Attention Span 2009 – Michael Hennessey
Paul Blackburn | The Cities | Grove Press | 1967
I didn’t gain a full appreciation for Blackburn’s woefully out-of-print work until I put together his PennSound author page. Recently, I tried to sum up what I loved most about his work, and came up with this list: “his sharp urban observations, his unbridled (and unabashed) lusts, his ability to discern providence and wisdom in the everyday, his deadpan humor and accurate ear for speech, sound and music.” Here it all is in one generous and welcoming collection.
CA Conrad | The Book of Frank | Chax Press | 2009
I like to think of The Book of Frank as one of the best novels I’ve read this year— while the title character’s story is told through dozens of poetic vignettes, rather than straight prose, it’s a clear, complex and compelling narrative that draws us in instantly. As a general rule, I adore anything Conrad writes, but here (and also in this year’s Advanced Elvis Course) a malleable singular concept and generous length allows him to indulge every facet of the story, yielding a marvelous work that’s simultaneously hilarious and absurd, campy and macabre, sympathetic and shocking.
Tracy Daugherty | Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme | St. Martin’s Press | 2009
A fitting and long-overdue homage to the postmodern master, right down to the dozens of short attention span chapters, which beg readers to dip in at any point and keep going. Daugherty deconstructs Barthelme’s dense metafictional collages, providing valuable insights into his work process, while never diminishing the original stories’ magic for readers. Moreover, he provides a shockingly candid portrait of the man behind the pen.
Stanley Donwood & Dr. Tchock (Thom Yorke) | Dead Children Playing | Verso | 2007
The visual aesthetic surrounding Radiohead (the work of Stanley Donwood and frequent collaborator, and frontman, Thom Yorke) is almost as formidable as their musical genius. In this slim but powerful portfolio, we finally get a chance to see the larger series of paintings from which those iconic album covers were selected (thankfully reproduced larger than the five inch squares we usually see them in) and hear the artist discuss his diverse inspirations (the Kosovo war, media saturation in the U.S., Viking king Canute). If, in a digitized society, we’re continually moving away from the record album as physical artifact, it’s heartening to see these images treated not as ancillary decorations, but rather as worthy objects of our attention.
Lawrence Lessig | Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy | Penguin | 2008
Lessig’s groundbreaking work on the overlap between creativity and legality in the internet age (along with Siva Vaidhyanathan’s) has greatly shaped my approach to the work we do at PennSound, as well as my own aesthetic sense. This volume (his swan song on the topic) offers his most hopeful vision yet for a potential future of unbridled culture, along with a chilling portrait of the alternatives we face if we don’t wise up.
Bernadette Mayer | Poetry State Forest | New Directions | 2008
While Mayer’s voice has been consistently strong throughout her long writing life, I find myself increasingly fond of her most recent work, both this volume and her last, Scarlet Tanager. As vast as its title image, this collection can ably accommodate a wide array of modes—personal, political, elegiac, experimental—further blurring the boundaries between writing and everyday life. As always, Mayer ambitiously explores poetry’s rich potential and invites us to do the same.
Ted Morgan | Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs | Henry Holt & Company | 1988
My guilty-pleasure “beach reading” on a long cross-country trip this summer—I picked it up almost without thinking and couldn’t put it down. Morgan’s done his research, takes fruitful detours and has insider’s info, but it’s the sharp and mildly catty tone that makes this illuminating bio so addictive.
Tim Peterson | Since I Moved In | Chax Press | 2007
Throughout this startling debut, but particularly in its longer suites (“Trans Figures,” “Sites of Likeness,” “Spontaneous Generation”), I’m reminded of Barthes’ privileging of habitability as a fundamental aesthetic goal in Camera Lucida. Here, I continually discover places, emotions, personae, that I want to climb inside and stay with for a while.
Frank Sherlock | Over Here | Factory School | 2009
I’ve loved many of these poems since they originally appeared in chapbook form, but it’s wonderful to have them collected under one cover, with some strong new material added to the mix. Sherlock’s work often reminds me of Jean-Michel Basquiat (invoked in “Daybook of Perversities and Main Events”), in that both share a sharp ear for street language, and know how a few perfectly placed words or phrases can set off a vivid image, though here, the sights are all conjured in our heads.
Hannah Weiner, ed. Patrick Durgin | Hannah Weiner’s Open House | Kenning | 2006
Was this book disqualified from further praise after last year’s survey? Durgin’s empathetic understanding of Weiner’s work makes this a wonderful standalone volume, as well as an eye-opening introduction to her broader body of work. I can’t quite quantify the effects this book has had upon my own work, the doors it’s opened.
More Michael Hennessey here.