Books Acquired on Vacation Jaunt: Perec, Arreola, Nabokov, Hipflask, and More

(“Wait. Whut? That ain’t a book!” No, it’s not. And that’s not dust on the mantel, either. So, is it a gun? A music box? A perpetual motion machine? Check out the whole photo gallery to figure it out–just another impulse buy between book purchases this past weekend.)

I’m resigned to a ridiculous fact: despite the insane number of books that enter our house every single day for review or blurbage or whatever, additional book buying will always occur. In part, it’s because I need to create a bulwark of books I want to read as a defense against the tidal wave of books I have to read (without knowing if I’ll actually like them). This is no complaint against receiving books for review–I’ll always delight in them. But I’ll also always delight in the hunt for obscure titles and old favorites. This past weekend, we picked up some things at Chamblin Bookmine and Wolf’s Head Books (both stories documented in recent posts)…

I read the Perec long ago, in a rush because it was a library book and I didn’t get to it until two days before it was due. This near-perfect trade paperback version makes for a great reading copy to re-read it at a more leisurely pace. I honestly don’t remember too much about my first read, except that the conceit of the novel being sectioned off into different rooms of an apartment building seemed to hold a lot of promise.

As for Confabulario and Other Inventions by Juan Jose Arreola, it’s a University of Texas edition from 1960. A nice, sturdy first edition hardcover. Arreola’s a Mexican writer I wasn’t familiar with until picking up this volume. The bestiary looks particularly fascinating, the only distraction being that the man is clearly a product of his times in terms of a somewhat outdated view of women. I keep having to edit things out to enjoy the book. But there are frequent delights, like his description of a rhino as, in captivity, “a melancholy, rusty beast” or his observation that a toad “is rather like a heartbeat; in fact, if you consider the matter carefully, a toad is all heart.” This bit about owls is also quite lovely: “Before devouring his victims, the owl digests them mentally. He never takes a whole mouse under consideration without previously forming some idea of each one of its parts…Here is a case of profound reflective assimilation.” On moles: “After long experience, agriculturists have concluded that the only effective weapon against the mole is the hole. One must trap the enemy in his own system.” I’m not much past the bestiary, but am now seeing more and more that I must hack out sentences and paragraphs dealing with women in either a strange or patronizing way. How far I’ll progress into this thicket before I decide it’s not worth it, I don’t know…

I’m an unabashed fan of John LeCarre’s fiction–between LeCarre and Ken Bruen I feel like I’ve learned so much in the past few years–and it’s actually less expensive to collect him in first edition hardcovers than new trade paperbacks (although I’m suspicious of Our Game being a first). A Perfect Spy may be his best novel, so I had to pick that up. The other three I haven’t read yet. In the nearish future I will be writing dual reader/writer perspectives on the LeCarre novels I have read–the reader one for Omnivoracious and the writer one for Ecstatic Days.

The three ill-fated Book Warehouse purchases–sparse, minimalistic, depressing detective novels by James Sallis–along with a good reading copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. I love Bend Sinister for three things in particular: A scene where a character is trapped on a bridge between countries because the one he was headed toward won’t let him in because his paperwork is insufficient and the one he tries to then return to has experienced a coup since he started crossing the bridge and won’t acknowledge his paperwork either!; a death camp described in the language of holiday get-away pamphlets, thus making the stereotypically known new and horrific again; and a lovely ability to, within a single paragraph, go from the present to the prehistoric past to the more recent past and then back into the present, as effortlessly as a dolphin curving through water.

I’d seen these two 1940s issues of the Atlantic featuring Nabokov stories in Wolf’s Head Books the last three years; finally, this time, I took them up to the counter and bargained the price down using the rationale they were never going to sell…to anyone but me. Thus, two more acquisitions for a Nabokov collection that may in fact be complete sometime in the next decade.

Time and ebb, indeed. Advertisements from a different age, blinkered by war and the need to demonize the enemy.

Now, these books may not look like much, but Ann’s instincts in picking the first two seem justified (I’m responsible for the third). Davis Grubb is an extremely underrated writer who produced some fine work. Small Beer consists of drolly humorous vignettes with nice illustrations. And, Paul Tabori turns out to be a very interesting Hungarian-English writer who also wrote The Natural History of Stupidity, among other interesting projects. Green Rain, which Ann has now read and quite enjoyed, is much more than a grubby-looking mass market paperback from Pyramid Books. It’s a great Cold War satire, along the lines of the Dr. Strangelove movie. It also features a lovely chapter on the color green, part of which I’ll reproduce here:

Green is one of the three primary colors. A green house is a house painted green but a greenhouse is a glasshouse for the growing and preservation of especially rare and delicate plants. Greengages are yellow-green plums which Sir Henry Gage made popular in England; he wasn’t so successful with purple or blue gages. It isn’t true that blue and yellow make green–not if you’re thinking of colors. If you mix blue and yellow pigments, the result is green; but it’s no use trying the same with a blue and a yellow light, the two will simply produce a bluish-gray. Pigments–as the world learned partly to its grief and partly to its joy–are not monochromatic, though if you look at a red rose this isn’t easy to believe.

To Shakespeare, melancholy is green and yellow; but there is no proof supplied by natural science that a Welsh valley is any greener than a Greek or Spanish one. The Psalmist sang of green pastures and of the green bay tree; the poet wished his friend a soft cover of green turf over the grave; the ministrel was a little more ambitious and added grass to it. In our salad days our judgment was green; and Pope’s Iliad spoke of the race of man as green in youth. There were tears for the leaf that perished in the green; but old age could be of the same color if the hair was just grizzled. Macbeth could turn the green sea red with blood; gentler dreamers wished for green thoughts in a green shade provided possibly by tall oaks called “green-robed senators of mighty woods.” …

If you think of Hipflask as Blade Runner with bioengineered intelligent animals who are kind of an underclass in the same way as the replicants in the movie, then you’re half-way there. But this awesome comics series, partially collected in this oversized hardcover I picked up for half-price at Chamblin Bookmine, is very much its own beast. I absolutely love the visuals. The story’s good, too–and look at those amazing end papers…

You can never have too many mass market versions of Whittemore’s amazing, daring, incendiary Quin’s Shanghai Circus to pass out to readers who need one. I still remember the Japanese colonel who had one skillfully made glass eye and thus could close his good eye and pretend to be awake during long interrogations/staring contests. Or the actual awful circus during the sack of Shanghai. Powerful stuff. And ultimately redemptive. Another touchstone of my first period of what I call Sentient Reading–when you’re just past the Sense of Wonder stage during which you’ll devour any old thing that comes under your nose and proclaim it good.

Got the Fancher because we met her at MidSouth Con and found her delightful….

Ann bought the mysteries by Ayelet Waldman, the wife of Michael Chabon, and about half-way through the first one declared they made a great “guilty pleasure.” But I noticed she was reading more intently by about the three-quarter mark, and somewhere near the end of either the first or the second, there was a marked intake of breath as Waldman did something totally unexpected. I believe Ann has taken them out of the guilty pleasure category and firmly into the quality read category.

So there you have it–not a large haul, but diverse and mind-expanding in the sense that both Ann and I made discoveries of interesting authors we hadn’t encountered before.

Remember: Writers who are too busy to read soon atrophy, their legs turning to chalk, their arms to dust-rust, their brains into cotton candy with nails poured in…


  1. says

    Have you read Sallis before or is he new to you? For me he is, in many ways, the high water mark of the genre. Nothing else like it. One of the great writers, bar genre.

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says

    I encountered those novels before when I was in a period of reading really ornate stylists and couldn’t get into them. I’m coming to them again because now in a more minimalist mode.

  3. says

    Three things: The Confabulario looks and sounds kind of awesome, outdatery despite.

    But green is not a primary color; it’s made by yellow and blue, which, with red, are the actual primary colors.

    I like the visuals in Hipflask, too; a lot.

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Ha! This is true. Perhaps in the context of the novel, green is now primary?

  5. says

    I picked up Quin’s Shanghai Circus a couple years ago based on one of your fantasy lists and consider it one of the finest books I’ve ever read, I still remember parts of it vividly to this day (and it has truly one of the great endings to any literary work I’ve ever experienced, almost like Buddhism in a nutshell). You’ve provided lots of good tips but this one’s the most resonant. My copy is the yellow hardback original, I’m not sure how lucky that makes me but it’s got a special place on the shelves. Thanks Jeff.

  6. says

    All you need is lots of canned goods and shotgun shells and you’re prepared to entertain yourself during the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

  7. hellbound heart says

    what australian authors have you had anything to do with? if i knew your addy i’d collect a few and send them over to you…..books, not authors…..

    peace and love

  8. jeff vandermeer says

    dowling, wilkins, sparks, winton, strahan (ed.), cave, lanagan, nix, bishop, elliott, etc., I am familiar with.

  9. f. says

    now that i think about it, arreola’s view of women is not very far from gene wolfe’s view.
    i hope you enjoy his bestiary and confabulario, though.

  10. says

    Wow, I need to find that Davis Grubb. I’ve got “Night of the Hunter” and his collection of short stories, but I’ve yet to see a copy of “The Watchman”. Also need to get my hands on “Voices of Glory”.