If you haven’t already checked it out, there’s a great discussion of the latest LBC pick, Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, going on at the LBC site. I added my two cents today with a post called The Slacker Hero.
While CAAF and others have spent much of the new year discussing and praising Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep, I have followed along, blissfully unaware that I could, apparently, be a character in the book. Today, I read this article in the Washington Post, which clued me into Sittenfeld’s tenure as an English teacher at St. Albans where I attended high school, and which she used as inspiration for the novel:”It was almost like cheating,” she says of living at St. Albans. “I’d been writing this book about this kind of place and the kinds of people you might find there, and then there I was, sort of back in it, overhearing pieces of dialogue or something… If I got to a place where I needed to describe some food in the dining hall, well, I’d just go downstairs to the dining hall and have dinner.”Although I wasn’t a boarder there – most of us weren’t – I can imagine that the school would be good material for this sort of book. There’s lots of dark wood, stone edifices, and groves of old trees on the grounds the school shares with the National Cathedral. At the same time, the school, while something of an island, does sit in the city and is a part of the city in a way that the New England boarding schools are not, and this gives St. Albans a different feel. Sittenfeld started out as the Writer in Residence at St. Albans and continues to teach there part time. My alma mater, when mentioned in the Post tends to be labeled “exclusive,” and while this is undoubtedly true I always thought it was pretty cool that we had a writer in residence program. The most notable writer in residence when I was there in the mid ’90s was Matthew Klam. St. Albans alums of a certain age still fondly remember the day that Klam shocked the faculty and riled up the students – it’s an all boy school, by the way – at our weekly assembly with his reading of the title story from his collection, Sam the Cat, a graphic tale about a drunk guy who falls for a girl who turns out not to be a girl. Considering that we were an auditorium full of sheltered and not very worldly young men, it sort of blew our minds.
I saw this post at Galleycat about the mysterious transvestite cult author J.T. Leroy (Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things). As the Galleycat post suggests, there has been much speculation over the years about whether or not Leroy is a real person or perhaps simply the pseudonym and persona of another author, and the evidence remains inconclusive. Having never read any of Leroy’s books, I don’t have much to say about Leroy as writer, but, as a bookstore clerk in Los Angeles, I did see him (or someone pretending to be him) in the flesh, so I may have something to add on the subject of whether or not he exists.I’m probably a little off on some of the specifics, but here’s what I remember. On a weekday sometime during 2002 or 2003 (see, I told you I’m a little foggy here), the manager told us that she’d gotten a call from Leroy’s representative and that he would be stopping by to sign some books. We bookstore clerks, aware of Leroy’s reclusiveness, mysteriousness, and even the possibility that he didn’t exist, awaited his arrival with much curiosity. Many speculated that it was a hoax and he wouldn’t show. But then he did. He wore very baggy clothes including a much too large gray hooded sweatshirt. The hood was pulled low over his face, which was further obscured by a disheveled blonde wig. In photos, you almost never see Leroy’s face, and even though we were in close proximity to him as he signed books, none of us got a very good look at him. Nor did he talk much, mumbling one word answers or giggling nervously in response to our questions. The strange thing was, even though my coworkers and I had all seen him in the flesh, after he was gone none of us were any more or less sure that he was actually real.
Scott’s Friday Column is a thoughtful look at why independent bookstores in the Bay Area, and everywhere else, seem to be disappearing.All this has taken a toll on me, the book shopper. Whereas I once aimlessly browsed through local bookstores thinking of nothing other than a new book, I now keep an eye out for warning signs, wondering which one will be the next to fall.
I met several Chicago natives while I was there last weekend, and as we discussed the city’s various merits and drawbacks, the subject of bookstores came up. The Chicago natives, being aspiring reporters, astutely asked me what I look for in a “good” bookstore, and why a chain store is unlikely to bear this mantle.When it comes to hanging out, it’s hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon. Stay as long as you want, they won’t tell you to leave until they’re closing down for the night. If you want to kill an afternoon, it’s hard to beat Barnes and Noble, likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don’t expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don’t plan for a literary discovery.And therein lies the problem with the chains, they are designed not to surprise you. Their displays will, as decreed from the home office, contain a calculated mix of bestsellers assembled from the major lists. The information that they disseminate is predetermined by prevailing tastes; they are not, themselves, tastemakers. And yet, if there is any more important generator of tastes, trends, and shared knowledge in the commercial world than the bookstore, then I don’t know about it. Nonetheless, there are very few bookstores that serve this purpose. And that, precisely, is what I am looking for.To my mind, a good bookstore will have on display the “important” books not just the bestselling books, though there will always be bestsellers among those important books. For example, The Da Vinci Code is important because it is a cultural phenomenon, but not simply because it sits at number one on the Times bestsellers. There are all sorts of reasons why a book can be important. The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood, from Presidential exposes to burgeoning local talent. At a good bookstore you can place your confidence in the people who run the place.At Barnes and Noble you can get any book you want if you can find it in the vast fluorescent retail gymnasium, but at a good indie, the kindly book clerk will take his favorite book off the shelf and hand it to you, as if a gift. Most cities of any size have at least one of these good bookstores, and thanks to some recommendations that I have already received, I’m confident that I’ll find what I’m looking for in Chicago.
I’m going to digress from the book talk here, if I may. I’ve been blogging for a couple of years now, and I really enjoy it. I post when I feel like it, I write about books, and a handful of people visit every day. Discussions ensue; it’s all very fun. But when I see folks blogging in Iraq and other dangerous locales, I wonder if I would join the fray in a situation where blogging is more than a diversion or a hobby – where blogging is an act of courage or defiance.Lately, I’ve been following the situation in Nepal. The king has dissolved the government and basically shut down the press. I was curious to see if any blogs in Nepal are defying the press ban, and I found this one: a group blog called United We Blog! The most recent post from the blog’s administrator concludes with this warning, “Do Not Blog About Political Matters for the time being,” but a previous post puts it this way, “Because of my basic human rights, like right to express, speak and writing, are suspended and I am in no position to express my feeling or opinion regarding the royal takeover. Here in Nepal, press freedom is being curtailed and, according to the government, our website can’t report on political issues.”He also says this about the ban: “For the first time in my life, I knew the importance of this site, a place to express myself, ourself… A great forum to share ideas.”Part of me wants to write to these guys to let them know that their words, despite the censorship, are reaching us, but at the same time, I would not want to encourage them to put themselves in danger by communicating with us. I think, perhaps, the larger point I’m trying to make is that – thanks to blogs – we can now peer behind walls of censorship to see the people oppressed by it. If anyone else stumbles onto any more Nepalese blogs, please let us know.