Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 33

Oh, a long week, friends, followed by another long week. So, even though I'm days late on Week 33's post, I don't feel like writing about all that action tonight. Instead, I will share this little gem with you - a paperback pulp novel Flash and Filigree by Terry Southern given to me by my friend Dave. As yet unread, but... that doesn't really matter. Published in 1958, the Omaha World Herald called it "Marvelous." The Cincinnati Enquirer said it was "Delightfully and horribly funny."

The best part, though, is on the back jacket. 

Babs Mintner - a girl with the body of an angel and the mind of a child. Her seduction at a drive-in theater is the funniest scene you'll ever read.
Just a few events in Flash and Filigree
The famous television show, 'What's My Disease'; a hashish party; a head-on collision at 120 m.p.h.; an alcoholic private eye; a mad judge...
So choice. Imagine! An alcoholic private eye! Craziness!! And hashish! Oh dear!

Anyway... More to say about the books I've been reading next week - which is really this week. See you in a few.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 32

Books read (all or part of) this week:
Soil by Jamie Kornegay
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein
Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian
A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison
The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyker
The Turner House by Angela Flourny
Pieces of My Mother by Melissa Cistaro
Benefit of the Doubt by Neal Griffin
Mercy 6 by David Bajo

I was back into the swing of the Indies Introduce readings this week - some pretty good, some outstanding, and some... The tricky thing here is that because of the sheer volume of books I have to get through for this thing, I have yet to finish more than a couple of them. The good ones, I shall return to - with more to report, hopefully.

A Small Indiscretion: see Week 30. I don't have anything more to say on this one, other than that I keep dipping back into it, which continues to surprise me.
The Book of Speculation: the circus, librarians, mysterious books... the pieces are there, but this thing just isn't keeping me hooked for whatever reason. I'm sure it will go through into later rounds - and most likely be a indie bestseller. Think Night Circus etc.

Soil: this is right up there with Young Skins as one of the better books I've encountered for this panel. A gritty Southern Gothic in the vein of Tom Franklin written by the owner of an independent bookstore in Mississippi. I'm listening. I can already tell (100 pages deep) that this is one of those divisive books where readers are either totally on board, loving it or can't stand to be in the company of its characters for more than a few pages. One of the main narrators is one of those guys that makes horrible decision after horrible decision, forcing us to watch his descent down the slippery slope of madness. What would you do if you found a dead guy on your property in the aftermath of a flood? A: call the police? or B: chop the body up in to small pieces and burn it into charcoal in your backyard? But it's really great.

The Sunlit Night: also fairly outstanding. Two narrative threads gradually come together - Frances is adrift after college and heads to an apprenticeship at a Norwegian art colony above the Arctic Circle and Yasha has spent his formative years in a Flatbush bakery, never yearning for more until his life is forced in directions he never expected. The narrative has a weird little lilt to it that I really like - Frances' especially, with her painting only in yellow under the 24-hour Norwegian sun. If I didn't have all these other books to wade through, I'd be reading this one.

Orhan's Inheritance: atmospheric (set in two timelines in 20th-century Turkey) and well-crafted, at least 50-something pages in. When Orhan's grandfather offs himself in a vat of indigo dye, the presumption is that the family business will go to Orhan while the assets and the family estate will go to his father. But grandpa's will says otherwise - and the homestead has been left to a woman in California that no one in the family has ever heard of. So Orhan tracks her down to try and sort things out. I'd keep reading this - which is saying something, I guess.

The Turner House: the main character is a man named "Cha-Cha." I'm already gone. This one seems like it's struggling to be a story about a large family from Detroit, but there's a strange ghost story element that keeps rearing its head, keeping the whole thing from ever getting flowing. Maybe after 100 pages it hits a narrative stride, but what I've read of it just keeps spinning its wheels. (I found the most surprising element to be that the author is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Hmmm...)

Pieces of My Mother: there's nothing wrong with this one, per se, just that personal memoirs about mothers aren't really my thing. It's fine, really. Next.

Benefit of the Doubt: oh, if I were actually able to give this book the "benefit of the doubt" and just politely decline and move along. But I really want to know how this got published. I know this is a bit mean spirited to poke fun at an untested debut novel - not to mention, relatively dangerous, since the author is a cop in a North San Diego County city. But this has been vetted as an entry for this process, edited by professionals, represented by an agent, and even blurbed by SoCal crime novelists Joseph Wambaugh and Don Winslow. Fair game, I say. Here's an excerpt from the prologue - this bad dude, Harlan has just shot this woman in the gut:
Her eyes shone clear and hateful.
"Go to hell."
"You first, Missy."
Harlan took aim and squeezed the trigger a smooth four times. The sacs of silicon that had created the sensual swell of her round breasts erupted an instant before her heart did the same, spraying blood and other fluids in all directions.

Lastly, in between all of this, I've been reading David Bajo's forthcoming novel, Mercy 6. Bajo also wrote The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri - a 2008 Catapult Notable - and Panopticon - a 2010 Catapult Notable. So he's got some chops. 

Here's the best part: the man himself will be reading from, discussing, and signing Mercy 6 at ye olde UCSD Bookstore on Thursday, September 11 at 4:00pm. David is a super-nice guy and a San Diego original - so if you're in the 'hood on 9/11, head on over and join us!

Monday, August 04, 2014

2014 Booker Longlist: Padded with Americana?

Let's just get the opinion thing out right away: personally - and I say this as an American reader, really - I think opening up the Booker Prize to American authors cheapens and diminishes the award significantly. But let me back up.

Until this current year, these were the requirements for eligibility for the Man Booker Prize, established in 1969:

Any full-length novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland and published in the United Kingdom for the first time in the year of the prize. The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and must not be self-published.  

Then, just before the announcement of the 2013 Booker, they switched things up (this is from a press release from the Booker Foundation chair, Jonathan Taylor):

...the Man Booker Prize is to expand eligibility for future prizes to include novels originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of the author.

Okay, I can sort of see the value in this - they're trying to globalize this award that seemingly no one pays attention to outside of the UK and this website that you are currently browsing. But the United States has the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for American authors - was it really necessary to water down the soup from which the Booker committee ladles their winner? I happen to believe that there are more than enough broad-reaching novels written by writers falling under the Commonwealth umbrella to still make the Booker a viable UK-only award. But for the sake of acquiescence, I suppose, let's see what the first expanded longlist looks like - announced on July 23:
Joshua Ferris - To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (American)
Richard Flanagan - The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Australian)
Karen Joy Fowler - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (American)
Siri Hustvedt - The Blazing World (American)
Howard Jacobson - J (British)
Paul Kingsnorth - The Wake (British)
David Mitchell - The Bone Clocks (British)
Neel Mukherjee - The Lives of Others (British)
David Nicholls - Us (British)
Joseph O'Neill - The Dog (Irish/American)
Richard Powers - Orfeo (American)
Ali Smith - How to be Both (British)
Niall Williams - History of the Rain (Irish)
Now... ahem... we all know who I'm rooting for - and let's be honest, this really has got to be Mitchell's year. Which is what worries me. Five of his six books have now been nominated to the Booker longlist - and Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas made it to the shortlist. And, as you all know, The Bone Clocks truly is a masterpiece and should win easily. Easily! Looking at the rest of this list, none of the American authors feel like they'll make the cut to the short, so was the change really necessary? Joshua Ferris? Really? In all fairness, I haven't read this new book, but I did read Then We Came to the End (which was a sort-of funny, unusually narrated debut) and only half of The Unnamed, a story about a guy who literally can't stop walking that felt to be wandering completely aimlessly. (Neither of which I thought were worthy of award consideration, to be honest.) Karen Joy Fowler's book definitely sounds interesting, but c'mon, she also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club. Siri Hustvedt and Richard Powers seem like serious contenders, but I'm only basing that on assumptions. I've never read anything by Hustvedt, although I've often thought that a dinner party at her house with her husband, Paul Auster, would be the most terrifying, intimidating party possible. And I've been told to read Powers on many occasions (mainly by a friend who only reads novels with head injuries in them) but just haven't managed it. But actually the biggest news for this longlist is actually an omission - and I'm not talking about the lack of Canadians: American Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning, Catapult Notable novel, The Goldfinch is nowhere to be seen. Say what you want about Tartt's work being less-than literary (see this Vanity Fair piece for a summary of the snooty bullshit) but all signs point to her inclusion on this first-ever "global" Booker Prize list. (Actually, if you are one of those obnoxious idiots claiming that Tartt is not literary, shut your stupid mouth - she should've been on this list.)

Honestly, the rest it is pretty solid, as far as I can tell. Flanagan, Jacobson, O'Neill, and Smith are all known as legit, literary writers with some backbone. Did the field need to be expanded to America? (I say "America" becuase that's the only country represented outside the Commonwealth in this "global" list.) At first glance, definitely, absolutely not. 

But this is one of those snobby, pretentious things to debate when your life isn't threatened by Russian missiles, Ebola, or dudes tunneling under your walls or shooting rockets into your living room. Yes, I am complaining - publicly - about the rules and regulations for an arbitrary award (worth over $80k, by the by) given to someone who has written a book. Please punch me in the face. 

That said...
The Booker shortlist will be announced on September 9 and the winner (aka: Mr. David Mitchell) on October 14. If you have any questions for a five-time Booker nominee, head on over to and get your ticket.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 31

This was Anthony Doerr Week - all I read were things written by him.
This is just after Wednesday night's event at Warwick's - Tony Doerr (plaid shirt) and yours truly in front of 110 adoring All the Light We Cannot See fans. A staggeringly amazing, humbling evening. We discussed the impetus for the new novel, the ten years of research and writing he spent crafting it, his life as a "dilettante" college student (which ultimately lead him to writing as an outlet), the connectivity of radio in the 1940's, Edward R. Murrow, the connections between people every day that may set the course of our lives in innumerable ways, the perils of writing about Nazis, and whether the ease of information access through modern technology is a detriment or an asset to humanity. You know, small picture stuff.

A HUGE thank you to Anthony Doerr for letting me crash his party and be a part of his universe for an evening - and for being one of the most wonderful, inspiring, and generous human beings I've ever had the honor to meet.

And of course, massive thanks to my whole Warwick's extended family - Julie, Nancy, Adrian especially. Thank you for so graciously letting me come back to my bookselling roots and be a part of this amazing event.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 30

Books read (all or part of) this week:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger
Young Skins: Stories by Colin Barrett
A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison
The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria
The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

This week was full-steam ahead on the Indies Introduce panel reads - and luckily, nothing was outright terrible. Hooray!

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris: destined to do well in independent bookstores without the help of this program, just simply because it's a comedic memoir about grammar and writing. Norris has been a copy editor at the New Yorker for 35 years - her book is a mix of that experience and her proclivity for proper grammar usage. I've been finding it a bit disjointed, if well-written - if that makes any sense. I want a little more New Yorker and a little less of the grammar lessons, which come off a bit dry and elitist. But she is very funny.

Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger: I read way more of this than I both wanted to and expected myself to - nearly 200 pages. There is something compelling about the conniving, lying, oddball protagonist that I couldn't stop reading. It's a bit of a novel about nothing - this girl is just floating from pub to pub, crap job to crap job, toying with everyone she interacts with, not really getting anywhere. It stuck me as a bit of a Bret Easton Ellis/F. Scott Fitzgerald/something grittier & meaner mash-up. Every time I thought I'd had enough, a one-liner would cross the page that gave me pause or some scene would make me laugh out loud. "She reeked of a celebrity-endorsed perfume. She was square like a tank but had a smiley face." I don't know, I'm positive that the rest of the panel will vote it out, but I think I'll finish it either way. (Here's a great review of it from the UK's Guardian.)

Young Skins by Colin Barrett: definitely the best book I've read yet for this panel and certainly the one most in my own wheelhouse. These short stories set in & around the small Irish town of Glanbeigh, County Mayo are just small glimpses, vignettes of the lives of some of the younger class of residents. A bit of grit clings to each story, each sentence - maybe a hint of an outburst, a drinking binge, a fight, a spat over a girl. Yet they didn't strike me as overtly dark stories, even if they are a bit mournful at times or introspective, at the least. "I am young, and the young do not number many here, but it is fair to say we have the run of the place." I thought they were just brilliant - infused with life and realism and characters that stick in your craw, even if you're with them for only 20 pages. (This also just won the 2014 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award - a pretty prestigious literary award. This dude's going places, trust me.)

A Small Indiscretion: another that I've read more of than I expected to - I was trying to hold myself to the 50 page limit, just for a cursory assessment, but I kept going past 100 yesterday morning on the couch. Annie Black, mother of three, has shattered her marriage based on the title's "small indiscretion," but it seems to be far more complex and has tendrils reaching 20 years into her past. Told in a confessional, story-telling style to her eldest son, who lies in a coma after a car crash - which is somehow related, but I'm not sure how yet. It's good - the prose isn't blowing me away, but I keep reading because I want to find out how all the pieces come together.

The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria: I've only read about 50 pages of this and while it's not my normal cup of tea, it's definitely has the heft of an "important" book - and one that I'm glad to have read what I've read of. It's a mix of Zakaria's personal (& family) memoir and the history of Pakistan - which is a fascinating history in and of itself, following Partition from India after the Brits relinquished control in 1947. Zakaria's family relocated from Bombay to Karachi along with the other millions of India's Muslims in the decade after Partition and the book is a mix of their story and the story of their new homeland - including the violent, conservative state it has become in recent years. I feel like I'd be a jerk if I put it down.

And... it's Tony Doerr Week this week! Of course you've marked your calendars, but just as a quick reminder: this Wednesday the 30th at 7:30pm, Warwick's in La Jolla. A riveting, fascinating discussion between The Author and The Catapult Operator. An evening that will change your life.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 28/29

Books read (all or part of) this week:
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
Wolf Winter by Camilla Ekbäck
The Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew Ferguson
Mort(e) by Robert Repino
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (again)
The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard

Some weeks, this "post-a-week" deal is a terrible albatross. ("Terrible" being relative, of course.) So, not for the first - nor the last time, I missed a week and am doubling up in a catch-up posting. Deal with it, dear reader. 

Don't blame the mailman

My reading life is not my own for the moment. Which is okay, really. I mentioned in a previous post (before the big David Mitchell reveal) that I'm on this panel for an ABA program called Indies Introduce. Publishing houses (big & small) select forthcoming works from debut authors of theirs and our panel of nine expert booksellers from all over the country read them all and pick the consensus Top Ten. Those ten will be promoted and displayed and handsold by booksellers across the land when they are published next Winter - just as a way to put some outstanding debuts in the forefront where they normally might get lost in the shuffle. So manuscripts and galleys have been arriving daily at my home stoop & I've been chipping away at my assignments. To date, 28 manuscripts have arrived (see above stacks, much to the wife's dismay) and the mailman hasn't delivered yet today.

Here's a rundown of what I've read so far:

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck - not completely sold on this one yet. One of the rules of the judging is that we have to read at least 50 pages before making an assessment - and I've read 188 of Wolf Winter so far. So I'm in it, but I'm not sure if it's because it's a great piece of fiction or if I just want to see where things are going. Set in in a rural community in Swedish Lapland in 1717 during one of the worst winters anyone can remember. A guy turns up dead - very much so, actually, torn to pieces in an especially violent way. No one is sure if he was killed by wolves or butchered by a person. Intriguing - it's a different setting, for sure. But there's also this "I see dead people" thing going on that keeps me at bay. Shelved for further assessment.

Meow. Stab, stab, stab.
The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat - loved it. Definitely voting - strongly - to pass this one through to the next round. A slim little volume that was a bestseller in France last year, apparently, it reminded me of Shadow of the Wind, maybe a little of Calvino, and even All the Light We Cannot See, actually. Hélene has never been as enamored with her elusive great-uncle Daniel as her brother has, but when she moves into the apartment above Daniel's in Paris, she becomes increasingly curious about who he really is. Daniel has written 25 wildly successful adventure novels for young people under a pen name, but Hélene feels she barely knows the man. What is he hiding behind the kindly-uncle-facade? Has he really lived the life he claims, traveling the world, having adventures or is it all just storytelling? Where does he really go when he leaves the apartment to work? What begins as a straightforward curiosity for Hélene, becomes a dark journey into her family's past - and nothing she discovers is what she expects. Just fantastic.

The Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew Ferguson - just getting started, not sure about it yet. It has some great potential, at least based on the premise. After his girlfriend breaks up with him, Henry starts to go a little crazy - hallucinating, wandering New York City, hearing strange music. At one point, on the George Washington Bridge, he blacks out and wakes up in the Catskills in the company of his 41-year old and 80-year old selves. And that's about where I am at the moment. A great hook, but I'm not completely sold on the prose yet.

Mort(e) by Robert Repino - another with tremendous potential that the jury's still out on. An insane, brilliant premise: for thousands of years, a giant Colony of super-intelligent ants has been gathering their strength to conquer the surface world. Now is the time to strike - and wipe the destructive human race off the face of the planet. Aiding the ants in their war against humanity are all the other surface animals - transformed into sentient, bi-pedal killing machines bent on loosing the world from the shackles of their human oppressors, creating an animal utopia of peace and harmony. (Our "hero" is a walking, talking, killing house cat, formerly known as Sebastian, now Mort(e).) Despite the set-up, there are a lot of holes in the plot and the prose, so it remains to be seen whether I can overlook all that. The writing seems several steps ahead of the story all the time - like the author is writing it stream-of-consciousness-like. "Oh, and another thing, this beagle drives a sanitation truck. Yeah!" I know I'll pass it along to the next round - it's just too crazy not too - but I'm curious to see both what other judges think as well as where the story ends up.

And in between all of this I've been re-reading Tony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See in order to prep for the big event on July 30. He's going to show a slide show about the research he did for the novel - which took ten years to craft - and we're going to have a little chat, he and I, and try and draw a little more out about his writing, his characters, and the like. I know you'll be there, dear reader. See you on July 30 at 7:30 - Warwick's, 7812 Girard in La Jolla.

Monday, July 07, 2014

David Mitchell - Alive and in San Diego!

This is not a cruel joke or a test of some sort. This is really happening:

The real David Mitchell.
Live and in person.
Yes, THAT David Mitchell.
In conversation with yours truly.

Buy your tickets right now, through Warwick's, right here on Eventbrite 
(Tickets include a copy of The Bone Clocks.)

Have a burning question for Mr. Mitchell? Other event questions? Publicity questions? 
Let me know: 

A Year of Reading, Week 27

Books read (all or part of) this week:
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

This reading week - also a holiday - flew by without much actual reading going on. We drove up to Santa Cruz to visit family and, due to an enthusiastic young nephew, I read about 20 pages in 4 days. Not such a bad thing, really.

I did finish Denis Johnson's next book - The Laughing Monsters (out November 2014) - which was like Hunter S. Thompson visiting the darkest heart of Africa. (Without the ether and the poppers.) It's complete madness contained within a 200-page novel - double-crosses, double-double-crosses, lying, cheating, trickery, craziness, boozing, spying, and mayhem. Maybe Roland Nair is a NATO operative keeping tabs on one Michael Adriko in Sierra Leone. Or maybe he's actually Michael's friend and they're working on the score of a lifetime? Or perhaps Nair is a Danish operative? Wait, maybe he's an American... And is Adriko a Green Beret? Or Ghanaian? Or just a drug smuggler? Or is is enriched uranium? You know what, I think everyone is lying to me, actually. It's bad craziness and... I kind of loved it. I felt like I was dropped into the middle of a 25-year long conversation, had almost no idea what was happening around me for 200-pages worth before I was sucked back out to my own life. Which now feels emptier somehow. 

Johnson has now written - among other things - a seminal Vietnam War novel, a series of short stories about alcoholic losers, an atmospheric meditation on an early-20th century everyman, and this - a crazy, whirlwind spy-novel-ish adventure through West Africa. Amazing.


I'm also part of this selection committee for Indies Introduce - an American Booksellers Association (ABA) program that twice a year selects debut authors for independent bookstores around the country to champion. The panel (all booksellers) reads through the submissions from publishers and picks the cream of the crop - so extra books have been showing up at my front door for the last week or so. Guaranteed to keep me busy - but I'm super psyched to be a part of it. More on that as I move along, I'm sure.

And just a reminder: 

Anthony Doerr 
in Conversation with The Book Catapult 
on Wednesday, July 30th, 7:30pm

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 26: Station Eleven

Books read (all or part of) this week:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

If 99.999% of the human population on earth were to perish in a superflu pandemic and you somehow, miraculously, managed to survive, what would you miss the most? Chocolate chip cookies? Air travel? Shakespeare in the park? Your laptop? iPhone? Uh... your family?

I know, it sounds like we've been down this road before - Seth likes a book about a global flu pandemic that leaves a sliver of humanity as stewards of the planet. But Emily St. John Mandel's new novel, Station Eleven (on-sale September 9) is right in Dog Stars territory, I'm tellin' you. That good.

There's one of those "notes from the editor" letters in the front of the galley I have - most advance reading copies have these things & I rarely pay any attention. But this actually made comparisons to the aforementioned Dog Stars, as well as the holiest-of-holy's, ye olde Cloud Atlas. Oh really, dear editor?

Arthur, Jeevan, Kirsten, Clark, and Miranda are our primary players in this post-apocalyptic drama. Arthur Leander, famous actor, drops dead on page 2, but definitely remains the central figure - his actions throughout his life informed the lives of the others as a sort of butterfly effect. Within a few hours of Arthur's death - a heart attack, perhaps, while performing the lead role in King Lear - the devastating Georgian Flu begins coursing across North America, taking the vast majority of humanity with it. Mandel punctuates this sobering fact absolutely chillingly, perfectly, within the first few pages. When Arthur dies at this theater in Toronto, the city is on the cusp of a massive snowstorm and in the sad immediate aftermath of Arthur's demise, his fellow actors and a handful of theater people gather in the theater bar as the snow begins to fall to talk about Arthur. Who should we call? Did he have any close family? (A sad fact in itself, considering his celebrity.) Gossip about his divorces, his young son, a toast to the man - we are lulled into a sense of ease, settling into this story about Arthur. Then this, to close the chapter:
Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.
Oh shit.

This isn't really about Arthur at all! It's about this horrible pandemic! We're all doomed!

Remain calm. The novel moves forward and back in time, filling in the gaps in the life stories of these five people - and gradually revealing the connective threads between them all. Clark is Arthur's oldest friend; Miranda was his first wife; Jeevan (among several David Mitchell-worthy connections) was the first person to rush from the audience when Arthur collapsed on stage; and Kirsten was an 8-year-old actress in the play that fateful night, but survived the flu and reappears as part of a traveling group of actors and musicians 20 years after the end of civilization. She was young enough - and seemingly traumatized enough by the pandemic aftermath itself - that she doesn't remember much of the old world, filled with electric light and modern convenience. The world of this future is not as violent and horrifying as many post-apocalypse novels may be. Certainly not as terrifying as some of the things Hig does to survive in The Dog Stars - and we definitely see nothing like a Cormac McCarthy baby-barbecue in this. Really the plague was so all-inclusive that there just aren't enough people left and the ones who survived seem to just want to live in peace. There are actually two factions of people living in this post-flu world - those that remember how good we had it and those who don't. 

And that seems to be an underlying theme to this: we do have it pretty good right now, at this particular point in human history. Many of us in the world are comfortable and have every creature comfort we could ever imagine, yet we take it all for granted on a daily basis. 

I can't believe my cell phone just dropped that call. 
This traffic jam is ridiculous. 
How is this international flight delayed right now?
Ugh, I'm out of coffee.
No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ballgames played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities.
What would life be like if it were all torn from our grasp in an instant? What if everyone you knew was gone in a month's time? Literally everyone. What would become important to you in light of that? 

That right there is what this magnificent, lyrical novel is about - recognizing that actual human connection is the most important element to human life. (There's that Cloud Atlas similarity.) We are nothing without each other - just animals roaming the wasteland, muttering to ourselves. Arthur serves as the lynchpin connecting the lives of these other people, but only peripherally. I think, more than anything, with his celebrity status in the pre-apocalypse world, Arthur shows us how inconsequential and truly fleeting fame really is and that there is much more below the surface of the things we deem important or worthy in our current world. Once all the trappings of modernity are stripped away, what is left?

The Dog Stars, The Son, Everything Matters!, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Jacob de Zoet - Station Eleven is firmly in the company of some of the best books I've read in the last few years. Above some, even. Mandel's prose is fluid, emotive, and airy - yet there is a palpable tension to everything, hanging over every conversation, every act. (See previous references to a global pandemic and massive loss of human life.) But the thing is, I was never in doubt that this was the way we would behave if faced with the terrible reality of such a devastating collapse of human life. Tense, yes, of course, but it seemed a much more optimistic - and frankly, refreshing - view of a potential post-apocalyptic world. We regroup, we refocus, we reevaluate - and we move on and try to make the world worth living, however we can. Hey, as long as we've got each other - whoever we are, whatever we're left with - I'm okay with that.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 25

Books read (all or part of) this week:
Red or Dead by David Peace
Further Joy: Stories by John Brandon
The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris

I didn't finish any of the books I was reading this past (birthday) week, but here's a quick rundown:

Red or Dead by David Peace is an insanely obsessive biographical novel about legendary soccer coach Bill Shankly. Shankly brought the Liverpool Football Club to national prominence in England's Premier League in the '60's and early '70's, winning three First Division championships, 2 FA Cups, and a UEFA championship. The prose style to this is hard to describe - "obsessive" is the word that I keep coming back to. It's repetitive, methodical, and metronomic - much like a back-and-forth soccer match, I suppose. A sampler: 
And in the sunshine. The lovely, spring sunshine. The new Champions of England ran around the pitch. The Anfield pitch. In the sunshine. The lovely, spring sunshine. The new Champions of England ran a lap of honour around the ground. The Anfield ground. In the sunshine. The lovely, spring sunshine. Ron Yeats carried the trophy around the stadium. The Anfield stadium. In the sunshine. The lovely, spring sunshine. 
Etc. Etc. It's weirdly hypnotic and I find it hard to tear my eyes away while I'm in it, yet often can't bring myself to go back once I leave. Great for reading between World Cup matches though.

John Brandon's first collection of short stories, Further Joy, is a bit of a David Peace antidote, in a way. I've been a fan of Brandon's for a while - his three novels Arkansas, Citrus County, & A Million Heavens have all gotten The Book Catapult write-up and/or been Catapult Notables. His characters always hang just at the fringes of acceptable behavior, yet have a strange magnetic pull to them that cannot be denied. I've read five of these new stories so far & met a manipulative down-on-his luck gambler, witnessed a burgeoning May-December relationship, visited a weird Rapture-stricken town, and followed a young woman with nowhere to go in a small, swampy Florida town. Weirdos and aimless wanders all, wondering where to point their ships and how to approach the next phase of life. And they're wonderful.  

And The End of Absence by Michael Harris - just started dipping into this startling, poignant nonfiction piece. We are the last generation to remember life without the internet. We all carry an infinite wealth of information around in our pockets. We are never alone, always connecting with people all over the globe, yet do we know how to interact with each other face to face anymore? What does this mean? Socially, personally, genetically? Are we rewiring our brains for the better or worse? A fascinating subject - and one that makes me want to slow down, unplug, stop staring at this screen...

A Year of Reading, Week 24: About Grace

Books read (all or part of) this week:
About Grace by Anthony Doerr
Red or Dead by David Peace
Am I following a path already laid out for me, or am I making it myself?
Is the book that changed your life a decade past still relevant 10 years later? If your 28-year-old self was profoundly affected by some element of a story, would your 38-year-old self feel the same way? Would you even know where to look, where to be affected? I read Anthony Doerr's debut novel, About Grace sometime in late-2004 and it blew my fragile little bookseller mind. I have literally sold hundreds of copies of the book to the people of San Diego - for a period of 2 or 3 years there I was recommending it to every customer I spoke to in the bookstore where I worked. My l'il shelftalker/elevator pitch for the last few years:

Of all the contemporary novels I have read in the last decade or so, Doerr’s first full-length novel stands out as an elegant, heartbreaking, and truly graceful piece of writing that has really stuck with me. A story of dreams & water, fathers & daughters, love, exile, and redemption. Protagonist David Winkler makes some poor life choices, although we have the benefit of a reader’s hindsight, but I found his lifelong journey towards the possibility of redemption to be almost overpoweringly compelling. Profoundly moving, erudite, & extremely well-crafted, this is really, truly, one of the best books I have ever read in my life.

As I'm sure you're aware, dear reader, Anthony Doerr will be here in San Diego on July 30th - an "in conversation" event with yours truly (aka: The Book Catapult) at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla. So, in preparation for this, I've been steadily re-working my way through Doerr's canon of work - short stories, essays, novels. Everything. And so I found myself returned to the doorstep of this novel - his first - About Grace, which affected me in such a profound and heady way ten years ago. I wanted to see, for one, if it stands up as well in reality as it has in my own head, but also to see if I would be as moved by it on the second go round. I find reading fiction to be such a personal venture - sure, everyone can read Gone Girl and get whatever it is people get out of that, but some works have so many layers and facets to them that each reader may connect with a different character, a different scene, a different sentence than the person reading it right next to them. (An argument can be made, I'm sure, that Gone Girl has the same multi-layered, reader-to-reader effect, but I'm not getting into that nonsense right now.)

Here's the basic setup for Grace, before I get too far down the rabbit hole:

David Winkler is a lonely hydrologist from Alaska - he obsessively studies ice crystals in snowflakes & muses on evaporation and the circular patterns of water on our planet. And he dreams - but not like you and I, exactly. Sometimes, he dreams innocuous, innocent instances of life that end up "disbanding into fragments he could not reassemble" when he wakes, but that always come true in real life. Dreams of the overhead compartment on a plane opening and a bag falling out, a woman dropping a magazine in a supermarket line. Always he finds himself living inside the dreams as they unfold in his waking life. Sometimes, though, they're not so innocuous:
... a few times in his life he had fuller visions: the experience of them fine-edged and hyperreal - like waking to find himself atop a barely frozen lake, the deep cracking sounding beneath his feet - and those dreams remained long after he woke, reminding themselves to him throughout the days to come, as if the imminent could not wait to become the past, or the present lunged at the future, eager for what would be.
"Snowflake macro: spark" by Alexey Kljativ

When Winkler finds himself in that supermarket line with the woman who drops her magazine - Sandy, literally the woman of his dreams - they both realize that something magnetic is happening between them. An affair begins - all-consuming for Winkler, extra-marital for Sandy. She gets pregnant, they run away from Alaska together. Everything seems (relatively) fine until David has The Dream - where their infant daughter Grace slips from his arms and drowns in a flood. His indecision and general panic over this dream leads him not into a calm, rational conversation with his wife - which presumably could lead to any number of reasonable outcomes - but he convinces himself that the only way to be sure that Grace will not die in the foretold way is if he is taken out of the equation altogether. So he bails. Drives to New York, panics some more, thinking he's entering The Dream, and buys passage on a merchant freighter bound for Caracas, Venezuela. And he goes.

I was actually giving this pitch to someone the other day, funny enough, and she complained that I was giving the whole story away. Not really - this is just Part One & all info you can get off the book jacket, but I'll step back at this point. Winkler lands in the Caribbean where, penniless and alone, he lives not knowing if Grace survived or if Sandy will ever forgive him. It's incredibly heartbreaking. Despite the fact that Winkler is an idiot for most of Act One (and much of 2 and 3, actually) I found myself gradually coming around to his plight. I think I might have been more quickly forgiving of Winkler's faults the first time I read this, but the end result has been the same. See, despite whether or not his dreams are truly prescient, Winkler believes that they are - with every ounce of his soul - therefore... How can we deny him his convictions?  
Who among us, in our lowest hour, can expect to be saved? Have you loved your life? Have you cherished each miraculous breath?
Winkler's abandonment of Grace is understandably always the hangup people have when I tell them what the book is about. We don't like that the main character ditches his family - especially just because of some stupid dream. (I didn't even tell you of Winkler's excruciating inability to just buck up and tell people about his dreams. Gaaaahhh!!!) But despite the madness of this abandonment, his distress at his situation is so visceral, so heartbreaking that I couldn't help but root for him in the end. Don't we all deserve to love and be loved? Everything he does is in service of protecting his family - even if that means leaving them behind, it's the only way he feels he can ensure their safety. And that deserves respect in the end.

Amidst all this drama and emotional button-pushing, the one thing that really stood out for me this time was the sheer beauty of Doerr's writing. Winkler makes photographic prints of snowflakes, fish swim below the glass floor of an island restaurant, flood waters rage down a suburban street - all the imagery is just so vivid and lush. I can't think of another book I've read where all facets are so perfectly realized and come together so clearly in my imagination. Like I've said, reading fiction is often a very personal pursuit and there's clearly just something about this story and the prose that strikes a chord with me. I didn't have the same emotional response to Grace on the second reading, but I think I have a greater appreciation for Doerr's writing itself than before. The structure of the novel was more interesting this time around and I loved that Winkler's dreams were not the dominant core of the story. They guide things along, set things on their track, but the story is about a man who has to deal with the incredibly difficult decisions he has made in his own life. There's a certain beauty to that, I think - the very realness of Winkler's story, despite this weird dream thing he's got going on. It doesn't matter what the dreams tell him, it's about what he does in the waking world that counts.

There's a great sequence where Winkler is hitching a ride with a long-haul trucker who has a record player rigged up in between the seats in his cab. They listen to Sam Cooke as they drive across British Columbia, Winkler pondering the course his life has taken.
"Is this real?" he asked.
"Say what, pardner?" Brent reached to adjust the volume.
"Is this real? What's happening to me?"
Reflectors in the road thwapped beneath the tires, setting a regular, almost reassuring pace. Thwap, thwap, thwap. Hooh! Aah! said Sam Cooke. Brent gave Winkler a curious look.
"Real? It's as real as rain, I guess. Real as Jesus."

*The snowflake image is by the amazing macrophotographer Alexey Kljativ:

Sunday, June 08, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 23

Books read (all or part of) this week:
About Grace by Anthony Doerr
Eyrie by Tim Winton
The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare
Karate Chop: Stories by Dorthe Nors
The End of Absence by Michael Harris
A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin
The Wes Letters by Feliz Lucia Molina, Ben Segal and Brett Zehner

Fits and starts, half-read short stories, pieces of novels, essays, & old books already read. I was all over the place last week - and not just in my reading life. Sometimes the reality of my waking world mirrors my indecision towards which book I settle down with. I'm at a bit of a career crossroads right now, I think, and I'm having a tough time nailing down what it is exactly I want to do with myself. Do I soldier on in my current position, collecting government benefits and a steady paycheck while sacrificing the elements of bookselling that I'm passionate about? (The fact that there is virtually zero chance of anyone I work with reading this blog and realizing that I hate my job should tell you something about the culture there.) Or do I scrap it all and open my own bookstore (with a bar inside, of course) and hope that that niche I think needs filling in San Diego is actually out there? Or do I put everything I have in my tank toward making The Book Catapult San Diego's go-to, outside-the-box literary event coordination machine? Some combination of all of those? Some of those? Good questions.

As for the books, I really was re-reading Anthony Doerr's first novel, About Grace all week to prep myself for our in-conversation event at Warwick's on July 30. (More info here and here.) 
"Am I following a path already laid out for me, or am I making it myself?" 
Mmm-hmm. More on that next week.

But I became distracted late in the week and jumped around from book to book. 5 more pages of Eyrie by Tim Winton before falling asleep one night. A chapter of the new Philip Hoare book while I ate breakfast one morning. Two stories in Dorthe Nors' collection, Karate Chop. (Not going back, I don't think.) 12 pages of The End of Absence by Michael Harris on my walk back to my car after work on Thursday. (Partly because I'm stuck on this idea that we now live in a world without absence or true silence - or just that feeling of unknowing, really. Smartphones with every conceivable answer to every single question reside in all our pockets. We are the last generation to remember life without the crutch of the internet....) 30 pages of The Wes Letters, in preparation for an in-store author event on Friday. (This is an epistolary novel written to filmmaker Wes Anderson, composed by 2 UCSD MFA writing students and a former faculty member.) And little snippets of A Feast For Crows, just because. 

And at the end of the day, I still don't know what to read, just the same as I still don't know what to do with my life. I'm knocking on 39 in a couple of weeks and I'm feeling like I need to just make something fucking happen...

I'm open to ideas, of course.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

A Year of Reading, Week 22

Books read (all or part of) this week:
California by Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki's post-apocalyptic debut novel, California was on the docket this past week. It's the near future, society has completely collapsed, and Frida and Cal have been eking out a meager existence somewhere in the wilds east of Los Angeles. We are offered glimpses of super-storms wiping out entire states, pandemics, & massive earthquakes that seem to have destroyed everything familiar. The wealthy elite (ie: the 1%-ers) have created isolated islands of safety zone Communities around the country, only allowing in those who can pay for the privilege. Frida and Cal are not so lucky and living amongst the chaos and urban decay of L.A. eventually became too precarious. So the young married couple decided to strike out on their own, far from anyone else - into the "afterlife," as Frida calls it. 

When Frida figures out that she is pregnant, however, priorities change and perceptions of the world around them alter. Is this solitary existence enough of a world to raise a child in? Is it safe enough? Wouldn't it be better around other people, wherever they are? (There really are not a lot of people anymore, it would seem, and the couple has only encountered five in the two years they've been living in the wilderness.) So they decide to strike out once more, in search of the rumor of a nearby settlement of some of the ragged remnants of humanity. What they eventually find there is altogether unexpected, comfortably utopian, and completely terrifying. 

I can't decide if I really liked this novel, I'll be honest. The set-up was great - I love the mystery of the world-at-large, how did things fall apart, how did we get to where we are - where are Frida and Cal, anyway? Lepucki keeps the fucked-up urban apocalypse of Cal and Frida's past at an arm's length, which only adds tension to their situation - which I appreciated. But Frida seems a bit slow on the uptake at times, which I found distracting. For example: yes, Frida, the color red seems to weirdly be a problem for, like, half of the people you've met. There might be something to that, so pay attention. Maybe that's it - considering the situation, she doesn't seem to pay much attention to, well, anything. Once they are temporarily accepted into a group of fellow survivors, she seems relatively ignorant of people's perceptions of their situation, the importance of Cal's new status (or hers, for that matter) in the community, and how precarious their general existence is. All of which I found annoying. And the degradation (or not?) of her relationship with Cal seems like a forced-through afterthought to me. Once the pair begin interacting with this new community, lies and deception abound between them - and in places I didn't find to be particularly plausible for a married couple who just survived the apocalypse together. Maybe this can be chalked up to Frida's inattention again, but I'm not so sure. Then again, having that marital strife tends to build the tension in their situation to excruciating levels, so maybe it is valid. Maybe I just didn't like Cal or Frida and thus didn't really care what they did or what happened to them? Sigh...

It could be that I'm just a jerk. This is a perfectly fine novel. Lepucki's alternating narratives between Cal and Frida offer interesting perspectives on their situation, despite issues of believability. And her prose is rather sharp and vivid throughout - as far as world-building goes. It just felt to me as if the potential for a groundbreaking post-apocalyptic novel was there, tantalizingly close to the author's fingertips, but it all sort of crumbled as the story progressed. I bought it all at the outset, but the more I got to know everyone, the less I believed anything. If the characters can't hold it together long enough to make me believe while my eyes are on the page, well then.... 


Now, this:

From the June 1 New York Times Book Review. Art by Robert Sikoryak