Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick

After the movie The Minority Report came out, Pantheon published it as a standalone book. But since it's a short story, they packaged it as this oblong-shaped book with huge text to stretch it out into 112 pages. And like a sucker, I bought it.

It's a great story, of course, but I probably should have just bought the collection. Silly, silly me, falling for their merchandising schemes.

The endpapers look kind of cool, with these weird binary code-like characters--which, if you look carefully, is actually the copyright information.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Prattonia 2004

For most of my senior year at Pratt Institute, a photobooth was installed just outside the cafeteria. Anyone could use it, but its real purpose was for taking yearbook photos. I actually never submitted one but regretted it after seeing the book.

People did a lot of really interesting things with their strips, from drawing on them and scratching into them as in the above,

to creating an elaborate series of images, such as this guy shaving (well, pretending to shave, I'm sure).

These people have the most amazing facial expressions.

I love that someone included the Pratt cats, the many strays that roamed the campus. Some of the cats were pretty domesticated, surviving off the dishes of food left out for them by the staff, while others were kind of feral--I remember seeing one eating a pigeon and being a bit disturbed by it.

The yearbook also features sepia toned images taken around the campus. Above is one of the printmaking studios--not sure if this is the one where I had my various printmaking classes but it's pretty similar. Many of the buildings on campus are gorgeous turn of the century industrial-looking buildings--despite the fact that many of them were freezing in the winter I was always so glad I didn't go to a school with generic-looking gray-carpeted classrooms. (Well, I'm sure there were a few of them.)

I, like many it seems, used to cut through this hole in the fence behind one of the dorms that led out to Myrtle Ave, into the parking lot of a KFC, I think. At this point I'm pretty sure whatever fast food joint this was has been torn down to make way for whatever fancy new buildings the school is planning.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Accidental Masterpiece by Michael Kimmelman

This collection of essays from New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman delve into the works of artists such as Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria, Pierre Bonard and Marcel Duchamp, and Hugh Francis Hicks, a Baltimore dentist who kept his lifelong collection of lightbulbs on display in his basement, which he dubbed the Museum of Incandescent Lighting, until his death.* Kimmelman explores the ways that art can be found almost anywhere if you look hard enough, or are open to seeing it, and how life can be enriched by seeing art in the unexpected, noticing the beauty of everyday life. This might sound a little cheesy but I assure you it's a fascinating and engrossing read.

*The lightbulbs are now on display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, where I made it a point to visit after reading this book.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Rainbow Stories by William T. Vollmann

This book consists of thirteen stories, each subtly based on a color of the rainbow, written in a mix of styles, from documentary observation to innovative works of fiction, in locales from ancient Babylon to the Tenderloin of 1980s San Francisco. Like in many of his works, Vollmann delves into the lives of people living on the far reaches of society--serial killers, prostitutes, drug addicts, skinheads, the homeless--and explores the darkest aspects of humanity. Some of it is disturbing, some just sad, and some oddly bittersweet, but all of the stories are memorable and powerful, searing their mark onto your brain.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

War's End by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco has published various comics set in war-torn countries, from Palestine to Bosnia, which is the setting for the two stories included in this hardcover book.

More than just stories, Sacco's work consists of serious journalistic reportage. He travels to these places, interviews soldiers and civilians, hangs out with them, portrays a human side to the war.

He employs many innovative graphic techniques as storytelling devices. The above page has always stuck in my head as a great example of this: the four white squares inlayed over the crowd, depicting the bomb dropping closer and closer onto the unsuspecting people.

As you can probably tell I'm a sucker for nice endpapers. Dreary but lovely.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

I read this book when I was eighteen, in the first few weeks of my freshman year of college, and man, did I love it. I devoured it in a couple of sittings, and from then on I became a bit obsessed with Bret Easton Ellis (well, for that year at least). I read all of his novels to date. His writing informed my own; I began writing in the present tense, with major characters in some stories playing minor roles in others. My characters became more worldly and jaded.

Now nearly ten years later I wonder how much I'd like Less Than Zero if I read it today. What appealed to me about this novel, written in short page long vignettes, littered with pop culture references, detailing the sordid lives of a bunch of too-rich, shallow, and emotionally dead 20-somethings in 1980s L.A., dining at Spago on daddy's credit card by day and snorting coke and prostituting themselves to feed their heroin habits by night. Says Ellis of the novel: "I read it for the first time in about 20 years this year--recently. It wasn't so bad...I don't think it's a perfect book by any means, but it's valid. I get where it comes from...There's a lot of it that I wish was slightly more elegantly written. Overall, I was pretty shocked. It was pretty good writing for someone who was 19." I'm thinking I might have a similar reaction: understanding what about it appealed to me so much at the time, and surprise that I still find it to be a good book.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Like many of his works, Kurt Vonnegut's second novel The Sirens of Titan features elements of science fiction. The richest, luckiest man on Earth embarks on a journey that takes him from Earth to Mars to Mercury, back to Earth, and finally to Saturn's moon, Titan, where he again meets the man ostensibly responsible for the turn of events that have befallen him. The aliens from the planet Tralfamador, which appears in many of Vonnegut's later works, particularly Slaughterhouse-5, play a role as well.

But the novel is not a typical science fiction novel--in fact, despite the aliens and interplanetary travel, it's not really science fiction at all, but rather pure satire, using those plot elements as more of a means to freely tell the story without any worldly hindrances.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Nashville Chronicles by Jan Stuart

Through interviews with its principle players, film critic Jan Stuart provides an oral history of the making of Robert Altman's Nashville. While it's not necessarily my favorite of Altman's films (I'd say it comes in third after The Long Goodbye and Brewster McCloud) Nashville is undoubtedly a brilliant movie, pioneering for its time, and crafted like few others--an exercise in improvisation to the extreme. Though there was a script, on the day before filming was to begin Altman reportedly announced to the actors: "You can throw away your scripts. You won't need them."

The book contains black and white photos throughout, though the quality is a little muddy.

Each chapter begins something like this.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard

I tracked down this book of short stories by Mark Richard (pronounced the fancy way: rish ARD) after reading the first story in the collection, "Strays," in a college class. (You can read that story in its entirety on Amazon, by the way.) The stories paint a macabre yet funny portrait of the south--mostly the redneck, white trash south, replete with neglected children, drunks, and the like. I still think the first story that led me to it is the best though.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Songbook by Nick Hornby

I'm not the biggest Nick Hornby fan, though I do enjoy his music writing, despite its not always gelling with my own tastes and opinions. The McSweeneys edition of Songbook, with its beautiful hardcover package, makes it all the more enticing.

First of all, I love the cover art--the nod to the handwritten tape cover in all its coffee ringed, smudgy glory.

And, of course, the Marcel Dzama illustrations just seal the deal. I love the random creature thrown into the mix. Just perfect.

This one might be my favorite. The three identically dressed ladies (yes, of course they're the Velvelettes) are great on their own but the monkey perched on her arm really makes the drawing. (Now I'm seeing that that's not a monkey at all, but a bird with a human face.)

This edition also comes with a CD of some of the songs written about, though frankly, other than a couple of tracks, they're not really my taste. Then again, I suppose the fact that I enjoyed reading a book about music that I don't even like is a good indication of how well-written it is. I mean, Nelly Furtado? Come on!*

*Imagine the last line spoken in the voice of Gob from Arrested Development.**
**I've been rewatching the series and I can't help but find allusions to it in all facets of life.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gone to New York by Ian Frazier

In this collection of essays, New Yorker staff writer Ian Frazier, coming from the perspective of a Midwestern transplant, offers a more humanizing look at the city. Where many people are in such a rush that they don't even notice the glaring things, Frazier takes time to examine plastic bags caught in trees (a bit obsessed with this subject, he invents a bag snatcher to remove them; there are three essays about the bags), a makeshift shrine to a murdered school teacher, or the detritus strewn along Route 3 in New Jersey: "Scattered through the grass and weeds for miles were large, bright-colored plastic sequins. Oddly, I knew where they had come from. Once, while on the bus, I saw a parade float—probably from the Puerto Rican Day parade, held in the city—pull up alongside and then speed by. A car must have been towing it, though I don’t remember the car. The float was going at least seventy, shimmying and wobbling, banners flapping, and these sequins were blowing off it in handfuls and billowing behind." I should point out that the reason he notices the sequins is because he has attempted to walk fifteen miles along the highway, from his hometown to the Lincoln Tunnel, a feat that proves more complicated than he anticipated.

Funny, poignant, and graceful, these essays are reminders of the wonders that happen all the time in the city, and how often they are taken for granted, overlooked.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tales of Woodsman Pete by Lilli Carre

I'd been curious about Lilli Carre since reading some of her comics in The Best American Comics 2006. I happened to find a copy of this book for $3 at Normals in Baltimore and figured that was a good sign that I was supposed to check it out.

The stories, which revolve around Woodsman Pete, a bearded mountain man type, and Paul Bunyan (you know, the giant lumberjack with a blue ox friend), put a bit of a spin on myths. They're just a tad uncomfortable, especially the strips starring Woodsman Pete, but in a weird, funny way.

I really like the drawing style, and the storytelling is great too, especially the one about how all those random objects you see washing up on shore ended up there in the first place.

I love the tear drops on the inside front and back covers.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Mayor's Tongue by Nathaniel Rich

I was first drawn to this book by its typographically insane cover (the tongue made of various !! and AAA and 000 is pretty great) and the comparisons to Paul Auster and Thomas Pynchon. As for the reality...I'd say not exactly on a par with those authors but pretty strong nonetheless, especially for a first novel.

The novel consists of two storylines, one following the young devotee of the reclusive author Constance Eakins, who is thought to be residing in Italy, and the other following an old man whose wife is dying; confused and terrified, he longs to confide in his friend Rutherford. But Rutherford has disappeared, and his letters, postmarked from Italy, become more and more ominous as the weeks pass. Both men’s adventures take them from New York City to northern Italy, where the line between imagination and reality begins to blur.

Upon opening the book I was pleasantly surprised to see that the crazy typography from the cover continues onto the title page,

and even onto the usually boring copyright and dedication pages.

Each chapter begins like this, with the first few lines indented to form a slant.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Immoralist by Andre Gide

I'll admit it: I mostly bought this book because I loved the graphics on the cover--the purple woodgrain, the 50s-looking font, the yellow circle that seems to suggest a sun. I was also swept up in an early college years penchant for existential literature, and this seemed to fit snugly in with the likes of Camus and Sartre. But unlike classic works like The Stranger and No Exit, I can't remember a thing about this book.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Subway Memories by Camilo Jose Vergara

I've always harbored a bit of nostalgia for the New York City subway and its varied history—the different styles of subway cars, the long lost abandoned stations, and of course the spectacular graffiti that has since been wiped clean. 

So when I saw this small hardcover book on a table at the Strand, I decided I needed it. The photos might not be on a par with the likes of, say, Bruce Davidson's Subway, but they are still lovely (I'm a sucker for old color photos), and there is something appealing about the snapshot-like quality, especially paired with the subject matter. Taken by a Chilean-born writer, photographer, and documentarian (referred to as "the Jacob Riis of our time" for his documentation of American slums), they span the course of several decades, as early as 1970. They work very well as a collection, portraying Vergera's unique perspective. 

The lighting in this one is so beautiful.

I love the kids looking out the back window at the tracks disappearing behind them.

Some of the photos span across both pages, printed right to the edge. 

There's something wondrous about these rusting subway cars (or at least that's what I think they are) piled up and decaying--like slain monsters. Or something.

And what is up with that guy's outfit?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs

A collection of writings by the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, on the likes of The Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Slade, Peter Laughner, the Count 5, and so on. I can't even begin to describe its greatness--sometimes sloppy, sometimes drug-addled rambling, sometimes spot-on, always genius. Whether writing reviews of nonexistent albums (see the title essay) or demythologizing so-called rock gods*, Lester Bangs changed the face of music criticism. Who else could have worked Idi Amin into a review of Metal Machine Music?**

*"John Lennon at his best despised cheap sentiment and had to learn the hard way that once you've made your mark on history those who can't will be so grateful they'll turn it into a cage for you. Those who choose to falsify their memories--to pine for a neverland 1960s that never really happened that way in the first place--insult the retroactive Eden they enshrine." --from "Thinking the Unthinkable About John Lennon"

"I played it for President Idi "Big Daddy" Amin of Uganda when he flew me and Lisa Robinson over there to interview him for upcoming cover articles in Creem and Hit Parader, and he absolutely loved it. I gave him a copy, and now by special edict he has it piped through the Muzak vents of every supermarket (all thirty-five of them) and doctor's waiting room (all eight) in his great nation, so that the citizens there may be inspired to ever fiercer heights of patriotism for his regime and all that it stands for." --from "The Greatest Album Ever Made"

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Tunnel by Russell Edson

My sophomore year of college my writing teacher distributed a packet of handouts consisting of xeroxed pages from various books. Among those were several poems by Russell Edson. I'm not the biggest reader of poetry but I was quite taken by his work.

His prose poems fuse bizarre with banal, subtly taking the reader into a strange alternate world, where it is not uncommon to paddle a canoe up the stairs,

or cultivate sheep in a test tube.