge that good people will respectfully disagree with each other.” Speaking of assumptions, that’s a generous one. Given the mood of a large segment of the American public and Steves’s penchant for pointed passages, anyone care to wager how his fan mail is running?

Ahmad Saidullah reviews Keri Walsh’s compendium The Letters of Sylvia Beach at 3 Quarks Daily. This gives us a chance to plug our own interview with Keri Walsh from last month about the book (See? There’s some original content here after all–even if it’s recycled. Recycling is good, right?)

As part of the new partnership between Salon and McSweeney’s, you can read Nick Hornby’s latest “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column online. The column has returned to The Believer after a too-long hiatus; it’s easily one of our favorite features in the magazine. It’s also one of the major inspirations for this site.

At The New York Times, Dave Itzkoff uses Kristen Stewart’s reaction shots as a way to review the cultural black hole that was the 2010 MTV Movie Awards. Hilarious.

The New Yorker has begun coverage on their “20 Under 40” collection of writers. The editors on their thought process:

The habit of list-making can seem arbitrary or absurd, leaving the list-makers endlessly open to second-guessing (although to encourage such second-guessing is perhaps the best reason to make lists). Good writing speaks for itself, and it speaks over time; the best writers at work today are the ones our grandchildren and their grandchildren will read. Yet the lure of the list is deeply ingrained. The Ten Commandments, the twelve disciples, the seven deadly sins, the Fantastic Four—they have the appeal of the countable and the contained, even if we suspect that there may have been other, equally compelling commandments, disciples, sins, and superheroes. What we have tried to do, in selecting the writers featured in this issue, is to offer a focussed look at the talent sprouting and blooming around us.

Finally, here’s one of those celebrated writers, Wells Tower, in an interview at a bar:

The Joys of Random Reading

The New York Times published a little piece yesterday on the pleasures of finding–and reading–random books in vacation spots. From the article: “There is fate in the moldy, dog-eared paperbacks found on the shelves and bedside tables of summer guest rooms. When the masterpiece we’ve dutifully brought along stalls five pages in, the accidental bounty of other people’s discarded reading beckons. Like conversations with strangers on a train, these random literary encounters can be unsettling, distracting or life changing.” They ask eight authors, including Wells Tower and Dave Eggers about some of their random reading encounters. Here’s Tower on The Bridges of Madison County:

“The Bridges of Madison County,” by Robert James Waller, found in a beach house in Brooklin, Me. Strenuously unrecommended as a novel, but if you strike every third verb and noun it converts into a superb volume of Mad Libs with which to pass idle hours by the sea.

I’ve picked up many weird books over the years, at guest houses, hostels, and other places I was staying: a cheap novelization of old Annie Oakley magazine serials (at a beach condo); H.G. Wells’s A Short History of the World (at a river house); too some mild shame, sundry trashy V.C. Andrews novels (they must have been my older cousin’s); any Stephen King novel I’ve ever read. Probably the best random reading experience I’ve had though was when staying at a friend’s grandfather’s house in Miami. I stayed in his mother’s old room–she had all kinds of cool books, including John Barth’s slim second novel The End of the Road, which I devoured in one sleepless night. I did not steal it.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned — Wells Tower

Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned takes its title from the name of the final story in the collection, but the phrase is also an apt descriptor for the underlying themes that most of these stories explore. Tower’s world is a neatly drawn parallel reality populated by down-on-their-luck protagonists who we always root for, despite our better judgment, even as they inadvertently destroy whatever vestiges of grace are bestowed upon them.

There’s Bob Monroe in “The Brown Coast,” who has “perpetrated three major fuckups that would be a long time in smoothing over.” He’s lost his wife and his job, but he finds a measure of solace in adding fish to an aquarium–until that project is ravaged. There’s the father of “Down through the Valley” — estranged against his will — who attempts to make nice by driving his ex’s injured new husband home from a New Age retreat. The poor guy, like so many of the characters here, stumbles into one bad situation after another. He’s not the only dad here — there are plenty of fathers in Everything Ravaged, and there’s also a strong undercurrent of Oedipal rage. In “Leopard,” (written in that rare beast, the second-person), Tower explores the psyche of an angry pre-adolescent boy who hates his dickish stepfather. When the lad discovers a flier warning that a pet leopard is on the loose, he fantasizes that the creature will solve his problem. The teenage lead of “Wild America” — the only female protagonist in the book — lives with the shame of having “tried to stab her shy father with a nail file.” In “The Brown Coast,” Bob calls his home to find that his Uncle has taken up with his wife. “Executors of Important Energies” brims with Oedipal tension, as a failed inventor has to come to terms with his father’s dementia. He’s had to live most of his life in ambivalence over his stepmother, who splits the age difference between him and his father:

The particulars weren’t absolutely clear, but I had a hunch that somewhere around my sixteenth birthday, he was going to take me out to a desert overlook where the sun was going down and announce that he was giving Lucy to me, along with his Mustang fastback, along with some Schlitz, and maybe a cassette tape that was nothing but “Night Moves” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band.”

If “Night Moves” is the dream, Seger’s “Beautiful Loser” is the reality for most of the characters in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. And Tower’s world is strangely beautiful, an evocatively drawn portrait of the little rural pockets that permeate the American Southeast. Sure, there’s a story set in New York City, and “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” is about Vikings in the Dark Ages, but for the most part Tower sticks to the weird, unstable borders between civilization and wilderness. It’s a world where seemingly peripheral characters all of a sudden fall into the narrative as essential players; it’s a violent world–and an engrossing one.

“Retreat” might be the finest of the stories here. It tells the story of two long-warring brothers who try, at least on the surface, to make amends. The protagonists (or, more rightly mutual antagonists) are typical of Tower: rough and physical, but also prone to moodiness and obsessive self-reflection. There are two versions of the story, initially published in issues 23 and 30 of McSweeney’s. The one published here is the later version, told from the perspective of the more financially-prosperous brother (the first is told from the viewpoint of the less well-off brother. Both brothers are total assholes). We kinda sorta wish that both versions were included in the collection, because they’ve come to form a composite story in our mind, but hey, you can’t always get what you want. “Retreat” unfurls in muscular, organic prose, bristling with fresh metaphors and similes. Great stuff.

Tower is a writing talent that we’ve been following for awhile now, and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is the sort of book that makes you want to track down the stray stories not collected here (a good starting place for those interested: “Raw Water” in McSweeney’s 32). And while we’ll never knock the short story as a lesser form, surely this man has a novel waiting in the wings. We’d love to read it. We very highly recommend Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is available today in trade paperback from Picador.

Books To Look Forward To In 2010

A couple of months ago, this cryptic postcard arrived in the mail:

A second novel from Ralph Ellison? Wasn’t that Juneteenth, the posthumous work pieced together from thousands of pages and notes by Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan? The one that was kinda sorta panned as a mess (or at least an incomplete vision)? A few weeks later, another postcard:

So we were still a little confused. Was Three Days Before the Shooting… a more complete version of Juneteenth, or a wholly separate novel? A week or two later, a third postcard showed up with some answers: Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting… is a re-edit of the material originally presented as Juneteenth back in 1999, expanded from 368 pages to 1136 pages. Hopefully, Ellison’s vision will be restored here. Modern Library plans to release Three Days Before the Shooting… in late January of 2010.

Don DeLillo‘s newest novel Point Omega (sounds like some G.I. Joe shit) will drop in early February of 2010. It’s a slim 128 pages, a novella really, which might be a nice change of pace. Here’s the cover:

Wells Towers had something of a hit this year with his collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, but maybe you didn’t read it because it was in oh-so cumbersome hardback. Thankfully, Picador will release Everything Ravaged in trade paperback in February of 2010. In the meantime, check out Chris Roth’s short adaptation of the title story:

There’s no release date yet for Jonathan Franzen‘s forthcoming novel Freedom, but it should come out next year. The novel is Franzen’s follow-up to his breakout hit, The Corrections. Can’t wait an indeterminate measure? The New Yorker published an excerpt called Good Neighborsearlier this year.

We began with a posthumous novel and will end with one: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King may or may not come out in 2010 (some websites are citing 2011 now). We will not parse through the problems of unfinished, post-death work here but simply say we want to read it. We were intrigued by–and enjoyed–the portions of the novel that have been published thus far, and we love Wallace, and we’re greedy, and we want more.