Monday, January 30, 2006

Comment: Ivy Leaguers & Amateurs; Reviews #5 and 6

So we've truly come out on the other side of Spring Coursebook Rush. It seemed to happen too fast to be able to talk about it at the time, but now that the hordes of students have retreated and we've started to bring the store back to normalcy, it's time for a little commentary.

Getting ready for the beginning of the semester is like preparing an army to march: we plan for months the order of operations (though now we've got it down pretty well), hire new staff and train them, and then at the last possible moment tear down our remainder and new release tables and replace them with coursebooks arranged by department and tense-a-barriers for handling the lines downstairs. It can be a very stressful time -- there are a bunch of inexperienced staffers doing their best, professors place their orders late (or not at all), and hundreds of students with individual demands pass through the place every hour. But there's a camaraderie from all this intensity, not unlike the brotherhood of the foxhole, if less literally deadly. There's nothing like a common enemy to bring a group together, and while the Ivy League students we serve are actually keeping us in business, it's easy to feel a solidarity against them. This doesn't mean we treat our customers with anything less than respect and courtesy (or the best we can manage), but when they've left the store we do have fun commiserating. We're all working for retail salaries (and probably overeducated for our jobs), and we've mastered the simple practicalities of the bookstore, so when the slightly arrogant freshmen with their parents' credit cards ask if they can please have the book that their friend bought here last week, or request a copy of Huckleberry Finn by Tom Sawyer, our frustration is mixed with a shared amusement under pressure. It only lasts a little while -- temporary staffers move on, business subsides -- but that instantaneous bond is my favorite part about rush. Soon we'll be having our twice-yearly meeting to discuss what went right and wrong about this rush and we'll have to think about how to do things better, but there's no way to improve upon that little joy of human connection in the midst of struggle.

In totally other news, the ALP (Adorably Literate Partner), inspired no doubt by how much fun I'm having in blogland, has started a leetle blog of his own: The Guide to Atypical Usage and Lack of Style. It's only incidentally literary, as he's a man of many odd interests, and a fairly casual endeavor at this point, but it's good brainy fun, and written in an inimitable style. Of course, I may be a tiny bit prejudiced in favor.

And thanks to the friends who pointed out that your own Book Nerd got a nice mention in Publishers Lunch about my "roundup" (didn't even know that was what I was doing) of bookseller blogs. Guess I should get a subscription or something, huh? Thanks also, of course, to the booksellers and bloggers who give me something to write about.

I'm doing pretty well with keeping up my constant reading so far this year; here are capsule reviews of the two latest.

There Will Never Be Another You
By Carolyn See
(Random House, to be published May 2006)

While this book qualified right away under my criteria for worthwhile reads -- i.e., it made me miss a subway stop -- it took me a little while to figure out what was really going on, other than the specifics of the plot. Carolyn See is apparently a fan of setting books in the near future; though that doesn't mean there's anything sci-fi about them, it allow her to project current anxieties and trends and tendencies out of the range of history. This one is set in the years from 2001 to 2016, and concerns a weak-willed but demanding dermatologist, his classy twice-widowed mother, the youthful interracial couple who meet in his hospital (the UCLA medical center), and the threat of a terrorist-sparked pandemic that infuses those years. As each characters' stories are told in alternating sections, beginning with the jaded but appealing widow Edith, and seem only nominally connected to each other, I at first wondered what I was missing -- See is an engaging storyteller, but it seemed like she was trying to get across more than the details of medical care, dating as a senior citizen, extramarital affairs and difficult children. The section with Danny, a tough, tattooed Chinese kid, and Andrea, the blonde daughter of a professor, was especially affecting, and started to make sense of things: when they escape the hospital to make love in the park, Edith comments that "it's the death all around them" that makes them so desperate for each other. This turns out to be a book about mortality, whether from natural or unnatural causes, imminent or remote, and about the human connections that take place in its shadow. It's both an odd and lively read and a moving, but never pat, meditation on human relationships and happiness. Highly recommended.

The Quitter
Written by Harvey Pekar, Art by Dean Haspiel
(Vertigo, 2005)

I've actually read any number of individual issue comics and collections already this year, but I haven't counted them in my reading total. It's not that I don't think of comics as legitimate literature (the collection FABLES, a series about fairy tale characters exiled to the real world, is one of the most affecting and exciting things I've been reading recently, and there are other greats -- I'll discuss them all at some point), but that they don't seem like discrete books. Even a series collected into a trade paperback just doesn't seem to fall into the same category as a book which originated as a book. Maybe I'll have to rethink my categories, but this is how it works for now.

Harvey Pekar's QUITTER is graphic lit, but conceived as a single book, and at this point he's got plenty of literary cred. I admit I've never read his stuff before -- R. Crumb doesn't appeal to me much as an illustrator, and I thought a lot of Pekar just sounded like discontented ranting. But this one had gotten some interesting reviews, so I picked it up at the library. The book's greatest weakness, I think, is that it's literally just an illustration of Pekar's writing -- there isn't really anything happening in the art that isn't obvious from the words. But I can't imagine wanting to read the words without the art. The story is that of Pekar growing up in Cleveland, street fighting, dealing with his Jewish parents, trying to find out what he was good at, and quitting most endeavors at the first sign of difficulty. Dean Haspiel's depiction of the young Harvey/Herschel Pekar and his environs, and the interjections from the aged contemporary Pekar, lend an immediacy and physicality to the story that makes it extremely appealing. And Pekar is good at writing the stuff that's really too weird for fiction: his short stint in the Navy that ended when he freaked out about washing his clothes properly and asked to be discharged, the strange mixed motives and consequences of his fighting, the anti-climactic romance of his first marriage. His character seems strangely foreign at first -- who would give up on things for such strange reasons? -- but I realized I know people who do this, that I do this myself. While the book peters out near the end, it is for the most part a muscular memoir with plenty of angry honesty about Pekar's own failings as well as his desires. I think Haspiel deserves a large portion of the credit for giving the story its appeal, but the team has brought out a solid addition to the pantheon of graphic literature. Like Carolyn See's novel, it's a book where the odd, disconnected, undramatic little events of real life add up to a powerful and nuanced picture of the world that has an unbreakable unity for all its idiosyncrasies.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Comment: Booksellers in Blogland

If you're a book person who spends time online, you're probably aware of at least some of the literary blogs out there. MobyLives has great author interviews and a new radio show (and has launched the successful Melville House press); the LitBlog Co-op is a group of bloggers who effectively promote under-appreciated books; and of course, BookSlut is a great source for book reviews, news and chatter (though I've been clicking there less recently as the writers' snarkiness has started to get to me). There are dozens of others, by publishing types or writers or just book lovers: GalleyCat and Elegant Variation and Beatrice and Chekhov's Mistress and on and on. Clicking on any one of these will probably lead you to a list of links to dozens of others, any of which are worth reading on a good day.

But I want to give some attention to a specific segment of the literary blogosphere: the booksellers who blog. These are a special kind of reader and book lover, as I've repeatedly stressed here; their insights are not only those of a voracious reader with discriminating tastes, but those of a witness to the retail world, the moment when the literature hits the streets. I wanted to take a moment to recognize my fellow bookseller bloggers, all of whom make for good reading. So here are a couple of those I've discovered.

Bookdwarf - The proprietor of this lively and informative little blog is (like yours truly) a young female frontline bookseller; she works at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA. I often find myself stealing links or news from Bookdwarf; she's well-informed, readable, and she's got great taste.

Bookologist - Edith Reynolds, the voice behind Bookologist, has a bio that will tell you all about her on the front page of this blog; she and her husband own an antiquarian bookstore in Waterbury, CT, and she's a writer and journalist as well. This blog (like The Written Nerd) is concerned with developments and ideas in the book industry, and especially those that play out in the bookstore. Mature and insightful, Bookologist is a bookselling wonk's destination.

Bookseller To The Stars - This is the often hilarious blog of Mark Farley, a bookseller in a chain store in a region of London near Notting Hill (made famously bookish by Hugh Grant's diffident bookseller in the movie named after the neighborhood). While he's always reading, Farley's blog isn't always concerned with books and bookselling, but often with the inanities of British pop culture; he loves poking fun at his mindless celebrity customers. I love reading this one to get some affirmation of the trials of the bookseller's life, and for a good laugh at Farley's wicked wit.

Necessary Acts of Devotion - This is a meditative blog written by several employees of Quill Hill, a used and antiquarian bookstore in Oglesby, Illinois. These clever folks write about such bookish topics as great first and last lines, the morality of marginalia, and the perfect book for a long winter evening. They're the kind of people you'd love to hang out and chat with on a slow day in your corner bookstore.

Fresh Eyes - I save this one for last because it's my favorite one to read, and because it falls slightly outside the bookseller-as-blogger paradigm. The blogger, Robert Gray, was until December a Master Bookseller at Northshire Books in Northshire, VT; he has since retired from the sales floor to launch Fresh Eyes Now, a venture which endeavors to "create bridges" between publishers and frontline booksellers, highlighting the power and importance of good bookstore staff in selling books other than the NYT bestsellers. He still considers himself a bookseller, just in a different venue, and his book recommendations are as right-on as his ideas about the industry. Gray has been something of a bookselling and blogging mentor to yours truly, and I'm excited to see how his project develops, and to read his thoughtful and lucid writing about it as he goes.


Hope some of these give you something interesting to poke around in on what seems to be (in New York anyway) a cold and rainy Monday. And keep an eye on your own local bookseller -- there may be more going on there than you think.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Reviews: Consider The Lobster (#3/52), The Hour of the Star (#4/52)

I've just come out at the other end of Spring Rush Week, which I mentioned in my December post -- the week that Columbia courses start, when our store has been transformed into a college bookstore and we all spend five straight days saying "What department? What professor? Do you want all the books or just some of them? Used or new? I'm sorry, your professor hasn't ordered here... I'm sorry, that's the price set by the publisher... I'm sorry, our system has crashed, it will be just a moment..." I've been working 9-hour shifts and running around a lot, so I've been a little worn out. I have managed to do some reading on the subway, though, so here's the latest batch of reviews.

CONSIDER THE LOBSTER
by David Foster Wallace
(Little, Brown, December 2005)

I mentioned I was in the middle of this just after Christmas, and I finally finished it last week. As I opined earlier, I'm not quite postmodern enough for literally weighty fiction like INFINITE JEST, but when Wallace is confined by 1) the length of an article or essay and 2) a subject which he must stick to, his writing is really among the best out there. To be honest, he writes the way I (and many other young educated urban types) usually think: constantly digressing because he's thinking of all sides and aspects of an issue, while making an effort to follow the narrative through responsibly . This leads to a lot of side notes and footnotes, but I'm a big fan of those when done well (Susanna Clarke seems to be an expert at the illuminating and extensive footnote, a rarity in fiction) -- they can have the effect of deepening the reader's understanding of the complexities of a topic while mainting an narrative throughline. My tolerance was tested in the last essay, on right wing public radio, where notes made incursions into the texts in boxes; that effect, published in the ATLANTIC MONTHLY, was a little to cutely pomo for me, though the piece itself was extremely insightful, in a humble way, about the rise of extremist talk radio and right wing sentiment in general. Humility is actually a hallmark of Wallace's writing, especially on controversial issues (middle America's response to 9/11, the appeal of John McCain in a politically cynical age, the morality of eating lobsters and other things that feel pain, the appeal and horror of pornography, even the writerly skills of John Updike). I am a huge fan of this refusal to adopt an either/or mentality, especially since it means his pieces, while clearly coming from one of those educated urban (i.e. fairly liberal) minds, are able to get inside their subjects in ways that more polemical pieces would inevitably miss. I closed this collection with a new great respect for this spokesman for my generation; if his brand of rigorous, humorous (did I mention he's really funny too?), passionate, and truly open-minded thinking is what's going on at the beginning of the 21st century, then we're not as badly off as we (or even he) might think.


THE HOUR OF THE STAR
by Clarice Lispector
(New Directions, 1992)

Sometimes the secret to reading, like love, is pure propinquity -- just being nearby at the right time. I was checking out the stack of books for a Latin American Literature class being taught this semester at Columbia, realizing that I'd love to read and talk about every title on the list, when I noticed Lispector's slim little novel and, on impulse, grabbed it. We also carried this book at the bookstore I used to work in, and every once in a while someone would come in ansd ask for it by name, though it might sit on the shelf for months in between. Since the author is Brazilian (a culture I find endlessly fascinating), and since the 96-page volume looked like an easy tackle after Wallace's lengthy ruminations, I decided to add it to my 52. For the first 22 pages or so, I wondered if it was a bad idea; the narrator, Roderigo, seems like your standard garret-living, self-dramatising artist cliche, talking about what the story he's going to tell will be and do and embody and change, in dreadfully high-faluting abstractions, while managing to avoid getting to the actual narrative. Eventually, however, I started to sympathize with him, with how deadly important this story was to him and how difficult he was finding it to continue, and his flashes of dreamlike, surreal metaphor or just unrelated imagery were weirdly appealing. When Roderigo does get around to telling you what he's talking about, it turns out to be the story of the most unsophisticated person in the world, an anonymous country girl from the Northeast (i.e. rural region) of Brazil, making below minimum wage in urban-decay Rio and living in blank, accepting ignorance of her own destitution. Only a few events happen: Macabea (the girl) meets a boy (ignorant as herself, but cruel rather than accepting), she visits a doctor (who is baffled by her unconcern, or helplessness, about her malnourished condition and early-stage tuberculosis), and at the behest of her coworker Gloria (who has stolen her boyfriend) visits a fortune teller, who describes her miserable past and predicts a glorious future. Aware for the first time of how she has been abused and oppressed, and filled for the first time with hope, Macabea walks out of the fortune teller's in a daze -- and gets hit by a car. Poor Roderigo doesn't want to kill her off, but when he finally does it seems like an act of mercy: only her animal-like passivity kept Macabea from being unhappy, and since the fortune teller's ideas about her past were almost certainly more accurate than those about her future, she could only have had a worse life ahead of her. Roderigo's introspective, existential angst plays off against Macabea's meager happiness -- she likes to listen to the radio, she likes Coca Cola, when she is lonely she kisses the wall -- and creates a startlingly revealing picture of what life is like for two kinds of the desperately poor, and a strange redemption through beauty, of which neither the storyteller nor his character may be fully aware. At least, that's what I got out of it; Lispector (who died of cancer in 1977, just before HOUR OF THE STAR was first published) is apparently much studied by scholars, though she's never found much of a popular readership. Even though I've given away the ending, I'd recommend reading it if you've got an hour or two free; and even if not, it's a good sort of book to recommend to your college-age friends looking for a truly sophisticated third-world alternative to Auster, Burroughs, and Kerouac.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Review: Black Swan Green (#2/52)

Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell
(Random House, pub. April 2006)

Before I can tell you what I thought of BLACK SWAN GREEN, I should tell you what I thought about CLOUD ATLAS.

I read David Mitchell's first book GHOSTWRITTEN and thought it kicked total ass -- it was on our favorites table for months. I really liked NUMBER9DREAM, too, though in a different way, and became convinced that Mitchell was one of my favorite writers. But when I came in to work after reading CLOUD ATLAS, I couldn't really even speak. All I could do was point to the book and say "Hehmeh... Fehshnehmeneh... Wow." Later I got over my tongue-tiedness -- even to the point of being able to have a half-intelligent conversation with Mitchell himself at a publisher dinner following his reading at our store, an event that is surely one of the highlights of my life as a bookseller.

The fact is that CLOUD ATLAS is probably my favorite book of all time. The plot would take too long to summarize -- just read it, for goodness' sake, if you have any chance to do so. It drove me nuts when critics described as some sort of cerebral avant-garde-y excercise, because the first thing I loved about it was that it was FUN. Mitchell can write plot circles around anybody, he writes with high energy in any style, and the jokes are fast and furious -- if some are over one's head, others are right down in the gutter. But he's no sneering humorist -- he's also deeply concerned with the morality of his characters, and their responses to the morality of the world around them. He is essentially kind, even when his characters aren't. And in CLOUD ATLAS, I think he accomplished the ultimate embodiment of my favorite kind of writing -- postmodern literary genre fiction, done with a sense of down-to-earth joy. That book, complexly structured as it was (but satisfyingly complex, like a good puzzle), was a rollercoaster to read -- but when you put the book down in between rides, you realized there were some high and heavy things going on, and they occupied your thoughts for a long time. The book left you breathless and changed.

So, while I (and my fellow readers with big Mitchell-crushes) have been waiting with unbearable eagerness for Mitchell's next book -- and I grabbed a galley as soon as humanly possible -- the first thing I realized about BLACK SWAN GREEN IS THAT (drumroll please)... it's not CLOUD ATLAS. Duh. But it's about as unlike CLOUD ATLAS as it could be. This is a book told by one narrator -- a 13 year old boy named Jason Taylor -- in one place -- a dinky Worcestershire village called Black Swan Green -- over the course of a single year, 1982. It's a quieter, more ordinary book. And yeah, for a few pages longer than I'd like to admit, I was a little disappointed. As some reviews have already pointed out, it's like Mitchell had done for his fourth book what most authors do for their first -- the first-person, semi-autobiographical novel about the author's youth. The ALP pointed out that with the precocious Jason narrating, Mitchell joined the Precocious Youthful Narrator club of Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers and Mark Haddon and everybody else. (The ALP has never read any David Mitchell. I feel a little sorry for him.) So as I read through the short-story length chapters -- 13 of them, one for each month -- and nothing expressly rollercoasterish happened except for the normal highs and lows of adolescence (albeit in an especially bully-laden township, and with the handicap of a barely hidden stammer), I wondered if I could admit to being underwhelmed.

But as those chapters went on, the details of that small town life began to resonate. The chapters have short titles, not descriptive enough for the eager eye, like the song titles on a new album not yet unwrapped: "January Man." "Rocks." "Bridle Path." "Maggot." Each chapter is, really, a separate story (which means the book is formally unusual even if it's not obvious at first), and Jason's dealings with being nearly-popular and his parent's suppressed arguments and his too-smart older sister and his crush on the cruel but beautiful (but in a cool tomboy way, not that usual femme fatale way) Dawn Madden and the Falklands War and his semi-cool best friend and the autumn fete and the gypsies and the natural life of semi-rural England... come to seem like a series of small scale epics. Mitchell's kindness stands him in good stead, as does his ear for dialogue and his eye for the beautiful and for the hilarious. One chapter, "Bridle Path," is worth reading on its own, or more than once -- it's a beautiful set piece about a day of wandering, and contains some of the novel's best scenes.

Gradually, I understood that the novel is infused by a kind of tenderness I particularly understand. It's the tenderness one can only have toward the dead-end little town one has left behind, and it leads to an understanding of how everything there, while it was in fact fairly ordinary, seemed a little larger than life -- maybe because the place was small, or you were small, or because you were just starting to understand some big things. My heart ached for Jason, for my own 13-year-old self in my own small town, and for the hard and beautiful things he was discovering about the world, and I realized how much I love this book. It's not a coming of age story in your traditional sense -- it's more of a series of time-lapse photographs of a soul encountering the world. CLOUD ATLAS was the first book I ever read through twice. This may be the second. And you can bet it will be on the favorites table.

After the fireworks and rollercoasters of his brilliantly experimental fiction, maybe this is the novel Mitchell had to write, to make peace with the place he left behind. As I read about Jason Taylor's agonizing, epic small struggles -- especially in the brutal "Maggot" chapter -- I kept thinking about the open, friendly, intimidatingly intelligent, calm and fearless and wise and unpretentious David Mitchell I had talked to across the dinner table. "Don't worry, kid -- it's gonna turn out okay," I said.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Chronicle: National Book Critics Circle Awards Finalists 2006: The Other Academy's Awards

Saturday night the ALP and I met up with my former boss (and good friend and mentor, affectionately known as T) in the West Village, and we all made our way down to SoHo for the announcement of the finalists for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Awards. [If you want to skip the social review and find out the finalists, scroll to the end for the list.] Comparable to the National Book Award (only with no cash if you win), the award is given, obviously, by the National Book Critics Circle, an organization of about 500 book reviewers and critics -- kind of the equivalent of the Academy for the Oscars, though perhaps a bit less glam. Books published in English from anywhere in the world are eligible. Since the announcement of the shortlisted finalists was being held in the beautiful McNally-Robinson store in SoHo (a relatively new independent in town, now open for a little more than a year), and "light refreshments" were included in the festivities, we all ankled downtown to catch the show.

On the way over we dissected the Frey/LeRoy debacles and caught up on each other's news. The weather turned suddenly from false spring to full-on winter last night, so we scurried inside the well-lit store as quick as we could. T is a friend of the store's owner, so he greeted her and pitched in on putting out napkins and stuff while the ALP and I browsed the store. I didn't stray too far, as I shamelessly hoped T would introduce me to the glittering literary folks bound to attend.

As it turned out, there were one or two folks there I already knew. The event was MC'd (and as far as I can tell, mostly organized) by John Freeman, whom I'd met on several occasions. John is one of those intimidatingly successful people: he can't be much older than I am, but I've heard him authoritatively described as "the top freelance reviewer in America;" he knows or has talked to more authors than I've ever read, and he often has enviable gigs like (most recently) flying off to Ireland to interview David Mitchell about his new book. Nevertheless, he's totally a decent person, and said hello and asked after my bookstore in the midst of running around organizing things. He (or the NBCC, of which he's a member) had lined up a former NBCC winner or nominee to announce the finalists in each category, and was kept busy greeting and keeping these authors happy as the crowd continued to grow. I said hi to a sales rep or two, and later on managed to introduce myself to Richard Nash, the head of Soft Skull Press (who was wearing, may I add, a really smashing pin-striped suit -- and I'm not just saying that because he sends me great galleys).

The ALP returned from his browsing (having succumbed to McN.-R.'s charm and purchased several books) around the time T and I raided the food tables, and the three of us gradually noticed that this event was more in the way of a reception than a ceremony. The refreshments were indeed light, but plentiful, and the small cafe space of the store spilled over with book industry folks drinking, eating and chatting. T commented that there were a high percentage of publicists in the audience, and quite a few agents as well; as a preliminary event, this wasn't one the authorial nominees themselves were likely to attend, but their publishing entourages were all out in force. That sounds a little cynical, but this was both a social and business event, as the various forces that make books and opinions circled around each other, comparing notes and making connections. There are some pretty people in this part of publishing, and it was fun to watch

At last, Freeman opened the announcement portion of the evening, which turned out to be extremely low-key. Standing in an unadorned corner of the café, Colson Whitehead, perhaps the youngest and most currently famous of the bunch, announced the fiction finalists with no preamble (and didn't mention the book's publishers, which John requested the following presenters to do). Edmund White (a kind and friendly man, especially for a giant of gay literature) read the list of Biography finalists. Richard Howard announced the Criticism finalists, with some shout-outs to those he knew (if shout-outs can be used to describe the quiet and civilized acknowledgements Howard expressed). Ted Conover, the author of NEWJACK, announced the general nonfiction books (look at the list and you'll see why someone joked that "we call this the 'feel-good' category"). Sharon Olds made a bit more of a speech, acknowledging the "hope and encouragement" being nominated for an NBCC Award years ago had given her, before reading the poetry finalists. John made a crack about the NBCC's new category, Memoir, being on everyone's minds this week ("although we call it Autobiography, which means it's true") before introducing Joyce Johnson, who read the Autobiography finalists with vim and vigor. A lifetime achievement award was announced for Bill Henderson, founder of the Pushcart Press. Finally, the Nona Balakian citation for Excellence in Reviewing (sort of the critics' prize to one of their own) was awarded to critic Wyatt Mason, by last year's winner David Orr (who promised to say "two words" but went on a bit longer, lamenting the media's tendency to forget to mention the reviewing prize and also to underestimate the importance of reviewers.)

And with that, after applause, the speeches ended and the reception continued. (The winners will be announced and the achievement award winners will give speeches in a ceremony on March 3.) The nominations seemed well thought out and logical; most were books that have received significantcritical acclaim this past year. I was especially glad that Ishiguro's NEVER LET ME GO was nominated in fiction, and that the embattled Orhan Pamuk got another plug for ISTANBUL, though I'm sorry THE TENDER BAR didn't get an Autobiography nod, and there are always other fine books that don't make the cut. Award-giving is a process of elimination, obviously, and there are surely more than five outstanding fiction books a year, but the NBCC shortlist is always a good indicator of (at least some of) the best and the brightest. After loving Jonathan Coe's WINSHAW LEGACY, I'm thinking of picking up his shortlisted biography of B. S. Johnson, and I'd love to dip into some of the poetry nominees too.

The ALP and I had promised to go to a friend's party later on, so we ducked out soon after offering some congratulations. The event was short and sweet (though I imagine the mingling may have gone on much longer after we left), but it was a little thrilling, as always, to be able to be a part of the New York, and thus the national, literary scene. Not as impressive as attending the Oscars, maybe, but it made our weekend.

2006 National Book Critics' Circle Award Nominees:
[Like Mr. Whitehead, I haven't bothered to note the publishers for each book; you can probably find a more thoroughly notated list on the NBCC website, http://www.bookcritics.org/, or in most national newspapers, sometime in the next couple of days.]

AUTOBIOGRAPHY:
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joan Didion
ISTANBUL, Orhan Pamuk
THEM, Francine du Plessix Gray
FAT GIRL, Judith Moore
TWO LIVES, Vikram Seth

BIOGRAPHY:
TEAM OF RIVALS, Doris Kearns Goodwin
AMERICAN PROMETHEUS, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
LEE MILLER, Carolyn Burke
LIKE A FIERY ELEPHANT, Johnathan Coe
MARK TWAIN, Ron Powers

CRITICISM:
STILL LOOKING, John Updike
UNNATURAL WONDERS, Arthur Danto
GATHER AT THE RIVER, Hal Crowther
THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, William Logan
WHAT HAPPENED HERE, Eliot Weinberger

FICTION:
EUROPE CENTRAL, William T. Vollmann
THE MARCH, E.L. Doctorow
VERONICA, Mary Gaitskill
NEVER LET ME GO, Kazuo Ishiguro
SMALL ISLAND, Andrea Levy

NONFICTION:
VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL: THE ORAL HISTORY OF A NUCLEAR DISASTER, Svetlana Alexievich
THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILISATION: THE CONQUEST OF THE MIDDLE EAST, Robert Fisk
EATING STONE: IMAGINATION AND THE LOSS OF THE WILD, Ellen Meloy
HUMAN CARGO: A JOURNEY AMONG REFUGEES, Caroline Moorehead
NIGHT DRAWS NEAR: IRAQ'S PEOPLE IN THE SHADOW OF AMERICA'S WAR, Anthony Shadid

POETRY:
THE SHOUT, Simon Armitage
BENT TO EARTH, Manuel Blas de Luna
REFUSING HEAVEN, Jack Gilbert
CRUSH, Richard Silken
THE INCENTIVE OF THE MAGGOT, Ron Slate

Friday, January 13, 2006

Comment & Review: Book-A-Week Challenge, Book #1

Now that my sinus thingy is slowly receding, I'm ready to get started on all that New Year-type stuff I haven't had the energy for in the first few weeks of January. So, it's time for a resolution. Bookdwarf drew my attention to a couple of different groups setting reading goals for the year: read 50 books, read 75 books, etc. My total for last year, according to my Book of Books Read, was a measly 45.

I feel like I've got a lot more books than that floating around in my head, though -- part of being a good bookseller is being informed about books you haven't had time to read, so you can hand them to the people who want to read them. Reading the Sunday NYTBR all the way through every week, listening to buzz and talking to other readers in real life mean that I could probably tell you the essence and appeal of say, 150 books from last year. And there is all that magazine and short story reading that doesn't add to the total. But I'm still a little embarrassed that I've read so few actual titles. Sometimes (often) the appeal of a morning nap on the subway is enough to keep me from opening the one I'm working on, and that's just shameful for a book nerd.

So I'm setting my own goal: 52 books in 2006, one a week (I've got some catchup to do already). I'm hoping increasing my intake will mean I get to more than that, but 52 is the baseline. And I'll post mini-reviews of each of them here on the blog. If anyone's interested in joining me in my quest, post your reviews as comments, or send me a link to the site where you're chronicling your own book challenge. Hooray for new books in the new year!

Book #1: THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE by A.M. Homes (Viking, April)
I mentioned this book in my holiday roundup as a bit underwhelming, so here's the full take. Richard Novak, wealthy and divorced in L.A., wakes up one morning to an intense undefinable pain; confronted by his own mortality and realizing that he doesn't even have any loved ones to pick him up from the hospital, he starts to re-examine his life. Novak's housekeepr, masseuse, decorator, personal trainer, and nutritionist are concerned. His ex-wife in New York is (still) preoccupied with work and blase. His estranged son, Ben, is starting a road trip that will take him to L.A. and wary of his father's new interest in his life. A sinkhole in front of his house prompts the first of several acts of heroism. His new friends the donut shop owner, the wacko ex-famous writer, the nervous-breakdown housewife, and the local movie star are amazed at his kindness and his confusion. He breaks his diet, goes on a meditation retreat, tries Gyrotonics. Wildfires are threatening L.A. Ben turns out to be gay and very, very angry at his father. STUFF keeps happening. I had read some reviews of Homes' work, and it sounded promising: the magic surreality of daily life, though I was leery of one reviewer's hint that she might be telling the same old "life in the suburbs is all hypocrisy" story. This novel definitely offers that surreality, and I admit I was engrossed by the "and then, and then" momentum of the events of Richard's life. But it seemed like Homes said what she had to say in the first chapter -- something like "it is not good for a man to be alone" -- and I wasn't sure why she kept going after that. Richard's bewildered stabs at remaking his life seem almost like parody of the L.A. mythos: various magical cures to keep the rich young and healthy and happy. And his extravagant wealth and self-absorption (even as he begins to connect with others) makes it hard to identify with him. I guess the problem is I'm not sure how Homes meant for me to read Richard. Is he laudable or pathetic? And how, exactly, is this book supposed to save my life? By inspiring me to go on an $800 meditation retreat? Others may read the book differently, but my reaction to this is similar to my reaction to some of Updike: the author doesn't seem to realize what kind of character she has created. I'm sure I could still handsell it to someone looking for a beach read or an interesting take on L.A. life or a sentimental redemption story, but it's not going to make my favorites list. Oh well, the year's reading can only get better from here.

Next book to be reviewed: David Mitchell's BLACK SWAN GREEN

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Comment: Writers, Writing, and Last Laughs

So if you're the sort of person who keeps up with news in the book world (or even if you're not), you may have heard about the twin scandals of the past week: J.T. LeRoy (author of the cultishly embraced SARAH and THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS, fictionalized, fantasized memoirs of his youth as a truck stop prostitute in the South) does not exist, and James Frey (author of Oprah pick and massive bestseller A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, a memoir of his struggle up from drug addiction and crime) made it up. Details are still coming out, but it seems fairly clear that LeRoy was a creation of Laura Albert (who wrote the books) and Savannah Knoop (who played LeRoy in public). And Frey has now admitted that he exaggerated or invented many aspects of his life for his book, including his jail time and other dramatic elements.

Frey's story seems to be getting a lot more press -- Larry King, Oprah, and the publisher are all weighing in, and readers are expressing a wide range of reactions. (You can Google his name and find comment more insightful than I can muster, not having read the book in question.) But it's the LeRoy story I find more interesting. Part of me appreciates the outlandish large-scale con game these women (and the other family members and friends) managed to pull off for years, fooling publishers, editors, and LeRoy's many celebrity buddies. It was dishonest and surely wrong (especially the unecessary and exploitative announcement that LeRoy had AIDS), but on the whole it's sort of charming. And it's egg on the face of many a pretentious literati who name-dropped this exotic outsider author, and a story that seems like it came out of the child's-eye Southern magic realism of the strange little stories published under LeRoy's name.

And that's the real crux of the matter: when you take away the writer, does the writing still exist? Or more literally, without the cachet of a literary author's coolness -- often a coolness arising from the dark background of a gritty biography -- does the writing itself still seem as good to the reader as it does with that background? Many of Frey's readers, including Oprah, seem to be saying yes (in a complicated way); even if some details are exaggerated or invented, they still find the story itself inspiring. (Whether they mean the story of Frey's life, or the written version in the book, or a combination that picks and chooses from both, I doubt anyone is completely sure.) And while I haven't read much reaction yet to LeRoy's unmasking, I imagine once the shock wears off readers will decide that whoever wrote those stories of truck stop life, they're worth reading -- and perhaps even more impressive, since they don't come from personal experience but completely from Albert's imagination.

At least once, I've heard a song on the radio and not even noticed it. But when the announcer mentioned that the song was by the Beatles, I quickly "realized" it was a truly great song. My previous impression that the Beatles are great influenced my experience of the song -- the song was great because the artists were great, not vice versa. And it's easy to do the same sort of semi-dishonest thing with books -- the aura of the author affects the way we read the book. It's not a clinically dispassionate way to read, but it's human. We're people, and we're interested in people -- if there's a personality behind the words, we find it even more interesting.

These developments also brought me back to an article I read in the online edition of n+1, the new hipster literary magazine on the block (brought to you by Benjamin Kunkel, author of INDECISION). The article takes issue, as many have, with the idea that America is in a "reading crisis" with fewer readers than ever, and then goes on to scoff at the efforts writers take to find readers, from appeals to Oprah to neverending book tours to performative bells and whistles. The article seems to be condemning a culture of literary personalities over literary content, and chastising writers who long for instant celebrity rather than the approbation of history. While a little disingenous coming from Kunkel's crew, whom I suspect want to be the next McSweeney's (Dave Eggers is briefly trashed here), they do have something of a point. Without writing that is powerful enough to stand up without its author, the literary world becomes just a watered-down version of tabloid Hollywood.

But aside from objecting to their snarky tone, I think the authors of the article are wrong to condemn the extra-book aspects of contemporary literary culture. If authors, presses and bookstores find that making their works into public events helps them to gain readers, they also creates a common literary culture that is a welcome addition to (hopefully not a substitution for) the quiet time spent reading alone. We may produce some outsized celebrities, and we may put our worship in the wrong place. But a culture that cares about authors, that is interested in talking about books and book people, can also be one in which good writing has more of a chance to flourish than ever. Bloomsbury produced only one Virginia Woolf, one E.M. Forster, and a lot of others we don't remember, but the wealth of writing and attention to writing that that celebrity milieu produced made the really great ones possible.

This all may sound a little confused -- it's been a confusing week. But I guess my point is that I think it's good that people are talking about books, even if they're talking about book scandals. With luck, it all comes back to the writing.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Reviews: Holiday Reading Roundup

As tends to happen when one is first surrounded by family, then laid low by illness, I've done, I feel, woefully little reading over the Christmas / New Year's holiday. But there are a couple of winners in there, and I want to gush over them before moving on, in future posts, to this year's book world business. (I've realized in reading over this that my stuffy nose may still be making me a little bit cranky, even about books I love, so take my snarkiness with a grain of salt, or a vitamin C.)

The New York / Cincinnatti / Denver plane read turned out to be THE WINSHAW LEGACY, OR, WHAT A CARVE UP! by Jonathan Coe (Vintage, originally published 1994). What was I doing reading this? -- it's not even something new, and certainly nothing like JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke, which was last year's plane read and which was what I held up to the staff at Partners and Crime as an exemplar of what I wanted to read. It's the story of Michael Owen, a sad-sack little-known fiction writer who gets a commission to write a history of a prominent British family, and the history itself is told mixed up with the writer's life and a weird comedy/horror movie he can't get out of his head. Weirdly structured, parody one minute and deadly serious the next, it's hardly the high historical fantasy of JS&MN. Nevertheless, I quickly realized the commonality the true bookseller at P&S had recognized in the two novels: both Coe's and Clarke's books have a narrative that compels on a scale both intimate and vast. Michael Owen's slow emergence from his cocoon of solitude, his discovery of his own family history, the minutiae of his life, begins to dovetail with the story of the Winshaws, whose story is that of every behind-the-scenes crime committed in the latter half of the 20th century. One Winshaw is a pandering and irresponsible journalist; one is a thoroughly corrupt MP; one is a soulless merchant banker; one is a mass food-production monster; and one is an equal-opportunity arms dealer. As Owen discovers, their crimes may go back as far as WWII, and their reach manages to ruin even his little life. Coe's research and merciless descriptions about these huge, unnoticed forces behind the horrors of our age is both fascinating and galvanizing. And the story is as satisfying as a locked-room mystery. I admit I snuck moments away from the family to read about inhumane chicken farms and semi-legal corporate buyouts, and when I finished it I was exhilarated and exhausted. What a read.

Once home and confined to the couch with the bug from heck, I managed to finish the humongous anniversary edition of THE WATCHMEN by Alan Moore (DC Universe) that the ALP got for Christmas. The story of a semi-alternate 1980s where superheros (or "costumed vigilantes," few of whom have actual powers) have been outlawed and disgraced, but their legacy is lasting and a few are still active when some murdered former heros draw attention to a larger plot, triggering memories and new adventures. I'd had it talked down a bit before I started it – the friend who gave the gift is more of a fan of Alan Moore than is the ALP, who is of the opinion that what's touted as edgy, gritty, and groundbreaking in comics is often just more violent and nihilistic without much in the way of storytelling brilliance. And it is true I found myself annoyed rather than shocked and challenged at some of Moore's writerly moves. The multiple rapist and murderer The Comedian "sees life how it really is?" The psychopathic Rorschach is the story's diarist and perhaps moral center? A fake alien kills three million people and causes all the world's governments to decide to call off war? Please. The thing that bugged me the most was that the primary female character, Silk Spectre, while all for saving humanity from apathy and misguided "higher plans", is given only the most inane dialogue to defend her view, and mostly weeps and screams. There's nothing worse in a story than a stupid chick, unless it's a stupid chick who's right. On the other hand… there is a reason why this book – series, really – is considered a classic. Moore understands how to use the medium of sequential art to tell a story like maybe no one else does, and the resonances he builds through visual and verbal motifs that wouldn't work in a novel or a movie are deeply satisfying. My favorite section involves Dr. Manhattan, a man who due to exposure to nuclear radiation has become superhuman (bear with me, it is a comic book after all), and ponders his life while taking a time out on Mars. For Manhattan, removed from time by his powers, all things seem to happen at the same time, or can be perceived outside of their linear order, and Moore beautifully limns the man's life in a cut-and-splice, minute-by-minute nonlinear narrative that could only work with words and pictures. And the character development of Nite Owl, Rorschach, the nameless newsstand owner, and other characters is nuanced and revealing. So the tome is definitely worth reading, especially if (like me) you're just beginning to explore the world of graphic lit and are curious about some of its birth pangs. Moore's sensibility may smack of early '80s nihilism, but his storytelling skills manage to transcend it.

Right now I'm reading another winner that had two strikes against it to begin with: it was reviewed by Michiko Kakutani, and it's by David Foster Wallace. If you've ever been in a bookstore with me, you may have heard my rants against Michiko (though she's the New York Times' top book reviewer we like to refer to her by her first name), whom I suspect has been reading books for so long that nothing will satisfy her, and should give up her touchy throne to a less jaded reviewer. (I also suspect she sometimes writes otherwise fair-minded negative reviews, then throws in a few spicy degrading adjectives just for the spectacle. And her weird "character voice" reviews (Holden Caulfield, Holly Golightly) prove that she's undeniably a good writer, but she may have gone over the edge.) But Michi must have been in a good mood last week, because she gave not one but TWO positive fiction reviews – one to UTTERLY MONKEY by Nick Laird (aka Mr. Zadie Smith), and one to Wallace's new essay collection, CONSIDER THE LOBSTER (Little, Brown). I admit to being one of those people who got about 50 pages into INFINITE JEST, then tossed it aside with a roll of the eyes and a "maybe I'm stupid or unhip, but this just doesn't feel worth it to me." I think Wallace may be another person whose genius has a tendency to run away with him. But I am a fan of the well-done essay, and Michi's review was so juicy and appealing, that I picked up the book, and I'm thoroughly, thoroughly enjoying it. Wallace brings a super intelligent but not overly serious mind to such topics as the Adult Video Awards (Oscars for porn), the release of a new English usage guide (he reveals the deep politics of linguistics and his own inner snoot), riding in the McCain media entourage during the fascinating 2000 Republican primary, and yet another book from John Updike (which he pans, much to my delight; unverified quote: "It never seems to occur to [Updike's character] that maybe the reason he's so unhappy is because he's an asshole."). Confined by the length of an article (most of these pieces were written for magazines) and the need to stick to the subject at hand (with some amusing digressions), Wallace is more writer than one could possibly hope for, and every bit the genius he's rumored to be. I'm tearing through his pieces on these (potentially dry) subjects like a cheap thriller, and I'll have to pick up more of his nonfiction now that I've discovered its addicting virtuosity.

There are a couple of duds in the batch, too – I was underwhelmed by A.M. Homes' THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE (Viking, coming out in April), which I felt couldn't decide if it was a satire on L.A. or an earnest redemption story; and I can't even get through the promising QUIXOTE (Image Press), a novel / graphic novel hybrid by a great comic book writer (Micahel Oeming, co-creator of POWERS) who doesn't seem to do so well when it's mostly just words. But that's all the snarking I've got, and I feel lucky to have had several such great books to mark the turning of the year. (And I've just started the new galley by my favorite and idol, David Mitchell…!) I welcome your thoughts if you've read these, or if you've read other great (or ungreat) books since last we met.

Or, if you want something more scandalous to talk about, check out this story unmasking a mysterious writer I've mentioned previously, or this one questioning the veracity of another. Next time, more about the Writer vs. the writing?...

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Chronicle: Christmas in Denver

My brain is still a little mushy (the result of continuing sinus infection and not enough sleep), but I'm slowly working up to speed, and I can't wait any longer to chronicle the book-related adventures of the holidays. The ALP and I managed to get a ride to the airport despite the strike, and looked into the bookstores in the Cincinatti and Denver airports before making it to the relatives' house. His folks, his sister, brother and sister-in-law, and the little ones were very welcoming, and it was a wonderfully laid-back holiday. One of the highlights of my vacation was reading WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN by Maurice Sendak to a two-year-old about five times apiece. I may have enjoyed/understood Max and Mickey's adventures more than he did, but his continuing interest was very gratifying. It's not often I have the chance to indulge my love of kid stuff -- having small relatives has its advantages.

Of course the ALP and I deluged the kids with books on Christmas morning -- one can hardly blame them if the books didn't have the immediate appeal of, say, a complete kid-size tool set or a chewy rattle, but they'll last. (Richard Scarry's BEST WORD BOOK EVER was getting some play before we left.) We didn't receive any books ourselves (except for some cool cookbooks), though we were given a ton of other great stuff (including a supercool digital camera, which I'll try to use to spruce up the ol' blog as soon as I figure it out). The ALP's mom actually shares the opinion expressed by Joe Queenan in the Christmas Day New York Times Book Review, that it's a bad idea to give surprise books to the book-obsessed, because they already know what they want to read. They're probably right. Guess we'll have to put together one of those online wishlists if we want to get books next year (though I'll be doing it through Powell's and not through Amazon).

In between the family time, we were set loose to explore the city, and on one day drove to neighboring Boulder. Denver seems to be a great town for bookstores -- we walked past at least half a dozen on our limited ramblings -- and Boulder, as a well-to-do college town, even more so. I admit that my New York snobbery was challenged by the obvious cultural vibrancy of these Colorado towns -- Denver in particular has amazing architecture, some great museums, and a shopping district to rival SoHo (or at least 5th Avenue). It's a very cool mid-sized town, and I can see why the ALP's relatives moved there.

And of course, there's the Tattered Cover! We made a beeline for the LoDo store (that's Lower Downtown for you non-Denverites) the first time we had a minute free, and boy did it live up to expectations. It's a two-story brick warehouse space (there's a poster inside paying tribute to the owner of the factory it used to be), lined with real wood shelves and green carpet, dotted with mismatched chairs, and filled with informative but not overwhelming signage pointing out sections, featured titles, sale books, upcoming events and special features. Computers are scattered about for the use of the staff, who looked a bit frazzeled on December 23, understandably, but were still helpful and polite.

Almost coolest of all for me was the massive event space in a wing of the second floor: a huge empty room with a stage at one end, quiet and empty the day we visited but lined with hundreds of photos of the authors who have read there. I walked around on the creaking floors, looking for names and faces I recognized, reading the signs and flyers about Tattered Cover's event series, give-back programs, book clubs, recommendations, and other vibrant staples of a well-run independent. Honestly, I got so excited I had to go to the bathroom (and of course they have a public one, the entrance of which is the location of all the free community flyers and periodicals to pick up while you're waiting -- brilliant!)

I even bought something while I was there. The Tattered Cover remainder books (labeled "Bargain") are dispersed throughout the store, but I found my bargain on a Staff Picks display -- a hardcover edition of THE MIRACLE LIFE OF EDGAR MINT for $5.98. Since other bookish friends have recommended this book several times, I figured the TC employee's plug (and the amazing price) were the final deciding factor. I took it to the register, along with a TC mug and a huge handful of those free handouts (including an amazing newsletter called The Reading Glass). The nice employee started to direct me to the free giftwrapping station, but when I sheepishly admitted I was buying for myself, he said "Perfect!" (Probably grateful not to have to wrap something else.) The ALP picked up a collection of R.L. Stevenson's essays, also at remainder price, and while we saw at least a dozen more books we wanted (including the massive new Calvin and Hobbes collection), we reminded ourselves that we'd have to schlep everything home in a suitcase, and so abstained.

It was a beautiful place, though -- I wish I could become a regular. What I can do is scour those free materials to learn about what an independent bookstore can offer to its community. I'm sure TC has its own share of issues, problems, and necessary changes -- the buzz now is that they'll be closing one of their branches, possibly to open another one in a newly renovated theater -- but what's inspiring is that they haven't rested on their laurels. They continue to work to maintain and expand their customer base, to offer the best of what's out there, and to creatively incorporate public events into the library-like reading space.

Next post I'll review the books I've managed to read in that last couple of weeks -- also a big part of my holiday experience. Please forgive me if I'm less sparkling than usual -- I feel like my brain is an out-of-date computer, whirring and humming wildly to accomplish the simplest of tasks, and my stamina is kind of low. I'm going to try to get lots of rest this weekend, and I'll be back with those book reviews as soon as I can. Happy 2006!

Monday, January 02, 2006

Comment: Please stand by...

This is not the post about Christmas in Denver, or the books I've read or stores I've visited or thoughts I've had to share since then. This is just to say (thank you Dr. Williams) that I have contracted some sort of bug thing, and I've been out of it since before New Year's, and feeling way too loopy and incoherent to try to write in a respectably readable fashion, or even sit in front of the computer for very long. But I'm still here, and I'll post extensively as soon as I have the time and energy. I'm going back to bed with my comic books and my ginger tea... look for me here shortly.