Archive for the ‘general’ Tag

A couple of quick and odd stories

A customer calls, and I know who it was because of caller ID, and describes a card that he purchased here, in detail, and then asks me the most insane yet normal question. He says, “Inside the card is a little vellum sheet, should I write on that or on the cardstock?” At first, I want to say, “Is this the kind of thing you really can’t decide for yourself? It’s your card, write on it however you want! Crazy person!” Instead, I say, “Well sir, is the vellum sheet attached to the card?”. He responds that it is. So I tell him he should probably write on that. He says he’s glad he now knows how to “do it properly”. We hung up and I shook my head.

Another customer calls (on a different day) and asks me if we carry a monthly magazine that is all about small, die-cast collectible cars. First of all, weird. Second of all, how likely is it that a small bookstore would have something so specialized? Not very, not very. When I tell him that we don’t carry it, he asks me if I know anyone who does. I tell him no. Then, he asks me if I knew anyone who would know. I tell him that the larger bookstores might have some info. He doesn’t like that answer. So he asks me if there are any magazine stands around, referencing one about 30 miles away that has closed. I said I didn’t know of any others. He then tells me that’s disappointing, but it’s not clear if he means my lack of knowledge or that there aren’t any magazine/newsstands around. And what the hell kind of magazine stand propreitor would call a die-cast car magazine news??!!

I understand, to an extent, that bookstore employees may  have more general knowledge than someone say, in a clothing shop. But these requests are just odd. The first customer, wow. Just figure that one out on your own, buddy. The second, there’s this little invention, may or may not of heard of it, it’s the internet??? Yeah, probably find at least a phone number or something.

Other than that, here’s a quote from John Mortimer that I liked. It made me think about the advent of e-books and the difference between the written word and a data file.

‘Words are seen as unexploded mines, lying on deserted beaches,’ he wrote in a foreword to
Books in the Dock by C.H. Rolph, ‘which may be gingerly approached in the course of morning walks, cautiously examined, perhaps prodded with a stick; but ever likely to blow up in the faces of passers-by, destroying private property and changing the face of the landscape for generations to come.’

Though, I would like to see a Kindle blown up. What a great commercial for Apple. They could even use that lame sing-songy music in the background, and the stop-motion animation with a fuse being lit as the camera follows it up to the Kindle, blowing it up, and then it cuts to the Apple logo. Genius. Don’t steal it.


It’s been awhile… I know.

Life gets in the way of blogging, which I suppose is a good thing. So as not to get worn out on the first post after my unannounced break, here are some links.

At, for their 1ooth issue, Michael Filgate interviews Lee Rourke about his new(ish) novel The Canal, along with his thoughts about the role of boredom in modern life, and Rourke reveals a quite impressive knowledge of Greek mythology. (Of course, you should read the rest of the September issue, it always has books I’ve never heard of and really want to read.)

Also, yesterday, the Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced. I was very disappointed not to see A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell on the list. I finished it last month and was completely enveloped by his writing, his plotting, everything.  It also happens to be the only one I read on the longlist, so perhaps my bias is showing there. The list is:

C by Tom McCarthy

Room by Emma Donoghue

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Two of these, The Finkler Question and In a Strange Room are not yet available in the States. I already plan on reading C, having loved Remainder about 3 years ago.  I will probably read Room and The Long Song, but for some reason Parrot and Olivier does not appeal to me. I am sad that Skippy Dies did not make the list, I really wanted a good reason to read that one.

Also, ran across this short piece via my googlereader from the Telegraph, about Sir Tom Stoppard’s death wish, which would actually be quite painful, but very poetic.

Lastly, I am very intrigued over the ire sent toward Jonathan Franzen by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, because of the glowing reviews of his new book.  She said that it’s easy to get a rave review in the NYT if you are  a “white, male, literary darling”, and argues that commercial fiction (like what she and Weiner write) should get more critical attention. In the HuffPo, she was asked why, she said,

Because historically the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.

This is interesting. The authors she cites are considered writers of the “classics”, they were commercial writers at the time, because they wrote to make money, commerce=money for goods, but their books have lasted because they have universal themes that are still applicable today. Now, I’m sure that there are thousands of writers that wrote at the same time as Dickens and Austen that we have no clue about (see any Literature Doctoral dissertation title), but I doubt there was a distinction, as there is now, between commercial and literary. The thing is, Weiner, Picoult, and Franzen are making money, and a lot of it. Since Austen and Dickens were clearly writing to make money, as these three are, so they are all working in the tradition of Austen and Dickens. They want their books to make money and last forever.

I don’t want to outright criticize Picoult and Weiner, because I haven’t read their books. But I will say this: New York and it’s book reviewers and publishers live in a tiny world where they think they decide what the country will read and not read. Whether or not the actually do is up for debate, but its the game that must be played. If you want critical reviews, you have to write something that is able to be reviewed critically. You can’t rely on a formula to make you a crap-ton of money and then wonder why no one discusses the individual merit of your book. In the glut of books published every year, books are singled out by reviewers because they stand out from the rest. If your books follow the same basic format, you are not only lost in the lard pool of other formula writers, but also your work in no way stands out from the other books you have written. Just saying.

I would say look for upcoming reviews on David Mitchell’s newest, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest in paperback, and Jonathan Franzen’s very much praised Freedom but that might be a lie. Might be.

Some upcoming releases

In lieu of a review, because I haven’t finished anything recently. I’ll give you a preview of some of the good stuff coming out on Tuesday, 6 July.

Stephen King’s Under the Dome in paperback. Compared to his other behemoth The Stand, Under the Dome explores what happens to a small town in (you guessed it) Maine, when an impenetrable dome descends on the town. All the town’s secrets come seeping out, with no where to go.

Also by King, a 1oth anniversary re-release of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in trade paperback, with a much classier cover and a classier size.

Also in paperback (I think it took two years), The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This one I read, and it was amazing. It’s a young adult novel with adult reader appeal. It takes place in the near future, the United States has been divided up into 12 districts. Every year, two people, one boy and one girl, are chosen from each district to compete in the Hunger Games and compete for money and prestige for their district. They compete in a televised and controlled arena, and it’s a fight to the death. Katniss Everdeen is chosen and she competes better than expected, despite her district’s lack of resources and poverty. Her character is very engaging and strong willed. It moves quickly and keeps the action up until the end. This is the first in the Hunger Games trilogy.

 I haven’t read The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn, though it is in my to-be-read pile. I read her earlier book, What Was Lost which was about a young girl, who had designs on becoming a detective, and when one “case” went very badly and she disappeared. She was never found. Thirty years later, a young woman working in a record shop sees something she thinks is a small girl on the security camera and she discovers a girl was lost at the mall, thirty years ago. It’s not really a ghost story, though the young girl’s “presence” is never really explained. More than this, though, What Was Lost is a meditation on the expansion of massive sprawling malls in the suburbs and how they have replaced small businesses. What her new one is about, I have no idea, but she’s an excellent writer.

That’s all I’ve got for now.

Some Old News

In lieu of a review or rant, here are some links that I’ve found particularly interesting in the last few days. Look forward to reviews on Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, and perhaps, if you’re lucky Columbine by Dave Cullen.

First, Book Shelf Porn. I have a lot of books and I like to arrange them in interesting ways. But these are just incredible. Some of the pictures are personal collections, others are large libraries that make you wish you were a librarian.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna just won the UK’s Orange Prize, beating out Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winner Wolf Hall and the much-praised The Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. Read about a first-hand experience at the awards ceremony here (via

I also enjoyed reading this essay about World War I poetry at The Millions. I don’t think I’ve seen such a extensive treatment of the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon outside of academia. It made me think a lot about the way we study literature and how we often take it completely out of its humane and historical context.

As always, the wonderful clan over at biblioklept put me on to a new Jeffrey Eugenides short story in the New Yorker. You should really read it, especially if you’ve ever endured a literary theory course. Also, the book referenced in it, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments is real and just as brilliant as it sounds.

I do love literary feuds, and the idea that so many of them were borne out of being drunk while writing a review. I wish I was erudite and aware enough to write a review while drunk. Anyway, read about Philip Kerr and Allan Massie at The Telegraph.

Last, a Virginia Woolf essay contest (via If I ever thought I had anything to contribute to the wonderful canon of Woolf-ania, I would do it through this contest.

Do enjoy.

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.

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?

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.