Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Gary Panter - Untitled (?)

On Saturday I happened to be passing by one of my new favorite stores, Desert Island Comics, and decided to stop in on a whim. I left with a stack of books, including this collection of Gary Panter prints. I'm not quite sure what the deal is with this publication, as there's no information printed anywhere on it. I thought maybe it was called "The Waters Leading to Hell", but I think that's actually the title of the painting on the cover, rather than the book. But it's over-sized (about 11.5 x 15), staple-bound, printed on heavy paper, and looks awesome!

As a bonus, I was invited to choose from a box of "weird, 80s music trading cards" and managed to score this one of Harley Flanagan from the Cro-Mags. Pretty awesome (and yes, weird).

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Fires by Joe Flood

At this point I've read a lot of books about the history of New York City, so much of the content of this book was nothing new to me (in fact, I recognized a lot of the material cited from Robert Caro's The Power Broker and Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities). However, its main thesis was rather unique--that the majority of the fires ravaging parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan in the '70s were caused by a flawed computer model, and not greedy landlords hoping to collect insurance money. In the '60s Mayor Lindsay teamed up with the RAND corporation, a think tank established to provide research and analysis to the U.S. army, to develop a way to govern the city more efficiently and statistically, starting with the fire department. But their methods were deeply flawed, resulting in severely reduced service in the neighborhoods that needed it desperately and new stations opening in sleepy suburban areas that really didn't need them at all. Added to that were lax building codes--it seems like most of the serious fires detailed in the book were made far worse because of illegal constructions the FDNY was unaware of--and firefighters' lack of proper training on how to approach a truss-style building.

The Fires doesn't really succeed much in painting a vivid picture of what conditions were like in the fire-ravaged neighborhoods. But maybe that's not really the point of the book. I'd never heard of the RAND corporation before, and found those aspects of the book to be pretty interesting.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

2666 by Roberto Bolano

My god has it been a long time since I've posted anything. No excuses, really, other than laziness--but I'm coming back with something good.

Robert Bolano's 2666 is a 900 page novel that was published posthumously as a boxed set of three paperbacks (as well as another edition in one volume). Such a beautiful package--I love the brown paper slipcase, the red lettering, and the design of each of the individual books inside.

Each of the covers wraps around from left to right to create one large image.

As for the content of the book, it's actually divided into five parts, each one loosely connected to the next, from a group of critics in search of a reclusive German author, to an untold number of serial murders in Mexico, to the Eastern front of World War II, and back again. I love a good literary mystery, and while it didn't follow that storyline for the entire book, I nonetheless enjoyed it. I didn't read it all at once, taking breaks between some of the sections, so that by the time I got to the end of part four I'd nearly forgotten how it started, but it didn't bother me. It may be sprawling, and at times feels a little aimless, but by the end the many plotlines come together.

I wish all long books were published in parts, as a 300 page paperback is much easier to cart around on the subway than a 900 page one.

Monday, April 4, 2011

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Here's one I should definitely re-read. In Cold Blood is widely considered to be the first non-fiction novel, the story of a 1959 murder of an entire family in rural Kansas and its aftermath. Some have challenged the authenticity of the story, accusing Capote of changing some of the details to suit the book that he wanted to write. Whatever the true story might be, it doesn't change the masterfully chilling and elegant writing. I bought this copy without a cover at a used bookstore in Nashville, not sure which one, shown here with the spine. I wish I'd found one with a dust jacket.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Expelled from Eden by William T. Vollmann

My first introduction to William T. Vollmann came in an interview in BookForum about five or six years ago. I was intrigued, and decided to start with the then recently published Expelled from Eden, which collects excerpts from all of his novels, as well as essays, journalism, interviews, and letters, providing a window into Vollmann's voice, style, and breadth of work. I'm not sure I read the whole thing (certainly not straight through), rather leafing through it, reading bits of it here and there. Since then I've endured a number of his books (I think endured is the right word--while beautifully written, the subject matter is often bleak and horrific) and intend to read more. Eventually. I haven't worked up the nerve to tackle Imperial yet (1,200 pages about the California county right on the Mexican border) but I'll get there.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Type and Typography by Ben Rosen

I bought this typography book at an estate sale a couple of years ago. (Please excuse the slightly blurry and unappealing photo.) The books were so cheap that I just kept adding more to my pile (I walked out of there with more stuff than I could carry and it all came to about $8). A 1960s typography book? Why not? I'm not a graphic designer but I do have an appreciation of type and letters in general, and lately find myself paying more attention to the typefaces that I use and what they communicate.

A closer look at the logo on the front, which I love. Although I must say, I love the front of the paperback edition even more.

Most of the typefaces showcased in the book are pretty basic--this book was published nearly 50 years ago after all--though still widely used today. (By the way...I just noticed that the letter R appears twice in the above example. Anyone have any idea why?)

There's also something I find visually appealing about looking at all of these alphabets, especially when some of the letters are blown up to be very large.

There are also a few pages illustrating how type can be used in advertising and other commercial work, and that's where it gets a little more exciting.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Lime Twig by John Hawkes

The Lime Twig is a surreal, avant-garde novel melded with pulp crime fiction. (Many a review describes it as something like Dick Francis meets David Lynch.) The basic story—a race horse heist gone horribly wrong—is told in nightmarish, impressionistic sequences. The cover of the book, featuring a grainy, blurry mess of images that only come into focus when you really concentrate, is a pretty apt translation of my experience of the book.

I can't remember how exactly I first came across John Hawkes—in some chain of online links—but only a couple weeks later I found a copy of The Lime Twig in a used bookstore and excitedly picked it up, thinking it a nice coincidence. As I was paying for the books, the store owner stopped at The Lime Twig and got a funny smile on her face as she explained that John Hawkes had been her college writing teacher (which explains why the book was prominently displayed on the wall). I'm not really sure of the point of that story but it's what I remember most about the book when I see it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Friend of Madame Maigret by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon might be one my most read authors, maybe because he wrote so many books--around 200--and because they're so incredibly readable (and short). I picked this one up on a shelf at work not long after reading an article about him in BookForum, so it was a nicely timed find. One of 75 novels starring the fictional police detective Inspector Maigret, this one was written in 1949, about midway into Simenon's writing career. In an increasingly complex investigation, Maigret attempts to prove that a murder has been committed, even though no body has been discovered.

Revisiting this one makes me want to crack open another Maigret novel. I've got at least a few more unread ones on the shelf.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Kramers Ergot #5

Kramers Ergot began as a self-published mini-comic and has grown into a full-sized, extensive comics anthology, and is only getting thicker and more extravagant with each new installment. The fifth issue includes work from twenty contributors, including Gary Panter, Marc Bell, Chris Ware, Ron Rege Jr, Tom Gauld, and Kevin Huizenga, among others. It's a pretty amazing collection.

I love how colorful this one is, particularly the spine.

The back.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Screw-Jack by Hunter S. Thompson

Originally published in 1991 as a private printing of 300 collectors' copies and 26 leather-bound presentation copies, Screw-Jack was published for the general public in 2000. It's a short little book, consisting of three short stories, including a stream-of-consciousness chronicle of Thompson's first mescaline experience in 1969 and a demented love story ostensibly written by Thompson's alter ego Raoul Duke. It might not be Fear and Loathing good, but it's pretty good nonetheless. I love the cover, with the giant letters reminiscent of antique wood type.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Novels in Three Lines by Felix Feneon

This is a collection of short news items that appeared anonymously in the French newspaper Le Matin in the year 1906, mostly about criminal activity and other strange occurrences. The anonymous writer proved to be Felix Feneon, a Parisian anarchist and art critic who, though he could have risen to greatness (he was the first French publisher of James Joyce and early promoter of Georges Seurat and the "Neo-impressionists," a term which he coined), preferred to preserve his anonymity, toiling away as an obscure clerk in the French War Department.

The book's introduction is written by Luc Sante, which, admittedly, is what first drew me to this book when I saw it on display in a store. Sante writes, "Feneon's three-line news items...are the poems and novel he never otherwise wrote...They demonstrate in miniature his epigrammatic flair, his exquisite timing, his pinpoint precision of language, his exceedingly dry humor." A few examples:

"Nurse Elise Bachmann, whose day off was yesterday, put on a public display of insanity."

A few articles down, the following appears: "A certain madwoman arrested downtown falsely claimed to be nurse Elise Bachmann. The latter is perfectly sane."

The bluntness employed here is almost comical: "'If my candidate loses, I will kill myself,' M. Belavoinne, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inferieure, had declared. He killed himself."

I love all the details that Feneon bothers to mention in the short amount of available space: "Weighed down with bronzes, with china, with linens, and with tapestries, two burglars were arrested, at night, in Bry-sur-Marne."

"With a four-tined pitchfork, farmhand David, of Courtemaux, Loiret, killed his wife, whom he, erroneously, thought unfaithful." So much is communicated in just one word, "erroneously"--it really changes the meaning of the statement.

Some of them really feel like poetry: "The schoolchildren of Niort were being crowned. The chandelier fell, and the laurels among them were spotted with a little blood." Who else would have described it in such a way?

There are so many more great ones. It is, however, not the type of book that you should read from cover to cover, in long sittings. After awhile they start to blur together, and the subtlety and artfulness begins to be lost as you quickly skim through them. Better to savor and ingest it a little at a time.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg

While perhaps best known for writing screenplays (Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, Casino Royale, etc), Terry Southern wrote several novels and essays. In the 50s he hung around in New York with the likes of Robert Frank, Larry Rivers, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and so on. During that time he wrote a short story "about a girl in Greenwich Village who got involved with a hunchback because she was such a good Samaritan" (that particular description of it comes from this interview). Several people, including the poet Mason Hoffenberg, felt this girl should have more adventures, and the two began writing alternating chapters that grew into the novel Candy.

Candy is loosely based on Voltaire's Candide, written as a kind of spoof on the dirty books being published at the time. Candy Christian is a buxom teenager who more or less spends the novel being raped by various people, including her uncle. I realize this sounds horrific and offensive, but it somehow manages to be funny and zany in a dated 1960s sort of way. I was introduced to a number of ridiculous words for "vagina" that I'd never heard before, including "honeypot" and "lamb pit." And yet, I think I liked the book. One of my favorite lines:

"'Uh-huh,' said the cynical cop. 'Dr. Caligari, I suppose.'
Candy didn't like this kind of flippant reference to an art film."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Inferno (A Poet's Novel) by Eileen Myles

Reading a novel by Eileen Myles is always a bit of a confusing experience for me, as she tends to write them from the perspective of a character named Eileen Myles, who, much like the author Eileen Myles, grew up in Boston, moved to New York in the '70s, and became a lesbian poet. So it's a novel--which, by definition, is fictional--in which the main character is the author. Or maybe not.

In a video on her website, she says, "The first fiction is your name, I think that's why I use it in my books all the time...I prefer to use my own name because in a way, there's nothing falser than 'Eileen Myles.' And like everyone else, I really don't know who I am." Which really gets you started thinking about your own name, and how it's sort of an arbitrary couple of words that someone else chose for you, yet really comes to define who you are. But anyway...

I like BookForum's review of the book, as it really sums it up pretty well, so I'm going to post some of that here:

"Loosely, Inferno tells the story of Myles, who left Arlington, Massachusetts, where everyone "lived in a roughly catholic world," to make her way as a writer in New York City. As the title suggests, the book owes something to Dante's Divine Comedy. Instead of a dark wood, though, we start out in a college lit class learning Pirandello from a woman with a beautiful ass, "perfect and full," and from there the tour—gossipy, funny, crass, earnest—continues.

Hell is scraping to pay the rent, working as a bouncer at a bar up by Columbia where you can still feel the aura of '68. It's being trained to give handjobs at a massage parlor. It's "inspecting lesbians because I was pretty sure I was going to be one. But I wanted to be a poet first." Purgatory is taking speed and working for James Schuyler. (See Myles's 1994 Chelsea Girls for more on both.) It's Deleuze's Masochism, grant applications, and a dog named Rosie. It's when "I didn't look like a woman or a man and didn't live here or anywhere." A clash with Amiri Baraka. A crush on Nan Goldin. St. Mark's Poetry Project. Touring Germany with Sylvère Lotringer and other Semiotext(e) writers, getting upstaged by Kathy Acker, peeing on Goethe's lawn.

Heaven, though, is Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan's kitchen. It's roaming the city with flyers for poetry readings. It's sex in a tent in a loft. René Ricard buzzing your apartment in the middle of the day...The prose often goes loose and raggedy, yet it always stays in focus. It's a novel in the way Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights and Renata Adler's Speedboat are—that is to say, on its own terms."

A novel on its own terms. I think that's a pretty good way of characterizing what I was getting at at the beginning of this post.

Also, I feel the need to mention that you can actually choose between two different covers for this book. It's an interesting idea--and I'm glad that I got to choose this one, as I really did not care for the other one--but at the same time, I kind of think a book should have one cover. Or, since publishers are always repackaging books, at least one cover at a time. (Actually, I guess I should say one American cover at a time, as almost always the international editions of a book will be published with different covers.) A book cover is so visually defining, and I like the idea of the cover art being really iconic and in a way contributing to the book's identity. Which I guess must be a scary thought for the writer.

Monday, February 14, 2011

To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry

I actually just finished reading this for work (I'm officially on Facebook now but strictly as part of my job) and it was pretty great. When I first picked it up, I thought it was going to be more of a memoir. But rather, it is comprised of passages from Hansberry's plays, interviews, letters, etc, so that the structure is a bit less conventional. Which I think works in its favor. I underlined quite a few passages:

"I can be all filled up that day with three hundred years of rage so that my eyes are flashing and my flesh is trembling--and the white boys in the streets, they look at me and think of sex. They look at me and that's all they think. Baby, you could be Jesus in drag--but if you're brown they're sure you're selling!"

"Do I remain a revolutionary? Intellectually--without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts?...I think when I get my health back I shall go into the South to find out what kind of revolutionary I am." (Sadly, she did not get her health back, and died of cancer at the age of 34.)

There are a number of photographs, documents,

illustrations, newspaper clippings, and more dispersed throughout the book.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus might be one of the most well known modern graphic novels. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, widely studied in schools, and generally lauded in not only the graphic novel world but in the world of literature in general, it is the subject of both praise and controversy. This edition collects both Maus and Maus II in one volume.

Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman's parents' life under Nazi occupation, as told to him through interviews with his father. The book alternates between modern-day Rego Park, Queens, depicting Art's interactions with his elderly father, and the elder Spiegelmans' life (or lack thereof) in the Warsaw ghetto, and later in the concentration camps.

What is perhaps one of the most famous and iconic aspects of the book is that the characters are drawn as animals--the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. I've read some criticisms of his characterizing Poles as pigs, but it doesn't really bother me. Spiegelman certainly doesn't believe that Jews are really vermin--it's more the symbolism, and the ability to distance oneself from the story by seeing them represented as animals, rather than people.

Flipping through the book I was struck by this panel, in which a fork in a road is drawn in the shape of a swastika.

There is one section of the book in which the characters are drawn as humans, a comic book within a comic book, called "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," the title of which brings to mind sci-fi comics from the 50s. It tells the story of Art's mother's inability to assimilate back into the world after surviving the concentration camps, leading up to her eventual suicide. It's a pretty chilling sequence, which reminds readers that the story isn't really about mice and cats but about the devastation of an entire population of human beings.

The Maus symbol on the book board underneath the dust jacket is rather striking.

The end papers, depicting rows upon rows of prisoners, whose eyes are still pretty haunting despite their being drawn as cartoon mice.