The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.

– Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!


Hi! Here are some books I read this month (an asterisk means it came out less than 365 days ago):

+ Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler (Seven Stories Press, 1996)

+ Kite by Dominique Eddé, trans. Ros Schwartz (Seagull Books, 2012)*

+ Dying Birds by Nicolai Howalt and Trine Søndergaard (Haasla Books, 2010)

+ Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun (Riverhead Books, 2009)

+ STIR Vol. 1 (, 2012)*

+ Man vs. Sky by Corey Zeller (YesYes Books, 2013)*


Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler 

I picked up Bloodchild again for the class I took last spring with Oli Rodriguez and Catherine Opie (mentioned if you haven’t already checked out their work, which is great). Each time I read the title story I think about the song where Le Tigre samples Naomi Weisstein—she liked riding this one train in New York, you could go all the way up, thinking, and nobody would bother you. “Bloodchild” is my train, it’s the story I always wish I was reading late night at the bar, those times somebody comes up and says “Hey, what’s that book about?”

The first story’s about Gan, a young male alien who eventually agrees to be impregnated by T’Gatoi, an older female from a more powerful species. T’Gatoi has two rows of limbs, gets folks stoned on eggs, and is pals with Gan’s mom. The story has both one of the grossest scenes I’ve ever read in science fiction—a bloody grub-by birth one—and one of the loveliest: when T’Gatoi leads Gan into a room, and because of her limbs she’s described not as in front of him, but as flowing around him. (It reminds me a little bit of “She’s A Rainbow.”)

I would like to talk to Straw Man Dude at the bar about this book, not because I’d be identifying with T’Gatoi but because the story’s just so radical and weird. Totally not what I’d expect to find behind a cover checkerboarded the color of Reese’s Pieces. He’d either really want to talk about it, which’d be cool, or I guess he’d go away and let me keep reading.

In case lady squid and pregnant men aren’t immediately your jams, pick up Bloodchild because of Butler’s power. She was raised by a single mom (her dad, a shoeshine man, died when Butler was very young) and mentored by Harlan Ellison. In her salad days, Butler woke herself up at two o’clock in the morning to write, and when the sun came up she made a scrappy rent washing dishes and inspecting potato chips.

Butler was a black woman writing in a predominantly—even still, obviously—white male genre, and she wrote regularly and directly about sex, class, and race. Bloodchild is a crucial text for likeminded writers to study too, it’s nimble K.O. after K.O. of short, clean stories about utopia, torture, depression and love, capped off with two essays. Her stories don’t preach, rather they are rooms for sitting and thinking. Each piece is succeeded by a brief afterword, in which Butler says how she made the sausage and, poignantly sometimes very anxiously, what she hopes the reader’ll take from it.

Kite by Dominique Eddé, trans. Ros Schwartz

Seagull Books was founded in Kolkata, 1982, to meet the need for an Indian publishing house for theatre, cinema, and film theory. Today, it has offices in London and New York too, and publishes several series including French and German books in English translation.

Kite, which first came out from France’s Éditions Gallimard in 2003, was recommended to me by my friend Jeff at 57th Street Books (and University of Chicago Press, who distributes Seagull). The author, Dominique Eddé, is a Lebanese writer who’s published novels, an essay on Jean Genet, and interviews with psychoanalyst André Green. Here she writes about two lovers: Mali, who is struggling to write, and Farid, who is going blind. Eddé writes about two dear but different girlfriends, Mali and Lulwa. She wrote a proper epic, sweeping through Beirut, Lebanon, Cairo, Paris, and London from 1960-1980, ish, as Egyptian-Lebanese society cracks and changes.

This book prisms, letting different characters speak their pieces one at a time, and nearly always keeping Mali, who speaks in italics, at the center. That works in two ways, it shows and tells the war, and also, it lets us see the love story within and without Mali’s paradigm. It lets us see what she forgets because of trauma, or how she colors in extra, being sweet on Farid. Kite is bloody and intimate and wise, equally deft at tiny scenes about love notes on cigarette packets (“You are mine”) as it is bigger ones, when bombs go off at dinnertime. Mali and Farid are mismatched lovers, but they are not cyphers for the war. Instead, the precise way Eddé writes about their love only highlights how serious the fighting was, and is, and how much changed.

Trine Søndergaard and Nicolai Howalt, from DYING BIRDS (2010)

Nicolai Howalt and Trine Søndergaard, from DYING BIRDS (2010)

Dying Birds by Nicolai Howalt and Trine Søndergaard 

Dying Birds doesn’t blink. Printed in gray on creamy, heavyweight paper, it’s a softcover, saddle-stitched book of photos by Nicolai Howalt and Trine Søndergaard, who joined a hunt and took pictures of birds just after they were shot, or right when a shot was fired into the flock. All the birds are still in the air, their wings frozen or blurred. There are less than thirty-five pages, and very little text.

For better or worse, I’m the guy who needs to know where these birds died, who fired the guns, and why, but that’s not told. Plus, then too it’s not always clear what species it was or where it was going, so these guys are shot twice: once by the gun, once in the frame. And yet the pictures are gorgeous. They’re like dancing. I read Dying Birds like how I read my dad’s old monster movie books when I was a kid—in pieces, attracted but scared that if I read too long, the Creature from the Black Lagoon might actually put his claw on my shoulder. I shelved Dying Birds next to Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.

Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun

Once at Columbia two undergrads came by my desk, separately, and both said they were in Nami Mun’s class. She’s the coolest they said, had I read her novel yet? I hadn’t, but when students tell the secretary they love the prof, that’s real talk praise. So I put Mun’s book on my list.

Miles from Nowhere is a novel in stories told by Joon, a Korean immigrant living in the Bronx in the 1980s. When Joon’s father leaves and her mother’s brain goes sponge with grief, eventually the thirteen-year-old decides she needs to leave home too. The decision is rendered necessary, unromantically, practically, like how Denis Johnson’s Fuckhead preps his drugs (or how Beth Nugent’s Catherine staffs the porn theatre). Miles from Nowhere is kin to Jesus’ Son in that neither is a soap opera.

Like Fuckhead, Joon is a beautiful, terrible, hopeful character who truly shapes and is shaped by her world (in one story, she’s pregnant, homeless, and selling Avon). She’s neither holding a camera nor standing in front of one. Her constants are energy and bed and love and money or their lack, not Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday. At one point, for example, Joon walks up to an abortion clinic and a little girl outside hands her a hardboiled egg. There’s a whole huge wastebasket full of them. Joon wonders if it’s Easter, she wonders why the girl is giving her an egg but not the hungry people down the street. She’s focused but foggy. Everything zooms in on that girl with the egg.

To live Joon hustles newspapers, she escorts, she loves bad boys and bad drugs. She takes care of her girls, gets beat up pretty badly. Joon is clueless then not, then she’s clueless again. She has powerful, testy relationships with a nun, a warden, and an employment officer, ones that ring true on both sides of those walls and desks. I finished the book at the laundromat and it made me cry times three: because of what happens, because it was over, and because Mun’s so hardcore she brings in a character we’ve never met before, fourteen pages from curtain, and it works. I wiped my eyes, and the man loading hot Cheetos into the vending machine by the dryers asked if I was OK.

STIR Vol. 1

STIR is the first volume in a series, made by Johnny Gordon-Farleigh, Abby McFlynn, Kieran McCann, and 157 additional collaborators who crowdfunded, authored, edited, illustrated, designed, and phew. (Full disclosure: I donated a small amount too, just enough to get a copy of this first book once it came out. STIR’s funding campaign was compact and sincere, a real deal example of peer production and sharing economies.)

STIR (“Anger. Analysis. Action.”) aims to promote community-oriented and cooperative alternatives to the financial crisis, climate change, and other scary contemporary challenges, and here it succeeds—clearly and calmly, offering platforms to different voices without turning the whole weak and gray. Some pieces come from angry, sparky places, sure, but then that passion’s put towards disciplined analysis and sustained action, or at least proposals for it. Coolest of all, STIR is written by old pros and true tenderhearts. Everything I usually get my color up over—distancing jargon, white people problems, accessibility, etc.—is minimal or nonexistent here, meaning more readers can just dive in.

The softcover book is nearly ninety pages, with a warm yellow-orange cover designed by Josh MacPhee and Bec Young of Just Seeds. There are articles on, for example, copyright and the internet, Occupy, city riots, food, currency, and interviews with Simon Critchley and Raj Patel. My favorite piece was by J Cookson and James John Bell of Smartmeme Studios, who advise following up the alarm stories we tell our friends with solution stories, to tell the world and act on. I didn’t read STIR all at once, instead I kept my copy on the breakfast table, where I read a bit each morning before launching the day. (Alternatively, download a free e-version from STIR‘s website, where you learn about their new quarterly magazine, too.)

Man vs. Sky by Corey Zeller 

Man vs. Sky, a book of poems by Corey Zeller, came to me from Alban Fischer, who designed the cover and had some extra copies so asked the internet if anyone would like to read one. Alban is a champ who has designed for tons of small presses, including Curbside Splendor, H_NGM_N BKS, Mud Luscious Press, PANK, and Tiny Hardcore Press.

Zeller wrote Man vs. Sky in the voice of his friend Jeremy Quezada, after Quezada killed himself in January 2012. There are just over seventy poems here, each one fist-sized paragraph long. The work is steady rolling, broken up by colons and surreal images: jets of blue-green blood, a microwave out of nowhere, kids with animal heads.

Since Zeller chose to write this in his friend’s voice, through his friend’s eyes, this book about transformation first, not mourning. It’s focused on how Quezada thinks and sees after he dies, not where he is or the people left behind. The kickoff poem is called “I am going to do a few things can’t nobody follow”, which I loved for its Ringolevio-y tone. (Emmett Grogan: “Can’t nobody catch me!”) Zeller’s Quezada writes to “you”, who might be Zeller but also, might not be. Quezada talks about being caught in a light with you, about your mother and gin rummy and a bathrobe, about his legs dangling down and birds looking up at him.  As much as I wanted to know more about what Quezada was like here, and his relationship with Zeller, and how Zeller is coping, that’s not the story this book wants to tell. Instead it’s the story of two friends’ love for each other, and how that outlived death.


Mairead Case
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