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Books, Comics, Music

Book Porn

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A computer crash and a temp job in a shorthanded college bookstore really cramped my writing though I do have plenty of raw first drafts, typed shakily into my phone or tablet on public transit. So I’m posting some summer reading commentary now as I try to catch up: 

I finished The Novel, A Biography. It’s an eleven hundred page survey of novels and their authors, written by Michael Schmidt.  I’d intended to cherry-pick it, for authors I love, or am curious about. But its many and various cross referencings made it hard to put down. And its subject matter is undeniably as significant as any art history, about which many back-breaking tomes have been published.

The novel exists as both high and low culture, though it must certainly qualify as the world’s first pop culture medium, having come into being roughly at the same time as the printing press. It’s inherently ironizing, which is undoubtedly why it very quickly outgrew its early tendency to masquerade as “true” memoir, and became wildly popular with Cervantes and then Fielding’s introduction of contemporary satire. It goes without saying that most of the novels discussed in the book I haven’t read, though in choosing examples here, most I have.

I’m especially callow in regard to books written before the height of the American Romantic era, around 1850, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. I’d tiptoed around English Victorian novels like literary quick sand and somehow avoided finishing anything by Dickens in high school, actually bragging of not having flunked the class.

In university it was easy enough to concentrate on modernist writing. Summers then and non-term months were for pop culture heroes, genre and post-modernists. Yes, I probably read every Vonnegut novel before 1985. I wasn’t completely ignorant of the novel’s roots, though. I had a vague familiarity with and attraction to the picaresque and the Gothic, having read enough of my parents’ collection and literary criticism to make ad hoc connections between Cervantes, Melville and Pynchon.

But placing those things in the context of the novel’s development from Cervantes to Fielding; from Richardson to Austen to James, requires a road map and that is what Schmidt ambitiously attempts to provide- a bird’s-eye view.

Schmidt generates critical dialogue through the device of writers writing about writers. It’s a shifting perspective to be sure. He has his favorites (Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Vidal), but often includes contradictory critiques, and thus one is left to compose one’s own critical map through a sort of triangulation. Nor does he hew to strict chronology, especially after 1900. This leads to pairings that are useful (Richardson with Austen), brave (Bruce Chatwin with Daniel Defoe), unimaginative or even stereotypical (a gaggle of early gay novelists followed by a murder of Jim Crow-era black writers) and plain bizarre (fellow paranoids, but political opposites Ayn Rand and Pynchon). A passage on John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) alludes to Kurt Vonnegut (Billy Pilgrim, get it?). And if “Biography” can be defined in one sense as “mistakes made, lessons learned”, then what are we to make of the fact that the last chapter of the novel’s “Biography” features Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth and Martin Amis?

The point being that seeking the definitive would be a fool’s errand in such an expansive undertaking and Schmidt mostly avoids it.

 Schmidt does not attempt to rank or qualify writers, though he does give oblique commentary and his likes and dislikes are often easy to suss. Likes include picaresque adventures (Cervantes, Fielding) Late Romanticism (Melville) and early modernism (Woolf). Dislikes include Richardsonian romance, the Gothic (Scott), late Modernism (late Joyce) and most Post Modernism (watch out, Thomas Pynchon). Perhaps unsurprisingly, de Sade is not mentioned despite his fairly obvious, though often unacknowledged thematic affinities with Dostoyevsky and others (including Rand). Yet contemporary mainstream writers who’ve had best-selling decades ( Jane Smiley, John Irving) also don’t merit a walk-on.

Schmidt does include a chapter on genre where he discusses Raymond Chandler and Walter Moseley as artists before giving a wave of the hand to the putative heirs of Austen and the Brontes such as Barbara Cartland, who has sold hundreds of millions of books if not over a billion. This gives one an idea, when seen with the advent of mass market and trade PB market in the 50s, of just how massive and diverse the reading public has become. He imposes a cutoff, sensibly set at Y2K. It seems far less sensible after reading this, to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that the book is dying. After the apocalypse, who will survive along with the cockroaches? Jane Austen in various paperback versions, my adventures in bookstores both new and used indicate.

Having a road map is important, I think. I’d like to read Fielding’s Tom Jones, influenced by Cervantes and very influential in its own language. I can probably live- and die- without Richardson, but my sense -or sensibility (?!) is that Austen, inventor of what Schmidt characterizes as a “free indirect” interiority is of far more importance than the commonplace rubric “inventor of the romance genre” that’s often assigned her. I will probably continue to avoid Dickens. I feel I should try to get all the way through a Bronte sister, perhaps Charlotte this time. I can no longer avoid James, I fear, though that brings me to Woolf’s doorstep, a safe haven.  As the “too many books, too little time” shopping bag franchisees remind us, life is short- but novels are long. When the hell will I re-read Ulysses?  And can I get back the hours I spent with the overwrought moral and psychological convolutions of Iris Murdoch?

add to these the regretfully unread (Barthelme, Gaddis, and I did happen to read an old Granta excerpt of a then-prospective Martin Amis novel that Schmidt praises as a modern classic, and I’m very curious about it), the under-read ( Bellow, Roth and always, Woolf), and the untried (Hardy? Conrad?).

So Schmidt’s unwieldy bucket list gets two thumbs up here.  It’s the kind of book one would keep in a home with limited space because one would refer to it often, as each bucket list entry gets crossed off. If it is eccentric in its realization, then so are many readers.

My own bucket list started with Don Quixote, by Cervantes. Digging down to the very roots of the novel, I found an agreeable translation/annotation by Tom Lathrop. Ignoring the clunky framing conceit of a “true history” so characteristic of the era, I dove in. The tale is most ‘modern’ and vibrant when the indefatigably deluded would-be knight-“errant” argues strategy with his faithfully self-interested squire, but I guess we all knew that. The story is culturally imprinted, whether from childhood excerpts or Broadway lyrics, and the copious broken ribs and loosened teeth that incited Europe’s first ever viral laff-riot now seem tiresome and gauche, but the interplay between the Woebegone Knight and Sancho is still pure gold. Cervantes popularized the novel, it is often said. Less often he gets credited with the first buddy movie.

I had to stop near the end of Part I (1605) and skip Part II (1615, partially a Cervantes reaction to pirating) to move on to my temp job. It’s in a college bookstore; life plays some cruel jokes.

The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate, Ed: Another bruising, categorizing war-horse that I found on the shelf next to Novel and couldn’t resist lugging home. Some of the major players from Novel are here also; notably Virginia Woolf. Again, there are the early pioneers – Seneca, Addison and Steele, Hazlitt taxing syntactically, but they lead eventually to 20th Century riches. Joan Didion, Max Beerbohm, Walter Benjamin and George Orwell, the list goes on in easily digested five to ten page bites. The editorial work is exemplary, with underlying themes emerging, then carrying from ancient Rome to Edwardian London. These are indexed for ease of comparison, and cherry-picking. My favorite, “Walking”, led to an exquisite, sublimely transporting gem by Woolf, “Street Haunting”, in which the artifice of needing a pencil leads to an impressionist’s fantasia reminiscent of the ‘House’ chapter in “To the Lighthouse”, along with the emotional coda of a domestic squabble and make-up. The kind of piece that in a small way, leaves you a different person coming out than going in.

It’s been a Woolf summer. I found, and dallied with, before I put away for Fall reading, a collection of critical essays on each of her books. I also inhaled Orlando, before savoring each crystalline Woolf-ian blurb on each Victorian and pre-modern writer in Schmidt. All the while repeatedly reminding myself that it’s now been decades since I read To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. Add them to the list.

Masterpiece Comics, R.Sikoryak: Sikoryak, a Raw Magazine vet from the 80’s, has been writing and illustrating these sly little mash-ups of high- and low culture and publishing them, very much under the radar, in anthologies all along. They’re collected here, and they’re funny because they get to the heart of the artificial divide between high and pop culture. In the process, we get a good laugh and confront the question of how and why we tell ourselves tales.

Here again, context is essential. Most can appreciate the hilarious sight gag of Dagwood in “Blonde Eve”, a biblical Garden of Eden retelling in the iconic “Blondie” style, carting arm loads of apples, waiter style, as he prepares to snack on the tree of knowledge. But a real shock of recognition comes to fans of Golden Age comics in seeing Raskolnikov, with his exaggerated sense of moral agency, compared with Batman’s vigilantism in Jerry Robinson’s dark Gotham City alleys.

 “Lil Pearl”, a Scarlet Letter retelling, gains far more satirical punch if one is familiar with Dell Comics’ Little Lulu, arguably one of the most widely read feminist voices of the benighted 50’s, who was continually and subtly turning the tables on, and claiming moral high ground from, the boys. And “Crypt of the Brontes”, a Wuthering Heights pastiche, becomes creepily compelling as a spot-on take of EC horror comics, complete with the narrating housekeeper in the iconic EC framing role as Crypt Keeper.

Sikoryak has retold Shakespeare, deSade, Camus and Dante ( as Bazooka Joe!) He apparently did not make a fetish of avoiding classic literature, as I did. Might Emily Bronte be rolling over in her grave at the thought of her masterpiece re-cast as  pre-code horror pulp? Possibly.

But she might also be tempted to grab Raskolnikov’s ax at the sight of one billion Barbara Cartland novels.

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Books, Comics, Music Landscape Monotypes Soccer

A Good Used Bookstore, For the Love of God

Size does matter. Mine is a bit small by most people’s standards I’m sure, but honestly, I’d rather it be a bit small than too large. Because really, it’s what you do with it. And mine does a lot. I don’t often brag about it because I don’t want to attract a crowd, but it’s time people knew.

I left the house a bit later than I intended on a radiant fall Sunday- cerulean blue sky with mare’s tails stretching above the skyscrapers, rattling papery gold leaves helicoptering languidly down, a slight breeze eliciting chatter and whisperings from the already fallen ones. After getting off the bus, I tunneled the remaining four blocks through dappled sun and golden, leafy arcades. I was in no hurry.

Kilgore’s is a cramped little storefront among all the various Wax Trax storefronts on that cramped part of 13th near Washington in Capitol Hill. Inside, there is barely enough room for two to pass in its aisles, and there are only three aisles, connected by a passageway in the back, and a bit of an open area where the counter is in the front. If there’s been an influx of books, there are un-processed piles and you must stifle your rush to the stacks and pause to let another get by. There’s no sense hurrying anyway. There is plenty for all.

A tiny used bookstore like Kilgore’s must balance the discrete buying of books to avoid an unwieldy, energy sapping selection, with the need for an almost curatorial concision and intellectual focus in order to stock a good selection of the type of books a certain kind of buyer will come back to week after week, not just in golden autumn but in slushy, leaden winter. The reason I keep coming back here is because I know that with a few extra bucks in my pocket and an hour to kill, I will be able to circle the sections that interest me, without getting bogged down in some one else’s offloaded dreck, and find something interesting and unique for a reasonable price. A good used book store must give the impression of a selection of books and journals only reluctantly parted with by their previous owners, and Kilgore’s does this better than any of the larger stores I’ve haunted.

I almost always find something I can’t bear to pass over, and which gets immediately read. Today: The Ganzfeld #2, a 2002 anthology of graphics, comics, design and articles on same, a little used and banged up but certainly quite solid, for under $10. I’d scooped up the #4 edition of this strange yet compelling magazine when it was published back in 2005. I’m a lover of odd and intermittent magazines, especially the type marrying cutting edge comics with good layout and interesting articles, so this find really made for a good visit, but that’s the point: you want a book store that buys enough weird, ephemeral books and magazines to make the trip worth your while more often than not. Kilgore’s also offers a good selection in good condition of (their specialty,) used and new graphic novels and comics that shade toward the alternative press side of things, a small section of literary criticism and essays, including comics criticism, art books, and some of the good fiction anthologies. Their large fiction section is restrained yet timeless (or soon to be), though they also offer quite a bit of genre.

Mostly what they offer is informed good taste. Someone there knew enough to buy this obscure well thought-out magazine from someone, who knew it would both find a good home and bring a couple of bucks (for more books!)

In the Ganzfeld, I’m reading an article relating early English novelist Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) with modernist Science Fiction (!) such as J.G. Ballard. This relationship between the early imperial picaresque and the post-imperial dystopian is something I didn’t know existed or that I’d need to read about until I walked into Kilgore’s on a fine fall day. I’m not sure the article successfully proves the connection, though in mentioning Pynchon, Vonnegut, Huxley and Attwood and others as “serious” fiction inspired both by Sci-Fi’s spirit of dystopian possibility and Fielding’s subversive satire, it certainly comes close.

The issue also features sketchbook pages from Chris Ware and a wildly abstract take on Popeye and Olive Oyl by Here auteur Richard McGuire, the only other work I’ve found by him outside The New Yorker and Raw Magazine. At Kilgore’s, I’ve also recently picked up albums of comics by Seth, Dash Shaw and Mike Allred, an old issue of McSweeney’s, and several old copies of The Comics Journal.

I’m betting they have a copy of Tom Jones with my name on it, or at least, Henry Fielding’s.

Reading List:

Bound and Gagged, Laura Kipnis: an examination of the issues surrounding pornography, organized around a central question: does it benefit us to censor people’s fantasies?

Heads or Tails, Lilli Carre: Lyrically surreal narratives in shifting, allusive tonalities that are filled with the sort of subliminal psychological non sequiturs that feel both dreamlike and gut-punchingly real. A guy’s roof leaks, he drives to another town, meets a woman , gets stuck on a Ferris wheel with her and has sexual fantasies of her, but when they go to his room, they don’t quite have sex. A woman meets, and is subsequently replaced by, her own double. I found it in the shelves at a library where I was giving a workshop. I’ll undoubtedly search for my own copy the next time at Kilgore’s.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano: I’m reading it slowly, since its compact passages make excellent reading on the bus or train. I thumbed through it last year during my habitual World Cup Soccer book-buying binge, but read Golazo! instead, because I felt that that more traditional social history would provide background to the many short poetic, almost fabulistic vignettes that Galeano weaves together in his book.

The book is surprisingly cynical about the beautiful game, which is refreshing in a way, since the figures in the game, and the game itself can be brutally cynical. See: Blatter, Platini, et al. The game is universal enough to touch all of the deepest dreams and failings of people across the globe, and it needs no propagandist. The haters and throwball fantasy zombies can never know how much of soccer’s humanity and populist aspiration can be found in just one quote from a man who calls himself

“… a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: A pretty move, for the love of God.”

"Valley 149" is a view from the small mountain above the Jentel Ranch where I spent a month long residency in November-December 2004. The view is looking across the valley past the railway flat car bridge over the little creek that ran just outside my studio ( just out of view to the right). Most of my Wyoming landscapes of the time contain the relevant route number in the title, and I could easily spend another year eyeballing through the other numbers.
“Valley 149” is a view from the small mountain above the Jentel Ranch where I spent a month long residency in November-December 2004. The view is looking across the valley past the railway flat car bridge over the little creek that ran just outside my studio ( just out of view beneath the ridge to the right). Most of my Wyoming landscapes of the time contain the relevant route number in the title, and I could easily spend another year eyeballing through the other numbers. This one is one of three now in the collection at the new COBank location in the Tech Center.

 

 

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Books, Comics, Music Soccer

Unpacking the Stacks

What’s in the stacks: A quick post of first impressions about the stuff I am currently reading:

Vamps and Tramps, Camille Paglia: Libertarian feminist Paglia cannot be ignored, though she sometimes seems more interested in stirring up the academic feminists than in tempering her improvisatory, provocative and oft times counter intuitive views. She is determined to start the conversations that dogma tries to end.

Howler Magazine (#8): Subscriptions to this lushly illustrated large format paean to the beautiful game are pricey; I order it when I can. In this issue, I came for the exquisite cover painting of American hero Carli Lloyd attempting to put Sepp Blatter’s head into the net from oh… 53 yards away. I stayed for the strange and wondrous assertion that FC Torino’s legendary Serie A teams of the 40’s were inspired by the direct attacking style of 1927’s New York Giants (the other, other New York Giants, of the ASL).

American Heritage Magazine, December, 1958 issue. Dimly recalled from my father’s bookshelf, then encountered in a used bookstore. Though I’m sure it was the high drama of the die hard Confederate raider C.S.S. Shenandoah that attracted me as a boy, this time it was a long history of the Hudson River from an art and culture standpoint that made me pick it up, plus a story about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s love affair with Sophia Peabody.

McSweeney’s #48: When you read one of these precise yet oneiric short stories, say by Kelly Link or Valeria Luiselli, then you suddenly see their work mentioned or displayed everywhere; the NYT, Atlantic, college or independent book stores.

The Tenth of December, George Saunders: horrifying and delicate, like a love letter written in Exacto knife across young flesh. I first discovered him when Fox 8 was published in McSweeney’s, which brought me back to the short story, now my summer evening’s passion.

Colorado: The Artist’s Muse, Hassrick and others: A collection of critical essays on various subjects in early Colorado art history. A companion volume to the Colorado Public Television 12 documentary on Allen Tupper True by my producer friend and former gallerist Joshua Hassel, (who also produced a spot for me). Contains a long, lavishly illustrated article on the Rocky Mountain School, a descendent of the Luminists and the Hudson River School.

The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby: I savored this, as it was perfect in length and tone for the morning and afternoon train. Compact, funny as hell monthly ruminations of what was in Hornby’s own book stack published in McSweeney’s Believer Magazine. Yes- I am writing about reading a book about someone writing about books he may or may not have read. I firmly believe this is what heaven is like, should it actually exist.

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