Oprah and her minions must read my blog because a little bird told me that her next book club selection is a book that also happens to be on my reading queue. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a somewhat forgotten classic by Carson McCullers. From what I’ve heard, the book resembles To Kill a Mockingbird and several other works of fiction by Southern women authors. And now it will be a bestseller. If you are one of those people who gets annoyed about the Oprah logo, hurry and get one before they run out of unbesmirched copies.
Gather.com, the folks who put together a chat with Jonathan Safran Foer not too long ago, have announced a new writing contest. Online writing contests are a dime a dozen, but the cool thing about this one is that the four winning short pieces (fiction or non-fiction) will be “published and sold on Amazon Shorts,” which would undoubtedly be a terrific venue for any aspiring writer. In fact, it’s along the lines of what I hoped Amazon would do with its Shorts program.
A few years ago, I was standing on the platform at College subway station in downtown Toronto. It was 9 pm, well beyond the evening rush. Further along the platform and also waiting to board the next train was someone I recognized – a colleague from work – older and embittered, a grumbling and grouchy sort. I’d barely spoken two words to him in the newsroom and wasn’t in any mood to increase those numbers.The train arrived and this happened: A few people piled out and then one person in particular came out of the train and stood face to face with my grouchy colleague on the platform. They began punching each other in the face as if they were sworn enemies, all the while adjusting themselves on the platform so that Grouchy could go into the subway car, and the other guy could come all the way out. It was as if they were doing a dance. Before the doors had closed, and after at least a dozen punches had been thrown as they did their subway ballet, Grouchy was in the car and the other guy had gone up the stairs. I was within earshot – not a word had been spoken, not an insult slung. I guess some people just piss other people off.So that’s my subway story. That and the time I slipped on the top step at an outdoor entrance to Leicester Square tube station in London and tumbled down an entire flight of stairs, to the bemusement (and in many cases, indifference) of London’s commuting throngs.Every commuter or traveler seems to have his own subway story. The front page of a recent Globe and Mail Travel section takes the reader into the subways, undergrounds, tubes and metros of cities around the world. Writer Mark Kingwell, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, is the tour guide, expertly guiding the reader through some of the world’s buried treasures. It’s a fascinating read, and includes bits by other writers and travelers, each sharing subway anecdotes. All packaged with some fine photos.All of which leads me to a book I purchased a few years ago – Underground: Travels on the Global Metro – a coffee-table book featuring some stunning work from photographer Marco Pesaresi. The cities explored are: New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Calcutta, Milan, Mexico City, Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid. Each section is prefaced by a short essay. The book even has an introduction by none other than Francis Ford Coppola.Pesaresi is a remarkable photographer. His camera sometimes conspires with the passenger – causing a pose, an attitude (Mexico city). Sometimes, it is seemingly invisible (Milan) capturing but not appearing to intrude on a pre-existing mood (Tokyo). Sometimes it seems to be lurking, capturing quiet moments that likely would have been shaken off by the subjects, had they been overwhelmed by a more intrusive photographer.
This weekend, hurtling toward the conclusion of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, I took a pit-stop to thumb through Edgar Johnson’s biography of the author. I was curious to see what had triggered Dickens’ transformation from the showman of the early novels to the architect of the series of dizzying edifices that began with Dombey and Son. I didn’t find the answer I was looking for. I did, however, discover the wonderful fact that Dickens was the victim of plagiarists, who during his lifetime published knockoffs like David Copperful, Nikelas Nickelbery, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwickians, and – my favorite – Oliver Twiss.You may recall that a couple of years ago, there were newspaper reports about Chinese J.K. Rowling manqués, who authored such blockbusters as Harry Potter and Beaker and Burn and Harry Potter and the Filler of Big. Apparently, this was no late-capitalist aberration, but part of a venerable literary tradition. I’m now wondering what might happen if some Millions favorites were plagiarized. The Corruptions? Jilliad? Shabbat’s Theatre? The Amazing Adventurousness of Caviller and Quai? The Short Wonderful Life of Oskar Wow? Your suggestions are welcome below.
If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.”
No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence — but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass.
First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow — as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God.
“The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories — like Joyce’s — that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him.
“Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home.
Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess.
Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid — the on the way to their home.
Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See — see — what did I tell you — snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow.
They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45.
They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen.
Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.”
“The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated — and, instead of Joyce — tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.
Last week, online used book retailer Alibris announced a new program called Alibris Basic targeting “small and moderate booksellers,” i.e. non-professionals. The program appears to differ from Alibris’ main offering in terms of pricing:You can list up to 1,000 items for sale, and you only pay $1 plus a small commission for each one that you sell. If you don’t sell anything, you don’t pay anything except the annual subscription charge of $19.99.This compares to the flat monthly fee (plus commissions) that larger scale booksellers are required to pay. For folks who have a lot of collectible books, the Alibris program is probably worth checking out, as the site specializes in this sort of inventory. As much as Alibris would like people to list all of their books for sale, however, there are better options for readers who are looking to unload their old non-collectible books.Amazon lets you very easily list your books for sale in just a couple of steps through their “Sell Your Stuff” page. Amazon charges 99 cents plus a 15% commission on the books you sell. The main upside of going with Amazon, as I see it, is that it probably has the widest reach of all the bookselling programs out there.Still, creating and managing listings for dozens of different books can be time consuming, and one must also deal with shipping off books that get sold to various individual buyers. If this sounds like a pain, then Barnes & Noble’s book buying program might be a better bet. You need only enter the book’s ISBN to get started. B&N will tell you if it’s buying that title and how much it’ll pay. After you’ve entered your books into the system, you print out an invoice and shipping label that allows you to send the books off to B&N for free. A few weeks later you get a check in the mail. I’ve tried B&N’s program, and I found it remarkably simple. You may not be getting the best price for your books, but it’s a lot easier than the other options. The main drawback I found is that B&N is somewhat limited in the books it is willing to buy. Textbooks are the best bet, and it’s a good way to try to unload any older ones you might have lying around.Beyond the above programs, there’s always eBay, which in the realm of non-collectible books is more trouble than it’s worth (though I have had luck putting up a few dozen books at once, charging $1 a piece to start, and cross-promoting across all my other listings as a “$1 book sale.”) And then there’s the local used book shop. Buying policies at these stores vary greatly, but some pay well – and often much better if you’re willing to get paid in store credit. Of course, these “trade in” policies are how many of us ended up with such big collections of books in the first place.Feel free to share any basement bookselling tips in the comments.