The Founding Fish

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Staff Picks: Simenon, Johnson, Suskind, McPhee, Herzog

The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Red Lights by Georges Simenon recommended by AndrewUntil recently, I had always associated Belgian author Georges Simenon with the Inspector Maigret mysteries. Then, on the front table of my local indie book shop, I began seeing a series of seductively glossy paperback novellas from NYRB Classics, each credited simply to Simenon, each with an introduction. Move over Maigret, this was something different.In the middle of last century, Simenon wrote a number of psychological novels, what he called his romans durs (literally “hard novels”). Red Lights is a novella set in the United States, as a white-collar couple from 1950s New York City drive to Maine on the Labor Day Weekend to fetch their children from camp. The novella tracks the ensuing 24 hours with chilling acuity. The narrator is psychologically ultra-aware, digging into the mind and mental state of the husband as his life is turned upside-down. His future with his wife, his life as he’s known it – everything he’s taken for granted – is suddenly in jeopardy due to the events unfolding on the journey to Maine. An altogether different kind of mystery from the man behind Maigret.The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson recommended by GarthWhile some of the “experimental fictions” of the 1960s have gone the way of the pet rock, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates deserves a place on that decade’s honor roll, alongside Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Barth’s Funhouse. Johnson conceived of The Unfortunates as an Oulippan departure from narrative convention: a “book in a box,” whose 27 bound pamphlets may be read in any order. Together, they tell the semi-autobiographical story of an English sportswriter dispatched the the provinces to cover a soccer match. As he wanders the streets, before and after the game, the narrator finds his thoughts returning to the death of a friend who was a native of the town. The novel itself achieves a similarly bifurcated effect: while its Oulippan form is good sport, the gently melancholic stream-of-consciousness narration builds to something positively moving. Johnson himself died in 1973, at age 40. Whether due to the production expenses or to the perceived conservatism of U.S. readers, The Unfortunates wasn’t published stateside until just last year. Thanks to New Directions for this act of resurrection.Perfume by Patrick Suskind recommended by BenFrom its grotesque first pages to its orgiastic grand finale, Perfume’s narrative is bizarre, compelling and never dull. The tale of a grand guignol perfumer and his murderous quest for the ultimate fragrance, Suskind’s novel is equal parts historical novel, inquiry into the nature of evil, and meditation on smell. It may be that the written word is the only medium that can even begin to approximate our olfactory experience, and Suskind’s genius lies not so much in his brave narrative choices (multiple points of view, a decidedly unsympathetic protagonist), but in his ability to bring vivid life to the world of scent.Annals of the Former World by John McPhee recommended by MaxJohn McPhee’s incredible facility with words is evident in his ability to make seemingly any topic fascinating. McPhee has mesmerized readers with accounts of shad fishing and oranges, so it seems fitting that his the masterpiece of his prolific career takes on arguably his most boring topic of all: geology. And as if raising the stakes, he goes on at length: 660 pages. And yet Annals of the Former World, in which McPhee describes the geology of a cross-section of the U.S. and makes use of ample digression along the way, is engrossing as only McPhee’s books are. The book includes equal parts anecdote, history, and hard science, the latter delivered innocuously and effectively. Underpinning it all is McPhee’s clear joy for learning and sharing his new found knowledge.Annapurna by Maurice Herzog recommended by KevinBefore there was Into Thin Air there was Maurice Herzog, who in 1950 became the first person ever to scale a mountain higher than 8,000 meters. It was, as you’d expect, no easy feat and Annapurna is Herzog’s first person account of the expedition. How incredible was Herzog’s ascent? While today the Annapurna Circuit is the most popular Himalayan trek going, with direct flights from Kathmandu virtually to the trail head, Herzog and his team of French climbers, attended by legions of Nepali porters, had to walk for weeks to even get within range of the mountain, and once there, it took them weeks more to actually locate the peak. Herzog adopts a sly, matter-of-fact tone in the retelling, but make no mistake, he knows how to spin a good yarn and he doesn’t skimp on the final ascent, which includes all the frost bite and near death experiences we’ve come to expect from the genre. Annapurna was a sensation when it came out in 1952, eventually selling more than 11 million copies. It has fallen a little bit from view since then, but now is as good a time as any to bring it back.(See links to more Staff Picks in the sidebar.)

My review of The Founding Fish by John McPhee

Have you ever wondered why someone doesn’t write a really interesting book about shoemakers or Idaho or health inspectors? When I worked at the bookstore I used to get questions like this all the time. Usually, I was forced to stare blankly for a moment before performing a futile search on the computer. But every once in while, someone would ask, “Are there any really good books about the geology of North America?” And my eyes would light up and I would say, “Yes!” The same was true if they asked for books about merchant marines, Alaska, or canoes. John McPhee has the ability – which I prize as a reader – to write engagingly about any subject, and Founding Fish is no exception. In this case, the subject is the American Shad. The fish is prized by anglers and gourmands and pops in and out of American history. But this is not “the cultural history of American Shad” (are we tired of these “cultural history of…” books yet?”) Instead he weaves history with science as well as plenty of personal observation. The myriad digressions are like seams of precious metal. McPhee’s world is populated with fascinating characters – ichthyologists, shad dart makers, and a seine fisherman from the Bay of Fundy. If you have a taste for non-fiction and would like a book that is diverting and pleasurable (rather than “hard-hitting” and topical) try reading John McPhee.Spotted on the el: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin ThomasonNew list: The Economist best of the year.

Sale Books

I’ve talked about “sale books” once or twice here at The Millions, but since I just a got a great deal on some “sale books,” I decided to revisit the topic. “Sale books” are also known in the book biz as remainders. These are the books you see in your local Barnes & Noble, usually near the front, piled together in bins or on shelves under signs that say things like “clearance” or “all books on this shelf $5.99 or less.” It’s usually a rather odd assortment of books: super cheap hardcovers that mere months (or even weeks) ago were selling for full price. If you dig around you can sometimes find some decent books, but usually the titles are a who’s who of bad books, kind of like the mangled sale rack at your local department store. However, the path from frontlist to remainder bin can be a lot more circuitous than path from shop window to sale rack. And so I present the life cycle of the remaindered book. The remaindered book starts out as a regular old frontlist book, that is, one of the season’s new offerings from a publisher. Let’s call our new book Voyage to Hoboken, a widely anticipated coming of age story by a best-selling author. Since the book is expected to be a big seller, your local Barnes & Noble places a frontlist order of 60 copies from Turnpike Press. The book is released, and amid bad reviews and underwhelming publicity the book is a dud, an outright disappointment. After three months only nine people have bought the book at the full price of $26.95. Now, the book industry is rather odd in that, if a book doesn’t sell, the retail establishment can simply return it to the publisher and get most of their money back. Sometimes, when you work at a bookstore, you begin to get the eerie feeling that rather than selling books, you’re merely storing them until the publisher is willing to take them back. So, the time comes when the buyer at Barnes & Noble decides enough is enough and returns 50 copies to Turnpike Press, leaving one copy on the shelf in case some unwitting reader decides to buy it. At a Turnpike Press warehouse, thousands of copies of Voyage to Hoboken come in from all over the country. But the folks at Turnpike aren’t worried, they are ready to cut their losses. They have negotiated with “remainder houses,” companies that deal with these unwanted books, to get rid of our unfortunate novel in bulk, lets say $1.50 per copy. The remainder house then turns around and calls up the very same book buyer at Barnes & Nobel and sells back this once bought book at a severely reduced price, $3.00 per copy, and then Barnes & Noble tries to sell it to you, the reader, for $6.00. And, in the end, most folks can’t resist the bargain. So, such is the odd journey that bargain books take before arriving in their bargain bin. What inspired me to write about this? Well, the other day I got a catalog in the mail from one of those remainder houses, Daedalus Books, and, since shopping from a catalog is a lot easier than picking through the bargain bin, I got myself four fantastic books for about sixteen bucks. Not bad, eh? Here they are: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey, Pastoralia by George Saunders, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, and The Founding Fish by John McPhee. By the way, bargain books can be found at Amazon, too.Speaking of Amazon, here is an interesting article about what those sales rankings at Amazon actually mean. It’s written from the perspective of a self-publishing expert.One last thing. During my time at the bookstore, one of the hottest sellers was a collection of short stories by David Schickler called Kissing in Manhattan. Now Schickler has a novel coming out called Sweet and Vicious. It looks interesting.

Updating the Queue

I’ve returned from my trip home with lots of booty. Many of these books have been added to my reading queue, which has swelled to encompass the entire length of the shelf on which it sits. Time to get reading. For Christmas I received a couple of military histories by the venerable brit, John Keegan, The First World War and Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. I’m excited about both of these. I know little of the details of World War I beyond that it was a gruelling and brutal trench war. I think I mostly know this from reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque when I was in high school. The second is interesting because the issue of intelligence seems to have recently become much more important to national defense than firepower and bombs. I also was gifted a copy of John McPhee’s book-length panegyric to the American shad (The Founding Fish as it were), a topic that would shatter me with boredom were it not for McPhee’s otherworldly ability to write engaging, entertaining prose about any topic under the sun. My mother continued her tradition (one that has proved rewarding over the years) of giving me a serendipitous art book. This year’s selection was Juan Munoz. I know next to nothing about Munoz, but, as is often the case with these art books that my mother gives me, I’m sure I will suddenly notice his work everywhere and by the year’s end he will have become one of my favorite artists. My birthday rolled around, too, as it so often does, a mere eleven days after Christmas, and some more books came my way. You could count the number of poetry books I have on my book shelves on one hand, but with the addition of C. K. Williams National Book Award Finalist, The Singing, which includes one of my favorite poems from recent years, “The Hearth,” I now have one more. I also was presented with a copy of Scott McCloud’s fascinating meta-comic about comics and why we can’t help but love them, Understanding Comics. Hope everyone had a great holiday, as for me, I had a blast, but I’m happy to get back to the grind, so to speak. Expect more soon, I’ve got lots to write about at the moment.

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