I didn't actually get much Christmas vacation: one day off for Christmas, half a day off for New Year's Eve and the same for New Year's Day. I admit I was a bit jealous of my publishing friends, none of whom seemed to be anywhere near the office from the 24th to the 5th. But I made the choice to stick around the store this year, and hopefully I'll take a couple days in the dismal months of February and March to make up for it. Still, it felt like a time out from the usual working year, and I chose my reading accordingly. The books I read during the 12 Days of Christmas (that's the 25th to the 6th, as the Inklings Bookstore was humorously reminded) felt like a separate entity, separating the old year from the new year.
It's also been a time when I've been struggling a bit against hopelessness and despair (which seems to hit me around this time of year, if last year's post is any indication). It's been a great year in terms of progress toward my own store – winning the PowerUp! prize, partnering (financially and in a meeting of the minds) with the wonderful Rebecca Fitting, connecting with the Fort Greene Association, and having a wonderful party at BAM that showed how enthusiastic the neighborhood of Fort Greene is about bringing a bookstore to their neighborhood. Which makes the decision to postpone our efforts to open because of the economy even more heartbreaking. So I was asking a lot of the books I read over the holidays: distraction, inspiration, magic. And good old books – they turned out to be just what I needed.
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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
I was casting about in the last days before Christmas for something sort of magical or adventurous or escapist – that's my idea of a Christmas read. I wished I hadn't yet read Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, or Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or even that I was in the mood to read about Narnia or Middle Earth again – those were just the ticket. At the last minute on Christmas Eve, I remembered I'd been wanting to read Neil Gaiman's latest, the YA novel The Graveyard Book, so I bought a copy (with actual money, not a comp copy – a Christmas indulgence) and took it on the subway with great satisfaction.
It was the first of several just-right books. Replete with Gaiman's requisite imaginative spookiness, drawn from English magical and religious traditions and informed, always, by a dark English humor, the story of Nobody "Bod" Owens and his friends and enemies among the dead and un-dead was quite satisfactory. I wished for more – scaling something down to YA level seems to involve a bit of winnowing of the complexity of say, American Gods, or maybe Neil's just been writing children's books for a while now. But it is essentially the story of a boy finding a home, growing up, defeating monsters, and finally going off to seek his fortune. I found that last bit especially appropriate, and a little inspiring.
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Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, ... With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory by Roy Blount
I adore Roy Blount: his Southernness makes me feel tenderly toward my own Southern man, and his old-fashioned erudition combined with a mischievious playfulness (always with that Southern slowness, or deliberation) has been the delight of many a weekend morning listening to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." And, of course, he has his head on straight when it comes to supporting independent bookstores. His new book on the English language turns out to be something of a dictionary/encyclopedia of sorts, so I didn't read it all the way through – I'm working through it slowly. But his introduction is enough to make you fall in love with words all over again, especially this sentence:
"No doubt it would be superficial to liken the universal grammar theory to a virtual program wherein all the steps of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire are reduced to a flow chart, with no attention to Fred's ears of the ineffable things Ginger does with her shoulders. But I get no kick from genetics."Allusive, witty, complex, and ultimately an argument for the irreducible magic of language. Thanks, Roy.
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The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa
Laugh if you want to, but this was probably the single most enjoyable and comforting and even inspiring book I read during the designated period. Don Rosa is building on the world created by Carl Barks, the originator of the comics about Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and Uncle Scrooge – a late addition, at first seen as a one-shot character, but one that became so popular Barks used him often. Rosa has taken all the allusions to the ways in which Uncle Scrooge amassed the ridiculous fortune in the Duckberg money bin, and created a 70-year saga of the adventures of Scrooge: from a bootblack in Edinburgh to a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi to a cowboy in Montana to a gold hunter in Australia, South Africa, and ultimately the Yukon. The thing that I loved was that it took the ultimate billionaire 20 years of failure before he found his first gold nugget: he got to the diggings too late, or his boat sank, or he had to go home to defend the family castle. But every adventure taught him to be "tougher than the toughies, and sharper than the sharpies," and to be a straight dealer (except for that one time he got greedy and burned an African village, for which an avenging zombie followed him the rest of his life – nice symbolism). If Scrooge can deal with decades of failure in pursuit of his dream, gosh darnit, so can I – and I know a bookstore is going to make me happier than that cranky old man's bin full of money. And incidentally, it's a great adventure story, far more interesting than what you probably think of when you think of Disney. Check it out.
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Green Arrow: Quiver, Book 1 by Kevin Smith, Phil Hester, and Ande Parks
One of the nice things about working retail (and being on the evening event hosting shift) is that I rarely have to leave the house in the early morning. Cold, rainy holiday mornings are made for sitting up in bed with a cup of coffee and reading comic books. This, I have discovered, is the way to total contentment. This re-introduction of the character of Green Arrow, written by Clerks' own Kevin Smith, is one I'd read before, but I felt like returning to old favorites. It's a cut above a lot of the superhero comics writing out there, but it's still a lot of costumes and monsters and secret hideouts. I like the new Green Arrow series because of the interesting contrast between the original, Oliver Queen – the fiery leftist railing against "corporate fat cats" as only a rich boy can do, who's also a chronic womanizer – and the new Green Arrow, Connor Hawke, Oliver's recently discovered illegitimate son, a Zen buddhist and all-around quiet sort, except for the ass-kicking archery. The original GA comes back from the dead, as people do in this sort of story, and has to deal with the changes in the world since his heyday in the Silver Age, along with the usual bad guys and relationship drama. It's total fun, with the occasional moral lesson for good measure. Hooray for escapism, one of the many things books can do.
Next time, Part II: Engage!