What I’m Reading: Writer John Andrew Fredrick

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  • Photo by Steve Keros

John Andrew Fredrick rests sometime. I mean, he probably does. I’m almost sure he has to now and again. The trouble is, it’s hard to prove he does, based on his output as a writer and musician (you may have heard of The Black Watch – if not, remedy this oversight).

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For the past several years in particular, he’s released either a book and an album, or two albums, or two books. 2017 sees a novel, Your Caius Aquilla, a comic epistolary novel set in ancient Rome, and Fucking Innocent, on Wes Anderson’s early films.

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You can preorder Your Caius Aquilla here, and Fucking Innocent here. Maybe I’ve not made myself clear: you should preorder them. It’s not an offer you can’t refuse or anything – I don’t have that kind of power – but it’s good sense to get them now, in all their first edition glory.

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Now, on the topic of his resting, we come to the fact that, no, not every minute of his time is devoted to making things. He spends a lot of it reading. So, when you ask him what he’s reading and why, you get good value for dollar. [Ed. note: no dollars changed hands between the writer and Mr. Fredrick. He gave generously of his own time]. For that matter, talk to him about pretty much anything. Take it away, John Andrew Fredrick:

1) I am reading everything–and thus I know, in trying to read everything key that’s ever been written, that I have, at last, lost my mind.  To wit:  Rachel Cusk’s Outline (she is the new Proust)

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Henry Green’s underappreciated Caught 

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Woolf’s Orlando (the only one I’ve not read), Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (on account of David Foster Wallace posthumously told-me-so), three biographies of Keats (Gittings, Motion, Roe)–as I just spent a glorious month in Hampstead.

2).  See comment above.  Plus/also/too/as well:  Keats was one of my emphases in “rad” school–gotta keep that up, don’t you know.  Just like I must keep my streak going of reading Chaucer’s Troilus every other year (another specialty on the way to the superfluous PhD).   Oh!  Ulysses–my fifth and final try.  With the Stuart Gilbert crib.

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Wish me luck!!! Hahaha.  It’s do or die for old Jimmy Joyce.  And life’s too short to spend it living rather than reading.   Cheers, John Andrew

Beginning 2017

Outside of a runaway To Read pile (piles, okay, there’s more than one pile), 2017 is off to a pretty equable start – no prolonged bouts of snow, and some pleasant reading surprises already. First on that list: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. It’s a sort of cousin to Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, in that it’s compulsively readable and delivers a sense of great well-being a lot of the time. If anything. Miss Buncle is even more reliable on that score. It’s brisk and charming, driven by a small controversy that disturbs an English village in the mid-1930s. I’d give an example of what Stevenson does so well, but someone else has the book just now, and she’s not likely to give it up. Just know that Miss Buncle carries the promise of a quick, pleasant read, and without giving the sense things have been dumbed down at any point. As with Someone at a Distance, it’s a novel that hits a vanishingly small mark, and also like the Whipple novel, there’s a Persephone edition (though I read the American release, from Sourcebooks).

I can’t and don’t exclusively read breezy, 1930s English confections, however. Here’s what’s on deck in the early months:

Christoper Kimball – Fannie’s Last Supper

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There’s a documentary by the same name available on Netflix, and if you happen to order the book online, I’d wholeheartedly recommend watching it in the meantime. The story, effectively, goes like this: Chris Kimball and his team (then at America’s Test Kitchen) set out to recreate a menu from Frannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. This involves acquiring and mastering an antique wood cookstove, dealing with the vagaries of acquiring a calf’s head, and other adventures. I’d say it’s more exciting than it sounds, but that all sounded plenty exciting to me. You get recipes and citations from the original cookbook in the book as well, and that seems to me a worthy supplement. Buy/read/watch. I’m set to read now.

A. Scott Berg, ed. – World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

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Library of America surprises me several times a year by slipping something onto their list that feels like a bit of a departure from what they’re known for, but which works as a perfect supplement to so much of what they’ve published. In this case, it’s a collection of everything from news stories to primary sources – letters, diaries, songs, Senate speeches (like George Norris from 1917, “Let Europe Solve Her Problems”) and much else. The result is an account with a different texture from the standard history of the period, and editor A. Scott Berg deserves significant credit for that. A wonderful addition to our record of the age.

Maurice Manning – One Man’s Dark

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A new book of poems by Maurice Manning is a thing of joy. You can disagree, but why forego joy? The Gone and the Going Away came out nearly four years ago, and it was one of the highlights of 2013 for me as a reader. He was also gracious enough to sit for an interview with The Poetry Foundation. Even if it’s another four years before his next book, you won’t want to wait to get started on this one.

Solomon Ibn Gabirol – Vulture in a Cage

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A random bookstore selection, this one, published by Archipelago Books. Solomon Ibn Gabirol was an 11th century Jewish poet. You wouldn’t know it from the beautiful translation. He might well be any ambitious young writer here:

Literary men, give me some time

to shake of immaturity,

And you will see a poem to amaze your minds –

Its verses set with pearls,

With gold, and beads of crystal,

splendid both in wording and in substance,

Verses that will make this generation

Think of me as cattle think of lions.

George Szirtes – Mapping the Delta

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He’s out there in the great, wide world, writing and traveling, traveling and writing and translating (Sándor Márai! László Krasznahorkai! Magda Szabó!), and I like to think that in some small way, that keeps the world in balance. He’s got a new book of poems out, called Mapping the Delta, and these lines from “The Books” seem a perfect place to leave off:

The books are restless.

They are in a wintry mood,

Their voices urgent.

What the books whisper

Is what we would not mention

In conversation.

– John McIntyre

5 Literary Loves from 2016

Helen Garner – Everywhere I Look

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There’s no going wrong with anything Helen Garner’s written, from the fiction (The Children’s Bach, Cosmo Cosmolino and The Spare Room are favorites of mine, but that’s not to sell Monkey Grip and other things short) to the journalism and nonfiction. Everywhere I Look compiles Garner’s writing for a variety of publications, and the selections are impeccable. If “Dreams of Her Real Self” doesn’t at least put a lump in your throat, you’re probably dead inside, and “The Insults of Age” is a frank and funny depiction of not the clinical hardships of getting older but the cultural ones. Everything here is smart and mordant and undeniably alive. Put it at the top of your 2017 list if you didn’t get to it this year.

Dorothy Whipple – Someone at a Distance

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So few books hit the sweet spot Dorothy Whipple found in Someone at a Distance. It first appeared in 1953, and Persephone Books in the UK reissued it as a classic in 2008. It was originally considered popular fiction, but the characterization is complex, and the tone is never less than perfectly appropriate as Whipple takes us through a range of emotional registers. The plot is deceptively dramatic after what feels like a low key start. Probably the most purely pleasurable bit of reading I did all year, like an even more absorbing version of Elizabeth Jenkins’s novel The Tortoise and the Hare.

Berlin Metropolis 1918-1933

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Neue Galerie in New York is one of the greatest places on earth (as is Galerie St. Etienne). This volume accompanied an exhibition there that closed in January, but it seems to me an exceptional example of a book that goes beyond just the work on offer to take the measure of the art and culture that marked a time and place. It covers everything from fine art to architecture to fashion to film, and the essays are absolutely worthy of the visuals they accompany. My initial interest was the visual art (“Art and Anti-Art in Berlin Around 1920″ doesn’t disappoint), but Dorothy Price’s, “The New Woman in 1920s Berlin,” and Sharon Jordan’s “The Rhythm of Our Time is Jazz: Popular Entertainment during the Weimar Republic” are remarkable as well. Jürgen Müller reinterprets Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s just a glorious book.

James Beard – Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles: Letters to Helen Evans Brown

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James Beard’s actual personality feels a bit lost now, culturally. He’s more a name – namesake of the James Beard Foundation, Awards, etc – than a distinct individual. These letters were all written to Helen Evans Brown between 1952 and 1964. Brown was a formidable figure on West Coast cuisine in the 1950s and 60s. They feel a little bit in the MFK Fisher vein, with Beard doing a lot to establish a broader, more adventurous food culture in the US, but he’s funnier than Fisher, and ultimately the mix of humor, self-deprecation and genuine confidence on display make him irresistible. Take this for example, on a piece he’d contributed to for Life magazine in 1955:

The Life steak article is awful. They took a bit from everyone, put it all together and called it steak. The picture of Mr. Quincey Jones broiling steaks over hot flames is enough to make you woops.

I’m not part of the “2016 was the worst year ever” brigade, if only for the fact that prior to November, a lot of memorable, good things happened. For that matter, a handful have since. Still, in grim, uncertain moments, a book like this one is a welcome relief.

Matthew Desmond – Evicted

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Desmond manages the remarkable balancing act of applying both empathy and realism in looking at the lives of several Milwaukee residents whose housing situations range from fluid to frighteningly tenuous. He doesn’t tack on a neat and tidy ending, and this isn’t the kind of work that provides easily digestible lessons or policy proposals, though it might prompt a few of the latter, with any luck. If the James Beard book was a trip into a beautiful segment of the past, Evicted, I’m afraid, is a gimlet eyed look ahead to the coming years for a lot of Americans.

  • John McIntyre

What I’m Reading: Artist and Writer Marion Coutts

It’s a little startling to realize that The Iceberg was Marion Coutts’s first book. She’d already built a years-long reputation as a visual artist prior to taking it on. A look at her work makes it apparent why. It’s precise and allusive, as distinct as a firm voice speaking above the din and saying just what must be said, without over-explaining. This is an intelligent artist who assumes a knowing audience. The results are a pleasure to behold, they’re meditative without being too detached. Not surprisingly, she often hits these same marks in her writing.   

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Marion Coutts, Twenty Six Things, 2008, Super 16 film still

But Coutts’s first book wasn’t, say, an insider’s memoir of the art world or a thinly fictionalized account of those circles. Instead, she took a life-altering event, her husband Tom Lubbock’s brain tumor diagnosis, and wrote through the experience in meticulous, forthright detail. The Iceberg and Lubbock’s own account of events, Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, make a remarkable pair, a testament to their deeply shared experience, not merely through Lubbock’s illness but over the course of their relationship and marriage. Fittingly, Prophet, a piece Coutts finished in 2001, serves as the cover image for Lubbock’s book.

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Marion Coutts, Prophet, 2001

“In a marriage of near ten years and a friendship of longer,” Coutts writes, “all visual experience is for two…Soon, sometime soon I will have no one to tell this to. What will experience be then?” Indeed, Lubbock was an artist in his own right and art critic for the Independent. They can’t have always arrived at the exact same conclusions about what they’d seen, but what a touchstone to lose, a second set of eyes so discerning, and so close as to probably feel like an extension of the self. I didn’t ask her what the answer to that question is now, in part because she’s no doubt still resolving it for herself at times. What she has done, however, is continue writing – “I am working on new writing. I have quite a lot of words though I don’t know what they pertain to and look forward to clarification, from where I know not,” she tells me, and preparing an exhibition of her work, her first since 2008. It’s composed of installation, photographs and drawings. Look for it at Tintype in London, early March 2017.

The questions I did ask Marion Coutts? What she’s reading and why she’s reading it. And though she claims she doesn’t actually read much, if this list is any indication, she has well-defined tastes but stays open to the serendipity of being  unexpectedly handed a great book:

I did my first ever writing residency this summer at Cove Park in Scotland. Two weeks around solstice. I highly recommend the experience. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the book I read on my first day there and I read it in one sitting – another first. I would never have time to do that at home. It left me very energized. I thought it a brilliant, unusual work and why it is feels so unusual is interesting as it speaks to and about happiness, family and the many inventive ways that belonging can manifest and these are all things that humans have a ravenous interest in. The Argonauts also brings up all sorts of ethical questions around writing about those near you – which I have done – nearness and its opposite being one of the motors of The Iceberg. And because I am very curious about form – I haven’t yet found my way to future content – I am looking to ways that writers – and artists – choose to structure the things in their head. I loved the tempo and sound of The Argonauts, the individual paragraphs, big and small, making the running, the way the parts connect to the whole and what is the whole allowed to be anyway? Interleaving and splicing, the book compresses, digresses, expands and explodes yet holds the reader very, very close all the while.

I am a visual artist. I have written one book which must serve for the time being as my single model so I feel the lack of habits as a writer. This may be a problem or may not be, but I’d quite like to acquire some habits because they can sometimes get you started. (I know they can do the opposite thing also.) Instead of books I want to read there is a whole stack of shows I want to see at the moment. James Ensor at The Royal Academy, Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s at The Photographers Gallery, Rauschenberg at Tate. Unlike books, exhibitions come to the end of their run and then you’ve missed them. This happens all too often. What it means to write visually is something that occupies me.

I don’t actually read very much. And the books I read come to me by diverse routes. Through a friend, I was introduced to Sven Lindqvist’s Desert Divers. I found him a terrific voice and guide. (The book is translated by Joan Tate.) He talks about the European explorers and romantic visionaries who projected themselves onto the Sahara and wrote it up for folk back home. Lindqvist went there too, and wrote what he found in bare prose: dreams, dust and the deep residual violence of the colonial project.

Through another friend, I read Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding which describes a weekend in the life of a girl on the cusp of change. I wish I had come across it long ago. It is a book a younger me would have loved. And recently I read Tolstoy’s Happy Ever After which compresses a life into eighty-four pages. In his story of Masha and her marriage, he gets into a teenage girl’s head and is also outside it, looking from afar as she ages, like through a lens. Terrifyingly elegant. And elegantly terrifying.

After The Iceberg came out, publishers started sending me books on dying and grieving. I had one more come through my door this week. I was surprised at first but it seemed to go with the territory. I have to say I don’t read them. I did make an exception for Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers which wasn’t posted through my door, I bought it in a shop – again slightly unusual for me. It is very compact. Porter thinks around loss through three tight-knit views; a bereaved husband, his sons and a volatile fiction called Crow, who inserts himself into the aftermath like an unwanted houseguest. His writing inside the heads of the young boys is great.

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Boy Looks at Rock on Top of Another Rock (2016) digital print on Canson

And a big find of the last months, apart from The Argonauts, is the poet Denise Riley’s Say Something Back which uses words to say difficult and surprising things in a way that I can’t get enough of.

Marion Coutts

What I’m Reading: Writer Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is one of our most deeply human writers. His work on poverty in America, on crime, punishment and incarceration, and most recently on the vast and damning implications of Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election, reminds us that the personal is political, and vice versa. The House of Twenty-Thousand Books is perhaps his own most deeply personal work. It’s a gorgeous weave of memoir, family history, intellectual history and throughout, a tribute to the resilience and intellect of his grandfather, Chimen Abramsky. “Over the decades,” Abramsky writes, “Chimen had become so addicted to the printed page, to the texture of his books, to the feel of old manuscripts, and to the material contained within his written correspondence, that he ended up surrounding himself with a wall of words.”

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At the time of his death, Chimen Abramsky owned remarkable holdings in both socialist writing and Judaica. Of the books of Judaica, “Chimen’s colleague Mark Geller, in internal correspondence with the university’s provost, wrote that they made up “probably the best Jewish History library in Europe.” This was on the occasion of University College London purchasing 7,000 items from him in the 1980s.

The book deals with the many consolations and implications of living with that wall of words. We see titanic figures like Isaiah Berlin and Eric Hobshawn visiting, but there’s a well-calibrated balance here between the names and impact of the greats on Chimen’s life and the lasting impact of events like his break with his father, a deeply respected rabbi who did time in a Siberian labor camp for religious proselytizing. Also critical was his embrace and then rejection of communist politics, among other personal and intellectual course changes. “For Chimen, Maimonides was the lodestar, one of the great philosophers out of whose ideas modernity could emerge,” Abramsky writes in one of numerous passages tracing his grandfather’s intellectual development. It’s a single brushstroke in a remarkable portrait, one that reminds us that even formidable minds require wellsprings to which they return in difficult times. And for all the admiration Abramsky feels for his grandfather, it’s a loving book but not hagiographic; for instance, we learn that “Chimen himself was not a particularly good storyteller – he frequently gave away the punch line of humorous anecdotes too early or, with more serious stories, got bogged down in too many details.” The organization of his great library is haphazard at best (see the wonderful anecdote from one of Sasha Abramsky’s cousins’ youth about their grandfather tunneling through the seemingly uncharted mass of stuff to a destination the rest of them never saw).

It was during the week before the election that Sasha Abramsky answered my two questions. I read a cautious optimism in his responses, but there was also the sense of a serious reckoning with the possible dark days to come if the election played out differently than expected. His grandfather’s books “provided protection from the madness of the world outside – or, at the very least, a road map for navigating the chaos.” I’d suggest that’s what the younger Abramsky is working at now, for himself and the rest of us – the creation of a road map for navigating the chaos to come. He can’t author a truly comprehensive map all by his lonesome, but his work describes certain precincts, diagnoses their ills and predicts their fates with real insight and empathy. I haven’t spoken with him since November 8, but I’ll be keeping tabs on his work. We need it now more than ever.

Here’s what he was reading as of late October. I can only imagine recent events have added to the list:

Regarding my reading habits, I tend to read fairly voraciously across a range of genres — and I generally have several books going simultaneously.

I’m in the process of writing a book about what we fear and why, and how it impacts our political choices, as well as many other aspects of our daily lives. To that end, I have been reading many books by anthropologists, economists, sociologists, and psychologists about how individuals and cultures choose what sorts of things to really fear, and to what purpose. I have also been reading many books and academic papers by neuroscientists about different parts of the brain, and different chemical and nervous system responses to threats and to fear.

As for more general-interest reading, I spent much of the past week reading Eduardo Galleano’s collection of essays “We Say No,” about the moral imperatives of understanding social and historical inequities and injustices, and about the ways individuals can resist unjust systems.

As a completely random book, I picked up on a dollar stall a collection of essays, titled “Letters to the Valley,” about farming and connection to the land, by a writer and California farmer named David Mas Masumoto. It is delightfully diverting, and is helping me to take my mind off of the extraordinarily nerve-wracking election — as you may have seen, I have spent much of the last year writing for the Nation (in the US), Haaretz (in Israel) and the New Statesman (in the UK) about the perils of Trump-ism and what I see as the emergence of a form of politics with distinct strains of fascism. As I’m writing and thinking so much about that, it’s nice every so often to step away from the fray and read about something totally different.

My daughter has been reading many of the novels (sci-fi and other) by Octavia Butler. She asked me if I would read some, so I am now dipping into some Butler novels.

Other books that I have read in the last few months include the Karl Ove Knausgaard series “My Struggle,” the Julian Barnes book, about Shostakovich, titled “The Noise of Time;” and several Bohumil Hrabal novels, including “Too Loud a Solitude.” I also read Adam Hoshchild’s book  on the Spanish Civil War, “Spain in Our Hearts,” a book on the Mitford sisters, “The Six,” by Laura Thompson, and Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history book “Chernobyl.”

On my list of books to soon read: volumes 4-6 of Churchill’s history of World War Two; Luc Sante’s The Other Paris; Andrew Cooper’s book “The Fall of Heaven” on the last days of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran; and Edward Rutherford’s “New York: The Novel.”

I hope this answers both what I’m reading and why: As you can see, I tend to read eclectically, seeking to fulfill whatever intellectual or cultural itch has my attention at any given moment. I read to learn, but also to relax; to explore new worlds, and to introduce myself to places and people who, for various reasons, intrigue me…

As for what I’m currently working on: many articles on politics and on social justice themes, for the Nation and other magazines; and, as I mentioned earlier, a book, to be published in the fall of 2017 by Nation Books, on how our understanding of fear shapes so many of the fundamental decisions we make in life.

What I’m Reading This Fall

Here’s what I’m either already reading or looking forward to, square in the midst of fall.

Alexander Maksik, Shelter in Place

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Maksik’s third novel turns back toward what’s at least peripherally more personal ground. His debut, You Deserve Nothing, dealt with a situation not unlike one he’d experienced while teaching in France. His sophomore effort, A Marker to Measure Drift, looked further afield, following the hardships of a young female refugee in the Greek isles. Shelter in Place finds a young man in the Pacific Northwest, just getting his start in the world. Any plans he had are derailed by an unexpected act of violence. Knowing Maksik, there’s little chance this takes a sensational turn, and much greater likelihood we get a sophisticated character study.

Loren Eiseley, Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos

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Loren Eiseley’s published work only spans a little over two decades, from 1957’s The Immense Journey to 1979’s Darwin and The Mysterious Mister X. His work was often philosophical in nature, and he devoted considerable attention to the natural world and matters of cosmology. Loren Eiseley: Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos is a two-volume box set from Library of America, an acknowledgement of the sophistication and significance of Eiseley’s ideas at a time when we’re grappling with the seriousness of our environmental degradation.

Albert Murray, Collected Essays and Memoirs

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Maybe the most gratifying news of the season is Library of America’s decision to publish an omnibus edition of Albert Murray’s nonfiction under the title Collected Essays and Memoirs. Murray focused much of his attention as a memoirist and novelist on the blues, an ur-American form and one few writers can begin to address with Murray’s depth and profundity. Murray was a friend and confidant of the great Ralph Ellison, and this collection provides ample evidence why.

Nir Baram, Good People and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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Baram’s novel is a moody, stylish thriller set on the eve of World War II in Berlin and Leningrad. It’s the first of Israeli writer Baram’s books to appear in English, though A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank is due next April. Might just pair nicely with Amor Towles’s second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. Towles gives us Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest in a grand hotel across from the Kremlin in 1922. You may recall Towles as the author of the stylish Rules of Civility. And if the hotel setting of Towles’s novel gets you, look into Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel and Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel.

Mena Calthorpe, The Dyehouse and Living by Henry Green

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The Dyehouse is one of Calthorpe’s three books, the other two of which (The Defectors and Plain of Ala) are out of print. It’s set in postwar Australia, and that means the setting – a textile factory floor – is at a threshold moment, when technology threatens unprecedented change for the people who depend on manufacturing for a livelihood. Class and gender issues are at issue here, but that puts a stiff gloss on a radically human piece of work. Read it with Henry Green’s Living for a double dose (due March 2017 from NYRB Classics). Also worth noting: The Dyehouse is the 100th entry in the Text Classics series.

  • John McIntyre

Five Books You Might Have Missed in 2015

One of the unfortunate realities of literary marketing is that so many books, once they pass their initial window of newness, get swept offstage and forgotten. Even with music this is unfair, and it takes what, 45 minutes to listen to an album? Am I betraying something significant about my worldview by thinking in terms of albums rather than songs? The point is, it takes time to read a book. With the sheer volume of new releases out each week, no reader makes it through more than a handful before another batch is acclaimed as must reads. This isn’t even me saying the diagnosis of must read is necessarily wrong, just that there’s necessarily something lost in the churn from one batch of new books to the next. So, here are five books worth buying and reading from 2015 that I either didn’t get a chance to read or write about when they were brand new.

JD by Mark Merlis

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  • Image via University of Wisconsin Press

The thing about Mark Merlis is, he’s a really good writer. Once upon a time, Walter Kirn wrote an essay in praise of the good novel (as opposed to great, if I remember right, if the essay ever really existed – can’t seem to prove it did). JD is a good novel, every bit good enough that you’ll look forward to getting back to it when you have time each day. What we have is this: a novelist-cum-scholar, Jonathan Ascher has died, and years later, a scholar writes to his widow, asking to work with his papers. His widow, Martha, is uneasy with the request, and finally digs into her late husband’s papers, his journals in particular, to see if she’s being unreasonable.

It all sounds like a sort of low-stakes matter, but Merlis has complete command of the voices here. The whole thing unfolds across Martha’s weeks/months of sizing up and remembering her life with Jonathan, and the pseudo-private entries Jonathan made in his journals. Pseudo-private because she suspects he’d always wanted them to be read and studied. What’s betrayal, what’s honesty – it’s all in play here, and it’s to his credit that there’s never a moment when it feels like the conclusion that emerges really belongs to Merlis rather than someone in the novel. There’s a touching moment, to me at least, when the scholar who got in touch with Martha talks about “coming out as second rate.” Merlis won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction in 1995, among other prizes, and also managed a career working on health care policy, including the creation of the Ryan White Act. If I had to narrow this list down to one book, JD would be the one, and the other four are very good.

Something for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf by Gerald Murnane

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  • Image via Text Publishing

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m good with that, actually, but it’s nice to see Gerald Murnane’s name mentioned once a year in American publications handicapping who might get the prize. Something for the Pain’s abiding concern is Murnane’s lifelong devotion to horse racing, but from the outset it’s clear that he’s long since accepted that what happens on the track means as much to him personally, as part of his mythos, as it does on an emerging, day-to-day basis. His car’s radio no longer picks up all the races, and the newspaper coverage is condensed. He doesn’t mention it – the event occurred after his memoir’s publication – but Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in November of 2015. Murnane doesn’t seem likely to lament the change. It’s the horses that capture his imagination, the silks they and their riders wear and the drama of the uncertainty as they head into the final turn. Well, that and the exaggerated tales from trainers, punters and the like. If there’s a reason I’m let down that Dylan got the Nobel, it’s that Murnane would’ve suddenly had a much larger readership if he’d won.

Immaculate Blue by Paul Russell

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  • Image via Paul Russell/Cleis Press

Paul Russell wrote a pair of novels centered on the same four friends, twenty-five years apart. That in itself is enough to justify your interest. It also sort of means I’m recommending the first book, The Salt Point, as well, even though he does an admirable job of filling in the blanks in Immaculate Blue, without making it awkwardly apparent that he’s doing so. In fact, three of the four – Anatole, Lydia and the estranged Chris – are back together for Anatole’s wedding. They’re much different after twenty-five years, naturally – both more and less serious, which is to say their ideas of what matters now correspond to the larger number of people they’re committed to and responsible for. Lydia has a husband and son. Anatole is set to marry Rafa and they’ve discussed kids by various channels. Chris, well, he’s dealt with matters of life and death up close, in Iraq and more recently Nigeria. Leigh, “Our Boy of the Mall” as they refer to him in The Salt Point, is forty-four now and also in a committed relationship. Their inevitable changes are no less notable than those Russell himself has undergone, to judge by the two books. The Salt Point is brooding and poetic, truly gorgeous line by line, and the ending is almost hermetic in its darkness. Immaculate Blue refutes a lot of that brooding. It’s not without its introspective, reflective moments, but it also acknowledges that there’s life after what seem to be signal moments, big decisions that later aren’t so big for the immediate break as much as the options they afford us afterward.

Rare Books Uncovered by Rebecca Barry Rego

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  • Image via Rebecca Barry Rego/Voyageur Press

I don’t collect books as seriously as I’d like. It’s an expensive hobby and I lack the expertise to avoid pissing away large sums of money. What I do appreciate, admire, choose the word you like, is the romance of that pursuit. In truth I’d own a bookstore, in another time, place, life. Rebecca Barry Rego writes here about people bold and knowing enough to properly collect books and own bookstores in the here and now, and how they came by some of their most prized quarry. I should add she’s one of my most favorite editors. Without her Fine Books & Collections wouldn’t be nearly the magazine it is.

In Rare Books Uncovered, she writes, “For better or worse, serendipity plays a significant role in antiquarian book collecting and bookselling.” Absolutely, and I won’t spoil a single one of the serendipitous moments she writes about in the book. I’d say we should all be so lucky, but if we were, stories like these wouldn’t mean nearly as much. Highly recommended.

I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel by David Shields and Caleb Powell

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  • Image via Vintage Books

Know how many writers like David Shields we have in America? One, I’m going to say, just the one. He’s intelligent and endlessly curious, but if you can’t say that about a writer, that writer’s just painting by numbers. What takes Shields a step beyond, or many steps at times, is that he turns that curiosity on himself, his own thought processes, and he seemingly refuses to offer himself the comfortable way forward in those moments. About a dozen years ago, I sent him some emails about his book Black Planet, which deals with race and a season with the NBA’s then Seattle Supersonics. Leaving aside the fact that allowing the Sonics to move was a gross miscarriage of justice, I disagreed with him completely on a number of things. I said so (I was younger and more likely to bother with these disagreements then), and what happened? He wrote back, granted that I might be right but he had his reasons for the conclusions he reached, and then we discussed the Sonics’ summer league games. We both watch a lot of basketball, is the other takeaway there.

This is the kind of writer who should get the Macarthur Genius Grant. Can you imagine how he’d torment himself, with 600 or so grand and a bunch of time to write and think? Sign me up to read the results. I Think You’re Totally Wrong is unlike anything else in recent American letters. He goes off for a weekend with a former student, Caleb Powell, who’s also a writer, and they go back and forth on a  variety of topics. The resulting book is funny and irritating as hell and really smart. I went away feeling really fond of them both but also glad they didn’t invite me on their weekend trip. James Franco’s made a movie of it, a metafictional extension of the premise that apparently includes James Franco, who should not ever get the Macarthur Genius Grant under any circumstances. And you know what? Powell holds his own, at least in the book. We should hear a lot more from him in the future. Just give him all the access and exposure James Franco gets. The world will be a more exciting place.

– John McIntyre

What I’m Reading: Photographer JA Mortram

For the 100th Good Reading Copy post, it’s time to look in a new direction. For three years now, the site has dealt with what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. That’s been rewarding, but it’s only half of the conversation I’d like to have. A few years back, Anita Brookner mentioned in an interview that Piers Paul Read’s novel The Misognyist was the book that had most impressed her in recent years. A couple of weeks ago, Helen Garner told me that Joan London’s novel The Golden Age was something special, and that she hoped people didn’t overlook it. So, I’m adding regular entries devoted to what certain makers, as Robert Phelps would’ve called them, ones I admire, are reading and why. That will include writers, but also photographers, musicians, people in publishing, chefs – anyone whose work has caught my eye and who has the time and inclination to share. Up first: the photographer JA Mortram.

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At the start of his very short story, “Harbor Town,” Yasunari Kawabata writes, “This harbor town is an interesting one.” He then offers a brief sketch of a man’s loneliness and a fleeting connection to geisha he finds there. Somehow he hasn’t taken hold in the world, hasn’t made the connections he’d have liked. What’s missing for him doesn’t trouble the world at large, though, and so there’s an added tang to his isolation. What Kawabata includes is striking, but what’s left off the page has an even more lasting pull. There’s no subsequent expansion on “Harbor Town.” It’s not part of a series of stories or a sketch for a novel, as we might read “Gleanings from Snow Country.” Great as he was, there’s a nagging question of what Kawabata knew of men like the one in “Harbor Town,” beyond their loneliness and poignant moments like the one in the story, what else he might’ve revealed by allowing a few more lines of dialogue, another turn or two onstage.

This is not a complaint that applies to the photographer JA Mortram. He’s said in the past that he’s committed to photographing people who don’t have a voice. More often than not, that means he makes an ongoing commitment to the people he photographs, not only engaging with them over the course of multiple sessions, but at times offering help with everyday matters as well. If that seems to suggest an investment beyond the visual aspects of his work, it’s because he does.

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  • Photo by JA Mortram

He told Darlene Hildebrandt of Digital Photography School that a significant part of what he’s doing is to “be nice, be attentive, give a damn, listen.” Indeed, the people Mortram is working with are his neighbors, and his work affords them the same dignity they’ve offered him by inviting him into their homes, into their lives.

When I asked what he’d been reading, he told me, “Lately it’s pretty much all been photography books,” and I knew that meant he’d been working madly – he’s as curious and engaged as anyone I know. He’s got good taste, too – ask him about Harry Crews. The upshot here is that a list of photography books that hold JA Mortram’s attention is a list of photography books that should be on your shelves. And so, from the man himself:

“Cool, a list of books, here we go, these are VITAL…

Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? by Don McCullin

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Family Love by Darcy Padilla

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Written in the West by Wim Wenders

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Living with the by Enemy Donna Ferrato

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  • Photo by Donna Ferrato, http://www.donnaferrato.com/

One Second of Light by Giles Duley

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The Fat Baby Eugene Richards

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Photo by Eugene Richards, http://eugenerichards.com/the-fat-baby/

…these are all go to books for truth, morality, empathy and life. Wim Wenders I go to when I want to fill my heart with joy.”

Later this year, Bluecoat Press is publishing Small Town Inertia, a collection of photos from JA Mortram’s work. You can find much more of his work – photos, video and the stories of the people whose stories he’s telling, at the links below.

– John McIntyre

More by JA Mortram:

At Vimeo

At Smalltowninertia.co.uk

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JA Mortram on Instagram

Books about food, books about wine

I’ve almost certainly made it clear that I don’t like internet lists, on balance. They’re lazy and reductive in most cases, and that’s only made worse by clicking through a dozen pages to realize how lazy and reductive a given list is. There are, of course, exceptions, and I was lucky to come across two this very week.

The first is courtesy of Robert Parker’s wonderful wine site. Neal Martin offers a list he calls, “Some of the Finest Wine Books Ever Written (…But Not by Jancis or Hugh).” These aren’t, it bears mentioning, altogether practical choices Martin makes. He readily acknowledges this. Of J.A. Garde’s Histoire de Pomerol, he writes, “It’s a book that seems to relish its tangents, narrative cul-de-sacs and ellipses, which meant that I had to read/translate it 50 or 60 times to eke out nuggets of precious information. Because they are here. You just have to search hard for it.” At times, André Simon’s Vintage-Wise “reads like the midnight shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4 and though its subject matter is just as irrelevant, insofar that the paucity of 1887 Saint Julien’s impacts your daily life as much as a squall on the Dogger Bank, you feel comforted by the information that seems better to know, than not.” These descriptions make me think of an unusual and almost totally impractical book I picked up a couple of years ago called Herbs and the Earth by Henry Beston. There’s something oddly reassuring and at times genuinely engaging about a writer’s devotion to a subject of intense personal interest. Just the kind of thing to relax into as the cool months descend.

The second list appeared on the Saveur site. Russ Parsons writes about “3 Classic (and Vastly Underappreciated) Books That Changed the Way We Cook.” He includes Helen Brown’s West Coast Cookbook, which is just a fantastic choice. She was indeed a James Beard protégée of sorts, though Beard’s letters to her, collected in Love and Kisses and A Halo of Truffles, seem to regard her more as a peer/equal. That quibble aside, the list is worth a look.

– John McIntyre

Five Literary Loves of 2015

Elizabeth Harrower

A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories is a book that almost never happened.

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If not for the efforts of Text publisher Michael Heyward (a much-admired individual around these parts*), Harrower’s stories would’ve stayed scattered in forgotten – sometimes defunct – literary magazines from the ’60s and ’70s for years to come. Heyward and Text brought Harrower’s novels back into print, and followed that with her final, long-delayed novel, the magnificent In Certain Circles. Harrower had long since moved on from her life as a writer, but Heyward’s commitment and this late flood of attention convinced her to go ahead with the publication of these stories.

Harrower isn’t known primarily as a short story writer. In fairness, she is a more accomplished novelist, and there are instances here when it’s hard not to wish she’d followed a character or a scenario at greater length. The title story, for instance, carries echoes of In Certain Circles with its undercurrent of suicidal ideation. “The two tall girls” from “The City at Night” might’ve stepped out of Madeline St. John’s The Women in Black with their callowness and insecurities. Harrower writes that they “talked and talked, each the best friend of the other,” but knowing the rest of Harrower’s work, the prospect of seeing them away from the table, seeing how they interact under different circumstances, is irresistible.

We do get to see Sophie, who comes to visit an acquaintance in “A Few Days in the Country,” in some of these other situations. Harrower doesn’t disappoint, as in the case of this odd interlude between visitor and pet: “Glancing again at the cat, who was still awaiting command, Sophie said, ‘Be independent,’ and feeling itself without instruction the cat prowled in a circle, curled up, and slept.”

Sophie spends much of her visit contemplating suicide. She finds a way through that thicket, though the how and why are subtle and best discovered by reading the story.

Harrower’s own story is one of careful elisions. It’s tempting to squint a little and picture her doppelgänger in the midst of “A Few Days in the Country,” when Sophie’s host says she’s arranged a piano she can practice on during her visit.

Sophie shook her head. “Truly it doesn’t matter. Music’s not the most important thing in the world.” She gazed down the grassy slope and up to the hills in the distance.

“The most important thing in the world!” Scornful, roused, Caroline asked, “What is?”

“Ah, well…” Sophie’s voice had no expression. She did know.

These stories are far more than shavings from the master’s workbench. They’re a fitting coda to a brilliant, interrupted career, one  I feel fortunate has overlapped a bit with my reading life.

* Heyward and Text also brought Randolph Stow’s novels back into print (Tourmaline! Much more on him later, elsewhere) and published Gerald Murnane’s new memoir, Something for the Pain (ditto). Find more Harrower, including stories from this collection, here, here, here and here

John Andrew FredrickThe King of Good Intentions II

2015 was some year for Fredrick, who’s offered consistent output for years with his band, The Black Watch and as a writer of fiction (2008’s The Knucklehead Chronicles, 2013’s The King of Good Intentions). He released two albums with The Black Watch (Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy and Highs & Lows), and good as those were, if you read The King of Good Intentions, The King II was the highlight among his offerings this year. If you didn’t read it yet, now’s as good a time as any to rectify that oversight.

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Both novels follow a literary-minded frontman named John and his band, The Weird Sisters, through the early ‘90s indie rock scene. In the first novel, that’s mostly an LA-based proposition. The King II finds them on the road, shambling from one set of indignities to the next. This means the band has to deal with fans, label execs and publicity people, media members, club owners and, perhaps most significantly, one another.

They’re in the van on an endless drive when they hear Kurt Cobain has died. Only one of the group’s four members is a fan, and it’s not John, who sets the tone for their travels. He handles the situation clumsily, there are minor recriminations, and we’re off and running with his hyper-analytical, often funny take on life on the road, as an ambitious, highly educated musician. There’s energy aplenty, verbal pyrotechnics, debauchery (but also admirable use of Jane Austen and George Eliot as conversational/pickup fodder).

“Every band, at any level, believes they should be one level up,” John says at one point, and it’s easy to want that for The Weird Sisters. It’s easy to want that for John Andrew Fredrick, novelist and rock star (don’t split hairs with me – he’s more rock star than you or I will ever be). This one may have slipped under your radar, but the road to forgiveness is painless. That was a hint about buying the book. 

Later, our fearless leader/narrator quotes the English novelist Elizabeth Bowen on dialogue – it’s “what characters do to each other” – and adds, “Speech is action. Isn’t that wonderful?” It is in the hands of a writer who understands the corollary in more than a theoretical way, and Fredrick does. The King II is something like one of those land-speed vehicles, hurtling across the desert floor, propelled by talk. The driver keeps turning to you and talking at high speed, and you think, “We’ve veered off course,” only you don’t say anything. You give in to the scenic route, as narrated by a man whose synapses fire at very high speed, and who somehow manages to relay that endless series of connections and asides in real time. You might agree with him or not, but about the time you’ve formulated a response, he’s on to something else, not by way of squashing dissent, but because he’s the pilot, by God, and whatever else, his intentions are good (get it? have you been paying attention at all?).

A third novel in the trilogy (The Hollow Crown) awaits us, somewhere down the road. It may mean a reckoning for John, but if we know one thing, it’s that he’ll make an endearing guide.

Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 1950s

It’s well established by now that I’m a fan of the omnibus editions Library of America puts together. Their reissue of five David Goodis novels was brilliant. Ditto their edition of Lynd Ward’s Six Novels in Woodcuts. This newish undertaking – I say “newish” because they stay busy – collects suspense novels by eight women from the 1940s and 1950s. That means a welcome dose of Patricia Highsmith (The Blunderer) and one of Dorothy B. Hughes (In a Lonely Place). Vera Caspary’s Laura, better known now as rendered on film by Otto Preminger, is included as well. Even more welcome are offerings like Margaret Millar’s Beast in View. Millar crossed my reading path earlier in the year via her husband Ken Millar/Ross MacDonald’s correspondence with Eudora Welty.

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And with all those highlights, the most pleasant surprise was Helen Eustis’s The Horizontal Man. It’s a tightly controlled, cinematic short novel, centered on a murder on a college campus. A young coed ends up locked away, under suspicion, and though there are significant doubts she committed the crime, she’s wracked with guilt and frequently comes nearer incriminating herself than clearing herself. There’s also witty dialogue and some eccentric figures knocking about. Eustis passed away in February. My curiosity about her life and work were great enough that I turned up this wonderful memoriam her son wrote after her passing. How could you consider skipping the horizontal man after reading this about its author: “[S]he dropped out of a graduate attempt to get a Ph.D. in English after she realized that the love she felt for tale-telling was being segmented and bagged and … well, it was sort of like trying to explain laughter and she was a person who preferred to laugh.”

You’ll also find a worthwhile interview with the very discerning Sarah Weinman, who edited the two volumes, at the LA Review of Books.

Literary Letters

This one holds true most every year. I wrote about the Eudora Welty/Ross Macdonald letters a few months ago, but this year I also read collections of letters by D.H. Lawrence and William Styron. I’m in the pro-D.H. Lawrence camp. The Lawrence letters are open and thorny and so often searching. In short,  they’re a beautiful confirmation of the Lawrence portrait from the great John Worthen’s biographies.

Styron is irreverent, pithy, the kind of writer you wish had sent you letters. Here he is, writing to James and Gloria Jones in March of 1964: “Swinging on the West Coast with Terry Southern. Have done some rather impossible things such as having dinner in San Francisco with Shirly Temple.” When Frederick Exley invites him to visit his class at the University of Iowa but can’t promise funds for his trouble, Styron writes,

I am not a particularly venal person but I feel that we writers deserve honest pay for honest work (and that includes appearing at classes) as much as do doctors or lawyers and certainly more than politicians. Actually with me the amount of money is really immaterial (my father-in-law was a clever scoundrel who in 1934 bought 9,000 shares of IBM at $8.00 a share and left them to my wife), it is – to be trite – the principle of the thing. In other words, I’d feel more comfortable about it if John Leggett could squeeze one of those hog’s tits and get me, say, as little as $250, but in any case I will come out there for expenses if those cheap bastards can’t cough up anything. Let me know when this deal takes place.

There’s plenty more where that came from in both cases, though Styron is the subject of just one volume, as opposed to the 8 volumes of Lawrence letters from Cambridge.

The List of Books

The List of Books is a brilliant curiosity, one I happened across while wandering through the public library earlier in December. It hails from 1980, and the idea behind it was, “to furnish an imaginary library of some three-thousand volumes in which a reasonably literate person can hope to find both instruction and inspiration, art and amusement.” The book covers more than a dozen categories, taking in fiction, feminism and much else. There’s author and title information, as well as a brief summary of each selected title. 

The novel listings include two titles each by Nathanael West and Sinclair Lewis (worthy choices, I think), but but also Lionel Trilling’s lone novel. King, Queen, Knave appears as Nabokov’s signal achievement. Food for thought, and better still, for dispute. There’s also a section devoted to Diaries and Letters, one on Art and Design, and still another devoted to Food and Drink. Whoever they are (were?) Frederic Raphael and Kenneth Macleish set themselves an impossible task, produced a necessarily flawed  volume in response to that task, and provided me with a lot of enjoyment, three and a half decades after the book’s original publication.

– John McIntyre