Lizzie at Old Hag is on the board of Baltimore’s beloved book exchange, The Book Thing, which needs help. They need to move, and they don’t have the funds. Go here for more info.
Wanting to know a bit more about me and the site? I’ve been interviewed at the literary community site LitMinds. In this interview you can find out the answers to such burning questions as why I started the blog and how it got its name. And for the truly obsessed Millions fans, they’ve even managed to score a picture of me to adorn the interview.
The latest catalog to cross my desk is from the Soft Skull Press, the daring Brooklyn-based publishing house that always manages to deliver books from well outside the mainstream. Their books strike a balance between rage and art, and I like looking through their catalog because I know there will almost nothing familiar in it; I will be introduced to new writers and artists.Coming in May is Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, a historical novel about Custer’s Last Stand as told by Captain Frederick Benteen who managed to survive the massacre. Benteen’s account is told from a distance of twenty years, and the catalog calls the book “an exploration of our dawning age of celebrity (the lionization of Custer, carefully tended to by Custer himself while alive), and what it is to be a soldier (in this era of Iraq memoirs.)”Soft Skull, which often publishes books in translation, is putting out three books originally published in French this time around. One of these, a graphic novel called Siberia by Nikolai Maslov, sounds particularly intense. In the mold of Marjane Satrapi, this is a memoir, and it tells of the brutality of Maslov’s life in the Soviet Union. According to Soft Skull, it’s the first ever Russian graphic novel published in the U.S. The book is already outAlso originally published in France are SuperHip JoliPunk by Camille de Toledo and Electric Flesh by Claro. SuperHip JoliPunk is a “manifesto, examining present day counterculture from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the present. He asks what it is, exactly, his generation is protesting against.” Harry Houdini is at the center of Electric Flesh, but its protagonist is Howard Hourdinary, who claims to be the bastard grandson of the great magician.Publishers, if you’d like to send me your catalog, please email me.
I’m back and I’m fully married now (call us Mr. and Mrs. Millions). It was great. We’re off to the honeymoon shortly, and have a pretty full traveling schedule for the remainder of the summer, so, as I mentioned in my last post, expect to hear from me only every ten days or so until we reach Chicago. (If any of you eager readers wants to write in with book news, though, I will happily post it when I can.) But while I’ve got this free moment, let me mention a couple of book related things that have crossed my desk.I finally, finally, finally finished Edith Grossman’s wonderful translation of the Miguel de Cervantes classic, Don Quixote. To any younger readers or any older readers who might one day return to school to study literature, if you ever have the opportunity to read this book in a classroom setting, jump at it. There is so much to unlock in this book, in the techniques of Cervantes, in the tribulations of his characters, and in the historical backdrop of 17th century Spain. When I wrote, months ago, of my frustration at the character of Don Quixote, his brashness, his willful refusal of reality, I still had many hundreds of pages to go. Over the course of those pages, my feelings about Quixote mellowed. The more he interacted with people, the more it became evident that their mockery of him was more foolish than his futile quests. Still, even at the end, Quixote is a character who inspires frustration. I came to realize that there are Quixotes all around us. Those who reject simple explanations for their problems in favor convoluted excuses, conspiracies, and narratives, in which their mundane lives take on a aura of excitement, today’s compulsive liars and humble neighbors with delusions of grandeur, these are modern-day Don Quixotes. And Sancho Panza is just as foolish as the rest of us who humor those who are touched with this special madness. As a work of literature the book is quite astounding, wrenching you out of the mistaken frame of mind that before James Joyce, before the “modern day,” literature was uncomplicated and linear. Especially in Part 2 when Part 1, itself, becomes a sort of character in the book, one realizes that today’s writers are not innovators so much as the great great grandchildren of Cervantes, and in fact Cervantes was the progenitor, the ur-novelist (and Don Quixote the ur-novel), from whom all novelists must necessarily borrow. The book is essential to all who wish to understand “the novel” as a literary form.PoliticsImperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, anonymously penned by a longtime CIA agent, will make waves this week, as the New York Times attests. Also in the Times, Daniel Okrent addresses what was and wasn’t appropriate about Michiko Kakutani’s front page slam of the Clinton book.
Ed points to a great article about silly blurbs, namely Dave Eggers’ blurb for Daniel Handler’s novel Adverbs: “Adverbs describes adolescence, friendship, and love with such freshness and power that you feel drunk and beaten up, but still want to leave your own world and enter the one Handler’s created. Anyone who lives to read gorgeous writing will want to lick this book and sleep with it between their legs.” I’ve noticed that a lot of Eggers’ blurbs tend to draw attention to the blurber rather than the blurbee.Another notorious blurber is Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight. Here’s his blurb for Apocalypse Culture II edited by Adam Parfrey: “Adam Parfrey’s astonishing, un-put-downable and absolutely brilliant compilation… will blow a hole through your mind the size of JonBenet’s fist. This book should be in hotel rooms.” And how about this for Mall by Eric Bogosian: “Eric Bogosian writes like an M-16 ripping through the brain pan of Western civilization. A read-till-your-eyes-bleed chronicle of American appetites run amok.” There’s a whole bunch of them collected in this old LA Weekly piece (scroll down). Interesting note: The compiler of the aformentioned piece called the book store where I was working with the list of books, and I read the blurbs to her over the phone. Ah, the magic of journalism. At any rate, the experience inspired me to, much much later, compile some collected blurbs here, here, here, and here.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut— and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
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.
Mark your calendars. As promised (many months ago) Kate Atkinson, author of the inaugural Litblog Co-op selection, Case Histories, will be stopping by the LBC blog to discuss the book with readers. If you got a chance to read the book – or if you just want to see what all the fuss is about – be sure to visit the blog on Monday, August 29th.