I spent about forty-five minutes at Moe’s the other day, and it reminded me of every single reason that I love being in bookstores (aptly as I just, by the powers vested in me as overseer of this blog, named it the #1 Bookstore in the East Bay). It’s not something I’d maybe put into words before, and it’s more than the fact that they’re filled with books, which one can subsequently purchase. It’s because a good bookstore visit is like a portal to the entire interior world.
As someone who can be kind of introverted, unadventurous, a homebody, the world can sometimes feel small. On especially hermit-y weekends it’s about the size of my apartment. (Again: small.) It’s also the size of my routine: the sidewalks that take me to work, the bus stops I wait at, the lunch spots I go to, the cubicle I somehow spend forty hours a week inside of. It’s no bigger than my regular news sources, and email, and Facebook. It’s the people I deign to see on a regular basis.
So imagine how delightful and how freeing it is to step into a space where tangential un-thought-of worlds open and explode around you, in unexpected ways. You pull a book off a shelf and it’s like you suddenly see, not just what’s on the page but everything that page implies, everything it could potentially lead to—consecutive nights of reading, long philosophical discussions, knowledge of untold unthought-of things. An entire hinted-at world. Opening and exploding.
It’s the next best thing to skydiving. Or seizing the day, the way they do in, like, pharmaceutical commercials.
At Moe’s, we spent forty-five minutes on the basement level and never even made it to the second floor (fiction). And it was still enough to inspire this blog post. Moe’s basement level—which is more like Floor negative-0.5, because it’s just a few steps down from the entrance—has a substantial music section, some children’s literature, critical theory, and a bunch of fiction that for some reason is not on the second floor (fiction).
Where to begin. There were full Wagnerian opera scores. There was loose sheet music from old Hollywood films dating from 1933. There was a two-volume set of Mozart’s letters, PUBLISHED IN 1866. ($65 for the set.) There was a multi-volume collection of Henry James works. There were children’s books from when I was a child (the self-same edition of The Secret Garden that I had/still have). There were children’s books from when my parents were children (or at least youngish: an original printing of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 1974). There were children’s books from when really old and/or dead people were children (Folk Tales from the Far East, 1927, with illustrations).
There were compact, modest new paperbacks with stunning artwork of Ray Bradbury’s best-loved novels. There was a full shelf of Vonnegut. There were Beatles guitar fake books.
EVERYTHING ONE COULD WANT. If by “everything” you mean more than one could possibly hope to conceive of in one forty-five-minute period, what with the limitations of the human mind and all that. A finite “everything,” but subjectively, still, everything.
And you leave thinking, buzzing, full of ideas and subjects and fodder for your theories, big and small, grandiose and mundane (I like both kinds). You come away more than you were.
And I could not, conceivably, come away empty-handed in such a situation, even though I’ve been trying to limit my book purchasing in anticipation of a very big upcoming move. I left with the sheet music for “Love Songs of the Nile” from talking picture The Barbarian (for my Orientalist music collection, of course), the aforementioned Folk Tales from the Far East collected by one Charles H. Meeker (who in 1927 was apparently a high school history teacher in Florida, formerly a teacher in the Philippines—for my old book/Orientalist book collection, of course), and The Martian Chronicles.
Here’s pictures of Orientalia and otherness that I encountered on this wonderland-freaking-visit. And The Martian Chronicles.
It has long been told in my family that James Herriot, the veterinarian-turned-author-of-veterinarian-exploits, All Creatures Great and Small, was from the same small English town as my mother’s father’s family. Thirsk sits a ways outside of York, in northern Yorkshire, in the north part of the country. When I visited with my mother and grandmother several years ago, we popped into the Herriot Museum in quaint downtown Thirsk—decided we didn’t want to pay admission—then walked up the way to the church where my grandparents were married and my relatives were buried.
Recently my mom mentioned that our family connection to James Herriot might be a little more solid than mutual residence. My great-grandmother, Gertrude Wombwell Hardy, was a larger-than-life character, short, solid, and thoroughly outgoing. (She did after all come from circus folk. “Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie.” Apparently this is for real.) She had two stubby Pekingese that were named—wait for it—Chinkie and Chummie. Who could have foretold that her granddaughter would someday marry a man of the East? (And that little Chinkie’s name would become* a racial slur. But I digress.)
*This verb contingent on your own theories of language, of course. Did it become one or was it always one? Yada.
Anyway, as my mom deduces, great grandmother Gertrude could only have taken her two darling dogs to the only veterinarian in town, Mr. James Herriot (real name: James Wight). Thirsk has grown today to a bustling metropolis of 5,000 people, but in the 1940s it was much smaller. Further, as my gran deduces—based on Herriot’s practice of simply fictionalizing his real life, his town, his townspeople in his books—one of his characters was probably based on Gertrude. I haven’t read his writing so I can’t say which one. My mom says she thinks Gertrude might have disappeared into a composite character of a wealthy woman who called her dog “Trickie-woo.”
My only familiarity with All Creatures Great and Small was the BBC series based on the books that ran from 1978 to 1990. This is still how I think of it.
But this is what my mom and gran deduce. Because Gertrude was quite a real-life character (“putting on airs,” as my gran described it), because she had five boys (“boisterous,” as my mom described them), and because the Hardys owned about fifty zillion (but less than ten) local businesses over the course of their professional life (including a milk bar, and a pub), Gertrude Wombwell Hardy could not have helped but left an impression on the local veterinarian. This is our evidence.
I like to picture that James Herriot knew my grandpa and his brothers when they were little boys, or when they drove fish and chip deliveries around town in their bike + sidecar setup as youths, but according to Wikipedia Herriot opened his practice in Thirsk in 1941, which was in the midst of World War II—and all five of the Hardy boys had entered the service. Sidney (No. 1) and Fred (No. 5) joined the Army; Bert (No. 3) and Geoff (No. 4) joined the Navy; and Dudley (No. 2, my grandfather) joined the Air Force as a truck driver. He never saw combat—was discouraged from becoming a pilot after seeing two men die in a fiery crash at his air strip. Lucky, then. Fred was evacuated at Dunkirk. Bert died in the sinking of the HMS Diamond in the Aegean Sea.
(Also lucky was my paternal grandfather, who with the rest of the barrack basketball team at his Arizona internment camp went to sign up for the war—once Japanese Americans were allowed– but was turned away because of an inner ear problem. Some of them died in Europe. The teleology of genealogy: Of course our forefathers had to survive to proliferate.)
This is my personal family literary history. This is the only famous author I can currently say I have connections to. (Besides knowing people who know Dave Eggers.) I guess it’s doubly romantic and exciting because it reminds me that my history extends outside of my own lived experience so snugly contained within the confines of California. And that my great grandmother might be in a book.
Last week at the Books Inc. two blocks from my house (good news: there’s a bookstore two blocks from my house; bad news: it’s not a used bookstore), I flipped through the introduction to Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and then decided to buy it. Two reasons: he referred to himself as the “white sheep” in his non-college-educated family (a little self-congratulatory, but a clever inversion of an idiom nonetheless), and this line in response to being called “one of the major lyric voices of our time”:
“As Keanu Reeves, the Hawaiian balladeer, would say, ‘Whoa.’”
From these things I decided I liked him. It doesn’t take much. It’s like when you’re talking to a person for the first time and you find out what music they listen to, or which of your jokes they laugh at. First impressions matter. Same is true for writers.
When I began my lifelong quest to read every single great piece of literature ever written in the English language, I started at the Borders in Davis, CA. Not totally auspicious, but within walking distance to my college apartment. I guess I have a thing for walking distances. That Borders is gone now, as are all other Borders; in its place stands a Whole Foods. But I have the fondest of memories in that transformed space—aisles of overpriced grain products where the overpriced CDs used to be—because it’s where I started my relationships with several of my absolutest, positivest favorite authors, who I still to this day am madly in love with.
What I would do, is I would drift towards a title based on its name and its reputation and its book cover, and then I would get a sense of it from the back cover description, and then I would open to the first page and see if I liked what I read, if I saw the literary relationship going somewhere, if we were I guess verbally compatible. I readily admit this isn’t always the best way to find a great book. There have been plenty of first-pagers (as I call them) that turn out to be not-so-interesting, and plenty of slow-starters that have become all-time favorites.
But sometimes first impressions are correct.
Here’s my first-pagers. Emphasis on the words I loved the most.
The Satanic Verses
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won’t cry? How to win the darling’s love, mister, without a sigh? Baba, if you want to get born again…” Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky.
“I tell you, you must die, I tell you, I tell you,” and thusly and so beneath a moon of alabaster until a loud cry crossed the night. “To the devil with your tunes,” the words hanging crystalline in the iced white night, “in the movies you only mimed to playback singers, so spare me these infernal noises now.”
Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. “Ohé, Salad baba, it’s you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.”
I was transfixed by this opening. So magical realist, so fantastical, so virtuosic! Two men falling from the sky? The one, Gibreel Farishta, a flamboyant, histrionic Bollywood actor flapping around and singing; the other, Saladin Chamcha, a fastidious and completely assimilated British Asian who wants to fall straight down in peace. Already hinting at grand themes of faith, country, catharsis, transcendence, which are further explored as Gibreel begins to turn into an angel, and Saladin into a devil.
Nowadays, I like my magical realism a little less hit-you-over-the-head, but Rushdie immediately got major props for creativity. The whole first chapter was an exhilarating dream sequence of a twenty-nine-thousand-foot drop which, incidentally, the two men survive. I devoured this book. Then read Midnight’s Children, which I like even better. Is genius. Also recommended: Shame; East, West; The Enchantress of Florence (less substantial but still gorgeous, gorgeous words).
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.
I really did go back to Dresden with Guggenheim money (God love it) in 1967. It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.
Kind of a polar opposite, stylistically, from Rushdie—Vonnegut has the most spare, straightforward, ironic of mid-century American writing styles. If given the choice, I tend to favor the virtuosic over the concise, but sometimes there’s beauty in sparseness. Sometimes there’s a lot of weight in what’s not said. That’s what I felt with Vonnegut.
It starts right off with a question: how much of this is real? How will I know whether he’s making things up, overdramatizing? (As I now understand it, most of the war parts are true. Most of the parts with time travel and Tralfamagorians: not true.) Then there’s a flip observation: there’s probably a lot of human bone in the ground at Dresden. Pain, trauma, horror without measure wrapped up in a Vonnegut’s dryly humorous semi-sci-fi tale using very few words, because some things you can’t really express. Boiled down to its essence in the refrain: “So it goes.”
This is still my favorite Vonnegut. Also recommended: Cat’s Cradle; Welcome to the Monkey House (short stories).
It was love at first sight.
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
Yossarian was in the hospital with pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.
Each morning they came around, three brisk and serious men with efficient mouths and inefficient eyes, accompanied by brisk and serious Nurse Duckett, one of the ward nurses who didn’t like Yossarian. They read the chart at the foot of the bed and asked impatiently about the pain. They seemed irritated when he told them it was exactly the same.
“Still no movement?” the full colonel demanded.
The doctors exchanged a look when he shook his head.
“Give him another pill.”
Nurse Duckett made a note to give Yossarian another pill, and the four of them moved along to the next bed. None of the nurses liked Yossarian. Actually, the pain in his liver had gone away, but Yossarian didn’t say anything and the doctors never suspected. They just suspected that he had been moving his bowels and not telling anyone.
Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. The food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed. There were extra rations of fresh meat, and during the hot part of the afternoon he and the others were served chilled fruit juice or chilled chocolate milk. Apart from the doctors and the nurses, no one ever disturbed him. For a little while in the morning he had to censor letters, but he was free after that to spend the rest of each day lying around idly with a clear conscience. He was comfortable in the hospital, and it was easy to stay on because he always ran a temperature of 101. He was even more comfortable than Dunbar, who had to keep falling down on his face in order to get his meals brought to him in bed.
The first page of Catch-22 was just a total WTF, and so was the rest of the first chapter, and I liked that. Absurd, inane, hilarious, confusing, somewhat disingenuous, as if the whole narrative is playing a trick on you. And yet—like Slaughterhouse Five—the irony masks a core of pain and horror, similarly experienced firsthand by Joseph Heller (is he Yossarian?) during his service in Italy. So funny, and then horrible things happen (image that stands out in my head is the bottom half of a person standing on a raft offshore). And the Snowden chapters! So heartbreaking. The entire mood is captured in the problematic of the title: one of those “if I don’t laugh I’ll cry” situations.
This is the only Heller I’ve read, so I can’t in good faith call him “one of my favorite authors,” though I think this book is brilliant. He’s something of a literary one-hit wonder. Though if you are so inclined I believe there is a sequel.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
The Holy Grail of books. My most favoritest of favoritest authors. The ecstasy of Nabokov’s prose is evident from the opening lines of his greatest, and for obvious reasons most controversial, work, the deconstruction of the syllables of Lolita and the many names of Dolores Haze, not to mention the first glimpse into the disturbed psychology of erudite narrator and sickening sex offender Humbert Humbert. His words are unmatched. He has the uncanny ability to make me feel like I’m not reading but seeing, at the same time that I am hyperaware of each and every one of his verbal feats.
Turning to the second page, I was further enamored by his sense of humor:
“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…”
That parenthetical made me laugh. Nabokov may paint beautiful, intensely detailed narrative pictures, but when he doesn’t want to waste time on description, he throws out two words and gives you everything you need to know. “Picnic. Lightning.” Bam.
As may have been mentioned on this blog before, Lolita started an eight-year relationship (still going strong) with Vladimir that has taken me through Ada, or Ardor, Pnin, Invitation to a Beheading, and his brilliant Short Stories, and I’m currently reading his enchanting Speak, Memory—probably the best memoir I’ve yet to encounter. I don’t use the L-word too often (or maybe I do, but usually for un-serious things), but I. Love. Him.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
First line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
First line(s): “‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’ There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.”
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides
First line: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
There’s more. It’s a lifelong quest.
First. I got a Kindle Fire. Yes, I got a Kindle Fire. An electronic reader; or, an “e-reader,” as the kids are calling it. Something I swore never, ever to do, something that undermines all the values I hold most dear and strikes at the very core of who— I— am.
That’s not true, it’s actually not that big a deal. In part, because I will always retain my love for books, the physicality of books, their tangible existence, but also because the Kindle Fire is less a reader and more a mini tablet, with email and internet and photos and apps and games and etcetera. In fact, what I’m loving most about it so far is the brilliant screen with its high definition and vivid colors. Fruit Ninja looks phenomenal. My Southwest photos look editorial.
And what I’m discovering (though my relationship with the Kindle may change—it’s still early) is that, principally, I think this little guy* will make an excellent magazine reader. I already signed up for a subscription to Vogue (a sign of the medium’s potential salvation?) and the photo spreads and layouts are, no exaggeration, freaking gorgeous. I actually think they might look better in digital than on the page. The white glow emanates always outward, from the spread itself, a superior luminary arrangement to the glossy page’s tendency to reflect large crinkled spots of daylight that in passing obscure the ink.
This admission of digital superiority is an implied blasphemy on my part, coming into conflict with my core tenet that the page always trumps the screen; but I think as long as I limit that blasphemy to magazines, as interactive and visual and occasionally tawdry as they are, I can still belong to my church. (Not that one. The bibliophile one, that holds congregation at used bookstores.)
*He still needs a name. Idea: Pantalaimon?
Moving on. A few months ago, I made an impulse buy at an architects’ bookstore in Berkeley: Paris in Color, a photo collection by American-in-Paris Nichole Robertson. Having recently been to Paris, and having some of my favorite movies set in Paris (Amelie, Moulin Rouge, Paris, je t’aime), and aspiring to be an American-in-Paris, and just, generally, being a Francophile (or maybe, more accurately, a Paris-phile), I thought that a visual hodgepodge of the city would be perfect for my collection, even though I tend to avoid art books: the ones you don’t read but just awkwardly look at from time to time.
Awkwardness aside, this lovely little offering from Chronicle Books (awesome San Francisco-based publisher that focuses on art-related and visually appealing books) is slightly unusual in that its representation in Paris is, well, so colorful. Separate sections devoted to purple, pink, blue, yellow, orange, display every chroma Paris has to offer; even though the city tends to be associated with black, gray, beige, red, and, I suppose, the gold-yellow of its lights. The photos also eschew touristy or landscape-y views for closeups: chairs, signs, bicycles, awnings. My favorites are the patisserie menus, written in chalk cursive. Very evocative of the being there.
But I still associate Paris with those aforementioned moody colors (just like I associate London with browns, whites, reds, and royal blue). Maybe that’s why my favorite sections are the black and the white. So pretty!
And to my aunt, if she’s reading this— thanks for the Kindle (a.k.a. Pantalaimon)!
This Tuesday I turn 27. I plan to keep it quiet at work– because who needs awkward coworker well wishes?– but the cosmos have granted me a mini work related birthday gift anyway, because on Tuesday November 20th the 275 Battery office building where I work will be holding a Book Fair in the lobby which I plan to make full use of on my break. A Book Fair! It could be the rinky dinkiest thing, and I’ll still be happy and say thanks to the cosmos for the gift and for remembering.
Also, in regards to my last post, I’ve been continuing my muscling through of Henry Miller’s autobiographical trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion and am now reading book 2, Plexus. And I feel like, while I kind of ripped into Henry Miller in my last post, we’re getting to be friends. Unlike Sexus, there has been almost nothing offensive or vulgar in this book so far, probably because at this point in the trilogy he is now married to a woman he really loves and has forsaken (for now) his youthful escapades. And also, after three books, I’m getting immersed in his world, knowing all of his New York friends by name and personality, understanding his tics, following his somewhat mundane quotidian experiences yet still being entertained. You’re growing on me Henry… even if you are still a jerk.
Here’s what I saw at Moe’s today:
That is all.
The page tore on page 34 of my copy of Mimesis as I was standing on the MUNI platform at 4th and King, from the divergent pressures of my thumb holding down the page and the wind suddenly and violently whipping it upward. I said “shit!” quietly to myself, but then imagined it as a mark of physical reality being imposed on my text, which may seem essential and untouchable but is really just a single, unique copy with the same mimetic words printed on it. Erich Auerbach himself, on the very page, inserted himself into the narrative (“As I open Rostovtzeff’s work to check the quotation above, my eyes fall on this sentence: ‘The question, however, arises, How are we to account for the existence of comparatively large numbers of proletarians in Italy?'”), which was an alarming departure from the otherwise omniscient authority of his literary criticism. I’m now reassured to know that future holders of this book will have tangible evidence of that single wind on Monday August 13th 2012.
So the other night in rapid fire succession my boyfriend Paul made two gem-like literary jokes, or maybe I’m biased because our sense of humor is pretty much the same. But I thought, why not lighten the mood on this blog (which on all other days is so horribly somber) by reprinting them here? They do keep with the theme after all.
first. After a dinner out with my parents, the four of us arrived home to a thumping noise in the dark. The sound, of course, was my parents’ dog Pepper, her tail beating steadily against the pillow cushion in her submissive rejoicing of our homecoming.
Paul: “It’s like the Tell-Tale Heart… of happiness.”
Later, Paul insists that when I blog this, I spell it “Tell-Tail Heart,” but I’m morally opposed to puns. Then we extemporaneously reenact a dialogue.
(looking around) “What’s that sound?”
“Oh God… it’s… it’s the man I killed…”
“…Um. No. It’s your dog’s tail wagging.”
“–yes! Of course, I knew that, that’s… that’s what I named my dog! Here, ThemanIkilled! Good boy!”
second. Jane Austen’s other novel. Ass & Assumptions.