Recent Reading

Blogging always slows to a crawl during the second half of a semester, but I was surprised to see that it's been almost a month since I last posted here. Egads. I've hardly had a moment to breathe, though.

For now, I just want to capture a few moments of reading from the recent weeks.

First, if you don't know that Lethe Press has recently released Christopher Barzak's first short story collection, Before and Afterlives ... well, now you do. I first discovered Chris through his short stories, and particularly through a story not included in the book, "The Blue Egg", which I wrote about here in June 2004. Of course, Chris has gone on to all sorts of things since then (awards, movie deals, tenure), but I'm not going to be like some hipster complaining about how sad my life is now everybody knows about that little band we used to go hear in the bar in Brooklyn before they got a big record deal and played all the late-night TV shows and toured Eastern Europe. Chris's work has only gotten better, deeper, more affecting over the years, and will continue to do so. Before and Afterlives gives an excellent overview of the changes and continuities in his work over the last decade. I was amused to see Gary Wolfe say in Locus that the stories sometimes veer into sentimentality and the anonymous reviewer at Publisher's Weekly call the stories "emotionally distant" — I have no doubt the two reviewers experienced them that way, but it also shows the emotional Rorschach that these stories are. What you make of them has at least as much to do with you as with the texts. (Yes, it is always thus. But it is more always thus with this book than with many others.)

Also recently released by Lethe is a new edition of Minions of the Moon by Richard Bowes. This version includes a great new short story as an added bonus. Rick Bowes is also someone I've known a while and been writing about for longer. Minions is a great starting place if you're new to his work and a wonderful addition to the canon if you're already a Bowesite. You should also probably check out Rick's little collection of fairy tales, The Queen, the Cambion, and Seven Others, new from Aqueduct Press.

Continuing with the New Books You Should Know About theme: the great people at Wesleyan University Press have just released a revised, expanded, and enhanced edition of Samuel Delany's Phallos. Editor Robert Reid-Pharr did a marvelous job with this, bringing in essays about the text by Kenneth James, Steven Shaviro, and Darieck Scott.

I should note here, too, that in June there will be another Delany reissue: Fantagraphics is bringing out the "graphic autobiography" Bread & Wine in a new edition with the addition of some new interviews with Delany and artist Mia Wolff.

Earlier this year, Wesleyan University Press released The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories by Kit Reed. I found this book to be a revelation. I've been reading Kit's work for a long time (one of the earliest Mumpsimus posts was about her story "The Wait"), I've interviewed her, I've seen her at Readercon a bunch, etc. But it wasn't until I sat down and read story after story in the new book that I fully realized just how great her writing is. She's one of the best American short story writers of the last 50 years. I feel guilty for not having come to that conclusion earlier. The evidence was there. But the wonder and joy of The Story Until Now is that it makes the case incontrovertible. And people have begun to notice. Simply put: No book I've read so far this year has given me more pleasure.

Over the last month, I re-read M. John Harrison's Light and Nova Swing in preparation for reviewing the third book in the Kefahuchi Tract series, Empty Space. I hadn't revisited Nova Swing since it first came out (when Dustin Kurz reviewed it here), nor Light in an even longer time. I struggled with Nova Swing when I first read it, because I couldn't ever really get my bearings — Light I loved and read twice in one year, but Nova Swing held me at bay, for many of the reasons Dustin cites in his review. Rereading it, I found it much more accessible, maybe because I'm older and more experienced, maybe because it's not a book that can really be read at all, but only re-read. The last third of it particularly impressed me this time in the ways it undermines every sense of reality that has previously been established in the book. For purely hallucinatory writing, too, those last chapters are a feast. I expect I'll have more to say about all that once I've written the Empty Space review.

I read Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis de Veaux, which was fascinating for its portrait of Lorde's life and times, about which I knew nothing beyond what I'd read in her books. She's a poet I've really come to cherish, and the biography does a good job of creating a context for her life, thoughts, politics, and writing. My praise is a bit faint because I didn't think the book was particularly well written — the sentences often felt clunky and awkward to me, which is unfortunate in any writer's biography. Pedestrian prose is a minor sin, though, when the book did just what it should: sent me back to Lorde's Collected Poems with new knowledge and even more appreciation for their power.

Speaking of poetry, I recently went to a thrilling reading by Jorie Graham and picked up her most recent collection, Place, which I'm still reading, and am utterly in love with. Buy the book for "Lull" alone. I haven't ever read Graham's poetry very systematically (rather than just a poem here, a poem there), but am going to work my way through more of it now, because Place has really enchanted and overwhelmed me.

Once the semester ends, I'm going to plunge more fully into a few books I'm intending to review somewhere or other — I had pitched a review of Eric Ames's study of Werner Herzog's documentaries, Ferocious Reality, to a few places that either weren't interested or already had somebody lined up for it, then I sort of forgot about it in the midst of the end of the year and then the new term, and now I feel guilty because it's a book that deserves attention and I've had it kicking around the house for almost a year now. Bad me. I'm thinking now that I will create a review that's a video essay, since I've never tried doing a book review as a video, and the format makes sense for a book about films. But that will have to wait till I get all my students' work graded...

Other books I hope to write about for someone, somewhere are two collections of plays by one of America's greatest living playwrights, David Greenspan: The Myopia and Other Plays and Four Plays and a Monologue. Greenspan was a teacher of mine ages ago at NYU, and I saw him as an actor in numerous plays and read any scripts of his that I could find, though at the time he was mostly focusing on acting, so I only got to see a reading of one of his plays, Only Beauty. His Dead Mother, or, Shirley Not All in Vain changed my understanding of what theatre is and could be (I was about 17 when I first read it in one of the most important books in my life, Michael Feingold's Grove New American Theater). He was also a perfect teacher for me, and helped me more than he (or I) could have known then.

Finally, I just got New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut by B. Ruby Rich, which looks to be magnificent, and which I might be able to browbeat somebody into letting me write about. First, though, I need some spare time to read it...

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