Staff Picks (October 2017)
Omg, we love small press books! And these are some of our favorites. Now they can be some of your favorites too...if they aren't already. Be sure to check in every month for a new handful to add to your reading list...lists...so many lists.
All October 2017 Staff Picks 20% off
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Seems 2017 is the year that New Narrative gets its due, with 2 new major anthologies released: WRITERS WHO LOVE TOO MUCH from Nightboat Books, a selection of seminal works edited by two of its most celebrated participants, Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy, and forthcoming from Compline Press FROM OUR HEARTS TO YOURS, a festshrift of sorts to the New Narrative. Even Hollywood (by way of San Francisco's Coppola family) is getting in on the action with the news that Sophia Coppola has bought the rights to Alysia Abbott's Fairyland: A Memoir Of My Father (hopefully forthcoming in a theater near you).
Which brings us to Steve Abbott and his VIEW ASKEW: POSTMODERN INVESTIGATIONS (Androgyne Books). VIEW ASKEW was published in 1989, and as lovingly edited as those 2 new New Narrative anthologies are there is something to be said about reading the work in its original form, in its original shape, the difference between a Greatest Hits album and an LP. VIEW ASKEW is a joy to read, discursive as you can get in subject matter: art, sex, friends, gentrification, politics, theory, movies and seemingly everything in between, all written in a talky, breezy, totally warm and inviting prose, a highlight for me, Abbott's retelling of his "pilgrimage" visit to the Julian Schnabel exhibit at the SFMOMA.
I highly recommend this book, this is legitimate small press treasure, and at its original cover price of $9.95 there really is no reason to not buy it if you're a fan of New Narrative writing.
OUR SECRET LIFE IN THE MOVIES, by Michael McGriff & J.M. Tyree is a collection of stories from 2014, the creative culmination of a Criterion Collection movie marathon that took place in a sublet in the Mission District of San Francisco. In their introduction McGriff and Tyree write that they "watched film after filmas many as two or three a dayand wrote stories inspired by them." What they came up with reads like linked movie stills that add up to two boys' coming-of-age narratives in the 1980s. The book is suffused with the ethos of post-apocalyptic malaise. It transports the reader into the kind of world where "lilacs die in rank bursts of sweet rot" and "end-of-days folks [blame] our perpetual falling from grace." Kitchen cupboards are empty except for mouse droppings and dead batteries, the surface of the moon "[looks] strangely like a burn victim." A grandfather and great uncle who fought in WWII come back like ghosts to tell their stories. The Cold War is in full swing, replete with "X-ray-laser-armed satellites in space to blast the Soviets' missiles." For those of us who came of age in the nineties, it is no wonder we grew up with the sense that we as a country were burnt out. We had collectively lived through the previous decade wide-awake on a sci-fi-fueled, drug-induced bender. The evidence adds up and up, and I often found myself fascinated and overwhelmed with what these two writers revealed to me about the country I inherited.
I'm reading Carmen Berenguer's frenetic MY LAI on a rapid bus leaving Berkeley in the rearview. I'm reading a poem Carmen Berenguer wrote in/about/around Berkeley. It's 86 degrees outside, and this bus has no AC; the tiny windows near the ceiling are cracked, and I'm just a sweaty body among many other sweaty bodies just trying to get home. Aren't we, all of us, just trying to get home? Yes, Carmen Berenguer says. Yes, even though home is often just a memory in our own individual minds. MY LAI is a book about home, a book about revolution, a book about immigration/migration. It has thousands of miles under its binding, the breath of history and all the hope/heartbreak history carries swirling from page to page: "i left Chile with orange blossoms in my hair and with my loves i waved goodbye with a new youthful awakening...". The bus passes tents tucked under the overpass, on my newsfeed no one is coming to Puerto Rico's aid. My bag of dollar-store purchases keeps threatening to slide off the seat next to me. I'm reading a book that's wobbling on the brink, feeling that wobble on the page and all around me. Berenguer: "Don't think that I harbor nostalgia / only reverberations...". I'm in such excellent company, I'm being swept up and set violently back down. I'm thinking about how "the authorities politely salute, / The new order." I'm wondering how much darkness people/I will tolerate before revolt: "The dawn is trivial and the night deserves long insomnia. / I had nightmares. / While you eat, I have vomited this void." I get on another bus, but the driver stops and gets out for a break from the heat, the route. I am thinking back to shorter roads, cooler weather: "...I wanted to go back to my neighborhood / to that corner my little shore my school notebook / my first word." Reverberations.
Equal parts Invisible Cities and Star Trek, A CATALOGUE OF THE FURTHER SUNS is a strange and wonderful read. A travelogue of first contact scenarios, the book takes a conceit aesthetic, linguistic, sexual, or otherwise and plays out in the briefest of interactions how it affects the cataloguers' perceptions of the alien culture. One of the book's greatest strengths is its uncertain relationship to power. It relies on cultural baggage to fill in its own history while it investigates the new, constantly reevaluating its relative position. Is there a mission? A desired outcome? Marco Polo, in the garden with Kublai Khan, forgets to bring his trade interests in favor of stories. Like Invisible Cities, our book is narrated by an outsider tradition, who swears their engagements were merely scientific, or literary, or loving. There's something productively suspect about the work, in the way only the speculative can be.
The novel-in-verse form isn't exactly my go-to but I was glad I gave this one a chance. THE OTHERS is pretty much a novel, but because the lines are broken you can zip through all 248 pages in a few hours. And you really should! Initially I took it as primarily a satire on NYC publishing and narrative storytelling except, unlike just about every novel-in-novel form coming from a major publisher, it starts to play with whether it actually is satire, to question and fold back on itself. By the end both the "frame" narrative of a day-in-the-life of a young worker in the trenches at HarperCollins, and especially the sub-narratives, get more serious and intense than they should in a satire. To me the book ends up painting a pretty accurate picture of the way people live inside cascading narratives, i.e. how thought and experience are constantly in an interrupted/incomplete state. Stories constantly fail to be what we think they are, the book seems to argue, and in particular their being shoddily written or even cliched may or may not affect whether or how they affect us. In any case I thought the book arrived in some pretty heady territory using a seemingly-simple approach. In fact I kept looking for an allusion to the One Thousand and One Nights since that classic work has a similar form, brilliance, and effect, and I still think there's an allusion to Scheherazade somewhere in there I maybe missed. So I guess I'll end with a HarperCollins-esque blurb: "If you liked the 1001 Nights, you'll love THE OTHERS."
Sueyeun Juliette Lee's aesthetic cosmology is built from cosmology itself, i.e. interest in light, science, mathematics, astronomyall of which could not be closer to my heart. At the same time her interest in "human displacements" as she puts it (especially, here, the subject of her father's death during the Korean War) creates another framework that runs under, over and through the astronomical. Then there's the sweeping title poem that ends this book: filled with rifts, drifts, traces and residues it still manages, nearly impossibly, to be both oceanic and personal. Lee's previous Futurepoem book, SOLAR MAXIMUM, is beloved in my household, and I know we'll wear this one out too...take a look!
In true Hallow's Eve fashion, THE MOST FOREIGN COUNTRY evokes the electrifying feeling of being possessed. In the introduction, Cole Heinowitz describes Alejandra Pizarnik's early work as being haunted by Rimbaud's unforgettable dictum "I is Another." & I would say that haunting moves swiftly into possession, "two scraped throats / two kisses speaking for the vision of / one existence to another / two promises moaning their / awful distant loquacities." This book is of an otherworldly poetic possession, its language moves through the reader like a specter entering the body of a spellbound host, which renders the distinction between the material & immaterial impossible. "The most foreign country" perhaps refers to the poet's very own body, as she writes from the flux of dissociation & reassociation, distorted distinctions of real & unreal, the desire to live & even stronger desire to die, "two promises of not being of being of not being / two dreams playing the wheel of fate around." If you're looking to get chills, feel that shadow press against the back of your neck, to feel the blood rush as you hear a thump in the night, look no further.
You would be hard pressed to find a more mythological writer, whose past is far more difficult to decipher than his poetry. Often the more abstract or inventive the use of Kholin's words the more honest the piece. Self deprecating at times and at others immortalizing, KHOLIN 66 is a synopsis of the literary underground in Moscow through the words of one of its most prolific and honest poets.