Not too long ago The Dalkey Archive was having a large sale for books and I decided to partake (because what else was I going to do? Let the books sit there, un-bought by me? Yeah right!). I’m fairly new to The Dalkey Archive, but they have published work by some very interesting international authors (who play with genre, by the way), and that’s definitely something that is right up my alley.
1. Thank You For Not Reading by Dubravka Ugresic
In this collection of acerbic essays, Ugresic dissects the nature of the contemporary book industry, which she argues is so infected with the need to create and promote literature that will appeal to the masses—literally to everyone—that if Thomas Mann were writing nowadays, his books wouldn’t even be published in the U.S. because they’re not sexy enough.
A playful and biting critique, Ugresic’s essays hit on all of the major aspects of publishing: agents, subagents, and scouts, supermarket-like bookstores, Joan Collins, book fairs that have little to do with books, authors promoted because of sex appeal instead of merit, and editors trying to look like writers by having their photograph taken against a background of bookshelves.
Thanks to cultural influences such as Oprah, The Today Show, and Kelly Ripa, best-seller lists have become just a modern form of socialist realism, a manifestation of a society that generally ignores literature in favor of the next big thing.
2. The Terrible Twos by Ishmael Reed
The Terrible Twos is a wickedly funny, sharp-edged fictional assault on all those sulky, spoiled naysayers needing instant gratification—Americans. Ishmael Reed’s sixth novel depicts a zany, bizarre, and all-too believable future where mankind’s fate depends upon St. Nicholas and a Risto rasta dwarf named Black Peter, who together wreak mischievous havoc on Wall Street and in the Oval Office. This offbeat, on-target social critique makes marvelous fun of everything that is American, from commercialism to Congress, Santa Claus to religions cults.
3. The Terrible Threes by Ishmael Reed
With offbeat humor and on-target social criticism, Ishmael Reed presents in The Terrible Threes a vision of America in the not-too-distant future, a portrait of a fairy tale gone awry. Opening on Thanksgiving Day in the late 1990s—three years after the former fashion-model president was laughed out of office for admitting that Saint Nicholas knew more about the workings of the executive branch than he did—the White House is implicated in a plot to rid America of its surplus people and the Third World of its nuclear weapons.
4. Our Circus Presents by Luscian Dan Teodorovici
Every day, the Birdman performs the same ritual: he climbs out onto his window ledge to see if he can manage to kill himself—and never does. The Birdman is a member of a loose-knit group of failed suicides, each pursuing absurd ways to end their lives: one saving up lost-dog reward money to buy enough good whiskey to drink himself to death, another hoping to contract a fatal disease by sleeping with as many women as possible. When it seems these routines will continue indefinitely, the Birdman meets a “professional” suicide: the dangerous and inscrutable “man with orange suspenders,” who makes a living by trying to hang himself whenever he sees a potential rescuer approaching. This chance encounter, which leads at last to a real death, will force the Birdman to confront the roots of his desire to escape from life, and to see first-hand that dying is more than just a rehearsal.
5. Christopher Unborn by Carlos Fuentes
Conceived exactly nine months before the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, the narrator of Christopher Unborn spends the novel waiting to be born. But what kind of world will he be delivered into? “Makesicko City,” as the punning narrator calls it, is not doing well in this alternate, worst-case-scenario 1992. Politicians are selling pieces of their country to the United States. Black acid rain falls relentlessly, forewarning of the even worse ecological catastrophes to come. Gangs of children, confined to the slums, terrorize their wealthy neighbors.
A great novel of ideas and a work of aesthetic boldness, Christopher Unborn is a unique, and quite funny, work from one of the twentieth century’s most respected authors.
6. In the Penny Arcade by Steven Millhauser
Winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize
After the success of his first novels (Edwin Mullhouse and Portrait of a Romantic), Steven Millhauser went on to enchant critics and readers with two short story collections that captured the magic and beauty of his longer works in vivid miniature.
The seven stories of In the Penny Arcade blend the real and the fantastic in a seductive mix that illuminates the full range of the author’s gifts, from the story of “August Eschenburg,” the clockmaker’s son whose extraordinary talent for creating animated figures is lost on a world whose taste for the perverse and crude supercedes that of the refined and beautiful, to “Cathay,” a kingdom whose wonders include elaborate landscape paintings executed on the eyelids and nipples of court ladies.
7. The Jade Cabinet by Rikki Ducornet
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
Made speechless by her eccentric father, the beautiful Etheria is traded for a piece of precious jade. Memory, her sister, tells her story, that of a childhood enlivened by Lewis Carroll and an orangutan named Dr. Johnson, and envenomed by the pernicious courtship of Radulph Tubbs, Queen Victoria’s own Dragon of Industry.
The Jade Cabinet, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is both a riveting novel and a reflection on the nature of memory and desire, language and power.
8. Storytown by Susan Daitch
The distinctions between art and life are blurred in this unsettling and tantalizing first collection of short fiction by novelist Susan Daitch (The Colorist, L.C.). In fifteen stories, all concerning “strange displacements of the ordinary,” Daitch examines the fringes of the art world in the 20th century. Characters restore or duplicate art objects (legally and otherwise), dub dialogue for foreign films, and look to old movies for guidance.
In the title story (based upon a legendary amusement park in upstate New York), a woman works at a children’s theme park, where Alice in Wonderland mourns for the Sheriff of Nottingham, who has joined the marines. Combining “downtown aesthetics” with a vivid historical imagination, Susan Daitch’s stories have the same qualities that have earned her novels wide praise.
9. A Night at the Movies (or, You Must Remember This) by Robert Coover
From Hollywood B-movies to Hollywood classics, A Night at the Movies invents what “might have happened” in these Saturday afternoon matinees. Mad scientists, vampires, cowboys, dance-men, Chaplin, and Bogart, all flit across Robert Coover’s riotously funny screen, doing things and uttering lines that are as shocking to them as they are funny to the reader. As Coover’s Program announces, you will get Coming Attractions, The Weekly Serial, Adventure, Comedy, Romance, and more, but turned upside-down and inside-out.
10. Century 21 by Ewa Kuryluk
Century 21, a time machine in literary form, ignores the unity of time, space, and character. This tragicomical idyll of the future past mixes ancient and modern genres: Platonic dialogue and nineteenth-century romance, reportage and science fiction.
At the book’s core are two sisters, Ann Kar, a writer and survivor, and Carol, a suicidal artist. Considering herself a lunatic, Carol dreams about escaping from the earth to the moon (luna) and about the moon scholar, a lunar archaeologist, who a thousand years after her death, while reconstructing terrestrial life, discovers the traces of her existence, falls in love with her, and begins to write about her—and his—erotic adventure. The result is a novel where Anna Karenina writes about Simone Weil, where Joseph Conrad meets Malcolm Lowry in Mexico, where Goethe presides over a literary institute made up of such members as Italo Svevo and Sextus Propertius, and where Djuna Barnes, dying from AIDS, visits Moses Maimonides in Japan.
Ewa Kuryluk is fascinated by the repetition of the same situations and types, yet she’s after her contemporaries who are starved for affection, lost in transit, ready to slip into somebody else’s skin, and speaking English, their second language, with a heavy accent. Century 21 is a profoundly moving and original work.
That’s the last of it. The books above are a pretty eccentric mix, don’t you think? Any of them sound interesting to you?
What have you bought or discovered recently?