Sunday, November 27, 2005

Chronicle: California and Catchup

Your friendly neighborhood BookNerd is back in Brooklyn after a lovely relaxing week in California, and newly energized to jump back into the ongoing conversation about books and bookselling. I've responded to several of your posts, so see below for my thoughts -- I'm grateful for your input and your words of encouragement. I'll be responding to your emails as I have time to give them the attention they deserve -- please bear with me as I deal with the surprising amount of backlog! I'm still working on my HTML skills too (woefully inadequate, due to my non-tech humanities education), so links may take some time to appear, and the format will hopefully only improve with time.

Talk about encouragement -- I was floored to find myself mentioned in the daily email of Shelf Awareness, an extremely well-researched summary of events in the literary world geared toward booksellers. Thanks to everyone for the publicity -- I feel like an institution! Actually, I feel like maybe the flavor of the week. But I plan to keep plugging away after this heady flurry of attention has passed, and I hope I'll still find all of you out there to talk to.

So, as it often turns out, I ended up reading neither of the books on my list on the plane, but something completely different instead. The ALP (adorably literate partner), aware of my plane reading agonies, gave me a copy of Conjunctions: 39, an edition of the twice-yearly literary journal. This edition was called THE NEW FABULISTS, which shows how well he knows me: it was devoted exclusively to contemporary literary sci-fi, fantasy, and genre writers. This kind of writing has been an obsession of mine since Michael Chabon edited the brilliant MAMMOTH TREASURY OF THRILLING TALES, which showcased ghost, mystery, fairy, and adventure stories from contemporary literary heavies. The obsession probably goes back much further, to my C.S. Lewis and Mervyn Peake days, but I love the fact that so many young (and not-so-young) writers are taking advantage of a postmodern anything-goes zeitgeist to explore larger-than-life stories, which at its best, fantasy can produce.

The issue is hit and miss for me, as is the case with most anthologies. Some of the stories are "fabulist" only by a long stretch, and some were so experimental as to be boring. However, there were some knockouts: Kelly Link's "Lull", which I'd read in her collection MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS, is a multi-layered masterpiece; China Mieville' "Familiar" is toe-curlingly eerie and beguiling; Karen Joy Fowler's "The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man" is a wonderfully twisted coming-of-age story; and Neil Gaiman's "October in the Chair" is satisying, if too short. But my favorite was by Andy Duncan, whom I'd never heard of before. His story "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" is basically set inside the world of the old hobo song about the place with "the lake of stew, and of whiskey too," and how our hero has to leave it and return again to figure out who he is and how he got to this paradise. It happens to be among the less dark stories in the collection (I don't mind dark but I'm a sucker for those who can make depth and drama out of happiness and joy), and it kept me enthralled. I guess I'll have to find more of his work.

At my mother's house in California, I glommed on to her copy of the catalog from A Common Reader, which in my opinion recreates the experience of an independent bookstore in mail-order (and website) form: careful selections, great descriptions and recommendations, the sense of a real personality. I actually suggested that I highlight some titles from the catalog for potential Christmas presents, prompting her to ask, "Wouldn't it make more sense for you to just get them at your store discount and I'll pay you back?"

It's a fair question: why, with books at employee discounts or as free reading copies at my disposal, do I continue to buy and request books? The answer can only be a deepseated and incurable addiction. Thank you all for enabling me.

(Coming soon: BookNerd's Best Books of 2005!)


Anonymous said...

Weirdly enough, a copy of Conjunctions:45 Secret Lives of Children arrived on my desk yesterday. I am not that familiar with the journal, but will definitely check it out now. I think the issue you read had more interesting sounding stories though on second glance, there could be some gems.

Anonymous said...

Conjunctions is fabby. #45 has a great Karen Russell story in it. Also, see Andy Duncan's sole collection, Beluthahatchie and Other Stories. Best story: "Liza and the Crazy Water Man." You can almost here her singing. If you ever get the chance, go see him read. He's from Alabama but goes to NYC.

Also, a story about Zora Neale Hurston, Zora and the Zombies.

Anonymous said...

You should also check out Stepmother, by Robert Coover, if you've never read it. It's a delicously dark sendup of the fairy tale genre, illustrated by Michael Kupperman, with language Nabokov would envy. And you can read it over a couple lunch breaks.

Book Nerd said...

I'm totally gonna check out more titles by Andy Duncan, and I've had my eye on Robert Coover too. I started paging through his new collection A CHILD AGAIN and came across a "Whatever happened to..." story about Puff the Magic Dragon that looked awesome. I'm always happy to add another fantasist to my mental stable.

I wish I could afford to subscribe to great periodicals like Conjunctions -- they're like the Best American Whatevers of the year, but more often! I guess I'll just settle for picking them up when they look especially appealing, but I'll definitely be paying more attention to this one after my good experience with 39. Look forward to hearing your take on 45, Bookdwarf, if you get to it.

Anonymous said...

If you like the Chabon anthology, try Adventure edited by Chris Roberson. And if you haven't already seen it you should also definitely check out Jess Nevins' The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana. It's a beauty.

Book Nerd said...

Wow, pj, I can't believe I've never been to the BookPeople website before! What a perfect store -- you've got all that community/serendipity/literacy stuff going on that I love. Thanks for reading -- I look forward to reading more about your store!