I spend so much time talking about serious (grown up) books that I sometimes forget that books had a completely different hold on me when I was a little fella. These days I like to read something that will challenge me, and I seek people out who will discuss a particular book with me. We turn the book around in our heads poking it and prodding it, making this or that judgment, and then we set the book carefully aside and rush onward to the next one. It really doesn’t bear much resemblance to the way my five year old self felt about books. Back then it was the purest escape. I could open a book and be utterly immersed within its confines. Such is the boundlessness of the young imagination that I could dwell in the same book almost endlessly. I gave no thought to picking up the same book day after day for weeks on end. As we grow older, our imaginations atrophy and it becomes difficult to immerse ourselves in a story and pictures in the same way. There are, however, a special handful of books that are powerful enough to remind you of what it was like to be five again. The Olivia series by Ian Falconer is able to do this. Something about the dreamy illustrations and the antics of a stubborn pig can make you forget yourself for a few minutes. The third Olivia book comes out today. It’s called Olivia . . . and the Missing Toy, and if you are at a bookstore today and you want a bit of merriment, take a look, you won’t be disappointed.
While CAAF and others have spent much of the new year discussing and praising Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep, I have followed along, blissfully unaware that I could, apparently, be a character in the book. Today, I read this article in the Washington Post, which clued me into Sittenfeld’s tenure as an English teacher at St. Albans where I attended high school, and which she used as inspiration for the novel:”It was almost like cheating,” she says of living at St. Albans. “I’d been writing this book about this kind of place and the kinds of people you might find there, and then there I was, sort of back in it, overhearing pieces of dialogue or something… If I got to a place where I needed to describe some food in the dining hall, well, I’d just go downstairs to the dining hall and have dinner.”Although I wasn’t a boarder there – most of us weren’t – I can imagine that the school would be good material for this sort of book. There’s lots of dark wood, stone edifices, and groves of old trees on the grounds the school shares with the National Cathedral. At the same time, the school, while something of an island, does sit in the city and is a part of the city in a way that the New England boarding schools are not, and this gives St. Albans a different feel. Sittenfeld started out as the Writer in Residence at St. Albans and continues to teach there part time. My alma mater, when mentioned in the Post tends to be labeled “exclusive,” and while this is undoubtedly true I always thought it was pretty cool that we had a writer in residence program. The most notable writer in residence when I was there in the mid ’90s was Matthew Klam. St. Albans alums of a certain age still fondly remember the day that Klam shocked the faculty and riled up the students – it’s an all boy school, by the way – at our weekly assembly with his reading of the title story from his collection, Sam the Cat, a graphic tale about a drunk guy who falls for a girl who turns out not to be a girl. Considering that we were an auditorium full of sheltered and not very worldly young men, it sort of blew our minds.
Exiled Kenyan Novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o was in San Francisco promoting his novel Wizard of the Crow and staying at the Hotel Vitale. According to a report in a Kenyan paper, the author was sitting in a common area of the hotel and was confronted by a hotel employee who said, “This place is for guests of the hotel. You must leave.”The worker would hear none of the professor’s explanation that he was a guest. He insisted that he must leave immediately.After it was established that indeed Ngugi was a distinguished guest of the hotel, the management apologised by offering some complimentary whisky.The incident is being talked about in other corners of the Web but has yet to be picked up by any US papers. The hotel is already trying to cover its tracks by saying that it was the action of an individual who “under review, as is the hotel’s diversity training program,” according to an email reprinted at this hotel review site (scroll down).At the blog Black Looks, where another email from hotel management has been reprinted (scroll down to the comments), demands are being made for a public apology in “to be placed in a Bay Area newspaper, no later than the end of this month.”It seems likely that this was indeed the isolated stupidity of one person at the hotel. The hotel itself, meanwhile, is now in serious backpedaling mode. It just goes to show that even in what is considered one of the more “enlightened” cities in the world, we haven’t made as much progress as we think.
Scanning the headlines for news about books:I noticed, after I’d been working at the book store for a while, that there is a religious book industry that shadows the mainstream book industry. There isn’t much crossover between the two: there are mainstream bookstores that sell exclusively mainstream books and Christian bookstores that sell exclusively Christian books. But now the Associated Press is reporting that the lines are blurring thanks to the success of the The Da Vinci Code and the odd cultural phenomenon of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. According to the story, several psuedo-religious books, books that don’t fit neatly into either segment of the book industry, have become big sellers in the last year. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, and The Woman With the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail by Margaret Starbird are among the beneficiaries.Advanced Book Exchange is a giant online marketplace for used books. I happened to notice that they recently posted a list of their “top 50 bestselling used, rare and out-of-print books on Abebooks in 2003.” It’s an interesting list that includes current bestsellers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), classics (East of Eden), collectible magazines (National Geographic Magazine), and scholarly texts and reference books (Black’s Law Dictionary).And while we’re talking bestsellers, here’s Barnes & Nobles’ 100 bestselling books of 2003, including one of my favorite books of recent years, Ian McEwan’s Atonement coming in at number 46.
I wonder what happened to Derek last night. We were all at Little Joy Jr. (possibly the best bar ever… I hope it lasts). And he disappeared. He was weaving though, so who knows. I bought the Cat Power album the other day, and I am not at all disappointed. I don’t buy music very often (I instead survive on downloaded music and freebies from work), but this one was worth buying. It also helped that I had a giftcard to Tower records. We got the proofs of the cover art for The Recoys record… It looks great. I can’t wait for this thing to come out.
And now it is time to go. After more than three and a half years in LA, a city I knew nothing about, hated, grew to love, and still kind of hate, Ms. Millions and I are hitting the road. First there will be a wedding and then a new start in Chicago where I will attempt to be a student again. I fear that the culture shock I experienced upon arriving in Los Angeles will pale in comparison to the culture shock of leaving LA now that I have grown so accustomed to its inherent weirdness. Still, I managed to carve a niche for myself here and perhaps I can do that again somewhere new. Funny that I didn’t figure it out at the very start, but this “niche,” this sudden feeling of comfort in a bewildering place would have a lot to do with books.First, some history. I have always read a lot. Early on it was to combat my chronic insomnia, and I guess it just took. But there was a time here in Los Angeles during my first year that I would find myself without a book. This had never really happened to me before. Whereas I used to have a stack of books next to my bed ready for devouring, I had now resorted to fishing out old Entertainment Weeklies from under the coffee table. I was distracted, profoundly so. I was in a new place trying to be good at jobs I didn’t care about, lacking ambition, and devoted to those twin goddesses of self-diversion, television and video games. But then things happened, too numerous and predictable to mention here, and I found myself unemployed again and ready to try something new. So I said the hell with it and walked into a little bookstore on the Sunset Strip. Moments after I got the job I remembered (how had I forgotten?) how much I love books. And soon my hunger for words became insatiable, like that of a beggar who suddenly has daily access to feast worthy of a king. Soon I felt guilty. I had to share.My friend Derek, always a step ahead, had begun blogging. I pronounced it to be silly and a huge waste of time and then promptly started my own blog. I realized after a month or so that it had to be about books and nothing else, since that’s the only thing that really moved me at the time.And plus, I had so much material: a constant torrent of new releases and a cadre of coworkers and customers with whom I discussed books eight hours a day. (This was when I discovered, by the way, that LA is an obsessively literary place, and it doesn’t care if anyone knows it, so it doesn’t bother to tell anyone.) And then there were the authors, constant visitors it seemed, nearly all of them willing to chat with the folks who hock their wares. I felt I had to share: Julie Orringer, Jocelyn Bain Hogg (a photographer), Felicia Luna Lemus, George Plimpton, Nick Hornby, Rick Atkinson, Pete Dexter, DBC Pierre and Dan Rhodes, Michele Huneven, A. Scott Berg and Jeff Bridges, Ron Chernow, and of course, one of my heroes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Unbelievable.My last day at the bookstore was yesterday and my last day in LA is tomorrow. I never thought I would live here. I never, ever thought I would love it. It has raised the bar, in my mind, that other cities will have to live up to. But I figure: if I keep seeking out the little bit of LA that no doubt resides in other places, I’ll get along just fine. Goodbye, Los Angeles.I’ll be back in a week. Read a book while I’m gone!