For this Sunday’s List, Entropy community members are asked to list 3 books no one they know has read, but they think should.
1) John Brockman, AFTERWORDS (1973). Out-of-print, last time I checked, and obscure anyway, as Brockman basically gave up his literary endeavors after the publication of this omnibus volume. Also, genre? Is this poetry or cybernetics? Importance / why read it: the book anticipates many of the “moves” of conceptual literature, and totally blows up some of the stretchier claims made by David Shields in his REALITY HUNGER re: the essential contemporaneity of appropriative strategies. (REALITY HUNGER is constructed in a virtually identical fashion as AFTERWORDS). Amazingly, Brockman is starting now to receive some attention (http://edge.org/conversation/ever-brockman). Sample: “The theory of description matters most./ It is the theory of the word for those/ For whom the word is the making of the world. Description is the thing: nothing.” (186)
2) David Sudnow, THE WAYS OF THE HAND (1978; 1993). Probably overlooked because the book is about an esoteric subject — the improvisor’s own experience of improvisation — and because, on first glance, the book would appear to be just another dry, academic monograph. Importance/ why read it: imagine if Bill Evans or, better yet, Cecil Taylor had, after reading a slew of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty’s PHENOMENOLOGY OF PERCEPTION, set out to take ownership of those critical vocabularies by engaging in an exhaustive description of the postures, gestures and composures of their spontaneous pianisms. Sudnow’s is an early classic of what is now being advertised as the genre of “self-tracking” or “self-quantification”, here accomplished with analog tools: chief among them, prose that is not afraid of its own capacity for artistry. I prefer the original 1978 / un-rewritten edition, but Sudnow’s own account of his revisions is worth reading. Sample: “For a long time I guided my hands on the keyboard by moving along all kinds or routes and scales that I conceived in my mind’s eye, and, when I did look at the piano, I was so involved in an analytic mode of travel that I didn’t see the hands’ affairs as I now do. Their affairs and my looking were different.” (2)
3) Musa McKim, ALONE WITH THE MOON: SELECTED WRITINGS (1994). Probably overlooked for a couple of reasons: although McKim is an American, this is a British publication (2 copies left in stock at SPD as of this writing); McKim published very little during her lifetime, which was somewhat spent in the eclipse of her husband, painter Philip Guston, whose drawings illustrate a few poems in this collection. Important / why read it: there’s a kind of steely whimsicality to McKim’s writing that respects no school or aesthetic hardline — Guston could have learned from her, or, maybe, he finally did — or genre distinction for that matter. Poems that are little plays, philosophical dialogues that are poems, poems that are daybook entries (and, if you just want to read this book as a particularly innovative memoir of one woman’s life navigating the ferment and male egos of the mid-20 Century art world, you can), fables that are autobiographical sketches: there are many surprises to be found in this book, and what is perhaps most surprising is the discovery that this poet is a friend you didn’t know you had all along, one quietly yet resiliently attending to making a gift of her words. Sample:
Between the buildings (in the
interval between buildings),
the ground is leased to parking.
The entertainment waves flit
by uncaught. Old telephone numbers
ring in mid-air.
The sea has eaten us
before. The sand is trying
to hand us over. But treat
us not in drugstores that sell
square ice cream.
(“Pavan for Dead Buildings,” 130)
1. I spent a lot of time during my thesis semester of grad school just wandering my university library. That’s where I found The Oranging of America by Max Apple. As far as I’m aware, the book has been out of print for some time, but I still see copies at the used bookstore which I frequent often. Apple’s writing is extremely dated–that’s the downside of writing about the zeitgeist within the zeitgeist–, but underneath all of the jokes about Gerald Ford and Howard Johnson there’s an examination of humanity that really resonates. We need more books like this. I think it’s available as an eBook, though, so go check it out.
2. I haven’t heard enough people talking about Timothy Willis Sanders’s new novel, Matt Meets Vik, either. This novel is amazing. When the term historical novel is used, I seldom think of this century, but that’s exactly what Sanders does in MMV. He’s evoking 2003 down to the most banal details. Take a look at these passages: “Matt said, ‘I’m going to call her soon,’ and pictured himself stuttering into the Nokia 5160. He watched Esme take off her Chuck Taylor Shoe and massage her foot. … he looked at the stars drawn on her Chuck Taylor shoes … He thought, ‘So Goth.'” So good!
3. Last year I picked up James Lasdun’s memoir Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked and was floored. Here’s how much it impacts me: I was pondering over it this morning. Lasdun weaves a harrowing tale without making his story a pity party; he even admits that he’s partially to blame. And the ending is jut stunning. Our Internet personas mean so much to us that it’s a wonder more people are not talking about this book.
1) Ali Smith’s Hotel World. You may have read this but if not you should read it because a) it’s probably the best novel written in the 21st century so far and b) no I’m not kidding, it is seriously badass and it’s both sorrowful and joyous in oceanic ways and is partly narrated by a dead teenager and it will seriously rearrange you.
2) Walter Abish’s How German Is It. He’s most known for Alphabetical Africa but the book pulls off being an edge-of-seat thriller, a meditation on the role(s) of art, and a seething indictment of post-WWII Germany’s denial of history, meaning it gets a lot done in a small amount of room.
3) Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head. Compton-Burnett was Gaddis before Gaddis was Gaddis, by which I mean imagine JR if it were still almost entirely unascribed dialogue but set in Victorian England and featuring a suffocating plot that could plausibly have been supplied by V.C. Andrews. These three books (plus two books you probably know: Infinite Jest and David Markson’s Reader’s Block) are the main influences on me when I write fiction and are the standards I try to reach.
Leslie Scalapino’s Defoe (Green Integer, 2002).
People should be talking about her work constantly. She’s sooo badass. Like a language walker scouting out the liminal zone, or traversing imaginary zones, however you like to envision it. I love this book because—to borrow a phrase from Steve Benson’s blurb—“Reading it confuses, alienates, and reforms me.” She shows us the outer limits of poetry, then essay, then fiction, then all of those things collapsed and squirming, in ways we could never have conceived of them beforehand. The jacket copy likens this particular book to work by Breton, Soupault, Heidegger and Derrida—but honestly I don’t think it needs any male validation. She’s in her own lane. She’s creating next-level shit. And despite the depressing fact that she’s no longer with us, to borrow a line from Drake, “I can’t even name one person that’s keepin’ up.”
From page 83, “Had seen of now who is no longer there to see figure on sheet of bikes in the city that now comes up flicker straight on in the center. Who’d been a punk but of indeterminate age, not really young; and the bud open on the road in the midst of the crowd with the black rain coming down, is now walking on the sand alone.”
Will Alexander’s Sunrise in Armageddon (Spuyten Duyvil, 2006)
Again, everybody should be talking about his work. Dude’s voice climbs the stairs of hyper-poetic slash hyper-intellectual buildings and then leaps off and swims back to shore before the rest of us writers have even had our first cup of coffee. Scalapino once called his work “movement / as dialectical alterity.” Nathaniel Mackey described this particular book as “a work of blistering, sibyllic, incensed imagination [with] thicketed prose [that] advances lexical ignitions of astounding angle and amplitude.” That sounds right to me. Put another way, this book mixes poetry, science fiction, and theory by turning language up to eleven.
From the final paragraph, page 382, “Because I live in this kiosk of nerves, in this blind and gradational situ, I know these beings of the “zaman afaiqi,”who seek to engulf my deliriums with ash. They cannot hear me murmuring beyond an oblique geography, squaring the sun while drawing on new zodiacs.”
Clark Coolidge’s The Book of During (The Figures, 1991)
Before the recent publication by Fence Books of his masterpiece A Book Beginning What And Ending Away there was this equally masterful work. Luckily it’s still in print, language lovers rejoice! Unfortunately, any attempt at describing this puppy goes right through the fingers like water or wishes. Like most of his work, it’s irreducible. Language voiced by a speaker whose imagination pokes holes in all our preconceived water balloons. Throbbing with sex. Reshaping the contours of language’s functionality until we see words the way Duchamp made us see urinals or snow shovels: anew.
From page 59, “Then the day monkey pirates in candy thongs entered the shelves. Litmus slices before I even knew they took. Iced lemons in the box of porcelain, the laminated oilcloths in back and the snap of a cat. I took her down to the bottom of my bed at night and once she shot back up out and stroked at my eye with her tusk (it was a he).”
Confessions of Cherubino by Bertha Harris, Applesauce by June Arnold, and Need More Love by Aline Kominksky Crumb. The Harris and Arnold books are on Daughters Inc, a lesbian feminist press from the ’70s begun by Arnold and her partner. Both are insane, brilliant: that category of writing i call gay psychotica. Characters jumping bodies and circumstance, behaving badly; these authors are women who were southern debutante’s before people began coming out in the ’60s, women who had been married to men and left them to began again, dykey as hell. From Applesauce: “The goal of all women, darling. She was a barbarian and a sorceress and she had magic, and when Jason left her because she grew ugly she killed his children. A brilliant revenge, considering the circumstances under which children are conceived. When she was beautiful he desired her; now that he no longer desired her she was no longer beautiful. She would destroy that products of that desire.” (p. 109) Kominsky Crumb is a cartoonist and memoirist who goes elbow-deep into the shame, fear, confusion, and pleasure of being a fully-embodied female; think of a Jewish predecessor to Phoebe Gloeckner with a writhing, uncomfortable drawing style.
The Book of Lazarus by Richard Grossman. I love it for a lot of reasons, but a lot of it has to do with the structure, which was unlike anything I had experienced, and then there’s that seventy page sentence fragment, which is maybe my favorite piece of prose ever. Like most experimental art, it’s easy for it to slip through the cracks.
Girl with Oars & Man Dying by JA Tyler. This is maybe my favorite JA Tyler book and it’s one of the most hauntingly gorgeous books I’ve ever read. I honestly have no idea why no one seems to have read this, or why it feels like few people have paid enough attention to JA Tyler’s books, because he has such an original and beautiful brain. He’s someone who needs to be read far more than he is. He deserves it.
Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. He’s the first Chinese Nobel laureate for literature, so it seems like he’d be pretty famous, but I don’t think I know anyone who’s read this, let alone anything by him. To me, it’s sort of the perfect novel and I want to sing its praises constantly. He pulls off so much beauty and intelligence and awesomeness so effortlessly and in such a way that shouldn’t be successful, but rather than fall apart, it’s glorious.
Dennis James Sweeney
1. Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings translated by Burton Watson. Chuang Tzu (also Zhuangzi) was weird indie lit before weird indie lit existed, all in service of an interpretation of Taoism that is to me more complex and interesting than the tenets of its older, more revered brother, the Tao Te Ching. I find it incredibly heartening to know that such pure strangeness could be composed with such reverence and sanity, and as long ago as the third century B.C. “In the northern darkness there is a fish and his name is K’un. The K’un is so huge I don’t know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is P’eng. The back of the P’eng measures I don’t know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea begins to move,2 this bird sets off for the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven.”
2. A Simple Machine, Like the Lever by Evan P. Schneider. I just can’t say enough about this book from small press Propellor Books out of Portland. Maybe it’s just my personal identification with the naïve, disaffected protagonist, but A Simple Machine seems to me to engage better than any book I’ve read with the stupid, simple conflicts most of us go up against every day, acknowledging them with both frustration and a certain wonder. “Today, for no good reason I stood up on my pedals and pretended to whip my bicycle like a jockey would a horse.”
3. Inventing Montana: Dispatches from the Madison Valley. I never thought it was possible to like a book about fly fishing this much—or, I guess, at all. Leeson’s patient observations of human dynamics and the natural world were a bizarre and wonderful reward for simply trying to bone up on the books that the professors in my MFA program had written. “But like so many little freestone streams, this one often compensates by containing trout that sometimes strike virtually anything you toss their way with such an eager innocence that you feel embarrassed for them.”
Claudia Rankine, Citizen, An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, October 2014)
If one hasn’t read this brilliant work it’s because it’s not been officially released yet. I can’t say too much about it because I cannot/should not say too much about it. It needs to be read. You NEED to read it when it comes out on October 7th. Put it on your calendar: OCTOBER 7. CITIZEN, AN AMERICAN LYRIC by CLAUDIA RANKINE. BRILLIANTLY IMPORTANT.
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition And Other Stories of Iraq, Translated by Jonathan Wright (Penguin, 2014)
From the publication page:
“The stories in The Corpse Exhibition appeared in Hassan Blasim’s The Madman of Freedom Square and The Iraqi Christ, both published in Great Britain by Comma Press. The following selections appeared in The Madman of Freedom Square: “The Corpse Exhibition,” “An Army Newspaper,” “The Madman of Freedom Square,” “The composer,” “The Reality and the Record,” “That Inauspicious Smile,” and “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes.” The following stories were published in The Iraqi Christ: “The Killers and the Compass,” “The Green Zone Rabbit,” “Crosswords,” “The Hole,” “The Iraqi Christ,” “A Thousand and One Knives,” and “The Song of the Goats.”
As a reader of The Corpse Exhibition you rarely know who you are at the start of a given story. You rarely know who is alive and who is dead; who is for you and who is against you; when is now, or then, if at all. In the end, you never know if it’s the end. These are the best kinds of stories because more than mere stories, they’re experiences —Wild, hellish, ghoulish, transformative experiences wherein the reader is a part in some part.
Ana Carrete, Baby Babe (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2014)
Ana Carrete is one of my favorite living poets. Like ALIVE. Like every time I hear her read I’m like Fk Yeh! Like Read another one! Like What! Read that one again! I don’t say this out loud, but in my head, or wherever it is poetry resounds and then resides. I’ve read and reread Baby Babe because it reminds me every time that poetry can be seriously hilarious and still be smart and beautiful and complex. I read somewhere that her poetry doesn’t take itself seriously. That may be so (or not), but I do. Baby Babe is a book you could and should buy with relative ease. Her latest chapbooks Why Fi and Sadmess are equally amazing. She blogs at idonothavepenisenvy
The Pirates! In an Adventure with… series by Gideon Defoe. I suspect that these might be children’s books, but I’m not ashamed by liking them. It’s completely absurdist humor; the titular pirates aren’t even given names, just “the pirate in red,” “the albino pirate,” “the pirate with gout,” and, of course, the Pirate Captain. The best part of the books, though, is the layout: the Table of Contents has nothing to do with the actual chapter titles, which are totally unrelated to the content of the chapters and tell their own story. There are also facetious discussion questions and other appendices at the back. Just silly fun reading.
The Extremes by Christopher Priest. I picked this up at a used bookstore because it was from the author of The Prestige. It turned out to be nothing like that other story, but just as worth reading. A Dickian near-future story that explores moments of extreme violence, such as mass shootings; the voyeuristic media reaction to them; and the debate linking video games with this type of extreme violence, in a mature way that doesn’t alienate or villainize readers who happen also to be gamers.
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. Similar to Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove,” the inspiration for Rashomon, this is a mystery story told from the point of view of four different unreliable narrators whose stories all contradict one another. What makes the book stand apart is how much the historical setting (the years following the English Civil War) informs these narrators’ POVs, particularly as they relate to Sarah Blundy, a central character in all four accounts who is variously seen as a damsel in distress, a witch, a spy, and a messiah.
Abducted: How People Came to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens by Susan Clancy
Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City by Jacques Yonnet … This is like not really non-fiction but ought to be.
Brother Sam: The Short, Spectacular Life of Sam Kinison, by Bill Kinison (Sam’s brother) … Kinison’s comedy is an acquired taste to say the least but this book is oddly thoughtful.