Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

This is a classic example of a Southern gothic novel. John Singer, a deaf and mute man whose closest friend is sent to a mental hospital, becomes a confidant for various outcasts--a lonely teenage girl, an alcoholic socialist, a black doctor who is estranged from his family--in a 1930s Georgia mill town. Each one seems to believe that Singer understands them as they pour their hearts out to him. He may be a good listener but he really cares only for one man, his hospitalized friend. It's been years since I read this but I still remember how dark and depressing yet powerful this novel is.

I bought this copy for about a dollar or two from one of those tables that are always set up near NYU. They always have the best stuff for next to nothing!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

After Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (and who doesn't start with that one), this is the first novel by Philip K. Dick that I read. I think I picked it at random because I liked the title. The book takes place in an alternate, dystopian 1988 (the future at the time of writing), in which a pop star loses his identity overnight: his friends and lovers don't remember him and no one has ever heard of his music or TV show. It is as if he's never existed. The world has become a police state after the "Second Civil War," and everyone must carry ID cards or be sent into a forced labor camp.

This is one of Dick's better novels, though not my favorite that I've read (that would probably be
Ubik). I've gotta say though, I really wish they'd repackage his entire line. They could do so much better.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This book of short stories is one of my favorites by Marquez, the legendary Colombian writer of magical realism. Each of the stories touches on the theme of displacement, the strangeness of life in a foreign land. The two that stand out the most in my memory are "I Only Came to Use the Phone" and "The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow." In the former, a woman's car breaks down and she hitches a ride on a bus to try to find a phone. The bus is on its way to a mental hospital and in a terrifying series of events she is mistakenly admitted as a patient. In the latter story, a woman pricks her finger on a rose thorn and she inexplicably bleeds from her finger for days as she and her new husband drive to France on their honeymoon. She is admitted to a hospital where visitation is only allowed on day a week, so her husband must spend an exasperating week, without any knowledge of her condition, before he can see her again. In both stories the characters are thrust into a situation beyond their control, and the result is maddening, for both them and the reader.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How to Make Books by Esther K. Smith

Every time I flip through this book, I'm inspired to try all of the projects contained within. Accordion books, cake box books, coptic binding--the list goes on.

The design of the actual book is pretty great: raw bookboard, the spine covered with yellow cloth tape, the title embossed to look like it was done with a letterpress.

I love the letterpress design motif used throughout. Above is a section of the opening pages of the book.

The projects range in complexity--and really, the individual styles of books themselves can be pushed and played with to various degrees. Above are the steps to making the simplest one--the instant book, perfect for zines, or a one-off book on the fly. Even the design of an instant book can vary from a simple folded sheet of paper to some really interesting designs with extra cuts and folds. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

There are some really great examples pictured to illustrate the many directions you can take these book designs--they really provide some valuable inspiration and stepping off points.

I took a bookmaking class in college so I have a bit of a background in it but I never made anything as awesome as what's pictured here. Just looking at them makes me want to grab a piece of paper and start folding and cutting and drawing and gluing.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Holy Terrors by Jean Cocteau

This disturbing novel from French surrealist Jean Cocteau concerns two siblings who isolate themselves from the world as they grow up, out of touch with reality, enveloping themselves in the fantasy world they've created for themselves. But as they grow older, the fantasy is shattered when they try to involve others in their secret games.

The book is illustrated with 20 drawings by Cocteau.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My New York Diary by Julie Doucet

Graphic novelist Juliet Doucet tells the story of her six-month stint as a New Yorker in the early 90s. Her grotesque and artfully cluttered drawing style make her one of my favorite comic artists.

I also love how brutally honest she is, unafraid of portraying herself at her most vulnerable, unashamedly revealing her darkest secrets.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

I read about 200 pages of this book before it occurred to me that I had no idea what was going on. So I started over, making sure to concentrate a little more--sometimes reading on the train can be distracting--and I loved it. I can't claim to have followed every single one of the many subplots and digressions, but overall I thought it was hilarious and brilliant. Pynchon is the best at naming his characters: Tyrone Slothrup, Ronald Cherrycoke, Tantivy Mucker-Maffick, and about 400 more. Definitely one to re-read some day.

This edition is another one of Penguin's "Deluxe Classics," with cover art drawn by Frank Miller. (the above is one of the flaps). It's not my favorite overall design in the series but I do like the front cover.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Home Land by Sam Lipsyte

This hilariously acerbic novel is written as a series of over-the-top, extremely candid letters to a high school alumni newsletter. The self-loathing writer of these letters, which he knows will never be published, was nicknamed Teabag when he was a student, and now spends many of his waking hours (when he's not writing letters) "trolling the Internet for pictures of women whose leg warmers have been splattere with semen." Everytime he addresses the Catamounts, it makes me snicker. I saw Lipsyte read from this novel while he was in the process of writing it, and it might have been even funnier than it is on the page.

I'm pretty excited to see that he has a new book out, called The Ask. Definitely need to check it out!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Forced Entries by Jim Carroll

This is a kind of sequel to The Basketball Diaries, written over the course of a few years in the early 70s while Carroll was living in downtown Manhattan. Throughout its pages we catch glimpses of what it might have been like to live in that incredible moment in time--he frequents Max's Kansas City, cavorting with Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, the Warhol factory crowd, and even Robert Smithson, does a lot of drugs, and writes with a wonderfully poetic sensibility.

Carroll says on the second page of the book, "If you haven't died by an age thought predetermined through the timing of your abuses and excesses, then what else is left but to start another diary?" When he died a few months ago I couldn't help marveling at how long he actually did live (recent photographs show a frighteningly skeletal figure). I saw him read eight or nine years ago from a novel that he had been writing for many years, and I remember it being powerful and moving. Called The Petting Zoo, I'm happy to learn that it will finally be published this November.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad

Titled after a Minutemen lyric, Our Band Could Be Your Life focuses on 13 iconic American bands of the 80s. The style of writing is a little more "rock music critic" than I tend to like, but I did enjoy the book, particularly the Minutemen section--Mike Watt and D. Boon's intense friendship makes for a compelling chapter. Sure, the book is missing a lot of bands, but that's a bit of a ridiculous criticism, as you could fill ten volumes on the decade and still not cover it all. Overall it's worth reading, though unless you're a newcomer to this music there probably won't be too much new information for you to digest.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Alice's Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was born on a boating expedition on the River Thames, as the Reverend C.L. Dodgson, a close family friend of the Liddell family, made up a story to tell the three young Liddell girls in order to pass the time. The girls were enchanted by it, and asked Dodgson to write it down for them. He did eventually, calling it Alice's Adventures Underground and taking the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, and presented it to Alice as a Christmas gift.

This is an incredible facsimile edition of the original handwritten 1864 manuscript. In addition to the elaborate handwritten text, there are 37 illustrations scattered throughout the book.

Alice's Adventures Underground was eventually expanded to nearly twice its length and published as the book we know today, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, though many of the most famous elements are present in this version.

The book's namesake, Alice Liddell, pictured on the last page.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Airships by Barry Hannah

I was sad to hear that Barry Hannah died last week. Known for his audaciously written, darkly funny stories--described as "gonzo Southern fiction" by the Grove/Atlantic publisher in Hannah's obituary--he was more of a writer's writer, as they say. His debut short story collection, Airships, is set in the Vietnam War, the Civil War, and the modern South, populated by loud drunks, war veterans, and the like. Many of the stories were first published in Esquire, where they were edited by the legendary Gordon Lish. I own another collection by Hannah, High Lonesome, which I haven't read yet. Maybe I'll get on that now.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff

Throughout my college years Tobias Wolff was one of my favorite authors. I read all of his short story collections, memoirs, and even tracked down a copy of of his first and out of print novel (which he has rebuffed as inferior work). He was a definite influence on my own work as well. At this point I've moved a bit beyond that style of writing, but I still love the story "Bullet in the Brain," which is collected in The Night in Question. I've read it more than anything else he's written, and even made a print based on some of its text.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

I found this old Penguin UK edition of Lord of the Flies not too long ago and decided to pick it up. I haven't read it since I was in high school but I remember it as a powerful allegory on human nature, and I kind of want to read it again to see how it holds up in my mind. Interestingly enough, it seems that the book was a bit of a flop upon initial publication and actually went out of print for awhile, until it went on to become a bestseller in the early 60s, required reading for just about every high-schooler for decades to come.

I almost typed "Penguin Classics" in the previous paragraph but realized that at the time this book was printed it was a fairly new book--not yet a Classic. Kind of weird to read his bio on the back of the book as if he were a contemporary writer, still alive today.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

All Yesterday's Parties: The Velvet Underground in Print 1966-1971, edited by Clinton Heylin

This book is a collection of nearly every published article about the Velvet Underground written while the band was still together, from mainstream publications like the New York Times to rock music zines like Crawdaddy! and Creem. You get Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, and Richard Goldstein, and then you also get the confused squares writing about the latest Andy Warhol happening. ("It was ridiculous, outrageous, painful...It seemed like a whole prison ward had escaped.") It's pretty interesting to read about the most important band in the history of music (more or less a fact) within the context of their actual existence--definitely worth checking out, whether piecemeal or straight through from beginning to end. The book is ordered chronologically so if you go the latter route, you get the band's whole story arc (according to the journalists and rock critics of the day).

Scattered throughout the book are scans of various articles, advertisements, and flyers, such as the above for the band's residency at Max's Kansas City throughout the summer of 1970 (even though Mo Tucker didn't actually play any of those shows due to the fact that she was very pregnant). I can't imagine what it would have been like to have the opportunity to see the Velvet Underground play nearly every night for an entire summer. I'm getting chills just thinking about it!

Note: Dave has taken offense to the fact that I've included this book on my blog since it is technically from his shelf. But in my defense I was the one who actually bought (and read) it. So there.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

La Jetee by Chris Marker

Chris Marker’s film La Jetee is comprised of a series of still images, shot in gorgeous grainy black and white, accompanied with voiceover narration. So it seems only fitting that it has been adapted into a book.

Humanity has been wiped out by a nuclear holocaust. “The victors,” as they are called, have established some kind of underground penal colony, and have begun conducting time travel experiments using the prisoners as guinea pigs, in hopes of gaining information about the source of the catastrophe, and ultimately to change the course of history. One man in particular is chosen for his strong mental image of the peacetime world—he has been haunted by a childhood memory, in which he witnessed a man die—the logic being that “if [he] were able to conceive or to dream another time, perhaps [he] would be able to live in it.”

The book looks amazing*, and the story is thrilling and philosophically complex. Part photo book, part homage to the film, part science fiction novella with a pretty complicated time paradox—you really can't go wrong.

*Although it's admittedly hard to tell from the glare in these scans.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Widow by Georges Simenon

This is one of Georges Simenon's noir novels (or, "romans durs," as he called them), in which a hardworking widow hires a killer just out of prison as a handyman. Their relationship quickly turns into something else, until he starts to fall for the girl next door. And then things really go downhill from there.

While I love Simenon's Inspector Maigret mysteries, his noir novels are definitely his best work. The Widow is short, but powerful and dark. I definitely need to check out more of these.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, a 12-year-old genius cartographer receives a phone call from the Smithsonian announcing that he has won a prestigious award, inviting him to travel out to Washington to receive it at a gala event. They of course do not realize that T. S. is 12 years old, nor do his parents know he has secretly submitted his work to the Smithsonian. So he sets out at dawn to travel across the country from his home in Montana via freight train, hobo style.

As far as the story goes, it's not bad--a little too precocious and quirky for precocious- and quirkiness' sake. I can't say I didn't enjoy reading it, but what sets it apart are the visuals. For starters, I love the style of the cover. Pictured above and below are the objects T. S. has brought along with him on his journey, presented as though mounted in a museum exhibit.

Then you open the book. The first couple of pages are filled to the edges with this textured drawing. A smear of ink, a postmark, maybe the patterns on the inside of an envelope. And of course the hobo hotline (but I'll let you find out what that is on your own).

But the best part is T.S.'s maps, which fill the margins throughout the book. Some of them are a bit more on the convential side (the Yuma Bat Map, for instance).

But most of them are mapping out things like the act of shucking corn,

or facial expressions,
or the sounds heard on a freight train.

I love maps of any kind, so the illustrations--all of which were done by the talented Ben Gibson, who I had the privilege of working with until recently--are what really made this book for me.

The gold sparrow on the cover beneath the dust jacket is pretty nice (the color didn't really scan that well).