I got a package today from my inlaws who decided to get me five books for my birthday (which was Jan. 5). They came right off my wishlist, so, of course, they’re exactly what I wanted. Two of the five are coffee-table books. I’ll be spending a lot of time with the utterly gorgeous book The World on Sunday. Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano have put together really nice reproductions of Joseph Pulitzer’s colorful newspaper. Baker’s foreword and Brentano’s captions really elevate the book. I wrote more about it last month. The other big book I received is a monograph, put out by Aperture, of photography by Robert Capa. Capa is famous for his war photography from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. His photographs, all in black and white, are unflinching and powerful. He’s essential to the grand tradition of war reportage. (This one actually wasn’t on my wishlist but they knew I’d like it.) In keeping with the Capa theme, I also received his illustrated memoir of World War II, Slightly Out of Focus. I also got The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux which Andrew wrote about a few months back, and Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster, which I think I first heard about at Language Hat.
Adonal Foyle, the former basketball standout at Colgate who has had a long career with the Golden State Warriors, has an impressive Web site that includes his very own book club. The club’s current pick, The Da Vinci Code isn’t terribly inspired, but I’m nonetheless impressed that an NBA star is broadcasting his love of reading. Note as well Foyle’s “Top 10 Books” which includes an ample mix of basketball books and political non-fiction with a leftward-leaning bent.via the Freakonomics blog, where a commenter has noted another NBA player with a literary side, Washington’s Etan Thomas who has published a book of poetry.
It’s that time of year. “Best books of 2003” lists have begun to appear. So let’s dive in: the editors over at Amazon have released their Best Books of 2003: Top 50 Editors’ Picks list. According to them, the best book of the year is James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces. I know a lot of people who read this book and really enjoyed it, but I personally am not a huge fan of addiction memoirs or messed-up-childhood memoirs. I think I find them to be too internal and personal, and I’m not usual that interested in getting up close and personal with someone I’ve never met. So, does it deserve to be named best book of the year? Maybe top 25, but not number 1. Some books that I actually did read and enjoyed that appear on this list: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which my friend Patrick anointed “book of the year” months ago, comes in at #4. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is #6, and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus is #9. Publisher’s Weekly has a very interesting interview with one of Amazon’s editors, who explains how this list was created, justifies the inclusion of certain titles, and comments on how relevant this list is to the prevailing tastes of the reading public. It’s a good read.
Thoughts of suicide, depression, and listlessness for weeks on end are just a few ways the loss of a lover is mourned. Unrequited love can open an abyss in which time and activities cease, or it can turn us towards life, as Rilke states in The Duino Elegies, sending us trembling like arrows, leaping into the future. Roland Barthes wrote A Lover’s Discourse after separating from a lover: his compendium of reflections from the lover’s perspective makes the solitary sorrow less so, by reflecting on the universal experience of madness, delusion, and exaltation when falling in love, and later the jealousy, anxiety, and sorrow distance imparts. Barthes traces the trajectory of love, which feels so personal and irreplaceable, and in doing so reveals the common course of love: “(‘It develops, grows, causes suffering and passes away’ in the fashion of a Hippocractic disease): the love story (the ‘episode’, the ‘adventure’) is the tribute the lover must pay to the world in order to be reconciled with it.”Sophie Calle took the arrow’s course upon her lover’s spurning and transformed her misery into art. As obsessive as Barthes, she explores and classifies love from the perspective of the break-up. Her lover ended their relationship in an email that closed with the line, “Take care of yourself.” Her exhibition now showing at the Paula Cooper Gallery is her response. Calle consulted one hundred and seven women and asked them analyze the letter according to their professions: a markswoman shoots the letter, a parrot chews up the crumpled letter, a copy editor breaks the letter down grammatically and calls it repetitive, the criminal psychologist calls the letter’s author manipulative and psychologically dangerous “or/and a great writer.” Although Calle won’t reveal the author’s identity in the exhibition or in later interviews – according to her, “What I’m putting on show is a dumping… I don’t talk about the man, and all the better. The subject is the letter, the text…” – the psychologist’s analysis is accurate in at least one respect: Calle’s former lover is a respected French writer, Grégoire Bouillier.With the aid of the community of women’s responses, Calle depicts the anatomy of a break-up while on the rebound. In the video of Calle’s session with a family mediator, where the letter sits in a chair across from Calle in place of the lover, Calle works through her grief, her astonishment, and attempts to move past it. Although she didn’t like the letter, she states, it was better than nothing, and transforming it into this exhibition “has done [her] a lot of good.” It was good for her and even better for us, for the ephemeral relationship ended with a relic that Calle has transformed into a poignant meditation on lost love and the lover’s obsession. Barthes writes in A Lover’s Discourse, “the love which is over and done with passes into another world like a ship into space, lights no longer winking: the loved being once echoed loudly, now that being is entirely without resonance (the other never disappears when or how we expect).” With Take Care of Yourself, Calle bids her love adieu. As she states, in the end, “the project had replaced the man.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Ismail Kadare. Honestly. The Albanian author is frequently named as a potential Nobel laureate, and his novel The Accident just appeared in English, earning him additional press and reviews. But this recent press for Kadare is only part of why I’ve been pondering his work.
Kadare represents a bit of a fantasy for me, as a reader and as a writer. When I was a child traveling to my family’s ancestral home in Northern Greece, we would always come to a point in the road where the left went north to Albania and the right went northeast into the Pindus mountains. We went right, but to the left were soldiers manning a checkpoint with military trucks and tanks. Beyond that, a few more miles of disintegrating asphalt, and then the Albania of Enver Hoxha, where few went in and no one went out.
Sometimes we’d stop at the checkpoint and just look for a minute or two. My great-uncle might talk how he helped push Mussolini’s army back into Albania, or he might point out that Hoxha’s communism was proof that the nationalists he’d fought for had been on the right side in Greece’s civil war. Then we’d get back in the car and head up the switchbacks to our house.
Because we couldn’t get in, because there was a fence, I wanted desperately to go to Albania. Years later, reading Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, I was perhaps most struck by his chapter on Albania. I remember few specifics now, though it remains one of my most admired books, but I remember quite clearly Kaplan’s description of the crowds outside a soccer match in Tirana. Men with identical flimsy plastic sandals on their feet, restive and straining against the dissatisfactions of the match and of their lives.
When I came across Kadare, I was excited to be reading prose that had come from within that world, even if Kadare had left Albania for France in 1990. (Kadare originates from a town not far at all from that checkpoint: Gyrokaster in Albanian; Argyrokastro in Greek.) I appreciated The Concert, but The Three-Arched Bridge unsettled and chilled me. The novel addresses the intersection of West and East during the final years of the Byzantine Empire as a local ruler organizes the building of a stone bridge. The bridge will open up a trade route for merchants on horseback, opening up as well the village to the oncoming Ottoman forces. Once outside influences are allowed in, it’s the beginning of the end for the crumbling Byzantine rule in the novel’s world.
The chilling part of Kadare’s book, however, has to do with the actual building of the bridge. The master builder gets a certain amount of work done each day, but overnight, the foundations of the bridge are swept away. Every day, the masons rebuild the bridge, and every night, the river destroys it. The solution is clear. The master builder must immure a volunteer in the foundation of the bridge, or else the building will never succeed. Immure: as in build into the wall.
The story of the immured volunteer (it is usually a woman) is not Kadare’s invention. Nor was it even the first time I’d encountered it. Those childhood treks to our family home began with an eight-hour drive from Athens to Ioannina, a city in Epirus which like Kadare’s fictional village was a crossroads between Islamic and Western cultures during the Ottoman Empire. Minarets still rise above the glassy lake at the city’s edge, by the castle of Ali Pasha, the 19th-century ruler. To get there (which was most of the way to our home in the mountains), we had to cross the Arachthos River at Arta. The road ran beside the medieval bridge—where legend has it that the master builder immured his young daughter into the foundations in order to defeat the water’s destructive force.
Hearing this legend when I was young, I was struck by the story’s cruelty, and by the inevitability of that cruelty. No one ever dwelled, in their retelling, on how tortured the masterbuilder must have been, how aghast at his own eventual acceptance of the will of society. To me, the gruesomeness lay in what seemed the ease of the master builder’s choice. And there was the bridge, intact still, a monument to cruelty and, at the same time, to the social good of selflessness.
When I came across the same story in Kadare’s The Three-Arched Bridge, the experience oddly proved the truth of the legend I’d grown up with. It cemented the story as part of a wider Balkan reality. Which in fact it is. The story is known, in folklore studies, as “The Bridge of Arta”—the name for a grouping of tales that originate in Central-Eastern Europe involving the immuration of a virtuous person in order for a society to achieve a common good. There is a Bulgarian version, a Romanian version, and a few modern interpretations besides that of Kadare, including Nikos Kazantzakis’ libretto for an opera called Protomastoras (master builder).
The Three-Arched Bridge isn’t considered one of Kadare’s major works. The folkloric dimension of the narrative nudges it away from standard literary fiction. But for me, it’s a powerful text. Not only because it reworks the traditional tale in a contemporary political and cultural context, but also because it’s a fiction that creates a kind of truth.
I have discovered these past few days that there are two types of people: those who like daylight saving time, and those who do not. The folks who like daylight saving are like me. They are optimists who look forward to a long summer of sun-drenched evenings, where you can spend the evening hours outside in the warm, lingering dusk. Those who don’t like daylight saving moan about losing a single hour on one weekend of a year of weekends. These people’s lives are mercilessly scheduled, and they apparently find no way to derive joy from the extra daylight, they instead cling to that lost hour as an example of the many ills that befall them. I don’t like those people.
As would befall a good William Boyd protagonist, I fell ill and had to get penicillin shots during my vacation in Turkey. My only consolidation as I lay there was reading Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa, the story of an aspiring diplomat, Morgan Leafy. Morgan is stuck in Kinjanja, a British colony in Africa in the aftermath of World War II, and gets involved in plots to rig the fast approaching elections, hence finding his way out of Africa and to a better, higher, position somewhere more civilized. Torn between his boss, mistress, love affair, local tribe leader, and adversaries among the British population, Morgan struggles to make ends meet but the rising demands of the British government and the impending visit of a duchess further complicates his plans. A Good Man in Africa presents an amazing build up of circumstances and characters for uproarious laughter. Towards the end of the novel I was laughing uncontrollably as Morgan dug himself deeper in a hole. Misfortune and reflection of absolute British arrogance has never been as funny as it is in Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa.Upon my return to the United States and catching up on my Millions reading, I decided to pick up Don DeLillo’s Libra per the venerable J.P. Hasting’s suggestion. Previously, I had only read White Noise by DeLillo, which did not really impress me that much and furthermore left a bad taste for DeLillo in my mind. I am, however, very glad to have read Libra, which, along very similar lines to Oliver Stone’s JFK, presents a conspiracy theory explaining the President’s assassination. I have a tendency to get carried away and believe in the pieces I read, and Libra took my fascination with JFK’s assassination to a new level. The context that DeLillo creates, post-Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crises, and the characters that he presents, all unique with their grudges, distrust, hate of communism, and patriotic frenzy, make for a marvelous “fictional” read and an excellent conspiracy that I, personally, find extremely convincing. I strongly recommend reading Libra and watching Stone’s JFK back to back.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7
In July 1995, Barnes & Noble opened a 25,000-square-foot superstore in Portage, MI, on a suburban strip teeming with mall complexes and fast food chains. Coexisting among the global brands were a number of independently owned businesses, including John Rollins Booksellers, a much-loved local outfit. Rollins had moved to Portage in 1986, fleeing a withering retail climate in its original location, downtown Kalamazoo. By the time Barnes & Noble set up shop—literally across the street—Rollins had expanded to 13,000 square feet and stocked 80,000 titles.
I was a longtime Rollins devotee—its Kalamazoo store was the first bookstore I remember being in—and feared Barnes & Noble would extinguish not only it, but all independent bookstores in the area, including the Michigan News Agency, where I was then employed. Nevertheless, as someone who loves books in virtually any context or quantity, my resolve slowly faded, and sometime that fall or winter, I paid my first visit to a Barnes & Noble. I walked around for a moment, feeling oddly guilty, then left without buying anything. My boycott didn’t last long.
Here’s how it is with me: Whenever I show up at a place with books for sale—superstore, indie, thrift store, library basement, street vendor—more than half the time, I’ll leave with at least one. And I go to bookstores at least twice a week. I’ve bought new titles in hardcover, then again in paperback; I’ve bought used copies of books I already own so that I can have all the different covers (in this way I acquired three copies of Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis); often I stand gazing at the hundreds of books on my shelves, thinking a single, urgent thought: I need more books.
Now and then I’ll make a vow to shop only at independents. I usually stick to it for a month or two. Then I’ll find myself at, say, Barnes & Noble in Union Square (where I will have gone to kill time before meeting a friend), surrounded by “browsers” who’ve practically set up shantytowns in the aisles, pondering a Michael Connelly paperback and deciding, finally, that I must own it.
In years past, Borders was a sanctuary for me, a place to flee the boredom and disappointment of the various office jobs that prevented me from writing my own stuff. Being among books for an hour or more (I was never a model employee)—touching them, leafing through them, and, yes, buying them—helped me to regain a tenuous equanimity and get through the mind-numbing afternoons.
It was largely a coincidence of geography that Borders served this purpose. I worked in the World Trade Center for the last year and a half of its existence and went to the Borders in the Five World Trade complex several times a week. After 9/11, I found myself back downtown—another cubicle, another unfulfilling job—and sought refuge in that store’s replacement, on lower Broadway (I also frequented the Strand’s Fulton Street Annex, now defunct). In 2007, I landed uptown, in the most soul-killing corporate office I’ve worked in. By the end of my first week I was roaming another Borders, on Fifty-seventh Street and Park Avenue.
There was another reason why I was drawn to Borders and happily spent so much money there—the chain, like me, is from Michigan, a state whose economy you may have heard something about. I’ve been to its original store in Ann Arbor many times. So, even on Park Avenue, in one of hundreds of Borders locations worldwide, there remained a dim sense that I was supporting a “local” business. For all these reasons, I was unaccountably depressed when I learned not only that Borders had filed for Chapter 11 protection, but that the list of stores set to close as a result included two of my former havens—lower Broadway, and Fifty-seventh and Park.
Is it odd to mourn the closing of certain big-box stores? You could argue that Borders brought trouble on itself, that after years of outrageous expansion, partnering with Amazon, and failing to keep pace with the rise of e-readers, it deserves whatever it gets. Intellectually, I might agree with you. But as the author of three books, I have an emotional stake in this too.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t ecstatic the first time I saw my book at a superstore. No less than seeing it on the shelf of one of New York’s great indies, this signified “making it” to me. Over the years I’ve heard from a fair number of readers who tell me where they first encountered my books. Often they mention one of the big chains. These are actual human book buyers, not numbers in a newspaper article about the death of publishing, and some of these book buyers, I gather, are writing from places where a chain store in a mall is the only game in town.
On the other hand, I’ve developed the kinds of relationships with store owners and staff at independent bookshops that aren’t possible at a chain. Three Lives & Co. in New York, to name just one, has given my books crucial store exposure and word-of-mouth support. It also offers something that would seem like a no-brainer but that no superstore provides: a deeply pleasurable browsing experience. It’s one thing to seek out a public restroom, or to prefer a certain bookstore to your cubicle. Abandoning yourself for long stretches to the sensuous art of aimless browsing is quite another.
As a reader and writer, the current moment is endlessly confusing to me. Sometimes I feel like I’m on a one-man mission to save publishing, buying books weekly from indies and chains alike, for the sake not only of my future work, but that of future writers, young people far from urban centers, dreaming up stories in Texas or Idaho or Michigan.
When I was teenager I spent hours at John Rollins Booksellers, fantasizing about one day seeing my own book for sale there. By the time my first one came out, it was too late. Rollins tried to compete with Barnes & Noble, opening a second, hangar-like location with a cafe across town. That store closed in early 2000, and the Portage store followed soon thereafter. The Michigan News Agency, however, is still in business, as it has been since 1947. They carry a wonderful selection of new paperbacks and a staggering number of magazines. Stop by if you’re ever in Kalamazoo.
(Image: Borders Books Reflected from doortoriver’s photostream)
Lots to report… first in Max’s writing news, the new issue of period magazine has been posted. It features the little piece I posted here earlier about Dodger Stadium. I like it, but it sure seems awfully short up there on the page. At any rate, it’s a pretty neat little online mag, eclectic and just for fun. Now, on to more pressing matters. I had a full and eventful last 3 days. On Friday, I saw The Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Henry Fonda Theater. It was the second time I’ve seen them, and I was more or less equally as disappointed as I was the first time I came to LA. I still enjoy the music, and I think the EP is great little chunk of rock and roll, but they don’t seem to have the heft to carry a show in venues as large as the theaters they’ve been playing in LA. In fact, in vast cavernous spaces like the Henry Fonda and the Palace (where they played their first LA gig) the rock energy sounds hollow. Plus, I’m not really into Karen O’s onstage antics…. I mean I love onstage antics as much as the next guy, but it seems like she’s just mugging for the camera.On Saturday, quite unexpectedly, I had a remarkable, unforgettable experience. While I was working the cash register Gabriel Garcia Marquez came into my bookstore. I was floored. He is absolutely one of my heroes, perhaps my favorite writer of all time (or as I have occasionally phrased it “the best writer of all time”). He wandered slowly around the store, taking his time, looking at various books. When he came up to the register, another, younger gentlemen joined him, and he translated for me as I talked to Marquez. It turns out that he speaks very little English. Mostly, I talked to him about Maqroll since Alvaro Mutis is one of his oldest friends, and since I love that book so much. Plus I felt a little strange about talking to him about his own books. He told me that there will be no more novellas about the Gaviero and his friends, but that Mutis continues to write poetry in which Maqroll plays a central role. He also signed some books for me, including the Spanish-language edition of his autobiography which he inscribed “Para Max, del amigo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez 2003”.How fucking cool is that! I also got some signed copies of his other books. They have quickly become some of my most prized possessions.Last night, Easter Sunday night, I went back to the Henry Fonda to see The Faint and Les Savy Fav. I had never really heard The Faint, but I’m really into Les Savy Fav, and I’ve been dying to see their legendary live show. They didn’t disappoint: lead singer Tim Harrington’s antics (remember: I love onstage antics as much as the next guy) had a charming easter motif to them, and he made good use of chocolate bunnies and jelly bean filled plastic eggs. For the last song, he brought a few dozen people on stage and everyone really rocked out. The Faint followed, and while I don’t really get their electro-goth sound, their video projection light show was impressive… plus the kids really seemed to dig it. Finally, if you haven’t checked it out already. Go to 3wk It’s the best internet radio in the world.