Since I have a three month old baby, I tend to have a book or two I’m in the middle of in almost every room in the house, something I can pick up and dive into either when I have a free moment or when I’m on bottle duty at 4 in the morning and we’re both pretending that if I’m just quiet and composed enough he’ll go back to sleep.
In his bedroom I have a copy of Maurice Level’s Tales of the Grand Guignol. I’m in the middle of the first novel in that, The Grip of Fear. It’s macabre, weird stuff, surprisingly gory for something written in 1908, and he’s the kind of writer who goes from being brilliant to pulpy and back in a few sentences, which makes him a lot of fun to read. The book I’ve just finished there is Joseph Roth’s Leviathan, which is a short, nicely sharp novella whose pace changes as it reaches its end.
In the living room is Iain Banks’ novel The Wasp Factory, which I’m close to finishing, and which is an obsessive murderous first person narrative. I admire Banks as someone able to switch back and forth incredibly ably between SF and literary fiction, and like what he does in both. Knowing that he’s terminally ill has given the reading a strange and melancholy quality; I’ll be very sorry to see Banks go. There’s also Ivy Compton Burnett’s 1925 novella Pastors & Masters which I’m about a quarter of the way through and liking very much. I feel with Compton-Burnett that I’m almost taking the narrative in by osmosis than following a plot (though that may be partly sleep exhaustion from being a new parent). Under that is Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero, which has been a great anatomy of a crime.
Upstairs, I just finished Hugh Kenner’s Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, which is a concise and smart book on the animator. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, and finally did, mostly between 2 am and 4 am. Finally I’m in the middle of James Salter’s All That Is, which isn’t my favorite Salter novel (that would be Light Years) but is a mighty book nonetheless. Next up, I think, once I finish one or two of these, will be Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon, which I’m very much looking forward to.
While the retrograde formalist in me resists the idea of biographies, I do tend to read a lot of them. I’ve got two going right now: Hiding Man, Tracey Daugherty’s biography of Donald Barthelme, and Lady Painter, Patricia Albers’s biography of Joan Mitchell, both of which manage to do the difficult work of “telling” a life quite well.
I also just finished reading two novels—the first, Steve Erickson’s These Dreams of You, weaves among its many threads David Bowie (with whose new album, The Next Day, I’ve lately been obsessed) and Joyce’s Ulysses (which I’ve been teaching this quarter), while the second, Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach, is just, well, marvelous. With Gatsby fever running wild as of late, I would say that Garner’s book is as great a “short novel” as Fitzgerald’s, and with the exception of maybe Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, I can’t think of a better book about family.
As to poetry, I’ve been reading Lake Superior, a Lorine Niedecker poem that Wave Books recently republished in book form along with her notes, journal entries, and other documents. Niedecker has long been one of my most cherished poets, and reading this edition is like being introduced to her all over again.
I know I’m only supposed to name five books, but shout-outs are due to Jane Gregory’s My Enemies and Paul Killebrew’s Ethical Consciousness, both of which have proved pleasurable and useful to me over the last several weeks.
Drunken Boat is extending its deadline for the upcoming multigenre portfolio on Librotraficante and the New Latino Renaissance. The new deadline is June 7. Here is the call to artists:
In solidarity with the Librotraficante movement, sparked by Arizona’s HB2281 and the Tucson Unified School District’s resulting ban of Mexican American Studies, Drunken Boat seeks work by creators of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, spoken word, and experimental/mixed media that honors our country’s Latino heritage. The portfolio embraces quantum demographics, which, in the words of Librotraficante founder Tony Diaz, “pinpoint and celebrate the bridges that already exist between us.” Submissions will be considered through this lens of cultural intersection as it pertains to the New Latino Renaissance.
Mendez is a Houston-based poet, educator, and leader of the Librotraficante movement. He works with Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say and Word Around Town Poetry to establish poetry events and writing workshops open to the public. His recent work has been featured in Norton’s newest anthology, Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America, The Bayou Review, and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. Mendez will edit fiction and poetry for this upcoming special issue.
Last year, while staying a house in Berlin, I came across an old, 1950s Chatto & Windus set of Proust in twelve little volumes. Innocently enough, I picked up Swann’s Way, slipped it into my jacket pocket, and reread it on the trains. When I finished, I picked up the next little volume. Soon enough I realized this was it, I had begun in the foothills and was now climbing the mountain. I have given it most of my reading hours, and with great joy. Also, inter alia, Kevin Power’s beautiful novel of the Iraq War, The Yellow Flowers; Edward P. Jones’ The Known World; and Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. On the non-fiction side, I’m reading mostly about Reconstruction: David Blight’s Race and Reunion, and Philip Dray’s At The Hands of Persons Unknown.
I’ve been reading fictionalized case histories by Ferdinand von Schirach, a German defense lawyer (grandson of a Nazi official!). Guilt is a spectacular trove of existential narrative gambits. Ditto his Crime. These make rich companion reading to The Examined Life, case histories by psychoanalyst-author Stephen Grosz. Recently I finally cracked open Thomas Bernhard, wary for years of his run-ons and non-paragraphs (suffocating prospect). Indeed, he’s a genius—a thrilling misanthrope who includes his own mirror among mankind. The Woodcutters and Wittgenstein’s Nephew. I was just in Vienna, too; and learned that von Schirach’s grandfather ran it for the Nazis…