Late-Summer Doldrums

The first day of September 2019 dawned gloomy and wet, and the city seemed hung over after a night of desperate carousing at the end of the beginning of the Labour Day weekend.

Our hero, John Winkelman, looked over the stack of books which had accumulated during the last hectic week of August. The stack was short, consisting of a single volume — This Tilting World by Colette Fellous, published by Two Lines Press.

Oh, well, thought John, it’s not like I don’t already have a thousand unread books in my library.

“False!” shouted the Imp of Unpurchased Volumes from deep in Winkelman’s limbic system. “You have a mere thousand unread books in your collection. No serious antilibrary is so sparse that a single person could possibly read its contents in a single lifetime.”

Thus Winkelman was both shamed and enlightened.

I wish I could say that a slow accumulation of books makes for more reading time, but that just ain’t so. The frantic pace of the past couple of weeks has slowed my reading to a crawl. I did finish Kamau Daáood’s The Language of Saxophones, which was extraordinary, and immediately started The Hammer by Adelaide Ivánova, which I picked up at City Lights Bookstore at the same time I purchased the Daáood collection. So far it is very good; angry and pointed and occasionally surprisingly subtle.

I am almost finished with Snow Over Utopia by Rudolfo A. Serna, which has some good bits but is overall leaving me somewhat less than impressed. The writing is quite uneven and in places repetitive. The manuscript could have used another couple of rounds of editing. That said, the story — an odd mix of high-tech post-apocalyptic and fantasy — is interesting, and I would like to see a revised edition of the book at some point in the future.

 

 

Entering the Home Stretch of Summer

Yes, Summer doesn’t technically end until September 20, but this is the last week of August, so it’s the last week of Summer.

Not a lot happened this week, library-wise. I received the newest issues of Jacobin and Poetry (two great tastes which taste great together), but no new books.

In reading news, I finished A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, whose stories are wonderful and weird and strangely satisfying. Châteaureynaud has an interesting writing voice which feels like it came out of the late 1900s, even in his stories set in contemporary times. I am not entirely sure how much of this is Châteaureynaud’s own aesthetic and how much of it is a quirk of the translation process. I expect it would read much the same in French. Recommended for anyone looking for an unusual collection of short stories which skirt the edge of genre; like, say, Ivan Turgenev writing episodes of The Twilight Zone.

I am about half an hour from the end of Daâood’s The Language of Saxophones, and will likely finish it tonight. And I just started Snow over Utopia by Rudolfo A. Sirna, which arrived here a couple of weeks ago from Apex Publications. Only a few pages in, but I like it so far.

Namaste, yo.

Barry Hughart

On August 1, Barry Hughart, author of Bridge of BirdsThe Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen passed away. He was 85 years old.

I regret to say that I did not discover Hughart or his work until about ten years ago, when Subterranean Press announced that they were publishing a hardcover omnibus of the three novels in Hughart’s Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox series. There had been a thread on a website somewhere which had something to do with under-appreciated works which readers wished other readers could have a chance to read, and Bridge of Birds popped up enough that publishers began to take notice. Somehow I think I first became aware of all of this from a post on John Scalzi’s blog, which is a great place to be inspired to spend a lot of money on books.

I would like to say I read the entire collection in one sitting, but at over 600 pages, that was just not reasonable. I did, however, read it to the exclusion of all other reading material as well as a significant amount of sleep. Several times. All three novels are wonderful — full of action, adventure, wonder, humor both sharp and gentle, and above all a deep sense of empathy and compassion.

Subterranean’s was not the first omnibus version of Hughart’s novels. The books had been collected and published previously by The Stars Our Destination, a Chicago indie bookstore which closed back in 2003. This collection was their only publication.

(There’s something both melancholy and inspiring about this story, in the way the books came and went quickly, reappeared in an omnibus, disappeared again, then came back yet again, skipping like a stone over the surface of public awareness.)

Other than a rudimentary website, there isn’t much information about Hughart available on the internet, due likely to his relative obscurity and the fact that his writing career ended before the web really took off.

In the introduction to the Subterranean Press omnibus, Hughart described how he finally found the heart of Bridge of Birds:

… the first draft of Bridge of Birds didn’t really work and I couldn’t see what was wrong, so I dumped it into a drawer for a few years. Then one day I read Lin Yutang‘s The Importance of Understanding and found the prayer to a little girl that I mention in a footnote in the final version. It made me realize that while I’d invented good things like monsters and marvels and mayhem the book hadn’t really been about anything. I opened the drawer. ‘Okay!’ I said to myself. ‘This book is going to be about love.’ And so it is, and so are ones that followed.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hughart.

Vita Brevis, Ars Longa

I can only guess that the current lull in books appearing on my doorstep is due to the end-of-summer doldrums currently afflicting (and affecting) the entire Midwest. The air has a noticeable weight to it which makes simple tasks like breathing and moving difficult. The only book to so far wing its way to my house is the one pictured, Snow over Utopia by Rudolfo A. Sirna, published by Apex Book Company. When Apex cancelled their superb magazine I tweaked the amount I contribute to their Patreon, and now I have a de facto subscription to the Apex Book Company catalog. Win!

No update last week as I was too busy with the ten thousand tasks which encumber the life of a homeowner and diligent boyfriend in these perilous times. I did manage to write a few poems, two free verse and two villanelles, which were both fun and useful for providing constraints which freed up the creative process.

In reading news I am working my way through two books – A Life On Paper, a collection of the stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, published by the always-excellent Small Beer Press; and The Language of Saxophones, a collection of the poetry of Kamau Daáood, which I picked up from City Lights Books during last month’s vacation to San Francisco. Both are brilliant, but my reading time has been been nearly non-existent this month so I probably won’t finish either until Labor Day weekend.

 

Scaling Back the Input, Apparently

Yes, I admit that over the past few years I have acquired a vast pile of books, which I am unlikely to ever read to the end. On the one hand, I will never lack for entertainment and enlightenment. On the other hand, that rate of acquisition is expensive to the point of being unsustainable. Also books take up room. Not as much as, say, beanbag chairs or motorcycles, but at a certain point any serious collection will begin to outgrow its space. And since my partner now lives with me, space is even more precious.

I am being more careful with the books I buy. The acquisitions will continue but not at the same pace as before. I might eventually get down below 100 new books and journals a year, but that will be difficult. I’m going to let some subscriptions lapse and perhaps not do quite as much impulse-buying on Kickstarter.

Or I might snap under the pressure of making decisions and bury myself under the complete run of Discworld. In hardcover.

Only one book arrived at the library of Winkelman Abbey this past week – Glory and its Litany of Horrors by Fernanda Torres, from my subscription to Restless Books. I must say, that’s a hell of a title.

In reading news, I took a break from more heady stuff to burn through the three books of the Bobiverse by Dennis E. TaylorWe are Legion (We are Bob), For We are Many, and All These Worlds. They are light, compared to 19th century Russian romantics, but they are good, fun, fast reads. Taylor has a wonderful imagination, a good eye for detail, and treats his characters with humor and compassion. Well worth checking out.

Once through the Bobiverse I picked up one of the acquisitions from City Lights, The Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism. I have read the first two essays therein, and need a break before the next two. If you thoughts Russian romantic novelists wrote dense prose, they ain’t got nothing on Leftist academics and social commentators discussing and deconstructing the effects of social media and incipient AI on the cognitive landscape of capitalist society.

See what I mean?

Back From San Francisco

Z and I returned home from our second annual trip to San Francisco early Sunday morning. Like, really early. 2:00 am, which was 23:00 San Francisco time. And since we had been staying up late there, our internal clocks were completely out of whack.

Of course we visited City Lights on one of our peregrinations around the city. How could we not? I was much better with my buying urges this time, as I didn’t want to be hit with the outrageous “heavy checked bag” penalty at the airport. I made it by one pound, too!

So. At top left is Rad Women A-Z, which I picked up because Grand Rapids recently commissioned 27 artists to paint 27 electric boxes around downtown. Many of these are in my neighborhood or on my route to work, and they are wonderful! I absolutely love public art projects like this, and I hope the city continues to commission work like this.

Top center is We the Resistance, a collection of essays and stories about nonviolent resistance, which is much needed, as, since the entrenched (e.g. Caucasian, male, conservative, christian, capitalist, etc) power structures default to violence in their enforcement of the status quo, it is easy to want to meet force with force, and that is by definition a limited and self-limiting toolset.

Top right is The Hammer by Adelade Ivanova, one of three books of poetry I picked up more or less at random, from the “recommended by the staff” shelves. The other two are Kamau Daaood’s The Language of Saxophones at bottom left and Lynn Breedlove’s Forty-Five Thought Crimes at bottom right. I have only started Daaood’s book, and it is superb! I have always loved jazz poetry, and my first forays in to the form were fun to read and write but, well, not good. These are extraordinary.

Bottom center is another impulse buy, this one based on the title alone: The Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism. This is some heady reading. I was not at all surprised, given the title, that I opened to a random page and found a quote from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. It just seemed like that kind of book. And it is the third in a series, which means, once I finish it and scraped my brain off the ceiling, I will need to go back and read the previous two.

This visit reinforced my opinion that City Lights is the most finely curated bookstore I have ever visited, and bookstores nationwide could take cues from their selection and public engagement.

San Francisco was not all books, but the food and art will need to wait for additional blog posts.

Post-Travel Post

And just like that, we’re back! San Francisco was wonderful. We stayed in the Warwick, which is right in the middle of everything, and we ate ALL THE FOOD, which is all I will say about San Francisco in this post. We visited City Lights Bookstore, of course, and more San Francisco stories will accompany the photo of my haul from there.

Just one book arrived when I was out; A Punk Rock Future, from a Kickstarter created by the excellent Steve Zisson. For the general public, the book is available for pre-order at Amazon and will hit the shelves in October.

This was extra-EXTRA-special for me because my friend Steven (not Zisson) has a story in the collection, which I only discovered when I scanned the table of contents. I love when my friends win!

On the reading side of things, the week leading up to the trip was hectic and didn’t allow for much quiet time. I did burn through Mary Robinette Kowal‘s short story collection Scenting the Dark and Other Stories. I have long enjoyed Kowal’s novels and podcasting, but this was my first foray into her short works. And they are great! Highly recommended.

Once vacation started, things settled down. The plane ride was about four hours each way, which gave me something which I very seldom have any more: big blocks of uninterrupted reading time. And who, historically, has written books meant for readers with big blocks of uninterrupted reading time? The Russians! Specifically, Ivan Turgenev. I brought with me the collection First Love and Other Stories, which I picked up in August of last year. Eight hours on a plane was just about perfect to read the six stories therein.

I like Turgenev’s writing. He has a deep understanding of how young men think and how they react to love, heartache, and stress. That said, the main characters are not particularly likable. They tend to be of a type. “Wanker” is, I believe, the clinical term, though Turgenev treats them with empathy and compassion, rather than as the butt of jokes. Not that there isn’t plenty of humor herein, of the satirical and sarcastic variety.

And that is how, early in my fiftieth year, I completed a reading assignment handed to me by my Russian Studies professor in January of 1991. I suppose I should let Dr. Rydel know I’m finally done.

Pre-Travel Post

Quick post. In the airport, on the way to San Francisco. Not much to add to the stack; just the latest issue of the excellent Willow Springs. Will likely have a big pile when I return, because that’s what happens when I travel to San Francisco.

A Little Post-Holiday Pick-Me-Up

We are slowly catching up on sleep here at the library of Winkelman Abbey. Fortunately the poorly-socialized idiot who lives across the street didn’t blow up as much of the block as he has done in years past. Then again all of those tickets for disturbing the peace are probably beginning to add up.

A small stack of books this week, but two of the three include work created by friends, so what the pile lacks in height it more than makes up for in importance!

On the left is the latest issue of Amazing Stories. I don’t know anyone therein, but if I did I am sure we would become fast friends. In the middle is local poet Kristin Brace‘s new collection, Toward the Wild Abundance. Kristin is a superb poet and a wonderful human being who for many years worked at the Creative Youth Center here in Grand Rapids.

On the right is Mustapha Panda, from a recently-completed Kickstarter, with words by Karim Jallal and artwork by Teresa Zbiciak. I met Teresa recently, and in addition to being an extremely talented artist, she kills at karaoke. I love this book! It is a super-simple story about non-violently standing up to bullies and how to show compassion in the face of cruelty. I want to buy a copy of this book for every first grader in the state.

On that note…

Recently Michigan was recently ranked the worst state in the nation for bullying. Having lived here for most of the last fifty years, I can confirm that bullying might as well be Michigan’s official state sport. And as bad as it was for me back in grade school in the 1970s and 1980s, it is immeasurably worse for kids now, with communications technologies providing ever newer and more inventive ways for one person to torment another from the safety of distance and anonymity.

It’s no wonder the majority of voters in Michigan cast their ballots for Trump in 2016. Bullying is made up of equal parts sadism and cowardice, and Trump has both in such abundance that it leaves little room for anything else. The bootlick attitude of bully appeasers comes from the same place, psychologically, as does the compulsion to show contempt toward and victim-blame people less fortunate than ourselves. Cower upward, kick downward. That, in a nutshell, describes the entirety of the puddle of dog vomit which is the administration of our odious 45th president, his supporters, admirers, appeasers, enablers and lickspittles. As was pointed out nearly a year ago, the cruelty is the point.

And that concludes the political commentary portion of this post. At some point I will do some long-form essays on the stochastic terrorism which our emasculated president commits with his every tweet, word and action.

(Maybe I should break the non-book commentary out into separate posts.)

The Passive Acquisition of Reading Material

And just like that, the year is half over. Moderately more ups than downs at this point, which is entirely reasonable.

This was a slow but interesting week for the acquisitions department at Winkelman Abbey. Two Kickstarter fulfillment packages arrived, as well as two journal issues. On the left is Frozen Hell, the newly-released deluxe hardcover version of the John Campbell story which inspired The Thing. On the left-of-center is The Writer’s Book of Doubt, an anthology of encouragement for writers, by writers. Center right is the new issue of the always excellent journal Reckoning, and on the right is the latest issue of Poetry. These all just kind of appeared at my doorstep and I didn’t have to lift a finger.

In reading news, just before midnight last night I finished the book which I have been beta-reading for the past two months. It was superb, but I need to let it sit for a month before I offer my feedback to the author. I am also about 20% through the book of essays for which I will be providing a blurb in a few week. For pleasure reading I picked up Ken Liu‘s novella The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary. I quickly realized that, while a beautiful story, it’s a terrible story, if you follow me. Or, as Tom Waits would put it, “beautiful melodies telling me terrible things”. I’ll likely finish it this evening if time permits.

June 30 was the last day of submissions for the October 2019 issue of The 3288 Review, and I am hard at work sending out acceptance and rejection letters and contracts and other various communications on behalf of Caffeinated Press. After an extended bout of self-inflicted FUBAR around the previous issue, this one is coming together nicely, which makes me very happy as I finally have some breathing room in my life, so I can enjoy the summer with my wonderful girlfriend. Maybe I’ll even do some writing. And maybe it will even be good. And with a whole lotta luck and some good old-fashioned elbow-grease, I’ll get something published by the end of the year.