We just got in several boxes of vintage paperbacks at the Iliad Bookshop today. As I was boxing them up, I photographed the most interesting covers. I'll be adding these to my "Book Covers" page (actually a link to my Flickr set of book covers) as well. I really like the Enderby and City of a Thousand Suns covers (Stoned is pretty amazing, too). Like a dope, I didn't check the cover artists listed in the books, so if anyone knows, please post in the comments section. Click the thumbnail for a larger version to download.
Book trailers are mostly pretty bad, but this one for Scott McClanahan's CRAPALACHIA is remarkable in many ways. It's poetic, creepy, gritty and very, very personal. Caught this originally on Twitter which took me to the Vimeo post of the trailer. Two Dollar Radio is a favorite publisher of mine (see The Orange Eats Creeps review I did here), so the combination of this weird/wonderful trailer and the publisher pulled money out of my wallet like a magnet.
I'll be doing a review as soon as I get the book from the publisher and have a chance to read it. In the meantime, here's the amazing trailer:
Scott McClanahan CRAPALACHIA Book Trailer from Holler Presents on Vimeo.
Scott McClanahan's book, CRAPALACHIA, available from Two Dollar Radio.
I buy both printed books and digital ebooks regularly. Every so often I'll share what books I've recently purchased with Booklad readers. I'll include links to each edition so you can find out more on any specific title and make a few comments on the book. I almost always read the introductions or first chapters of books I purchase. It's like sneaking a little bit of the frosting from a birthday cake.
Most of these books were purchased at the used bookstore where I work during the day: the Iliad Bookshop. A couple titles I ordered off of the internet (primarily Amazon.com).
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud, Farrar, Straus & Giroux,reprint 2003. Introduction by Jonathan Rosen.
I've been enchanted with Malamud ever since I read his first collection of stories last year, The Magic Barrel, but have never read one of his novels. I sneaked a read of the first chapter and, God, it's good. I can't wait to read this novel.
My Struggle, Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Archipeligo Books, 2012. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.
Not sure where I came across this author, but I'm half-way through reading and it's a brilliant autobiography written as fiction (roman a clef?). The writing is so good and the scenes are so poetic and alive. I'll be doing a full review of this book when I'm done.
Silent Cinema by Brian J. Robb. Kamera Books, 2007. DVD included.
Found this little gem in our silent film section. Enjoyed the introduction, so I'm going to add it to my growing library of silent cinema books. DVD has 193 minutes of extracts from classic silent films. Kamera Books, a UK publisher, has got a lot of interesting titles they are publishing.
The Music and Art of Radiohead, edited by Joseph Tate. Ashgate Publishing, UK. 2005.
I've become addicted to the music of Radiohead (again) having listened to OK Computer and Hail to the Thief a dozen times during the last month. I'm half-way through the 12 essays in the book and they range from overly academic to very insightful (Mark B.N. Hansen's "Deforming Rock: Radiohead's Plunge into the Sonic Continuum"). The introduction, by Joseph Tate, is quite good, too.
A Writer's Companion, 4th Edition, by Richard Marius. McGraw-Hill College, 1995.
I read a few pages of this book every night before I go to sleep. Richard Marius is a very good teacher of effective writing. Not only does he teach the subject well, but he's an incredibly good writer himself. I'm not big on "how-to" books on writing, but this one is inspiring and very practical.
Silent Cinema: An Introduction by Paolo Cherchi Usai. Palgrave Macmillan, Revised and expanded edition, 2010.
This is a classic work on Silent Cinema. Originally titled "Burning Passions", it originated in a lecture Mr. Usai gave regarding the importance of preserving and studying silent films. This edition (beautifully designed and produced) has an excellent preface by David Robinson, himself a noted silent film historian. I'll be writing up a full review of this book once I have finished reading it.
I'm always looking through articles and bibliographies on books; searching for new authors and new reading experiences. So when Caustic Cover Critic recommended Broken April in his Best-Books-of-the-Year (2009), I was intrigued.
"It's very well written, which helps, but the underlying idea is even more fascinating. The setting is Kadare’s native Albania, where the hill-dwelling people have this mad system of honour and code of behaviour called the 'Kanun'".
After reading these lines from CCC, I immediately thought of the sequence in Huckleberry Finn where Huck hides in a tree and watches two families (the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons) murder each other in revenge for even earlier killings and slights of honor. That scene and Twain's masterfully simple prose, is a lot of what Broken April is about. The difference is that rather than being an outsider looking in at this mad code of family honor, Kadare gives you the perspective of an insider, one of the family members who is questioning the code even as he is driven to honor it.
The story is simple. The central character, 26 year old Gjorg Berisha, is returning to his country village in Albania. He is forced, through the 'Kanun" code, to murder someone in another family in revenge for a previous killing in his own family. The results of his actions, which come as a surprise, places him inside of the very code he wishes he could break out of.
"A pale young man sits down to an important meal. His brother has been murdered and he waits for a discussion about blood-compensation to be over. If it fails, his life will be forfeit, gathered into the cycle of bloodshed as soon as he avenges (as he must) his brother. The provisions of the meal are complicated: eaten at noon with the murderer, it must conclude with the agreement of a blood price and a tour of the house, the male guests stamping their feet in every room to drive out the fued's shadow. Then the young man's father with carve a cross on the murderer's door and exchange a final reconciling drop of blood. The price is settled, and the stamping begins".
The clarity and simplicity of Kadare's writing is what makes the above passage so ominous and frightening. The thoughts and feelings of these characters caught in a murderous web of their own making, are always just barely suppressed. No wonder the Shakespearean play Macbeth was a favorite of Ismail's when he was a child. Broken April is suffused with this kind of barely controlled terror which both frightens and enthralls the reader at the same time.
This is a writer with a profound sense of the past/present and a very deep understanding of human psychology. Although the word is over-used, I think Broken April is a masterpiece that belongs alongside Kafka and Tolstoy and other writers who look sadly upon humanity at it's worst in order to free us all to become our best.
I urge you to find a copy of Broken April by Ismail Kadare, or any other works by this remarkable Albanian author.
Notes and links:
My thanks to Goodreads.com for the cover picture of Broken April.
Project Gutenberg is a non-profit organization that digitizes books that are in the public domain. They provide their 42,000 books for free in a variety of formats including pdf, epub and Kindle. It's like a virtual library that you can browse. Love it!
Google Books is heaven to researchers. My partner, Lisa, introduced me to this incredible site/tool and I visit it several times a week. Beautifully designed and very easy to use.
Locus Online is the web version of the famous scifi magazine of the same name. I know of no other site that covers scifi and fantasy so thoroughly. I love the reviews and the just published sections.
Book Riot a sight I visit daily. The articles and reviews are current and often challenging. You won't find a lot of main stream puffery here. I Highly recommend this book site.
Librivox is the audio version of Project Gutenberg. Thousands of audio books are listed here. I've contributed to several projects myself.
Lisa Morton, is a six-time Stoker award winning horror author. She's edgy, contemporary and unafraid to mix genres and deliver some good solid scares. I love her work.
NPR books covers all kinds of books in all kinds of genres. I like their podcasts and their website is very well designed.
Dark Delicacies is the only bookstore I know of that deals exclusively in horror. Located in Burbank, CA., they have an amazing amount of signings and horror-related books, perfumes (yes!), toys and clothing.
Two Dollar Radio is a co-op publisher of some of the most interesting new fiction you'll find anywhere. I've discovered many remarkable authors here. Their books are beautiful,too.
Kirkus Reviews very interesting. Found a lot of good books browsing this site. This is a well-designed website with excellent writing.
Lynn Munroe issues regular catalogs of vintage paperbacks + a good dose of history and author/artist profiles. His contributions to the history of the vintage paperback are huge. AND his prices are reasonable. Lynn is an unsung hero in my book. Highly recommend his website
"In Catch-22, Joseph Heller invented a motif for the modern world. The book shaped everything that came after it, establishing Heller's reputation as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century"
-back of paperback edition of Hellers short stories
"It became enormously poplular, particularly among younger readers during the Vietnam War era, and it's title became a catch phrase"
-Oxford Companion to American Literature
Somewhere between these two quotes lies the real Joseph Heller and the real Catch-22. I've spent the better part of the last month reading this wonderful novel and pondering all of the puffery surrounding it (along with it's author), and I have some ideas and observations that I'd like to share.
I've been a focused and obsessed reader going on 40 years now. Ever since I walked into Humphrey's Family Paperbacks in Glendale, AZ., and picked out a book to read (Reality Forbidden by Philip E. High), I've been consumed with books and reading. Now, I read other books at school and enjoyed them, but this was the first book I chose myself because it interested me (rather, the cover interested me). This simple book started a life-style than has me surrounded by books for most of my day working at the Iliad Bookshop. Then I go home to read for several hours usually before I go to sleep.
Now, I'm not a finicky reader. My reading moto has been honed over the years to a sharp, clean edge: "I'll read any book on any subject as long as it's interesting". And that's true. I'll read the worst kind of sleaze novel from the 50's and turn right around and start on an aesthetic analysis of the Quay Bros. films.
I don't believe in the accepted notions of highbrow, middlebrow and low brow culture. That's all crap created by obsessive-compulsives and passed on by people who should know better. W.H. Auden taught me in his great book, The Dyer's Hand, that everything you read becomes part of your imagination, so take in all kinds of books (paraphrased a bit here). And he's right.
So, what the hell does all of this have to do with Heller's Catch-22? Well, I'll tell you: even though I read Catch-22 back in my first year of college, I never really READ it, you know what I mean? Being forced to read an "important" novel, a "significant" work of art" by "on of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century" just kills the book for me. I read it, sure, but only to cull information to write up a pretty much bullshit essay on... something. I think I probably got more out of the Cliff Notes to Catch-22 than I did anything from the book. Although, I did remember being impressed with the "Dante" sequence near the end of Catch-22 where Yossarian is walking through the sleazy streets of wartime Rome and it seems like hell.
After college, I never thought about Catch-22 again and certainly avoided the damn movie version of it (rather stick a rail road tie in my.. well, you get the idea). And, of course, there's the bookstore puffery that comes with the "classics". Listening to people tell me that Catch-22 is a great work of art or that Joseph Heller is under-appreciated..blah blah blah. Sure, I respected the book because of it's place in the literary canon, but to me it was just a book I was forced to read and got nothing out of.
Until this last month....
I think it was the cover that forced me to read Catch-22 as an adult (see above). Here I am, 56 years old and I'm still doing the same thing I did at 16: buying a book because of it's cover. Well, that's not entirely true as I have a lifetime of reading books and reading about books behind me now. But, I mean, who could resist this cover? Here's the full description of the cover:
"Cover: B-25 Mitchell All-Plastic Twin-Engine Bomber complete with Pilots and
Gunners, Landing Gear, Three-Bladed Props, 75mm Cannon, 14 Machine Guns, 6
Rockets. Easy to assemble. (private collection)"
Could find nothing on the designer or the person whose private collection these toys belonged to (if anyone knows please post), but, damn, it's such a beautiful, evocative image! Especially the one or two toy parts that are pulled off of the stems they are attached to. Later, I was to realize the significance of these subtle touches.
"Catch-22 is concerned with physical survival against exterior forces
or institutions that want to destroy life or moral self"
-Paris Review 60, Heller Interview
But now it's time to sit down and read this book. This time because I want to and because I'm interested in it. Thinking: "about time I got back to this book...is it really the classic everyone says it is?"
from "art of manliness" blog
Is Catch-22 a classic?
The term "classic" is a bogus word nowadays. The advertising industry stole it and packaged it up so that anyone could use it as a lazy superlative: "Ah, yes, an instant classic", or, "I'm sorry but we only read the classics in this book club", and further, "It's an underground, pulp classic, dude". What does any of this mean? Basically, nothing. "Classic" is a butter word now. One that you spread all over something to add flavor when there probably isn't any present in the first place.
Good old Oxford dictionary defines "classic" very succinctly: "judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind". That pretty much puts the lie to the 1001 uses of "classic" you read and hear every day. What we have instead is a definition that simply states a "classic" of anything has to be "of the highest quality", "over a period of time" and must be "outstanding of its kind". Some wiggle room there with the "judged" and "of its kind", but I think we can apply this definition to Catch-22 now.
To be considered a classic, Catch-22 has to be of the highest quality. Now, re-reading the book, I can safely say it IS of the highest quality. Well, 75% of it is because the book feels sloppy and over-written. I'm not going to go into plot summaries, look it up, but the whole middle section where each chapter is a different character: a colonel, a commanding officer, a major, a captain....much of this became a blur and felt like either too-personal a recollection (Heller served in WWII and wrote much of the novel based on his feelings and experiences during the war) or an author's indulgence. Even Milo Minderbinder's long section feels almost like another short novel buried inside of the much lager Catch-22 novel.
And Heller's prose, when he's not dead on, is loquacious and fat. Listen to this section from page 246 (the Vintage-Classics edition):
"Certainly he would be much better off under somebody suave like General Peckem than he was under somebody boorish and insensitive like General Dreedle, because General Peckhem had the discernment, the intelligence and the Ivy League background to appreciate and enjoy him at his full value, although General Peckhem had never given the slightest indication that he appreciated or enjoyed him at all. Colonel Cathcartfelt perceptive enough to realize that visible signals of recognition were never necessary between sophisticated, self-assured people like himself and General
Peckham who could warm to each other from......"
Contrast this with the "Eternal City" chapter late in the book:
"The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a yard full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been!"
But let me cut to the chase here; Catch-22 isn't of the highest quality consistently, but it's really the overall effect of the book and it's characters that make the difference. And what characters! I think the real achievement of Catch-22 lies in the characters Heller created. Yossarian, Milo, the Chaplin and Nately's whore make indelible impressions on readers and there's an entire opera's worth in the book. Of course, the use of time shifting in the book is masterful, too, although at first it seems sloppy. By shifting back and forth between the very significant event with Yossarian and his dying fellow soldier on the plane, Heller creates an effect that is very film-like and results in a brilliant climax to the story (no spoilers here, folks.
And although readers and critics were slow to pick up on what Heller was doing (writing an anti-war story that combined comedy and tragedy with black, black irony), eventually readers and legions of college teachers (like mine) read and re-read the novel and discovered how "outstanding of it's kind" Catch-22 really is.
"I really don't know what I'm doing until people read what I've
written and give me their reactions"
The final element of the "classic" is time: "judged over a period of time", the Oxford definition states. It's been 50 years now since Catch-22 was published and it's become part of the American canon of novels. Listed in top tens on every list you can think of. A definitive anti-war novel (it's more than that though) taught by countless teachers in college and high-school. That should make it a classic, right?
In order for Catch-22 to become a true classic like Vanity Fair or Aristotle's Poetics, it need more than a generation to laugh at it's absurd comedy and cringe at it's dark irony. I have a feeling it will last because so much of the story is based on Heller's own experiences in WWII and because he is such a passionate, funny storyteller, but we don't know for sure if Catch-22 will last for 100 years or 1000 years. It was written at a time (early 60's) when this kind of story was welcomed, especially by younger readers. As the excellent introduction to the Vintage Classic's edition (written by Howard Jacobson) puts it:
"What I think most of us who love Catch-22 love most is precisely what, from the Flaubertian position, is wrong with it. Its loose- ness, its unruliness, its extravagance, its verbal excess, its
emotional waywardness, its impatience with the niceties, whether of expression or of feeling, its repetitiveness, its devil-may-care clumsiness, its hysteria, its tomfoolery, its brutality,
its sexual rough-and-tumble, its unembarrassed preachiness, its vacillations, its formlessness, or rather - because Heller knows full well what laws he's breaking - it's apparent formlessness.
If those are faults, we say, then hang the virtues"
-Catch-22, Introduction to Vintage Classics, 2004
I discovered Catch-22 late in life. I mean, I really read the book and understood it as an adult. As a young, college kid I had no idea what was going on, nor did I care. Now, from a distance, it's themes and characters make sense to me. I was moved by Catch-22, don't get me wrong, but the book needs time to affect another generation before it can truly be called a classic. And considering the enormous changes in human perspective (not to mention war) that are coming because of advanced technology, I'm not sure the book will survive as "a motif for the modern world".
But, we shall see....
Heller apparently never quite got to the level he achieved in Catch-22 with any of his later works. Or so we are told. He wrote slowly using index cards, daydreaming and conversations with friends. Seven novels, a couple plays and screenplays, two autobiographies and some short stories are the extent of his writings. He suffered a paralyzing illness at middle age from which he recovered to make a living primarily through teaching writing at the university level. He died in 1999 just after completing his last novel Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man.
I've been a library hound for most of my life, but never more than I was as a graduate student at Yale University from 1979 to 1983. Yale has some of the most incredible libraries on the planet, especially the Beinecke rare book library. Graduate students are entitled to their own study carol at the main library, installed in an old Gothic style church on campus with ceilings so low that there were "sub-floors" (two floors instead of the traditional one floor) of books. Even when I wasn't doing research, I'd roam the floors just looking for interesting book designs or titles I've never heard of before. In fact, every year while I was attending the University, a student would discover a rare book that had been donated, but not cataloged yet.
Unfortunately all of that is going to change if the University of Chicago's new Mansueto Library becomes the model for future library architecture. The student/researcher's interaction with books will be narrowed and the serendipity of finding books by accident will be a thing of the past.
From a Chicago Tribune article on cityscapes by Blair Kamin, the University needed to solve the problem of keeping their entire book collection on-campus while at the same time providing an appealing and practical atmosphere for students to study and research. Architect Helmet Jahn's startling sci-fi design is based on the idea that book storage is separate from the student research area. As you can see in the picture above, the giant "bubble" is where the students study and the large blocky building to the right is where the books are stored and then delivered by a fully automated system to the waiting students next door.
Here is a description of how it works from the Tribune article:
"Patrons can request materials at a computer terminal in the library or via the Internet. It works like this: You request the book, then a high-speed robotic crane zooms down a tiny railroad track and stops at the right bin. It pulls out the bin, and delivers it upstairs to the circulation desk, where a real person picks out your book. The process, which has been used for industrial storage, Internet retailers, and smaller academic libraries, is supposed to take 5 minutes — as opposed to at least a day for getting materials from a remote storage facility."
The advantages are obvious: ideal conditions to store books (temperature, handling, power saving, space saving, protection) and a wonderful, open space with lots of natural light for students to work in. And although they've encountered minor problems (students climbing to the top of the big bubble for one), the response by students has been very positive. The bright, open space with pleasing Scandanavian-style furniture looks like a wonderful place to study and to think (the 360 degree view must be wonderful).
Still, I can't help but wonder if something has been lost by separating the books from the students. Oh, I don't mean that students don't have the actual books to handle and use, it's the serendipity I was talking about earlier: the ability to 'browse' the library is effectively gone with this design. Students order the exact book they want and it's retrieved by a robot: no accidents, no finding a book mis-filed and it turns out to be a great book you would have otherwise never seen.
I suppose the advantages outweigh the loss of "browsing", as the books are kept in great shape and will last a lot longer (I don't think that rare book libraries will be adopting this method though), but I hope this new design doesn't become the norm. I'd like to think there is still some student wandering the aisles looking for something interesting to read or finding a book they would never have found if robots were looking instead. It's such a remarkable feeling to be amidst thousands of books in the stacks; that feeling of history and the expectation of learning while looking down row upon row of books. That experience won't be a part of the new system and I think it's a loss.