Wednesday, July 29, 2009

something nice

So, to make up for the grumpiness of last post, let me share with you some things that have made me happy in the last 24 hours:

Fabulous interview with Shaun Tan (glorious creator of The Arrival and Tales From Outer Suburbia) on Bookslut.

Story from the Guardian that Yann Martel will have a new book coming out next year. The story (holocaust allegory with donkey and monkey in tow) sounds a bit improbable, but I so enjoyed Life of Pi that I don't care and will look forward to it with glee.

A short film that reminds me of some picture books that I used to read.

A dance film that is sexy and gorgeous and not lame.

So, a small quartet of things nice and pleasant and not grumpy at all (except maybe the black snake, but snakes can't help being hungry).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 5

If you see a girl standing at the register, please know that this is not an invitation for you to approach her with conversation that insults both the event that the store is hosting and the girl herself.

Please do not imagine that you should say things like:

"These women, they are telling lies. Lies. I am a perceptive kind of guy, real perceptive, you know? And I can tell you that these women are lying. I can tell when people are the sincere sort and when they're liars. You're too young to know this sort of thing. You just don't know. How old are you? Huh. When I was your age, I was travelling India. You should travel. You don't know anything about the world, you just got your eye closed and they need to be opened. You may think you've got them open, but you can't see anything."

And then, when the girl, rather tight-lipped, says that, actually, she has travelled, please don't say:

"Well, you're only talking the western world. That's not going to help. Your eyes are still closed. You don't know anything still. You don't know anything about Asia."

And then, when the girl points out the (rather obvious) fact that she is, in fact, Asian don't then say:

"Well, it's not like you know anything about it. There's that culture and that history and that language, and you're just ignorant of it all. You need to learn something about the world."

And then, when the girl tells you that she really can't stay there and talk to you any longer, and that you might have your opinions, but she really doesn't agree with them or want to hear them anymore, please do not say:

"God bless you. You'll learn."

So much rage. Also, disbelief.

Many thanks.

different kinds of books

So, my friend, the lovely Damien Walter, has written some strong words about the Booker Prize longlist. And, while I can see his point, I can't say that I agree with them. I think the demarcations between genres (literary fiction, mysteries, speculative fiction... and the broader ones that run throughout: quest, romance, swashbuckling adventure, creeping psychological horror, and etc.) are crumbling and porous. They always have been, and lately they seem to be so faint and so fine that you wouldn't know where to place them.

There is a spectrum, of course, and I have to admit to a certain prejudice that usually keeps me from picking up any book with a spaceship on the cover, or the words "fantasy epic" on the back, or anything that mentions Fifth Avenue in close proximity to an illustration of a woman with heels and shopping bags. I don't think I'm unusual though in having literary crushes on Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan and Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link and Patrick Ness and Angela Carter and Peter Carey and P. D. James all at the same time. I like to read different kinds of things (Because who wants to read the same thing all the time? How boring is that?), and what I like best of all is a story that explodes into your head with the need to exist, full of everything that matters and an irreverence for the things it uses to get there.

I haven't read A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book. I read Possession and was bored by it, but thought that most of her Little Black Book of Stories was creepily effective. Her work is permeated with fairy tales, ghosts, magic, monsters, and a streak of sly cruelty that I find unsettling. In my head, I think of her as a fantasist (along with Margaret Atwood, who won the Booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin).

I'm reading Sarah's Waters's The Little Stranger right now, and it's a story about a haunted house. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (shortlisted for the Booker in 2005) can definitely be called science fiction (it made me cry and I thought it was good, though I am really still in love with The Remains of the Day).

At my bookstore, we have tables of new fiction, much of it the kind that comes out in classy trade paperback form, with matte covers and decent paper and elegant cover design. Many of them have little round seals that indicate their award-winning credentials. Granta Best Young American Novelist. National Book Award. Pulitzer Prize. Booker Prize. More and more of them sound truly weird and wonderful, and when you turn them over to peruse the backs, words like "surreal" and "genre-bending" and "imaginative" pepper their descriptions.

I have met people who say the "Science Fiction" section makes them nervous, but they clutch armfuls of Borges and Calvino and Saramago. "Where can I get more of this?" they say, and I'm more than happy to take their hand and introduce them to M. John Harrison and Ms. Link and Jonathan Carroll. I might also lead them over to the display we'll no doubt put up for the Booker Prize books, both past and present, and help them pick out a ghost story, or a story about clones in love, or a story about a boy and tiger lost at sea who discover a magical island.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

june reading

You would think that a trip to Hawaii is the perfect time to swallow down a great stack of books. I assure you that it isn't. Not, at least, if you are hauling several thousand pounds of copper wire to the recycling center, chopping down banana trees, and going camping with 60-something members of your extended family. I usually read in bed before going to sleep, but in Hawaii, I skipped all that and just clunked straight into unconciousness. Still, these are the books I read.

The City and the City
by China Mieville
This book hurt my head while I was reading it. It is set in two cities, somewhere like Eastern Europe probably, that exist on top of each other, in the same place, only kept separate by the insistence that the residents of each meticulously unsee the other. It's a wonderful idea, a totally bizarre and crazy one, and it makes your brain have to twist around corners to picture it. It felt like looking at those drawings that are two things at once--a goblet and two faces; an old lady and a young one--but your brain can't see them both, so it flips them back and forth, back and forth. The actual story is a murder mystery, an investigation with the quiet, grey desperation of the hardboiled type, and I didn't find those aspects as tense and dangerous, or as satisfying, as I wanted them to be. But there's this scene of a shooting across the two cities that explodes with weirdness and frustration and it's absolutely fantastic.

A Natural History of the Senses
by Diane Ackerman
Love this book. It is crammed with thoughts and facts and descriptions about the senses, and about how what people sense shapes their interaction with each other, with the world, with themselves. Reading it was like wallowing in the glory of being a physical creature. It suddenly felt so intensely luxurious to be human.
I bought it as research for the novel about perfume that my friend, the lovely Kat, and I are going to write someday. But the thing is dripping with tidbits and ideas: psychological dwarfism, a museum in Japan that has human skin tattooed by master tattoo artists in its collection, the untranslatable specificity of music...

Jitterbug Perfume
by Tom Robbins
There is so much about this book that made me giddy.
There is so much about this book that made me impatient.
It's a romp. It's ridiculous, over-the-top, completely strange, and distractingly beautiful. It is also tiresome (at points and briefly) and repetitive when it bangs certain things against your head in slightly different shapes in case you didn't receive the proper bruises the first time. It starts with an ode to beets. It includes a mad perfumer who wears a whale mask when contemplating scent and believes the dinosaurs were wiped out by the sensuous overkill of flowers. There is quite a lot of sex. There is also an extraordinary sentence which goes: "The highest function of love is that it makes the loved one a unique and irreplaceable being."

The Angel's Game
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
This book disappointed me. Maybe I was looking forward to it with too much slobbery excitement. I adored The Shadow of the Wind and wanted to read this one in the same rush, staying up all night to devour the wonderful, odd version of Spain where stories bleed out of all the shadows.
The characters irritated me. There was blood, but it was boring blood without any weight behind it, and the ending folded everything up in a way that made the rest of the book seem silly. I skimmed the last hundred pages.

I also read the 55th/56th issue of the Sonora Review, which has two of the most disturbing covers that I've ever seen on a magazine. Highlights: tributes to David Foster Wallace and a story by the man himself ("/Solomon Silverfish/") that made me wish I had read him before so I could have appreciated his work while he was still in the world. Also, Etgat Keret is interesting, spiky, and loud on the imagination.

Monday, July 13, 2009

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 4

Please do not say that you are looking for a book called "Metamorphosis or something" and send me dashing happily off to Kafka and then to Ovid, full of delight that oh here is a request I don't even have to look up on the computer how lovely, only to have you say, sometime later, that it's actually a business book you're looking for.

The quickest way to find a book: ISBN number. Saying that you read about it in the NY Times a few months back, that it had the word "red" in the title, and that it may have had something to do with murder is not quick. It can be fun. It can be a treasure hunt. It may turn up all kinds of excellent books you and I would never have glanced at otherwise. But it's not quick. Just so you know.

Your children have good taste. I don't care whether they're clutching piles of Rainbow Fairies books or hanging onto D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. They're reading, figuring things out, standing at the shallow edge of a crazy, wonderful ocean and deciding that they want to get wet. There are so many incredible books for kids and I would love to offer up my own favourites, but please, please don't say "no, you can't read this." It will only make them want to read it more anyway.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

yet more of the story in the library

So, that story that the lovely Kat and I are working on? That one we've been writing on Twitter because we are possibly mad? We finally realized (or, were informed of the fact by perceptive people like my sister) that it's actually quite difficult to read a story on Twitter. So we made a "Vampires in the Library" blog (do you notice how I sidestepped the italics? not quite ready to commit to something long enough to require italics.) and are collecting it there in chunks that are comfortable shapes for reading. I typed up the first chunk and took the liberty of smoothing out transitions (sometimes the 140-character bits sounded something like Hah! Well, HAH! HAH! HAH! POW! BOOM!), adding names where we left them off, and removing ampersands (as much as I enjoy their bulky curve) in favor of "and". I didn't make any large changes though, as tempting as it was when seeing the whole thing and wanting to run off after all the interesting bits hanging from the edges.
The blog is here.
I also went to see a performance this evening... I so miss dancing for people. I mean, I believe, utterly, that everyone can dance, should dance, even if you only ever do it alone where nobody can see you. But... There's something about dancing for people that drags you out of yourself in an entirely different way, and I have to think about it more to say exactly why that is, but I really, really miss it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

sparkling trees and flights of stars

Fireworks make me happy. The glittering blast of color falling in fragments on black, black dark. Such extravagance. Explosives and chemicals and bright, cheap packaging all in the service of something so pretty that lasts no time at all.

Though I have to say, seeing boxes and boxes of them piled on top of each other in busy stores is a little strange.

At least a small fire extinguisher stands ready to avert disaster. (I wonder though, how much can one brave red canister do against three aisles of pyrotechnics?) We resisted greed and only took a single box.

Oh, the anticipation. I can't wait for it to be dark.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

in which we have much fun

My friend, the lovely Kathleen Howard, and I have strange conversations. If anyone overheard us, they would think that we were either mad or irretrievably unmoored from reality. This evening, we discussed linguistics. Which somehow led to us discussing elderly vampires in the British Library (a picture of the Library here, from The Nonist). Which, somehow, led us to discussing resurrections.

We decided to write a story about it all. And, for some reason, we decided to write it on Twitter. 140 characters is a challenging allotment for two people fond of long sentences. It isn't finished yet, and I don't have any idea where it will head (we alternate passages and we haven't planned anything), but this is how it starts:

Russell Malconperry had a certain arrangement with the janitors who cleaned the British Library. They would stay out of his reading room, and he'd help with the vermin control.

I think the rest can be found here. At least, the rest that we've written so far. I'm not sure how the Twitter tag thing works, but I think that's the right link.