The Strange Bird

For he had no typewriter ribbon left and only fifty sheets of paper and he counted on the stabbing imprint of the keys to make an impression like a branding, and when he had used the fifty sheets, front and back, he would start again, typing over what he had already impressed upon the page.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird

 

Bird, Scavenging along an Interstate Highway in Texas

Back in the olden days, the days when we did things, I would go to a book club in a bookstore on the other side of town and join a group that would read the same book and discuss it. It seems so long ago.

One book we read was Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts. I really can’t say I enjoyed the book – it was too, too difficult to read. I looked forward to the discussion. I was curious about what everybody thought – but the thoughts were jumbled. I asked, at the end of the evening, “Would anyone here have finished this book on their own – without the pressure of having book club?” The answer was a resounding NO.

Though I won’t say the book was enjoyable, it was interesting… and it was… haunting is the best I can come up with.

And when I came across an online short story written by VanderMeer – The Situation – I read it and wrote about it. It was another fabulous story but told in a more conventional way – not too difficult to get through.

And then… well, there’s this thing I do. I always like to have some short books laying around – something to read when I don’t have very much time, energy, or patience. What I do is I walk down the aisles of the library in the fiction section simply looking at the physical books. Then I pull the small and slim volumes out and see if they are something I might be interested in. This, again, was back in the olden days when there were libraries.

The last book like that I checked out – I looked at it and, surprise, it was another by Jeff VanderMeer – a short novel, novela really, called The Strange Bird.

And it, again was in a different style. It was a straightforward (though bizarre) tale told as a hero’s journey – like The Odyssey, or The Alchemist,  or The Hobbit, or something like that.  The protagonist is the eponymous “Strange Bird” – a creature that may have started out as a bird but had been manipulated in a horrific futuristic bio-tech lab – bits added from many different animals… and humans… fantastic properties and abilities… until what was left was an intelligent, damaged, powerful, fearful, beautiful, hurt and most of all – unique thing – the Strange Bird:

In the lab, so many of the scientists had said, “forgive me” or “I am so sorry” before doing something irrevocable to the animals in their cages. Because they felt they had the right. Because the situation was extreme and the world was dying. So they had gone on doing the same things that had destroyed the world, to save it. Even a Strange Bird perched on a palm tree on an artificial island with a moat full of hungry crocodiles below could understand the problem with that logic.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird

Even though the styles are varied – the Strange Bird is a “Borne” novel and The Situation is a “Borne” novela and The Dead Astronauts is another “Borne” novel. They are set in a fantastic world established in the linchpin novel Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a dystopian earth destroyed by the experiments conducted by The Company – a giant biotech conglomerate. The blasted world is left with the few remaining humans battling for survival with the genetic monsters created by The Company – now escaped and running amok.

There are characters and locations shared (though often at different times – different stages of their lives) – Charlie X, Rachel and her lover Wick (who sells drugs in the form of customized beetles that produce memories when shoved in one’s ear), the Balcony Cliffs, and especially the giant flying killer bear, Mord. Borne himself(herself? itself?) is mentioned briefly in The Strange Bird.

So, now, what choice do I have? I picked up a copy of Borne – will read it next.

 

 

One Book In My Hand And A Stack Of Others On the Floor

“I like best to have one book in my hand, and a stack of others on the floor beside me, so as to know the supply of poppy and mandragora will not run out before the small hours.”
Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker

Recycled Books, Denton, Texas (taken a long time ago, obviously)

There was a time when we could go to bookstores. Especially big ol’ huge used bookstores (like Recycled Books) with rooms – a confused labyrinth of passages between towering shelves – that odd quiet of millions of sheets of paper adsorbing the sound – the slight smell of mold and ancient wisdom. I would stand in a place like that (or the library) and feel panic because I would never live long enough to read one percent of this – so much knowledge that I would never possess – haunted by the thought that somewhere in there – in that massive agglomeration – is the one book that would enlighten me and tell me exactly what I need to know and I don’t know enough to find it and wouldn’t know it if I saw it.

It feels like those days are so long in the past – it seemed like we could do anything (except smoke in the elevator) – the memories are fading – will those days ever come back again?

Recycled Books
Denton, Texas

Recycled Books Records CDs
Denton, Texas
(click to enlarge)

Recycled Books, Denton, Texas

 

 

Joy Cannot Fend Off Evil

“But, in the end, joy cannot fend off evil.
Joy can only remind you why you fight.”
Jeff VanderMeer, Dead Astronauts

(click to enlarge)
Mural, Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

OK, it was Monday, the end of work, I was so very tired, I didn’t have my car with me, I had to get clear across town, if I really wanted to go there, it was cold, it was raining, it was dark,  I thought about not going, I would get back home so very late, here’s how I would have to travel:

Work Shuttle – DART Red Line – walking downtown – Dallas Streetcar to Bishop Arts – Walk to Restaurant – eat a hamburger – Walk to BookstoreWild Detectives Book Club discussion of Dead Astronauts – Walk to Streetcar – Streetcar downtown – walk to DART station – Red Line to Spring Valley Station – wait for bus – DART bus 402 – walk home from Belt Line and Yale

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone, today is the next day and I’m tired I didn’t get enough sleep last night

 

But I realized I had to go because the book was so difficult and so WEIRD that I had to find out what the others thought about it. Also, I had fought my way to the end of a tough read – I had earned the trip and the meeting.

 

I asked the group, “Would you have finished this if you weren’t in a reading group? If there weren’t other people shaming you into plowing ahead and getting to the end?” Everyone (and I mean Every-One) replied enthusiastically “Hell No!”

 

What do I think about difficult books? What do I think about WEIRD books? What do I think about books that stretch the envelope of what text can do? What do I think about books that play with illustration and typography in odd and confusing ways? (think House of Leaves)

 

I did say that, usually, I judge difficult and WEIRD books… in the end… by an emotional connection. I don’t care if the plot makes no sense I don’t care if there is a conventional resolution I don’t care if the theme is obscure(d) – but I prefer it if I have some kind of emotional connection or some sort of inner payoff at the end

 

With Dead Astronauts there was some (but not a lot) especially in the Sarah section and at the very end. Was there enough? Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows

 

Now, the next big question is should I read more VanderMeer? (I did really like The Situation – a protoBorne novella)  Should I read Borne? (set in the same world as Dead Astronauts but different – the people in the group that had read it said it was character-driven) Should I read Annihilation?( I saw the movie without knowing it was from a book and thought it was very cool) Should I read the whole Southern Reach Trilogy (A guy sitting next to me said he really liked Annihilation but the sequels left him cold because they resolved too much of the mystery of Annihilation)

 

So Maybe I’ll read Annihilation and skip the rest of the Trilogy. I think I will read Borne.

 

But first… I have to read L’Assommoir – Have to keep troopering through my Zola project – and then, in March there’s another Wild Detectives Difficult Book Club project – we’re going to tackle The Brothers Karamazov (about six weeks of work)………………….

So little time, so many books.

 

 

A Screaming Comes Across the Sky

Gravity’s Rainbow fractured literature, which previously had been fractured only by Ulysses and which no book has so fractured since. Pynchon’s novel transcends assessment: whatever you think of it, whatever you can even begin to think of it, you can’t resist it, it’s inexorable, the event horizon of contemporary literature.

—-Steve Erickson, introduction to One Picture for Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow, 2004, by Zac Smith

 

A few days ago, some of us were getting together for the holidays and wanted to eat somewhere in the Bishop Arts District. Everybody met at one of my favorite haunts – The Wild Detectives – a bookstore with coffee and beer (right?) and then walked out together to find some vittles.

As we were walking down the front steps, I saw this sign:

Sign at The Wild Detectives bookstore, Dallas, Texas

Wednesday, January 2, Gravity’s Rainbow Reading? What is that?

Then this morning, I received an email inviting me to a three month group reading of Gravity’s Rainbow. Oh hell yea.

I’ve read the book, starting in, say, 1976 – only a few years after it came out. I finished it twenty five years later. I think it’s time to read it again. We’ll be reading about ten pages a day – which doesn’t sound like a lot – but Gravity’s Rainbow is no easy read. We’ll get together every Wednesday at Wild Detectives at 7:30 to discuss what we have read that week. I’ll have to postpone my reading of Zola for the duration, but I wanted a break anyway. It will be a haul to get down to the Bishop Arts District after work on Wednesdays – but I’m already working on mass transit options.

I drove down there tonight for the introduction. There were a good number (maybe 25?) folks ready to dig in. We’ll see how many make it to the end.

What fun!

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

—-First Line, Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Swedish Edition of Gravity’s Rainbow

Faulkner House Books

When I’m lucky enough to visit New Orleans I try to avoid the more obvious tourist traps. I see nothing special about the bitter Joe and greasy dough at Cafe Du Monde, rarely set foot on Bourbon Street, and try to walk out of the Quarter (or at least skirt the edges) whenever possible. Still, there is cool stuff even in the heart of touristland.

One special little spot is Pirate’s Alley. It’s a narrow passage that runs alongside the St. Louis Cathedral, connecting Jackson Square with Royal Street. History drips onto the cobblestones like Spanish Moss from an iron balcony.

Usually I like to aimlessly drift through and see what there is to see. There is usually something interesting. Once, I stumbled across a fashion shoot in the alley.

Fashion Shoot in Pirate's Alley (click to enlarge)

Fashion Shoot in Pirate’s Alley (click to enlarge)

On our last trip – I walked down Decatur from Canal, headed for Pirate’s Alley. This time I was going somewhere in particular – an unusual state for me in the Big Easy. I had realized that I had never visited Faulkner House Books – a tiny bookstore located in the alley.

What makes this store so famous is that it occupies an apartment on the lower floor where William Faulkner once lived. There, in that very space, he hammered out his first novel Soldier’s Pay, begining the transition from unknown poet to Nobel prize winning novelist.

So I crossed Jackson Square – ignoring the thick crowd of artists, musicians, tourists, and fortunetellers – strolled down the alley past the Absinthe House and pushed the doors open to the bookstore.

It’s a small place – not hard to imagine it as a tiny apartment for a young, struggling writer. It’s packed with bookcases, every inch of wall covered, plus a collection of free-standing cases.

“Can I help you?” a woman asked.

“Umm, I’m just looking.”

“Well, the rare and first editions are around the corner, and ask me if you need anything.”

I glanced and saw a well-dressed elderly gentleman delicately thumbing through the case. The woman walked over to him and began to talk about the history of each volume he was examining. I heard him talking about which editions he already had in his collection and what holes he was trying to fill.

Those books were obviously not in my price range so I moved back toward the entrance and began to peruse the ordinary mass market offerings – after all, I had to buy something. I considered picking up a Faulkner novel but decided instead on Same Place, Same Things, a book of short stories by Tim Gautreaux. A South Louisiana writer, I had read another collection of his, Welding With Children, and really liked it.

We had talked about Tim Gautreaux while walking around on our New Orleans Writing Marathon the day before. I had discovered that he had written a story, Waiting for the Evening News, (contained in the book I chose) based on a train derailment in Livingston, Louisiana in 1982. I wanted to read that story because I had worked that train derailment when I was a consultant to the Emergency Response Division of the EPA.

Paperback in hand, I waited while the other man paid for his purchases – two beautiful, large books. His bill came to just under a thousand dollars. After he left, I handed my little trade sale paperback to the woman.

“Sorry, my purchase isn’t quite as big as his,” I said.

She ignored this. “This is very good work, have you read him before?”

I said I had and told her a quick version of the story of the derailment. She smiled and rang me up.

The entrance to Faulkner House Books

The entrance to Faulkner House Books

faulkner2

Right after I took a photo of the plaque, this guy did the same thing.

Right after I took a photo of the plaque, this guy did the same thing.

He and his wife never went in the store - he just moved along, not even taking his eye out of the viewfinder.

He and his wife never went in the store – he just moved along, not even taking his eye out of the viewfinder.

An old video of the train derailment at Livingston. I worked there for a couple weeks – providing technical assistance and taking samples to help determine when the residents could return home. I’m in the video, though unrecognizable, at about the nine minute mark.