Friday, October 30, 2009

Take a Coffee Break

I figure this is as good a time and place as any to start hyping this awesome new venture we're about to embark upon at the store: Coffee with a Bookseller, debuting at Warwick's on the morning of Saturday, November 7th at 10am. Mosey on into the book department at 10 and I will offer you a cup of coffee, some snacks, show you around the place, talk about what's new in books, as well as the best of what I've been reading lately. If you don't drink coffee, it's okay, you can stay and listen anyway - its free! This is to become a regular thing (we'll switch to Tuesday mornings with the second installment), hopefully with different, brave booksellers, but for the moment, you're stuck with me.              

Seth & Scott with Ron CarlsonThe point of all this is for us to distinguish ourselves from the impersonal chain bookstores, the giant online retailers, and the big box stores who would never even dream of trying to connect with the people in their communities on such a personal level. Maybe we can't sell $35 books for 8 bucks like Target, but we can offer something else - something less tangible, but much more fulfilling in the long run. We offer a personal relationship - whether its just for the ten minutes you spend here looking for a book to read on the plane home to Minneapolis or whether you come in every day, attend author events each week, and have your book club registered with us. We offer uncommon bookselling honesty and intelligence - if I don't think Shantaram is the book for you, but Cloud Atlas is, I will tell you so. We offer opinion. We offer conversation. We offer the chance to shake hands with famous authors (like Ron Carlson, see here with Scott & I. I'm the tall one.) We offer treats for your dogs. We offer ourselves, really - we are all voracious readers, just like you - and can offer you our expert reviews, on the fly, tailored to your reading tastes. Can you get that at Costco? Has Walmart ever even carried Cloud Atlas? Does Amazon host book signings? See, we are as much a part of your community as you are of ours and we want to give you a really good reason to shop locally. Free coffee may not be the thing that gets you in the door, but if you're a passionate reader, having a bookseller chat with you, face-to-face, about literature - that's a uniquely independent bookstore type of thing. So come on in & chat over a cup of coffee - I promise I won't bite.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Crazy King Philip

This is a re-post that I wrote for my other blog, The Book Catapult that I thought was worth posting again here.  If you have any thoughts on Roth's comments after reading this, leave them in the comments field - I'd be curious to hear what others think. Enjoy. 

Has the esteemed Philip Roth, one of our most respected living American novelists, gone insane, at age 76?  In this interview (see below) with Tina Brown, lately of The Daily Beast, Roth plays harbinger of doom and announces the death of the printed word - coming to you in the next 25 years.

Roth predicts that the culture of the book will be relegated to the darkened caves in the society of the future, there being little place for the printed word in a world dominated by television screens and computer monitors. While I agree that the bound book is headed for a major change in readership, his ideology that most modern humans lack the concentration and focus to be able to read a novel, thus being the impetus for the impending doom, is somewhat absurd. Is the number of casual readers (those reading for "fun") in the world, per capita, so different now than at any other point in history? Can we really make a blanket statement like, "people just don't read anymore", when there are so many more of us out there than ever before?

There are readers among us (hello!) who take umbrage at being referred to, even hypothetically, as "cultish" for preferring the bound book, as opposed to viewing or reading books on a "screen". Or worse yet, he equates the potential numbers of bound book readers in the future to be similar to the numbers that today "read Latin poetry". The weird part about his prediction is that he doesn't think e-readers will have a positive effect on readership at all - as if it is already too late for humanity.

"The book can't compete with the screen. It couldn't compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn't compete with the television screen, and it can't compete with the computer screen. Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn't measure up." (excerpted from The Guardian, UK)
Despite all that, the craziest, most alienating thing uttered by Mr. Roth was this: "If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don't read the novel really."  As if to somehow highlight his "fact" that people lack the proper concentration for novel reading. (Note that Roth's last three books have all been novella-sized. Coincidence?) I read fairly fast, but I guarantee that in over 2 weeks, I will still be reading Orhan Pamuk's new book. Does that mean that I lack the "concentration, focus, and devotion to the reading" necessary to be a reader?  


Tina Brown Asks Philip Roth About the Future of the Novel from The Daily Beast Video on Vimeo.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bed Ridden

by Heather
Comfort food. That’s a phrase that evokes pictures of hot soups, freshly baked bread, and a pint of ice cream (Ben and Jerry’s Strawberry Cheesecake for me). Yes, everyone has their own version of comfort food to pull out when they are feeling blue or ill. But what about comfort reads? What do you read when you’re under the weather?

This last week I’ve had a lot of time to ponder this question. Holed up in bed, with a large, unwieldy cast on my right leg and a pair of crutches that have left their imprints on my palms, and scuffs on my hard wood floors, I have had ample time to think about comfort. I’m fortunate enough to have stacks of unread books, both new and old lying about my bedroom, living room, garage, and car (this is what happens when you come from a family of book addicts). I have the new Audrey Niffeneger, Her Fearful Symmetry, sitting on my desk right next to an advanced copy of Christopher Moore’s Bite Me: A Love Story. I’ve been reading an amazing upcoming novel, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake, it’s one of those books that is just plain good, well told, moving, and a novel I can’t wait to introduce to readers when it’s released next year. You’d think I’d be sunk into those fantastic pages, but no. So, what is it I turn to? A stack of novels and stories I have read at least ten times each . . . go figure.

Yes, I turn to my comfort reads. Books that I’ve read so many times that I have memorized lines of dialogue, uttering them mentally like a movie freak shouting out the lines before the actor speaks them on screen. With characters who feel more like friends than words on a page, whose personalities are as well known as those of my co-workers. I can become engrossed, enter a familiar world, one where I don’t need two legs to dance, play, hike, explore an old eerie estate in Arabia, or solve a murder in Alabama. I ask myself, do other people turn to their comfortable favorites when they’re on house arrest? I think they do. Ask any person what food they like when feeling down, what movie they turn on when home with the flu, what book they’ve read so many times the pages have yellowed with age and the spine has creased from love. I guarantee you’ll have an answer almost immediately. Why? Because as humans we seek the familiar, especially when we are unable to act on or own, or need comfort when our brains just can’t handle the overload of information that is thrown at them all day. We seek the wealth of emotions that imprint themselves in our subconscious bringing us the stimulation we can’t find or are denied by circumstances. Books, loved books, give us that same satisfaction and endorphins that good food and good friends can provide, but unlike the others, books can be pulled off the shelf at any time, they are eager to be used, want to provide that wonderful cathartic release, and when you’re contagious, or, stuck on the couch with your foot elevated in a hot, uncomfortable cast, and everyone you know is working, the familiar ones can bring that perfect touch of joy, or sorrow, needed to connect you to the world and the people in it.

So, enjoy those comfort reads. Take pleasure in them. Take ownership of them, even if they’re silly romances, or cheesy detective stories. They bring you contentment and joy, and connect you when you just can’t connect. They’re your happiness and they relieve you from really bad daytime television . . . seriously. Now excuse me, but Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree is calling.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Are You Seth? vol.3

I will admit, I struggled through Iain Pears' labyrinthine, 700+ page mystery, An Instance of the Fingerpost, when I read it back in the day. It weighs in at over 700 pages, tells the story of a murder from 4 differing perspectives, and while it took me forever to get through, I realized afterward that I love books with narrative structure like that, which ultimately lead me to authors like David Mitchell and Orhan Pamuk. That said, Pears has returned with a similarly structured new novel, Stone's Fall, which encompasses the life of a wealthy turn-of-the-century industrialist named John Stone. When Stone dies under mysterious circumstances in 1909, (did he fall out the window, jump out the window, or was he pushed out the window?) a young reporter begins to dig into Stone's life, not entirely sure what he is unearthing or who is pulling his strings. When the enigmatic Henry Cort directs him to pre-WWI spygames in Paris 1890 and Venetian industrial espionage in 1867, this incredible onion of a novel begins to gradually unfold.

Pears expertly keeps the storyline unfolding backwards in time, until all preconceived notions we may have about the characters (established chapter to chapter) are sufficiently pummelled into submission and reworked. In each section, the reader emerges with a completely new perception of what Stone was really like, as well as what the motives and ambitions of the people he surrounded himself with really were. Great reading for fans of historical fiction (not the romancy type, more meaty like Neal Stephenson or James Clavell), historical mysteries (such as Caleb Carr or John Dunning) or even Iain Pears himself.  Well worth the time investment, a fascinating, meticulously researched, multi-layered masterpiece. Leaving you asking, who was John Stone, really?

Friday, October 16, 2009

I Am Heather

“I’m dreaming of a frightening story
Just like the ones’ I used to peruse
Where my hairs had risen
And fear would glisten
To see such terror and abuse...”

You get my drift. It’s Halloween time, the month where the strong of stomach and mind go searching for that perfect hair-raising story to read during the cold, dark, and windy nights. They go searching for horror and ghosts, psychotic cars, and men named Freddy, but as movies move from the frightening to the frightful, and horror stories of yesteryear become romances of today it is harder and harder to work up a good scare. I too have been in this desolate place, reverting to my worn and torn childhood copy of Scary Stories 3, or revisiting all one million Halloween’s and Friday the 13th’s, yes even Freddy vs. Jason, yet I am continuously let down. I’ve tried the Saw’s and Hostel’s, but found myself more sickened by the blatant, gratuitous violence, torture, and just plain cruelty of this new breed of horror, than frightened or entertained. Thank God for an old friend who managed to bring the terror back into my cheery October nights.

The first time I came across Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend a friend handed it off to me ensuring that I would be captivated. I have to admit I was leery. Let me preface this by saying that the horrible, action-packed ridiculousness, which was the Will Smith film version of this title (really it just used the name and basic plot elements, nothing else was remotely close to the novel) was not even in the works. I was hesitant because the plot sounded way too much like the Charleston Heston 1970’s film The Omega Man, a movie I had seen more times than I had really wanted, and didn’t actually care for. The basic storyline (as given by the publisher) is this: “Robert Neville may well be the last living man on Earth . . . but he is not alone. An incurable plague has mutated every other man, woman, and child into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures who are determined to destroy him. By day, he is a hunter, stalking the infected monstrosities through the abandoned ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for dawn.” Sounds like Omega Man, right? Anyway, after sitting on my desk for a few weeks I finally decided to pack it in a bag and take it to the beach with me.

It was an overcast day, the Santa Monica beach nearly deserted, as I sat by my surfboard, book in hand. The story began:

“January 1976: On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when the sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”
As the story of Robert Neville’s desperate loneliness, his incurable depression, his fight for survival along the dead and abandoned streets of Los Angeles unfolded, I could feel his world. I sat up and saw the deserted beach with it’s barely breaking waves, and listened to the aged, eerily tinkling tunes of the Carousel as it spun emptily on the rickety old Pier, and could see Neville’s empty LA streets lined with dead cars, stinking of abandonment, the stale taste disuse floating in the air. And I had chills.

I realized that I was terrified. Not by the soulless, taunting monsters who stalked the nights, terrorizing a lonely and half-mad Neville, but by the utter emptiness of a city that was so vitally alive, and by a man, broken and nearly defeated. The fear and terror of the story is pulled freshly from a fear that is so prevalent in all of our psyches, the fear of being completely alone, with only the monsters of memory (as seen in flashbacks, and embodied by the neighbors and friends of Neville’s who taunt him nightly with their blood-thirsty catcalls) as companions. “For he was a man and he was alone…” These words, this concept, can evoke far more than the most brutally sadistic scenes of today’s so-called horror. And this simple story of a man, a legend, surviving by the skin of his teeth in a world that no longer no wants him, is not only thrilling in it’s creep factor, but stimulating in it’s underlying concepts. The horror is not in the vampire creatures, but in the fact that they two were simple humans, and now they are lost. This isn’t Buffy, this is a tortured soul looking to survive, when there is nothing to survive for. This is what happens when there is nothing.

So, instead of yearning for a new, exciting thrill, and ultimately being disappointed, I have embraced a story of old, one that still, after several years, manages to both thrill and chill me with its brilliance. I Am Legend, I am devoted.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Wild Things Are Here and They Are Covered In Faux Fur

When I was in writing workshop, back in the day, someone said to me, 'Why do you insist on this pose?'  That's how I looked at Dave Eggers when he first published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
I took the book as an unreadable, post-modern disaster, full of overly-clever, but ultimately unreadable, meta-fictional catrtwheels, obfuscating the story's heartbreaking heart, which, from what I could grasp, was a staggering, heartbreaking tale, that stood on its own without Eggers' endless props and gimmicks.  Essentially, my take on the book was what my grandmother used to say about the kids with mohawks that sat outside the Nordstrom in Denver:  'Those kids are saying look at me, look at me.'  I suddenly felt old and uncool.

Naturally, not being a gatekeeper, my opinion, in the minority as it was, was thankfully dismissed.  In 2002 he followed up A Heartbreaking Work. . . with his first proper novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, which, after trying to read a page or two, caused me to toss my hands in the air and shout, 'Why do you insist on this pose?'  When he released a revised paperback, which among other riveting changes, included an exclamation mark added to the title, I swore I was done with the young literary cause-celebre.

And yet, there is something hopelessly endearing and brillant about Dave Eggers.  A man who has taken so many risks, botched so many experiments while pulling off so many others can't be anything but sincere.  His resume is so original and scattershot as to be beyond contrivance.  He's written another man's memoir disguised as a novel in What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng; he's written serious non-fiction about wrongly convicted felons, underpaid teachers, and most recently, a searing study of a good Samaritan caught up in the government's post 9-11 paranoia in the aftermath of Katrina, Zeitoun, which my blogging rival Seth has reviewed in a recent post.  He's also written short stories, collaborated on screenplays (Away We Go & Where the Wild Things Are) and produced absurd children's books with titles like Giraffes? Giraffes! & Your Disgusting Head, with his little brother Christopher, under the psuedonymns  Dr. & Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey. 

But Mr. Eggers has been his most creative, courageous and experimental as the driving force behind one of the best independent publishers in America, McSweeny's.  They are one of but a handful of book publishers left that have seemingly never made a decision based on the bottom line, trusting instead that the market will appreciate honest, carefully crafted and packaged, iconic work from young, daring, innovative (and sometimes unreadable!) young writers (which the market too frequently does not support).  William Vollmann, who was recently at Warwick's, said Mcsweeny's was the only publisher that had the courage to publish an UNABRIDGED seven volume edition of his reportage on violence masterpiece, Rising Up, Rising Down.  Not to mention their royalty share to Mr. Vollmann was many times more generous than the typical New York publishing house.  As an offshoot to Mcsweeny's, Eggers has also co-founded 826 Valencia, a not-for-profit which provides writing skills tutoring for 6-18 year olds, which started in San Francisco and now has seven national chapters.  Essentially the man is a saint.  Did I mention 826 Valencia also has its own Pirate Supply Store?  Does it really matter at this point what I think of his fiction?

Which brings me to Mr. Eggers's latest contribution to his canon of the bizarre: a novelization of a screenplay adaptaion of a classic children's book.  As if that weren't beguiling enough to process, Mr. Eggers's version of Where The Wild Things Are is stunningly bound in . . . a coat of faux fur.  Do I want a novel to have hair on it?  Do I need or want to read a novel covered in fur?  How do I dust it when it's been on the shelf for a year?  Do I need a flobee to maintain it?  At this point it no longer matters what I, or anyone else, thinks.  The world of books is a more vibrant, interesting place, because of Dave Eggers and his relentlessly sincere 'pose'.  So buy your fur covered book before the world of publishing becomes boring, predictable, and homogeneous, and all works of art are delivered electronically and clean shaven.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Our Owner Shares Some Fanciful Thoughts & Fanciful Places For Bibliophiles

A year ago I found myself absorbed in a new idea for the Warwick's website. I decided it would be intriguing if Warwick's could link up with other independent bookstores, located in different parts of the world, and establish a group of 15 or 20 foreign booksellers as regular contributors to our site. We would ask these booksellers to tell us about what they're reading, as well as the current "hot" read, in such far away places as Nairobi, Oslo, Barcelona, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Paris, Jaipur, London, etc. 

We would post a picture of each bookseller, as well his or her bookstore, and look forward to some strong and passionate opinions, and, undoubtedly, many intriguing cultural insights. Imagine how fascinating it would be for our webmaster, Seth Marko, to host a monthly on-line book club with these fifteen or so booksellers from distant lands. Would such a group even survive a discussion of the Booker Prize? How I would love to follow such an exchange.

In the end, practical issues hampered my pursuit of the project. No one could figure out how such an initially time-consuming project could be supported by the store. I had to accept that my talented crew needed to focus their creative energies on existing endeavors that were already shortchanged by time constraints.

Notwithstanding, my enthusiasm for the project has remained steadfast and in the process of researching this idea I came across a rather beautiful website, Bookstore Guide, maintained by Sonya and Ivan, two young Eastern European booklovers.  They provide a select listing of mostly independent, European bookstores, which include English-language books in their inventories. I particularly enjoyed the Top 5s page, which includes such groupings as Europe's Top 5: Travel Bookstores, Top 5: Oldest Bookstores, and Top 5: Impressive Bookstores. My heart skipped a few beats on this last page.

I'm unable to pursue the fanciful thoughts I've written about here, but I sure hope to someday visit these phenomenally fanciful bookstores.

Nancy Warwick

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Prize Fighters

"...Booker remains a truly important prize because it's about so much more than the winner, or the shortlist. It has become the indispensable literary thermometer with which to take the temperature of contemporary fiction." (Robert McCrum, The Observer)

This week is unofficially "Prize Week" in the bookworld, with Wednesday's announcement of the Booker Prize winner - Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall - and this morning's unveiling of the 2009 Nobel Prize Winner for (Obscure European) Literature, Romanian poet/author, Herta Müller. And next week (in the "Prize Week" annex), the finalists for the National Book Award will be announced, so lots of gold stickers are coming to books near you. But does any of this matter? Does anyone care?

We here at Warwick's are big fans of the Booker Prize - previous winners include The White Tiger (2008), The Inheritance of Loss (2006), Life of Pi (2002), The Blind Assassin (2000), The English Patient (1992), The Remains of the Day (1989), Midnight's Children (1981) - you get the idea, all great books. My personal favorite author, David Mitchell, is a 3-time Booker nominee (Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, & Black Swan Green) and Scott (the other main contributor to this blog) has had a Booker-nominated title actually dedicated to him by the author (Darkmans by Nicola Barker, a 2007 nominee). You'd think that these amazing pieces of information would be enough to generate sufficient buzz, right? Yet the prize remains shrouded in obscurity in this country for some reason. Last year, at our popular Book Club Night I mentioned that one of my picks, The White Tiger, had just been nominated for the Booker. A show of hands in the crowd revealed that the majority of this well-read group had no idea what the Booker was, nor what its significance is. What does this say about said significance? When I asked them, "Who has read Life of Pi?", almost all 75 raised their hands. "That won the Booker Prize."  "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh," they replied.  I'd like to use this opportunity to take sole credit for all sales of The White Tiger at Warwick's, since it clearly has not been the Booker Prize that has turned it into the huge bestseller that it is.

The historical list of Nobel winners is impressive: Kipling, Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Camus, Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, Sartre, Pablo Neruda, Saul Bellow, Naguib Mahfouz, Toni Morrison, Jose Saramago, and Gunter Grass, to name a handful.  J.M. Coetzee (2003), the late Harold Pinter (2005), Orhan Pamuk (2006), Doris Lessing (2007) are recent laureates who are recognizable, widely read authors of renown and all people who had been rumored to be in the running for the Nobel in the years leading up to their actual win. 2004 found obscure Austrian novelist, Elfriede Jelinek as the winner and last year Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio won from out of nowhere. Most honest booksellers would admit to having no idea who either were, prior to the award announcements. This year, the early rumors (and the early betting in the UK) favored Israeli Amos Oz, Japan's Haruki Murakami, Canadians Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, and American Philip Roth (the Susan Lucci of the Nobel), possibly ending the 16-year American drought in the Literature department. Alas, it was not to be, as Herta Müller, a German poet/novelist of Romanian birth, was awarded the Nobel this year for her "concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose" that so "depict(s) the landscape of the dispossessed."  Awesome. What was her name again?

Every year, whenever a new major award is announced, I seem to feel that there is some sort of inherent flaw in the selection process. Last year, I defended Aravind Adiga in the Booker contest, railed against the Peter Matthiessen re-write that won the National Book Award, and openly complained (along with the rest of humanity) when mystery man le Clezio was awarded the Nobel. This is the natural order of human nature, I suppose - we are never going to agree, especially when it comes to making lists of "the best" of anything. Either I'm disappointed that no one cares that England's biggest literary award even exists or I'm disappointed that a major award (that consumers are aware of) is given to an author that no one knows exists - it's an "either-or" sort of thing, like Paul Auster novels.
"We" always think that "They" are wrong. The New York Times puts together a Notable list every year that I disagee with half of - to the point that I have come up with my own notable list every year on my own website. The recent poll by the lit-blog, The Millions, named the "best fiction of the millenium so far" with some great choices, some glaring omissions, and a very questionable champion. And David Mitchell should have won the 2004 Booker over Alan Hollinghurst, everyone knows that! Personally, even though I have never read a single word she has ever written, I think there are most likely dozens of more qualified (or at least, qualified) writers in the world than Herta Müller deserving to be honored for their life's work with a Nobel Prize. As of press time, a poll on shows that 93% of humans visiting have never read anything by Herta Müller. 93%! And this poll is right on the Nobel Prize website - as if they're admitting, openly to picking a ridiculously obscure author as their Prize winner!

"What's your point, Seth?" you may ask.

Well, all in all, I guess the lesson here is that you should just read whatever you want - whether or not you've ever heard of Herta Müller or Dario Fo, the Booker Prize or the Whitbread (or is it the Costa Award?) just doesn't matter. Aren't these "accolades" just a matter of opinion anyway? I say, just read, my friends.

Where are they now?
  • Booker winner, Wolf Hall goes on sale at Warwick's on Tuesday, October 13.
  • Several publishers are currently scrambling to reprint the few translated works of Herta Müller.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Are You Seth? vol.2

Even though I wrote a very similar post for my own site last week, (see The Book Catapult) I thought I'd post an abbreviated version of my review here on the Warwick's blog since no one reads both, do they? Although, you could read both and I wouldn't mind, really. Besides, I really liked this book, so what's the harm? For more of my shameless self-promotion, visit!

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Homer and Langley Collyer - fictionalized here in E.L. Doctorow's new novel, but actually real figures from early-1900's NYC - lived lives that are rather hard to comprehend for the average human: born into the New York upper crust of the turn of the 20th century, they chose to seal themselves off from the world amid the squalor of their townhouse, their quality of life steadily degrading with the passage of time.

Over a 50 year span, with virtually no prompting from the outside world, the brothers - crazed, WWI vet Langley and blind, innocent Homer - collected every manner of object, paper, or item that either of them deemed necessary. A full Model-T in the living room, multiple pianos for Homer to play, and the newspapers, oh my god, the newspapers - the literal foundation of their empire of squalor. Langley was convinced (most likely from his experience breathing mustard gas during the war) that news could be condensed down to a few basic, archetypal storylines. He believed that every human story repeated itself so much that one could print a newspaper for all time, so to speak, with articles that would pertain to any possible story that could ever happen, anywhere. This paper would need to be published just one time, ever, since the stories are so cyclical. To research every possible storyline, in order to print such a masterpiece of humanity, Langley needed to read and keep, in perpetuity, every single newspaper printed in New York City. The Collyer home was eventually stacked, quite literally, floor to ceiling with these papers - a fact that would lead to their eventual demise.

Doctorow skillfully brings these people back to life - not necessarily out of his own head this time, but more from the ashes of American folklore, which is where their incredible story has ended up residing. Homer exudes such a simple innocence throughout his brother's madness that you cannot help but sympathize with his plight - a plight only made liveable by the simple fact that he cannot see any of it. Again though, this fact is ultimately the undoing of both men and their odd, symbiotic relationship. The final paragraph - without spoiling anything for you - is one of the most arresting I have ever read, anywhere. Even though I knew how the real story of the Collyers ended, Doctorow's prose stopped me dead in my tracks, mouth agape. These men were magestic fodder for the very objects they collected - a story so bizarre, that even Langley couldn't possibly have found room amongst his archetypal "newspaper for all time".

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Are You Seth? vol.1

"Are you Seth?" is, apparently, a common question in the book department whenever I am not around. (Personally, I am rarely asked this, for whatever reason.) I read a lot and I write a lot about what I read - my "Warwick's Recommends" cards are in many places around the store - and many customers ask to pick my brain a bit about certain titles, share their thoughts on books we've both enjoyed, or even to ask me whether I "actually read any of these books" or to half-heartedly accuse me of plagiarizing from the New York Times - these are all great dialogues!  So, in answer to your query, "Yes, I am Seth." And these are the books I recommend.

This is the first of a regular post of extended book recommendations by yours truly. Shorter than a real book review, longer than a "Warwick's Recommends" card, I'll just enamor you with my scholarly wisdom and hope to convince you that these books are worth reading. For more on my personal reading habits, reviews (like E.L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley), rants, and reflections on bookworld trends, (plus a tad bit more foul language) visit my website, The Book Catapult.

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
Walter is the author of the 2007 Edgar Award winner Citizen Vince and the 2008 National Book Award Nominee, The Zero. I'm a big fan.

Halfway through this cautionary tale of financial woe, as my sides ached from laughing, I thought, “I had no idea Jess Walter was so funny”. The humor is very dark and the situation is bleak for sleepless, unemployed Matt, who is in danger of losing his house, his wife, all his money, and his sanity. Before the market crash of 2008, Matt quit his job as a financial news columnist to start an ill-fated website of poetry-laced financial tips and articles called
Buffeted by fuel costs soaring
and with labor costs surging
Delta and Northwest are exploring
the possibility of merging.
Two years later, after the website tanked miserably, he returned to the journalism job he left, only to be laid off when the market ultimately bottomed out. Now Matt can't find work, the bank is threatening foreclosure, his wife has managed to shop her way into an insurmountable credit card debt (and is more than likely having an affair), his children pick fights in their expensive private school, and his father, plagued by dementia, can offer no support, as he spends his days clutching his television remote and thinking in a perpetual loop. (His favorite refrain is, "Know what I miss?" - a question with only six possible answers, among them "chipped beef", "Angie Dickinson" and "The Rockford Files".) And his financial planner tells him that he has "fiscal ebola". One fateful evening, while purchasing $9 milk at a 7-Eleven, he decides to sell pot to his middle-aged contemporaries, as a way to make the money he needs to save it all – how do you think that ends?

At turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Walter has created a moving, timely, & very human story about how quickly our lives can change & how we each handle life’s persistent curveballs just a little bit differently.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

In Honor of Banned Book Week, Another Misguided Plea For Banning Books

Many moons ago I wrote a piece for a now defunct online literary magazine about my enthusiasm for book burning, The Internet and the Argument For Burning Books, as the last best defense against what many, myself foolishly included, were perceiving as the decline of proper culture at the dawn of the internet age.

My argument, though a bit muddled in retrospect, was in favor of the book burning methods of Cervantes’ Priest in Don Quixote’s library- rather than burn the things that were a threat to orthodoxy, the Priest basically burns everything that lacks, in his opinion, literary merit. A sort of proto-Bloomian brownshirt burning books purely on aesthetics. Through this tyranny of good taste we’d all be better read, fitter, happier people, the nation’s book groups re-reading Moby Dick again and again until everyone is seasick. At the time, I thought it was paradise.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to the bitter realization that not everyone has my impeccable taste. Ironically, as many despots have learned, the books most often burned are also the books most likely to outlive the burners. My sensible program for protecting the reading public from itself would have led to a hyper-literate dystopia in which zombie-like bookworms would shuffle about mumbling in iambic pentameter while the resistance lived below in the sewers, smuggling James Patterson novels, eating the pages as they read to avoid being imprisoned, waiting for a Nora Roberts led coup.

Banning books has become a bit of lark nowadays, judging from the lists provided by the ALA that we’ve been highlighting this week. There are always the usual suspects most sensible folk cherish as classics: To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn. But The Kite Runner? Who wants to ban that? In fairness, these banned book lists that stores like Warwick’s are promoting in their windows this week have lost the context of why someone wanted them banned in the first place. A boy is raped in the Kite Runner, so few would object ‘banning’ its being read by, say, a class of fourth graders. Not every attempt to ban a book is by a reactionary nutjob trying to censor us. The Gossip Girls series, for example, was banned by numerous school libraries for being sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and for offensive language. Isn’t that the point? The Gossip Girls certainly would have made my list of books to burn, so wasn’t I onto something profoundly good for society? Also, keep in mind when you hear these lists, that the banned books are often ‘challenges’ that ultimately, because of reasonable people stepping in, do not actually get banned. The Kite Runner though, gets attacked on high school reading lists. And really, even if Harry Potter did turn our children into witches and warlocks, isn’t that worth it, considering it also got them reading books again?

And so it goes. The book banners keep plugging away while the rest of us shake our heads, for in this day and age, can anything really be censored in a hyper-networked culture like ours? You can visit this handy map of book censorship and then with a few clicks, in most cases, you can download an electronic version from Warwick’s new e-book store and be reading the taboo content in minutes. Philip Pullman summed it up best after the banning of His Dark Materials: "The inevitable result of trying to ban something – book, film, play, pop song, whatever – is that far more people want to get hold of it than would ever have done if it were left alone.  Why don't the censors realise this?" Sherman Alexie said, “the amazing thing is these banners never understand they are turning this book into a sacred treasure.”

Books, of course, should be sacred treasure, without burning or banning them, but everyday there is another affront to their relevance and value. The latest was reported by the New York Times, about something called a ‘Vook’, being published by Simon and Schuster. You see, the smart folks at Simon and Schuster asked themselves what it was that books were missing. Editors that edited? No, don’t be silly. They realized the main drawback with a book is that it isn’t enough like watching TV. So they’ve added video clips, hence, a ‘Vook’. Rumour has it that among the ideas the ‘Vook’ beat out were the ‘Cook’ which was a microwaveable book made out of mashed potatoes, and the ‘Flook’, which was an inflatable book that could be, in an emergency, used as a flotation device. I get it, you’re not selling enough books, you have to try something new, it’s just that at some point you’re no longer a publishing house (which would probably make the shareholders happy).

I once heard someone lament that there was no censorship in America, for if books were burned it would make literature a more important part of our culture. I’m sure any of the authors throughout the world who have truly had to suffer for their work would dismiss this as naiveté, but I think of it every time I mail a book at the Post Office. The clerk always asks: “Is there anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous?” I want to say yes, I think books can be hazardous, can change lives and minds and cultures, but inevitably I say no, it’s just a book. Just a bunch of words that never caused any trouble.

At least for a week then, every year, we’re reminded that there are still people who think books are dangerous and that there are still people and places like Warwick’s willing to defend those dangerous books, even if it does mean, by way of some convoluted logic, that I might end up burning a few. Just know when you see it on the news that my heart was in the right place.