There’s a good reason for me to be sitting in my pjs at my desk at 9 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday, which is this: I am cutting back to 3 days a week at the bookstore. I already mentioned this in one of the comment things, and Aeri and I had an intersting little conversation about it. There are many complicated reasons for me to be phasing myself at out the bookstore. I have many things going on in my life that require more of my time than I have to offer, not to mention the fact that I need more time to write and be creative and figure out what to do with myself. For the various misguided twenty-somethings out there, this must sound familiar. I probably wouldn’t afford myself this luxury of changing jobs if it weren’t for the peanuts they pay me at the book store. When I look at my paycheck, I realize that my time could be better and more economically spent doing something else, even not working, so long as the not working is productive. So here I am in my pjs going slowly broke. No matter how sick of the bookstore I am though, I can’t get around the fact that this job changed my life. It made me realize that I was a book lover who didn’t really know anything about books. Now, after nearly two years I am aware of the full breadth of what is out there, and it is a magnificent thing to be cognizant of. When I told Aeri about this phasing out, she expressed some dismay that I would fall out of the book loop. This is something I have thought about too, but I have come to realize that being aware of books is not contigent on my working at a book store. It is a skill that I have acquired, it is knowledge that I have stowed away. I’d rather step into a different realm of the literary world now that I have this greater awareness of it. So basically I need a new job, and isn’t it annoying that Craigslist has the only online job postings that are worth a damn, and even those are suspect? So if anyone has any tips on job hunting, or better yet any jobs for me let me know. I especially would like to do more freelance writing; I would like to get paid to do research; I would like to tutor kids; I would like to do something literature/publishing related; I would like to do anything interesting that isn’t soul-crushing (Lord knows I have had plenty of those gigs); most of all I’d like to be able to pay my rent. So, thanks for listening guys. More books soon, I promise.
Biographer Charles Shields has already put this request out on many book blogs, but since he asked, I thought I’d share it here, as well:This past June, I published Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Now I’m beginning work on the first authorized biography – the first biography at all, actually – of Kurt Vonnegut. I’d like to hear from any of your readers about their experiences with Vonnegut, either personally or with his novels.Shields can be reached at [email protected] As a big Vonnegut fan, I’ll be looking forward to this one.Related: Some reactions to Shields’ book on Harper Lee.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut— and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
Jeffrey Eugenides became a household name among many readers thanks to Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides. Eight years after Middlesex, Eugenides has quietly become one of the most admired American novelists working today, and it’s likely that many fans are looking ahead to October, when Eugenides’s next novel, The Marriage Plot, is set to be released.
FSG’s catalog copy describes a campus/coming-of-age/love-triangle novel (some may recall the protagonist Madeleine Hanna from an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker in 2010), but the The Marriage Plot‘s first paragraph sets the stage for what may be a very bookish novel, with some serious literary name dropping and a mention of John Updike’s Couples.
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic,” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.”
Matthew Kneale won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2001 for his maritime historical novel English Passengers. Now Kneale has a collection of stories out that takes a more contemporary look at traveling. Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance is about the complexities of exploring today’s world. A review in The Scotsman says that Kneale’s “‘small crimes’ are usually ones of hypocrisy from Europeans traveling in developing countries – well-intentioned souls suddenly confronted with the unpleasant realities of life among the picturesque peasants.” Here’s an excerpt from the book and here’s a little essay by Kneale about some of his more harrowing moments on the road.As Hotel Rwanda helped raise the profile of genocide in Africa, a soon to be released British novel uses a similar, fictionalized tragedy as its backdrop. Andrew Miller’s The Optimists is the story of Clem Glass, a photojournalist who returns home from Africa unable to come to terms with what he has witnessed there. A review in The Times discusses the difficulties in embarking on such a novel: “The novelist has to mediate a political event more skillfully than a journalist and the tension between subject and mediator is what should be driving the story. In The Optimists there is more awkwardness than tension.” At the Meet the Author Web site (which is filled with video interviews with authors) Miller discusses what he was trying to accomplish with the novel. Update: a review in the Guardian.James Salter has a collection of short stories coming out in April called Last Night. Publishers Weekly says, “The reserved, elegiac nature of Salter’s prose and his mannered, well-bred characters lend the collection a distanced tone, but at their best these are stirring stories, worthy additions to a formidable body of work.” That formidable body of work, by the way, includes a previous collection of stories that won a PEN/Faulkner Award in 1989, Dusk and Other Stories. For another taste of Salter, here’s his recent reminiscence of food in France from the New York Times. And here’s a story from the new book.
On day ten of our recent cross-country drive, it became clear that we had twenty hours left of driving and no more music and nothing to say to each other again, possibly ever. At one point we realized that we were fools and that for ten days we could have been listening to audio books instead of children’s programming on the Focus on the Family radio station, which is evidently the only radio station broadcasting in some portions of the country, which explains a lot of things about a lot of other things.We went to a Barnes and Noble in a strip mall in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and found that our audio options mostly consisted of self-help, Janet Evanovich, Sean Hannity, and six ponderous Classics. Moby Dick, at twenty-one hours, was the closest to our remaining driving time, so that was our pick. To my great shame, I have tried and failed to read that novel a number of times. It’s not the length, but the alarming density of it. The sentences, while exquisitely made, are exhausting, so many of them one after another like that. I had never listened to a book on tape, because the concept sounded too confusing, but I thought it might be an ideal format for this, my own white whale (if you will).And it was great! We were having such a fun time with Ahab and Queequeg and the gang, and during the parts which made my eyes glaze over in reading (like the whale classifications and whatnot), I could just look out the window and listen to the dulcet tones of Audie Award™ Winner Frank Muller!We had just finished disc six of eighteen, somewhere around chapter forty, and I went eagerly for the next one. Only to find that instead of discs 7-12, we had been given two sets of 13-18. There was a lot of suffering in the car at that moment. My traveling companion suggested, with choice words, that we call the company and have a representative read us those chapters over the phone. Unsurprisingly, however, their solution was to mail the missing discs. To our home, in which we will have no need for an audio book. It’s so obvious that I am never finishing Moby Dick.
Sloganeering rightly takes me to task for my sloppy framing of the NaNoWriMo debate – primarily the fact that I make no attempt to present the opposite point of view – and does it for me by pointing to Websnark’s pro-NaNoWriMo post from a year ago.Clearly some people find NaNoWriMo useful (or at least fun) or it wouldn’t still be around, but I question the idea that it’s good for aspiring writers. Websnark presents four reasons why NaNoWriMo is an instructive exercise. The first three touch on the idea that if you want to be a writer, you have to stop being lazy and/or afraid and you have to write every day. This is undoubtedly true, and at the very least NaNoWriMo shows people how hard this really is, though I have my doubts that very many people continue to write every day on December 1 and beyond, which is the point, right? Essentially, I’m not convinced that there’s an easy trick to learning how to write every day, or even that it can be taught at all.Websnark’s last reason for liking NaNoWriMo is that “There are worse reasons to form a community than creativity,” and that is about the best defense of NaNoWriMo that I can come up with as well. There certainly worse, less productive things one could do with one’s time, and NaNoWriMo makes a solitary, often grueling endeavor fun and social, if only for one month out of the year. But, then, if writing weren’t solitary and grueling, we’d all have novels out.
Bookseller Chick describes what is currently the bane of booksellers everywhere: those Bluetooth cell phone headsets.In the past, once this formerly erratic behavior was observed the bookseller could then take extra caution or at least have an answer to give other customers if they came up and complained about the person talking to themselves, but now we are left wondering. Are they on the phone? Are the talking with aliens on the rock formerly known as the planet Pluto?When I worked at the bookstore in Los Angeles a few years back, the Bluetooth thing was starting to take hold (they’re early adopters out there with all things cell phone), and all too often, thinking I was being summoned by a book buyer in need of assistance, I would find a patron chatting into his ear piece, as if insane. Worse yet, we would be subjected to half conversations of an all-too-often personal nature – discussions about cheating spouses, play-by-plays of recent therapist sessions, and the like. Makes me glad I don’t work retail any more.