Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Comment: Daughters Are Doin' It For Themselves
Michael Powell, CEO of the superfamous Portland independent bookstore that bears his name, just announced that he'll be handing over the reins of the business to his daughter Emily within the next few years.
And Neal Coonerty of well-respected (if smaller) Bookshop Santa Cruz is passing along his operation to his daughter, Casey Coonerty Protti. (Both via Shelf Awareness).
I just think this is darn cool -- two educated, driven young women stepping into their dads' shoes, and stepping up for the next era in the business of bookselling. It reminds me of the famous Russ & Daughters deli in New York (a favorite of foodie author Calvin Trillin). Hooray for the daughters!
Chronicle: Emerging Leaders NAIBAhood gathering
The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) puts on a series of localized bookseller confabs called NAIBAhood Gatherings (I love the cleverness -- Eileen, the NAIBA secretary, is a genius). On Sunday, April 9, the gatheringwill be at the Bridge Street Bookshop in Phoenixville, PA. This gathering is unique, as it's the first NAIBA-sponsored meeting of Emerging Leaders.
Emerging Leaders is a group of young booksellers who have dedicated themselves to bookselling as a long term career. The group aims to work on helping bookstores to make it possible for more passionate young folks to get into the business. They'll share ideas and mistakes, and learn how our peers are working and innovating. And they're a great network for our generation as we build our careers in this honorable profession, and "shape the future of bookselling."
I just RSVP'd for the April 9 meeting, and I'm excited to see what gets talked about. If any of you bookselling types are free that Sunday, it would be awesome to see you there! Let me know if you're interested and I can give you Eileen's contact info.
by Daniel Handler
(Ecco, May 2006)
Long before he got famous as the alter ego of Lemony Snicket, author of the fabulouly, hilariously dark children's books of A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, I fell in love with Daniel Handler's fabulously, hilariously dark adult novels. His first, THE BASIC EIGHT, was told in the pitch-perfect voice of a high school girl and mercilessly sent up talk show culture as well as the misplaced passions of adolescence. The second, WATCH YOUR MOUTH, was a Jewish incest comedy opera combined with a self-help novel, and unbearably clever, funny and heartbreaking. I tried often to handsell them, but they were strangely hard to pitch to readers not sure what to do with this goofy black humor. The books never really took off; at least one has never even been issued in paperback.
Now, however, Handler's increased visibility means that his new grown-up book has a shot at a real audience. And jeez, does it ever deserve it. While it hasn't got the single highly developed narrative voice each of his earlier novels benefited from, ADVERBS shows off Handler's off-kilter humor, bleak but starry-eyed worldview, and inimitable faux-formal style to great effect. It's a novel-in-stories, you could say -- or really more like a story collection in which characters recur -- or maybe other characters have the same names -- and at least one is a first -person essay. The sly refusal to resolve is pure Handler, as are the titles of which are, of course, adverbs: Immediately, Obviously, Arguably, Not Particularly, etc. As are the recurring motifs: magpies, the word "Look" (which really means listen), the Snow Queen, a volcano or some other vague catastrophe.
But what the stories are about is love, in all its hopelessly, messily, pathetically, gloriously adverbial splendor. Gay, straight, plural, platonic, consummated, imaginary -- all kinds are here. Many of the stories are sad. Some are hopeful. Some are surreal. All are funny and strange. Daniel Handler is one of those authors with a voice so distinctive and addictive, you find yourself thinking in his language after you put the book away. It might be a tiny bit too pomo cute for some (they're wrong, of course). But if it gets to you, it will shoot straight to the top of your most-quoted, most-remembered books list.
Dude, just read this book (when it comes out). And while you're at it, read WATCH YOUR MOUTH and THE BASIC EIGHT (which is being published in paperback simultaneously). And give an extremely hardworking, incredibly talented, totally bizarre author the grown-up respect he deserves.
I'll be consulting my thesaurus for more adverbs.
Monday, March 27, 2006
What Jesus Meant
by Gary Wills
(Viking, March 2006)
One of my favorite parts of living in Brooklyn is going to Old First, by some reckonings the oldest church in the borough. (Yep, I'm a Christian as well as a book nerd – talk about your obstacles to hipster credibility!) The building is magnificent, if in need of repair (Tiffany stained glass, an ancient pipe organ, and that great old wood smell). And it's an open-armed, community-minded sort of place, where tradition is taken as seriously as a commitment to a progressive engagement with contemporary realities. It's actually a lot like my idea of the perfect neighborhood bookstore, though with less profit-oriented goals.
Anyway, at Old First we've been knocking around the idea of starting a book group for reading literature that has resonances for the Christian faith – Marilyn Robinson's GILEAD, for example, and A GOD STROLLING IN THE COOL OF THE EVENING by Mário de Carvalho and Gregory Rabassa. (I'm sure there are many, many more – any suggestions?). Sort of as a practice, several of us agreed to read and discuss Gary Wills' WHAT JESUS MEANT. It's more explicitly Christian than most of the fiction we've thought about, but it got a great review in the Sunday TBR a few weeks back, and we thought we'd give it a try.
Wills' book states right off that its purposes are devotional, not historical – he's not trying to prove anything to non-Christians, just taking a new look at what the Jesus of the Bible is actually supposed to have said and done. But I think anyone who is interested in contemporary interpretations (and co-options) of Christianity might find much of interest here. Wills' primary contention is that Jesus was incredibly radical, but not political. He was extremely anti-authoritarian (and got a lot of grief from the Powers That Were) because he was interested in people loving and serving each other (and God) without the hierarchies and rules that kept them apart. He seems to have made a point of hanging out with those the ancient religious laws considered "unclean": prostitutes (and women in general), non-Jews, people who worked on the Sabbath, etc. Today, Wills argues convincingly, he'd probably be spending a lot of time with gays and lesbians. But his goals were internal change and reconciliation, not political reform, and those on the Right (or Left) who claim Christianity as their justification, Wills implies, have a lot of 'splaining to do.
Wills' writing reminded me of the clarity and forcefulness of C.S. Lewis, whom I read a lot when I was younger. After reading this book, I'm curious about what he could possibly have said in his previous work, WHY I AM A CATHOLIC – he spends a lot of time talking about how organized religion, especially Catholicism, has institutionalized a lot of stuff that runs exactly counter to the actions and teachings of Jesus. While I didn't agree with every word, the book was eye-opening, intense, and extremely well-written. The Christian and the non-religious, the political and the apolitical, are likely to find something interesting and challenging in Wills' intelligent and engaging book.
THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD
by Kevin Brockmeier
(Pantheon, February 2006)
On the fantastic side of supernatural speculation is Kevin Brockmeier's mesmerizing novel THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD. (I picked this up partly because of its incredible cover: an empty overcoat on a hanger is held open by two hands coming out of the sleeves.) The opening chapter (which was published as a short story) sets up the premise: there is a city of the newly dead, where those who are still remembered by those alive find themselves after their passage from the land of the living. While they don't age, these dead folks have bodies and ideologies, find jobs or find love, eat and drink and speculate about where they are and where they're going. At some point – presumably when the last person who remembered them is no longer alive – people disappear from the city. No one knows where they go after that.
The story goes on from this premise, describing the effects on the city when a pandemic sweeps the earth. The citizens of Dead City [I made that name up, it's not in the book] can only speculate about what's happening from the reports of new arrivals, but it's clear things are changing. But half of the chapters follow Laura Byrd, a real live person who (like her Admiral namesake) is doing research at the North Pole, out of range of the disease's spread, and increasingly all alone. As it becomes clear how much in Dead City depends on Laura's life and memories, the novel's focus tightens and intensifies.
I wasn't crazy about the ending of the novel – how can you really end a story about a sort of purgatory? But this was totally a subway-stop-missing, rich and exciting read. My favorite part is Brockmeier's gift of evoking whole lives by a remembered detail or two. A teenage boy can't forget the way his girlfriend nibbled his earlobe. A mother is remembered by how beautiful she looked when her face was completely expressionless. A newspaper editor speaks in goofy headlines. If you remember the beginning of the movie Amelie, where several characters are described by their quirky little loves (the sound of a cat dish on tile?), you'll know what I'm talking about. Brockmeier is the kind of science fiction / fantasy writer who is less interested in the precise workings of his imaginary world (no one in his story is clear on its details) than in how it might affect the people who live in it, and what it reveals about the world we do live in. His Dead City is a place where mortality is more present than ever, where memory and longing have not disappeared with death. He has written a vivid and beautiful novel, one that I'll be recommending all summer, and remembering for a long time.
Friday, March 24, 2006
I know this probably seems like a non-question in this digital age, especially for those of you who are net-surfers enough to be reading this. But you might be surprised how many good bookstores have answered "none." And I believe there are better and worse ways to utilize the electronic box in a store full of print.
(Warning: this post is kind of wonky, so if you're not especially interested in the internal workings of bookstores, feel free to skip it.)
I know of some bookstores that are so small, and run by such a stable and careful staff, that they consider a computerized inventory unnecessary. And to some degree, they're right. If your stock is small enough, and your staff is good enough, why do you need an electronic record of what you've bought and sold, how long it's been around and what kind of discount you got? If you have a relationship with most of the regulars who come in the door, why do you need an electronic record of names, addresses, buying preferences?
This kind of store probably has a good paper record-keeping system, and they probably have some level of computer functionality (if only to look up titles on Amazon so they can order them for customers). But all of the book decisions are made by human eyes and brains. If it seems like a book has been sitting around for too long, it will be plucked for a return. If a book seems to be selling well, it will be reordered. The collective mind of the staff is essentially the store's inventory system.
Obviously, there are downsides. It's harder, if not impossible, to check the sales of a particular book when in doubt. It's nearly impossible to know if a missing book has been stolen or sold or just not ordered. And there's the frustration of finding a book ten minutes after the customer who wanted it has left, shelved in a section you hadn't considered. Theoretically, a computerized record of the book could have led you to it in time to make the sale.
I also know of some bookstores that are almost entirely dependent on their computer system. Orders are placed electronically, often without the human presence of a sales rep. Reports are run to make decisions about reorders and returns. Sometimes the person making the decisions about the book may never have seen the book – only its electronic simulacrum.
This does have its advantages. It's easier to track where the stores' sales are increasing or declining, and make decisions about inventory accordingly. It's easier to keep track of customers and contact them en masse when a big book or event is coming. It's often easier to lead a customer directly to the book they're asking for, especially in a larger store where keeping all of the titles in one's head would be impossible.
But I think the downsides of depending on the computer are even greater than the downsides of rejecting it. Ultimately, it takes the power to make decisions about books out of the hands of the humans working with the books and customers on the sales floor, and gives it over to the merciless logic of the 1's and 0's of an "if, then" computer report. A computer can't make a decision about which book has truly finished its run, and which just needs a new display space (or that review that's just been published) to find its audience. This not only means that the store may lose sales in the short run, but it means that booksellers are given to understand that their experiences and expertise are less valuable than the computer's calculator. That means booksellers less invested in the life of the store, and ultimately less productive.
It's the old John Henry vs. the machine contest – an emotional (and easy to oversimplify) idea, but one that also has real consequences for the bottom line of the store. A big store needs a way to keep track of the books it carries, but every store needs a way to make truly informed decisions. Every chain bookstore has a sophisticated computer system, often connecting the inventory of dozens of other stores that can ship you the one book you want immediately. But a good independent has people who can not only find the book you're looking for, but place in your hands (or in a good display space) the book you didn't know you wanted that might change your life. This is our primary asset as independents, and we can't afford to let it go to waste.
I believe the best bookstores will use the computerized inventory system as a tool in the hands of skilled booksellers, not as a substitute for them. I think a balance between the organizational potential of the electronic, and the passion and insight of the experiential, is the kind of balance that we should seek – as booksellers, and as humans.
But, as the Reading Rainbow guy always said, you don't have to take my word for it. Feel free to comment on the electronic vs. the biological approaches if you feel so moved. I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Hope this isn't too much information -- just wanted to make it clear that I'm not retiring, or resting on my laurels. (By the way, thanks so much to all of you who have sent comments and emails regarding the PW article -- I'm working on getting to them, and I love hearing from you!)
I promise when things calm down I'll be back, with book reviews, fun industry news, and reports from my new bookseller life. Enjoy the week, and happy reading!
Friday, March 17, 2006
As one of my last acts here, I've managed to convince everyone to allow me to pull the graphic novels out of literature to create a Graphic Lit section. It looks pretty good for something cobbled together in the last few days, I have to say. I have every hope and expectation that this will lead to increased sales and cred for the store, and that the section can be expanded as it succeeds; I just hope someone with a feel for the genre will end up taking charge of it.
Cake and beer is scheduled for later this afternoon. After work, several of us have planned to adjourn to the local watering hole for further commemoration/celebration. The place will probably be packed with St. Paddy's Day revelers, but that will just add to the Friday, school's-out-for-summer kind of feeling.
Today I wore my T-shirt with the Walt Whitman quote: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself!" I'm thrilled and excited to begin my new bookstore gig. But especially today, I'm happy to be right here.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
(Later this week I'm planning to run another roundup of great book blogs I've discovered recently, so prepare for more time wasting!)
In the BS Chick spirit, I've been thinking about an issue that I imagine bookstore goers have opinions on, whether they've considered them or not. How do you take your bookstore: chaotic or clean?
Myself, I'm a bit of a neat freak. I spend all day at my current store picking up stray books and putting them back on the shelf, dusting surfaces, throwing out random slips of paper, straightening stacks, sorting through piles of detritus... My coworkers have chastised me once or twice for "neatening" something that could have stayed where it was, such as a book a customer had placed on the counter and was coming back for. But I feel obligated to keep the encroaching chaos at bay. It's my feeling that a neat store is a more beautiful store.
But this isn't the aesthetic in all bookstores. There is an ideal of the independent bookstore where all is chaos, where only the bookseller may know where to find something. Christopher Morley's classic THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP, or the book I just finished, FIRMIN, both take place in this kind of establishment. Finding a book there is like stumbling across treasure, not like flipping through a file cabinet. As the literate rat Firmin puts it,
"Sometimes the books were arranged under signs, but sometimes they were just anywhere and everywhere. After I understood people better, I realized that this incredible disorder was one of the things that they loved about Pembroke Books… when they hauled some literary nugget from a mound of dross, they were much happier than if they had just walked in and bought it. In that way shopping at Pembroke was like reading: you never knew what you might encounter on the next page – the next shelf, stack, or box – and that was part of the
pleasure of it."
I understand this feeling – I like browsing a good messy used bookstore myself. But I also think that this prejudice for civilized chaos belongs to an older model of bookstores, of publishing and even of literature: a game for gentlemen and geniuses, not to be undertaken for motives as base as profit. It's all very well to have "mound[s] of dross" if your purpose in being a bookseller is just to relax among the books with your pipe and wax prolific about literature. If, however, one intends to run a bookstore as a business, a different model is necessary.
The sensation of discovering something unexpected is indeed valuable. Serendipity is one of my very favorite parts of the bookstore experience. But I think it can be achieved without resorting to mere messiness. Our job as booksellers is to seek out the new and wonderful and underpublicized books out there, to put them on our tables and face-out displays, to surprise the lucky bookstore patron with the book they didn't know they wanted. This kind of egalitarian display chaos – bestseller next to indie press unknown – is my kind of chaos.
And I think it can co-exist with sections organized alphabetically, clear and consistent signage, and an absence of detritus and dirt. Surprising books are a sign that a bookstore's staff is creative. Disorganization is a sign that they just don't care enough to keep the place neat.
But maybe I'm wrong. Feel free to share your thoughts on chaos vs. order, serendipity vs. organization, neatnik nerdiness vs. bohemian laissez faire.
I'll be busy dusting the information desk.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
I've been reviewing books for PW for years, and only twice before has my name ever appeared in the magazine. I have to say this is a little gratifying. Ben from FSG deserves credit for this entry's title; I may be famous in only a tiny little world, but it feels like the cover of Rolling Stone to me.
Also, look for my guest blog this week on MJ Rose's literary site Buzz, Balls & Hype. MJ does a great job of exploring the book industry from the writer's point of view; I'm honored to be part of a series of bookseller guest bloggers to give her readers a different perspective.
I do have real stuff to talk about this week, but today I'm just too darn excited. Please forgive the shameless self-promotion; apparently, I've just "lost all shame."
Monday, March 13, 2006
The ALP and I walk past the Underberg on jaunts to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the irresistible temptations of the Brooklyn Target, or the Atlantic Avenue subway station. I've always been charmed by the combination of odd green paint and the brick that shows through where it's peeled and faded, and the old-fashioned lettering stenciled on the side. I had forgotten that the building also features in Jonathan Lethem's FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE – along with (still functioning) Brooklyn hardware store Pintchik, the Underberg is one of the places young Dylan Ebdus shops with his mother, and shoplifts with his friends when he gets older.
The building is structurally unsound and totally unsafe at this point, of course, which is the ostensible motivation for tearing it down. But it is a beautiful wreck that will go out of our lives forever. Living in New York means dealing with changing neighborhoods, with the loss of what have become your personal landmarks. It's a fact of life. But it's always a little painful.
Coincidentally, this week's books are both at least partially concerned with the destruction of buildings.
by Katherine Weber
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 2006)
This novel by Katherine Weber (author of THE LITTLE WOMEN, a modern update of the Alcott tale) centers around one of the most famous destroyed buildings in American history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, ravaged by a fire in 1911 which killed 146 workers who were trapped due to management neglect and maliciousness. (The factory, repossessed and renovated, later became a New York University building, and I studied literature in its classrooms as an undergraduate.) The central character is Esther Gottesfeld, the last survivor of the fire in 2001, who has spent her life telling the story of how she escaped when her sister, Pauline, and her fiancé, Sam, died in the blaze. Esther's unborn child also survived, though he died in an accident as an adult, and her granddaughter Rebecca is now her only family. Rebecca and her longtime partner George, a composer, are crazy about Esther, and don't think to question her story until after her death, when a humorless (and thus hilarious) feminist scholar approaches them with questions and theories about what really happened the day of the fire. The eyewitness accounts – women burning, bodies falling as workers jumped out windows – are harrowing and effective, and Weber lets the reader figure out Esther's secret along with Rebecca, never making things too explicit. The novel spends a little too much time on George's music, which is interesting but doesn't seem related to the story; however, the final scene, an oratorio dedicated to the victims of the Triangle, is moving and well-earned. This one is definitely worth a read if you're interested in Weber's skillful re-imagining of women's history, and the way it breaks into the present.
FIRMIN: ADVENTURES OF A METROPOLITAN LOWLIFE
by Sam Savage
(Coffee House Press, April 2006)
This one was recommended by fellow booksellers, for which I'm very grateful. Firmin is a literate rat, but not in a charming Charlotte's Web sort of way. His devouring of literature (literal and figurative – he has to chew something, and has interesting insights into the comparative flavors of JANE EYRE, Emily Post, and Proust) make him an outcast from his own kind and unable to connect with the human world he has so internalized. Born in a used bookstore in Boston's Scollay Square, he spends his life observing the bookstore owner, Norman Shine, and a local author, Jerry Magoon, who takes him in, and watching the old-time porn at the Rialto Theater. Poor Firmin's vermin angst is of course hilariously self-deprecating, and his diction sometimes reads like a translation of Kafka or Clarice Lispector – an existential Everyman who takes literature very seriously, but finds their own existence ridiculous. His only happiness comes from his pseudo-friendship with the semi-crackpot Magoon (who calls Firmin "civilized" but of course can't understand how articulate and well-read he is, since they don't share a common language) and romantic fantasies of glamorous lives and Ginger Rogers. The novel turns dreamily tragic at the end, as the end of Firmin's short rat life coincides with the destruction of Scollay Square by the city. Like the Underberg building, the square is considered dangerous and an eyesore, and the bookstore, the Rialto, and all the other neighborhood buildings have been slated for demolition.
Firmin's description of the history and the destruction of the long-abandoned Howard Theater is a fitting epitaph for the Underberg, too, as it becomes part of the city's past. Maybe it will always be necessary to remove the old in the interest of progress. At least we have literature to keep in memory the value of what is lost
Things were ending fast. The ship was sinking, and a week after Shine started tossing books overboard, the Old Howard burned. This was a theater that a long time ago had been famous all across America. I used to trudge by its abandoned hulk on my way to the Rialto. Façade of gray stone, enormous gothic windows, it looked like a church except for the huge sign jutting halfway across the street with THE OLD HOWARD spelled out in lightbulbs… It looked like a church for a reason – it had been built as one by the Millerites, a religious sect whose zealots believed that the world was coming to an end… I loved reading about those people. They were just like me, carrying around with them all the time this huge sense of calamity…The church became a theater – Edwin Booth played there – a vaudeville house, and finally a strip joint. In 1952, which was still long before my time, the city closed it down for good…
And now at last the world was really ending, and the Howard was going with it…
The sirens wailed on and off the whole afternoon, and when I went by that night only the outer walls were still standing, a smoking ruin, and the street was full of ashy mud. A few people were walking up and down in the mud holding signs that said SAVE THE OLD HOWARD and PRESERVE OUR HERITAGE. It had never looked to me like anything particularly worth saving, and I had never cared for the low-life rats who lived there. Good riddance, I thought. At dawn the ruin was still smoking, when they brought in the huge crane. It had an enormous iron ball on the end of a steel cable, and when the crane moved its arm back and forth the ball began to swing, and it swung higher and higher until, with the ball high on the backswing, the crane suddenly surged forward, and the ball swung forward and down and up and crashed against the side of the Old Howard. The walls must have been really strong, because they couldn't knock them down with the crane. And that was when they sent in the sappers, who put dynamite under the walls and set it off. They did this three times, and each time another wall came crashing down, and a billowing wave of ash and dust rolled down the street for blocks and made the dirty buildings a little bit dirtier.
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Yep, it's true -- your Book Nerd is changing her place of employment. To be precise, I'm leaving this store for this store. It's been an intense couple of weeks, but obviously I didn't want to post the news here before I'd made it public with my employer and coworkers, which just happened yesterday.
So what are the impelling causes? Primarily, the pursuit of becoming a better bookseller. As you all have seen me declare repeatedly, I'm after a store of my own, and I'm interested in experiences that will prepare me for that eventuality. The store I'm going to is relatively young, still finding its niche in the neighborhood and its groove in terms of staff, stock, systems, etc. They've done some fantastic things so far -- created a beautiful space, initiated a stellar event series, begun to build a reputation as a source for a wide range of quality literature -- and I'm excited to get involved there at this stage and get a chance to learn about the process of becoming a great neighborhood bookstore.
I have no interest in burning bridges, and I've learned a great deal about various aspects of bookselling at my current store, including a ton about effectively managing bookstore staff. But I feel like maybe I've reached the limit of my learning there. I won't be a manager at the new place -- their staff of booksellers is too small to require one, though everyone has manager-level responsibilities. To be honest, I'm looking forward to taking the focus off of supervising employees, and getting back to the books and the customers. Hopefully I'll be able to re-sharpen my handselling skills. And there are at least half a dozen aspects of the store's operations that I'm itching to get involved in -- the owner and employees assure me that my interest and passion will be welcomed.
I'm starting the new job on the first day of spring. I can't think of a better symbol for fresh beginnings. Goofy Declaration of Independence references aside, I feel on the verge of a revolution.
Monday, March 06, 2006
I was crazy about author Mo Willem's pigeon character in his hilarious (and extremely good for contrary kids who love to shout "NO" on every page) book DON'T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS. (The sequel, THE PIGEON FINDS A HOT DOG, was equally funny, if not as interactive.) Now here he is becoming a spokesbird for literacy! The book he's holding is called, of course, HOW TO DRIVE A BUS.
Saturday the ALP and I braved the cold to walk to our local Neighborhoodies store. These guys started out as an Internet-only company based in Brooklyn, and has started opening bricks-and-mortar stores in the last couple of years, providing the same service of custom-made T-shirt designs (they now have bags, sweatshirts and undies too). Their cozy Atlantic Avenue shop is a great temptation to those of us full of witty slogans which need to be shared with the world. Neighborhoodies was the source of my original Book Nerd Pride shirt, a gift from the ALP:
I find I'm less self-conscious wearing it when I'm not actually working at the bookstore... facing customers all day in a shirt that seems to imply that its literate inhabitant considers herself quite the hottie can be a tad embarrassing. But I love this shirt, and I wear it with pride when walking around in Brooklyn and not in such constant face-to-face contact.
Today's T-shirt design was all my own, a celebration of my geeky joy in books and in this blog, too:
I realized after the fact that the goth font and rockin' design were totally inspired by the cover of Anne Thomas Soffee's book NERD GIRL ROCKS PARADISE CITY (Chicago Review Press), a memoir of her years as a music reviewer in '80s L.A. I should probably rip out the collar to make it look a little more punk... but I do intend to wear this one to work. I just hope nobody is freaked out by militant book loving.
(All photographs courtesy the ALP, in our kitchen.)
Saturday, March 04, 2006
by Salvador Plasencia
(McSweeney's, June 2005)
The House of Paper
by Carlos Maria Dominguez
translated by Nick Caistor
illustrations by Peter Sis
So here we have two books, both with paper in the title, both by Latin Americans (or Latino-Americans), published in 2005. Both also happen to be about books. Plasencia's novel is the second McSweeney's publication I've read in less than a month; their bindings are always just so pretty, and I guess after a lot of recent non-fiction reading I was ready for some fiction that was a little more arch and challenging. This one is definitely experimental, both typographically and authorially. Stories are often told in several columns on a page spread, each narrated by or concerned with a different character; the type sometimes ends up running sideways on the page or blocked out by black squares; one word is actually cut out of the page each time it would appear, leaving a small rectangular whole; and at one point the entire book starts over again, with a slightly altered dedication page. None of this is gratuitous, however; it really is in service to the plot, which concerns the fortunes of an interconnected group of Mexican-American farm workers, actresses, herbal healers, mechanics, Catholic priests and clergy, and always men and women busy breaking each others' hearts. The omniscient sections of the story are labeled "Saturn"; when some of the farm workers launch a rebellion against Saturn's invasive observation, the planet turns out to be Sal Plasencia, whose own hang-ups and heartbreaks begin to bleed into the story. This is an odd book, and I did have one or two moments of annoyance at the irksomely cutesy experimentalism that McSweeney's seem unable to entirely avoid. But it's a rich one too, a Mexican melodrama on a postmodern stage. As they live their deeply felt, folk-art colored lives, the characters' rebellion is essentially against authorial authority, and Plasencia's book is about the moral choices of making art, as well as its healing power.
Dominguez' novel is much more straightforward: a single story told in the first person. At a slim 103 pages, it was one that I consumed in its entirety on a single subway ride home. Then I took it back to the store the next day (I had been borrowing it) and bought it, because I wanted to be able to return to Dominguez observations about books and book lovers. The story ultimately concerns a book collector whose books literally take over his life, pushing him into a corner of his house and taking the place of his friends; when a fire destroys his card catalog (and thus any chance of finding a particular book again) he goes mad, and begins using his beloved books as mere bricks to build the house of the title. His story is gradually uncovered by a nameless protagonist, a colleague and lover of a literature professor who was hit by a car while absent-mindedly reading Emily Dickinson; she receives a mortar-covered book in the mail after her death, and our hero sets out to return to sender, only to be drawn into the strange tale of its origin. (The book in question is THE SHADOW-LINE by Joseph Conrad, and the book's allusions make me want to read more Conrad, whom I've always admired.) The illustrations by Peter Sis (a wonderful artist and children's book author, who also recently illustrated Borges' BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS) don't illustrate the plot, but rather symbolic interactions between people and books, and they are so beautifully strange and evocative I wish I could adopt one as my own symbol, or give them away as cards or posters.
Both of these books on paper are about relations between books and people; while Plasencia is concerned primarily with the subject, the author, and the book, Dominguez is focused on the book and its reader. Reading them together made for a wonderfully deepened experience, and sparked meditations on the nature of writers and readers and their common obsession that I will be thinking about for a long time.
I'll end with my favorite passage from THE HOUSE OF PAPER, as the narrator observes the situation upon arriving in Buenos Aires from London. Replace "Buenos Aires" with "New York City" or even "the entirely literary world" and it's a deadly accurate depiction of the frantic place the book industry can be. In my interpretation, reading itself is our calm River Plate, and each beloved book our hydrofoil.
Some friends gave me the volumes they had just published, but said little about them. They talked about whether Piglia or Saer had a strategy to place themselves within the corpus of Argentine literature, if it was a good idea to say you would take part and then not turn up to a roundtable or a book launch, whether you should "aim for" academic critics or newspaper ones, go into hiding, choose small publishing houses that would take great care over your book or be a celebrity for a month with a Spanish publisher, then vanish like a shooting star from the new titles table.
Their literary aspirations amounted to a political campaign, or perhaps more precisely a military strategy to find a way to demolish the walls of anonymity, an insuperable barrier only a privileged few managed to scale. There were brilliant stars in the literary firmament, people who earned a fortune overnight with dreadful books that were promoted by their publishers, in newspaper supplements, through marketing campaigns, literary prizes, ghastly films, and prominent, paid-for positions in bookshop windows [BN aside: that's what I call abuse of co-op dollars]. They talked of this in bars as if it were a chaotic battlefield a writer had to traverse not during the adventure of writing – although some did start then – but as soon as that was over. The publishers complained of a lack of good books, of the writers of the "horseshit" brought out by the big publishers, and everyone had an indignant demand, a justification for their failure, a desperate ambition. In Buenos Aires, books had become the center of a nightmarish strategic war, talent a question of ubiquity and power.
A week later I took the hydrofoil across the River Plate to the unknown shore. The river was dun-colored and quiet, and as I left Buenos Aires behind I could feel myself recovering a sense of proportion in the expanse of water and broad horizon that made it easier to breathe, to discover some space inside me.