Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Reviews: Martin, Coover; Comment: Bookstore Junkieism

Blizzard. Freelance work (to make ends meet, a bookseller's salary being sadly not commensurate with the job satisfaction). Social obligations. Valentine's Day. Honestly, when's a girl to blog?

Sorry for the big blank – I've actually come across several stories I wanted to comment on in the past week (a Bookslut linked article from Feb. 10 about authors accosting booksellers [with snarky subtext, surprise], more Orhan Pamuk and Frey/LeRoy commentary, poet Dan Chiasson's insufficiently enthusiastic review of Justin Tussing's THE BEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD [which I reviewed for Publishers Weekly and found odd and brilliant], etc.), but I just haven't found the time. So I'll just start with where I'm at: two new mini-reviews, and a happy link.

Review #8
The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories
by Valerie Martin
(Vintage Books, to be published May 2006)

In one of those happy confluences of fate, I had picked up a galley of this book from the piles at the bookstore (swayed by the blurbs from internal Random House staff on the back), and the next day received a copy in the mail as my reviewing assignment. I was leery of Valerie Martin's previous book PROPERTY, as it sounded depressingly "darkly erotic," i.e. people exploiting each other. There are elements of that here, but it's not the focus, and the stories are so skillful it doesn't feel gratuitous. Each story has as its protagonist an artist (a couple of painters, an actor, a poet, a printmaker, and of course a novelist or two), struggling or not, and the plots concern their negotiations with art and recognition as well as the unexpected paths of their relationships. I don't want to say too much about the actual plots of the stories, as their surprises are part (but only part) of the collection's joys. In trying to describe Martin to the ALP, I came up with the unlikely comparison of O. Henry meets early Paul Auster, and I haven't thought of anything better yet. She does sometimes seem to pair Auster's contemporary noir with Henry's twist-that-changes-everything, but in a fierce and rich way all her own, and one that seems distinctly female. This was a missing-multiple-subway-stops book, and based on the blurbs and my own reaction, I think it's going to be one of the word-of-mouth hits of the summer. Check it out as soon as you can – compelling and rewarding reading.

Review #9
A Child Again
by Robert Coover
(McSweeney's, 2005)

As with many book people my age, I have that love-hate relationship with McSweeney's – they wouldn't be so influential if they weren't sometimes (often) brilliant, but the cutesy/pretentious vibe that occasionally surrounds their projects can be off-putting. This book both intrigued me and puzzled me: childhood stories and fairy tales reinterpreted for an adult world, and the book is bound with an oversize pack of cards in the back cover that contain a story themselves. The ALP had read an earlier book of Coover's and found it insufferable, but I glanced at a few pages and thought this one looked like it had possibilities. The first story, "Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee," turned out to be my favorite – little Jackie Paper, now a Member of Parliament and feeling his age, is forced to return to redeem his forgotten friend Puff from those who want to destroy him for his dragonly impulses. The story combines the humorous literal with the profound metaphorical elements of the story, and is immensely tender and satisfying. In some of the other stories, including "The Return of the Dark Children" (about the aftermath of the Pied Piper in Hamelin), "Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock" (about a now-menopausal Alice unable to escape the nonsense of Wonderland) and "Stick Man" (about the poignant adventures of the classic simplified drawing in the human world), Coover managed the same magic combination. Others, though, went too far one way or the other – usually too far in the metaphorical direction – and are too tiresome to talk about. This is about average for a McSweeney's venture, I find, and I'm grateful for the good stories – no one else would likely have published them, and they do add to my pantheon of genre genius. I would definitely recommend the beautifully bound book to those who tend to gravitate toward cleverness and remember their children's literature, but caution against a certain ennui with Coover's rewrites that I suspect might be remedied by a return to the originals, open to our own interpretations.

***

Thank the powers that be for Powells.com, will you? Their hefty online presence and solid indie values (recommendations by real booksellers, creative engagement with authors and readers, refusal to sell clothes and appliances and stuff) make them a worthy independent alternative to Amazon for online book buying. And now they've got a cool author essay series going, with a great installation by newbie memoirist (good luck, in this climate!) Danielle Trussoni. Her gratifying little piece "Confessions of an American Bookstore Junkie" could be my own life story (nerd, junkie, same diff), except that she was headed down the author route rather than the bookseller route. This despite the advice of an early bookseller memoir, who taught her "two rules to live by:

1. Slowly but surely and only after coffee.
2. Working in a bookstore is the most enlightened profession attainable to humankind. "

Amen, I say! Trussoni is grateful to her bookselling mentors (as am I: thank you, Toby and Jill and Jenny and…), but notes that the stores where they presided have since closed. Her closing lines: "Where, now that these bookstores are gone, will all the bookstore junkies find employment?"
Oh, they're not all gone. And the bookstore junkies are making plans of their own. I venture to suggest that one woman's addiction is another woman's plan for the future, and I thank Ms. Trussoni for sharing our obsession so lyrically.