Wednesday, November 19, 2008

the year in books (so far)

Just a quick heads-up for any of you interested in what I've been reading lately: the 2008 books-log page, which had been languishing for the last few months, is now up-to-date. I'm mostly not writing capsule reviews this year—just too much other stuff going on —but if you just want a raw list of the 47 books I've read so far this year, well, it's there for you. (My LibraryThing page has also been brought up to date, for those of you who prefer that system.)

Anyone have any recommendations for worthwhile books I should try to tackle before the year is out?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

the new novel

So those of you who read my Facebook news-feed know that I've accepted an offer to teach two writing courses at Boston University this fall, loosely themed around the topic of "The New Novel."

This is a topic I can have some fun with, obviously, and I quickly decided that a good course on the New Novel should endeavor to include the following things:

  • A more-or-less classically-structured novel, but which deals with topics that are distinctly "21st-century" in orientation. [Something like William Gibson's Pattern Recognition or Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis or Falling Man are the types of books that fit comfortably in this slot.]

  • Something that deals with similiar topics, but is more experimental or progressive in terms of its form. [Patrik Ourednik's Europeana might work well here, and I'm tempted to include something like Ben Marcus' Notable American Women or Leslie Scalapino's "trilogy" The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion, but these are probably both slightly too ambitious for college freshmen.]

  • A hybrid text, something that is "novelistic" in orientation but clearly reacting to the pressures of "visual culture" / multimedia. [Steve Tomasula's VAS: An Opera In Flatland would be a blast to teach, but something like Lynda Barry's "illustrated novel" Cruddy or Zach Plague's brand-new boring boring boring boring boring boring boring could work equally well.]

  • Something "outside" the realm of the literary novel, preferably a graphic novel. [In a pinch I could use a piece of genre fiction, most likely SF or horror.]

I also am [typically] concerned with balance of representation, so I'd like to see at least one novel by a non-Caucasian writer and at least one novel by a non-North American writer, and I'd like the list to be fifty/fifty in terms of gender distribution.

The problem, sadly, is that I'm trying to limit myself to only four books (ultimately the course is a writing course and not a Lit survey), and trying to fit the four "types" that I want with the gender and ethnicity constraints that I set up is proving something of a diabolical logic puzzle. I'm pretty close to "locking in" on Gibson and Tomasula, white men both (sigh), which means that ideally I'll find a graphic novel and an experimental 21st-century novel, both written by women, at least one of whom is non-Caucasian.

Persepolis is holding a lot of appeal in the graphic-novel category, but its autobiographical status as a memoir might eliminate it from the running, and as far as I can tell, most crticially-acclaimed graphic novels by women tend to be memoirish. (See also: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.) Has anyone out there read Jessica Abel's La Perdida?

If I swap out the graphic novel for a genre novel, Octavia Butler is a potentially fruitful person to work with, although her only 21st-century novel is Fledgling, not generally considered her strongest work.

In terms of the experimental novel, I think Miranda Mellis' The Revisionist might hold some appeal, and its SF trappings might tie it well to the Gibson and Tomasula, but I haven't read it (a copy is winging its way to me as we speak).

You readers are good at this kind of thing. Recommendations?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

100 book challenge: part six: miscellany

Down to the final fifteen of the 100 Book Challenge!

  • As long as we're coming out of the graphic design shelf, we might as well move into Beautiful Evidence, by design critic Edward Tufte
    [I panned this book a bit when I first read it, believing it to re-hash some of the material from Tufte's earlier books. However, that also makes it the easiest one to select if I'm going to take just one. It is probably the most well-designed one of the batch.]

  • Re-Search #11: Pranks!
    [Back in the good old days of the mid-nineties, Re-Search was the ultimate arbiter of what was cool and underground, and I'm grateful to them to introducing me to a lot of different countercultural thinkers. Of the Re-Search volumes I have, this is the one that meant the most to me, but Angry Women, Modern Primitives, and the Industrial Culture Handbook are all just about equally worth bringing.]

  • Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge
    [Along the same lines as the Re-Search books, this was a book that taught the young Jeremy about what was cool. (The book's main answer to that question: geeks and psychedelic shit.) Some of the tech romance has lost its luster in the, er, fifteen or so years since this book came out, but I'm more than willing to hold onto it as perhaps the single volume that best explains how I ended up the way I did.]

  • Along these same "formative" lines, I'm not sure I can part with any of what I consider to be the three key Advanced Dungeons and Dragons texts: the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Player's Handbook, and Monster Manual.
    [I haven't played Dungeons and Dragons in probably five years now, but these three books basically describe how to generate and stock an entire fictional world, and determines coherent rules for how players can interact with that world: the amount of entertainment that can be extracted from their triangulation is truly limitless. A book that strips away the fantasy trappings in an attempt to provide an even broader basis for world-building is the GURPS Basic Set, which I'm also tempted to bring but which I don't think would make a list that caps at 100.]

  • Continuing with games, I'd bring the Redstone Editions Surrealist Games book-in-a-box...

  • ...and the Oulipo Compendium, which defines a mind-boggling number of literary constraints to play around with...

  • ...and Jeff Noon's Cobralingus, which takes the idea of literary constraints and fascinatingly updates it by mashing it up with the kind of gate/filter/patch mechanism familiar from real-time sound synthesis programs like AudioMulch.

  • And ultimately, for when I was through with the wacky wordplay and wanted to get back to writing normal English-language sentences, I'd bring a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.

I'd cram in a few more great works of fiction...

  • Cathedral, by Raymond Carver

  • Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

  • my version of Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
    [My edition has great illustrations by Rockwell Kent, circa 1930.]

  • ...and one excellent work of humor: Our Dumb Century: 100 Years of Headlines from America's Finest News Source

  • ...and maybe one exemplary picture book for children: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg

And that'd be 100 (OK, closer to 115, given the various cheats and bundles I stuck in there.) Could I live with this 100? Maybe, although there's a lot of good writing in the piles left that remain. I find myself already wanting to make a list of a second hundred... the "honorable mentions," perhaps...

Monday, July 7, 2008

100 book challenge part five: comics, art books, graphic design

Thirty books left to go in the 100 Book Challenge!

Last time I left off on the cusp of "comics," so let's proceed into that realm. I'm fortunate that a lot of the comics I want to bring are actually in comics form, in long-boxes under my bed, and are thus exempt from the purge. But in terms of "trade paperbacks," let's see.

  • Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
    [Totally essential; besides being a gripping thriller, this is also a decade-by-decade history of the archetype of the "costumed hero" in the twentieth century, with an appreciation of the form of the "horror comic" thrown in to boot. It's also one of the best examinations of what it means to be an aging superhero; in this regard it is joined by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which I'd bring if I hadn't lost my copy somewhere.]

  • From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
    [If I can bring another Moore, I'd pick this paranormal retelling of the Jack the Ripper story.]

  • Read Yourself Raw, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly
    [A giant, oversized version volume collecting selections of the first three issues of "the comics magazine for damned intellectuals." My introduction to Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Mark Beyer, Gary Panter, and Windsor McCay. Speaking of whom....]

  • Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, by Windsor McCay
    [Surreal, fantastic dream comics, circa 1904 (predating Surrealism by a comfortable margin).]

  • Rabid Eye: The Dream Art of Rick Veitch, by Rick Veitch
    [More dream comics, these circa 1996. But no less fantastic.]

  • Cheating: I have most of the run of G. B. Trudeau's Doonesbury in a series of volumes: The Portable Doonesbury, The People's Doonesbury, The Doonesbury Chronicles, etc. Any of the individual volumes might not be that valuable, but together they make a form of the Great American Novel.

  • Another cheat: volumes 4, 5, and 6 of the book-sized comics anthology Kramer's Ergot
    [Probably the most important comics anthology since those 80s RAW volumes. I'm not sure I could part with any of these.]

  • And another cheat: volumes 1-4 of Joss Whedon / John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men
    [I've been reading a lot of comics this year, and I'm prepared to say that, although this isn't high art, it's probably the best stuff that mainstream comics is putting out these days.]

  • American Splendor Presents: Bob and Harv's Comics, by Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar
    [Crumb and Pekar are both essential comics creators, and getting both of them, at the top of their respective games, makes this volume a must-keep.]

  • Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware
    [Ware's world-view is bleak enough to nearly constitute a form of comedy, but there's no doubt that he's an absolute master of comics form and vocabulary.]

  • Monkey Vs. Robot, by James Kochalka
    [A little bit of brilliant minimalist stuff... his American Elf collection is also great, but I have that in individual-issue form.]

  • The Frank Book, by Jim Woodring
    [Jim Woodring drew my LiveJournal user icon, a character named Frank who roams about in a creepy, psychologically-rich cartoon universe. This stuff is a good example of the kind of things that can really only be done in comics (they've been turned into animated films, but their eerie, airless logic works best on the page).]

The Frank Book is a big coffee-table style book, so let's transition and throw a few more of those into here:

  • Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective
    [Published by the Guggenheim, this 632-page tome contains somewhere around 500 color reproductions of Rauschenberg's work, and another couple hundred in black-and-white. This is also probably the most expensive book I have ever bought for myself (and it would be even more expensive to replace, apparently.) Worth it, though: Rauschenberg, to me, is one of the key artists of the 20th century, bringing together (in a single figure) strands of Abstract Expressionist, Pop, and Fluxus.]

  • Paul Klee
    [Another Guggenheim edition. Klee is another of my favorite visual artists, and although this volume isn't as comprehensive as the Rauschenberg one, it's well worth hanging on to.]

  • I'll bundle two graphic design books here as a final cheat: Sonic: Visuals for Music and 1 + 2 Color Designs, Vol. 2. Neither one is a masterpiece, which is part of how I can justify bundling them, but I do flip through them fairly frequently when needing ideas for graphic design projects, and books of this sort are expensive, and thus a pain to replace.]

Fifteen books left to go, and what's left in the collection? Mostly just miscellany. Stay tuned!

Friday, July 4, 2008

100 book challenge: part four: essays and cultural criticism

Moving on with the 100 Book Challenge, we come to the "essays" area. I don't have a huge selection here, but these would be my picks:

  • I Remember, by Joe Brainard
    [Perhaps the simplest organizing principle for a memoir ever: a sequence of sentences, each of which begin with the words "I remember." Yet somehow it works.]

  • The Size of Thoughts, by Nicholson Baker
    [This book is full of great pieces, including Baker's hilarious review of the Dictionary of American Slang and his lament on the disappearance of the card catalog.]

  • A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
    [Not quite as good as the exemplary Consider the Lobster, but I don't have a copy of Lobster—I read the library's copy—and this one is also great.]

  • I'd also probably bring the giant anthology Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate, which has key selections by people like George Orwell, Joan Didion, M.F.K. Fisher, etc., and thus eliminates the need for a lot of individual volumes.

Essays slide nicely into the critical writing section of my library, so let's head there....

  • Illuminations, by Walter Benjamin
    [This book is full of interesting ideas and key essays, but it also has deep sentimental value for me.]

  • America, by Jean Baudrillard
    [I find the central argument here to be incomprehensible, but in a provocative, distinctly "Baudrillardian" fashion. Like a piece of heady SF in its way. See also his The Gulf War Did Not Happen, which I could part with but which holds similar pleasures.]

  • Discipline and Punish, by Michel Foucault
    [Probably the key Foucault to hang onto.]

  • Mythologies, by Roland Barthes
    [And this the key Barthes.]

  • The Postmodern Condition, by Jean-Francois Lyotard
    [...and this the key Lyotard.]

  • Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, by Donna Haraway
    [Contains the great Cyborg Manifesto and a number of excellent critiques of the ideological biases inherent to the sciences.]

  • A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, by Manuel Delanda
    [Between this and Patrik Ourednik's Europeana, one doesn't need any other history books.]

  • Temporary Autonomous Zone, by Hakim Bey
    [Does this belong in fringe ideas or cultural criticism? It's a little of both, but totally freakin' brilliant. Life-altering.]

Moving on into some more straightforward literary and media criticism...

  • Literary Theory, by Terry Eagleton
    [An overview of the main literary theory movements of the last hundred years, written in a style that's clear enough that a bright undergraduate could grasp every word of it.]

  • Postmodernist Fiction, by Brian McHale
    [A good argument about what postmodernist fiction is, what it does, and why it's doing it. I'd also include Marjorie Perloff's Radical Artifice here, a similar argument about experimental poetics, but I don't own a copy.]

  • Half-Real, by Jesper Juul
    [The best piece of video-game criticism I've read to date.]

  • Rules of Play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman
    [Not exactly a piece of video-game criticism, more a design handbook, but a key text for "game studies" anyway.]

  • Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud
    [Yet, oddly, I might pass on McLuhan's Understanding Media, which has not dated especialy well and in some ways is a model for everything cultural criticsm does poorly.]

That's seventeen—and since I'm trying to stick to round numbers for this project I'll include three pieces of fiction I overlooked this first time around: the bizarre Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme, the classic Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and a piece of fun, dense SF, Accelerando by Charles Stross (which I reviewed here.) That brings us to twenty for today, and the running total for the project overall to seventy. I'll move on from the McCloud into the "comics" shelf next.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

100 book challenge: part three: religion, new age, fringe science, and science

Still in the process of [at least theoretically] culling my book collection down to 100 key books. Moving on down the shelf takes us through Drama—my drama selection is pretty patchy and under-appreciated; I'm not sure that any of the scattering of volumes I have would be worth including in the final 100. If I had a good volume of Shakespeare's plays I'd take that, but I don't. Moving on.

The next couple of shelves are religion, "new age"-type stuff, and fringe science. Here are my picks from that area:

  • The Grove Press "Pocket Canons" Books of the Bible box set.
    [I should be honest and acknowledge that I'll almost certainly never read the entire Bible, but reading these twelve books every few years is feasible and desirable.]

  • Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, by Gershom Scholem
    [This book took me forever to get through, but was incredibly rewarding. There are so many strange ideas in the history of Judaism, and this book is a fascinating overview.]

  • A History of God, by Karen Armstrong
    [Contains just about everything you'll ever need to know about the three major monotheistic religions.]

  • The I Ching, or Book of Changes (Wilhelm / Baynes translation)
    [Carl Jung claimed that this book was alive. Philip K. Dick claimed that this book could not predict the future, but could rather provide an accurate diagnosis of the present, from which probable futures could be extracted. Anything I could add would be extraneous.]

  • The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, edited by Lawrence Sutin
    [If anything, Dick's non-fiction is even more interesting and loopy than his fiction. This book contains a lot of Dick's thoughts on spirituality, synchronicity, and reality: great stuff. I'd also find it hard to part with In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis, the book that editor Lawrence Sutin valiantly attempted to carve out of Dick's 8,000 page journal documenting his mystical experience.]

  • Cosmic Trigger Volume One: Final Secret of the Illuminati, by Robert Anton Wilson
    [For better or for worse, Cosmic Trigger changed my life, and although I'm a little more distanced from Wilson these days, this volume is still a real gold mine of high weirdness.]

Let's move on down into the science books...

  • Metamagical Themas, by Douglas R. Hofstadter
    [Godel, Escher, Bach is more renowned, but this book, which collects Hofstadter's Scientific American columns from 1981-1983, has just as many fascinating ideas, and in more digestible form. Language, self-referentiality, fonts, game theory, geometric art... this thing is like a laundry list of geek interests. Plus it is the book that taught me the game Nomic.]

  • Emergence, by Steven Johnson
    [A good, readable introduction to the science of complexity and self-organization.]

  • Chaos, by James Gleick
    [Great pictures of fractals, and still (to my mind) the best introductory book on this particular branch of science. I also own Mandelbrot's The Fractal Geometry of Nature, which is wonderful to look at, but a bit over my head.]

  • Li: Dynamic Form in Nature
    [A tiny little book—basically an impulse-buy kind of thing—documenting "surface patterns" in nature—crystal designs, cat markings, vascular structures in leaves, etc. Those are the kinds of patterns I'm attracted to, so this book is pretty important to me. Since it's small, I'll throw in its sister volume, Sacred Geometry, a similar-sized volume on the harmonic mathematics of ritual spaces.]

This brings me right up to the halfway point: 50 books, 50 to go.

Monday, June 30, 2008

100 book challenge: part two: poetry

Still toying with the idea of trying to figure out which books I would keep, if I were to limit myself to 100. Last week I figured out 25 works of fiction I'd want to keep; here are some selections from the Poetry shelf.

  • Veil: New and Selected Poems by Rae Armantrout
    [Armantrout's poems are enigmatic, delicate, and careful—she may be my favorite living poet.]

  • My Life, by Lyn Hejinian
    [This is perhaps the most interesting and important poetic project of the last, say, 25 years.]

  • Deer Head Nation, by K. Silem Mohammad
    [Back in 2007, I wrote that this book, part of the "Flarf" / "Google-sculpting" genre, was "one of the best new books of poetry to emerge in the last ten years." I stand by that.]

  • This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, by Juliana Spahr
    [Another important book, this pair of poems has a better grip on the key questions of the contemporary moment than almost any other book in my entire collection. Longer write-up here.]

  • The Tunnel: Selected Poems, by Russel Edson
    [Edson's demented little stories, like psycho-sexually rewired fairy tales, are a longtime favorite of mine. This is another book where just opening to any page and beginning to read is pretty certain to be rewarding. Random opening line, to test this theory: "A piece of a man had broken off in the road."]

  • How to Write, by Gertrude Stein
    [Not sure what to say about this book, except that it's not really about how to write. The classic Stein text is probably Tender Buttons, which I wrote up here and here, but don't actually own. Anyway, this one, also great, will do in a pinch.]

  • Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania, edited by Jerome Rothenberg
    [Classic 1968 ethnopoetic anthology. Reads like a weird alternative Bible.]

  • Postmodern American Poetry, edited by Paul Hoover
    [A good Who's Who of interesting poets working today.]

  • The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion: A Trilogy, by Leslie Scalapino
    [I've always loved Scalapino (I in fact made her Wikipedia page), and this book is a good example of why. Hard to describe, but I'd say it's like what you'd get if you ran a kind of important modern novel about globalism through some kind of syntax re-ambiguator?]

  • A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, by Tom Phillips
    [If you're not familiar with this bizarre text, run a Google Image Search on "humument" right now. Use this link, if you want.]

  • Human Wishes, by Robert Hass
    [This list is heavy on the experimental stuff, so here's what is, to me, a five-star book of more traditional lyrical poems about everyday life.

  • A Book of Luminous Things, by Czeslaw Milosz
    [Another one for the traditionalists. Love poems, haiku, lyrical meditation—standard stuff, but well-selected here, and I think one needs some more emotional and less academic stuff to round out the picks.]

  • Darkness Moves, by Henri Michaux
    [This French poet isn't that well-known, but his poems are blend of Surrealism, drug writing, and cerebral fantasy that I find absolutely hits me in my pleasure center every time. Sample line: "Infinite are the passages from fog to flesh in Meidosem country."]

  • Howl, by Allen Ginsburg
    [One of the greatest books of poems of the 20th century. Nothing more to add.]

  • The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
    [I also would like to bring along really good volumes collecting William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara, Ezra Pound, or John Ashbery, but aside from the Stevens I don't own any of these books, so I don't need to worry about which get the nod and which don't.]

That's fifteen—added to the twenty-five fiction titles brings us to forty. Sixty more to go.