Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week Fifteen

Book read (all or part of) this week:
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
Redeployment by Phil Klay

I'm still dipping into Klay's Redeployment, but the majority of my reading week was with The Orenda. Joseph Boyden's forthcoming novel was a bit of a slog for me in its first hundred pages, but I've really hit a stride with it in the last week. It's set in the early, early days of contact between French settlers and the Huron tribe in southern Canada - early-1600's. The Huron and the Iroquois are at perpetual war - one group kills another and the other guys retaliate, and on & on & on. Throw a bunch of French Jesuit priests into the mix and things get even messier. As with most fiction about post-Columbian Native Americans (ie: Fools Crow or Panther in the Sky) we have the benefit of hindsight and a sense of historical perspective - we know that bad shit is going to go down and it's just a matter of how much we will see in any one particular novel. In this, times are still relatively good for the northern tribes - and Boyden brings that world to life in quite wonderful ways. It ain't perfect and there are some hokey moments & stilted dialogue, but it's proving to be relatively solid historical fiction of an era that I find interesting. I'm sticking with it.

Other business: 
I've been spending most of my working days planning festivities for California Bookstore Day at the UCSD Bookstore.  An idea thought up by the intrepid minds of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA), CBD is a day to celebrate everything that an independent bookstore can offer their community that an online retailer or a big box store cannot. On Saturday, May 3rd, 93 indie bookstores in California - including the UC San Diego Bookstore, believe it or not - will be hosting huge literary parties to celebrate that independent spirit. This bit is from the CBD website & I think it perfectly sums up what all this is about:
Independent bookstores are not just stores, they’re community centers and local anchors run by passionate readers. They are entire universes of ideas that contain the possibility of real serendipity. They are lively performance spaces and quiet places where aimless perusal is a day well spent. 
Indie bookstores, whether dusty and labyrinthine or clean and well-lighted, are not just stores, they are solutions. They hold the key to your love life, your career, and your passions. Walking the aisles of a good bookstore means stumbling upon a novel from India that expands your heart. It’s encountering an art book that changes the direction of your life. It’s the joy of having a perfect stranger steer you toward the perfect book. 
In a world of tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads, bookstores are not a dying anachronism.  They are living, breathing organisms that continue to grow and expand. In fact, there are more of them this year than there were last year. And they are at your service.
If that doesn't inspire you to support your local businesses, I'm not sure why you're still reading this. It gets me fired up every time - even if the store where I currently work is... let's just say, as a whole, it lacks that passion for literacy and literature that I hold so close to the center of my being. (But the benefits are great!) By hosting a big ol' CBD party, I'm hoping to try to change some of that culture - at the very least, I'd like to open some eyes on the campus itself.

In addition to events and things in the stores on May 3, there is also a whole slate of California Bookstore Day-only items that were specially produced for this day and will be available for purchase ONLY from California independent bookstores on May 3rd. And this isn't just a bunch of crap, mind you. A signed, numbered George Saunders piece. A signed Brian Selznick print. A limited edition Neil Gaiman short story. A box of recipes from Michael Pollan. A badass new McSweeney's collection. And a ton more.

Here's the schedule of events at UCSD for the moment - we're open from 10am to 5pm on that Saturday, May 3rd:
  • 10:30am - a special California Bookstore Day Coffee & Book Chat with yours truly. A spin on my monthly book chat where I'll talk about all the CBD merch you can get.
  • 11:00am - a California-themed kids storytime. Followed by a CBD-themed craft session for kids.
  • 11:30 - an open-mic session kicked off by a reading of George Saunders' CBD piece, Congratulations By the Way.
  • 12:30 - performance artist & novelist, Scotch Wichmann will discuss his art & his book, and stage a performance. Scotch is well known these days for being plagiarized by actor Shia LaBoeuf. (The two staged much-publicized competing performance piece protests in LA recently.)
  • 2:00 - novelist Jincy Willett will discuss her latest comic novel, Amy Falls Down, as well as a bit on the process of writing. Jincy is hilarious, by the way. 
Prizes like this limited edition chapbook of a Donald Antrim short story.
We will also have some live music in-store throughout the day - including Scott Paulson and the Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra. (Yeah, that's right.) And literary trivia with some awesome prizes - all day long. And mobile foodies, Killer Street Tacos will be outside the store on Library Walk, slingin' tacos in the afternoon. AND free parking! AND - as if that isn't enough - all general books (with the exception of the CBD merchandise) will be 25% off all day long.

Anyway, the point is, all of these (except the discounting) are things that indie stores offer that you can't get from buying your books at Walmart or from shopping Amazon. On CBD and 364 other days throughout every year, indie bookstores host author readings & signings, storytime for kids, open mic readings, and have passionate booksellers who provide a healthy, two-way discourse on literature, art, philosophy, or anything else people want to discuss. Indie bookstores strive to serve as that “third place” in our modern lives – a comfortable, stimulating place to be intellectually alive that isn’t home and isn’t work. 

I've been pretty hung up lately on the idea of the "third place." Enough so that I'm back to fantasizing about opening my own store. But for the moment, I'm going to try and turn my current place of employment into a true California indie - at least for a day. So if you live in San Diego, do me a solid and consider stopping by the UCSD Bookstore on May 3rd.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week Fourteen

Books read (all or part of) this week:
Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers


You know Carcosa?
This post may start out being about a TV show, but bear with me. If you've seen the recent HBO series True Detective - which I would heartily encourage you to check out if not - you may have caught vague references to "black stars over Carcosa" and the "Yellow King." Really, you didn't have to be paying that close attention to catch the Yellow King stuff - finding the meaning behind it all is another thing. 

In the series mythos, Carcosa is referenced throughout - in vague, spooky snippets - as two detectives in rural Louisiana try to solve a series of gruesome murders over the course of more than a decade. At one point, when they track down who they believe at the time to be the killer - a one Reggie Ledoux - he tells Matthew McConaughey's character, Rustin Cohle, "It's time, isn't it? The black star. Black stars rise. I know what happens next. I saw you in my dream. You're in Carcosa now, with me. He sees you. You'll do this again. Time is a flat circle."

Then, while interviewing an old woman later on down the line, Cohle shows her drawings related to the case & she replies - in a chilling, terrifying voice - "You know Carcosa?" and "Rejoice! Death is not the end!" There are also repeated references to a "Yellow King" - the meaning of which is as baffling to the detectives as it is to the viewer. Is this King the killer? Is he someone at the center of a wide-sweeping conspiracy of kidnapping and murder amongst Louisiana power players? Or is it referring to something much darker & way more sinister than we can even comprehend? In the finale, Cohle hallucinates(?) the black stars above Carcosa and finds a multi-headed human skeleton wrapped in yellow & sporting antlers in an insanely creepy underground warren. Mommy, it give me bad dreams.

I won't pretend to understand all the references in the series, which leaves much of this unanswered and vague (which is half the fun) but it did pique my interest and lead me back to the source: Robert W. Chambers' 1895 book of short stories, The King in Yellow. (See, there's the book tie-in for this post.) 
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.
Chambers' freaky classic was a strong influence on horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who incorporated elements of the Carcosa world into his Cthulhu mythos. (He also wrote the introduction to presumably an early-1930's edition and the current Wildside Press version.) Chambers' collection of short stories are all linked together by a play called "The King in Yellow" - a dramatic work that induces insanity in all who read it, yet which has an inescapable gravitational pull over all who come in its orbit, compelling them to read against their better judgment. In the opening tale, "The Repairer of Reputations," our narrator - young Hildred Castaigne, whose personality has been already been altered due to a head injury after falling off a horse - descends further into insanity after reading "The King in Yellow." The deeper we fall with Castaigne into his madness, he is revealed to be quite unreliable as a narrator. Convinced that he needs to get his cousin Louis to renounce the claim on the throne of Carcosa so that he himself may become the rightful King in Yellow, his madness envelops him like a black cloak. His murderous attempts are thwarted, he believes Louis to be the usurper of the throne, and he is sent back to the asylum, shrieking "Woe! woe to you who are crowned with the crown of the King in Yellow!" (Another sinister element to this story is that in this future society that Chambers imagines, suicide is legal and the government has created Lethal Chambers for people to enter and off themselves in. Just a fun fact.)

I particularly like the idea of this play that forces people to read it, despite the fact that they know full well that it will bring about their insanity. It feels much like our modern phenomenon of binge watching television shows like, say, True Detective. There's a certain degree of insanity that goes along with such behavior, as those of us who've partaken can attest. And I find it admirable that TD creator Nic Pizzolatto was able to dig up the mythology of an obscure 120-year-old story collection to become the root of his script. (Again proving that Hollywood is nothing without the literary world.) I've read three of the stories in Chambers' collection so far & I've yet to go insane, thankfully - at least as far as I can tell. They're chilling and scary in a not-that-scary Victorian sort of way - they invoke more of a sense of unease, rather than genuine fear. It's more the suggestion that reading this book will make the reader go crazy that gives you pause...

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week Thirteen

Books read (all or part of) this week:
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot

This here is an anecdotal aside, but there's an author in this story, which is why I'm telling you about it. So we're in the thick of March Madness right now, as I'm SURE you're aware. In the interest of this theme, I was listening to an older Radiolab broadcast called Games the other morning - the subject being "why we get so invested in something so trivial (as sports & games.) What is it about games that make them feel so pivotal?" Good question. I, for one, am generally not a very nice person to be around when the Connecticut Huskies lose in the NCAA Tournament. More on that in a second. 

The middle section of the Radiolab piece focused on the underdog - and why 4 out of 5 people will always root for the team that no one thinks has a chance to win. Hosts Jad & Robert talked to Malcolm Gladwell - author of The Tipping Point, Blink, David & Goliath, etc - and he had this shocking thing to say:
Oh I never, ever cheer for the underdog. I'm distressed by the injustice of the person who should win not winning. Losing - for the favorite - that's the most exquisitely painful situation to be in. 
"This is as twisted & tortured a logic as I've ever heard," host Robert Krulwich replied, with a laugh. And it's pretty much true. Gladwell claimed to have a distinct "distrust of luck" as far as sports are concerned, since they are carefully planned out events with rules and regulations, therefore he finds it upsetting when the favorite loses. He gave the example of the 1985 Villanova Wildcats basketball team beating the Georgetown Hoyas in the NCAA tournament - arguably one of the greatest upsets in the history of modern sport. Not so for Mr. Gladwell. He found this win to be so distressing, so improbable ("It outraged me!") that he thought were they given one hundred thousand chances, Villanova would still only win that one time. He wasn't a Georgetown fan, per se, it was that fact of the improbability of Villanova's win that so outraged him.

The crazy thing is, I can see his logic - even though it takes much of the fun out of sport. Normally - I'd say 99.9% of the time in my sports-watching life - I will root for the underdog. Especially if I have no stake in the game. But in that rare instance where "my" team is considered the favorite, I'm right there with them. And when it goes wrong for that favorite... oh, ho, my friend. You do not want to be near me. My best/worst example of this was in 2008 - the UConn Huskies were the favored #4 seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament (a round they had never lost in under coach Jim Calhoun) and they lost to the #13 underdogs from the lowly University of San Diego in overtime. With 1.2 seconds left in overtime. It was a goddamn nightmare, let me tell you, especially here in San Diego.

But I was on the side of the favorite. For everyone else, it was a huge, happy upset. I, however, wanted to kill somebody. Oh, the duality of man.

Anyway, sports are great - you shouldn't read so much.

---------------

This week, I've mostly been reading Ryan Boudinot's Blueprints of the Afterlife - a totally crazy science fiction novel set in the years after the Era of Fucked Up Shit (FUS) in which most American cities have been wiped off the face of the earth (presumably by a Roving Glacier of Death called Malaspina,) the human population is something like 1/5 of where we are now, and they're rebuilding New York City on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Seattle. Memory implants, mind control, Coca-Cola sponsored handguns, clones, synthetic humans, and world-champion dishwashers. It's complete madness - but I kind of love it. I really have no idea what's going on or where things are heading - and I'm on page 267 right now. It feels like a mash-up of the humor of Douglas Adams and the drug-addled dystopia of Philip K. Dick - maybe with splashes of Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and early (Gun, with Occasional Music) Jonathan Lethem. Good stuff.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Year of Reading, Weeks Eleven & Twelve

Books read (all or part of) this week... and last week:

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781476704586?aff=sethmarkoThe Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go
4 1/2 stories from Bark by Lorrie Moore
68 pages of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
75 pages of The Bees by Laline Paull
38 pages of Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin
Redeployment by Phil Klay (genuinely reading this now)

A tough pair of reading weeks, these past two. 

First off, I finished Justin Go's forthcoming debut - which had a very promising premise that just didn't pan out for me. I feel bad about this assessment, because I really wanted to love this book - and Justin seems like such a nice fellow. (I met him when I was in Seattle recently.) But that's not the name of the game here on the Book Catapult, now is it? The general storyline, like I said, is quite good and had a lot of promise. A modern day college student finds out that he might be the sole remaining heir to a massive lost fortune that originated with a man who died on Mount Everest in 1924. The British law firm that has been the keeper of the estate for the last 80 years finally tracks Tristan Campbell down with just a few weeks left before the trust expires - the catch being that Tristan has to prove that he's actually The Heir. He begins tracking this unknown branch of his family tree all over Europe - and we're with him every step of the way, seeing his every move in piecing together this puzzle, until... the very end, where through narrative manipulations that frankly feel like a writer's cop-out, the penultimate discovery is presented veiled from our view. Tristan receives an end result to his quest, but after all of this, we are left to puzzle over what that result actually is. Immensely frustrating. It's going to sell well, though, that's for sure. It has all the hallmarks of a midlevel bestseller that indie stores will probably get behind - and the writing is quite good for the most part. But that ending... dang... made me want to throw the book across the room.

After that, nothing I read seemed to stick - you know how that is? 10,000 books at my disposal and I can't find anything to hold my attention for more than a day. I read a bit of Lorrie Moore's Bark, but found the thematically connected stories about failing marriages and bad relationships just wasn't doing it for me. She can write, that's for damn sure - and there were many flashes of clever wit and wonderful prose throughout what I've read to date, but the subjects just weren't doing it for me right now. (Great sentence: "At this my heart sickened and plummeted down my left side and into my shoe.") That's the funny thing about books and reading them - if I'm not in the mood or the right frame of mind for some particular subject or style, there's no coercing that can be done to get me to pick something back up. I'll be back to Lorrie, but I need a break right now.

So, then I spent an evening with Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. I can't remember a book that has had the backing of so many independent booksellers before its pub date. The galley copy has an impassioned letter on the back cover from Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Florida and has an additional 24 blurbs from other independent booksellers on the inside. And at least 2 people who I work with have already read it and keep telling me I HAVE to read it - always a red flag. All of this is because the book is about the owner of an independent bookstore on a small, Martha's Vineyard-type island in the Northeast. All great, for sure, but the rest of the plot (owner is a widower who ends up adopting an abandoned baby... presumably his life as a curmudgeonly bookstore owner is changed forever?) I found to be a bit cozy for my tastes - I might still try to get through it, but it read a bit soft to me. But I'm a jerk, so...

After giving up on that for the moment, I settled on a novel where all the characters are bees. Hmm...  Then I came down with a wicked cold on Wednesday last week and everything between then and now is a bit of a blur. 

A bee-filled blur. 

This would be why I missed last week's post - I just didn't have it in me, friends. All day on the couch on Saturday and Sunday - made a little better by all the college basketball I was able to watch - and I didn't read more than a few words of anything. I just couldn't keep my eyes on the page for more than 5 seconds. I read a little about bees (meh) and a little revisiting of GRRM's Dance of Dragons, because I've been watching G of T on HBO while lying on the couch. Monday was a little better and I started Phil Klay's powerhouse collection of modern war short stories, Redeployment. Really great, really heavy stuff - more on that next week, I suppose.

And now, all I'm reading is my bracket. (82% of Americans fill out NCAA brackets, btw.)

So... see you next week?

Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week Ten

Books read (all or part of) this week:
The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go
Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

I know that last week I was sure I would I finish and write about Justin Go's book for this post, but I drifted into Charlie LeDuff's book Detroit this past week instead. (I also considered writing about the LA Times Festival of Books-Amazon-thing, but it sort of exhausts me at the moment, so that might have to wait.) It's been a long week, what can I say. So, Detroit:
"But what you gonna do? You ain't gonna be reincarnated, so you got to do the best you can with the moment you got. Do the best you can and try to be good. You dig?"
I did. We are born to a time. What you do with it is on you. Do the best you can. Try to be good. And live.

Charlie LeDuff - GQ's reigning Madman of the Year and bad-boy TV reporter - grew up in the outskirts of Detroit but left it behind him as a young man, like so many others have. He went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the New York Times, mainly covering issues of race and poverty in America. He left his post with the Times in 2007 amid some controversy - the way Charlie tells it, his editors had a dislike for his coverage of "losers" - and returned to his hometown to raise his daughter among family and a semblance of "a culture." He took a reporting job with the fading Detroit News and spent the next few years covering the decline of what was once one of the richest cities in America. 
Detroit might be the epicenter, a funhouse mirror and future projection of America. An incredibly depressed city in its death swoon.
And, man, forgive me, but Detroit is a fucked up place. This book - Detroit: An American Autopsy - reads a bit like several dozen LeDuff articles stitched together, but it still packs a wallop. Massive City Hall corruption, an arson epidemic, rampant urban decay, murder after murder, lack of police response to just about anything, a fire department with broken equipment and no funding, and a general, oppressive depression hanging over the whole city. But LeDuff's point in all this death & destruction is to bring an awareness to the plight of this crumbling metropolis and to be one of the bright spots in the city he loves. If everyone turns their back on Detroit, including the people who are left living there, what's the point? There's still a city to be saved there - a place that deserves to be lifted up from its own ashes. A place where no matter how bad it may appear is still home to many, many people. It's not just a wasteland, a lost cause, a dead city. LeDuff proves with every sentence that there is very much life still left in the shell of Detroit Rock City.

LeDuff's raw intensity - his fury at the injustice of it all - is downright enviable, to be honest. Which lead me to wonder what is in my own life that I feel that passionate about? And if there is something, what am I doing about it? How am I furthering whatever my own cause might be?

I have to admit, I'm hardly feeling the writing thing this week - part of why this post is so much later than I'd have liked. The first quote I excerpted here from LeDuff is pulled from the very end of the book - and really struck me in its simplicity. "We are born to a time. What you do with it is on you." It's such a simple sentiment and not anything I haven't heard or thought before, but I've been thinking about my own career path a lot lately and wondering where that path might be leading me. At 38 - and 13 years after my first bookstore job - I'm still not sure. I'm in a huge working-life rut at the moment and I'm not sure how to get myself out. 

But I do know that it's on me.

How's that for a book review?

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Sexy Salman

Q: What’s the worst book you’ve ever read? 
A: “Midnight’s Children.” I started it but found it impossible. A quarter of the way through, I didn’t know if the bird was a bird, or a shadow; or if I was in a lake, or on a lake; or in a boat, or if I was a ghost or if I was even in India. It was the first book I never finished, and the beginning of a bad habit of not finishing books I don’t understand. I know how revered Salman Rushdie is as an author and a sex symbol, but I mean, come on.  
- the surprisingly well-read & very funny Chelsea Handler in this week's By the Book column in the NY Times.   
Midnight's been sitting on my own shelf, un-read, for years. No reason, really, other than blind intimidation. And there's nothing wrong with not finishing books - especially the ones you don't understand.

I never thought I would be endorsing anything Chelsea said or did - I've never thought her trashy comedic style was funny at all & her TV show makes me feel a little sick. When she visited a store I worked for a few years ago, she showed up half in the bag & drank a gigantic vodka something-or-other on the back patio before her book signing. Kind of a train wreck. But hell, her short interview in the Times is pretty great - she's very funny & shockingly literate. (Although there is an Ayn Rand mention.) I like that she just calls out Rushdie and his universally praised book for being this obnoxious, high-brow tripe. Maybe vodka is the key...

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week Nine (JPatt Edition)

Books read (all or part of) this week:
The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go
15 pages of Eyrie by Tim Winton when I forgot the other book at home one morning


This is what $1 million looks like
"I’m rich; I don’t need to sell more books. But I do think it’s essential for kids to read more broadly. And people just need to go into bookstores more. It’s not top of mind as much as it used to be.” -JPatt in the NY Times

I'm about halfway through Justin Go's forthcoming debut novel right now, The Steady Running of the Hour - more on that next week when I finish. We all know what I'm here to talk about.

Last September, James Patterson announced that he would give $1 million to independent bookstores around the country as a way of promoting literacy and supporting small businesses. Starting last Thursday, he proved good on his promise, giving grants between $2000 and $15,000 to 55 different independent bookstores, including San Diego's own Mysterious Galaxy and Yellow Book Road. Which is kind of awesome.

"I just want to get people more aware and involved in what’s going on here, which is that, with the advent of e-books, we either have a great opportunity or a great problem. Our bookstores in America are at risk. Publishing and publishers as we’ve known them are at stake. To some extent the future of American literature is at stake."

I do honestly think this is a nice thing that JPatt is doing - really I do. A few thousand dollars goes a long way for a small, independent business and his generosity is welcome and wholly unexpected. Is the e-book the scourge of the independent bookselling world? I don't know if I believe that. (I don't know if that's what he's really saying, but I'm going to run with it.) Even more confusing is that Patterson proudly notes on his website that he was the first author in the world to "achieve ten million e-book sales." ("Achieve" - give me a break.) So clearly he's okay with the e-book as a format when it lines his pockets but... not if it runs the local bookstore out of business? Hmmm.... But didn't he (at least in recent years) get to be so rich from online book sales - which includes the 10 million e-books? And isn't that where the crux of the problem lies for indie bookstores - competing with online retailers?

All of which naturally leads me to the point I'm dancing around... you knew this was coming... A million bucks is fantastic, but this guy made 90 million MORE dollars last year alone, so if he really wants to make a difference... I'm just sayin'. Maybe throw out $2 million? How 'bout five? Would that kill the guy?

The completely un-doctored header from jamespatterson.com.

Okay, hold up - of course, anyone can do whatever they want with their money - that's the nature of our capitalistic, democratic society and I accept (and to some degree, even embrace) that. But how did we get to this point? Creators of literary fluff like JPatt, athletes like LeBron, (seen here with JPatt!!) musicians like U2 ($125 million in 2013!) all make obscene amounts of money. Entertainers. We all seem to be okay with that - but for some reason we praise the shit out of them when they donate a small fraction of that money back to the businesses - nearly 40 years down the line in Patterson's case - that essentially made them what they are today. We're blinded by the glitz in all of this. $1 million sounds fantastic, but it's just 1.1% of Patterson's income from 2013. Think about what that would look like from your end - if you donated 1.1% of your salary. A bit of a blip, am I right? A few hundred bucks. A grain of sand on the freakin' beach, as they'd say. Now imagine if you made, say, 2300 times more money last year - the difference between JPatt & myself. Would you stick to that paltry 1.1%? 

Alright, that last bit was obnoxious, I know - and a bit off track. I really didn't want to harp on the salary thing. If JPatt wants to buy a 20,000 square foot house in Florida or fly to the moon or get a gold bust of his jowls or snort coke off a hooker's ass that's all entirely up to him. A million bucks is a million bucks, America. So thank you, James. (As if it was ever in doubt, any store I will ever be affiliated with will NEVER, EVER get a grant from him now, I can guarantee.)

However...

Salary aside, if he really and truly wants to make a difference for independent bookstores, wouldn't the most explosive, poignant way be to yank all of his books off of Amazon.com? (I've said this before, people.) Why are independent bookstores in so much trouble, Mr. Patterson? The prevailing reason is because people buy your books from Amazon at a fraction of what they'd pay at an independent store. Either use your influence to level the price playing field or pull your books off their site. There's no competing with a website that sells the same product at half the price, right out of the gate. And I'm afraid that paying stores with your JPatt subsidies isn't the answer here either. It's very nice of you, but it won't solve anything. So some store replaces their carpeting with your grant - does that prevent people from buying all their James Patterson novels from Amazon?

Think I'm being ridiculous? Check out this sidebar taken from Patterson's website, showing the myriad of ways you can purchase his books:

If he is indeed intent on saving independent bookstores, why are they listed as the 8th (Powell's) and 9th (the rest of us) options for purchasing books? This might seem like snark to you, but I'm being serious here. It is very clear from this graphic that Amazon is still the #1 option - and his own preferred method, obviously - for people to purchase Patterson's books. How can he donate money to the businesses that are being systematically driven out of business because of his primary benefactor? 

This is how I felt when I watched The Matrix for the first time. "Wait... what?"

Look, since the pulling of his books off Amazon will never happen, I'd much rather see JPatt donate his money to more national literacy programs instead. That's where the real trouble lies, going forward. (If no one knows how to read, who cares if there are bookstores?) Bookstores will either be here in the future or they won't - two grand to pay an electricity bill won't make a difference in the long run of whether Joe's Bookstore has a viable business model. Should stores factor in the possibility that James Patterson will bestow a grant upon them? C'mon. The indies that are still here are here because they are offering people things that Amazon cannot. A good bookstore is that "third place" - that gathering spot that's not home and not work, where you can feel that ever rarer sense of community. You can meet the author of your favorite book one evening. Bring your kids to a storytime another day. Booksellers can recommend books to you that are not James Patterson, every day of the week. You want the latest Alex Cross? Go online - I have no problem with that. Discuss it in a chatroom with some dude in Iowa who also loves JPatt. You want to know more about Laura Van Den Berg's short stories or this crazy awesome new book from Gingko Press? Argue with me over whether Cloud Atlas is the best book of the 21st century so far? This is what the independent bookstore can offer you. Let's just talk.

Look, there's room for all kinds of readers in this world - it's up to you to decide where you spend your money and what you want your community to look like.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week Eight

Books read (all or part of) this week:
The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett

I'm nearing the end of this 500+ page novel The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett - a paperback original due out in June of this year from FSG. Set in a future America where a whole generation of children are born without the ability to speak or comprehend spoken languages, it's a creepy, fascinating thought experiment on the way we would treat such people, where they fit into society, and the perils of trying to fix those who are not necessarily broken. The story is told on a chronological timeline comprised of narratives by different pivotal characters involved in the central plot - more on that in a minute. On the back of the book is a small mention that this book "began as an app" followed by a link to www.thesilenthistory.com. "Say what?" I asked. And down the internet rabbit hole I went.

Co-author Eli Horowitz is the former managing editor and publisher at McSweeney's who, at one point, became bummed out that eBooks were lacking in style points, compared to traditional books.

“We spent a lot of time making these print books into beautiful objects. And it seemed depressing to just squeeze them into a device. The prettiest e-book was still a little uglier than the worst book.”

So, he decided to create something wholly original for the digital market. Together with Matt Derby, Kevin Moffett, and Russell Quinn, he sketched out a 160,000 word novel about this generation of kids born without the ability to speak or comprehend human language. Presented in the form of 120 testimonial narratives "in the form of oral histories told by characters directly affected by the condition — parents, teachers, doctors, cult leaders, faith healers, and government officials, with unexpected intersections and unifying narratives." These 120 narratives were put into a slick iPhone app and serialized, releasing one per day beginning in the fall of 2012. Pretty groundbreaking in its own right. But then the fellas added another element - enhancing these testimonials are "field reports," written by readers of the testimonials (ie: you and me.) The only way to access these reports is to be physically at the location where they were logged by their author - this uses the GPS built into your mobile device & unlocks the reports as you near the location. (I don't know how well this element would work in reality, but it's pretty ingenious as far as interactivity with the reader.)

As the book purist that I am, I have some mixed feelings about all of this. On the one hand, I think that this sort of interactivity is what allows the eBook to transcend standard fare and venture into something else altogether. Is it how I personally would like to read a book? No way. I can see the inherent value in serializing a story, formatted as such for the digital reader, even though this is not how I prefer to get my reading material. (My complete ignorance of the existence of the app version should tell you a lot.) But when we reach the part where the audience begins world-building along with the authors... that just don't feel right to me. Of course, this is just one man's opinion, but allowing the reader to take part in the creation of the novel's backstory threatens the authenticity of the art form itself.

And now, here are a couple points of irony to bolster my "argument": the story of The Silent History has a lot to do with the advent of technology designed to "help" these "silents" be able to interact with the rest of humanity. For a while, most people think this is a great thing - a neurological implant device that allows silents to speak and understand language - but there are some silent holdouts who would rather embrace who they were born to be, rather than follow the mandates of the rest of this tech-loving society. Society says differently and there are thousands of forced implantations of these devices, creating a new generation of kids who were born silent, but were implanted at birth. (You KNOW this will be a problem down the road.) Eventually, said society reaches that inevitable breaking point and it becomes apparent that the tech doesn't preserve the soul and does nothing for making silents any happier in their lives. 

This isn't to say that we are headed this way, based on the publishing trajectory this particular book has taken, but still, it's an interesting dichotomy.

The thing is, based on the paperback book I've been reading, the novel stands up as a pretty great story all on its own. The other piece of irony, however, is that this may be the most poorly bound advance reading copy I've ever had, as every 10th page falls out in my hands as I read. 


I'd say that this is beside the point, but is it? Is this actually some sinister plot by the authors and their publisher?? Is it that the true value of this narrative lies in the digitized version, leaving the dusty paperback to rot and fall apart?! You can't force me to get your eBook implant!!!


Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week Seven

Books read (all or part of) this week:
The Painter by Peter Heller
The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community by Ray Oldenburg

Just yesterday evening I reached the end of Peter Heller's upcoming new novel, The Painter but I haven't quite had time to fully digest it yet. (A longer review is forthcoming, I promise.) Here's the really-short of it: 

Jim Stegner is a famous Colorado/New Mexico painter & and an infamous loose cannon/badboy. He's divorced, his teenaged daughter died recently under dire circumstances, he's a recovering alcoholic, he's been in prison. He also likes to fly fish. One afternoon, up in the mountains of Colorado, he has a run-in with a horse-abusing asshole of a poacher. Blood gets shed (from a punch in the nose) and feelings get hurt. (Horse gets rescued.) Later the following evening, Jim finds himself fishing in the middle of nowhere again and coincidentally in close proximity to the roughneck poacher. Naturally, Jim bashes the guy's head in with a rock. Moral dilemmas ensue. Here's the thing: despite the fact that Jim has a violent past and just killed a guy, he's a pretty sympathetic soul. Honest. There's a great, gnarled up morality play at the heart of this novel - even if you think Jim did "the right thing" by killing this guy, is it just? I, for one, could never get my head around that moral quandary. Watching Jim screw his new girlfriend/model, go fishing in the mountains, and make thousands on his paintings left me feeling greasy, rather than wholly sympathetic. But he's our narrator, so... thus ensues the dilemma.

I will also say this: don't expect The Dog Stars. Alas. But still, it's pretty solid. More on that later.

Meanwhile... last weekend I really didn't read much at all, partly because we were hosting a group of rowdy friends who comprise a 10-person "Film Club" on Saturday night. (Hot Saturday night for the over-35 crowd!) We meet intermittently in different homes to vote (ie: argue) over which film to watch (typically the host provides a voting slate, maybe five films) then we watch the "winner," and then we talk about it. Sometimes we talk during the movie. Honestly, we all think we are film snobs (witness my unused cinema/photography degree, thank you very much), artistes, & high-brow snooty-types, but we did pick Cedar Rapids once. And Cabin in the Woods another time.

Anyway, since Jen and I were hosting this time, we were cobbling together a slate of Oscar-nominated films to vote on - we pulled from different categories, avoiding the big ones with movies people were likely to have seen already. In my searching, I discovered this...



The Voorman Problem is a 13-minute film directed by Mark Gill, nominated for this year's Academy Award for Best Short Film (Live Action.) Why is this interesting to Book Catapult readers?

Because it's based on a section of David Mitchell's novel number9dream, that's why.

For a refresher - or if, for some bizarre, stupid reason you have NOT read this book, despite the pleadings of The Book Catapult - the UK's Guardian has a rather large excerpt online that you can check out. (This is from 2001, when the novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. And the excerpt is a little choppy... I'd strongly recommend you read the actual book, of course.) In the section in question, Eiji Miyake, narrator of number9dream, has followed Akiko Kato to the Ganymede Cinema where he watches her secretly meet with his own father, while the strange film PanOpticon shows on the screen. PanOpticon - where our interest lies in this particular instance - is about an encounter in a prison between a doctor and a "problem" inmate. See, inmate Voorman claims, rather boldly, to be God Himself. (This would be problematic.) Of course, Dr. Polonski doesn't believe a word that Voorman says - including the claim that the universe is only 9 days old and that his days are filled with "postcreation maintenance" - until Voorman literally makes Belgium cease to exist. (Polonski checks the map when he gets home and there's nothing but a big lake called the Walloon Lagoon there between France and Holland. And his wife thinks "Belgium" is a cheese.) Then Voorman swaps bodies with Polonski and walks out of prison, presumably to do naughty things to Mrs. Polonski. "I intend to make her smile in a most involuntary way."

This whole film within the novel is part of the head-exploding David Mitchell meta-verse that is continually unfolding within the pages of his books. Other than the trickery with the word "panopticon" ("all-seeing") and its continual appearance in Eiji's world, I'm honestly not sure what the true importance of the film sequence is in the novel. The scene itself is of Eiji watching Akiko and his father, interspersed with chunks of the film playing in the background. There's also the fact that Eiji fantasizes throughout the novel to the point where we really have no idea what is real and what is dreamscape. (I'm convinced that the whole thing is a dream sequence.)

Anyhow, none of this really matters as far as the Mark Gill film goes, of course. The film is only 13-minutes long and I haven't seen it (it's in full internet lockdown), so I can't really speak to it's quality or integrity as far as the Mitchell piece goes. And it probably doesn't matter. I do think it's great that there's some other Mitchell nerd out there who plucked this gem of a sequence from the book and turned it into an Oscar-worthy short film. And I've gone on long enough about the universe of David Mitchell. But still, the adaptation is pretty cool - and I'm picking it as my "steel pipe lock," as they say, in my Oscar pool.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week Six

Books read (all or part of) this week:
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
The Painter by Peter Heller

Some great stuff this week. Giddeeup.

I finally got around to reading Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers - a weirdo-Western Booker Prize shortlister from 2011. Eli and Charlie Sisters are professional killers roaming 1850's Oregon territory and Northern California in the employ of the mysterious Commodore. Charlie loves murdering, while cerebral Eli - the younger of the two & our narrator - is starting to question their motives and is considering hanging up the six-shooters for good. One last job - always a harbinger of doom - sends them to track down the wily, wonderfully-named Hermann Kermit Warm in Gold Rush country in the mountains northeast of San Francisco. When they learn that Warm may have invented something that could change the financial course of all their lives, the usual end is not so clearly marked anymore. DeWitt really works back and forth between a black, black humor and the dawning realization of the sad life these brothers are actually living. They may be the most feared men in the West, but if they don't have anyone who loves them in the end, what are they, really? Ah, but they always have each other.... The Booker committee described this as "the kind of western the Coen Brothers might write – stark, unsettling and with a keen eye for the perversity of human motivation."


Young God by Katherine Faw Morris... holy shit. Often we describe gritty novels about drugs and violence as "a punch in the gut" or "raw" or "harrowing" or "depraved" even, but I'm not sure any of that even comes close to describing this monstrous, visceral debut. Katherine Faw Morris - who, despite her byline of living with "two pit bulls," seems to be a little pixie of an author, based on her jacket photo - has penned one of the most shocking and brash debuts I have seen in a long, long while. Nikki is a 13-year-old young lady from backwoods North Carolina who finds herself rather nonplussed when her mother dies falling off a rocky outcrop one fine summer afternoon. See, Nikki has been unwanted and discarded for all of her time on the planet - which has made her callous, bold, and relatively fearless. She seeks out her wayward, drug-dealing father, Coy Hawkins, and shacks up with him - quickly learning how to smoke heroin, how to identify a hooker, how to cut a drug deal, how to scare off a rival pimp, how to snort ecstasy, how to remove a corpse's teeth, and how to inject heroin. Remember, Nikki is thirteen. Morris imparts all of this with an insane staccato pace that leaves you both breathless and feeling filthy from head to toe. I read this pretty much in one frantic go - it's one of those books that is absolutely impossible to tear your eyes away from, no matter how much you desperately might want to. The writing - my God, it just blazes across the page with an unparalleled frenzy. The terrible world that this Nikki lives in is just awful - yet she embraces her existence in this muck with both hands & with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that is completely terrifying. Definitely NOT for everyone, but necessary reading for fans of Frank Bill, John Brandon, early Denis Johnson & the like.

Fun Fact: Morris recently wrote a piece for the Paris Review on Flannery O'Connor's A Prayer Journal. Uhhhh-wha?

And The Painter by Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars.... Need I say more? Jim Stegner is struggling to get his life back on track after a series of unfortunate circumstances - the death of his daughter, a prison term, divorce. A successful painter, he spends his days in his Colorado studio and evenings fly fishing the Sulphur River. One day while heading to his fishing spot, he witnesses a man brutally beating a small horse - Jim, blind with rage, steps in & socks the guy on the nose. I haven't quite gotten to this point yet, but I know that Jim stews over this encounter to the point where he finds the guy a few nights later and kills him. Then he has to deal with that. I'm 75 pages deep at the moment & sucking up every word like it was my last. 
I watched the heat lightning and small fleets of clouds sail over the mountain ridge, lit from underneath, pale hulls and dark in the rigging. The lightning shimmered and boomed without sound, a far off battle. Heat lightning is a funny name. I guess because it comes this time of year, in the heaviest, sultry nights. But the glimmers seemed cold, part of the same cold distance as planets and stars.
On sale May 9, 2014. Sorry.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week Five

Books read (all or part of) this week:
Mount Terminus by David Grand
Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish
Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West by Bryce Andrews
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Since I also wrote Week 4's post this week, I haven't read all that much since last we spoke. I've been pretty much swamped with work since returning on Monday - leaving the store for a week in the middle of Spring/Summer buying season means that all my rep appointments are smooshed together at the ends & I have to scramble a bit. So there are a lot of meetings and appointments eating up my days where I SHOULD be reading books. God!

Since this is a post about anything book-related going on in my orbit, here's a cheap plug: events have been something of a rarity at the UCSD Bookstore, but this week we're involved in two great ones - one in-house, one elsewhere on campus. Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master's Son (this isn't a bookstore event, but we're selling the books for the department that's hosting him) is on campus Thursday and Greg Sestero, author of The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made will be here in the store on Friday. Sestero played "Mark" in Tommy Wiseau's epically horrible cult classic film, The Room. If you haven't seen this movie - called "the Citizen Kane of bad movies" - don't feel bad, I just watched it myself for the first time this week. Although, it seems every 19-year old kid on campus has not only heard of it, but they're dedicated, lunatic fans. (Check out theroomsoundboard.com for some examples of the dialogue from the film. Brace yourself.) Sestero is going to screen his documentary film about the making of The Room and lead a live script reading afterwards. Should be insane. (Friday evening at 5:00, Perks Cafe, UCSD Bookstore, if you can handle it.)

As for the rest of the books... I've been sort of mired down in David Grand's new novel Mount Terminus for the last several weeks and I can't decide if I like it at all, even 130 pages in. The fact that I started reading it almost 2 weeks ago and have only read 134 pages is kind of a red flag for me, actually - even with the 4 day dead zone of reading surrounding Winter Institute (see Week Four.) I might have just convinced myself to give it up. It's a novel about the dawn of the early 20th-century Hollywood machine, but all I've gotten to so far is a big - albeit beautiful - establishing shot of the desert hills above what will become Los Angeles. I might try again this weekend, but the stacks I came home from Seattle with are screaming my name.

http://milkweed.org/shop/product/342/inappropriate-behavior/Inappropriate Behavior is a collection of short stories by Murray Farish published by the fantastic folks at Milkweed Editions (Things That Are.) I've read all but the final story since last weekend, but the strange thing is I'm still not all that sure about it. I keep reading the next story just to see if they get any better, I think. It's not that they're bad - really, they're not - but I keep thinking that the author is just on the brink of something great, but I've yet to read a story that just knocks the whole thing out of the park. Think about it - usually in a great story collection, there's one early stand-out that blows you away and sets the pace. Not so with this one. The opener - The Passage - has been the strongest to me: where a young man encounters a defecting Lee Harvey Oswald on a steamer ship bound for France in 1959. Imbued with the misguided anger and confusion of that crossroads in history, it's solid throughout and seems to be setting the bar for the rest of the collection... But the rest are all a little flat to me. They feel halfway gritty and weird, but not quite gritty or weird enough to carry the load. Wells Tower Lite. Then again, it feels like a collection that might seem brilliant to me at a different point in my life. Who knows?

And after meeting Bryce Andrews in Seattle, I've just started dipping into his rather eloquent memoir about working on a ranch in Montana, Badluck Way. He has some really beautiful turns of phrase that have stopped me dead in my tracks. Very nice. I also started The Sisters Brothers last night - a book I've been meaning to read for years - after finally picking up a copy at Powell's in Portland. So far so good.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week Four

So... you may remember last week I said I was going to Seattle for ABA's Winter Institute (which ran Tuesday-Friday) and I wasn't sure if I would get my Week Four post up on time.
I will do my very best to post Week Four of this project on time and as promised... but I can't, um, make any promises.
Bookselling Juice
Now here we are three days late on a weekly post - not a great precedent for the 4th week in a 52-week series. I don't know what I was thinking, imagining I would have time to sit down and write about what I read that week. (I'm currently writing under duress, being exhausted and having to go to work in the morning. I know, this is my bed and I have to lie in it, but this post will be mostly gibberish.) In fact, I read not a single word of a book from Tuesday afternoon until this morning (Sunday.) Maybe the longest reading drought of my entire adult life. It turns out, going to a bookselling conference is about everything you can possibly fathom regarding books EXCEPT reading them. And book industry people all have hollow legs, by the way, so there were some lo-o-o-o-o-ng nights. And longer mornings.

Just like previous years, I met a lot of great people at this gathering of the indie bookselling tribe, heard about a lot of fantastic ideas, and have come home with all sorts of plans that will either make my current bookstore a slightly better place (not that most people there would notice) OR make the fantasy bookstore I will some day open all that much more awesome. But there are some other perks. Mainly that I packed up and shipped home a shit-ton of books from my visit to the North. Before Seattle, my wife Jen and I visited Portland, Oregon - among many things, home of Powell's Books, the country's largest independent bookstore. (Hubba-hubba.) As much as we knew we didn't need to buy any books... we did anyway:

Look, her head is made of frogs!
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories 
Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot
When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman
Hell at the Breech by Tom Franklin
the DK Guide to Trees
and Harry Potter in Spanish

Then, from Seattle - as far as I can remember, since I boxed it all up and shipped it home from the show - a huge pile of advance copies and/or signed copies:

Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish
The Bees by Laline Paull
The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour
California by Edan Lepucki
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol
Ruby by Cynthia Bond

I also met and procured the forthcoming books of Colson Whitehead, Greg Iles, Walter Kirn, Barry Lopez, Wesley Stace, and Holman Wang. And I was honored enough to be invited to dinner with Justin Go (The Steady Running of the Hour,) Bryce Andrews (Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West,) and Molly Wizenberg, author of Delancey & co-founder of the Seattle restaurant of the same name. (Molly also fed me and a passel of other booksellers. A huge thanks to Wendy Sheanin of Simon & Schuster for that invite.) What else... oh yeah, I also had dinner with the inestimable, super-sweet, and lovely Amy Leach, author of 2012 Catapult Notable book, Things That Are. (Big 'ol thanks to Patrick Thomas of Milkweed Editions for that.) And finally, after a decade of slinging his books and meeting his entire family on more than one occasion, I met, broke bread with, and drank alcoholic beverages with Anthony Doerr. A gentleman more genial and genuine cannot be found. The galley copies of Tony's incredible new book, All the Light We Cannot See (on sale May 6) were seriously the hottest item at the Institute and his signing line was by far the longest. I'm just saying, I'm pretty sure I've been on to something all this time with regards to this guy and it's time you all started listening to me.

I'll have more to tell you about Winter Institute and all that in this coming week's post, arriving in 3 1/2 very short days. In the meantime, I promise to take a break from partying and start reading again. After I get some sleep. Adios.