Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bebelplatz, Missouri

Tom Wayne & Will Leathem, co-owners of a used book store (Prospero's Books) in Kansas City, Missouri, have decided that since they sense the demise of the written word in our society, it would be better to burn books if they are going to go unread. So, last weekend, they set fire to a big pile of their collected books that were rejected for donation by local libraries & schools. Wayne cited the fact that book sales are down and less than 50% of American adults read for pleasure as reason enough to put books to the torch (according to a 2002 study by the National Endowment for the Arts). While this is a horrifyingly sad statistic, there's no way that this is the best way to combat stupidity. If anything, they're just fanning the flames & making themselves more irrelevant as booksellers. Behavior like this does absolutely nothing to further any sort of progress towards literacy - how could it when all they are doing is destroying the books they claim no one wants? I just can't get over the fact that they thought that this was the only answer - it seems totally counter intuitive to everything the world of books is about. So, horrified, I checked out the website for the bookstore & found that "for one dollar a book, you can save these books from the flame. We will not take these $'s as profit, but will use them to publish new books." What? What is the point of burning books that you think no one wants because no one reads anymore and turning around and publishing more? Your gigantic ego has convinced you that someone who doesn't want an old copy of a crappy Tom Clancy novel is going to want one of your self-published books like, well, co-owner Will Leathem's poetry books? I also find it humorous that part of the mission statement for their Unholy Day Press imprint is, "We stand undaunted on the side of liberty and life lived responsibly and to its fullest." Huh. Yeah, well I guess book burning falls loosely under that category.

My point here is this: yes, it is sad that Americans don't read enough for pleasure anymore and it is awful that the independent book store is fading into obscurity. But, the way to stop the blood loss in the book world is not by destroying what we have. The very essence, the very soul of being a bookseller (especially in an independent) is the preservation of and the sharing of the written word. It is just a cheap publicity stunt by someone clearly not in this for those reasons that would stoop to setting "unwanted" books on fire as a "protest". You're telling me that every single school and library in Missouri rejected your donations? Offer a "Free Book Sale" out front. See if maybe, - this is crazy, I know - maybe there are schools & libraries out of state that may be interested. Now I know that Louisiana is really, really far away from Missouri, but did you try sending those books to New Orleans' libraries and schools who lost every single book they had in Katrina? No, of course not - you Kansas City inbreds were too quick to pour gasoline all over your books and call the Associated Press. Part of the store's statement on their website concerning this issue has to do with creating a "national dialogue" on literacy in America, but I'm afraid that all it has accomplished is to point out how unbelievably stupid and ignorant Tom Wayne & Will Leathem are. Nice job.

For more information on this story, just Google something like "missouri book burning" and read away.

Monday, May 21, 2007

James Frey Donates $2.35 million to Katrina!

I don't know why I'm surprised by anything at all that comes out of the trash compactor that is our culture - maybe because this is a book story, I don't know . Here's the timeline of this nonsense, for those of you who don't watch Oprah or may live in a wartorn country or somewhere where reality still exists:
-2003: James Frey's memoir of drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces is published by Random House. Everybody loves it.
-2004: The book comes out in paperback. I place it on the spinner at Warwick's. Everybody still loves it.
-September 2005: Oprah picks the book for her infamous Bookclub. Frey goes and sits on Oprah's couch. The O coos, the audience Ahhs, everyone weeps in the face of James' strength & resilience, end of story. The paperback sells 4.5 million copies in 4 months. Booksellers get sick of hearing, "Do you have A Hundred Tiny Pieces?" or variations on that.

-January 2006: All hell breaks loose. The Smoking Gun website uncovers that Frey embellished and flat out made up some parts of his story - mainly about his spending time in prison, not so much about the drug stuff and the recovery. Frey defends himself on Larry King. Oprah calls in and defends his honor. Allegations persist. Oprah removes the book from her website & calls Frey back to the show to explain himself. Frey admits that the jail-term thing was embellished by roughly 87 days. Oprah feels lied to. She calls Nan Talese, publisher from Random House & one of the most respected women in the industry, onto the stage and pointedly asks her why she didn't personally check every aspect of Frey's story. Frey loses his next book deal, Random offers to refund, yaddayaddayadda. Oprah wins again.

Now, Frey and Random House have agreed to pay out up to $2.35 million to readers who felt they were lied to & never would have bought Frey's book had they known some of it was embellished and fictionalized. Tear out page 163 and mail it back to Random House to get your cash back. For real? What kind of a person would actually go through the trouble to file a lawsuit like this? Were you really that affected by his story? You were so profoundly affected and moved by his story of triumph over adversity that when you found out about the relatively mild inconsistencies, you dropped him like a hot crack pipe? How is this possible? Listen, Frey went through some bad craziness, there's no doubt about that, but should the question really be how bad the craziness actually was? Seriously, who cares? Move on from this - it's just a crackhead's memoir, it shouldn't alter the course of your life.

Here's a quote from the New York Times: Thomas Pakenas, a lawyer representing one of the plaintiffs, Pilar More, a reader from Chicago, said he and his client were satisfied with the agreement. “All she was ever seeking was a refund of the book and clarification about whether it was fiction or nonfiction.”

Fair enough, Pilar, but was all of this really worth the trouble? Was the book well-written? Did you enjoy it? That's all that should matter here. Books are powerful tools, no doubt, but you should not feel personally slighted when it turns out that the author took a few liberties. Now are you happy that some weirdo with a blog is talking about you?

Tyrone Biggums: Professional CrackheadI think the bottom line here is this: some people were genuinely affected by Frey's story of recovery. The end. It doesn't matter that he only spent 5 hours in jail but said it was 87 days. So he's an idiot who made something up - he's a crackhead, everybody. I think that the people who are upset enough to sue over this only read the book because Oprah told them to, and when they found out that it may not have been totally true and Oprah said what she said to Frey & Talese while stepping back from the controversy, they looked to our kangaroo court system to make a buck and get their name in the paper. Please note: this is really not about Oprah - god knows I don't want to start that line again - but it is more about what is and is not moral, both from the author, the publisher, and the reader. Moral responsibility, my friends. More than anything: is this the best we can do with our time? Are we really so uncivilized that we allow a hurricane to devastate one of our cities and kill hundreds of people, we send our children to a desert to die in a senseless war over nothing, thousands in our country have no health care coverage, while we sit back and sue each other over a shitty book about a crackhead? And the rest of us write about it as if it is really important? Yes, I am just as guilty as anyone else. Once I started laying all this out there, I realized how truly ridiculous and sad it all seems - all those involved should be ashamed of themselves, from Talese, to Oprah, to Frey, to the plantiffs, even you and me, who are reading & talking about this while real things happen to real people all around us. We need to get over garbage like this in our culture if we're ever going to evolve past this point.

All that said, while doing Google research for this piece, I stumbled across Frey's blogsite. What a total piece of crap.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Five Skies, Redux

The new Ron Carlson book, Five Skies, was released today. I cannot stress enough how good this book is. So good that I'm forcing it on you yet again. Here's my original review: right here! Seriously, this was one of the best books I've read in quite awhile. I said in the original pathetically effusive, fawning post, that it was, essentially, the best book I had read since The Road...Oprah? The comparisons really end there, but I encourage everyone to go to your local independent and pick one up immediately. When you read the jacket, it may seem a little lame: 3 guys in Idaho building a stunt ramp over a canyon. Ignore this! The real story is so much bigger and beautiful than this.

Just in case you don't take my word as gospel - although, I know you do, that's why you're here, right?! - check out these links from real reviewers etc: LA Times feature, Publishers Weekly's Starred Review. Many thanks to Mr. Tom Benton from Putnam for making me read this book. I will never doubt you again, sir.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Shameless Self-Promotion

I've had another book picked as a Booksense Notable pick - here's my hacked up blurb on the latest Perez-Reverte:
To find your local independent bookstore where you can purchase this wonderful book, go to booksense.com.

To read my unedited, more intelligent sounding thoughts on this book: Breda review

Monday, May 07, 2007

Books Books & More Books

Since this originally was supposed to be a book blog, here’s what I’ve read since I posted the piece on Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart - A brilliant mix of Confederacy of Dunces, Joseph Heller, Jonathan Safran Foer, and the irony & sarcasm of The Daily Show. Shteyngart skewers American foreign policy in a pre-9/11 world, relentlessly mocks Halliburton & their imagined subsidiaries, and spins the tale of a wonderful hip-hop lovin’ (“Hey, if Pushkin were alive today, he’d be a rapper,” I said. “That’s right,” Aloysha-Bob said. “He’d be MC Push.”), grossly overweight Russian Jew named Misha, aka “Snack Daddy”, who’s trapped in lowly Absurdistan in the middle of a contrived war over oil (is this fiction?) & separated from the love of his life, Rouenna from the Bronx. Absolutely one of the funniest books I have ever read in my life.

The Fighter by Craig Davidson – this started out entertaining, but turned into a cheap, ultra-violent, gratuitous Fight Club knock-off. I’m serious about the knock off – when the protagonist – a teen-aged boxing phenom – runs into an old, formerly soft, preppie acquaintance who’s reinvented himself as a shaved-headed hardass, he’s told that the acquaintance has “moved out of his parents’ place and was holed up with ‘a pack of hardcore animal rights activists’ in an abandoned house on Paper Street.” And also this “original” gem: “Did you know, “he said, “that if you stuff a PVC tube with enough permanganate, Sweet’N Low, and match heads, you can blow up just about anything?” For the uninitiated, the abandoned house on Paper Street and the second quote (although the items are replaced with new ones) are torn directly from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel. Douchbag. Although, the really weird thing is that Palahniuk gave him a jacket blurb for the book. What's up with that? Into the Catapult.

The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien - Deep down inside, I’m one of those Tolkien nerds. Until the films came out, I used to re-read Lord of the Rings almost every year. This book, - a necessary addition to anyone’s Tolkien library – never finished by JRR in his lifetime, but painstakingly edited over decades by his son, Christopher, presents, in a cohesive narrative, the complete saga of Turin – only alluded to briefly by JRR in the original books. Turin’s tale is set thousands of years before hobbits came on the scene – just after the evil deity, Morgoth, (Sauron’s predecessor) definitively crushed the first alliance of Elves & Men in the battle of Unnumbered Tears. Turin grows up bitter and angry in this bleak aftermath & in his own misguided way, becomes a powerful warrior striving to stop the Shadow & make things right for his family & his people. EPIC! Yes, I am a nerd.

Divisidero by Michael Ondaatje – the only other Ondaatje book I’ve read was his first, Coming Through Slaughter – a difficult, ponderous book, considering it’s only about 100 pages. But this, this was magnificent. As you immerse yourself within its pages, you just crest that wave and follow it to its end on the beach, never worrying where it may be taking you. It has 2 basic storylines – one in modern day, one in pre-WWII France – that mirror each other in ways that at first seem too far apart to be related at all, but come together in such a necessary thematic way - just a beautiful piece of writing. I might write more on this one at some point, although I feel it would be dumbing it down to heap praise on it. You should really read it though.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon - Chabon returns with his first full-length novel since his Pulitzer-winning Kavalier & Clay. I’ve always been a fan of Chabon & this book didn’t buck the trend at all. It’s an absolutely brilliant alternate history/crime noir novel set in the fictional post-WWII Jewish homeland of Sitka, Alaska. Yeah, you read that right. Sitka pulsates & breathes like a living entity in the hands of Chabon – you almost start to believe that such a place exists, and that downtrodden detective, Meyer Landsman, dutifully polices its streets with a heavy heart. Chabon’s linguistic command is staggering, witty, & eloquent – here are a few of my favorite clips: a character with a voice “like an onion rolling around in a bucket”.

The opening description of leading man, Meyer Landsman: “When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It’s like there’s a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets.”

And a lovely description of a grossly fat mob boss, seen for the first time in a sauna: “That body, the horror and the splendor of it, naked as a giant bloodshot eyeball without a socket. Litvak had seen it only once before, years ago, topped with a fedora, rolled tight as a wad of Pinar del Rio into a stiff black greatcoat that swept the toes of his dainty black boots. Now it emerged ponderous from the steam, a slab of wet limestone webbed with a black lichen of hair. Litvak felt like a fogbound airplane buffeted by updrafts into the surprise of a mountain. The belly pregnant with elephant triplets…”

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills – I was very entertained by his first book, Amagansett – a murder mystery set in Long Island in the 40’s – and this one was true to that form. It’s really more mindless entertainment than some other things I’ve read, but once he gets past the Da Vinci Code/Rule of Four opening, it actually turns into a well-constructed, multi-layered mystery. Great beach read. Into the Catapult, but it falls over the side & back onto the bookshelf.

Priest by Ken Bruen - Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels are near pitch perfect in capturing the wit & worldly scorn of the Irish everyman. Jack, a part-time PI, and for all intents & purposes, not a nice man – he’s now a recovering alcoholic, smoker, & pill popper filled with a palpable self-loathing – acts as our tour guide into the underbelly of modern Galway. Only Jack and JLB’s Dave Robicheaux get me to drop whatever else I’m reading when their latest books fall into my hands. Those books are like crack for me.

And Depths by Henning Mankell – I only read about 50 pages of this, although that constituted about 27 chapters, no joke. It was not very good, sorry Henning. Definitely into the Catapult.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Price is, in fact, correct

On Monday, April 30, Jen & I met our friend Laly, whom we knew from New Orleans, and her younger brother, Yuri, in Los Angeles for a taping of the game show, The Price Is Right. That’s right, The Price Is Right with Bob Barker (his skeleton is seen here fighting crime). Bob will be retiring next month after 35 years and over 6000 episodes. How could we say no? The following is perhaps the craziest, most bizarre thing I ever been a part of. It is 100% true.

12:24am Sunday – We’re spending the night at my friend Peter’s place in LA. We get a call from Laly saying that she’s leaving Coachella, where she’s been for 3 days, & headed back to LA. She’ll call us when she gets in. I think there’s no way she’s going to have the energy to do this thing after 3 days at Coachella. I continue watching “The Hills Have Eyes”. Sleep will fight me until the bitter end, I can tell.

1:42am Monday – sleep arrives disheveled & pissed off on the couch.

3:12am – the first of the dreaded phone calls actually happens. I can’t believe this. Our friends are back from the desert & ready for the day’s activities. They’re going to shower & change & call back. I go back to sleep – at least, I pretend to sleep so that I can pretend that none of this is happening.

3:59am – its go time. F. Brush my teeth in the dark, grab my stuff & head for the car. Contacts get put in on the go. How the hell is Jen capable of operating a motor vehicle right now?

4:20am – we find a parking spot on the street outside the CBS studios. The line stretches around the corner from the gate (a full block) and down a long block about 400 meters. There are probably 500 people ahead of us in the dark at 4:00 in the morning, waiting to see an 84-year old man give away snowmobiles & dinette sets for guessing the price of a jar of peanut butter. I join them.

4:21am – I forage ahead for coffee. I seem to be the only person here not wearing a “Bob Barker” themed t-shirt. “Canada loves Bob Barker” screams one. Others say, “Super Bob” accompanied by a photo of Bob punching Adam Sandler in the stomach. “Plinko Rules”, read the XXXL shirts of a whole family. A man(?) walks past in an 8-foot tall chicken suit. Holy shit, what the fuck have I gotten into.

5:30am – we’re on the move. The line is slowly snaking around the corner towards the gate of the CBS studios. I can smell Barker’s hair gel from here! We’re handed the first of our numbered tickets. This is in addition to our original tickets, of course. I am number 467.

5:45am – we’re at the gate. The security guard sees Laly wearing her New Orleans Half Moons Rugby shirt with “New Orleans Loves Bob Barker” ironed onto it & tells us that he’s a New Orleanian too. Laly goes apeshit. She dances & yells like its Lundi Gras and heads inside. But even though he learns this about us, he still tells me that I can’t bring my backpack inside. Laly & Yuri go in, out Jen & I go. It’s no big deal, just as long as we’re back inside by 7am. Jen & I think that this is the best time to move the car to an all-day spot. We hustle away.
6:05am – back to the gate & inside to the Holding Pen. Unbeknownst to me, we will spend the next 7 hours of our lives here in this corral. The people all look rather gleeful.

6:20am – we find our first spots on the metal bench. I see two guys wearing matching shirts that read, “I Want to C’mon On Down!” Didn’t that look wrong to you before it went to the silkscreeners? C’mon on on now.

7:00am – the crew in charge of this debacle attempt to make some announcements, but the loudspeaker isn’t working. So, one guy yells out instructions from a script. Apparently, even though we are in here, there’s a chance that we won’t actually get in. We’re not going anywhere, however, I won’t be scared off that easy.

7:10am – a helicopter circles the parking lot adjacent to our holding pen. I think someone may be robbing the Washington Mutual across the street, but I tell people that it’s Bob Barker arriving for work. No one believes me. These people are a lot savvier than I thought.

8:25am – I am really mad at myself that I left my book in the car. Although, Michael Ondaatje novels don’t go well with this crowd. We are catching up with Laly quite a bit, since we haven’t seen her in 4 years.

9am – we are shuffled into groups/lines according to our numbered tickets we received in the line outside. Remarkably, everyone gets in line in numerical order. I guess when people really, really want something, they do whatever you ask of them. Huh.

9:42am – a man in a black trenchcoat (actually a Price Is Right page) comes around and checks our tickets. We have tickets to the 1:00 taping (there is also a 4:00 taping) & he re-numbers our tickets. I am now 296. I realize that some of the people here are waiting for the 4:00 show. It’s not even 10am yet & we were at the back of the line over 5 hours ago.

10:12am – a group of 10 people all wearing baby blue “Price Is Right” t-shirts, start practicing a dance routine to “Magic” by Olivia Newton-John. It’s very elaborate.

10:13am – Jen announces that she has got their routine down. She shows me. I believe we are magic.
10:30am – we are repositioned on the benches by the trenchcoat team.
10:32am – we are repositioned again by the trenchcoats.
10:40am – again. This is the only exercise I’ve had all day, so no complaints. T-shirt reads: “I spayed & neutered my pets like you said, Bob. Now I wanna Come On Down!” Or something to that effect. I feel like I’m in a mental institution.

11am – they start the “interview process”. I have no idea what this means. The front group receives new tickets – fancy pink ones with a tear sheet for you to write your vital information, in case you win any prizes. And the coveted Price Is Right nametag stickers. The trenchcoats all have fabulous handwriting.

11:30am – we get new tickets but not stickers yet. I fall asleep with my head in my hands for 3 minutes. I dream that I am waiting in line for 7 hours to see the Price Is Right.

11:38am – You’ve got to belieeeeeve we are maaaaagic.

11:45am – we are told by the short & stubby trenchcoat lady that it was up to us to get a pen to fill out the information part of the tickets, which she is now collecting. Laly does not like this. We borrow a pen from a lady behind us & I give Bob Barker my Social Security number.

11:50am – stickers arrive. I slap it on my shirt and officially get closer to being “the next contestant on the Price Is Right” than anyone I have ever met.

12:15pm – we are shuffled down a corridor to new benches. The “interview process” has begun. The last thing I want is to be called on down. Too much pressure. We are to be interviewed in groups of 10. Fade into the background, don’t act too enthused, it will be cool.

12:20pm – we are called before the bearded man with the questions. A female, blond 19-year old intern sits in a director’s chair behind him, taking notes on our “performance”. “What’s your name, where ya from, what do ya do?”, he asks in a friendly gameshow host voice. Maybe this guy is planning a takeover when Bob retires. “Seth, I’m from San Diego & I work in a bookstore,” I squeak. “A bookstore, eh? An intellectual! Read a lot of books, huh?” he shouts. “Uh, yes.” “Read every book out there, right?” “Yeah, that’s right,” I say meekly. He moves on to Jen. “I’m Jennifer, I also live in San Diego, and I actually work for a television station.” “Oh, not a CBS affiliate, I would guess,” he says. “No,” says Jen. “OK, how about you?” he says to the retiree next to Jen. I think Jen got both of us off the hook. We advance down the corridor & around the corner.

12:25pm – sunlight hits me for the first time today. And I’ve been relatively outside since 4am. We pass through a metal detector where they collect (temporarily) all cell phones, cameras, recorders, etc. They use special cameras to record Bob, since he’s otherworldly. Or at least, that’s what I assume everyone else in line thinks. The line continues onward past the metal detectors. We’re headed inside! Holy crap. We wind up some stairs, pass through a set of doors, and I step into my television set circa 1984. Disco.

12:45pm - we are snug in our seats, waiting patiently. I am praying that I don't get called down.

12:46pm - This thought now changes to planning for that fate, since I feel it is inevitable. I will under bid every motherf-er up there. "One dollar, Bob!" will be my mantra. I can handle this. These people with their puffy paint t-shirts and glittery suit jackets are no match for me.

1:15pm - Show time! The place goes totally crazy when the announcer starts in. I black out for a minute. "Bob! Bob! Bob! Bob!", the fiends chant. I join in, of course. I am one of them, after all. We get fired up by the announcer so we're at a frenzy by the time Barker gets onstage. He looks magnificent when he strolls out with his pencil-thin microphone and slightly flared-legged pantsuit. Four names are called and four of the luckiest freaks on the face of the earth race down to the front. Actually, all the eventual contestants are totally normal looking. None of the t-shirt weirdos get down there. Although, one of the baby-blue Olivia Newton-John dancers gets down, but he doesn't do his routine. I am totally swept up in all this and scream myself hoarse. As the first game ("More or Less") begins - the prize being "A NEW CAR!" - the door to the first number gets stuck & they have to stop the cameras. "Ahhh, the damn door won't open." says Bob. He said "damn". Bob takes this time to chat with the audience. We bask in his glory.

I'm amazed at the precision and speed at which the crew operates around Bob. At some point, he tells us that the typical 1 hour show takes about 1 hour & 5 minutes to tape. During all stoppages in action that will become commercial breaks, Bob fields questions from the audience. One guy goes on and on and on about absolutely nothing. Bob never understands his "question". One lady holds up a t-shirt with a picture of Bob airbrushed onto it & announces that she brought it for him. She keeps asking if she can bring it down to him. She shoves past the intern when Bob says OK and races to the stage. She almost falls over backwards off the stairs after shaking Bob's hand. I stifle a laugh.

Some white trash looking kid blows his shot at winning a pair of snowmobiles while playing "Coming or Going" - arguably the easiest game in the Price Is Right catalogue. The snowmobile price is either $2219 or $9122. Come on, buddy! A $9000 snowmobile? What are you from Southern California?? The show races forward at breakneck speed. When the last contestant - not me, although I was secretly beginning to hope I'd get the chance to shout "$1" down there - gets called up, he high-fives the other contestants down in front. While doing so, he accidentally high-fives the Olivia Newton-John dancer/contestant right in the face. I hope it shows up on TV. Before we know it, its the Showcase Showdown. One lady wins a pop-up camper/trailer and a trip to Alaska. Laly, whose family is still living in a FEMA trailer in New Orleans, says she wishes she had been up there to win a second trailer.

2:20pm - hoarse from screaming out dollar amounts, crazy from lack of sleep, and flushed with our brush with an American icon, we are dismissed. Bob salutes us away & we file out the back, grins stretching the folds of our pasty white cheeks.

2:21pm - the sun blinds us & our stomachs growl. We head for food, but as we head off the lot, to our right we can see a line of at least 30-40 humanoids lined up at the gate...for the next taping, 23 hours from now. I have been to Planet Barker and survived. The episode airs May 15.