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.