Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas themed books (and one audio recording)

I wanted to post something holiday-ish today but I think I went through my only two Christmas-themed books last year. So in case you missed them, here's a look at Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris and The Twelve Terrors of Christmas by John Updike.

And finally, here's my real Christmas gift to you. I linked to a print version last year, but I'm taking it up a notch this time with an audio recording (you can ignore the weird video montage someone has put together) of "Six to Eight Black Men" by David Sedaris. A word of warning: do not watch while sipping egg nog or hot cocoa, as you may spit it out in a fit of laughter. Not kidding.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Henry Darger's Room

Henry Darger is the quintessential outsider artist. He grew up an orphan, escaped from the asylum for "feeble-minded boys" at age 16, led a mostly solitary life working as a janitor, and lived alone in a one-room apartment in Chicago for 40 years. Upon his death his landlord discovered that the tiny room contained more than 30,000 pages of manuscripts and several hundred watercolor paintings. Most of them comprise his most famous work, In the Realms of the Unreal, the story of the Vivian girls, seven sisters who assist a daring rebellion against an evil regime of child slavery.

What most people remember about the paintings is that the little girls have penises. I'm not a betting woman but if I had to put money on it I'd guess that Darger just never learned that girls don't look the same as boys. But I digress...the important thing is that he was a total unknown with an incredible secret life, spending decades writing and painting his life's work without another soul even realizing it.

I first heard his story about ten years ago, and became fairly engrossed in it. I was at first disappointed to learn that the In the Realms of the Unreal has not been published in full (although, quite frankly, how could one publish a 15,000+ page book--and more importantly, who would read it?) but did manage to find a volume excerpting sections of it at the Pratt Library, where I worked at the time.

Anyway...about a year ago I was in the PS1 book store and noticed this on the shelf. It was a little bit pricy but it was well worth the purchase. It's a beautiful little book of, yes, photos of Henry Darger's room, which his landlord has faithfully kept nearly just as it was when Darger died in 1973.

It starts with a series of black and white shots, taken in the 70s just after Darger's death. I like the inspiration wall on the right. Darger was obsessed with protecting children, which, knowing just a bit about his history in the asylum, seems pretty understandable.

Most of them were taken in 1999 and are in color, with this almost golden sepia tone to them. I love how his paints are still strewn out on the table, as if he might come back to them at any minute.

Some original manuscripts of Realms. Some of them were bound by the artist; the rest are tied with twine. I like the wallpaper covers with hand painted titles.

Darger loved children's books with girl protagonists. He owned 13 first edition copies of the Oz books.

Photos of little girls and religious images on the mantelpiece.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick

The “crap artist” of the title is Jack Isidore, a socially awkward man who seems a bit obsessive compulsive, fanatically cataloging old science magazines and collecting random objects. He believes that the earth is hollow, that sunlight has weight, and other disproved theories. Broke, he moves in with his sister’s family and joins a religious group that shares his interests in ESP, telepathy, and UFOs, believing the world will end on April 23, 1959.

While the details of the novel involve some paranoiac elements, this is actually a straight fiction novel--nothing otherworldly occurs. Dick wrote a few other mainstream novels early on in his career, some of which were recently reissued by Tor, but for awhile this was the only one of them in print. While I definitely love some of the stranger PKD novels (Ubik is hands down my favorite), this one is certainly worth checking out.

P.S. To the people at Vintage: please repackage these books! They're ugly as sin! Thanks. (Although I guess there is a kind of charm in this level of hideousness. It's almost a way of weeding out the poseurs—only a true fan would be willing to be seen purchasing something that looks like this.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Virginia Dare by Fielding Dawson

I first heard of Fielding Dawson in an article about him in The Believer a few years ago, which definitely got me interested. A beat-era writer and painter, he studied at Black Mountain College and hung around with Franz Kline and Philip Guston. (A favorite detail about him is that he pitched for the Max's Kansas City softball team. I especially love that there was a Max's Kansas City softball team at all.)

I came across this book when I wasn't looking for it, at Robin's Books in Philadelphia. (A signed copy by a dead author on a now defunct* legendary press...for $8.50. Go figure.) In the book's introduction, Dawson announces that "this book draws to a close my involvement with the first person and autobiography" and that it marks his "entrance into third person fiction, and open endings through transitions," as well as his intent "to undo the corset concepts of beginning, middle and end, as well as lucid description and dialogue in 123-ABC type progressions, and the mistaken dogma that novelistic completion brings, or ties, all loose ends together." Many of the stories are extremely short, a page or two, or even just a paragraph.

I remember feeling disappointed as I read it, but less disappointed in the book than I was with myself for not "getting it." Flipping through it now, the stories kind of remind me of a more beat-like Raymond Carver. I'd like to give it another try, or at least check out another of his books.

Dawson was also a painter and collagist, and there are many photographs and collages scattered throughout the pages of this book, as well as on the front cover.

*I've just learned that though John Martin did retire in 2002 and sold the rights to the works of Charles Bukowski, Paul Bowles, and John Fante to HarperCollins, he then sold the rest of his inventory to David Godine for $1, and Godine now not only distributes the remaining Black Sparrow stock but also publishes new titles under it as an imprint of his own publishing house. But for all intents and purposes, Black Sparrow is, in the classic sense, still defunct in my eyes.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre

This is, as far as I can remember, my first foray into spy novels, and it's a pretty good one--Graham Greene said it was "the best spy story I have ever read." Alec Leamas, a British agent in early Cold War Berlin, is called back to London by Control after his last double agent is killed. Instead of being dismissed, he is given a rather dangerous assignment: play the part of a disgraced agent, a defector, as part of a plot to bring down Mundt, an assassin for the Abteilung, the East German Secret Service.

The novel is of course suspenseful and entertaining, but it also seemed somewhat more literary than I had expected. It's well written and carefully plotted, and Leamas is more of an anti-hero, hard drinking and disillusioned, than some kind of slick action hero. Good stuff all around.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hunter & Painter by Tom Gauld

Not long ago I spotted this short staple-bound comic by Tom Gauld and quickly snapped it up. I loved his The Gigantic Robot, both for the drawing style and deceptively simple and humorous storytelling approach.

Hunter & Painter tells the story of a cave painter who decides to try a different subject matter, which proves unpopular with his fellow cavemen.

I love the woolly mammoth.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Way through Doors by Jesse Ball

This is Jesse Ball's second novel. I read his first book, Samedi the Deafness, simply because I liked the cover art, but was pleased to find that I enjoyed the story as well. The Way through Doors also has a lovely cover--the rectangle within a rectangle within a rectangle, the words of the title cut in half, aptly symbolize the structure of the novel itself.

When a pamphleteer sees a woman run down by a taxi, he takes her to the hospital and lies that he is her boyfriend. He must keep the woman awake, so he tells her stories all night, attempting to revive her memories in the process. At this point the book launches into a rather unconventional story arc, with the novel beginning again, the narrative folding in upon itself, breaking off in new directions while leaving the earlier story unfinished each time. In every version, he seeks to learn the woman's identity.

This is a complex, many layered, comically absurd novel, written with poetically skillful language. I'm excited to see that he has a new novel coming out in June, called The Curfew.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom was a star high school basketball player, which was pretty much the highlight of his life. It's all been downhill from there. Now he's a little older, and his job and marriage are miserable and unfulfilling. One day on a whim he gets in his car and keeps driving. Except then he turns right back, but instead of going home shacks up with someone else for a few months, while a priest keeps trying to get him to reconcile with his pitiful wife.

I bought this book in a used bookstore in Kansas City, along with a stack of other old paperbacks. The owner commented that this one was "excellent" (the only other title that received a comment besides that was George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, which is allegedly also "excellent").

Other than one short story, I'd never read John Updike before, and I had a really hard time getting through this book. I couldn't stand any of the characters, except for maybe Ruth, the former prostitute. (Which I suppose doesn't necessarily make for a bad book, but that wasn't my experience this time.) Rabbit's wife is completely helpless. I pictured her as some kind of a pathetic blob of a human being, and quite frankly, I wish Rabbit had kept running that very first day and hadn't turned back. Although at the same time I didn't particularly like Rabbit either.

I have to assume Updike's work developed over time considering his literary reputation but this book did not make me want to read anything else of his.

By the way, I had no idea this had been made into a movie. Starring James Caan, no less!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

This is David Foster Wallace's debut novel, which takes place in 1990 in an alternate Cleveland, OH. At some point in the past, the government decided that Ohioans would benefit from having a desert--a place to wander alone and reflect, free of shopping malls and civilization--and so they engineered the Great Ohio Desert, or G.O.D.

Our heroine, Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, is the daughter of the wealthy owner of a baby food company but chooses to work as a switchboard attendant at a publishing company. Her great-grandmother, a former student of Wittgenstein who cannot survive if the room temperature is below 98.6 degrees, has just disappeared from a nursing home, along with 25 other inmates. Her boyfriend, who's also her boss, is insanely jealous and possessive. And her pet cockatiel has begun speaking a mixture of sexual and religious psychobable, which may propel him to stardom on a Christian broadcasting network.

There's a lot going on in the story, but it didn't seem as difficult as his fiction is made out to be. (I'd previously only read his nonfiction.) Granted, many reviews say it is much more accessible than Infinite Jest (which I do intend to take on at some point, though I don't look forward to having to lug that thing around with me on the subway).

The book is bizarre, funny, and highly imaginative. It ends in the middle of a sentence, which feels a little dissatisfying, as though the story should keep going but we are only revealed a slice of it. But that feeling wore off after awhile.

There's a new edition of the book with Vlad the Impaler (the cockatiel) on the cover, which is all well and good, but I really prefer the one pictured above. It features an aerial view of the Cleveland suburb where the story takes place, a town that was designed to look like Jayne Mansfield's head from above.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll

I can't believe it's been almost a month since I last posted anything. I guess I've been taking a bit of a break. But now I'm back (hopefully more regularly).

The Petting Zoo, which was released just last month, is Jim Carroll's first and last novel. He's of course published many volumes of poetry and two collections of his journals--the famous Basketball Diaries and the perhaps lesser known Forced Entries (I actually prefer the latter one). He died a little over a year ago, after turning in a draft and revising the first two parts of The Petting Zoo. A literary scholar was able to finish revising the novel based on Jim's detailed notes.

I'd seen him read part of this book about nine years ago, and according to his website, he first began reading pieces of it aloud in 1989. In other words, the book has been a very long time in the making, and I was really looking forward to reading it.

The protagonist, Billy Wolfram, is a painter who has achieved a high level of wealth and celebrity in the 1980s New York art world. Some say he's essentially a version of Jim Carroll without the sex, drugs, and rock n roll. Yes, Wolfram is a hugely successful artist...and a 38 year-old virgin, due to unresolved sexual neuroses dating back to his mother walking in on him during his first and only attempt at jerking off. (I've purposely left out a few amusing'll have to read it to find out the rest.)

I hate to say it, but I was disappointed with this book. It may be a result of others having to finish it for him, or, similarly, perhaps the book would have required a lot more rewriting on Carroll's part had he lived longer, but was published prematurely upon his death. The writing style feels flat, lacking the kind of poetic virtuoso one might expect from him, and the dialogue seems unnatural and a bit stilted at times. I'm also not sure how I feel about the talking, immortal raven that keeps appearing throughout the story (there seems to be an implication that it's the same one that knocked at Edgar Allan Poe's chamber door).

On a more positive note, the cover art was illustrated by Raymond Pettibon, which might be the only reason I'm keeping the book.