Mrs. Millions thanks all of you for your suggestions. We stopped by the Borders today, and she selected Michael Frayn’s Headlong. She wanted to purchase The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, as well, but the staff at Borders was unsuccessful in its half-hearted attempt to locate the book for us nor did it appear to be on the new releases/bestsellers table, all of which seemed odd to me because isn’t this supposed to be one of the big books of the summer? Well, hardcovers are no good at the beach anyway, so maybe we’ll pick it up when we get back. That’s all for now; time to go catch a plane.
Book bannings at elementary school libraries are so commonplace as to barely be newsworthy it seems, but I did find the furor over gay penguins in North Carolina to be amusing. The fuss is over a book called And Tango Makes Three about a pair of male penguins at a zoo in (where else) New York City, who adopt a baby penguin.”My Two Dads” this is not, however, as some felt it promoted homosexuality. So much so, according to the AP story, that school officials jumped the gun and removed the book from shelves without putting it through the formal review process, which must be triggered by parents actually requesting that the book be removed. I can just imagine school officials checking their watches glumly, wondering when the parents will finally arrive with their pitchforks and torches. My favorite part of the story, though, is that the AP calls the tale of this penguin family a “controversial but true story,” as if it’s so outrageous (gay penguins!?) that some nefarious person must have made it up.
In September, I posted that Michael Chabon’s next book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, his first full-length adult novel since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, was to be released on April 11, 2006. Alas, the book has been delayed. Chabon’s done with the manuscript, but there were scheduling problems with his publisher, HarperCollins. Chabon announced the delay on his Web site:HarperCollins had been sort of rushing the thing along, over a steady but polite murmur from the author that perhaps they were moving too quickly. The manuscript was complete. It was not impossible to make the April 11 pub date. But we didn’t even have a finished jacket. Many people who were selling and marketing the book hadn’t had the opportunity to read it. Everything just felt too rushed and when that sense of undue haste finally caught on at the publishing house, I was able to persuade them to see reason, and wait.The new date is now “Winter 2007.”
Tonight at Housing Works Bookstore & Cafe, I’ll be competing in the sixth NYC Literary Death Match, sponsored by Opium Magazine. I’ll be reading a ten-minute story representing Canteen, three readers will do the same on behalf of three other publications, and then an illustrious panel of judges – including The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman – will evaluate us, “American Idol” style. Intrigued? Me, too. The $10 cover includes a free copy of Opium’s latest issue. Hope to see you there.
At first glance, Beaux Arts Video didn’t look like much. A cramped storefront on Tenth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, it was a few hundred square feet of worn carpet, handmade shelves, and ceilings that dripped when it rained. The front of the shop, bright and neatly kept, was devoted to new releases; a larger, scruffier section, down a short flight of steps, held the rest of its aging stock, VHS to DVD, classics to pure dreck.
Despite its shortcomings, Beaux Arts managed a modest greatness. Its overstuffed racks spoke like an ardent fan who loved Tootsie, Marty, and Zardoz pretty much equally. When my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in the summer of 2001, we found ourselves there most nights, our eyes aglaze with choice. Kirsten browsed upstairs, moving slowly from row to row; I poked around downstairs, searching for something weird: Delicatessen, Logan’s Run, maybe A Boy and His Dog. A section of “Great Directors” included Hawks, Wilder, and for some reason, Zemeckis. A shadowy horror section held oversized VHS cases that I’d invariably inspect while muttering, “What the fuck is this?” This was where I discovered some of our culture’s crowning glories: Invasion of the Blood Farmers, Humanoids From the Deep, and Basket Case 3: The Progeny.
The early 2000s were a time of growing pressure for Beaux Arts, and it worked admirably to keep up. Rather than add porn or Jujubes—tactics that succeeded briefly for some small video stores—it responded with cinematic novelty, as if that might stanch the bleeding. They stocked the obscure, the foreign, the Criterion-collected. Short of a spike in Tarkovsky rentals, these would never turn a profit, but their presence made a statement: someone, at least on one corner of one city, still tried to give a shit.
By the latter half of the decade, though, the slide was irreversible: if Blockbuster had been injurious, Netflix was a cancer. And so was On Demand, Hulu, and the thousand other ways we now put stories before our eyes. Suddenly, the shop was superfluous; it might as well have sold whale oil. I’d sometimes spend twenty minutes there, seeking hidden treasure, and become acutely aware that I was the only customer.
Inevitably, Kirsten and I drifted away from Beaux Arts as well, an act of civic hypocrisy. We lived in a city in part because of places like Beaux Arts—shops and parks and streets that, like remote island flora, cannot exist elsewhere in exactly the same form. Beaux Arts had Lance, the quiet and amiable manager, who ran a site inspired by films that disturbed him as a kid. A shoebox near the register was filled with scraps of paper, each bearing a title—Alphaville was one—for the indecisive renter. A dry-erase board behind the counter, its margins filled with doodles, bore a list of new releases. When a movie was out, a frowny-face was drawn next to its title. In the last couple of years, there were very few frowny faces, and we were rarely there to see them.
Say what you will about the dehumanizing effects of technology—I’m not kidding here; I will never tire of it—but its speed and ease eventually erodes all argument. Rather than walk a few pleasant blocks and chat with a friendly clerk, we clicked and clicked and clicked until Beaux Arts finally fell. The decline was graceless and swift.
First, prices rose. Then the “Recent New Releases” section gave way to shelves of snacks—sad, hand-bagged Ziplocs of almonds and cashews. Last came the sale of “Vintage Entertainment Ware,” half of the store inexplicably given to antique snifters and china. My “What the fuck is this?” was now reserved for the shop itself, and I instinctively stayed away. Its desperation was too plain.
The “Final Days” signs went up a couple of weeks ago. A sheet of paper taped to the door read, “All DVDs $2.00.” I went in to see if, like the boy in The Giving Tree, I could strip my old friend of everything as it died of what I’d caused. The leavings were appropriately grim: Stuck on You, Corky Romano, disc two of Kirstie Alley’s Big Life. I wasn’t disappointed, though; I didn’t really want anything. Since we’d opened our account a decade before, the concept of ownership had changed. The impressive stoutness of a two-tape set—Nixon or Titanic—now seemed faintly insane. Home DVD collections were beginning to feel like clutter, and I needed no more of that. My eyes ran across the shelves. This was where my wife and I had fallen for Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn, Freaks and Geeks. It had brought us Miyazaki and Kurosawa, Ashby and Altman. I’d once run here in the rain to get more episodes of Six Feet Under.
Such a thing would never happen again. Through no fault of its own, Beaux Arts had become a room full of junk. I nodded to the clerk, who I didn’t recognize, and got the hell out of there. Beaux Arts Video was dead—and despite all it had given me, I felt a shameful relief.
(Image copyright the author)
We’re moving this summer. I’m already dreading the packing, loading, moving, unpacking part, but other than that, I’m pretty excited. In July we’ll be departing for temporary digs in the Washington, DC area as we figure out our final destination. One thing’s for sure, though, our short stint in the Midwest is coming to an end. I never quite fell for Chicago, not the way I did for LA, anyway, but I have come to see why this place has a particular hold on people. I think part of it is the way the city wears its history on its sleeve. The city also has a rich literary history that is still very much being added to.All of this brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to the Riverhead catalog, which is next in the stack that I got from Penguin not too long ago. A couple of books in there – paperbacks of hardcovers that are already out – are worth sharing, one of which is a worthy addition to Chicago’s literature. Adam Langer’s The Washington Story brings readers back to West Rogers Park, a thickly multicultural neighborhood not far from where I live. The book is named after Harold Washington, who was mayor of Chicago during the 1980s, when the book takes place. The Washington Story is the sequel to Crossing California, Langer’s much praised debut (which is in the queue). The hardcover has been out since last August and the paperback comes out in September.Also coming out in September is the hilarious The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman. Hodgeman is now a regular on the Daily Show, where he does a nerdy expert shtick that is pitch-perfect, and he also appears in the new Mac commercials. The book – a compendium of fake facts, essentially – is perhaps most famous for the 700 hobo names contained within. You can hear Hodgman read the hobo names to music, and you can look at illustrations people have done of some of the hobos. Hodgman also has a blog. He ends all posts with “That is all.” The hardcover came out last October.Extras: From Penguin’s New American Library imprint comes The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right. The book is by Robert Lanham creator/editor of freewilliamsburg.com, and author of the Hipster Handbook. This time, Lanham turns his “anthropological eye” on conservative evangelical culture. The book comes out in September and would go well – or not – with this forthcoming “Compete Idiot’s” title. Finally, as if to prove that we’re all just one silly idea away from a book deal, the International Talk Like A Pirate Day guys have a book (which is already out, but I guess the publisher wants to remind booksellers to stock up each year in preparation for the lucrative Talk Like A Pirate Day shopping season).
Josh Ferris, who continues to do an admirable job filling in at TEV, noted today that Junot Diaz’s long-awaited novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finally has a street date.The reason I’m so excited about this is that Diaz’s story by the same title in the New Yorker’s 2000 end-of-year fiction issue was one of the best stories that’s appeared in the magazine in the ten years I’ve been reading it. It is a story so good that I still remember talking to various people about in my then home city of Los Angeles, people with whom I never before or after talked fiction. It was a story that got around. And now, finally, it has blossomed into a book.Unfortunately, since the story dates from the NYer’s stone age era, it’s not available online, but a brief excerpt is available. In addition, Ferris at TEV has pointed to an audio interview of Diaz.Separately, (and also not available online), The Economist has a short but fairly glowing review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the debut novel of Paul Torday. “Every so often,” the review begins,a novel comes along that is quite original; think of Yann Martel’s enchanting Life of Pi, for instance. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is another oddball piece of fiction that – despite being told through dry diary extracts, e-mails and reports – is an amusing satire on the tensions between the West and the Middle East, and a commentary on the value of belief to mankind.