Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Are You Seth? vol.11

Today, in the 11th volume of AYS? I will be directing your attention to Anthony Doerr's new short story collection, Memory Wall.  I know, I know, nobody likes to read short stories anymore, but people, I'm here to tell you that you need to get over this phobia.  Short stories are the best way to discover new writers!  Where would we be without Chekhov, Poe, or O. Henry?  Most authors of quality start out writing short pieces before they can convince anyone to read their full-length novels.  Tobias Wolff, Jhumpa Lahiri, Robert Olen Butler, Ron Carlson, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Wells Tower...embrace the short form!
"It's fair to say that Anthony Doerr is doing things with the short story that have rarely been attempted and seldom achieved."  -Dave Eggers
Doerr is also the author of one of my favorite novels from the past few years, About Grace.  (Still available for viewing on the Warwick's Bestsellers display.)  Sidebar: Grace is the story of one Henry Winkler who, throughout his life, experiences prescient dreams, usually of mundane, everyday occurrences that nevertheless come true every time.  Henry goes about his life, gets married, has a daughter, names her Grace.  One day, he has a dream that he is caught in a massive flood and has Grace swept from his arms by the torrent.  Naturally, this is a problem, as his dreams literally come true, so Henry decides that if he isn't around for the flood to sweep Grace away, it can never happen.  So he leaves his family behind in an attempt to save his daughter.  The rest of the book is about the circular path Henry's life takes, always trying to get back to his wife and child.  Heartbreaking, beautiful, great.

The title story from Memory Wall starts off with the Doerr's characteristic strength of prose and vivid descriptions of the natural world at large that instantly hooked me:
Seventy-four-year old Alma Konacheck lives in Vredehoek, a suburb above Cape Town: a place of warm rains, big-windowed lofts, and silent, predatory automobiles.  Behind her garden, Table Mountain rises huge, green, and corrugated; beyond her kitchen balcony, a thousand city lights wink and gutter behind sheets of fog like candleflames.
I always recommend reading the first page of anything you're interested in - if it grabs you right away, keep reading.  If not, move on.  Memory Wall is, as Mr. Doerr says "a collection of 4 stories, two novellas, all spiraling off the central idea of memory."  The two novellas - the bookends of the collection - are far and away the strongest of the bunch.  The title story is set in a sort of dystopian Cape Town, South Africa where the technology has been invented to retrieve memories from the brain and store them digitally for later re-visiting by the owners.  For example, Alma is an elderly woman who has the means to be able to afford such a luxury (it is almost prohibitively expensive) and as she is slowly succumbing to the ravages of memory loss and dementia, she can now access the memories of her life that she has lost.  Alma is vulnerable and dependant on others, and so open to the evil machinations of men.  When nefarious parties learn that Alma may have a memory stored away of a lucrative, secret event, she and her memories are exploited for financial gain and potential fame.  Is there enough of Alma still inside her own head to keep her memories safe?

The other novella, Afterworld, reminded me quite a bit of another contemporary of Doerr's, Kevin Brockmeier and his novel The Brief History of the Dead.  In Brockmeier's novel, when we die, we pass over to a massive city, where we wait, living rather normal lives, until there are no more people left on the planet with a first hand memory of us.  Doerr's story is similar in that Esther, raised in a German Jewish orphanage during WWII, is the sole survivor of the group of young girls who were living in the orphanage when all were sent to concentration camps  by the Nazis.  Now an elderly woman, she slips in and out of our world and the next, where her childhood friends await, ready to move to the next, final world.  For Esther, the memories flood her mind and she floats through the diaphanous, fragile barrier that exists between these multiple worlds, only to return to reality, as her corporal body is not yet ready to depart.  Sad, but a beautifully wrought & powerful story.

Among the other stories, Village 113 - about the building of China's Three Rivers Dam and the ancient community uprooted by its construction - won a prestigious O. Henry Prize in 2008 (his third win) and The River Nemunas - a young, orphaned girl moves from Kansas to Lithuania to live with her grandfather - just recently won a 2011 Pushcart Prize.  So, other people think these are pretty good too, just in case you didn't want to take my word for it.

Don't dismiss a book just because it is a collection of short stories - you may be missing out on a fantastic new author that could expand your reading horizons to levels you never thought possible.  Dip in, read one or two, put it down, read something else, loan it to your friend, come back to it later - they're not going anywhere.

Visit anthonydoerr.com for more - you can also read some of his stories as well as a few of his fantastic nonfiction essays.  (My favorite is "Butterflies on a Wheel" from 2008's Granta 102.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Arts & Culture Forum Roundup

On Friday, July 9th, Warwick's hosted a community Arts and Culture Forum to discuss the future of print media and critical journalism in San Diego.  The series of layoffs at the Union-Tribune in the last several weeks - especially that of Bob Pincus, long-time art critic and Books editor - proved to be the catalyst for the forum and prompted many concerned citizens to turn out to hear what the panel had to say on the subject.  Moderated by local author & psychologist, Dr. Richard Farson, the panel for the forum featured five prominent figures in the San Diego arts, culture, and book scene:  Jeff Light, editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Robert Pincus, former art critic and books editor at the U-T, Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Sandra Dijkstra, founder & president of Dijkstra Literary Agency, and Angela Carone, Arts & Culture Producer at KPBS.  Each panel member was given the opportunity to address the following question posed by Dr. Farson:  What can we do, as a community, to ensure that the Arts, Culture, and Books are well represented in San Diego?

The issue seems to be twofold: one portion of the panel (and the audience) wants to see order restored, Bob Pincus returned to his desk at the U-T, and a continuation of fulltime arts coverage in the daily paper.  This sentiment was echoed by Sandy Dijkstra, Hugh Davies, and Bob Pincus especially.  Generally, this portion of the panel were strong proponents of print media maintaining a firm place in the community, rather than having more of a web-based critical presence.  Hugh Davies: "The prospect of having the anarchy of a blog determining what is great art and what is hype is very troublesome."  Angela Carone  (and, to some degree, Jeff Light) was more of the mind that online critical journalism needs to be embraced as a viable source of information.  "I think the future of arts journalism is online. The time for San Diego to strike is now."

Where do you stand, San Diego?  Is there a place for online arts criticism?  Or should we make every attempt to maintain the print media version?  As Sandy Dijkstra opined, San Diego is "either in or we're out" of the arts conversation.  Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments field of this post - we'd love to hear what you have to say.

The full video of the forum can be seen on the Warwick's Facebook page, in 20 minute installments.

For more info on the issue, check out some of the following resources:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Free Coffee! New Books! Discounts!

It's that time again - time for me to pressure you into skipping work for an hour or so on a Tuesday morning so you can listen to me talk!  Tomorrow - Tuesday, July 13th - at 10:00am, is the latest edition of Coffee with a Bookseller at Warwick's, where everyone who shows up will receive:
  • Free Coffee!
  • Free Scones from Brick & Bell Cafe!
  • A 20% Discount on All Books Discussed!
  • An Intimate Knowledge of the Newest and Best Books Available!
  • Personal Interaction with a LIVE Bookseller!
Join me for an odyssey of unparalleled dimensions as I take you down the rabbit hole to where this week's best books reside!  Anthony Doerr, James Lee Burke, Don Winslow, Alexander McCall Smith, Ayelet Waldman, and many more!  10:00am!  Tuesday!

UPDATE!  Best crowd ever for a Coffee with a Bookseller - thanks for coming out, everybody!  In case you missed it, here's the list of books I discussed (for the most part):
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
  • Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr
  • The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke
  • Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Rules of Betrayal by Christopher Reich
  • Faithful Place by Tana French
  • Savages by Don Winslow
  • Invisible by Paul Auster
  • Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Just a Little Summer Reading

This time of year, everyone seems to have a Summer Reads list - much like the Best of the Year lists that emerge in December.  Stephen King, writing for Entertainment Weekly, just announced his 6 Must-Reads For Summer (John Sandford, The Passage, Stieg Larsson...yawn); O Magazine has a huge list (including Aimee Bender, Brando Skyhorse, and Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill); Time Magazine asked several writers for their picks, including Rebecca Skloot (Ted Conover's The Routes of Man - also one of my favorites), Charlaine Harris (61 Hours by Lee Child), and Alan Furst (Operation Mincemeat); NPR had a list from Indie booksellers as well.  You get the idea.  We here at Warwick's are entering the fray - here are the Summer Reads recommended by our booksellers - in brief:

Adriana:  "Told through alternating view points, The Heights by Peter Hedges (author of What's Eating Gilbert Grape) is in turns surprising, insightful, funny, and will have you guessing right until the very end."

Janet:  "Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea - a funny, timely novel set partly in San Diego, with a with strong women characters and a loose Seven Samurai theme."

Jim:  "Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende is a beautifully written historical novel about the Caribbean during the era of French Colonialism."

Heather:  "Juliet by Anne Fortier is the story of Julie Jacobs, a young woman who is drawn into the mysterious and very real world of Shakespeare’s infamous warring families. This was a fast-paced, intriguing story with complex characters, and a clever plot. A very engaging read." (Due out August 24th.)

James:  "Summer is a time for keeping things light and eating great food. Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is a curry flavored treat in the style of Alexander McCall Smith and Agatha Christie that will keep you hungering for more."

Rob:  "Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist is a funny and original novel about a guy with lots of wives and even more issues."

Joe:  Model Home by Eric Puchner - a novel about the California experience of boom & bust, both hilarious & heartbreaking at the same time. I was laughing, crying, then really crying.  Loved it.

Rhonda:  "Crazy For the Storm by Norman Ollestad. Ollestad was only 11 years old in 1979 when he, his father, his father’s girlfriend, and the pilot flying their small charter plane crashed into a California mountain during a blizzard. Only Norman survived. How did this young boy survive such a disaster?"

Margie:  "Furious Love by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger is one book you'll enjoy for sure.  Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor have long been a fascination for many of us - they had a volatile relationship, for sure, but the were always very protective of each other and their families.  It's wonderful to know just a little bit more about this fabulous couple."

Steven:  "Drinky Crow's Maakies Treasury (or any Maakies collection, actually) by Tony Millionaire is the perfect nautically-themed adventure to read while sipping on a pint of rum and relfecting on the miseries of another long, hot summer."

John:  "In K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist, Peter Carlson delivers a shocking, hilarious, and thoroughly entertaining account of Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 trip across America. As funny as any novel I have ever read, this is a perfect beach read for any lover of history."

Seth:  "What else could I pick for Summer Reading but my favorite author's new novel?  David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is a majestic, sprawling historical epic of Japan and the encroaching West at the end of the 1700's.  Mitchell's brilliant prose sweeps you along with the flow, always keeping you wondering, as foreigner like Jacob, how much of the lush, inner world of Japan you will be allowed to glimpse."  See more in Are You Seth? vol 10.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Clandestine in La Jolla?

Maybe because of the holiday, this week is a bit light as far as new releases go, but here are a few worth noting - if you're so inclined.  Remember, last week brought the release of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - my pick of the year!  Don't be the last one on your block!

Gotta have some Beach Reads:
It All Began in Monte Carlo by Elizabeth Adler - part of a series of summer, crime, romance novels. From the publisher blurb: "Sunny Alvarez and Mac Reilly always seem to find trouble in the south of France. This time, all the trouble began in Monte Carlo."  Nuff said.

The Island by Elin Hilderbrand - the author lives on Nantucket, so, presumably knows how to craft a good beach read.  In fact, Kirkus Reviews calls her the "Queen of the summer novel" and claims that The Island is so "deliciously addictive that it will be the 'It' beach book of the summer." 

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman - Publisher's Weekly: "If any contemporary author deserves to wear the mantel of Jane Austen, it's Goodman, whose subtle, astute social comedies perfectly capture the quirks of human nature. This dazzling novel is Austen updated for the dot-com era..."  Starred reviews from Kirkus, Library Journal, and PW - a pretty good pre-pub start.

A little Nonfiction:
Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge by Kevin Starr - Starr, our state's preeminent historian, will be on KPBS's These Days on Thursday, July 8th if you want to hear him speak about the new book.  This slim volume is his history of the bridge over the Bay and how it has become the quintessential icon of California.

And a rediscovered classic:
Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - a handsome little paperback reissue by New York Review of Books of a title by the Nobel laureate that has been out of print for several years.  Garcia Marquez wrote this report back in 1985 about Chilean film director Miguel Littin's return to his homeland after 12 years in exile.  Littin was banned from returning by dictator Augusto Pinochet, but snuck into the country using a false passport and proceeded to make a documentary film about life in Pinochet's Chile.  Pinochet was not happy about this.  But, miraculously, Littin got away with it and gave Garcia Marquez a series of interviews on his experiences.

Coming up this week at the store:
  • Connie Mariano, former physician to presidents, discusses her memoir, The White House Doctor on Wednesday night at 7:30.
  • At the Beach Storytime for the kids!  Thursday at 11am.
  • Marlene Wagman-Geller, author of Eureka! The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World on Thursday evening at 7:30.
  • On Sunday we're having a 50th Anniversary Celebration of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird down at the La Jolla Library at 2:00pm.  Author Susan Vreeland will be there to lead the discussion and we will be having a screening of the film with Gregory Peck (or at least, a portion of the film.)  Bring the kids!
And, Friday night, join us for an important panel discussion about the future of the Arts in San Diego at 7:30pm. On the panel will be UT editor, Jeff Light, former UT art critic and books editor, Robert Pincus, literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra, director of the Contemporary Art Museum, Hugh Davis, and KPBS Arts & Culture producer, Angela Carone. 

Also, Alice Munro and Marcel Proust share a birthday this Saturday the 10th.  Would they celebrate together if given the opportunity?

And... follow along with my reading of James Patterson's latest novel (well, second latest now) on The Book Catapult.  I am in the midst of following through on my earlier threat to read one chapter of Patterson's The 9th Judgment every day - I call it 117 Days of James Patterson - and I'm currently somewhere around Day 67.  Check it out.