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!)