Non-Fiction

  • The Englishman who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects

    John Tingey

    Image of The Englishman who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects

    In many ways W. Reginald Bray could be considered a mail art pioneer, as he sent a bevy of interesting items through the post including, as the title reveals, himself — twice! He also posted his dog and various objects with addresses and stamps applied directly to them, as when he traveled to Ireland and dug up a turnip and etched his address into it (the turnip itself didn’t survive to be documented). His experiments seem more inquisitive of the abilities of the Royal Mail than artistic though. He sent postcards where the addresses were hidden inside poems or partially represented pictorially or written entirely in a mirror. The postcards included his own address and instructions for their return — taking advantage of the...more

  • Smoking Typewriters

    John McMillian

    Image of Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America

    For the past couple years, I’ve been pretty focused on fiction, so I determinedly picked this history of the 1960s underground press off my to-read list in an attempt to seek a bit of balance, plus the alternative media angle still had my curiosity piqued two years after I first flagged it for later reading. I felt an ominous suspicion near the beginning when McMillian disclaims that he “tried to present the New Left accurately, as a largely white, broad-based, and male-dominated movement, while nevertheless recognizing the crucial influence of the civil rights movement and the important contributions of women.” It made me worried enough that the recognitions that popped up were more than I expected. Based on its size...more

  • Wild

    Cheryl Strayed

    Image of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

    Like many people, I first came across Cheryl Strayed through her column Dear Sugar on the Rumpus, though her identity was still a secret at that point. Sugar’s advice is so unsparingly raw, honest, and compassionate — I think I read all the entries the first time I came across one of them. One day at a bookstore when I couldn’t find Wild on the shelf, I skimmed through Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of the Sugar letters in book form, only to find skimming through that everything was too familiar for the fresh read I was looking for at the time.

    Strayed’s decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail came after several tough years centered around the death of...more

  • Giving up the Ghost

    Eric Nuzum

    Image of Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted

    The story behind this book is a bit more interesting that its execution. In his adolescence, Eric Nuzum was haunted by a recurring dream of a girl in a blue dress screaming at him in gibberish, which lead him to numb himself with various substances and fear what may be lurking behind closed doors. Another girl, Laura, in his waking life was crucial in him managing to overcome this downward spiral. But she died tragically, leaving him with a slightly more tangible ghost to contend with. Twenty years later, he revisits these events and physically visits some of the most haunted sites in the US to try to determine if ghosts really exist.

    It’s unclear if his only problem...more

  • Swimming Studies

    Leanne Shapton

    Image of Swimming Studies

    The best adjective I’ve seen so far to describe this book is “pointillistic,” as it was described in The New York Times review. Invariably “quietly” will qualify other descriptors, which rightfully suggests it’s a tricky book to recommend to others, especially if you don’t know how it fits in with their usual reading choices. I recently found myself in conversation with someone who revealed her history of competitive swimming and I asked if she’d read this book, then obviously failed to capture its interest potential in one sentence. But we continued talking about swimming and as someone else joined the conversation, the new person immediately asked, “Oh, have you read Swimming Studies?” Between the two of us, we were able...more

  • Blue Nights

    Joan Didion

    Image of Blue Nights

    A few months ago I saw a reference to Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” and read it again and remembered that I still hadn’t read this semi-follow-up to The Year of Magical Thinking about her daughter Quintana’s death. While the first book is primarily about grief, this one is focused more on mortality, and, more specifically, Didion facing hers without her daughter. It’s a much sadder book to me, especially the time Didion spends documenting her increasing frailty and difficulty with writing. It’s not too hard to imagine that this could be her last book.

    I was happy to read this book when I did, as the title refers to the twilights that happen around the summer...more

  • Good Mail Day

    Jennie Hinchcliff & Carolee Gilligan Wheeler

    Image of Good Mail Day: A Primer for Making Eye-Popping Postal Art

    The news about the USPS a few weeks ago was dire, so I bought some new stamps (I recommend a couple panes of the Pioneers of American Industrial Design — they’re good forever!) and picked up this book for a little inspiration. I met the Pod Post girls Carolee and Jennie years ago at a Portland Zine Symposium, where they worked their table, as they do, dressed like mail art Girl Scouts, complete with merit badges.

    While this is mostly a practical guide to create art-by-mail — from what should be in your kit to etiquette — there’s a bit of history as well. I actually would have liked even more history and stories, but then I have already spent many...more

  • Consider the Lobster

    David Foster Wallace

    Image of Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays

    After reading Infinite Jest two years ago, I didn’t become a DFW fanatic, settling instead for a measured respect for a writer who manages to be incredibly brilliant and hilarious at the same time. I’ve been meaning to get to this collection of essays, especially since I’m not sure when I’ll embark on another epic novel, namely his posthumously published Pale King.

    My favorite here by far is “Authority and American Usage” (originally published in Harper’s as “Tense present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage”), which is ostensibly a review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but turns into a sort of treatise on language usage comparing other texts and...more

  • Girls to the Front

    Sara Marcus

    Image of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution

    I became aware of riot grrrl late, mostly from a distance through zines and records. I can still conjure some sadness that Huggy Bear actually played a show in northeastern Connecticut, but on a Tuesday night when there was no way I could go. What I experienced influenced me greatly, but I never felt like I was a part of the movement in the political sense. There was a lot that I didn’t know about the origins and history. I’m glad this book exists now, though it doesn’t feel like the “definitive” record it claims to be.

    Marcus opens the book by establishing her own relationship to riot grrrl, so it’s clear from the beginning that this is a personal...more

  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

    James Agee & Walker Evans

    Image of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South

    Words could, I believe, be made to do or to tell anything within human conceit. That is more than can be said of the instruments of any other art. But it must be added of words that they are the most inevitably inaccurate of all mediums of record and communication, and that they come at many of the things which they alone can do by such a Rube Goldberg articulation of frauds, compromises, artful dodges and tenth removes as would fatten any other art into apoplexy if the art were not first shamed out of existence…

    Agee and Evans originally traveled to Alabama on assignment for Fortune magazine; Fortune declined to publish the result, and their documentation of three white...more

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