Corduroy Books

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Month: July, 2010

Murder City Girls and a 75th Anniversary

by Weston Cutter

The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

Oh good lord is this a fun book. Easy admission at the outset: I could care less about the musical (or movie) Chicago; I’m exceptionally fond of the town, but for reasons that have nothing to do with female murderers of the early 20th century. In fact, I wouldn’t’ve guessed, at this book’s outset, that it’d draw me in as it did, simply because it didn’t seem or smell like my cup of tea. But then I cracked it. And then, the next night, I was suddenly already thick into the thing. Then, the next few nights, the thing was done.

And what tremendous ease makes falling into this book’s story so freakishly simple and fun and good? Two words: Douglas Perry. Dude’s writing is astonishing, in ways that are actually tricky and hard to parse. Like the best writers, Mr. Perry takes the reader down a narrative path that, once you’ve trod/read it, feels 100% inevitable yet which, had you thought hard about where you’d be headed, you wouldn’t’ve guessed where you’d end up. In other words—he perfectly balances surprise and expectation. Here’s the truth: Douglas Perry is a master.

Though let’s give a bit of credit, too, to the three canny women who pack this story’s soul: Belva Gaertner, Beulah Annan, and Maurine Watkins. The first two were beautiful murdereresses (such, such a great word), the last a rookie newspaper writer with a background one wouldn’t presume automatically made her an ideal choice as a crime reporter, and the three of them, together, intersect to form an interesting prism through which the reader’s bound to flash his or her questions as they come, questions which’ll have to do with the surge of liberalism that allowed women to get away with ankle-bearing skirts and public cigarette smoking and (that awfulest vice) jazz, questions that’ll touch in notions of celebrity and public manipulation, questions that’ll have to do with feminism (big, fascinating, hairy, complex questions on that issue, just fyi).

It’s a stellar, stellar book, and Douglas Perry is a fantastic writer, and, not least, this book is coming soon from Viking, which is part of the Penguin imprint, and today, July 30th, is the 75th anniversary of the press. Not only is Penguin one of the biggest and best forces in publishing, and that it has been for so, so long (check what they’ve published, for a run-down: start with Gravity’s Rainbow if you can’t think of anything else), and that, through their various imprints, they still put out much of the most exciting books around (hey there, Stewart O’Nan, Evan Wright, Joe Flood, Zadie Smith, Kurlansky, Vollmann, etc. etc. etc.), but they’ve also supplied a copy of one of their books for us here at Corduroy to give away. Write if you’d like it (it’s a surprise, what the actual book is, but it’s good+worth it), and, for sure, check out the website dedicated to their anniversary. I know, I know: it’s authors who make the books, and we should all, always, write to our favorite authors and thank them for the good work, but the work places like Penguin (and the rest) puts into books is just as laudable, just as important.

NOTE: Contest now closed. Given the response, I’m thinking it’s time to run a book contest every Friday. Look for it, hopefully soon.

Perhaps Because They’re Both French

by Weston Cutter

I got a buzzy pleasure from hauling fast through Where We Going, Daddy? by Jeal-Louis Fournier and 03 by Jean-Christophe Valtat—both books, combined, couldn’t top more than 200 pages, yet what you get to do on a day when you read those books together is you get to answer Oh, nothing, just read two books when someone asks what you’ve done that day.

Here’s a sad admission but a true one: reviewing books is an activity that’s as dependent on mood as anything, actually maybe more dependent on mood than lots of stuff. Because how and in what mood you read a book is so significant, right? It seems that way to me. I think I like Jeanette Winterson, for instance, but I read the only book of hers I’ve ever read at a time during which the person who so like JW meant a lot to me, so I felt pretty well compelled to like the thing, and so the book was, right then, more than just the book (Gut Symmetries, if it matters). Last year, Shapton’s transcendent Important Artifacts…came at a moment when I needed to believe in a love story again, but I’d been, until that point, pretty unreasonably unwilling to believe in a love story, and, had the book come a month early, I may’ve not fallen for it. The point of all of that is just that, while we like to pretend that books are solid, impermeable things, are solid and of-themselves, they’re not only subject to the whims of good and bad readers, they’re subject to how we approach them.

All of which is a long build-up to saying that, though I burned quick through 03 and Where We Going, Daddy?, I didn’t quite get into either book as much as I’d’ve hoped, and, five days later, I’m not remotely sure if it’s really even got much to do with either book—it well could just be me.

The easier book to talk about is 03, Valtat’s first translated book, a novel/novella, and the thing reads not dissimilarly to Bouillier’s Mystery Guest—the lines are arching and long, aware and wide-ranging. We’re given an adolescent boy, standing at a bus stop, ruminating on the retarded girl he sees daily as they each wait for their busses. That’s really it—the book’s moment is grounded in that single physical interaction, and it’s traced for all 84 of the book’s pages (though we find out later that the whole thing’s recalled from some future, that the book itself is a look-back, with some mixture of fondness and the steely such-is-life that’s the hallmark of a certain sort of weary, learned adulthood [or maybe just Gallic adulthood]). What’s fascinating about the reminiscence, though, is how horrifically engaging it is—I set 03 down at least a dozen times, walking from it for a snack or diversion of some sort, but kept coming back. Why? Because of how the boy, in recollection, pieces and pulls at this notion of retardation—03 ends up being about not just youth and innocence, but about separation, about difference, about that adolescent moment at which we all begin to understand ourselves as fundamentally individual, different-from-each-other beings, therefore alone (and the echo of that alone cascades out years—at about ¾ through the book the reader realizes the spooking of that first understanding of solitude has stuck like scent on the book’s narrator). It’s an oddly compelling book. I still don’t for sure know how I feel about it. If you read it and think something, anything, about it, tell me. (For a decent/quit interview with Valtat, check here.)

The other book, and the harder of the two to talk about, is Where We Going, Daddy?, which is a memoir-ish thing about Fournier’s two handicapped kids. The reason the book’s hard is, for me, two-fold: first, the book’s publicity info was festooned with exclamatories—how it sold x-many hundreds of thousands of copies in France and Europe, was to-be-translated into y-many languages…which info I know isn’t quite as subdermally irritating to others as it is to me, but whenever I hear about how great a book is, how everyone loves it, I have a weird relationship to it (not because I don’t like liking popular stuff—I love liking popular stuff; at this moment, my favorite movie in the theater is presently hands-down the most popular and mney-making film in theaters—but because the relationship feels loaded, i.e. if I don’t like the book, it’s because I’m an idiot, because all those hundreds of thousands of people can’t be wrong, right? All those languages its been translated into—certainly everyone else is right and I’m wrong, correct?).

However, the second part of my distaste/distrust of this book is, thankfully, not about me at all, and is simply about the book: Jean-Louis Fournier’s the father of two supremely mentally handicapped boys, and this thin book is something of a chronicle of that fact, and the thorniness of that fact from the dad’s point of view. A book about mentally handicapped boys? Probably not anyone’s cup of tea, but one need no imagination to consider the audience for such a book, how heaving and prepared to tremble, how knuckle-at-the-ready for biting.

But this is not that book, not some goodness-through-struggle book: Fournier’s account is, in fact, critical, bleak, black-humored, and, most offensively (to this reader, anyway), wildly, wildly selfish. Lest you think that’s me saying the book is bad because of those traits, it’s not: Fournier’s not trying to write some Oprah-ish tome on the enduring love of all fathers, how parenthood’s difficulties and attendant joys are Always Worth It. It seems as if he’s tried (and massively succeeded) to write a book in which there are no pulled punches, in which the genuine experience of having handicapped kids is revealed. And so maybe that’s why this book so messed with me: it’s a crucible, significantly. Meaning what? Meaning your take on this book will likely be much more about you than it will be about the book.

Because, when I read this book, I was frustrated every time Fournier wrote about his cars (not often, but maybe five or six times), or about how he worked in TV (once, one time, it’s significant to the actual in-the-book events; otherwise, it just comes off as casually uppity, like someone unthinkingly mentioning his second home—which, let the record show, Fournier casually mentions, too). I didn’t mind this stuff because of the class-levels they denoted—I minded because they betrayed Fournier’s fundamental selfishness, which I found pretty unbearable.

And yet: it’s his book, is it not? It is. It’s his book. The man’s clearly old enough to make his own adult decisions—his author’s photo betrays a man looking solidly into his 60′s—and his two sons are no longer young, nor will they ever read the book (the book’s is a phrase one of his son’s constantly asked in the car). In other words: I can be pettily pissed that the book’s selfish, and Fournier-obsessed and -focused, but there’s no hint to the contrary—this focus is not, cannot, be negative in itself. It’s his book. It’s his story.

Again: that’s the dark side of this book. It’s far more mirroring than you may like from your books (for instance, the other European book I just read, One Day, the supposedly-big-deal summer novel [already being made into a movie], asks nothing as far as self-awareness-of-the-reader). That Neitzsche line, about the abyss staring back? Maybe this book. I couldn’t handle the staring, or couldn’t handle it well anyway. Fournier, for all his jokey I-didn’t-really-mean-it black-humor, still has offered a book in which he (generously? helpfully? bravely? daringly?) shines a flashlight on the darkest aspects of being a parent of deeply handicapped children. I guess what I can say is best about this book is this: it’s made me 100% unsure if I can, blithely and simply, kidless and unexperienced in all Fournier’s covered, offer nothing but a critique of this book. Maybe all it’s fair to say is that Fournier comes across as an awfully selfish man, and one who’s been through more than I can literally imagine, and say only that Where We Going, Daddy? will inevitably offer you something totally different than it did me.

Silence and Its Sweet Opposite

by Weston Cutter

In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garret Keizer

What’s weird is that, when these books came out, I saw, in one week, two reviews of both of them, both reviews printed in the NYTimes, but then, since, have seen and read nothing about them. Which is too, too bad, because, even if they’re not perfect books (1. They’re not; 2. What book is?), they’re wildly necessary and interesting and important books, books to keep on a book shelf marked audio, books to keep next to, say, Perfect Sound Forever or Something in the Air or the seemingly fascinatingly incredible How to Wreck a Nice Beach(I’ll read it someday).

Not unlike the Stan Cox‘s Losing Our Cool (a fascinating book on air conditioning, and one eminently worth reading presently if you like, well, seemingly anywhere in the states: it’s a Saturday morning as I write this and the day’s supposedly on the way to being 95˚), Prochnik’s and Keizer’s books may or may not offer exactly what you’re looking for if you’re at all interested in noise, if you’re at all drawn toward more quiet (or if you’re, like me, someone who claims over and over to want quiet, and to be ancy and bugged by certain noises and volume—someone who wears headphones while working and almost always has a fan blowing nearbye but someone who can get frustrated by the wet/dry vac the neighbor four houses down is running twenty minutes at a stretch, at 8:45 on a Tuesday, right as you’re trying to watch Breaking Bad).

Silence and noise have been fascinating to me for awhile because of music: I read about the square inch of silence project while in college, was taken by the old 1970′s binaural recordings and the stories behind their geneses (and then Pearl Jam did it later). Prochnik’s Pursuit of Silence is a bit breezier and more real-world-examining than Keizer’s Unwanted Sound—Prochnik deals more with the sounds, with the physical sensation of them (and the physical situations from which sound is emitted; check the chapter on the boom car contest in Florida), while Keizer wonders more about sound-as-politics, and the politics of sound (which, for anyone who’s ever insanely, irrationally pissed by a sound [the clicky metallic tick of iPhone keys being hit, for instance], will read like one’s deepest thoughts transcribed)—but both book together, working in tandem, provide a fascinating, philosophical entry into thinking seriously about silence, noise, and what we want.

Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision by Louis P. Masur

And here’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the preceeding duo’s consideration of silence: Masur’s book, which actually came out last year and will soon be released in paperback, is, for this Springsteen fan anyway, an automatic purchase and an automatic quick read. Why? Aside from the fact that Born to Run is one of the best albums ever released, and that the title track’s certainly among the very very best songs ever written, and aside from the fact that I’m drawn automatically to book-length considerations of certain albums and songs (this and this, for instance, were both fantastic), and aside from the fact that Springsteen’s among a shockingly small handful of artists who have been publically submitting work for at least four decades yet who still make work that’s compelling and real and worth listening/paying attention to for more than kitschy and/or nostalgic reasons, aside from all that the reason to read the book is simple: Louis P. Masur gives a shit (actually gives a tremendous shit) about Springsteen, and he believes in the magic of Born to Run, and I’ll submit here that one should want to read books written by disinterested, rational sources on everything other than works of art. Is there room for the disinterested art critic? Of course. But this book is Masur’s book, and the book, in the end, fundamentally succeeds or fails based on him more than the art he’s examining.

And does the book succeed? Absolutely: for those of us perhaps borderline unhealthily obsessed with Springsteen (especially his early stuff), the book’s exquisite fun, direct and approachable and sensical. I’d imagine the book would also be exactly the volume one’d be wise to reach for when confronted by someone not already under the Springsteenian spell: Masur’s engaged not just with the music at a song-by-song level (and, often, an instrument-by-instrument level; I discovered/realized more about the actual sound of Born to Run reading this than ever before), but at an ideational level. The other subtitle to this engaging, quick-reading book could be What’s the big fuss about Springsteen, anyway? And the answer, of course, is satisfyingly within.

“Instances of Delightfulness are Always Beautiful.”—Robert Walser

by Weston Cutter

Robert Walser, Microscripts

Here’s a theory: the reason small presses are so vital is because they put out books like this, books which could not be demographically tested or vetted by bigger publishers, books which don’t have an easily-identifiable point, books which are simply good and fascinating. This, of course, is why we need places like Graywolf, and Milkweed, and Coffee House, and Two Dollar Radio, and Dzanc.

And, of course, the granddaddy: New Directions (still published for J. Laughlin, every last one of their books). Among such devastators as Thalia Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard, and whatever latest newly translated Bolaño, along with (of course, how could it possibly be forgotten) A. Carson’s magnificently sledgehammering NOX, Robert Walser’s Microscripts, the latest ND book I’ve read to knock me sideways from my chair, is printed proof that wonder is vital, that the unknown is critical, that life is better when, at least once in awhile, we come into contact with works of art which don’t fit any preconceptions.

Microscripts is, like Carson’s NOX, a book which is as interesting as object/gestational idea as actual narrative-through-text. Meaning what? Meaning Walser, an early modernist (a big deal modernist, too: there’s a Walter Benjamin essay in here about Walser, and I’m part of whatever group who feels bad for not having known Walser earlier [even if I got halfway through his The Tanners, even if I keep meaning to finish it]), spent his last decades locked up in a sanitarium (to which he had an interesting relationship, if Wikipedia’s to be believed) and writing using something he called his ‘pencil method,’ which method sounds (and looks, vaguely) cunieform-ish (actually, that’s not true: it looks less cunieform and more like the invented language in the Codex Seraphinianus). His pencil method, though, allowed him to cram massive textual info into/onto exceptionally small places (shortest story reproduced in Microscripts: maybe 1″x2″, maybe; there are several reproductions in Microscripts of the original scraps Walser attacked and good lord, the stories themselves are satisfying, but the effect of seeing such writing is to get a megadose of inspiration, honestly: you find, in the introduction, that Walser chose small scraps of paper, and that, unlike the easiest image, he wasn’t some wild-man of urge and overwhelming need, scribbling and scrabbling on the back of whatever was nearest, but there’s no way to see the texts without feeling a tug of that sensation).

It’s a fantastically strange book, Microscripts: it’s valuable and great because Walser’s stories are generous and strange, featuring the ho-hum weirdness that makes some early 20th century stuff akin to David Lynch. Here’s how “Somewhere and Somewhen” begins: “Somewhere and somewhen, in a region quite possibly furnished with all manner of agreeable sights and significant figures, there lived a peculiar girl—being at once beautiful and clever—who was capable both of making merry and of handling her income or assets in a thrifty, economical manner.” The line, while generally establishing the narrative world of the story, raises at least as many questions as it may eventually answer (Who’s the narrator? Why make it maybe/maybe-not that the regions furnished with sights/figures? Why is there an implied divide between merriness and fiscal responsibility?), and Walser does this, over and over and over. The actual fiction in Microscripts is fascinatingly wild in just this way, page after page, and it’d be a good book if what the reader got were, simply, the stories, translated and transmitted finally, all these years later.

But it’s better than that, of course: the story of Walser’s ‘pencil method,’ and the story of the microscripts sitting for decades untouched, untranslated (having been thought scrap, of little importance), the fact that he wrote this stuff after he was locked up in a sanitarium (seemingly against his will) though a sanitarium he, in his later years, refused to leave Microscripts offers (especially awesomely for the contemporary anything-goes reader/writer) is a lesson or idea or template in borders, in restriction. Writers, presently, can run any direction, we’re invited to knock all walls down, we can approach limitlessness if we choose (AMonson’s latest book of nonfiction and attendant website, as an example). Walser, however, is a faint and necessary reminder, though, of the beauty of rules, the shocking possibilities that arise because of, not despite ridigity.

Tom Bissell + Video Games + Just Read It

by Weston Cutter

Tom Bissell‘s one of those writers I presume I’ll always be more-than-moderately interested in: he’s midwestern, which carries significant weight, but he also comes off as very real, very like someone who, if I knew him, I’d relate to and/or be friends with (his first book, Chasing the Sea, covers the time he spent in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan, which period was prematurely terminated by Bissell because of all sorts of tolerable-only-in-hindsight factors, all of which factors he lets the reader in which [of course] does plenty to generate an electric tendon of trust from the reader to him). Plus Bissell’s like five years older than I and is probably the most overtly DFW-influenced young writer presently going, which is not at all a criticism: it’s at least partly from Wallace that Bissell’s picked up some of the here-I-am-in-full-warty-glory moves, plus Bissell’s damn, damn, damn funny (from [on p. 28] sincerely hoping a certain group of programmers would go to hell to [can't find the page--it's in the second-half] creating a binary metric to measure a video game’s terminal dorkiness, which metric is simply whether he’ll turn the game off if a woman he may conceivably see naked in the future walks into the room while he’s playing the game). All of which is long and cumbersome, but I hope it merely establishes that Tom Bissell fundamentally Matters, which most contemporary readers know anyway, but there it is (even if, like me, you cringe at titles which defend something’s existence or purport to explain why something matters).

Yes: Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives features a subtitle which claims the book will address Why Video Games Matter. Let’s excuse this subtitle blunder and let’s get into the other big thing Bissell’s writing shares with Wallace’s, which is a focus on those things which are compellingly overwhelming, those things which tempt us to give ourselves over fully, completely, massively (again, Bissell was doing this in Chasing the Sea—dude attempted to give himself, at various times, to the Peace Corps, a woman, and various other assortments; I haven’t read The Father of All Things, only read the piece from Harper’s or the New Yorker or whichever that ended up being part of the whole, but I’d guess it attempts to emotionally work a similar seam). In Extra Lives, Bissell documents the (to this reader) seemingly just catatonically satisfying aspects of slipping into the world of a video game.

That’s actually not fair to Bissell and what he’s doing, and here I’ve got to come clean on my own video game past: I played Super Mario Bros and still find myself irregularly humming the theme song, can still remember that in world 2-2 you can warp to 4-1, then from 4-2 to 8-2; I played Contra and, sure, did the up-up-down-down and 30′d my way to winning the game. Thereafter (aside from the month a roommate purchased an XBox and Star Wars: Obi Wan and we spent the next two weeks playing and beating [over and over] the game), I haven’t played games. I’ve watched friends get very sucked into Halo and a host of other first-person shooters whose names I’ve forgotten. More than all that, though, I can still very distinctly recall driving home from college one weekend, a weekend which capped some week during which hallmates and I played (not seriously: just goof played, like kids) Grand Theft Auto II, and I remember coming to a red stoplight and idling and then, looking around, thinking I could totally take that guy in the next car. As anyone who’s played GTA knows, you can rip folks clean from their vehicles and drive felonly away, swerving to yr heart’s content. At that stoplight, at that moment, I was taking video game thinking into my day-to-day life. I remember thinking that, and remember thinking that I didn’t want to go much further into that rabbit hole.

Bissell doesn’t cover that aspect of games, necessarily, the ways and times in which they begin to infect and color regular supra-televisual existence (though through a sort of emotional association, he talks of the period in which he was simultaneously addicted to cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV, which double addiction seems not the least bit coincidental), but good lord is he the guide you’ve been looking for if you want more understanding of the world of video games. To this outsider, games seem potentially satisfying in a variety of ways: as platforms of storytelling/narrative, as venue for the massive joy of motor control and synchronously mashed buttons (I’m not being ironic: anyone who has repeatedly failed and then finally succeeded in passing a difficult level in any game can attest to this thrill), as gloriously immoral realms into which we’re allowed to dump socially unacceptable aspects of self. Bissell’s good on 3/3 of these aspects (the physical stuff’s touched lightly, but, if only for arguing that mashing one specific button to launch a certain ordnance is as counterintuitive as using the volume button on a car’s radio to roll down the window, he gets a solid 10/10).

Extra Lives is so good because of how deeply into the sort of esoterica of video game design Bissell goes. In chapter after chapter (each chapter mostly covers a single game, or, at least, a single video game developer, and, because at least one of these chapters was first published in a high-brow-ish magazine, that/those chapter[s] are tonally at significant variance with, say, the chapter written in second-person about taking skull-shots at zombies in the first Resident Evil, and that’s the only book-as-book criticism anyone could conceivably lob), Bissell sketches, without ever being explicit, that the pleasure in most games, as they’re presently created and played, has to do with the tension the gamer can possibly exploit between the confines of the game’s design (i.e. the locked-in nature of certain narrative aspects) and the open-endedness the games must now, 25 years after, for instance, Contra, offer gamers. This is, roughly, de Botton territory—in the amazing The Architecture of Happiness, he talked about architectural beauty as being the tension between chaos and order, and, given that video games are constructed things, it’s fair to think of them necessarily having to work through the same tension (let’s also note that de Botton, who seems like a significant dick, is hardly the first to sketch such a delineation).

The cool part? There is no answer to this tension, at least in video games: there is no right or wrong. It seems clear that, given that Bissell ends with a consideration of Grand Theft Auto IV (a game which was not as large [or the internal world of the game was not as large, geographically] as earlier iterations of the game), that the question of whether or not the worlds of video games can just keep getting bigger and bigger—giving way to more and more inherent chaos, more and more entropy—is already settled: they can’t. They fail. That said, in GTAIV, there’s a scene (apparently) in which the character’s interaction with his enemies is too simple, too easy to parse (and therefore beat), so there’s a lower limit, a clear amount of control the game has to offer the gamer.

What happens as Bissell considers the interior philosophical contours of this issue is that, fundamentally, he ends up shining several flashlights not toward the question Do Video Games Matter but What Are Video Games For? It is, of course, an unanswerable question: there is, for Bissell, no ur-game, nothing so perfect that all other ideas should be scrapped and everything tailored from some Davidic line of games. Still, it’s impossible to read this book and not 1) really, really want to play video games, and 2) understand some of the most critical aspects of successful video games (if you’re willing to believe Bissell’s a reliable narrator/player, which is your decision, of course, but the dude’s bona fides, spelled out in the intro, are pretty damn smell-test proof). Shockingly (or not), at least for someone pretty uppity about how vital and rad and critical books are (especially nerdishly tough books, like poetry and postmodern fiction), the necessary ingredients for successful games are the same as those for, really, any other art: like the best novels or poems or movies, they’ve got to offer some aspect of meeting expectations/control (an enemy has to be consistent, can’t suddenly double in size or become immume) while offering us surprise/chaos (the enemy could be joined halfway through a fight). The question, of course, that Bissell brings up more than once but which he can’t possibly answer, is not even necessarily articulable, but it’s got to do with actual real-life living vs. video-game living, and the values of each, the attendant differences. If you’re human, and you’ve got a brain, you’re looking for books which, like the best video games, give you the pleasure and nutrients you expect while offering a whole quanta of stuff you may not’ve previously guessed would be dosed to you; unless you’ve got your reading list planned out books and books in advance, you now know what to read next. And, if you haven’t read any Bissell before, start anywhere: dude’s taking big swings through all sorts of fields.

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