Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Quarterly Report (Q3)

Including summer months and renewed usage of audio books.

sf&f:  Dune (finished); Tehanu; Old Man's War (abandoned); Player of Games; Curse of Chalion; Fahreinheidt 451; The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Neuromancer; Hitchhicker's Guide
comics: Doom Patrol (finished); Astro City (in progress); Moore LXG 2009

other: The Four Hour Body; The Comedy is Finished (Westlake), the first six Stark books (The Jugger, The Score, The Man With the Getaway Face, The Outfit, The Hunter, The Mourner),  Maigret Afraid; The Story Structure Architect; White Fang; Out Stealing Horses; ; Ruby in the Smoke; Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter; Cause of Death (Cornwall--horrible) My Man Jeeves; The Innocence of Father Brown; Classic Crime Short Stories; Classic Detective Short Stories; Salt Sugar Fat 

(27 books, ~33 with comics TPBs)

Monday, July 1, 2013

Quarterly Report (Q2)

For two of the these three months I've been off, more-or-less. I've felt that I'm not reading enough, but a glance suggests that's crazy. I continue on my diligent work on my pre-established lists of science fiction and fantasy "gaps"; prose books I own but hadn't gotten around to reading; comics I etc. Mixed in are some poetry I read for April and a handful of other books I checked out from the library. And so...

sf&f: Foundation (my feelings exactly); Little, Big (wonderful); Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion (I prefer the sequel); Valis (reread for the first time since I loved it as a teen); Perdido Street Station (a bit longer than necessary, but I will read more Mieville) ; The Stars My Destination (I see why it's influential, but not that impressed); Dune (in progress)
comics: Building Stories (amazing); Rabbi's Cat (great); The Lovely Horrible Stuff (not the Eddie Campbell I love) and Mssr Leotard (not it either, but closer); Morrison's New X-Men, JLA, and Doom Patrol (the last in progress); New Moon (Jason, who I like ok); Carnet de Voyage (reread)
other/list: The 20 Year Death (interesting experiment, but the sources (Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson) are all better; Novels in Three Lines (an odd book); The Counterfeiters (Hugh Kenner--terrific. Must finally read Gulliver's Travels);  Splendide Hotel (Sorrentino-- wonderful); The Widow (Simenon dure. Ariel Winter was closer than I thought at first).
other: The Gift of Tongues and In the American Tree (two very different poetry anthologies); Gustaf Sobin's Earth as Air (collection of lyrics for National Poetry Month; Sharpe's Escape (meh); Madame Maigret's Own Case (not exactly as billed) Desparate Characters.

If you count TBP collections for the Morrison, that is 35 books in three months.

Monday, June 3, 2013

STL #113: The Boys

And with this I end what has become a half-year-long accounting of the reading of the previous year. At this point, I don't care that much about The Boys. There was a spiritedness I felt (or imagined) when I first discovered it last year, but as it has sunk in, I recognize the series clearly is lesser than and derivative of other earlier critiques of the superhero genre. There's a whole tradition of super-hero critique starting in the mid-80s with Watchmen and Dark Knight (maybe). It's well-known that Alan Moore intended Watchmen as a final nail in the coffin, the ultimate critique of the genre's fascist tendencies. What happened was that subsequent work embrace the darkness of the critique--that's probably what's happening in Frank Miller's work since that time, it pretty much explains the flood of "grim and gritty" comics of the 90s. Around the new millennium, the critique returned with Warren Ellis's work on Stormwatch and The Authority and has been a part of the landscape ever since. There are essentially two ways of looking at this movement, both of which involve the having and eating of cake. One one hand, the fans can feel all sophisticated being hep to the critique while indulging in the most gratuitous tropes. On the other hand, this formula allows the writers to get paid best they can while making fun of a genre and fanbase they disdain. I'm pretty sure both things are going on with Garth Ennis's first extended creator-owned series since Preacher. It's about a covert org bent on policing the abuses of superheroes, who run amok with violence and sexual debauchery. The series then gets to portray orgies and decapitations, all in the name of critique of the fascist love of power inherent, they say, in superhero comics.

So maybe for a short time I played the mark, the drooling idiot who thought he was in the know. But in any case, The Boys may remain important in the history my reading practices (a topic I understand is of interest to no one but myself). My first contact with The Boys came through a stack of single issues, the "floppies" that for so long remained the cornerstone of the comic book industry. I got these at a library discard sale, along with the TPB (trade paperback collection of previously published issues) of a mini-series featuring all the same characters in the most "shocking" excess. The mini-series was called "Herogasm" which says everything I need to say about it. The first phase of my reading was therefore disjointed--I had the first four issues, a gap of about 30 issues followed about 20 of the next 30 issues. I also had partial mini-series spotlighting main characters and the aforementioned 'gasm. The result of this kind of reading, an artifact of the publication culture based on serial publication and a collector's mentality, is a sense of the "world." You know the types of things that happen in the world, but not all the details of what "really" did happen. A friend then loaned me a digital archive included all the issues published at the time, which was all but the last. I read these on a cbr reader on my iPad. That final issue I purchased and read on Comixology, a store with its own reader. So it might be that The Boys will the the first of a chain of hybrid reading experience that I experience in a range of media. This hybrid species probably won't last that long; floppies at least are sure to disappear in the near future. The question I wonder about, then, is how does the material condition of reading an incomplete stack of issues differ from the continuous reading of a digitally archived body of work? It certainly does, and it seems clear the previous is soon to disappear from our world.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

STL #112: Skills and Exhortations (The Art of Fielding and The Original of Laura)

I liked The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach's 2011 debut novel. Quite a bit, actually. It is a well-honed perfectly conventional novel. In reading it, you can tell it emerged from workshopping and rewriting, and blood and sweat and tears (or rather, typing, typing, and typing). What I remember enjoying in particular is a single refrain, the prototypical sports cheer: You are skilled! We exhort you!"  and also a handful characters including Henry Skrimshaw, the protagonist shortstop who comes down with the yips and his mentor, the catcher Schwarzy who is skilled, but falling apart at the age of twenty two. The novel is enjoyable, immensely readable. The author is skilled, we should exhort him.

I have a feeling that Harbach will always be, at least in part, the author of The Art of Fielding. In the end, the author is merely skilled. He may have another celebrated season, for his next novel or the one after that.  Vladimir Nabokov is many things, but is not the author of The Original of Laura. He certainly wouldn't claim it--he wanted his notes toward this unfinished novel destroyed because he did not have the time to develop it and refine it, or even finish it. The edition designed by Chip Kidd reproduces the index cards he composed on. Some are relatively fleshed out, some are just bare sketches of scenes. One scene sticks out in my head. It comes early on in the sequence, when the book still reads (nearly) as a finished novel. The title character is returning home late, after a night of illicit behavior, and she and we see a laughable character, "her obese husband, in a rumpled black suit and tartan booties with clasps... walking a striped cat on an overlong leash." This is just won gem in a drawerful, trunkful, of VN's career. The figure is pathetic, and it is the clasps on the booties that makes the reader disgusted even if sympathetic.  This is the consummate novelist's art, which Nabokov could seemingly invoke at will during his long career--finding an image that reveals whole unwritten stories, illuminate the life of a character, and allowing us to understand our world more fully.

What I seem to be doing here is weighing a single index card against a doorstop of a novel, and finding in favor of the 3 X 5 card. This isn't fair of me, pitting a rookie against a Hall-of-Famer. So what am I getting at in this comparison? Hymning a paean to genius? I spent an afternoon reading The Original of Laura, but several days with the The Art of Fielding. I have recommended the latter to numerous people, but can't imagine a scenario by which I would recommend the former (it is nowhere near where one would begin with Nabokov; surely any Nabokophile would be apprised of it already). I think I might be in the thought-territory that I enter every time I read a recently published novel: that the form is dead. Novels continue to be written for many years to come; they will emerge burnished and hopeful from workshops and they will drop roughly out of isolated writers' lonely years. But at this point, I fear we have nothing new to learn from novels. We are merely picking over images and shards. The fragmentary form of Nabokov's notes might represent a literature better suited for out times--brief and gestural, but gleaming out of the darkness.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

STL #111: Pulphead: About John Jeremiah Sullivan but maybe more about Guy Davenport (Not a Ladder but a Web)

[Ed. Note: This draft has been bottle up in the queue for at least three weeks. I am going to do a 20 minute once over and release it. Writing about books I've read over 6 months ago was not a good idea. The remainder of the 2012 review will be cranked out in short order.]

The first thing I ever read by John Jeremiah Sullivan was the interview he conducted with Guy Davenport for The Paris Review. The questions are standard for the journal--mostly about process, biography, or disposition. [Ed. note: I recently read that the questions were actually written by Davenport and that he enlisted his young friend as a sort of a beard. In any case, the "interviewer" aspect of this transcript is not what struck me at the time.] The appreciative introduction is informative, but not particularly memorable apart from my keen interest in the subject. So on beginning to read Sullivan's collection of essays Pulphead, I had no memory of my earlier contact with his writing, and no knowledge of his link to Davenport. In the first essay, "Upon this Rock," about his experience attending a Christian rock festival, he refers in passing to Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia's translations of the sayings of Jesus. I noted this reference to a favored writer, but didn't think much of it. It's a rather eclectic source, but a reasonable enough reference given the subject. Nothing much in the essay suggested an influence of Davenport. The essay, approaching what to the literate liberal sensibility is a tasteless, socially harmful subject (Christian rock), reflects an honesty and engagement with the people he met there that I found touching (but still funny and aware). Two essays later, I encountered a vaguely Davenport-esque figure. Andrew Lytle is described as an aging, cultured, oracular, and dignified survivor of Modernism (well, the Agrarians) living in limited approbation and general obscurity in Lexington KY. If it was a story rather than essay, I might have suspected the main character was based on Davenport. But most of the ensuing subjects--The Real World, Michael Jackson, Axl Rose--quickly moved away from Davenport's world of high art. But midway through the volume lies "La-Hwi-Ne-Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist," dedicated to Davenport. The subject, Constatine Samuel Raffinesque (the "eccentric naturalist" in question) is at once a Davenportesque subject and a curiously Davenportesque figure. Again, the central figure seems like a fictious picaro, moving through the 19th century landscape and settling in Kentucky.  The eccentric naturalist seems like he would attract the attention of the author of a monograph on Louis Aggassiz.

What to make of this unexpected connection between a working features writer, freelancing for GQ and other magazines, and the Guy of Lexington? [Ed note: Changed from "Don of Lexington." Both phrases are terrible. It turns out the link is personal--Sullivan grew up near GD and knew and admired him since he was a young man. In an interview he says he spent several years reading nothing but books suggested by Davenport. This unexpected connection suggests that there the web of culture that Davenport traverses so ably in his essays (and fiction for that matter) is broader than it seems at first. It is as broad as a thinking mind's interests. I take the web metaphor from Sullivan--in his capacity of Southern editor for The Paris Review he tells a correspondent looking for guidance in what to read that "My only piece of advice before recommending some titles would be: don’t fall for the inferiority/superiority racket. We’re not on a ladder here. We’re on a web. Right now you’re experiencing a desire to become more aware of and sensitive to its other strands. That feeling you’re having is culture. Whatever feeds that, go with it." He then goes on to a reading list headed by Every Force Evolves a FormThe Geography of the Imagination, and The Hunter Gracchus. 

Sullivan is no copy of Davenport but he is without a doubt a skilled craftsman, and true a voice. Any number of scenes stand out to my mind more vividly than scenes in New Yorker stories: waiting for Bunny Wailer, the uneasiness of living on the set of One Tree Hill. He crafts true and wonderful sentences: "This is us, a people of of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights" is widely quoted, but my favorite is this description of Axl Rose: "I consider the moment in the 'Patience' video when he does the slow-motion snaky slide-foot dance while letting his hands float down as if they were feathers in a draftless room--one fleeting near-pause in their descent for each note that Slash emphasizes in his transition to the coda--the greatest white male rock dance moment of the video age." That unwieldily, bizarre sentiment is followed by a simpler clarification: "What Axl does is lovely, I'm sorry." [Ed. Note: This final note is the shipwreck of another version of this piece. That is what I do. I'm sorry too.]

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Quarterly Report

In the first three months of 2013, my reading has followed a list established at the beginning of the year. I am following a reading program inspired by 1.) a poll of the best science fiction and fantasy novels of a)the last century and b)this century 2.)comics I have that I haven't read and 3.)prose books I have but haven't read.

sf&f: Nine Princes in Amber (quick read, lots of fun) The Name of the Wind (dreadful) American Gods (good, but long)

comics: Claremont's X-Men (so many issues) Manhattan Projects 1 (a book to follow), Pride of Bagdad, Animal Man, Flex Mentallo, Fourth World Omnibus 1 and 2 (brilliant), Incorruptible

other list books: Borges Fictions and Non

Other books: the first Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child (meh), Gone Girl (meh in retrospect), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Other notable: Caught up (almost) on New Yorkers and in process launched a tournament of short stories. In second round now, having found second stories many in podcast form of most. Finals may be full books.

In process: The Twenty Year Death, Novels in Three Lines, The Gift of Tongues (poetry anthology for April)

STL #110: Grant Morrison (Supergods and others)

I live in a poor city with an underfunded library. Last year I learned that I could get a card for the wealthier, surrounding county's library system, and well, it has made a difference. On my first visit browsing the shelves, I came across Grant Morrison's prose book Supergods. This was a book I had been excited to read. Supergods is Morrison's peculiar take on the history of superhero comics, with his own work taking a lead role in the later periods. There are two important things to know about Morrison: 1.)as a comics writer he is a genius without peer and 2.) as a prose writer he is not. Supergods focuses some of the themes you can decode from his comics or that he has uttered in various ephemeral outlets like interviews or comics letter columns. As one example, he writes “If this book has made any point clear, I hope it's that things don't have to be real to be true. Or vice versa.” That's a wordy version of his application of magic in his comics: images and words come together as magical spells, that bring things into this world that weren't in it before.

In the last week, I finished his run on Animal Man (his first major work in the American comics world) and Flex Mentallo, a narrative version of the history of comics portrayed in Supergods. The first four issues of Animal Man were one of the first things I read of his after Doom Patrol and Arkham Asylum. Coming off of those books, it was really something of a disappointment. The first four issues read like a mini-series dusting off an old property just to service the copyright of the character, which on one level it was. There are a few signs of things to come, though: the radical animal rights implications, an interweaving of the narrative strands, in which an innocuous domestic scene of the hero at home might comment on the villain's quest (and the villain isn't exactly a bad guy here). With the fifth issue though, things start to take off. Starring Wile E. Coyote as Jesus H. Christ (neither is named as such), this issues starts the journey into metafictional waters that reaches its destination twenty issues later, when Animal Man meets his maker. That is to say, Animal Man meets Grant Morrison. There's a wonderful remembrance in that issue of the author as a boy, flashing a coded message to his imaginary friend "Foxy" in the hills across the water.

Flex Mentallo comes a few years later, after Morrison had established himself as a comics messiah of sorts. As Supergods makes clear, this book is the secret history of comics--each issue represents an era in comics, from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, from the Dark Age to a later Renaissance; in all modesty, Morrison uses Flex Mentallo to mark the emergence of a new age of comics.

Although putatively about Supergods, I see this post has actually become about my more recent reading of Morrison. I'll end with some other recent reading I've been enthusiastic about--Kirby's "Fourth World" comics. These comics, interlocking plotlines from four series were obviously an influence on Morrison, not only for their theogony but their structure, which influenced his finest work, Seven Soldiers. This project was actually a series of mini-series featuring renewed versions of C and D list superheroes. His goal was that each issue would be a self-contained unit, as would each mini-series, but the real story is in the unfolding of the entire sequence. In playing with universes inhabited with super powered beings, the writer might think to become the Super God himself. Morrison is one of the few writers in comics to fully embrace this aspect of what is essentially commerce for an artistic end.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

STL #109: Father and Son, and Some Exercises for Editing

Like last week, I am writing on a strict deadline (I just spent 30 seconds dithering between "strict" and "tight" and then picking the word "dithering"--time to move on). This style might be appropriate because one of the two writers I want to talk about probably writes with minimal editing, letting words pour out without agonizing them. I'm talking about Stephen King, the old man on the mountain of horror fiction (the mountain being made of words he has written). The other writer I think might be a little more judicious (I had "measured," but that doesn't project the quality of character (not character attribute") that  I want--on with it) though I think his novel could be trimmed too. This other writer I is Stephen King's son, Joe Hill.

Both writers are clearly horror genre writers, though of different generations of course. They are both well beyond the raw weirdness of pulp writers, but not a part of the 'cooked' type of mainstream novelists for whom horror is just a trope ("really, aren't the only real monsters of our own making? Another glass of chardonnay?") Both King and Hill I'm sure recognize the metaphorical implications of horror fiction, but they also really want to scare the shit out of their readers. Hill's novel, Heart-Shaped Box, had some of the scariest scenes I read last year--the ghost on the radio, the girlfriend with the pistol... as far as the scare-factor goes, I might only add a scene in John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel The Harbor in which two supernatural rednecks drown a girl in a mop bucket, and scenes with Pennywise the clown from It (see below). HSB  is maybe a little two long, and the explanation of the haunting is disappointing, but for pure scariness it really delivered. It took me longer to read because I had to stop reading it at night before bed. 

As I said I got spooked by It, too. I may have mentioned that I read four King books last year-- my first (and maybe last) four ever: Carrie (sketchy, in the sense of undeveloped), The Shining (good characterization of Jack Torrance, but the fact that King was figuring it out as he goes along really shows), and On Writing (fine) were the others. The Shining and It were both good, but also too long. The worst thing a horror novel can do is explain to much, and late in It the characters travel back in time to see this great evil land on planet earth (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE!!!). Somehow Lovecraft, in his raw state, can get away with something like that, but my point is that even if this scene doesn't detract it certainly doesn't add, and the novel would benefit by losing at least  200 pages. I've heard this verbosity has gotten even worse as King career progress and his editors stopped bothering to tell him to cut (because a)they were too busy counting their money and b) apparently editors don't do that anymore.) I imagined teaching a creative writing class in which It is used for a series of editing exercises. Keeping every sentence, reduce a portion the text by 10, 20, 35 percent. Reduce the novel by 20 percent by selecting sentences to strike. Reduce the novel by 35 percent by deleting chapters. Reduce the novel by 50 percent by deleting chapters, sentences, words. And so on. I think any of these exercises could be done, and the result would be better.  

I'll be moving on from this disquisition into horror next week. While this year I'm planning on delving into fantasy in an organized way, I still plan on reading more horror. So where to next? Though I said I might not read more King, thinking about how his novels would be better if shortened subliminally convinced me to try some of his short stories, like his early collection Night Shift or the novellas in Different Seasons (or Danse Macabre a nonfiction book about horror, for further recommendations). I might also try Hill's short stories in 20th Century Ghosts. In fact, I can easily put together a little list of short stories, from M.R. James to Joyce Carol Oates (Nightside  is the name of one collection, and there's another I can't recall) to a writer named Thomas Ligetti who sounds interesting (Songs to a Dead Dreamer). To that, I would add Shirley Jackson (based on Lethem's recommendation), Peter Straub's Ghost Story and a book by Andrew Vachss, who I know as an ultra-hard boiled crime writer, called Sacrifice

Thursday, February 21, 2013

STL # 108: Cooked (to Death)

I am reaching that time where I will feel that I don't have time to keep up the blog. Since I do believe that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and that the good is the enemy of the is, I am going to force myself to complete a post in 15 minutes. It won't be good, it won't be long, but it will be.

The two books I want to discuss are Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco and The Green Man by Kingsley Amis, and I just decided to through in Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin. The device I'm using is that these are all "cooked" horror novels, as opposed to the "raw" material of the writers I discussed last week. Lovecraft certainly has a style, but it wouldn't be called accomplished--it is unruly, heavy on adverbs, purple. Levin, Marasco, and Levin all write with a smooth, schooled style. I say "schooled" though I don't think they are of the age to have been through the creative writing schools, but they all write with a professional veneer of a serious midcentury write. All three of these books are clearly supernatural, but they all seem more interested in the psychological development of the characters and in well-wrought scenes or the finely-observed detail. Again, I don't have these novels on hand, but I will take a few moments to put down what I did admire about each.

Burnt Offerings was one of the biggest discoveries of the summer. It isn't a well-known book and the author was not prolific. I believe I learned of it from Stephen King. It is certainly reminiscent of  The Shining in that it examines the terrors of a family breaking down in a haunted house setting. The scene that stands out to me is not supernatural at all, but certainly horrifying. As the young city couple discuss terms of renting an older couple's house, they send their young son out to play. The old man watches from a distance with complete dispassion as he sees the boy fall from some stones and injure himself badly. He turns away from the window without saying anything. Though the old man is later implicated in some witchery, this early scene is a strong portrait of a more banal, domestic evil.

Similarly, The Green Man has the trappings of a ghost story, but is the analysis of a decaying psyche. A fiftyish innkeeper working on a second marriage and a serious drinking problem sees ghosts while he pursues an adulterous conquest. While it isn't heavily indicative one way or another, I am sure it's possible to read the encounters with the ghost (based on local English countryside history) as an artifact of the protagonist's breakdown. While a good ghost story, the genre is an author's decision to further another purpose.

Finally, Rosemary's Baby. The well-constructed plot of the movie version is found here, which means that there weren't any surprises here. That's the problem of reading a genre novel that inspired a well-made movie--if it matches the movie too closely, then you are denied the pleasures of discovery while if it diverges it may be because the movie was compensating for shoddy construction. That is no problem of the latter kind here; like the others Levin created a well-made book that partakes in the generic conventions of horror, but probably more so in the conventions of the midcentury psychological novel.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

STL #107: HPL

Howard Philips Lovecraft. The name sounds fictitious, the kind of name chosen by a pulp writer for a writer of macabre tales, who lived with his aunts in Providence Rhode Island, scribbling manuscripts and complaining of drafts until an early death at the age of 46. Who wrote tales of mathematicians driven mad by the axioms of elder maths (if a is equal to b than b is not equal to a).  A frail autodidact with a purple vocabulary and lugubrious style. His favorite words are
Abnormal, Accursed, Amorphous, Antediluvian, Antiqu(e/arian), Blasphemous,
Cyclopean, Dank, Decadent, Daemoniac, Eldritch, Foetid, Fungoid, Furtive, Gibbous, 
Gibbering, Hideous, Immemorial, Indescribable, Loathsome, Mortal, Nameless, Noisome, Non-Euclidean, 
Disproportionate, Shunned, Singular, Spectral, Squamous, Stygian, Swarthy, Tenebrous, Ululating, Unmentionable, Unnamable, Unutterable.
You don't need to have read him to imagine what kinds of sentences he might fashion out of them.

But of course he did live, though in semi-obscurity, only to come to growing fame in the years since his death. He is known now for his Cthulu mythos (see Eldritch, Non-Euclidean, Unnamebale above), obnoxious  racism (see Loathsome, Noisome, Swarthy above), and most of all his weirdly compelling fiction (see all of the above). His work was known to Robert E. Howard (REH) and others toiling in the pulp game during his life, and to Jorge Luis Borges (JLB) and a wider world of alert readers after he died. Borges wcwn wrote a story "There Are More Things" which he inscribed "In memory of H.P. Lovecraft" in The Book of Sand (1975). In this tribute, he captures many of the delights of HPL's fiction. An effete, bookish protagonist returns to his ancestral land (substituting Argentina for Massachusetts) where he pursues the mystery of what happened to his uncle's house by visiting a succession of elusive sources, unable to articulate the horrors they saw saw within. There's an allusion to a monster asleep and dreaming ("of what, or of whom?") and such Lovecraftian sentiments as  "all those incompatible things that only by reason of their coexistence are called 'the universe.'" (A transfomation, I think of the famous line from "Call of Cthulu," "“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... ")  The protagonist finds his way inside the house to it furnished in a manner of "horror and revulsion," incompatible with the human form. He likely does not find his way out of the house.

An aspect of HPL that JLB alludes to in the title of the story is his fundamental concept of materialist (as opposed to supernatural) horror. That is to say, there are powerful forces that exceed not only human power but human understanding: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  Manifestations of the horrific and monstrous are not inexplicable; they are however unknowable by us. Like a Naturalists of preceding generations, human lives are utterly subject to forces (in his case of a cosmic scale) beyond our control.

My original intention was to include in this note Arthur Machen and Robert W. Chambers, two earlier weird fiction writers whose influence Lovecraft admitted (and who I read last year). I think you can see the roots of materialist horror in the older writers From Chambers wonderfully weird The King In Yellow comes the notion of a book who drives anyone who reads it mad--not only does that suggest the Necronomicon, but it anticipates Lovecraft's notion of a secret order to the universe beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend. Machen's short novel The Great God Pan includes another of what become Lovecraft's tropes, the horrific melding of human and the monstrous, again with human understanding buckling in face of ancient forces.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.”  "Call of Cthulu"

Sunday, February 3, 2013

STL #106: The Horror Project Overview

The most sustained reading project I have undertaken in recent memory (since my dissertation, maybe) has the investigation into horror fiction from this past year. This project started just prior to summer break, continued through October, and hasn't officially ended (though has tapered off.) I love the sense of discovery that comes not just from finding out about a writer or musician you hadn't known, but discovery the codes, histories, and networks of associations of a genre you hadn't known about or paid attention to before. Obviously, I have known that horror fiction existed for a long time, but I haven't read much aside from the canonical, which just means Frankenstein in this case. Part of my inspiration was to have a summertime counterpart to my "big book" that I start the year off--but instead of delving into the more scholarly or important, I wanted a place to explore my more ...esoteric?...side. [not the word I'm looking for].

I began by compiling a reading list (based on lists by writers I respected and those of a few anonymous bloggers (like me)), of which the following is a version (though not I think the tiny printout I carried with me to the library:

  • Peter Ackroyd             Hawksmoor (1985)
  • Kingsley Amis             The Green Man (1969)
  • William Peter Blatty   The Exorcist (1971)
  • Robert W. Chambers             The King in Yellow (1895)
  • Shirley Jackson             The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
  • Henry James             The Turn of the Screw (1898)
  • M. R. James  Ghost stories
  • Stephen King Carrie
  • Stephen King  The Shining
  • Kathe Koja The Cipher
  • Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin
  • Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligetti
  •  Short Fiction by H. P. Lovecraft
  • Arthur Machen             The Great God Pan
  • Cormac McCarthy Blood Meridian
  • Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco
  • China Mieville, King Rat*
  • Richard Matheson             I Am Legend (1954)
  • Joyce Carol Oates. Nightside
  • Bram Stoker             Dracula (1897)
  • Peter Straub             Ghost Story (1979)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Sacrifice by Andrew Vachss

  • This list can be sliced up in a few different ways. There's certainly a "classics" subgroup, stretching from Stevenson (or going back to Poe or Shelley--in any case I didn't read anything earlier than The King in Yellow from 1895) to H.P. Lovecraft.  Then there would be a modern-commercial period, of novels that have supernatural/ghostly/monstrous subject but exhibit trappings of the mainstream mid-century novels in character development and plot structure. These writers would include Ira Levin, Robert Marsco, and Kingsley Amis on holiday). These writers are not particularly beholden to genre conventions, so you would need to add another category for Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King (or you could start it with Lovecraft, but that doesn't fit my present purpose). You could then top it off with a postmodern-weird group of writers conscious of genre conventions but also stylistically sophisticated. I think this would cover many of the later writers, though of this lot (including Mieville, and Ligetti) I only got to Kathe Koja. Because I am pressed for time this week, I will cut it short and let this serve as an introduction. Next week I'll start with three writers I classified as classic: Robert W. Chambers, Arthur Machen, and H.P. Lovecraft.

    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    STL#105: When the Sacred Ginmill Closes

    This will be a brief note on Lawrence Block's When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. I mentioned last week the difficulty in writing about books I read some time ago. In this case I remember the book and my enchantment with it fairly well, but I am having trouble articulating what I found so compelling. It's hard to say if this book is a crime novel with an alcoholic protagonist, or an alcoholic novel with incidental crime. We can list the attributes of the hardboiled detective novel, what about the attributes of an alcoholic novel? The milieu would of course be a feature, and Block has a sensitive ear to barroom talk and a sharp eye for barroom ritual. The protagonist, Matthew Scudder, lives by inclination in a routinized and limited geography spanning a few blocks in Manhattan, marked mostly by bars that are gone. While the detective is an agent that cuts across boundaries and engages variety, a drinker seeks the solace of repetition and the familiar embrace of liquor. Of course, Scudder isn't really a PI, but he looks into things for friends from time to time. He lives already in a fallen state, though the novel is a curiously fond retrospective to the surviving narrator's drinking days. Though not a licensed PI, his investigative technique isn't that different from any detective in the American tradition: he walks about, going from place to relevant place, hoping for a picture to develop. The problem is that many of these journeys are to bars, and a few of them coincide with blackouts. I am fond of quoting E.M. Forester's dictum, "A mystery is a pocket in time." Even as Scudder seeks out these pockets, new ones spring up around him. His investigation then is a connection of clues and gaps.

    This novel is technically part of a fairly lengthy series. Wikipedia says there are sixteen other books, but I have never looked into any others, even though I admire Block's style and sensibility. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is such a satisfying book that I am reluctant to seek out the others, though the virtues are (as I have praised here) estimable.

    Tuesday, January 15, 2013

    STL #104: Come back to us, Michael Lewis

    In this upcoming series of posts on my last year of reading, I'm going to attempt something that makes me a little uncomfortable. That is, I'm going to be talking about books that I haven't read for quite a while. According to my records, I read Michael Lewis's Money Ball last May; I read his Blind Side last January; and The Big Short some time before that. I don't own any of these books (ah, the library--even the poor ones in this crumbling city) and in interest of actually writing this year I am not going to do any research or rereading for these next several posts. I'll be going off my memory, which is my weakest quality as a writer (even in the midst of reading a novel, I'm often uncertain of a character or event.)

    I'll begin then with what I remember about Lewis's work that led me to read three of his books in about six months. Foremost is, as with any journalist, the subject matter. I have been very interested in the subject of economics since the Meltdown (a term that I think has taken the journey from a generic description to the solidity of an historical event akin to "the Depression"). I wrote several years ago about my appreciation of "The Giant Pool of Money'" the Planet Money podcast. I actually find those audio sources more useful to understanding the big picture than Lewis's book, though his focus on individuals gives some more context and understanding of the human dimension. I don't think The Big Short is as good at explaining the dynamics of what happened on a large scale as those two NPR productions.  So economics of general interest of me, but the other two books are about sports, which I watch sometime and occasionally read about.

    What's really fascinating about this trio of books is the bigger topic they all share, which is the question of economic value. That's fairly obvious in The Big Short, but in fact in that book it is maybe a less salient feature than in the sports books. The Big Short is comprised of the stories of the "players"--the creators of the fraudulent instruments and those who first recognized their worthlessness. In The Blind Side, Lewis begins by pointing out the value of the left tackle, the right-handed quarterback's personal bodyguard. This value of this position was recognized within the institution of football (and rewarded by the second highest average salary) before it was more generally known. That is just the starting point to what is a largely the personal story of Michael Ohrer--a prodigious physical talent--and those who recognized, cultivated, and I would say exploited his value. Of course this narrative begs the question of economic vs. true value. Ohrer was basically a lost boy, without the protection of a stable family. Where would he be today if he was of typical, unremarkable physical stature?

    While pro football did recognize and reward the talent of an unheralded position, the institution of baseball did not until recently recognize what a really valuable player is. Contrary to the intuitions of scouts and other baseball lifers, statistical analysis shows that all you really want is players who walk and hit for power--footspeed and glove work be damned. Money Ball's human story is the story of the men who recognized that value, and transformed the underfunded Oakland A's from also-rans to contenders. I liked Money Ball most of these three, probably because the focus was more on the system than the individuals. While Lewis is an effective story-teller, I did not come to these books looking for what fiction amply provides. Instead I was looking for analysis of how institutions, working as a system, define and transform the question value. As a group, these books provide some inroads into this concept, but Money Ball probably does this most pointedly.

    (A note on the title: It is a (pointless) allusion to John Prine's song that has the chorus"Come back to us, Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard." I kept this title for the final post because a.)I couldn't think of anything better and b.) the post turned out to be a mental summoning of what I found interesting about these half-remembered books, bringing them back to me.)

    Monday, January 7, 2013

    STL #103: The Year in Reading, 2012

    The only post I completed (though forgot to publish) in 2012 ended with the following paragraph*:

    So what's next? Right now I'm about a third of the way through the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, want to start Michael Lewis's Blind Side (for my football season that starts with the play offs), a hard boiled novel with the wonderful title When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, a handful of graphic novels ( a curious number written for teen girls it seems), the rest of GRRM's short fiction, Sorrentino's Blue Pastoral, Tufte's Envisioning Information, the odd ball art book  Mingering Mike, Greenblatt's Shakepeare biography I broke off reading a year ago-- this list goes on.

    A number of those titles you'll see on the following list, a number turned out to be unremarkable, and a few I never got around to reading. This paragraph, combined with the long break from writing, suggested to me a new approach for this year. This week you get the top 10 list (again, I've clearly abused the idea of "10"), a few words on the first entry, and perhaps some further topical ramblings; and for the next 9 weeks (I swear it!) you will get a post on each of the other list items. That will get the list done and should (will! I swear it!) break me out of the writing doldrums. I will try to replicate the rough order of reading in the following list, which is not a ranking.

    1. Emily Dickinson, Complete Poems
    2. Michael Lewis, The Blind Side and Money Ball
    3. Lawrence Block, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes 
    4. The Short Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, with a note on other early horror (weird) fiction including The King in Yellow and The Great God Pan 
    5. Burnt Offerings, with a note on The Green Man 
    6. Heart-Shaped Box, with a note on It 
    7. Supergods, with a note on 1234 
    8. Pulphead 
    9.  The Art of Fielding, with a note on The Original of Laura 
    10. The Boys, representing a whole mess of other comics, such as the Thomas/Adams X-Men and The Seduction of the Innocents.

    Emily Dickinson once said something along the lines of "if I feel like the top of my head is one fire, then I know I am in the presence of poetry." One of my dirty secrets is that I don't feel like that when I'm reading Dickinson. This makes me feel inadequate, since so many poets and readers love her and it seems I should too. I like her poem, "My Life has stood--A loaded gun," but I don't see nearly as much in it as Susan Howe, the great poet and scholar who wrote an entire book on that book, entitled My Emily Dickinson. (Howe's book, at times, does make my head feel as if on fire.)  I read Dickinson therefore out of sense of obligation, because I felt I should have grappled with her work more thoroughly than in the anthology piece everyone knows. The thick volume of her life's work sits on my shelf, and I look at it with little emotion, really little memory of the poems I dutifully worked through less than a year ago. So why does this book rank atop my year's reading list? The answer is, that's part of my reading experience. Sometimes my head is on fire, sometimes I'm just working through. My Emily Dickinson, at the moment then, is my commitment to reading.

    I begin every year reading some "big book" that I feel I should have read but haven't. There have been some exceptions to this basic rule--in the case of poets and dramatists, I have read some of their work but commit to reading all or a significant portion of it, and I have at times reread books either after a long break, or as part of a larger undertaking, or for some other compelling reason.Since I haven't updated the list in quite a while, here it is, including my current reading for 2013:

    1995 Ulysses
    1996 Swann's Way
    1997 Poetry of William Carlos Williams
    1998 In Search of Lost Time
    1999 Don Quixote
    2000 The Divine Comedy
    2001 The Cantos
    2002 Middlemarch
    2003 Bleak House
    2004 Paradise Lost
    2005 The Recognitions
    2006 The Odyssey
    2007 "A"
    2008 Anna Karenina
    2009 Shakespeare's Comedies and Romances
    2010 Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies
    2011 Tom Jones
    2012 Emily Dickinson, Complete Poetry
    2013 Complete Fiction and Selected Non-Fiction, Jorge Luis Borges

    You'll noticed I've added this year's entry, Borges. Borges is my anti-Dickinson: I do feel that my head is on fire when I'm reading him. But I'll save that for later. The reading list breaks down like this: nine novels, five long poems, two lyric poets, one sui generis short fiction/essays, and one significant body of drama. Eight works are from the twentieth century, four are from the nineteenth, four from the sixteenth/seventeenth, one from the middle ages, and one from ancient times. 2014 will mark the 20th year of this project. I have only stuck with one other thing for 20 years.

    *I do realize that there are (or will be) readers for whom this paragraph is the last they have read. You may skip it, as it is exactly the same.

    STL#102: The Year in Reading, 2011

    Note: This is the one post I actually composed in 2012, and it sat in draft form for the entire year. I was waiting to supplement it with some notes in a notebook I couldn't find, and then forgot about it, and apparently forgot about my blog altogether. I found it today as I logged in to start my Year in Reading, 2012. 

    I'll skip the usual grousing about not posting regularly and jump into it.

    1.) A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. I mentioned my enthusiasm for the first book, how I pumped my fist in the air as I was reading its multifold finale. There was a moment in the third book where that entire world was crashing down and I couldn't do anything about it but sit silently on an airplane, not letting my wife (a book behind me at the time) in on it. That was hard. The fourth book and latest book were somewhat less satisfying-- they are threads of a single massive volume split apart for the contingencies of material publishing. But at the end of the fifth volume I was emotionally drained, and just shoved the big brick aside and pulled the covers up over my head. To fill the gap as I wait for the next book I picked up Martin's big two volume short story retrospective. The stories are enjoyable, but the introductory essays make a lucid autobiography of a working genre writer.

    2.) Tom Jones. The big book for the first of the year. How I love these early novels stuffed with plot like chesnuts in a goose. I sketched out an ambitious novel-reading program at the start of the year, going from Fielding to James but it fell by the wayside. I did get as far as Tristram Shandy, which I did not enjoy as much as I should (a failing on my part, I feel.)

    3.)Nox. Anne Carson's book--or cabinet--of wonders. New Directions continues to be one of the few publisher's imprints which signifies quality, the last giant of modernism.

    4.) A Visit From the Goon Squad. The punk rock milieu is not completely convincing--by Egan's admission it is a more or less researched (not directly experienced) context. I enjoyed puzzling out the chronology that I wrote in a notebook that I think is at the office. Makes an interesting pair with Tom Rachman's more predictable The Imperfectionists, another recent story collection marketed as a novel. (Genre writers often shoe horn related stories into what's called a 'fix up' novel, but these literary types wouldn't do that (would they).) While for years it's been the conventional wisdom that novels sell while collections don't, I wonder if there might be a switch. The episodic progress of a suite of linked stories seems a better match for the on and off attention of today's culture.

    5.) The Nick Hornby reviews from The Believer.  I can't explain why I enjoy these snapshots of Hornby's reading life so much. He's a clear and reasonably clever writer, but not compelling stylist or a particularly insightful critic. Yet the frank, sometimes plodding nature of his ongoing reading, subject to real contingencies, whim, prejudice, strikes me as real reading, more than the acting of either conventional literary journalism (reviews) or criticism.

    6.) The New Yorker. Over the course of time, I built up a backlog of these magazines. From time to time, I would take a stab at killing the backlog, and over Xmas break I finally did. Although I had a selection of unread magazine going back to the 2010 summer fiction issue, as of right now I have no unread New Yorkers  in the house. This magazine is my idea of fine style. Some highlights include a number of stories by Alice Munro, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl on a notorious forger, a review essay on Simenon, and the list goes on. 

    7.)Fun Home. The rest of the list in comics, which means it was a pretty good year for comics even as I felt I've been drifted away. The allusiveness of this book by Alison Bechdel is perhaps a bit overdone, but an admirable work nevertheless.

    8.) All Star Superman. I finally finished a series I was reading as it was coming out. The first page is a textbook example of visual myth-making that I would recommend to anyone unfamiliar with the character, if such an individual should actually exist.

    9.) The Spirit The first several months of the Sunday color supplement series, reprinted in some mid 90's pamphlets published by Kitchen Sink Press. These stories exude the energy of a young man experimenting with and discovering his art.

    10.)X-Men #149-201. Not quite that entire run, but the library sale did let me fill out much of that chunk. I read and reread the run, and was quite struck by how indelibly the characters are drawn in my mind, give the relatively little time they are given individually. (Kind of a lot for comics, but comics is not a particularly dense medium.)

    So what's next? Right now I'm about a third of the way through the Complete Poems of Emily Dickison, want to start Michael Lewis's Blind Side (for my football season that starts with the play offs), a hard boiled novel with the wonderful title When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, a handful of graphic novels ( a curious number written for teen girls it seems), the rest of GRRM's short fiction, Sorrentino's Blue Pastoral, Tufte's Envisioning Information, the odd ball art book  Mingering Mike, Greenblatt's Shakepeare biography I broke off reading a year ago-- this list goes on.