Monday, February 28, 2011

Screw-Jack by Hunter S. Thompson

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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Novels in Three Lines by Felix Feneon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Inferno (A Poet's Novel) by Eileen Myles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 14, 2011

To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry

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

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

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

There are a number of photographs, documents,

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

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr.

Just finished watching the movie version of this book and I feel a little nauseous. I mean holy shit. This is a portrait of the depths of human misery, of a lonely old woman's addiction to diet pills, fueled by an obsession with being on television, and her junkie son, who's convinced that if he can acquire a "pound of pure," all his troubles will be over. It does not end well.

I got really into Hubert Selby, Jr.'s work during my freshman year of college--it may have started after I saw this movie the first time, actually. I'd also just started college in Brooklyn, the setting of all of these books, which might have piqued my interest as well. I read Last Exit to Brooklyn and Song of the Silent Snow, although I strangely have no actual recollection of reading Requiem for a Dream (though I know that I did). I wonder how it would hold up for me if I read it again now.

I recall that Selby's punctuation was unorthodox, though consistent, something that didn't exactly bother me though I didn't quite understand the point of it. He used forward slashes instead of apostrophes, eschewed quotation marks altogether, and often neglected to indent paragraphs, simply dropping them to the next line.
Now that I look it up, it seems that he preferred forward slashes to apostrophes because they were just a little bit closer on his typewriter, which kind of paints a picture of someone furiously typing, trying to get out the story as fast as possible before it's gone. Which I kind of like.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tooth and Claw by T. C. Boyle

This is the very first book I found on a "take shelf" when I started working at Penguin and I remember it was so exciting to just be able to take a free book. I'd read the title story in The New Yorker, as well as one other short story ("The Hector Quesadilla Story," from the Paris Review anthology), but otherwise it was my first introduction to Boyle's work, which often incorporates elements of satire and magical realism. "Hector Quesadilla" stands out in my mind as the stronger and more memorable work, so I think I might have to try Boyle's 1985 short story collection, "Greasy Lake & Other Stories," in which that one appears.