I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
If you’ve spent any time at all in a public library in the past couple of years — (in the last decade I’ve worked at four separate libraries, both public and academic) — you’ll notice that the focus is changing. Less hushed repose and reading and more shuffling through bins for DVD cards. Less space for ruminative research and writing and more space and room given to movie nights and pre-school playtime day-care. You’ll also observe rapt gazes hovering in a field of computer screens. This is not the place to rant on libraries and their supposed decline. Or even their proposed role. No. Besides, Stephen Akey delineates this landscape much better than I ever could.
When I read Stephen Akey’s piece on Philip Larkin recently in The Millions, I knew I’d found a fellow clerk. Akey, it turned out, had a thematic, albeit totally non-personal, connection with Larkin: they were both librarians. Further, they were distressed librarians; librarians that perhaps wished not to be anymore, but still found themselves drawn to the work anyhow.
Akey had written about his time working in the New York City library system in a slim monograph aptly titled Library. This book is not new. Nor is it newish. Go back to that mystical, hazy year of 2002. Terror alerts, Beltway sniper, and No Child Left Behind. Situated? Good, because that’s when it was released.
I’d bet a large, expensive case of microbrew that not many people took notice when the book came out. Orchises Press, out of George Mason University, is run by, from what I can tell, one brave soul: Roger Lathbury (Google him; he seems like a trip: a master of the limerick). In some ways, the non-event makes sense. Subject matter: libraries. Prose style: witty and erudite, but playful. (The jacket copy describes it as “coruscating,” which means to flash or sparkle.) That is to say, not the kind of work that flies off shelves. Library is dense and light at the same time: an off-putting combination. But it works well. Probably because Akey’s tone is one molded on self-defense and self-deprecation, then flung onto a potter’s wheel that’s running off the irksome yet fatigued energies of a harried cataloger in a dizzying bureaucracy of a major public library system. For comparison, read the letters of Philip Larkin. Shit, read anything by Larkin. Their outlooks aren’t exactly the same (Akey tends toward the optimistic at least once a page, while Larkin seemed almost content within his status as fussbudget), but they’re brothers-in-arms. It’s no surprise that Akey devotes his first chapter as a pseudo-encomium to the Bard of Hull’s primary profession.
It was drones like me who kept that library running.
This is no joke. Drones are essential. I was a drone. Once, I saw a particularly haggard patron clear a shelf of all books on Buddhism and stack them on a table as if he was going to read all of them… at five to ten at night… right as the library was closing. I had just finished cleaning the main floor of its remnants. Shelving is grunt work, but interesting. It’s armchair sociology and psychology. For example, you cover the windows and set me to shelving books, and if I found more than one Lonely Planet guide to a country south of the equator, I know it’s fall going into winter. Books speak better than humans sometimes. Why do we slyly inspect others’ reading choices when sitting on the bus, train, or waiting in an airport terminal? Checking out a stack of books on family disturbances or spousal negligence? ‘Nuff said. So we think.
From time to time library pundits write columns describing catalogers as glorified clerks whose arcane and terminally boring job duties could be better performed by nonlibrarians at lower cost and higher productivity. Furthermore, catalogers are unimaginative technicians, rule-bound reactionaries, and, probably, serial masturbators.
While Akey is mostly a cataloger in this narrative, the apparent message is that certain jobs are utterly necessary (i.e., catalogers) and that those jobs are also inherently shit upon. (Think: teachers, social workers, custodial staff.) Forever and always. And did you know that non-administrators within the World of the Library are treated like pawns in a massive political chess game? It’s true. Akey’s journey from one library and department to another is picaresque, and, in its own way, heartbreaking. Not the less so because Akey is telling — importuning, really — us in each short chapter to grasp why libraries are so damn important to a functioning society. The crew of characters that make up that semi-functioning society is almost from central casting. The gregarious and learned boss who is exceedingly opinionated, the sassy ethnic women, the prig female boss, the quiet shuffling, no-faced, no-named co-workers who never fail to get Akey a gift or food every time he packs up and leaves a job only to come crawling back years later. To call the book a comedy of errors is disingenuous, but not untrue. Nor is it mock epic or straight autobiography. Even memoir is a feeble descriptor. What Library attempts, I think, is to zoom in on this gift we’ve been given: the public library. Peter Best, an old hand in one of the libraries I’ve worked at, would every day mention how Benjamin Franklin was to thank for our jobs. But what is the library lending today? And what if the library doesn’t offer it? Libraries need numbers to earn funding. Thus…
Still, if the goal is simply to fill libraries with bodies, you have to wonder if it’s worth the effort.
And yet the library is brought down to a capitalistic level. Yes, down to that level. Akey both informs and then passes judgment on the role of libraries playing on and into the more whimsical passions of the average library patron. He himself has gotten into verbal scuffles with folks who ardently believe the library is only there to supplement public fancies. Should libraries buy scads of the hottest bestseller? Or should they break themselves upon the rocks of serious scholarship? Cheeseburger in Paradise or Paradise Lost? Perhaps, somewhere in between?
To speak of “classics” or “serious” books is, of course, to invite the inevitable charges of elitism and snobbery. I believe that we call some books classics for reasons other than ideological and that we can save a lot of time by not pretending that we don’t know, more or less, what the word “serious” means. Fortunately, the people who run public libraries are not being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of Western culture and the validity of the literary canon. What they ought to be doing, and increasingly are not, is building and maintaining collections that make information available on such questions. I’ve listened to enough complaints on the reference desk to know that there are people interested in such matters and they’re not all on the faculty at Stanford. The public library is all they’ve got.
Library ends up not as a tract of pure populism, but as a pamphlet for common sense — that more contentiously charged phrase of late. What I like about this excerpt — which was from a small essay Akey had previously published and inserted into the book — is how he courts small controversy and shies away at the same time. “[W]e can save a lot of time by not pretending that we don’t know, more or less, what the word ‘serious’ means.” Pretty much saying that we all know what’s schlock and what’s bound to live on the shelves for decades. But this argument of highbrow and lowbrow is such a verboten subject for many. Why? Why can’t a library say that its job is to house the best of what’s existed and what’s being published, so the patrons can come and use this information at their disposal? Because, as Akey mentions, it’s not the job of the library to decide tastes and “deliver a verdict” on the canon.
When I worked at the University City Library in St. Louis, I saw the scaffolding of a society come together. Poor, rich, middle-class. Black, white, Asian, Indian, Russian, Orthodox Jews. All in one place, all doing the same thing: consuming culture in one form or another. And, I think, yes, the public library is the last bulwark against a totally ignorant and lackadaisical society. If the opportunity is there for patrons to access the material, then there’s hope. We can’t make people read Paradise Lost, but at least it’s there. That’s grand talk. I’m already assuming that friends and readers would offer the internet as an alternative to this democratic bastion of knowledge, but you don’t physically mingle with other people on the internet, and you don’t get to see real lived society in action on the internet. That’s the beauty of libraries, and that’s what I think Akey shows in his book. The best scenes are the ones where he’s dealing with the less poetic uses of a library: as a haven for those in rough neighborhoods. There’s a section toward the end where he’s sent to Red Hook to help manage a branch library. There he encounters stark racial and class differences and understands how a library can be more than just a place that houses books to be read. In a way, the books become the symbolic bulwark mention before.
I appreciate a man who finds fascination in the seemingly banal, and Akey mystifies the banal, like Borges.
What makes formulating Dewey numbers so much fun is moving point by point along a narrowing spectrum of subcategories. Thus, the call number for a book about snow (551.5784) is subsumed by the call number for frozen precipitation (551.578), which is subsumed by the call number for hydrometeorology (551.57), which is subsumed by the call number for meteorology (551.5), which is subsumed by the call number for earth sciences (550), which is subsumed by the call number for natural sciences (500). Rather elegant, don’t you think?
As I’m a devotee of the Library of Congress catalog system, I’ll say this was the first time I’ve found a more grounded respect for the Dewey numbers.
Lastly, I don’t want people to think that the book is some stalwart stand on how amazing libraries are, because Akey doesn’t hesitate to show the seedier side of them. Also, I want to say this book is laugh out loud funny. Akey reminds the reader that, as a reference librarian, you’re sort of duty-bound to answer everything to the best of your ability, no matter how foolish or queer. I’ll end with one of my favorite bits in the book:
Among reference librarians it is axiomatic that people frequently do not ask the question they really intend: What was the date of the Challenger explosion? rather than, What was the name of the black astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion? Furthermore, at least in Telephone Reference, the helpful hints provided by patrons were not to be taken on faith. “I read an article in the New York Times two years ago” might mean “I read an article in the New York Post six years ago,” and”‘Don’t bother with Bartlett’s Quotations, I’ve already checked,” meant that Bartlett’s should very much be bothered with.
I usually avoid talking about how much I love small presses. Partly because my feeling is that I’m so completely, obviously biased (both my novels are published by a smallish independent press, and I’m very happy with this state of affairs) that my opinion on the matter doesn’t carry much weight, and partly because the topic can quickly degenerate, among certain of my more committedly small-press-published novelist friends, into an “and I wouldn’t want to be published by a major press anyway, because they sometimes publish garbage” kind of a conversation, which I’m not really down with: it’s not that I have any desire to be published by anyone other than Unbridled Books, it’s just that I’m baffled by the idea that I’m expected to seriously condemn the houses that brought us Await Your Reply, Brooklyn, and Let The Great World Spin.
And yet: every now and again I’ll come across a book published by a small press that somehow seems, for all its dazzling excellence, like it might not have made it past the front door at a major publishing house. I’m not sure where I first heard about Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, published last November by Dzanc Books; I think perhaps it was from one of the guys at ThreeGuysOneBook. Shoeshine Cats doesn’t seem to have been very widely reviewed, which strikes me as a minor tragedy—this is one of the best and most wholly original books I’ve come across in a while.
The title character is Shushan Cats, a Jewish gangster famous throughout the five boroughs of Kestin’s version of 1963 New York, but the story is narrated by Russell Newhouse—twenty years old, an orphan, coasting effortlessly through his course work at Brooklyn College, mostly preoccupied with trying to sleep with the largest possible percentage of Brooklyn’s young female population.
Russell has recently been recruited to take the minutes for the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, a sleepy organization of immigrants in Brooklyn. He’s the only member of the Society who might reasonably be considered young, and he’s there only because his late father was a member. His cohorts are older Jewish men, foreign-born; their children are entirely assimilated, but for these men, Kestin writes, “American was not a noun but a verb: you had to work at it.” The Bhotke Young Men’s Society’s anxiously under-Americanized members have voted to change the official language from Yiddish to English, and Russell’s English is impeccable.
Midway through Russell’s first meeting as official minute-taker the doors fly open, and Russell meets the notorious Shushan Cats for the first time. Kestin is a master of character description: “The figure who stood there—it seemed for minutes—was one of those small men native to Brooklyn who appeared to have been boiled down from someone twice the size, the kind who when a doctor tries to give him an injection the needle bends.”
Shushan Cats would like to join the Society. Membership in the Bhotke Young Men’s Society comes with a cemetary plot in Queens, and Cats’ mother has just died. Within minutes Russell has been recruited to plan the gangster’s mother’s funeral. Within days Shushan Cats has disappeared and Russell has been installed as his protégé and unlikely successor. He finds himself at the helm of a criminal enterprise, forced to navigate a New York City underworld wherein the suits are well-tailored, the language sharp, and control of the Fulton Fish Market hangs in the balance.
The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is a fast, fearless, darkly comic book, the sort of thing that other writers read and wish they’d written. This is a feverish world, a refracted angle on 1963 New York that feels more vivid than reality. I find it admirable in part for its tinge of the improbable, its impossible suavité and secret rooms. Kestin catches us up in a gritty enchantment.
Where the book falters slightly is when Kestin breaks the spell: every so often we’re snapped out of the narrative with a brief digression meant to place this world in a historical context. We’re told that a purse purchased by Shushan Cats’ sister for $150 would be worth more than $1500 today, for instance, and of the Fulton Fish Market, Kestin notes that it “would later be relocated to the Bronx, thus freeing up valuable real estate for the stock brokers and bankers who would be buying condos on this site…” But it isn’t immediately apparent that the 2005 relocation of the Market is relevant to a story set in 1963, or that a note on inflation between early ‘60s and the present adds to the story; interruptions like these, in my entirely subjective opinion, serve only to distract us.
But the faltering is slight. I loved this book. I think that in some ways The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats represents the best of what small presses have to offer: freshness and originality, a unique voice, a boldness too frequently absent from our literature.
Bonus Link: A Year in Reading: Hesh Kestin
After producing four acclaimed works of fiction, Aleksandar Hemon has come out with his first collection of non-fiction, The Book of My Lives. It’s the perfect title. Perfect because Hemon’s life has been almost surgically split in two by politics and genocide. But as this beguiling and heart-felt memoir reveals, there are lives within those two lives. Lives within lives within lives. There is, it seems, no end to the lives of Aleksandar Hemon.
The story begins with the birth of Hemon’s sister in Sarajevo in 1969, when he was four and a half years old. The birth of this sister — this rival — is his introduction to the multiple fracturings that will come to shape his lives. In a crude and cruel attempt to return life to the way it used to be, the young boy tries to kill his rival, choking her, pressing his little thumbs against her windpipe, “as seen on television.” Mercifully, the attempted sororicide is thwarted by the victim’s sudden vomiting. The would-be killer lies his way out of trouble, arriving at this conclusion: “Throughout my boyhood I always knew more and better than my parents thought I did — I was always a little older than what they could see.” And this: “Never again would I be alone in the world, never again would I have it exclusively to myself. Never again would my selfhood be a sovereign territory devoid of the presence of others. Never again would I have all the chocolate to myself.”
After this chilling beginning, the book portrays a largely sunny boyhood spent in Sarajevo in the years of Tito and socialism, before the insanity and the bloodletting engulfed Yugoslavia. One of young Aleksandar’s earliest discoveries is the notion of the Other, reinforced by informal neighborhood gangs, their little wars, their marking and protecting of turf. One day at a birthday party for a friend named Almir, Aleksandar asks where his colorful, fluffy — and very un-socialist — sweater came from. Turkey, Almir replies. “So you are a Turk!” Aleksandar says, trying to make a joke. ut Almir starts crying and the party is ruined. Only later does Alexandar learn that Turk is a derogatory, racist word for a Bosnian Muslim. Which gives Hemon an opening for this dark bit of foreshadowing:
(Years later, I would recall my inadvertent insult, yet again, while watching the footage of Ratko Mladic speaking to a Serb camera upon entering Srebrenica, where he was to oversee the murder of eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men — “This is the latest victory in a five-hundred-year-long war against the Turks,” he said.) After Almir’s birthday party, I learned that a word such as Turk could hurt people… (T)he moment you point at a difference, you enter, regardless of your age, an already existing system of differences, a network of identities, all of them ultimately arbitrary and unrelated to your intentions, none of them a matter of your choice.
What Hemon has given us here is nothing less than the source of the ethnic cleansing that would soon tear his homeland apart. This notion of difference — and the displacement that so often flows from it — will also become major theme of Hemon’s writing.
The book moves through other formative experiences — vacations, meals, army service, deep readings of Kafka and Mann — before arriving at Hemon’s earliest attempts to write. While enrolled at the University of Sarajevo in the 1980s, he joins a subversive performance group. He writes “self-pitying” poetry. He and his friends throw a birthday party with a Nazi theme, which backfires drastically. Hemon is interrogated by State Security, the Yugoslavian equivalent of the East German Stasi, he is ostracized, his family is placed under surveillance. Hemon has had rotten luck with birthday parties.
But he had begun to write short fiction as well as “opinionated pieces on film, literature, and general stupidity” for a local radio station. He is allowed to read his fiction on a popular show under the rubric “Sasha Hemon Tells You True and Untrue Stories.” His greatest creation is an imaginary figure named Alphonse Kauders, supposedly the subject of extensive research by Hemon. In a glorious bit of Dada, Hemon reads the Kauders stories deadpan and is stunned by the response of a large, gullible and outraged audience. “It was an exhilarating moment,” he writes, “when fantasy ruptured reality and overran it, much akin to the moment when the body rose from Dr. Frankenstein’s surgical table and started choking him.” In that moment, a fiction writer was born.
As the 1990s arrive and war looms, Hemon becomes a columnist and culture editor for a biweekly magazine. “Those happy days before everything collapsed,” he writes, “when anything at all went far in inducing life-saving oblivion!” Those things included playing slot machines, getting stoned and drunk, getting laid, singing Dean Martin songs, dancing madly. “I published an editorial…” Hemon writes, “arguing that it was everybody’s urgent duty to dance more if we wanted to stop the oncoming catastrophe.”
But of course no one could dance or drink or fuck enough to stop the oncoming catastrophe. To his surprise, Hemon is accepted into a month-long cultural exchange program run by the American Cultural Center, and he leaves for Chicago in early 1992, just before Sarajevo is placed under siege. His parents and sister are among the last to escape the doomed city, ultimately settling in Canada.
Now another life begins for Hemon, the life of the refugee, a new kind of Other. In an effort to improve his English, he gets a job canvassing in Chicago for Greenpeace, he walks the streets of this strange new city, he follows TV reports of the war back home, he enrolls in graduate school, he plays soccer with a delicious stew of immigrants, and he gets a job identifying photographs of destroyed and damaged buildings in Sarajevo. But his paralysis is complete: “Deeply displaced, I could write neither in Bosnian nor in English.”
For me, the Chicago section of this book is less compelling than what came before. I simply could not muster much interest in Hemon’s exploits on the soccer pitch or at the chess board, or his list of reasons why he does not wish to leave Chicago. The writer in me wanted to know how he managed the Nabokovian feat of writing highly original, highly acclaimed fiction in a foreign language.
Just when I was beginning to feel short-changed, I came to the final, and most powerful, chapter of the book. It’s called “Aquarium,” a metaphor for the state of mind Hemon and his second wife entered when their 9-month-old daughter Isabel was diagnosed with a rare and usually fatal brain tumor. “One early morning, driving to the hospital,” he writes, “I saw a number of able-bodied, energetic runners progressing along Fullerton Avenue toward the sunny lakefront, and I had an intensely physical sensation of being inside an aquarium: I could see outside, the people outside could see me inside (if they somehow chose to pay attention), but we lived and breathed in entirely different environments.”
The brute agony of the couple’s medical war is painful to read because the detail is so rich, the emotions so raw, the outcome so pre-ordained and so bad. This is not an addition to the growing literature on grief; rather, it is a precise mapping of the state of shock.
And so we have come full circle. The book began with the attempted murder of an infant sister, and it ends with the soul-crushing death of an infant daughter. Hemon’s life, split in half by politics, splits yet again — to the time before Isabel’s death and the time after. It is in the aftermath of this horror that Hemon, unexpectedly, stunningly satisfies my hunger to understand how he became a celebrated writer of fiction. As Isabel’s ordeal worsens, her 3-year-old sister Ella conjures an imaginary brother, a way for her to cope with her sister’s illness and, simultaneously, make use of her own blossoming verbal skills. Hemon suggests that Ella name the chimera Mingus, after a favorite jazz musician. A cousin of Ella’s gives her an inflatable blue space alien doll, which serves as the physical manifestation of the imaginary brother. Soon Mingus has a sister, his own set of parents, an apartment around the corner. Listening to his daughter spin this narrative, Hemon, possibly recalling Alphonse Kauders, has a revelation:
One day at breakfast, while Ella ate her oatmeal and rambled on about her brother, I recognized in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I’d been doing as a writer all these years: in my books, fictional characters allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, has been nearly everything). Much like Ella, I’d found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my biography. I’d needed narrative space to extend myself into; I’d needed more lives; I, too, had needed another set of parents, and someone other than myself to throw my metaphysical tantrums. I’d cooked up these avatars in the soup of my ever-changing self, but they were not me — they did what I wouldn’t or couldn’t. Listening to Ella furiously and endlessly unfurl the yarns of the Mingus tales, I understood that the need to tell stories is deeply embedded in our minds, and inseparably entangled with the mechanisms that generate and absorb language. Narrative imagination — and therefore fiction — is a basic evolutional tool of survival. We process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.
Selves within selves. Lives within lives. Even life within death. What more could any reader — or writer — ask for?
I have touched upon Stephen King‘s much maligned reputation from time to time on this blog, and so it was a real pleasure to read a book that reinforced all of the things that I like about his writing. King’s aim is, first and foremost, to entertain his reader, to engage him, to reach out from the page and take hold of him. This seems like something that every writer would want to do, but how true is that really? It seems like most writers want to create something that is either “good” or “successful,” those being code words for “literary” and “bestseller,” respectively. Which writers, however, tell you again and again that they wish most of all to entertain? Few, if any, besides Stephen King have this aim. Read the introduction to Everything’s Eventual or any of On Writing or the various non-fiction pieces he has written over the years and you will see that this is true. King entertains by pulling his reader in, by talking to him from the page. If King is really rolling, as you are reading you will feel as though you are being addressed by him. The short story, with its tight structure and limited length, proves to be especially potent when combined with King’s desire to take you in. He leads you one way, then another. He steps over the line and gives you gore, but only because it is absolutely necessary, and when you finish a story you feel like you’ve been for a ride; it’s a giddy feeling. And in this book you get it 14 times. I’ve also always enjoyed King’s rapport with his readers. He is not aloof about his writing, and telling his readers about his writing seems as enjoyable to him as writing the books themselves. In Everything’s Eventual each story is either preceded or followed by a page explaining how the story came to be. There is no coyness about such things; just as there is no coyness in King’s fiction. These stories speak for themselves, they are about what they are about, so what’s wrong with a little background info? In fact, I think King recognizes that it is normal for readers to be curious about such things, and, not caring what a critic might think of such a move, he chooses, as he usually does, to indulge his readers. Why, does he bother doing this… any of this? I think it is because he is a born writer who happens to derive joy from a pastime that most people, including many of the most praised writers who ever walked the earth, find lonely and torturous. I love reading Stephen King because, in his typically insidious way, when I read his books it makes me wish that all of my reading were that fun.Shirley Hazzard‘s The Great Fire is jumping to the front of the “Reading Queue” because I have to read it for the book club I run. Also, you may have noticed that the comment function has disappeared. Blogspeak, my comment host, was run out of business by its hosting company and now all of their accounts are in the process of being transferred over to Halo Scan. I hope this happens soon because I miss all of your little voices.