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.