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.
First, fiction. It almost goes without saying that people are still reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, but last week I noticed some other new fiction making inroads among the reading public. Mailman the fourth novel by J. Robert Lennon takes its title from the occupation of the main character, Albert Lippencott, “a loner who reads the mail before delivering it.” Ever since I read Thomas Pynchon’s paranoiac masterpiece, The Crying of Lot 49, I’ve thought that there is a wealth of material that might be mined from the machinations of the Postal Service. When you look at it in a certain way, mail is a pretty crazy thing; billions of pieces of paper crisscrossing one another invisibly from one end of the world to the other and so many stories in those letters. Also proving popular, due at least in part to impeccable reviews, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones. And lastly, lots of people are looking to read Charles Baxter’s latest, Saul and Patsy. Like his previous novels, Baxter’s latest is thoughtful, reflective and “quietly triumphant.” Several of my trusted fellow readers have singled out Saul and Patsy as a book they are dying to read.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading two illuminating books about the Soviet Union. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum is the first compresive account of the Soviet system of forced labor and random terror. Now that the shroud of secrecy and propaganda is lifted, the reality of twentieth century Soviet Union, and especially the period of Stalin’s rule, is of a catastrophically malfunctioning totalitarian state. At times the horror of the Gulag is almost unfathomable. Applebaum’s research here is clearly very thorough. She makes ample use of survivor memoirs, recently opened Soviet archives, and interviews. Gulag is an unwavering look at a piece of human history that is difficult to behold. Any inclination to sympathise with the Soviets is dispelled by this remarkable book. If Gulag is a book about the rot at the center of the Soviet system, then Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick chronicles the point at which the rot became more powerful than the Communist Party’s iron fist. Remnick is a storyteller telling the story of a riveting period in history. As he writes, “To live anywhere between Bonn and Moscow in 1989 was to be witness to a year-long polical fantasy. You had the feeling you could run into history on the way to the bank or the seashore.” Lucky for us, Remnick spent 1989 (as well as the years before and after) in Moscow. Reading these two books simultaneously has provoked in me a minor obsession with 20th century Russian history, which is fantastic because in the last year alone several compelling books about the subject have come out. I’ll let you know if and when I read them.Some Good BookfindingToday, on my day off, I went by a nearby Goodwill store and found a mini treasure trove of good reading. The best find was 7 old issues of Granta, each one chock full of fantastic writers, including some of my favorites like Ryszard Kapuscinski, T. C. Boyle, and Haruki Murakami. Flipping through the tables of contents, I can see I’m in for some great reading. I let you know what I find. I also bought an old issue of Story magazine from 1997 featuring stories by Heidi Julavits and Bobbi Ann Mason among several others. I don’t know who is giving away old literary magazines but I was more than happy to find them. I also found two history books that look pretty great: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan which is about Eastern Europe and The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan, a history of naval warfare. And just in case all these books are too serious I found a copy of The Essential Calvin And Hobbes for only two bucks… yes!Don’t ForgetGo to Realistic Records to get a copy of the Recoys album. And go see them play Friday June 20th 9pm… Kingsland Tavern at the corner of Kingsland and Nassau in Greenpoint (that’s Brookyn by the way). I’ll be there!
They passed through the city the day following. He kept the pistol to hand and held the boy close to his side. The city was blackened, burned to completion. No sign of life. Not a hobo nor trollop, tourist nor knishvendor. Cars swimbled with ash, heavy with parkingtickets. Never to be paid nor contested, no weary fist shaken at the judge’s vacant robes. A corpse in a doorway dried to fruitleather, yellowed newspaper still in hand. Reds lose, five to two. Springtime gardening tips. Ten cents off salsa. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. Not like the things you put into your mouth. Those fall from your bottom.
But you forget some things, don’t you, Papa?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget. Sometimes you remember what you want to remember, but you have to write it down. He knelt, held the boy’s frail shoulders. I cannot stress that enough.
The boy looked down the avenue, pointed towards a bench. Another corpse. Its head had been long ago removed, feet sawn clean at the ankles. Left arm gone, right gnawed to the elbow. A desperate feast.
Will I remember that? the boy said.
The man regarded the ruined figure as they passed, tousled the boy’s hair. Yes. That’s exactly what I meant.
They bore on in the days and weeks to follow, working deeper into the scrub and barren southlands. Solitary and grim through the raw hill country, a fiddler’s cribbled nosegay. In the ruined and empty shoppingcenters, Perkins gave way to Shoneys, PathMarks to Krogers. They passed flimsy aluminum houses, wracked and sagging trailerparks. Rusted truckparts in the sideyards, a longdead satellite dish. Faded beercans, flypaper porches. Remains of a deer. What was it like here before, Papa? the boy said. Was it much different? The man thought for a moment, passed a roadsign riddled with bulletholes. No, he said. Not so different at all.
The blackness he woke to on those nights was blind and impenetrable, a ditchdigger’s bunglet. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees, his softly running pee. He stood tottering in the chill and bleakened air, arms outstretched, eyes closed as his mind calculated its browngreen trigonometry. How to know what lay in the truncheoned dying inkwell? Beelzebub’s snowsuit. To whisper in supplication. A fearsome slant, a sleekening wampum. He counted his steps as he trod the pitchdark wood, the nameless outer. Who was its grumble? Something unfound in the night, beagled and harpy. To which he owed a debt, a skimbled arcane gratitude. Rockhard Easter Peeps, a turnip’s mad prerogative. As the great pendulum in its orbit sweeping through its movements of which you may decline an invitation or respect its velvet welcoming. Half the time he didnt know what he was talking about.
In an old slumpboard smokehouse they found a ham, hidden away in a high and dusty corner. With his knife, he cut into the rockhard porkskin, finding the meat pink and salty. Rich and good. They fried it that night over their fire, the thick slices simmered with a tin of beans. From the few things that remained in their satchel, he made a spinach sidesalad with dried cranberries and bluecheese, candied ginger almonds. Balsamic vinaigrette. Skewers of Portobello mushroom and Vidalia onion, rockshrimp and red pepper. A side of rice pilaf. Crème Brulee for dessert, the boy’s favorite. He stared into the embers as they ate the simple meal. It wasnt much, but it would have to do.
In dreams he found his bride in a warm and dewy lea. Breasts flangent in the soft purple air. Legs white and long. She wore a dress of cream-colored silk, her dark hair to her shoulders. Breath even and sweet. She smiled sadly as the clothing fell from her, revealing to him God’s bounty, the longitude of rivers. When he woke, it was snowing. Icebeads hanging from the trembling branches above. He had a big ol’ boner.
He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the reaper’s call. Yet he dreamt of skipping through a marshmallow cozyland where chipmunks knitted sweaters and carebears sold cottoncandy to put their cubs through Montessori school but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. Staring towards the sightless bottomwater sky, the boy asleep at his side, he would curse himself for the lapse. He preferred the one where he had to give a presentation but had again forgotten his pants.
They plodded on in the wet and sodden cold. At the broan of a hill was a curve and a break in the trees. They walked out and surveyed the valley where the land swumbled off into the dreary gray fog. A lake down there. Dead and still. A leviathan’s idled crockpot.
What is that, Papa?
It’s a dam. It made the lake. Before they built the dam that was just a river down there.
How did they build it?
They put pieces of concrete one on top of the other.
They lowered them on wires from helicopters. I told you about helicopters, didnt I? The boy nodded. Then scubadivers guided the blocks into place. For the higher ones, they used ladders.
How did the pieces stay put?
Little nubs on top. Like Lego.
Did they need glue?
No. Large nails. Damnails.
What about the fish?
They helped too.
The boy took it all in, looked up at him. How do you know so much, Papa? About everything?
He smiled at the boy. I know what I know, he said.
Millions contributor Emily’s award-winning review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale has been posted by VQR. Check it out.