Friday, March 30, 2007

Oprah vs Marko, in brief

Briefly on the Oprah/Cormac travesty - I have pinpointed my problem with this Cormac thing a bit better. It's not so much that she chose the book - I think its great that she actually read a book like this, although it remains to be seen whether her fanbase bites on this one; yesterday, the day after Oprah's proclamation, my bookstore only sold 2 copies of the book and inadvertently talked a little old lady out of 2 more. My true problem is how Cormac will handle all this. He is a notoriously Salinger-esque recluse who does not do book tours, does not grant interviews, and rarely signs books. I respect this fact - it's actually part of the appeal with him as an author. But, that said, and now with this Oprah/Cormac-love thing happening, why won't he go on tour and discuss his works with the people out there who truly love his writing and have read every word he's had published? If you are willing to go talk books with Oprah, why can't you discuss books with a bookseller in an independent bookstore or with a loyal fan at a book signing? Is Oprah better than us? She is certainly more powerful than us, clearly. I can barely get anyone to read my blog, let alone wield enough power to lure a famous recluse out of hiding. I think I'll be alright with this if the interview he grants is filmed outside her studio - I will have a problem with it if it's in front of 5000 Oprah-maniacs in her live studio audience. They do not deserve to witness Cormac McCarthy in the flesh, I'm sorry. If he's that reclusive, its just a slap in the face for all of his loyal readers if he appears live in front of those sheep.
Tomorrow on Oprah: Thomas Pynchon talks love and literature, live in the studio!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Oprah vs Marko (with Cormac In The Middle)

In this age of instantaneous information, this piece is now old news, since Oprah has let the Cormac out of the bag by now. So this piece is about my personal take on the Oprah phenomenon and how it now is encroaching on my universe. But I want to get this big O off my chest first. Bear with me.

Over the course of my life as a bookseller, I have had a tolerate-hate relationship with Oprah. Yeah, maybe it seems more "hate" than anything remotely resembling "tolerate", but hear me out. In 2001, I was a young, fresh-faced bookie when Oprah selected Jonathan Franzen's tale of dysfunctional family life, The Corrections, for her Book Club. ("Oprah" and "Book Club" are hereby capitalized like "God".) Mr. Franzen declined her offer to appear on her show, citing the fact that he didn't want to see a "logo of corporate ownership" adorning the cover of his book and that he felt although she'd made some good selections to her Club, "she('s) picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional (books) that I cringe, myself...". Oprah un-invited Mr. Franzen to her television show and Franzen went on to win the National Book Award. Even though I hadn't, nor wouldn't, read his book, I sided with Franzen. He didn't have to like Oprah, but he should have stuck to his guns. He thanked her in is NB Award speech - come on, man, shove that award in her corporate face!

Oprah's Book Club continued on, and my wrath gradually subsided to a mild simmer - Marko never fully calms down, as many can attest. I began to see that there were, in fact, some redeeming qualities to her Club selections. People who never, ever read were now buying books under the ruse of reading them. Some were actually reading them. (Granted, I have no actual proof that these books purchased were or were not read, its just a theory.) And she did pick some good books - for awhile she was selecting "classics" only - Carson McCullers, Garcia-Marquez, Tolstoy (which she said we would "read together"), Faulkner, the entire catalogue of Toni Morrison, even Rohinton Mistry. Alas, even the O couldn't make Faulkner a best-seller - although, she did overdo it by forcing 3 of his books on her people all at the same time. Then came James Frey.

So I was back on her side, a bit, at this point - September 2005 - when she selected A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, a book I had actually been thinking about reading. I liked the cover. And it passed the Seth Marko's First Page Test, of course. But Oprah LOVED IT, as she would undoubtedly shout, so I could never read it. And we sold thousands of copies of it. Every single soccer mom in Southern California came into the store to by James' "memoir" - until Oprah discovered that James made the whole thing up. And she destroyed him on her show. I won't go on - unless you were out of the country or in a hole in the ground from September 05 to January 06, you know the story.

Last month, Oprah had a whole show devoted to The Secret, the ridiculous waste of paper and glue that has ruled the best-seller lists for the last 2 months. I know, I know, that's a very negative thing to say and that goes against everything that The Secret tells us, but its all on me, which is also what The Secret tells us. Whatever, too many words have been expelled on this "book" as it is.

Which brings me to Oprah's current selection. My favorite book from 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Utter devastation. How the F could this happen? Will Cormac go on Oprah? He doesn't even do book signings, for chrissakes. Say it ain't so, Cormac. Say it ain't so. Alas, I have already seen the heinous paperback editions with the "logo of corporate ownership" stamped on them - makes me want to barf - so I know it's true. Why? What good does this serve? What could these soccer moms and Red Hat-type ladies possibly glean from Cormac? I was leveled flat by the bleakness and hopelessness of this book - even that glimmer of "hope" towards the end is so faint as to hardly make any difference at all. It was the single most powerful piece of fiction writing I have ever read in my life. Why the hell would Oprah want her tribe to read this? YOU CAN'T HAVE HIM, OPRAH! CORMAC BELONGS TO US! We are the readers, the literate, those out there who do not need a television show to tell us what to read. There are some who will say that it is wonderful that you've chosen such a fantastic book for your Club, but the rest of us want to keep this one close to our hearts. Its not that I don't want to share this book, on the contrary, I have told everyone I know to read this book. But broadcasting this request, nay, demand, over the television airways, causes it to lose all heartfelt effect. It becomes a command for sheep, not a gentle recommendation between readers. This selection shall be your undoing - your people cannot handle such a devastating work of art. Such terror and emptiness. This is Cormac's vision of our future at hand - death and destruction populates the road we are headed down. I ask you Oprah, where does The Secret fit in with that vision? This was the final straw for me. I reject you Oprah, I cast you out our literary world. You have been loaded into the Book Catapult and launched into the Sun.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Five Skies - Ron Carlson

One Of A Possible Five Skies - by Seth MarkoA heartbreaking, beautifully wrought masterpiece of devastating loss & questioned faith, of earned trust & unbreakable friendship. Ron Carlson’s unerring command of language sweeps over you with its beauty and subtlety – there’s something about his voice that utterly compels you to listen, to heed every word he has to say. Even the most seemingly innocent, almost insignificant narrative incidents bear the immeasurable weight of Life on their shoulders. You can feel the mass of the Idaho sky above you and see the chasm of red rock canyon and hear the lyrical sounds of the river below. Sentences like:
“The sky was an amorphous glaring canopy, and the horizons were all tattered in such bright haze”
just don’t occur in common fiction. I found myself marking passages just because I liked the way the words rolled off the page into my lap:
“…the wind was steady and even as if it were a permanent feature of the desert around them, the sparse sage and periodic igneous cairns of porous red cinders.”

Even the general plotline is relatively innocuous – three men get together to spend a summer living & working atop a barren plateau in southern Idaho, building a motorcycle stunt ramp aimed out over an enormous red rock canyon. The building of this ridiculous stunt ramp almost cheapens the work they do there; no one is more aware of this than the men. But the work is all part of a process for each man, whether they are aware of it or not. Each is fleeing hardship and pain in their lives: Darwin, the foreman, lost his wife in a tragic accident & the last place he feels he wants to be is where he actually finds himself. Ronnie is young, foolish, fresh out of juvie and trying to fly straight for as long as he can. And Arthur Key is running from his brother’s recent death, which he places all the blame for solely on his own broad shoulders. It may sound sappy coming from me, but when these men begin to trust each other and each of their work abilities on the site, they each begin to work inward on their own and heal their own wounds. Watching the transformation process of these characters, these men, in the hands of Mr. Carlson is unlike anything I can recall reading. Its always hard to compare books that you like with each other – I find myself reading different genres for different reasons, different authors for different reasons. But in the last year, the books that have affected me the most have been The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which left me shattered and weeping with its portrait of the impending bleak future of humanity, and this one, which explores themes of friendship, loyalty, the bonds of men, and the inner workings of their souls. But more than anything, this just made me understand what it means to be a great writer.

“Take a deep breath. The world still waits.”

Monday, March 05, 2007

Remainder by Tom McCarthy - the review

I wasn’t going to write anything about this book until I read the review of it in the NYT a couple of weeks ago. This is mostly a response to that, I guess. Is that the sort of reviewer I aspire to be? Writing book reviews in response to others? Also, for some reason, I really want to like Tom McCarthy, and felt bad about how much I hated his main man in this one. But read on gentle reader, read on.

This book had a bit of a push behind it from Random House – apparently, it has become a favorite there at Any Old Domicile (that was for you, Ted) and all the reps love to extol upon its virtues whilst visiting their clients. My man, Jonathan Lethem, blurbed the book, usually a great start. The galley copy that I received has this intensely effusive letter from the editor on the cover, who claims “If it were a film, Memento would be the comparison. If you need a book, House of Leaves is probably the place to start.” Hell, that should have been my red flag right there. I loved Memento, but nobody in their right mind over the age of 22 should “read” House of Leaves and ever admit it. So it sounds like Remainder is a combination of a complex story about how memory affects us and of one of complete metafiction gibberish. Sounds good. Should I continue reading this book if it’s compared to one written in various fonts, colors, and upside down pages? I powered on, however.

Admittedly, it has an interesting premise: the unnamed narrator has been left shattered and comatose following a horrific accident which, according to his court settlement, he is not allowed to discuss or write about in any detail. Upon his reawakening and extensive rehabilitation, he is awarded the enormous sum of 8.5 million pounds and sent on his way. He is still a bit out of sorts, however, and has trouble relating to people & friends from his life before the accident. His brain has been essentially rewired to be able to walk & talk so that he has to consciously think about every single move his body makes. And he has no idea what to do with 8.5 million pounds. One evening, while uncomfortable & awkward at a party, he discovers a crack running down the wall of an apartment bathroom that triggers a memory that sets his life on an even more unusual track.

Sounds interesting, right? And McCarthy’s writing is actually quite capable – the narrator’s disconnect is affecting enough that his quirks and methods of dealing with reality are humorous and interesting to watch, from an anthropological point of view. Then the rest of the plot kicks in.

Tom McCarthyThis flash of memory triggered by the crack in the wall is so intensely vivid for him – and, in turn, triggers more memories of an entire apartment complex, including dozens of residents and their daily activities - that he grasps hard at it and decides to literally built a world around it. As pieces of that memory float back to him – the crack in the wall, the pianist living downstairs, the old woman cooking liver in her kitchen, cats on a neighboring rooftop – he hires people to recreate the apartment he is remembering. He finds a building that looks similar, rebuilds it to fit his memories, and staffs it with actors to fill the parts that he remembers. This is where he started to lose me. He would replay scenes over & over again – the actors are constantly on call, for whenever he wants a reenactment – just to get everything perfect in his own head. After recreating the apartment, he recreates an auto body shop and an experience he had there, then the scene of a violent crime that took place nearby. I started having a hard time at this point, after a couple hundred pages, in maintaining any sort of sympathetic notions toward this crazy guy.

I get the idea of the convoluted memory and whether reality is reality or just faulty memories. Like “Memento”, I get it. But this narrator is so crazy and so disconnected from any semblance of rational thought, that I had a really hard time understanding where he was headed on this journey of recreated memory. I guess that that’s part of the point – the reenactments were for him and him alone – but goddamn it, I’m here reading this story, shouldn’t I be in the loop somewhere? It started to feel like a David Lynch movie, and we all know how I feel about that. Here’s Liesl Schillinger’s take from the New York Times:

What fun it is when a crafty writer plays cat and mouse with your mind, when you can never anticipate his next move and when, in any case, he knows all the exits to the maze and has already blocked them.

Right. Look Liesl, I appreciate an intricate, mysterious, mind-bending plotline (Cloud Atlas? C'mon), but I was in the middle of this labyrinth and every route out of the inside section was blocked by a drooling man in a clown suit who wanted to cook me liver and spray windshield washer fluid on me. So, after 227 pages of a possible 286 - yes, a mere 59 pages from the surely cohesive, stimulating, enlightening, and most likely Jacob's Ladder climax – I, for the moment, at least, baled out and launched myself over the wall in the Book Catapult to get away from this whackjob.