More buying than reading, really

Lately, I’ve been buying more books than I’ve actually been reading. I have finished a couple of books that were required for work. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant. I’m now on to The Lace Reader for book club and it’s shite.

I’ve purchased, however, a number of books. They include: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, Howards End by E.M. Forster, Columbine by Dave Cullen, Granta: Work, and First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek. And I haven’t finished any of them. I have only started Columbine and have almost finished the Granta: Work magazine.

I could talk about Cutting for Stone though. It was pretty good. Actually it was quite epic, a bildungsroman. It has, at its center, Marion and Shiva Stone, who are the twin children of a doctor and a nun. Both of their parents worked at the Mission hospital  (called Missing, because of the difficulty in pronouncing Mission) in Ethiopia, but do not figure into their lives. Their adoptive parents, Hema and Ghosh raise them in the hospital and they both wish to become doctors. Marion goes to America and gets his degree and Shiva stays and becomes a gynecologist in Ethiopia and pioneers a cure for a fatal vaginal disease. This is just one of the threads of this wonderfully told story.

Marion, during his childhood and adolescence, falls in love with Genet, the illegitimate daughter of a lower class Ethiopian woman and an unknown man. He wishes to wait for his marriage to her before having sex. She does not share his feelings. She betrays him and things are never the same.

Marion and Shiva also share an ineffable connection. They were connected at the head at birth, before their father attempted to sever their connection, not caring if they died in the process. Later, Hema comes to their rescue as infants and they are delivered safely. Verghese explores this connection mainly from Marion’s point-of-view and with his authority, we are to assume that Shiva is/thinks/acts exactly as Marion describes him.

There is also a historical element to the story. It is set in Ethiopia in the 1950’s when there were many military coups attempting to overthrow the government and rule for the people. The problem with that is that the “people” are varied and diverse, and many of them died during this coup. The terror and violence come to Missing Hospital in the form of Genet, who has taken up with a revolutionary group and hijacked a plane. Under torture, accomplices of Genet implicate Marion and he must leave the country.

All the threads are wrapped up, though not in particularly satisfying ways. Verghese seems a little rushed at the end. Where he took pages and pages to describe moments in the beginning of the book, he skips over years in paragraphs. I suppose his page count was getting a little high. Still, it is a wonderfully written book with a story that you don’t often hear, a perspective you don’t often see. His writing is deliberate, focused, slow, and expansive.  I really enjoyed it overall.

Since I have been so neglectful, I shall also tell you about Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts. I had the pleasure of meeting this wonderful woman last week, her enthusiasm about Renaissance history took over the room. She talked for over an hour, but I don’t think anyone noticed.

Sacred Hearts takes place in a convent in Renaissance Italy before the Counter Reformation and the edicts passed by the Council of Trent, but only just before. Those in power are starting to feel the shift and are doing all they can to keep the convent from sticking out. What makes that difficult for this particular convent is the arrival of Serafina, a rebellious young girl who was put into the convent against her will and who will stop at nothing to escape. She is put into the care of Zuana, the dispensary mistress, with the hopes that she will be distracted by learning something that will benefit the rest of the convent. Serafina is young and does not appreciate it and begins to plot her escape…with the help of her musician lover outside the walls. I will not tell you what happens, but I will switch over and tell you more about what’s happening around Serafina.

There is a very interesting part about a nonagenarian nun, Magdalena, who, in her younger days, was declared a living saint. She had stigmata and confessed to having visions of Christ.  The problem with this was that Magdalena was a common woman and could be viewed as having a personal relationship with god that did not require the church. At this time, the church had influence in all affairs, within and without the church. Everyone needed guidance on the way to god, if this woman was having ecstasies without the church, she could be dangerous and declared a heretic. Magdalena was then confined to a cell to wait out her years. Everything is relatively quiet until Serafina arrives.

Through many plot twists, Serafina becomes the project of the novice mistress Umiliana, who pushes Serafina’s fasting past a healthy point and believes that Serafina will become another Magdalena and solidify Umiliana as a powerful member of the convent and perhaps oust Madonna Chiara (the current abbess). But Chiara is too smart for this, and with the help of Zuana, their comeback takes Umiliana down.

I enjoyed this novel because it had the intrigue and suspense of a good mystery, with a lot of history and strong female characters. I never thought of the fact that women within a convent had more opportunity to educate themselves and learn a trade that women outside, who were confined to being wives and mothers.

There you go, two very different books and I enjoyed both of them.

A Quick Update on What I’m Reading

No time for a full post today. I just wanted to give you a taste for what reviews are upcoming.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It’s a monster of a book, but it’s for book club, so you can guarantee I’ll finish it. I’m loving it, I really don’t want it to end. Perhaps that’s why it’s taking so long.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. I just began this morning, around 7 am. Now, that may just be too early for all the characters Faulks has running about. Or that feeling of the overabundance of characters may continue even in later hours reading.

Columbine by Dave Cullen. This book is compelling, interesting, well-researched, and a little  horrific. I’ve only finished the first part. The first part takes the position of a bystander, albeit  from many different locations, but one who doesn’t have any inside information. I feel like that is about to change.

The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. I was an evangelist for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, a great read and book club book. And the US cover is to die for. I’m already loving her writing and have figured out that the contemporary character has postpartum depression (not giving anything away). Like in Vanishing Act, she has two stories of women intertwined and separated by about 40 years. I do prefer the young woman in the 50’s rather than the contemporary woman. Alexandra is far more feisty and interesting. Though I fear she won’t be given her due.

*Also, I’ve posted some more links to various book blogs I’ve discovered when I wasn’t motivated to write. So please give them a look. I’ve enjoyed them a lot.

Thoughts on E-books

Having just finished reading a post over at Biblioklept on the changing front of e-books vs. printed media, I felt that I should write something to help me bring all my thoughts on the matter together.

Of course, I have an invested stake in printed books and traditional publishing. It’s my job. If e-books become the norm, I will probably lose my job. There is my bias. However, I also really appreciate technology. I have an iPhone, I am constantly mesmerized and exclaiming when I see or read about a new technological innovation. That being said, there are many things that bothers me about this e-book explosion.

First, as the mentally dexterous folk at Biblioklept noted, the economic consequences of the iPad are extreme. Books are cheap, not as cheap as they used to be, but under $30, usually. And that book is yours forever, to read, write in, share, hoard, do with whatever you like. Or, if owning books isn’t your thing, there is the library, free membership to county residents; one may borrow to one’s content. In either circumstance, it is relatively inexpensive to read. It gives you more per hour entertainment than a movie and costs less, whether you go to the theater or buy it on DVD. Reading is one of the least expensive forms of entertainment ever, which, in some ways, speaks to its continuous presence in our lives.

In recent months, there has been an eruption of e-readers on the market, coupled with price wars for e-books. While the electronic versions of books are cheaper (new book in hardcover retails for $24.99 to $26.99, new book in e-book format $9.99-$14.99) and consumers begin to think that this lower price is what books are actually “worth”, in order to access these “cheaper” versions, one must purchase a device that costs anywhere from $100-$500. While some people are already dropping that cash on books, most people cannot or will not. Requiring that kind of expenditure automatically keeps poorer people from accessing books.  It’s that simple.

Secondary to the economic aspects of this change is the critical response to this new slew of e-readers, that mainly piss me off. I understand hearing from critics on the outside discussing the digitization of books, lauding the technological advances and how this change will make books universally available.  But at the same time, in my trade magazine emails, the same opinion is found, “e-books are the future”, “if you don’t start selling e-books online as a small independent, you’ll be gone before you know it”, and “you have to keep up with the times and sell e-books because they are the future”. I don’t understand why you would want someone to buy something online instead of coming into your store. It is just as easy for them to buy an e-book online at their local independent as it is on Amazon. Sure, one may count on one’s regulars, but people who aren’t…it’s a toss up.

I often wonder if anyone remembers what happened in the music industry ten to fifteen years ago? When music became available digitally, and servers like Napster and Kazaa popped up almost immediately and people started downloading illegally. Then, all the musicians and record labels started condemning it. It still goes on, though it’s a little more difficult to get music for free. This is essentially going on in the book industry as well. Recently, the New York Times wrote that there were 9 million illegal downloads in the closing months of 2009. And instead of taking a moment to think about the consequences of digitizing books, the publishing industry and the authors are praising e-books and e-readers. They are actively promoting the technology that is stealing their money.

Third, and last, I promise, is the idea of worth that I mentioned above. With the recent price wars between Amazon and Macmillan (big ups to Macmillan for sticking it to Amazon), the facts over what books are “worth” has become more and more skewed. Concretely, a book is worth many things. Just a random sampling: the (maybe) advance the author received, the editing and revision process, the printing, the jacket copy and design, the marketing, author tours and events, promotional materials and Advanced Reading Copies, etc. etc.. Abstractly, it is worth more; the time and effort the author and all those other people working on the book put into it. What is that worth? I don’t know, their respective salaries, I suppose. Then there is even a larger question: what are books worth to readers? Some books are worth more than others, a personal example, Virginia Woolf is worth $400 while James Patterson is worth 50 cents, but that certainly isn’t the case for every person. Non-fiction books could be arguably worth more than fiction because they deal with (most of the time) facts and commentary on something that actually happened. But fiction contributes to our imagination and holds our childhood nostalgia delicately, before we knew or cared about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Or a book is worth more when one saves up to purchase it, or does research on it before checking it out in the library. Or a book that has a particular setting and is read within that particular setting and a particularly important time in one’s life. A book’s worth means nothing, and everything at the same time. Since we cannot decide on what books are worth more than others, we must rely on the publishers’ concrete estimations of what a book is worth. (A disclaimer: Publishers are greedy mofo’s. They’d cut any corners to make extra profit, but it’s the closest we’ll come to regulation.)

It is upsetting to have to constantly worry about the ascendency of e-readers when it seems, to me, such an obviously bad idea. I’m not advocating that we stop digitizing books and using e-readers, a kind of climate-change-inducing electric bonfire. I’m only asking that we take a second to ask ourselves what are books worth and why are we so anxious to get rid of a part of our history that has defined our individual and collective consciousness?

It all started with Glover’s Mistake by Nick Laird (Zadie Smith’s husband) a few months ago. While it is about many things, it is mostly about three people’s messed up lives and all the mistakes they make, continuously. I realized at the end, well really at the beginning, that I didn’t like any of the characters.  James Glover was a naive little opportunist who dates and is engaged to a complete narcissist artist, Ruth Marks. They are introduced by a passive-aggressive awkward computer nerd who posts negative reviews of movies, books, and people on his little blog, David Pinner. The fact that he introduced them is the major conflict of the story, he wishes he hadn’t because he’s in love with this ridiculous woman. Glover and Pinner are flatmates, and Pinner fashions himself as a self-created art critic/public intellectual that lords over Glover’s kind nature that seeps into his slowness to make the reader almost pity him, almost. Soon enough, Glover makes a mistake and Pinner is faced with the choice of keeping the confidences of his friend or making an anonymous phone call to Ruth to tell her of the mistake. Which do you think he chooses?

There is nothing, not one thing, that is redeeming about any of these characters. You are not supposed to love them, forgive them, pity them, sympathize with them; they are abhorrent creatures. And I found that I liked them. Not just liked, but loved their bad decisions, the error of the assurance, the misplaced confidence that comes with a truly selfish act.

Then I read Mavis Gallant’s The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories. Gallant’s book has been receiving a lot of reviews lately (here in the Guardian, here at NPR by bookslut.com’s Jessa Crispin) and so I tried it out. Plus, I couldn’t resist the lovely New York Review of Books cover. It is more difficult to discuss short story collection, because one is either reductive and discusses all of them, or too specific and ignores the complexity of the collection. But for space, and because I want to get where I’m really going, I’ll sum up. I didn’t dislike the character in Gallant’s stories, but I didn’t like them either. They mostly made bad decisions that led to uncomfortable or undesired situations. The characters were kind of floating around life, not sure where they were going, but pretty damn sure they weren’t supposed to be where they were. Her stories did not inspire me, or give me good feelings about the world. It actually reinforced my view that no body really knows what the hell they are doing, that everyone is just floating.

So let’s recap: decisions, particularly bad decisions, are very interesting, especially when you experience a character’s bad decisions with them. You are almost a part of their decision, a silent aide, a passive bystander, and forced to take their perspective.

All these thoughts and feelings reached the boiling point in Ian McEwan’s soon-to-be-released novel Solar. The reader is introduced to Michael Beard three times: 2000, 2005, and 2009. I say “introduced” because it is almost like meeting a new person each time; he certainly wishes to reivent his life each moment. Don’t let that last statement mislead you into thinking that  he is some kind of positive-thinking spiritual nut. Oh no, Michael Beard is one of the most self-centered and flawed characters I’ve ever read. He is a Nobel Prize winning scientist for the Einstein-Beard Conflation (which is never really given in detail, only that he improved upon Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), and that was the last bit of science he did, almost 20 years ago. He’s overweight, has had 5 wives and his current wife is happily and openly having an affair. And that’s only in 2000. In 2005 he’s still done nothing in science, and feels he’s falling behind in the new theories, but hides under the laurels of his Conflation. In 2005 he upsets a varying degree of scientists and liberal arts professors by, mindlessly and unintentionally, declaring that there are biological differences in men and women and that they should be developed in light of those sexual differences. Eventually, the press and media start on insults of “eugenicist” and “neo-Nazi”. In 2009, there is a lawsuit being brought against him that threatens his solar energy project.

I don’t want to give anything away, because McEwan always has some surprises and these are significantly larger than the turns in his other novels. But moving with my theme, I will say that I didn’t like Beard. He made decisions that were wrong, selfish, and was punished for them. He had no self-control yet desired it. Never comfortable, always striving, falling short, and rationalizing the shortcoming. But I loved it, despite Beard’s selfishness.

I’m not really sure if my preference for these types of books reflect some kind of inner turmoil, or if it is a larger movement on the part of civilization on an unending quest to find well-written literature about something positive, and failing.  I’m going to go with both, for now.

P.S. I don’t wish to get in the habit of reviewing things that haven’t been released, but I can’t promise it won’t happen again.

First, apologies.

I would first like to apologize for my prolonged absence. I became, briefly, a very busy bookseller during the holiday season.  That, along with personal issues and lack of internet access at home, has kept me away. I promise to be better.

I think I would like to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, the sequel/companion to her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake. The Year of the Flood is, by far, one of my favorite books of the year.  I read it almost 6 months ago and it still sticks with me.

Let us begin at the beginning, shall we? The beginning of this world is in Oryx and Crake. Crake, a pseudonym for a young, brilliant mastermind Glenn, creates a new race of people called the Crakers and is helped by an enigmatic Oryx (an Asian girl, who may or may not have been sexually abused as a child) and Snowman or Jimmy to an even lesser extent.  To the Crakers, Crake is god and Oryx is their teacher.  This takes place in a protected and sterile laboratory/facility. Until it doesn’t. There is a disease that kills almost everyone, except Jimmy because he has sealed himself in the lab; and the Crakers because they are genetically modified not to get sick (in addition to other modifications). Because we understand the epidemic from Jimmy/Snowman’s perspective, we do not know what happened or how, though a hint is given and I won’t give it away. After the disease has swept through and destroyed most people and let all the genetically modified animals and people out, Jimmy/Snowman now hangs around the peripheries of the city, scavenging. He has also turned himself into a self-fashioned messenger from god for the Crakers, i.e. they ask him questions about Crake and Snowman makes up answers. The city is a wasteland and is populated by Crakers and animals that are crosses between lambs and lions, wolves and pigs, etc. Jimmy gets an infection in his foot and walks off so the Crakers don’t have to watch him die. However, it isn’t made clear if he dies, so I’m not giving that away either.

Here ends Oryx and Crake. The Year of the Flood runs concurrently with the events in Crake, but through the experience of two women, Ren and Toby. Ren, lives trapped inside a kind of strip club taken to the nth degree and so has been saved from the disease’s worst effects. Toby was able to seal herself inside a spa before the disease hit. The novel goes back into the time before the epidemic or the “flood” of the book’s title. These women are connected by more than their survival. They were, for a time, part of group called The Gardeners, briefly mentioned in Crake as God’s Gardeners. Atwood makes a mixture of their belief system which includes bits of predestination, good works, the current locavore and “go green” environmental trend, and singing. Through their experiences, the reader learns more about what happened before the flood and the events leading up to it. The novel also shows the very personal lives of these two women as they try to make sense of this world that has lost something for the sake of technology.

The reason I didn’t go on about the plot of Flood as I did in Crake is because Flood isn’t as plot-driven as  Crake. Crake, to me, was more of an action story that got the reader to the point of “this is the world we have created, where the only people, if you can call them that, have no emotions and no pasts, because we couldn’t forget the terrible things we’ve done and had to start all over”. Flood has so many moments of beauty, incisive social commentary, and tragedy that listing them here would defeat its distinct wisdom.

It’s also interesting to think about these two novels juxtaposed. Each has a character is trapped inside one of the society’s monuments to genetic modification and are thereby saved because of their entrapment (Jimmy and Ren). Each have a scavenger and a survivor (Jimmy, after he escapes, and Toby). Where Crake has a pseudo-religion that moves from idea to gospel (as Jimmy’s stories transition from just stories to repeated ideas); Flood has a pseudo-religion that moves from peaceful living to almost-terrorist tactics.  Very interesting.

I would recommend that one read Crake before Flood, only because after one has experienced Flood, Crake just seems rather meh. This is the way that I experienced it. I would have preferred to read Crake  first because I would have been taken in by the world she created and then blown away by the genius of Flood.

Lawyered.

“We can buy it online for $15”: Or, Did the Old Couple Deserve it?

Here’s the scene. An old couple walks into the store and asks for the new Sarah Palin book. I calmly walk around the counter to the table where it’s displayed. The husband asks, “Is this the seven dollar price?”, I respond, “No, it’s $28.99.” He counters, “That’s for the shipping?”, I fire back, “No, it’s the publisher’s price.” He turns to his wife, who quietly (but not too quietly) tells him, “We can buy it for $15 dollars online.” He turns back to me and tells me “We can buy it online.” I want to say, “But if you bought it here, you would be supporting a local, independent business”, but I just say “Oookay.” Then he says, completely unnecessarily, “It’s cheaper”. Instead of saying, “Right, because online retailers devalue books so much that it creates assholes like you, who come into independents and act completely class-less and rude”, I say “Right,” and turn back to my computer. They look around for a while and then say, “We’ll see you next time.” To which I didn’t respond, “Yeah, because you really contributed to that.” 

So many things bother me about this conversation, but the first thought, the throbbing problem in my head is: do they deserve my anger? They are old, not 45, maybe 75 and maybe they don’t know better. Then again, maybe they do know better and don’t care. Whatever. I’m not concerened with motive here. I just didn’t feel like they deserved to be lectured on the importance of local economy, the many problems with shopping online,  and the egregious rudeness of telling an indie bookseller that they can buy it cheaper online. Perhaps it was because I thought it wouldn’t change their mind, they still wouldn’t buy the book and they probably would never return, having been yelled at. Maybe they’ll buy a book some other time. That’s the forgiving side of my thoughts.

The other side is full of red rage and anger. How dare they come in here and tell me that it’s cheaper online, as though I’m not aware of it. And to tell me they’ll see me next time, well they may not. Because they would rather buy their crappy Palin book online, they are taking away money from their local economy and if more people gain that attitude, you won’t see me next time, because we’ll be out of business.

Momentary tangent: How is it that people who “go green” by not using plastic bags or bringing reusable ones think they are changing the planet through their own individual actions do not apply the same logical process to where they spend their money? It is the perspective that one’s individual choices and actions can greatly impact a social, environmental, whatever-al change. But they don’t apply it to local economies, why?

All this bothers me, puts me in an irascible mood and I become more prone to be critical towards other customer’s comments and actions. Not good for the friendly bookseller persona.* A facet of my profession I’m not cultivating very well anyway. Grr.

*I promise that the next blog post will be a review. I have done a lot of ranting lately, and I’m tired of it. However, I have recently finished a couple of books that I want to review here, so they are in the works. Mostly, I was responding to biblioklept’s insinuation that I don’t keep up my blog that much and  only had “recent(ish)” posts. Thus, I have blogged more and are now recent without the -ish. Also, thanks to biblioklept for the kind write-up and to The Hannibal Blog  for linking to my review of Wolf Hall, even if we did not agree.

On (not)Selling a Book

There are many categories of books that a bookseller encounters. I’m not talking about a book’s classification: fiction, non-fiction, kids, memoirs, etc. I’m talking about category of personal perspective. These categories (for me, and maybe I’m the only one with them) are (in descending order, with examples): a book I truly and completely loved and only going to sell to someone really discerning and interested (Virginia Woolf or Jonathan Safran Foer); a book I enjoyed and has mass consumption value and will rant and rave about in order to sell (David Benioff or Elizabeth Strout); a book that has received rave reviews but I have not read (Barbara Kingsolver or Paul Auster); a book that has received terrible reviews and have not read (Malcolm Gladwell or John Irving); a book I have not read and know nothing about (Jon Meacham or Thomas Friedman); a book I will show the customer to and not comment upon (Sarah Palin or Stuart Woods); and a book that I will actively encourage a customer not to buy (Tucker Max).

I really only want to focus on this last category. Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is the only book I have ever talked someone out of buying.  It is a terrible “memoir” of a college-age misogynistic barely-human attempting to sleep with women, get drunk, and cause fights. I don’t really care about the drunk fighting and mischief, it’s really the rampant woman-hating.  Women don’t have names, are referred to as sluts and bitches, or their various orifices. I don’t agree with it and I refuse to say anything good about it. If someone chooses not to listen to me, that’s their prerogative.  I don’t, however, offer my opinion unrequested. I’m all for freedom of choice, but if you ask me, I’m going to let you know. And I’m not glossing over it. I may even read a portion out loud.

Now, before you get angry and puffed up about censorship and free speech, let me say this: if you ask a bookseller for their opinion, you’re going to get it, fully raw with fairly extensive reasoning. And even when you don’t ask, you’re already getting it, by the books placed strategically around the store, what’s in the window, what’s on sale, what’s face-out or piled up, opinions, opinions, everywhere.  So I find nothing wrong with sharing my opinion about a book that’s less than quality.

Most booksellers think it’s important to be honest about a book. Maybe not 100% honest, if I have minor problems with a book, I’m not going to share them with a customer that’s interested. If a book got a bad review, it’s likely I would tell them (how likely depends on how chatty I feel). It’s important for people to know, as much as we can lead them, what they’re getting into. And this includes not selling them something that we think/know is fairly crappy.

On this topic, one of the (many) things that bothers me about book-buying online today is this: who can you trust to find you a good book online? Sure, you’ve got your newspaper reviewers, but you don’t know whether they got paid or received some incentive for that review. Or maybe you don’t go for corporate sellout reviewers and rely on personal blogs or Amazon.com customer reviews, but they aren’t any more trustworthy than the media reviewers. You don’t know what other books that person has read or why they liked them (okay, maybe that’s a little unfair because if you’re a consistent reader of a blog, you do know what they have read and liked). I feel that (in addition to paying less money) customers buy books online to feel the independence of choosing their own books and not being told by a bookseller what they would like. I believe this trend is increasingly prevalent in younger customers, accounting for the lack of young (20-30) readers that come into my shop. They don’t want advice, they want to decide for themselves what they like and why. The problem is, your choices are guided by other people, a large group of people who have a vested stake in your choice, they are the publishers. And they care even less about whether you like or dislike a book, their money has been made. To them, you are a sale, an amount of money. Even before the transaction stage is reached, there are choices made about the books available to be bought. The books that are chosen are the ones that will sell the most, that is, those that have the most mass appeal; they are not too academic, too romantic, or too scientific. They are the lowest common denominator.

At least with a bookseller, you can look them in the face, talk to them, find out other things they’ve liked and have a conversation. You can also (almost) guarantee that if a bookseller tells you about a book he/she liked it, because we don’t have to read books we don’t like, no need to waste the time. The personal interaction, and customer independence, is something that gets lost in the discussion of the changes in the bookselling industry.

Bookselling is a capitalist enterprise.  Don’t forget it.

On the Essay, Lately

Last night, I picked up David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I got this book when Sedaris came to town and I spent the whole night right next to him, listening to his funny and weird stories, watching him draw small penises on the monkey that graced the advertising poster for the event,  and giving away mini bottles of shampoo (because he ran out of condoms, his usual gift). Additionally, I chatted to the fans who came to get their books signed and who were breathless to meet him. At the end of the night, he signed a book to me saying “thanks for the wonderful company”. He’s very nice. I only tell you this story because of the feelings/thoughts that I had when I finally picked up his most recent book of essays. I felt like the essays would have more meaning because I knew him. Well, I didn’t know know him. But I met him. We talked. He complimented my “frock”. I felt like I had a duty to read his essays and that I would know (not in the sense of knowing, know him), but I could at least picture him in the things that he discussed. I made up in my head a little mini-version of him (which usually just has their face on a baby body), for the parts of his childhood, etc. .  His essays are often about his life: as a child, growing up, as an adult, other people he’s met, etc. One assumes that they’re autobiographical, but there’s no reason to really believe that.

Then, I read an essay by Zadie Smith in The Guardian today, discussing “novel nausea”, and her recent turn to essays. I remembered that we recently got the book in and I was enamored with it. She discusses Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, and David Foster Wallace, it’s called Changing My Mind. Her discussion was mostly about another upcoming book of essays, Reality Hunger by David Shields, who discusses the neat and abhorrent plotting of a novel. He dismisses  the “crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already a ‘unbearably artificial world’.” Smith uses this a jumping off point to talk about the off-putting nature of narrative “and then, and then” and that there are probably only 10 good novels per decade. She believes that most books aren’t very good, and ones that are old and we think are good (i.e. Jane Eyre, Middlemarch), weren’t received well on first publication. Ultimately, she privileges the essay over the novel (though admits her present novel nausea bias) as something within which one can be oneself, but is not confined to being oneself. That is, it has elements of the writer but doesn’t have to be a memoir, autobio, etc. There is personal and public, there is fiction and non-fiction. A fictional discussion of non-fiction, a real conversation/discussion about an imagined world. Oh the possibilities!

This brings me back to Sedaris. My original feeling of closeness with this internationally acclaimed author through is essays was really just based on the fact that I’d met him. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether these things happened to him or not. I still picture him with his man head on a tiny (or much diminished body), and it makes me laugh.

This leads me to consider the larger implications of these thoughts. Essays are interesting to me because they are often shorter and therefore more thought and effort must be put into one so that it will be coherent and clear (unlike here), which I value and recognize, but do not practice. The essays I enjoy most are authors writing about other authors, as I mentioned above about Smith discussing Foster Wallace and Neale Hurston. Sedaris doesn’t touch that part of essay-ing, but his humor and stories transcend any snobbery I might feel about autobiographical essays.  I also attribute this desire for essays to many personal circumstances: shorter attention span, feeling like all novels are the same, reading a 300 page book in a night, and some others I can’t think of now.

I think the essay is a very personal thing for both reader and writer, it is both personal and public. One’s personal experience with a subject is put out in the open and discussed on more levels than the personal. Often, the cultural, the financial, the historical, the academic, the natural are included and the possibilities are endless. All that being written, watch for reviews on essays in the upcoming posts.

Are you ready for my review of “Wolf Hall”? More importantly, am I?

A few weeks ago, I finished Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall. First I’ll give you my impressions leading up to reading it. Then, I’ll tell you how I felt after reading it. And last, I’ll give me review. It’s like eating the bun of a cheeseburger before you eat the meat.

I had been waiting for weeks, checking the release date, making sure they hadn’t moved it up, reading all the excerpts and reviews I could from UK websites, etc. I even listened to her speak about the book at the LRB bookshop along with Sarah Dunant. I don’t even know why I was so excited about this book. It’s not even a time period I particularly care for, the Tudors are overdone, out of the oven and into the bin, really. But it was promised to be a different treatment, a {brace yourself} revisionist history of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More. Probably the desire for something I couldn’t have put me over the edge, more than anything else. So I bought it, hardcover, no freebies this time.

After finishing the book, I have continued to think about it. It’s brilliant subtlety, it’s overt play with perspective, pronouns and language. It is always the curse of a good book. You have to find something that’s really good, but completely different, or else you’ll meld them together in your mind. But you find that nothing is quite that good, so you read something pretty bad to lower your standards, so you can be impressed when you read another great one. So I’ve been slowly meandering through the New York Review of Books and Maisie Dobbs (see my previous post). Not that either of these are bad, they are different and entertaining or informative, while Wolf Hall was brilliant.

Hilary Mantel had quite a task in front of her. Just about everyone of adult reading age knows the story of Henry VIII, six wives, no male heirs, schism with the Roman Catholic Church, the founding of the Anglican religion, etc. But really, instead of rehashing all that, she makes her focus Thomas Cromwell. From my very small bit of memory about Cromwell, I always remembered him as Henry’s watchdog, without much sense, good at being told what to do, and split up the church and helped a misogynist to find a woman of male child-bearing capabilities.

But this Cromwell is a family man, loyal first to Cardinal Wolsley (even after Wolsley loses favor with the king), and then right at Henry’s side. He has travelled extensively into Europe and trained in many professions, and though continuously reminded of his low birth, he is always trusted and feared by those above and below him. He is a businessman and a lawyer, he loves his family, those he loses and those who remain. He is a human, smart and wily, but sad and concerned.

Wolf Hall is more than just a character study of Thomas Cromwell, however. It touches and shares some of the more humanistic aspects of Henry, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More.  The reason Henry wants to be divorced from Katherine of Aragon is because he is in love with Anne Boleyn. They act like young lovers in public and they both get flustered around one another. Anne, however, is not portrayed as this passive little sparrow, who was swept up by the king and then left after she was unable to bear a male child. For Mantel, Boleyn and her family engineered all of this, set it up, played the cards right, and luckily, the king fell in love with her.

Mantel does not quibble about character flaws, she is upfront about who people are, no postmodern ambiguity here. Throughout the book, one comes to hate Thomas More.  He attempted to institute an English Inquisition, and personally tortures heretics throughout the book. His downfall comes when he refuses to sign the Act of Supremacy, which states the Henry VIII is the supreme head of the Church of England. He hates Cromwell and is jealous of his skillful maneuvering.  I suppose More has always been admired for his ideals, his staunch adherence to church dogma, and was willing to give his life for his beliefs. But in Wolf Hall he is damned.

So there’s the characters, what’s the story you ask? Well, it’s history as you know it. We are skipped from Cromwell’s childhood to a point in life where he has already become a trusted advisor of Cardinal Wolsley’s. Wolsley loses favor, lots of others vie for position, Henry has fallen in love, the Pope refuses divorce, Cromwell gets it for him, etc., etc.

Really, for me, the part of the novel that makes it all worth it is the last paragraph or so.  Just to set it up, Cromwell is setting up the king’s itinerary.

“From Bronham-we are now in early September-toward Winchester. Then Bishop’s Waltham, Alton, Alton to Farnham. He plots it out, across country. The object is to get the king back to Windsor for early October. He has his sketch map across the page, England in a drizzle of ink; his calendar, quickly jotted, running down it. ‘I seem to have four, five days in hand. Ah well. Who says I never get a holiday?’ Before ‘Bronham’, he makes a dot in the margin, and draws a long arrow across the page. ‘Now here, before we go to Winchester, we have time to spare, and what I think is, Rafe, we shall visit the Seymours.’ He writes it down. Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.”

All that. 500+ pages. And the name of the book that foreshadows what we already know is to come. Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. Brilliant. Mantel shows us that the actions of humans are sometimes planned out and sometimes not. That history is human actions, decisions, choices made and unmade. And that people are more than abstract terms of monarcy, government, religion, love, greed, and naviete. You should read it. Really.

The Brilliance of Maisie Dobbs

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is by far one of the best series I have ever read. I don’t usually have a lot of time or energy for series, unless they are something like Harry Potter or the Dark Tower series, which really have more to do with a fast-paced compelling plot immersed in a fantasy world that I have to pull myself out of, almost physically. But detective mysteries that span six or seven books, no thanks. I’m sure I would get bored of the character’s inner musings and how they solve the case, just in the nick of time, to save someone’s life, or reputation, or something.

Maisie Dobbs, while having some of these distasteful qualities, is something quite more. Let me explain. She is, of course, British and living in London (Fitzroy, to be exact) during the inter-war period. She is a psychologist investigator with a twinge of Eastern philosophy in her practice. As a young woman, the daughter of a working-class father and a mother who died young, she is sent to be a servant in Lady Compton’s home (who later becomes her good friend and benefactor). Before the war, she is at Girton (Cambridge) and falls in love. As with many people before WWI, when it began, all life that resembled anything recognizable is wiped away instantly. She becomes a nurse in France through the end of the war. When she returns, she finishes her education. She then becomes apprenticed to Maurice Blanche, a private investigator whose business she soon takes over.

If it is not already apparent, a single woman working as a psychologist investigator is a very unlikely situation in this period, but an intensely desirable one (for the modern reader). She is pretty, but not too aware of it, she is intelligent, practical, methodical, and in control of her emotions and aware of her feelings. Her character is one that inspires imitation, awe, and respect.

To move beyond her character and to the plots of the books is to really look into the confusion and sadness that many felt after the war. The betrayal and loss runs deep and creates all sorts of consequential actions and feelings, not always manifested in depression, but sometimes anger, violence, and pride. The plot of a Maisie Dobbs novel usually has 3 components. One is the case that Maisie is to solve. It has, so far, had something to do with the war: an unexplained death or disappearance that has its roots in the war. Two, a personal obstacle that Maisie must overcome, also related to her time as a nurse in France. And three, a problem with a close friend or colleague, also some issue with the war. Although formulaic, the three components are  interesting and move the plot along quite quickly. And, since the components are thematically related, the reader finds no trouble bouncing back and forth between them. Usually, the friend/colleague sub-plot is given less treatment but the denouement is quite emotional, for Maisie and her friend/colleague. The main case speaks to a larger question of the conduct of the war, what the big players were doing: the military, the government, private but quite rich individuals with a lot of influence. Maisie’s personal journey is the most emotional and has the biggest pay off, because at the end of the novel, you know more about this enigmatic Maisie Dobbs.

I highly recommend them, and while they provide a little something to think about,  they are ultimately light reading, a compelling few hundred pages before going to bed or to take your mind off something more difficult.

They are (because I like to list things):

Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, Messenger of Truth, Incomplete Revenge, and Among the Mad.