Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Books on BART

Last Friday I glanced in the reflection of the night-dark BART window to notice that of ten statistical standers holding on to overhead steadying bars, nine were gazing down at some glowing electronic gadget—iPods and iPads, Droids, Kindles. The tenth was maybe looking at a book, or nothing.

This Friday (I take BART on Fridays) I was heartened to notice, of an undisclosed actual number of fellow commuters, at least seven were reading actual books. What’s more, they had relatively good taste. Cervantes, Bradbury, a French conversation guide. An Anthony Bourdain, which my mom assures me is a fun read.

Anthony Bourdain, smug as ever

My BART reads have been sporadic, partly because of my motion sickness, partly because I’m still learning to navigate the system. A bit of Borges (finished, related post forthcoming), some Said (rereading C & I after a blow-through in my Master’s exams semester); forcing my way through Rousseau, Mill (the long-deads, as they shall henceforth be known).

Jean-Jacques, smug as ever

I wonder what my commute books say about me. I know I’m judging you based on yours. (Bradbury = nerd, Cervantes = college student, French conversation lady = going to France, has a bit of a bank account.)

More on that (judging people) later.

Also a quick promo note: I'm in the process of adding tons of bookstores to my Book Places section. My dream is to one day have a Yelp-like website just for book people. For now, I have an amateurishly-maintained simple Blogger page with iPhone photos. Check it out.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Place: BookBuyers

On a recent trip to Castro Street (the coolest part of Mountain View), following a satisfying hamburger lunch at new restaurant SteakOut, Paul and I did the usual rounds-- Red Rock Cafe, Books Inc. (Mountain View edition), and BookBuyers.

So, BookBuyers is basically the awesomest used bookstore in the South Bay.  Many a late-night hour I've spent in its shelves, continually separating from and reconvening with my equally bookish friends with separate interests: history, religion, martial arts, Judaica.  But it'd been a while since my last visit, so when I went this time I kinda re-fell in love with it.  I'm not gonna lie, it was quantity and not quality.  There's simply an impending avalanche of books stocking its shelves.  Books ready to burst forth.  I took a few pictures to illustrate the point.  And to implicitly (now, explicitly) advocate that you patronize.

Exquisite, no?  BTW, speaking of, check out my new Book Places page.  Will get bigger as I revisit all my book places and take iPhone pictures.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Better than Great

Arthur Plotnik, BETTER THAN GREAT: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives.  Berkeley: Viva Editions, 2011.

(Temporary stock image until I can get my camera card reader working again.)  New, given to me after I interviewed for the internship.

Shameless plug for the press I intern at?  No, more like shameless tie-in so I can talk about my interning experiences.  And also, I really like this book.  But let’s talk about the press first.

It’s an independent press run out of a sweet little office on Sixth Street.  In Berkeley, of course.  Its main wing is Cleis Press, which specializes in erotica, sex guides, and LGBT fiction, with some human rights thrown in.  Its imprint is Viva Editions, which specializes in lifestyles- cooking, parenting, green living- plus a few word books like this one.

This bifurcation has led to some schizophrenic days, pour moi.  Most notably, about a month ago, I spent the morning crafting a proposal for a mini-book about the G-spot, aimed at a sex toy website.  Then in the afternoon I mailed out galleys of Better Than Great to Christian magazines with a press release suggesting pastors use it to punch up their sermons.  (We omitted the Cleis part of the catalog for that mailing.)

Just yesterday, I pulled myself out of my work long enough to realize my internet browser was open to a search inquiry for “monkey rockers."  If you don’t know what those are…. that’s fine.

(Lest you think my days are filled with lurid tasks involving things like monkey rockers, I should add that the majority of my time is probably spent promoting / pitching our tamer titles.  These might actually be shameless plugs, but my favorites are The Lazy Gourmet, Fix It, Make It, Grow It, Bake It, and The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov [an imagining of the life of Vladimir’s forgotten gay younger brother].  And Better than Great.)

It’s a lot of fun though.  I write pitches.  I mail press releases.  I assess manuscripts.  I do a lot of marketing and a little editorial.  I’ve decided I wouldn’t at all mind a career in publishing, as long as the printed word doesn’t go the way of the rotary phone.

Speaking of words.  This book is about them.  It’s divided into chapters that list synonyms for run-of-the-mill superlatives like “great.”  But such synonyms!  It makes fantastic suggestions like “amen-astonishing,” “soul-juddering,” and “Og Gog and Magog brain-boggling.”  It has clever little quote inserts from various sources, from Philip Roth to The Wire (“Them joints is wet!” [said of plasma televisions, s.3 ep.9]).  It’s small and adorable, with colorful circus-font on the cover (if I haven’t already made it clear by this point in my Beautiful blog, a book’s cover design can be a very big part of its appeal).  And best of all, it’s clearly written by someone who is rightfully in love with language.

There’s more to say about language but I feel this is a good place to stop for now.  To be continued (a cliché).
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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

Kurt Vonnegut, GOD BLESS YOU, DR. KEVORKIAN.  New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.

Acquired at Christopher’s Books, Potrero Hill, San Francisco.  New.

“All generalizations are false, including this one.”  (Mark Twain, not Kurt Vonnegut.  Though I kinda have the feeling they’d have gotten along.)  My generalization: Where Nabokov- subject of my last Book entry- wrote ecstatically, churning out thousands of words to produce one perfect picture, Vonnegut wrote minimialistically, bringing to bear the fewest words in the simplest language to effectively communicate his intentions.  And his intentions were always passionately moral, searing, incisive, blazing in sincerity despite being shrouded in his trademark tired and world-weary demeanor.

I love this little copy of God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (which literally took me half an hour to read; it’s 92 Vonnegut pages, which are about a quarter the length of Nabokov pages).  It’s all green, and it has a 2010 foreword by Neil Gaiman, written three years after Vonnegut died.  The book is about Vonnegut’s near-death experiments with Kevorkian (not actual), performed at a Houston prison’s lethal injection facility, which allowed him to go down the blue tunnel to heaven and communicate with many famous and interesting dead people.

(The impulse purchase of this book was serendipitous, as it was made while wandering around 18th Street after my first day of work as a website content writer; the website’s subject happens to be death [or more accurately “the end-of-life experience”].)

I can’t write as simply and effectively as him so I’ll just share a few of my favorite passages:

[on Birnum Birnum]
When white settlers came in the nineteenth century, the natives of Australia and nearby Tasmania had the simplest and most primitive cultures of any people then on Earth.  They were regarded as vermin, with no more minds and souls than rats, say.  They were shot; they were poisoned.  Only in 1967, practically the day before yesterday, were the surviving Australian Aborigines granted citizenship, thanks to demonstrations led by Birnum Birnum.  He was the first of his people to attend law school.
            There were no survivors on Tasmania.  I asked him for a sound bite about the Tasmanians to take back to WNYC.  He said they were victims of the only completely successful genocide of which we know.  Louis Armstrong broke into our conversation to say that Tasmanians were as gifted and intelligent as anybody, given good teachers.  Two members of his current band were Tasmanians.  One played clarinet; the other played a mean gutbucket, or slide trombone. (33-35)

[on John Brown]
John Brown is a Connecticut Yankee, born in Torrington.  He said there was a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who had actually encapsulated God in only six words [sic]: “All men are created equal.”
Brown was twenty when Jefferson died.  “This perfect gentleman, sophisticated, scientific, wise,” John Brown went on, “was able to write those incomparable sacred words while owning slaves.  Tell me: Am I really the only person to realize that he, by his example, made our beautiful country an evil society from the very first, where subservience of persons of color to white people was deemed in perfect harmony with natural law?”
“I want to get this straight,” I said.  “Are you saying that Thomas Jefferson, possibly our country’s most beloved founding father, after George Washington, was an evil man?”
“Let that, while my body lies a-molderin’ in the grave,” said John Brown, “be my truth which goes marching on.” (39-40)

[in the intro]
Why are so many people getting divorced today?  It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore.  It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything.  The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to…
            But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person.  The groom gets one more pal, but it’s a woman.  The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it’s a man.
            When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever.  What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this:
            “You are not enough people!” (20-21)

There.  That was like half the book.

I miss Kurt Vonnegut.  He and his sad dog eyes died in 2007, when I was a senior in college and already a (comparatively) long-time fan, mostly because of Slaughterhouse-Five.  His facile, almost absurd reductions of complex realities into straightforward and seemingly unsentimental statements always seemed to unearth profound, overlooked truths.  Yet I’d add they should only be taken half-seriously.

(Why?  As a[n] historian I can’t help but balk at his cynicism-coated idealistic commitment to secular humanism and American left-wing liberalism; the deceptive, in that they were disguised, patness of his parables; or maybe it’s just a kneejerk reaction to an old-fashioned simplicity that is so at odds with the “everything is so much more complex” outlook of the academy.  Being a humanities scholar in the post-post-modern age has made me believe that there is no simple truth, that values systems are comparative and never absolute, that one person’s humane is another person’s barbaric [hypothetical Ph.D. thesis topic alert!], etc. etc. and even that all generalizations are false.  Including this one.)

((...Whenever I get too posty, though, I stop myself and say, it's better to commit to believing in something than to question the validity of everything.))

Regardless.  His moralism and his prophecy and his textual succinctness are greatly missed.  I hope where he is "everything is beautiful and nothing hurts."  Dr. Kevorkian died recently, too, but not before being immortalized by Al Pacino on HBO, like Roy Cohn was before him.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Big Box Eulogy

I feel like I should say a few words regarding Borders Bookstores’ recent passing.  But I’m not sure what those words are.

Like with most corporations whose services I’ve sporadically employed I feel only a faint attachment; an attachment made more tenuous by the fact that I know no human person who will be dramatically affected by its demise (i.e. employees; CEOs).  We were kind of fair weather friends.  I guess if I’ll miss anything about Borders, it’s the little things.  Like the logo.  The book signings (only took advantage of that once, a Molly Ringwald signing in Sacramento last year with my friend Sara; MR was is and forever will be the Queen of the ‘80s).  The spatial layouts of the ones I knew well.  The extra weight the Borders Reward card adds to my wallet.  The Seattle’s Bests.  The member emails (well maybe not).

I guess the thing I’ll miss the most is the actual experience of going to Borders.  It’s been a go-to time-killer for years.  (Equation: Nothing to do + Borders proximity.)  Going to Borders usually meant strolling into the air conditioning; casually perusing the Best Sellers and Featured books on the front tables (prompting many an engaging political discussion; the Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins ripe for skewering); making my way past the CDs and DVDs, recoiling at the high costs; waiting as my boyfriend got his nerd fix in the fantasy aisle; grabbing a latte or a $4 clearance cookbook; brushing past the calendar displays (kittens, Yosemite, Justin Bieber); picking up chocolate impulse buys at the Ghirardelli display case; and if it was an ambitious Going to Borders, I’d head for the Literature rows and run my hand from A to Z, in search of the newest addition to My Beautiful Bookshelf.

But my purchases have been dwindling, all the more so since I developed an invigorated love of used bookstores.  Also since iTunes.  Since Netflix.  I suppose a lot of other people weren’t making purchases either.  I don’t have a head for business and I don’t know, or couldn’t tell you, exactly why Borders failed; some people blame the Internet.  Or prices, or something like that.  (This is the point where I usually opt out of earnest discussion to avoid sounding like an idiot.)  It just strikes me as strange how the conqueror of the mom-and-pop has itself been conquered by these new technological/corporate frontiers, all in the space of a couple decades.  Yet there are still "mom-and-pops", thankfully.  Which is where you’ll find me, and now all the more so.  (In terms of go-to time-killing, however, I've yet to find a suitable substitute.)

So goodbye Sunnyvale El Camino Real Borders.  Goodbye San Francisco Stonestown Borders.  Goodbye Sacramento Fair Oaks Borders.  Goodbye San Jose Santana Row Borders.  (Am I forgetting anybody?)  And goodbye Davis Borders, where I slaughtered so many hours; I think I’ll miss you most of all.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Los Angeles, I'm Yours

Not a book.  A song.  By a band well-loved by me, the Decemberists, who also happen to be one of the more literary bands I can think of.  (See lyric at bottom.*)

And by Los Angeles, I mean Southern California.  Kind of a metonym(?).  Because that’s where I’ll be this week.  Road triiiiip.

Sometimes it’s nice to get out of the city.  And by the city, I mean your life.  I’ve actually only lived in what I’d call a proper city for the past six months.  I grew up in the sheltered suburbs of San Jose, before moving in eighth grade to the even more sheltered suburbs of Cupertino.  I did my undergrad in the sheltered college town of Davis.  Most of my twenty-five-and-a-half years have been spent in places where I’d think nothing of taking a stroll around the block at midnight.  (Even now, I live in a semi-sheltered subneighborhood of San Francisco, the Outer Sunset, where I would only think a little bit of a thing of it.)

So maybe that’s why I am in love with cities.  When I used to take day trips to San Francisco I would be immensely impressed by the business types who would briskly walk around with their heads down.**  Who would cross the street on red hand signals.  I was in awe of their ability to not be awed by the awesomeness around them, the fact that they were so used to it that it had become part of their background.  While I, on the other hand, would constantly be “citystruck” (term trademark me, blog entry circa 2004).

So I move to the city aspiring to do the same, to make myself at home so it’s not so scary- to conquer it.  But now, I think I would rather do something in between.  I want to walk a line between being over- and underwhelmed.  Somewhere in which I am a fearless navigator, impervious to insane people, knowledgeable of neighborhoods, but also appreciative of the visual deluge, the impromptu occurrences, the sheer diversity of things and peoples and places.  I think it’s a good thing if I never get totally comfortable.

P.S. As cities go I am particularly in love with San Francisco, but that’s a story for another day.

And since this is a blog about books- and Her Majesty the Decemberists doesn’t quite qualify- let me make a recommendation for an actual book about a city.

Orhan Pamuk, ISTANBUL: MEMORIES AND THE CITY.  New York: Vintage International, 2004. 

*O, great calamity
Den of iniquity and tears
How I abhor this place!
Its sweet and bitter taste
Has left me wretched, retching on all fours
Los Angeles, I’m yours

**See Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth.  There was a city that faded away because its inhabitants stopped looking up at it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ada, or Ardor

Vladimir Nabokov, ADA, OR ARDOR.  New York: Vintage International, 1969.

Acquired at a Borders somewhere.  New.

True Confession(z):  I bought, and started, this book over a year and a half ago.  What can I say?  Nabokov has really florid, dense prose; this book is really long; I've been busy with grad schoolish activities; I have no tenacity.  I'll say all of those things.

Continuation of Confession:  I am still not done.  I am on page 353.  There are 589 pages.  I am ashamed.

Let it be known, here and now (shame acknowledged; moving on), that Vladimir Nabokov is without any doubt My Favorite Author.  I have read two of his novels (Pnin and Lolita), and his very long collection of short stories (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, natch), and, well, roughly 59.9% of Ada or Ardor.  I can honestly say that I have never encountered such beautiful, spellbinding prose anywhere else.  I love the John Updike quote that appears on the backs of his Vintage editions: "Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically." (emphasis mine.)  I think that is very apt.

Speaking about Nabokov with my boyfriend, we argued over whether his novels and stories really meant anything, or more broadly, whether novels and stories need to mean anything, which, of course, never got settled.  Speaking about him with another friend, we noted the way he privileges aesthetics and wordplay over content and narrative, how he saw the book as a work of art rather than a didactic device, a painting more than a folk tale.  I can see how that would bother some people, and seriously, I am all for content and narrative.

But there are passages in Nabokov where, as I am reading, I have actually vocalized- you know, like gone, "oh!" or "hah!" to myself- because I found what he wrote so affecting, so brilliant.  (Note: I'm quiet.  I don't vocalize unless it's necessary.)  It's gorgeous, gorgeous stuff.  It can be confounding and demanding of the intellect- as in, I read this paragraph five times before I understood it because in the middle my eyes kept crossing.  But it can also be impressionistic and extremely intuitive- where it seems like he just flipped his pen and out spilled a few words that didn't so much read themselves to you as burn an imprint of an image onto your brain.

Ada, or Ardor is basically Nabokov to the nth degree.  It's longer, it's more confounding, it's more demanding, it's chock-full of the trilingualism and entomological sciences and parenthetical literary criticisms and, yes, sexual deviancy that is only passing in most of his other works.  He makes up fantastic words like "brachiambulist."  He creates "a love story, an erotic masterpiece, a philosophical investigation into the nature of time."  (See this contemporary NYT review.  I had no idea they had these online, and am amazed.)  He evokes wonder and thrill and frustration in equal measure.

So I guess what I'm saying is, I like it.  I really do.  But now I just have to finish the damn thing.  Oh, and thanks for letting me geek out over Vladimir Nabokov.

"'That's not the point,' cried Van, 'the point, the point, the point is- will you be faithful, will you be faithful to me?'

'You spit, love,' said wan-smiling Ada, wiping off the P's and the F's.  'I don't know.  I adore you.  I shall never love anybody in my life as I adore you, never and nowhere, neither in eternity, nor in terrenity, neither in Ladore, nor on Terra, where they say our souls go.'" (158)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

For the Sake of the Name.


 (and a close-up of the top shelf, a.k.a. currently reading/recent acquisitions.)

It's a work in progress.  Constant, consistent progress.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Nooks and Kindles and Kobos...

My boyfriend bought a Nook at Barnes & Noble the other day.  Quite frankly it’s adorable.  Small, black, with a muted magnetic screen that shows author caricatures when it’s asleep (Joseph Conrad – Jules Verne – Kurt Vonnegut – Oscar Wilde), snugly wrapped in a (sold-separately) navy and black leather cover, designed to look like a *real* book.  Even the name is adorable.  “Nook.”  I like to say it.  It makes me picture a cozy corner in a country cottage, with wicker furniture and golden sunlight streaming through the window.  Maybe there’s a cat too.

Until recently I hadn’t given much thought to the whole e-books trend, and what it meant for the physical, real book.  I was (and still am) pretty sure that the fate of the book will not be the fate of the CD, VHS, vinyl record of yore.  Books have centuries more history to rest upon.  They have a beauty of material and design that I don’t believe those other commodities ever attained.  The Bookshelf is a cultural touchstone, more than a simple piece of furniture; something etched into our cultural consciousness, more than the Record Store or the CD Tower.   But things like the Nook still make me nervous.  Could the death of one of my favorite art forms reside, innocently and insidiously, in these adorable little e-readers?

Its weapons are its instantaneity, its convenience, and its weight (or lack thereof).  It can be an entire bookshelf in your pocket.  Paul was exploring its features, including the two million free texts available for download, and I occasionally “oohed” or “aahed.”  In spite of myself.

Part of my goal in this blog is to remind people of the beauty of books, the physicality of them, the smell, the lived act of browsing through a space that stores them (rather than shuffling through a list of digitized titles).  There is something magical about buying a used book and seeing the pencil markings of past users, or holding a hundred-year-old tome and marveling at the fact that the library let you check out what is clearly an artifact.  Kind of an armchair activism- and incidentally, I’m picturing a giant leather armchair in a dark old library with high ceilings and oak accents, in a mansion.  Maybe with a fireplace.

I hope it sticks.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad, HEART OF DARKNESS and Selections from The Congo Diary.  Introduction by Caryl Phillips.  New York: The Modern Library, 1999.

Acquired at the BookShop, West Portal, San Francisco.  New.

This little 90-page masterpiece has an incredibly ubiquitous presence in imperial historiography.  It must have popped up dozens of times in my graduate school readings before I finally decided, okay, I've gotta read it already.  So here we are, Conrad.  Lay your weird narrative-within-a-narrative-within-a-narrative on me.

I liked this edition because it includes commentary, in various capacities, by the likes of E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, Chinua Achebe and others.  Achebe most memorably accused Conrad of being a "bloody racist," in so many words.  (In those exact words, actually.  Of course the rest of his criticism is far less colloquial.)

[A comic posted in our history department lounge: "Heart of Darkness in one sentence: 'Africa makes white people go crazy.'"]

Besides for this book's numerous reincarnations in the form of Vietnam and Iraq war movies, I think what makes it so interesting is the continued debate around its nature, its appropriateness for both its historical moment and our own.  The way perceptions, worldviews, historical understandings rub up against each other- one paradigm does not simply become obsolete and get replaced by a new one.  Conrad was criticizing imperialism, it's true, and he was cynical about not only the enterprise but the true nature of all men, which under the veneer of civilization was essentially the same.  But he was also, as Achebe points out, a racist, a product and a perpetuator of the imperial worldview that dominated turn-of-the-century Britain.  Today, we largely abhor imperialism and the atrocities in Africa (at least, what we know of them... so much has been lost, or ignored).  But "civilization" ideology, which produces the non-Western savage as its Other, is alive and well.  The threads of thought that existed in Conrad's time are not entirely obsolete, and so it can be read in earnest, uncritically, even praised as progressive.

"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.  What redeems it is the idea only.  An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to..." (7-8)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Books Inc.

This was me, three months ago.  I was in the throes of my most turbulent semester to date, juggling the book avalanche that was my master's exams with three classes and three part-time jobs.  I was reading more than I had ever read before.  I was also not reading; I can only claim to have gone through one of the fifty or sixty texts I was responsible for cover-to-cover.  (Sven Lindqvist's Exterminate All the Brutes, incidentally.)  I was blowing through works I was genuinely interested in, and completely ignoring others I simply didn't have time for.

So I emerged from that semester with a Master of Arts and a determination to tackle my own, my personal reading list.  Hence...