I’ve returned from my trip home with lots of booty. Many of these books have been added to my reading queue, which has swelled to encompass the entire length of the shelf on which it sits. Time to get reading. For Christmas I received a couple of military histories by the venerable brit, John Keegan, The First World War and Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. I’m excited about both of these. I know little of the details of World War I beyond that it was a gruelling and brutal trench war. I think I mostly know this from reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque when I was in high school. The second is interesting because the issue of intelligence seems to have recently become much more important to national defense than firepower and bombs. I also was gifted a copy of John McPhee’s book-length panegyric to the American shad (The Founding Fish as it were), a topic that would shatter me with boredom were it not for McPhee’s otherworldly ability to write engaging, entertaining prose about any topic under the sun. My mother continued her tradition (one that has proved rewarding over the years) of giving me a serendipitous art book. This year’s selection was Juan Munoz. I know next to nothing about Munoz, but, as is often the case with these art books that my mother gives me, I’m sure I will suddenly notice his work everywhere and by the year’s end he will have become one of my favorite artists. My birthday rolled around, too, as it so often does, a mere eleven days after Christmas, and some more books came my way. You could count the number of poetry books I have on my book shelves on one hand, but with the addition of C. K. Williams National Book Award Finalist, The Singing, which includes one of my favorite poems from recent years, “The Hearth,” I now have one more. I also was presented with a copy of Scott McCloud’s fascinating meta-comic about comics and why we can’t help but love them, Understanding Comics. Hope everyone had a great holiday, as for me, I had a blast, but I’m happy to get back to the grind, so to speak. Expect more soon, I’ve got lots to write about at the moment.
Today, British crime photographer Jocelyn Bain Hogg stopped by the store. We had him sign copies of his intense photography book The Firm. The book is a photographic expoloration of British organized crime from the inside. These are the real life characters that Guy Ritchie borrowed for his laddish gangster films. Check out photos from the book here. Hogg followed these violent characters around for two years after he was introduced by a friend to members of the inner circle. Like many in organized crime, these guys had no problem with maintaining a very public profile, and in no time at all they delighted in having Hogg photograph them in outrageous circumstances. He described gangster holidays in Tenerife, and how he made sure to run his photographs by the “boss” before they saw the light of day. Though he claimed that he never felt as though his life was in danger, he carried himself with the nervous elation of the once condemned. The book’s rocky reception from the British press caused him to no longer consider himself a journalist; instead, he sees himself as nothing more than “a man with a camera.” He’s in Los Angeles doing preliminary research for his next book, preliminarily titled 15 Minutes, an exploration of fleeting fame in our celebrity-obsessed culture. He said that he was especially inspired by the throngs of psuedo-celebrities (reality-TV-spawned and otherwise) that enjoy brief tenures in gossip mags and on second rate talk shows. We told him that L.A. was the perfect place to start.
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.
I was looking at the list of “Top 10 Most Irritating Expressions in the English language,” which was linked to in our recent Curiosities installment (and which is culled from a new book, A Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare), and a thought occurred to me. The Millions has been around for nearly six years. Over our exactly 1,800 posts (not including this one), just how annoying have we been?Hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, I performed some searches. Here’s what I found:At the end of the day – We’ve used this clunker just three times, including way back in 2004 when it crept into a post called “Books of the Boom“. In my defense, I was referring to an actual day, and not the hypothetical one that is the target of those Oxford wordsmiths’ ire.Fairly unique – I’d never thought about it, but that is a fairly silly phrase. Thankfully, we’ve never used it at The Millions.I personally – Another redundancy, and this time I am guilty. I’ve used it twice, though not since 2004 when it crept into this roundup. I blame Kakutani.At this moment in time – That one hurts my ears, and indeed it has thankfully never made it into print at The Millions.With all due respect – A classic, used but once in 1,800 posts. The guilty party is Garth who was clearly struck briefly mad by a slight against his beloved Bolaño.Absolutely – This one, in that it is not a phrase, strikes me as a bit unfair, pernicious as this adverb may be. We’ve used it 41 times over the years, and I feel absolutely no guilt about that.It’s a nightmare – No nightmares here.Shouldn’t of – That’s just bad grammar, and we’ve never used it. Phrases like that keep us up at night.24/7 – We’ve used this one twice. Contributor emeritus Patrick gets a pass because he used it as part of this phrase: “24/7 mingle mode.” I can think of no better way to describe BEA in LA.It’s not rocket science – we’ve never used this one, but “rocket science” was used in one of my all-time favorite Millions posts, Andrew’s “Distinguished in a David Niven Mustache.”
This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
I know this is old news, but I thought I’d give my brief thoughts on the stories from the New Yorker debut fiction issue. I wasn’t bowled over any of the stories, but I was most impressed by Umwem Alpem’s “Ex-Mas Feast,” not so much for writerly virtuosity as for the glimpse of the exotic the story provides. Perhaps because so many short stories seem to be set in the suburbs, I am always drawn to stories set in faraway places. I was somewhat less impressed by Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia,” which I thought would have been a more successful story if it had been half as long. I did, however, enjoy how Russell injected a bit of the surreal into her story. I was also dutifully shocked upon discovering that she is only 23 years old, even though I should know that the New Yorker loves to find these fiction savants. Least interesting of all to me was Justin Tussing’s “The Laser Age,” which, at first glance, I thought was going to be a story of the twisted not to distant future, but instead was just another mismatched boy-meets-girl tale.
Strolling around the bookstore the other day, a book with a startling cover and a wacky title caught my eye. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a humorous travelogue about one of South America’s more obscure countries, Paraguay. Pig is the first book by John Gimlett who has written articles for a number of travel magazines over the years. This excerpt is definitely worth a peek.
If you haven’t been there already, it’s not too late to check out the LBC’s discussion of Firmin by Sam Savage, our Autumn Read This! selection. Also, don’t miss the post from author Savage. By the way, I highly recommend this tale of a literary rat. Firmin is among the few animal protagonists who is neither moralistic nor an allegory, he’s just a sentient rat living in a bookstore near Boston’s decrepit Scollay Square.Update: If you hurry, you can still get in on the Firmin giveaway going on at the LBC right now.