Monday, August 31, 2009

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H. P. Lovecraft

A collection of short stories by the legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, showcasing his development as a writer from his early works to the classics, such as "Herbert West, Reanimator" (the basis for the movie Reanimator) and the title story, which was recently made into a great silent film by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. As the back cover copy says: "Credited with inventing the modern horror tradition, H.P. Lovecraft remade the genre in the early twentieth century, discarding ghosts and witches and instead envisaging mankind at the mercy of a chaotic and malevolent universe."

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

I read this book when I was 18. It was the first of Bukowski's novels that I read, and I became a bit obsessed with him after that. But this is the best one, the story of the author's dysfunctional, alienated, acne-riddled childhood and adolescence through the thin veil of the fictional Henry Chinaski (I'm pretty sure that the boy in the yellow square on the cover is a young Bukowski). With both rawness and humor, he examines his formative years, chronicling how he became the man that he was. I think I'd like to read this one again.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Babel #1 by David B.

This oversized comic book by French artist David B., is a spinoff of his wellknown graphic novel Epileptic.

The book explores the relationship of dreams to personal mythology and history, weaving into the narrative historical battles, fantastical figures, and his brother's struggle with epilepsy.

Overall, the book is wonderfully designed, with large front and back flaps (one of which is pictured above).

The outer cover can be removed to reveal this one underneath.

I've just noticed that the second issue of Babel is available, so I'll have to go check that out.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

This edition of Upton Sinclair's classic work is part of Penguin's Deluxe Classics series, with great cover art by Charles Burns, whose illustrations really capture the sickness at the heart of the novel.

Speaking of which, I had never realized that this book was a novel until I started reading it. I had always thought it was a kind of journalistic expose of the conditions of the meatpacking industry--which I suppose it is, but told through the eyes of a fictional character, an immigrant and his family who travel to Chicago in hopes of building a life for themselves there, and instead are subjected to trickery, appalling living conditions, despair, and on.

A great and important book, but not a happy one.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey

When I saw this book out on a table at one of my favorite bookstores, I was at first attracted to the title. Then when I picked it up and flipped it over, I saw the Byron Coley blurb on the back and I was really interested. Once I started reading the introduction by Jim O'Rourke and got to the part about how he punched out Antonioni (highlighted in one of the stories contained within the book), I was sold.

Fahey was a fingerstyle guitarist who pioneered the steel string guitar as a solo instrument. His stories, which are autobiographical though I imagine not without fictional elements or embellishments, are mostly about his childhood growing up in Maryland, outside of D.C. The short, choppy sentences, with some paragraphs consisting of just one word like "yes" or "very," often reach a crescendo of madness and hilarity and beauty. While all of the stories are memorable, my favorite is the last one, "The Center of Interest Will Not Hold," which is divided into sections, one of which is also the title of the book. As a child, after hearing a DJ named Don Owens play a Bill Monroe song on the radio, Fahey is hooked, must hear the song again, and goes in search of the record. A collector named Dick Spottswood turns him on to other bluegrass records, which sets him off on the path he ended up on. "So because of Dick Spottswood and Don Owens and Bill Monroe, I became a professional guitar player and composer. What the hell kind of a gig is that? I could've been a contender."

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Hotel Majestic by Georges Simenon

The Hotel Majestic is the first novel by Georges Simenon that I read. I'd been interested in him after reading an article Luc Sante had written about him in Bookforum, and not too long afterward I spotted this book on one of the take shelves* around the building at work and picked it up. While I've since found that I prefer the romans dur (his darker noir fiction) that NYRB has just reissued, the Inspector Maigret novels are nearly just as strong, and rather addicting.

Simenon, pictured on the inside front cover of the book (the inside back cover features his signature), wrote hundreds of books, including 75 Maigret novels (and dozens more stories). Simenon himself was critical of some of his work, knowing when he was just churning it out to pay the bills. But I have yet to come across one of those.

*I've gone over this before, but there are bookshelves throughout the building where I work full of free books. It's gotten to the point where I have to remind myself when I go into an actual bookstore that I can't simply just take things off the shelves and leave.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, this novel tells the story of a rare book (also called The Shadow of the Wind) discovered in the clandestine Cemetery of Forgotten Books (if only such a thing really existed). It is the only known copy, as a mysterious figure has been burning all of them one by one.

I loved this book. The mystery behind the book's origin and the elusive author who wrote it is totally engrossing. I wanted to devour it all in one sitting--though at the same time, I didn't want it to end.

This book was just repackaged--while I think it's an improvement it still doesn't feel quite right--and the author has just published a prequel called The Angel's Game, which I'm pretty excited about.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Crosstown by Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt, one of my favorite photographers, died this past March at the age of 95. She had been working as a photographer for nearly 70 years--just about until the end of her life. This book collects a broad span of her work, from the 1940s till the 1970s.

Taken on the streets of New York, her work is largely characterized by people at play--laughing, having fun, being rowdy,

but also the quieter moments, both strange and beautiful.

She was able to capture such amazing moments--a second too late and they would be gone. I suppose that's the hallmark of a great photographer.

The later work doesn't skip a beat. Other than the styles of clothing and the fact that they're in color (and such lovely colors at that), you'd hardly be able to tell that they're separated by decades.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Love All the People by Bill Hicks

This collection of letters, lyrics, and routines from the late, legendary comedian Bill Hicks has recently been published as an expanded edition with a new cover* (thank God...err...hmm) and additional material. As for the latter, I hope it adds a little more variety to the text, as, while I love Bill Hicks, the book gets kind of repetitive. Much of it consists of transcripts of his comedy routines--and, no offense to Bill, but he told the same jokes often, and with little variation. So not only were they already familiar from hearing video and audio recordings of his standup, but I found myself reading over and over about rednecks and smoking and drugs and Satan.

Granted, not the worst read ever. I mean, this stuff is genius, even if it's the same genius printed up a bunch of times. Maybe it's best read a little at a time, rather than all at once. Yeah, that's it.

*Actually, I don't exactly love the new cover either but it's a step up from the muddy, slightly out of focus one on this edition.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman

The Principles of Uncertainty is a collection of Maira Kalman's online New York Times column of the same name (in an interview on the Penguin website, she explains that: "It refers to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which relates to quantum mechanics and it goes without saying that I don’t understand any of it. The editor in chief of the New York Times op-ed page thought of the title. When I told him what I wanted to write about—life, love, death, confusion, and hope—he felt this was an appropriate name for the column." I had never read the column until the Penguin Press published this lovely hardcover book--and even now I am just realizing that I have not gotten into the habit of reading her new blog, And the Pursuit of Happiness, on a regular basis (I have just taken a break from typing this to add it to my Google Reader).

The package is absolutely gorgeous--I love these endpapers, and the handwritten flaps. It feels quite heavy--a substantial book.

The back is pretty nice too.

The bulk of the work consists of Kalman's paintings (like this one from a trip to Coney Island).

But there are also many photographs, handwritten pages, and even some embroidery. (I love how the sides of the pages are streaked with color.)

But mostly paintings. Like this one based on a photograph by the great Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Or this one based on a photo taken in London in a library bombed in the Blitz. She touches on happy times and sad times (but mostly happy--and colorful for that matter) but every picture contains a poignancy under the surface.

Most of all though, I like her paintings of objects

and food.

Towards the end of the book there is an insert of a handdrawn map of the United States by Sara Berman. I have never actually seen this map, as the perforation has been left undisturbed. It instructs you to: "Either put it on the wall or put it back into the book. If you put it back into the book, it may one day fall out when someone browses through the book and it will become a thing that falls out of a book." (There is a lovely page in the appendix that features other items that can fall out of a book--newspaper clippings, photographs, shopping lists, etc.) I suppose I have defied the author by neither hanging it on the wall or tearing it out and slipping it back into the book, but I just can't bring myself to tear it out at all.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis

Between vacation (hello, Baltimore!) and work, I just haven't had time to scan books lately. But after a brief hiatus I hope to be back to regular posting (for awhile, at least).

I mostly bought this book for the great cover, and the fact that Francois Truffaut made it into a movie.

But it's actually a pretty decent read--not your typical cheap pulp novel. I got a little annoyed with how the character's thoughts were written in the second person, but otherwise I'd say I enjoyed it. I haven't seen the movie in awhile so I couldn't tell you if it diverged much from the plot of the book. And yet I found myself picturing the characters in black and white, seeing shots of a movie in my head.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This was just named as one of NPR's "Top 100 Best Beach Books Ever", and I have to say, while I think it's a great work of literature, I would not consider it to be a good beach book. You're supposed to have fun at the beach, to relax, to bask in the sun and enjoy yourself. But this is not a happy book. It is a quick read, most likely because you want to get it out of your head as soon as possible, to plow through the nightmare head on but not to linger long enough to really comprehend the horror. So, I highly recommend it, just not for vacation reading. It might be kind of a bummer.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wimbledon Green by Seth

This "sketchbook story" from comic artist Seth portrays the mysterious Wimbledon Green, a comic book collector regarded as the best in the world. Seth tells the story via the viewpoints and memories of dozens of characters--associates, enemies, and friends of Green, which successfully creates an air of mystery and legend about the collector. The tale involves a hunt for the mythical comic book The Green Ghost #1, perhaps only slightly more fabled than Green himself.

I've read some of Seth's other works, and am already a fan of both his storytelling and graphic style. But this book might be all the more enjoyable for me because it reminds me of a few record collecting fiends I know. As far-fetched as some of the events in the book may seem, it's not all that off the mark from some real-life stories from the record collecting world that I've heard.

Great endpapers that I believe are supposed to be frames from the ultra-rare comic that the characters are after.

Dedication page to Chris Ware.
Most of the comics contained within are series of small frames such as these. Some of them are simply interviews with the subject that barely change at all. But while it might not be on a par with some of Seth's other work (it's supposedly taken from sketchbooks for crying out loud), it's definitely worth reading (and owning).

All in all, it's a lovely package, with the paper-over-board, the brassy embossing, and the rounded corners. It feels good to hold in your hands.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Exercises in Style was my first introduction to the works of Raymond Queneau, author of Zazie in the Metro and Odile, among others (those are just the ones I've read, at least). It is one very short and not so interesting story, written 99 different ways. Not only is it a lesson in the countless ways one can convey a story, but it is a fun read (honest!) and often quite hilarious. Maybe you have to be a language lover to appreciate it but even now, just browsing through I find myself chuckling a bit.

I love the whimsical lettering that appears throughout the book.

This is the first version, and I suppose the most basic form of storytelling--just stating the facts.

I love this one.

As an employee of a publishing house, this one quite amuses me.

Some of them are decidedly unliterary.

And some of them get a little crazy.

After reading the book my class was assigned to take a very short story that we'd written and re-write it in three of the variations found in the book. One of the ones that I chose was pig latin, and I still remember the only comment the teacher wrote on it: "Insane."