Sunday, May 31, 2009

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 2

Telling me how you fear that you might die before George RR Martin finishes his next book is of no interest to me whatsoever. There isn't anything I can do about it, and since I haven't read any of them, I don't know what you're talking about when you start making long and involved references to characters in the book.

Trying to debate the organization of the store on etymological terms will only irritate me. Trying to describe your own plan for how books should be shelved, which distinctions of genre and subject you would make, is something that you should take up with someone else. No, we don't have a biography section.

Also, lamenting the fact that we don't carry obscure mathematical and philosophical texts is mostly tiresome. Once again, I usually don't know what you're talking about. I am, indeed, ignorant. Please inquire at the nearest university.

Thank you,

Saturday, May 30, 2009

it's the little things

I am really easily amused. These are little things that have made me snort or giggle or laugh very loudly when I should be seriously contemplating the nature of Literature.

OK, so you probably can't see that. I don't really know how to use the camera on my cell phone. Let me translate the blur: "There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn-- Albert Camus." This is on a rectangular slip of paper, fortune cookie style, taped up in the back of one of the fiction shelves. How jolly. Did someone feel unsatisfied by The Emperor of Ocean Park?

Peter Carey, who I have excessive admiration for, blurbed this writing book. Once again, let me translate my inability to focus on the foreground: "Read it because it will teach you everything you need to know about writing good fiction, whether your characters are having sex or having breakfast. -- Peter Carey, author of the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda" How could that not make you laugh?

This is actually in Bell's Books, which is one of my favorite bookstores (there is an upstairs crammed with odd history books, and books bound in leather with embossed titles, and a large globe... and it smells like time). But I quite liked the idea of a shelf of intelligence.

In other news, the magnificent Heather returned from L.A. this week. To celebrate, we went to see Night At the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. It's amazing. We loved it. No, really, the jokes are hilarious (Hank Azaria as an evil, power famished, Egyptian pharoah with a lisp; Ben Stiller's flashlight martial art; Ivan the Terrible, but really the Awesome; Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan having an epic sword fight with the shoes of Al Capone...) and the visuals are like leaping headfirst into a metaphorical candy store. I adore museums and the idea of one coming to life is just skin-burstingly delightful. There's a scene where Ben Stiller and Amy Adams crash into Eisenstaedt's V-J Day in Times Square, and the weird twisting sensation of seeing that world in motion was impressive. It's sheer fun and it made me progressively happier.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

bruising powers of brevity, or, why you should read short stories

One of the most frustrating things about working at a bookstore is when you are telling someone about a book you love, one of those that you adore either madly and immoderately or sensibly and intelligently, and they listen to you politely before saying:

"Well, that sounds interesting. But it's really not my kind of thing."

And you're a little bit crushed, convinced that if only they tasted it, they would fall for it too; but it's perfectly fine for them to decline. They know themselves better than I do. They've been reading for years, and by now they know the general flavor of what works. I should leave them alone.


There is something that I wish I could insist on. Everyone should read short stories! Look! I'll read you one myself, if you just stand here long enough. So many people tell me that they don't read short stories. They don't like them. They only want to read novels, the kind you can press your face into for several hours and emerge, glutted on the visions of someone else's life. Short stories seem pretty, they say, but what's the point of them?

The point of them is their shortness. They work with compression and omission, by leaving things out and taking shortcuts to the inside of your head where, once they get there, they unfold themselves, like a giant piece of origami undone. They bruise you with their hard edges, explode, amuse, devastate, and baffle. You can do things in a short story that would be exhausting if sustained for a novel. There's more space on the inside than you would suspect, more room for guessing, a looseness left for the reader to explore.

(Mr. Steven Millhauser has something to say on the subject, an interesting--and maybe faintly grumpy?--essay in the NY Times.)

I think the trick is that you have to figure out what kind of short stories you want to read. I used to avoid them because I thought they were all brief bits of ordinary people doing ordinary things, and that bored me (schools should use more imagination when selecting short fiction). What was the point of reading about something that I could see better by walking outside?

And then I discovered genre stories (I say "genre" and I mean mystery, fantasy, science fiction, anything where the strange and not quite possible actually happens). Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Kelly Link and Italo Calvino... Steven Millhauser, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Etgar Keret, Jorge Luis Borges, Ray Bradbury, Raold Dahl (have you ever read his short stories? brilliant!), Ted Chiang, M. R. James, Kurt Vonnegut ("Harrison Bergeron" is the first short story that I couldn't stop thinking about for days and days after I read it), Avram Davidson... These stories smacked me in the head. They got up my nose and under my skin. They haunted, excited, and thrilled me; and I loved them.

And because I'm so in love with them, I want everyone else to love them to. Or, at least to give them the chance to introduce themselves.

Read short stories. Bruise your head.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

go forth and read

Also, in case you were looking for something to read (and when are you not looking for something to read? What kind of reader are you, if you aren't always looking for something to tear a hole in your head?), two of my friends have stories out in the wild.

Damien G. Walter's "Momentum" is in Art and Things, a very beautiful and possibly lust-worthy magazine. You can get it in cool places like the Tate Modern if you live in the UK. Or you can read it online. "Momentum" is on page 29.

Keffy R. M. Kehrli's "Machine Washable" is in Sybil's Garage, yet another beautiful and lust-worthy bit of paper, which you can procure here. We read the first draft of this story at Clarion, and it was wickedly funny. It's even better now.

pictures at an exhibition

Yesterday I spent nearly four hours at the SFMOMA, devouring the art with the lovely Damien who is visiting from England.

The big exhibit, the one with all the lavish posters hanging from lampposts across the city, is the William Kentridge: Five Themes. I've never seen Kentridge's work before, and there was such an enormous amount of it, that I almost couldn't decide what I thought about it. The drawings (many strange self-portraits, parades of walking gramaphones, nudes with heft and ballast) are both crude and clever. They balance heavy black lines with delicate, fantastical shapes that remind me of old-fashioned etchings. Along with the drawings, there were films (enormous rooms with screens on every side, fracturing the space into different stop motion narratives running simultaneously). There was also a room with two miniature theaters, like the kind that make you expect puppets or a Punch and Judy show, on either end. One played music from The Magic Flute and showed animation from his production of the opera (yes, he directs operas). I always forget how much I love the Queen of the Night aria. The other was called The Black Box and it was an entire miniature production with grotesque automatons and industrial sounding music and disturbingly precise animation projected over everything.

Mostly, his stuff made me think about what a strange experience art that isn't performance based really is. All of those automated things--the puppets that run on tracks, the recorded music, the procession of flashing lights--run through the same sequence with no deviation, no guidance from a human being, and yet they're designed to make us feel and think.

The Paul Klee etchings made me want to write disturbing stories for every one of them. I've never appreciated Klee before, but these small pieces were so fine and so strange in intricately shaded black and white, that I sort of fell in love with them.

(this one is called The Hero With The Wing)

Ranjani Shettar's new work made me think about Icarus and space. It was incredibly still, especially compared to the Kentridge, which seems almost frenetic.
My favorite though (and I think it will always be my favorite piece there, no matter what travels through) is the the Rothko they have. No. 14, 1960 makes me feel like the front of the world has been peeled away and I am looking, for the first time, at whatever it is that exists underneath.

We finished up our visit with a trip to the rooftop garden, which is newish. Damien got tea, brewed to a timer in a tiny glass teapot, and I stretched out on a bench and admired how blue the sky gets when there aren't any clouds to get in the way of the sun.

It was a good afternoon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

joining the jolly ones

Sometimes, I think I make it sound like working at the bookstore is a never-ending succession of strange interactions with odd and frustrating people. Which it isn't.

Yesterday, for instance, this tall, faded man who receded behind his spectacles bought a Terry Pratchett book (Feet of Clay, to be precise). I employed my usual Enthusiastic Small Talk (reserved for books I actually like), and asked him whether he had read many of Pratchett's novels. He said he hadn't. And then he looked embarrassed and said that he started reading them because he once passed a bookstore that was hosting an event for Terry Pratchett and he saw crowds and crowds of people who all looked jolly, excited, and brazenly happy. He wanted to join them, so he bought a book.

This was almost as satisfying as the time a woman told me that she had heard Neil Gaiman's "Chivalry" read on NPR and that it was haunting her. She said this very emphatically and repeatedly, with slightly different phrasing, and I was beginning to feel sorry for her when she looked me in the eye and said, "But where can I find MORE?"

On the other hand, we're hosting Rick Riordan on Saturday and I keep imagining that I'll be crushed flat beneath a tsunami of young people clutching their copies of The Last Olympian.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

April reading

Not very many books this month.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
This book opens with an absolutely brilliant thing: a young man walking with his friends and doing a coin trick in his pocket, where nobody can see it. It's one of those things that make me think, oh I wish I had thought of that. It's the sort of detail that only works in a book and in real life, and there's so much fun that you can dig out of it.
The basic bones of the story might be familiar: a young man discovers that he can actually do magic, real magic, and he goes off to boarding school to learn it. He makes friends, and finds out that a fictional world really exists on the wrong side of the water in a fountain. But Quentin is an overachieving and dissatisfied high school senior; the magical school is a bizarrely insular university; and there are really bad things in the world that magic doesn't help at all. I think the last bit is why I felt unsatisfied when I finished the book. Quentin is so discontented by everything that it made me want to punch him in the nose, but his ridiculous expectations drive the story and they infected me so that nothing was enough. I felt like I gorged on detail and fascinating, caustic relationships... but I was still hungry.

Britten and Brulightly by Hannah Berry
I thought that this was going to be funny. It wasn't. There were some funny things in it (Brulightly is completely bizarre), but it's actually kind of crushing. It's really good though, and I'm glad I read it. The art is perfect for a noir: grey and full of rain, odd faces brought in at strange angles, still and frozen snippets of rooms, and a slippery feeling that makes it seem like the truth is always shifting around.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
I love this book. I've read it more times than several, though it's been a while since the last time. I copied my friend, Kat, and read it while on a plane. I couldn't believe that I had run out of pages by the time I landed. (my copy has a much less attractive cover, one that reminds me of some weird spiritual book about brightly colored spirits that dance on triangular feet)

That Mad Ache by Francoise Sagan, translated by Douglas Hofstadter
This is Hofstadter's translation of La Chamade, and I thought it was an interesting and infuriating novel. It's about people who can't figure out how to be happy, or how to love each other, and it's absolutely claustrophobic because you get trapped inside their self-absorbtion with them. It's like drowning inside another, really irritating, person's skin.
This edition is interesting because it has an extended essay on translation by Hofstadter in the back.

Nation by Terry Pratchett
I always like his books. Even the ones that are not my favourite book of the last six months are still books that I'm happy while reading. I didn't fall in love with this one, but I thought it was very sharp, and sometimes it made me uncomfortable while still being funny and an adventure in the company of sensible young people who are actually heroes. Also, there is a shipwreck, and exotic island, and a tribe of cannibals.

Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
This book frightens me. It's also one of the things that I like best of everything that he has done. The story has all kinds of space in it, so I fill it in with my own memories and all the things that scare me about people who I think I know, but don't. And there are weird shadows and details that change shapes while you read. Dave McKean's art is genius.

Troll's Eye View edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
I'm really picky about fairytale retellings, mostly because I think that the good fairy tales are so entrenched in our minds that it's hard to make a retelling compelling enough to be better than starting from scratch. That's just a personal prejudice though. Some of the stories in here are very good, but my favourite is "A Delicate Architechture" by Catherynne M. Valente. It reminded me of E.T.A Hoffmann's Nutcracker, and it took me a while to figure out that it was a "Hansel and Gretel" story.

something to read on a lazy weekend

If you, like me, have nowhere to be until 11:00, which is practically afternoon, and are lazily drinking tea and trying to decide whether it's too grey outside to venture to the farmer's market, then I urge you to spend some otherwise mundane minutes reading a couple of stories.

If you, unlike me, have a number of pressing things that are stuffing your hours until they burst out the seams, I would still urge you to read these.

First, a short piece by Sarah Miller called "The Music At Bash Bish Falls," up at Everyday Weirdness. It's a spare and compressed piece of strangeness, and it delivers plenty to think about in a very small space.

Also, a longer piece by Stefani Nellen on Conjunctions. It's called "Tentacle Mind Report," and we were lucky to read the first draft at Clarion. Steffi writes outrageously beautiful and disturbing stories with the kind of details that make me think, oh yes that is exactly how life is. This story is satisfying and terrifying at once.