[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 sale — buy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]
I'm psyched to be writing a blog entry for Powell's Books. Since I live in Portland, OR, I often accompany friends to the actual physical store — usually the behemoth Burnside location. More often than not, we'll each get lost in the stacks for an hour, or more. I actually received a nice shout-out from Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff the other month about this very thing. In an interview he did for Pitchfork, Will recounts how we went to Powell's together and he said "Tell me what to buy," so I did. One of those books was apparently A Night of Serious Drinking by Rene Daumal, which then made enough of an impression on Sheff that it influenced his last album. Hooray!
Will's one of those friends I see once or twice a year and have a great conversation for five hours with, and then we're not in touch until we pick it up 7 months later. So I had no idea that this had happened. I found it out via one of those "Google Alerts" that I'd set up around my name (which is egotistical, sure, but it typically just shows me an embarrassing hack record review I wrote five years ago that just got republished on a fan website). As people who write cultural criticism, even in the instant bloggy age it's tough to know if you ever succeed much in even recommending something to somebody, let alone to engage them in any way. Sure, we all have comments sections on our blogs and all of that, but I turned mine off after the seventeenth time I got a comment that was actually an advertisement for cheap, affordable prescription drugs.
In no particular order (aside from the alphabet), here are a dozen books I'd gladly suggest you buy if we were browsing through Powells together, OK:
DODIE BELLAMY, The Letters of Mina Harker
A smart, funny, sexy and strange book, this is essentially the sequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula. Van Helsing's personal assistant is here recast as a sexually omnivorous woman living in San Francisco in the '80s.
DAVID BODANIS, The Secret House
I tend to read about half a dozen books all at one time, with one of them being a pop science title of some sort. A few times I've returned to this engaging look at the scientific principles inherent in everything we do; simply the way it moves from a micro perspective to a macro one is really rad.
JOE BRAINARD, I Remember
It's a crime that so much of this prolific artist's work is out of print. Thankfully, though, his tour de force of seemingly simplistic poetry-memoir, I Remember, remains available. Each paragraph of the long prose poem by the great New York School writer begins with the two words in the title and the result is far better than it has any right to.
THE BUTT BOOK, edited by Gert Jonkers
For years I've been picking up issues of the pink Dutch magazine Butt whenever I can find it. It's simply the funniest magazine published today, and their disarming interviews with gay icons like Gus van Sant and Bruce La Bruce are revealing as heck.
ITALO CALVINO, Baron in the Trees
The narrator's older brother, a nobleman in eighteenth century Italy, decides to go and spend the rest of his life up in the trees in Calvino's sharpest book, one that's worth multiple re-readings.
PIERO CAMPORESI, Bread of Dreams
In the Middle Ages, thanks to a mixture of malnutrition, hunger and the effects of spoiled wheat, almost every peasant person lived in a near-constant state of hallucination. This is just one of the claims made by the great Italian historian in this mind-blowing work.
AMY GERSTLER, Medicine
Among the most talented poets alive today, and it's just amazing that a major publisher like Penguin puts her books out since I doubt they make a ton of dough on her work. Someone please get Ms. Gerstler a Guggenheim grant, or even one of those MacArthur ones. She shouldn't have to work, but just write all day (unless she wants to work, of course...)
CHARLES MINGUS, Beneath the Underdog
This autobiography by the composer and bassist and one-time pimp has much of the fantastic to it. But if you read it as a ribald, Chester Himes-ish story very well told you'll be more than satisfied.
PAUL OLIVER, Songsters & Saints
I'm currently working on a book about sanctified blues and gritty gospel, and I'd be operating entirely in the dark were it not for this work from 1984. Oliver's work will spoil you when it comes to blues historians; he's such a clear writer at the same time that he's done really solid and innovative research.
CHARLES PORTIS, Norwood
This shaggy dog story is absolutely perfect. It's so much smarter than the many smart new novels that I buy each year, perhaps because those lack the empathy Portis feels for his protagonist Norwood, a seemingly clueless sap who embarks on a long, strange journey into the night all because some other guy owes him a little money.
MICHEL TOURNIER, Friday
You're gonna start thinking that I am really into radical re-imaginings of characters from other people's novels, but I actually dislike most anything like that since it just reeks of cleverness for its own sake and too much time spent in grad school. Tournier's re-telling of the Robinson Crusoe legend from the point of view of Crusoe's mulatto island companion quite nearly eclipses the original text.
ROBERT WALSER, Masquerade & Other Stories
Even if I never actually had to go to the bathroom, surely I'd retire there to read one or two of Walser's short stories, as they are perfectly composed and witty and they are narrated from this ideal place in-between absolute innocence and total cynicism.
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Mike McGonigal is the author of the 33 1/3 book My Bloody Valentine: Loveless. He has written about music and "the arts" since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance. An occasional
curator, sculptor and DJ, Mike resides in Portland, Oregon. He edits the
which has also just started to publish books. The first three are from Luc Sante, Jana
Martin, and Tara Jane O'Neil. You can contact Mike via his personal website, buked.blogspot.org, or via yetipublishing.com.
Books mentioned in this post
Mike McGonigal is the author of My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (33 1/3 Series)