Friday, October 28, 2011

Obsession by Calvin Coolidge

I'm going to break an arbitrary rule I set for myself when I assumed blogging duties for the Used Book Cellar. I'm going to talk about a book that we don't currently have in the UBC. Because I brought it home with me. Dalkey Archive Press are a rad-chilies publisher based in Dublin, London and exotic Champaign, Illinois. What makes Dalkey so rad? Here are the top two reasons:

No. 1: National Literature Series. For a few years at a time, Dalkey puts the spotlight on a handful of countries and translates a lot of great fiction and non-fiction from places we don't hear from too often and gets them in print in the States. Currently, Norway is one of the countries on the docket. I am OBSESSED with all things Scandi-hoovian, and the Norwegians hold a particularly dear place in my heart. I was lucky enough to score an advanced reader's copy of one of the novels they've published from this series, The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold. It's a tiny little novel with a quirky narrator that navigates the invisibility of aging in a warm-hearted, funny way. We have it upstairs in Fiction AND Destination Literature. But I digress.

Reason No. 2: Best European Fiction series edited by Aleksander Hemon. This series--now in its third year--picks particularly great short stories from authors native to a handful of European countries. Each and every story is completely engrossing and totally singular. These books are a great way to find new favorite authors, gain some cultural experience, or to just have a literary smörgåsbord (OBSESSED, I tell you!) to change things up.

So anyway, I had a point and it was this: the UBC acquired the 2011 volume of Best European Fiction and I TOOK IT HOME RIGHT AWAY. I'm three quarters done. Yeah, I read Norway, Iceland and Finland first and then started at the beginning again. SO WHAT. They were so gooood. I probably won't bring it back to the UBC anytime soon, but maybe someone else will. Or maybe you can just buy the 2012 edition upstairs (brand new! on the New Paperbacks table!) and see what I'm talking about.

But that's just a sliver of my own personal obsession with world literature. Just today we acquired something like 400 American Arts, Arts, and Ceramics Monthly magazines, from the 1940s through the 70s. The fruits of another's lifelong obsession with art. Chock full of beautiful reproductions, great ads for all you Mad Men afficianados, and just generally unique illustrations and covers that are great collector's items, decoupage material, or fodder for the ol' inspiration board. They're $3 a pop. Get one from the month your aunt was born for Christmas. She'll be impressed you remembered her birthday. Or offended. Skål!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

We Are Pracitcally GIVING It Away Now That We're 50...

In honor of our 50th anniversary, I've decided to cut out linear thinking. It's exhausting, I don't like it one bit.

Oh, the rain. The rain is back, you guys. Catalyst for emotion and the very bestest bosom buddy of poets across the globe, there's nothing better for staring into the dark face of the night and confronting the moldering Tower of Babel of your emotions than a dim, cold, damp day in Massachuetts, and Massachusetts is happy to oblige.

In her memoir, "Lit", Mary Karr talks about sitting on her back porch and getting loaded (truly, impressively, legendarily drunk) while her family falls apart in the early years of her young son's life. I think of this aspect of the memoir all the time, I think about Karr and her tumblers full of whiskey, and the glimmering porch light she stares into each evening until the ground begins to lurch and swing around her. These passages remind me of my father, who, while no alcoholic, also seeks solitude on the porch of his Newton home. If he doesn't answer when called, chances are good he will be found on the porch, smoking a quarter of a cigar, in any weather.  Where do we go, on days like these, to be alone? Where are the crevices, the nooks, that we are driven to when time gets down in the dirt on its belly and we are left idling, re-reading old novels, cleaning under the kitchen sink? Maybe you have a porch, or a corner of the bed. Last week I found myself reading and eating breakfast on my (filthy, but never mind) kitchen floor, and as the kettle came to a boil, clouds rearranged themselves across the sun and a finger of light lay itself on my outstretched legs.

And I was like, oh okay, afternoon, be a little more iconic, why don't you? Jimminy Christmas.

My point is, on these dreary days, your mind may start to wander and when it does, I hope you find it here. Especially next week: November 1st through the 5th we are going to be having a bevy of 20% off sales in all areas of the store, so don't hesitate to pick up the phone and give us a call to ask more. We also have umbrellas. There's no earthly need for you to be alone when we are having our birthday and just handing out discounts all willy nilly, all helter-skelter, all topsy turvey. I have it on good authority that our very own poet and night manager extraordinaire, who helped me write this blog post and has helped me live my tepid little life in more ways than he can ever come to know, Ric, will be jumping out of a nine layered cake dressed in full Victorian garb.

Yeah. It's totally going to happen. It's going to be so compelling. Compelling, provocative, Victorian burlesque. What's that? No, I'm not doing this for the keyword search hits, my god, what kind of fiend do you take me for? Zombie dinosaur monster trucks! Joey Calderone eats a hot dog! Jonas brothers!

I mean if you don't want to see that, that's fine. But I won't be blogging about it. In fact, after it happens, everyone is forced to sign a pact of silence and must never mention it again until the day they die.

Yeah no, we are really serious about this. Don't miss it. November 1st - 5th. I'll be here. I'll see you here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Never judge a book by its cover...

 An overused phrase, I know; but its truth often holds. Even so, I find myself looking over titles and thinking okay that title or cover is just weird, despite the fact that the book still has the opportunity to be brilliant (and then there are the duds of which the cover is already too much to look at). Sometimes titles are misleading -- or maybe misleading in the adult's eyes.
The Hating Book was one of the most checked out books in my elementary school library, and probably one that received countless eye rolls. Yes, the major theme in the book is  hate  a strong dislike, but it does not hold to the last page.
There are two best friend, see, who aren't talking with each other, "When I went to walk home with her, she had already gone" and "when she took her dog out and I whistled to him, she put him on a leash and led him away." Ouch. Her mother tells her daughter to "ask [her] friend why." But she wouldn't, couldn't, and would rather die. It turns out all this hate is the direct result of a mishearing. Her friend never said she looked like a freak. She said she looked neat.
When parents see this book, they think it teaches how to hate. But in the end, it is learned that all this hate was never necessary and could be a misunderstanding gone all wrong.  What can one do in such a predicament?   "Ask, ask your friend why."  
The Hating Book is a masterpiece that has been going strong for over 40 years. All because, I think, some kids were willing to go beyond the cover.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Destination: Dewey Square

I've noticed a recent slew of literary pilgrims joining the ranks of Destination Literature of late, travelers eager to see the world through the pages of literature, whether it be Finding George Orwell in Burma (Emma Larkin) or Chasing the Devil: A Journey through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene (Tim Butcher). Most recently, in Freud's Couch, Scott's Buttocks, Bronte's Grave, scholar Simon Goldhill explores and critiques the Victorian obsession with literary tourism.

I have been on several literary pilgrimages, including one that, a few years ago, took me to Wiemar, Germany, following in the footsteps of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Over the past year I've continued my pursuit of Goethe on the page, through his impressive Italian Journey. In these pages, I discovered that the impulse to pilgrimage to literary sites, still very much alive today, is also much older than the Victorians. In 1786 Goethe himself traveled to Italy, longing to see what he termed "classic soil." Before traveling he describes a "secret malady, or mania" that possessed him. "My passionate desire to see these objects [of literature] with my own eyes had grown to such a point that if I had not [traveled]...I should have completely gone to pieces."

Last night Goethe and I set sail off the coast of Sicily, passing landmarks that, previous to this journey, existed in my mind only in the mythical landscape of Homer's Odyssey: Charybdis and Scylla. "Now I feel, not that I am seeing them for the first time," Goethe writes, "But that I am seeing them again."

For the skeptics out there (such as Anne Trubek, who last year published a satirical Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses) who fail to find significance in the abandoned houses and empty landscapes of dead authors, reading of past travels can also connect one more intimately with the present moment. According to Proust, the memoirs of dead authors act as the “slender bridge thrown between the present and an already distant past…which joins life to history, making history more alive and life more historical.” Reading of Goethe's travels into the ancient world not only made me aware of the past, it awakened me to my own present moment.

As Goethe passes through Messina, a city that had just been ravaged by an earthquake, he observes the makeshift shelters erected in the aftermath of the natural disaster:

"...a barrack town was hastily erected in a large meadow north of the city. To get a picture of this, imagine yourself walking across the Romerberg in Frankfurt or the market square in Leipzig during the Fair. All the booths and workshops are open to the street. Only a few of the larger buildings have entrances which can be closed, and even these rarely are, because those who live in them spend most of their time out of doors. They have been living under these conditions for three years now, and this life in shacks, huts and tents, even, has had a definite influence on their characters."

I've never been to a Frankfurt market, but I could easily picture Messina's barrack town after wandering through Dewey Square in Boston the day before. It was a cold, blustery fall day, and the citizens of Occupy Boston were busy securing tent stakes and erecting tarp barriers to protect themselves from the wind. The towering buildings of the financial district loomed ominously around the square. The sturdier members of the group lined the sidewalk bordering the makeshift village and held signs (Tax the Rich, We are the 99%) to passing vehicles, some of who honked in support. Others huddled together in small groups, passionately but peacefully debating the present moment in which we find ourselves.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Madeline Rodenberg. Remember that name.

A dear friend of mine posted a poem her 10 year old daughter wrote, and I had to share it. It is sweet and subtle and mature. It is proof that poetry is alive and well. Also; what an affordable and accessible art!? All one needs is language, and some senses. I think children in particular should be exposed to poetry, and frequently. Tomas Transtrom-trom better watch out. Maddy-lion has arrived.


Feelings change as quickly
as the wind blows,
since I'm human I cannot
explain how I feel all times
it is as if I must be a different...
stranger creation
it feels as if I were a calmed tiger,
a slow horse, a turtle at the speed
of light, a lake as still as the spider's
web untouched by rain or wind,
a circle with an end.

Feelings change as quickly as
the wind blows but today the wind is still.

Madeline Othilda Rodenberg (in her own words)

I like old movies, Mexican food, Indian food, and seafood. I dislike cottage cheese and clothes with holes in them. I love to write and want to write for a living, and I take pride in my work. (My favorite color is blue) and I play the piano, the violin, and the bongos. I'm 10. My birthday is August 2, 2001. My birthstone is perry-dote (haha). I also like watching Arrested Development, Glee, and 30 Rock, and I love love love my family.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Your Destiny Awaits

I think of the Norns in Norse mythology, but almost every culture has a version, the Fates from Greece, those witches in Macbeth...each life has its own inevitable course and is overseen by some all-seeing deities. Man has been obsessed with the trajectory of his ultimate destiny since time began. Of course, fate and its prediction can take many shapes. Scientists try it, astrologists try it, even school-children think they've got it mastered. Or at least have fun pretending. Observe:

Recent acquisitions in the Used Book Cellar all demonstrate the many ways in which we look toward our fate. In Paul Davies' The Last Three Minutes, a scientist offers popular conjectures to the ultimate fate of our Universe. What if the universe just disappeared instantly? What if worlds continued to pop into existence ad infinitum for eternity? There are a lot of possibilities that scientists kick around, and this book is exhaustive but accessible.

Older than string theories are attempts to determine fate and destiny by means of constellations and the stars beneath which we were born. The UBC recently got in a small paperback--Astrology and Your Destiny--by Edith Niles, complete with charts, tables, fun illustrations and an easy introduction to the methods of Western Astrology and how these methods can illuminate the future path your life may take. No matter what your sign, there is also a great deal of useful information contained herein to protect and enlighten. Did you know Geminis are capable of carrying on two affairs at once, and might be cheaters? Beware! Just think of all the other tidbits you're missing--the mess you're making of your destiny--by not reading this book.

I don't know about you, dear reader, but I learned about how the choices one makes can significantly affect the course of your destiny at 8 years old. I believe the title was something like Choose Your Own Adventure: The Abominable Snowman in the Marshes of the Moon or somesuch. And I was eaten by that accursed yeti because of a foul turn made on page 13. But if the bigness of fate--the universe, your life--is overwhelming, maybe this traditionally-nontraditional method of storytelling is something worth revisiting.

Perhaps a version of fate you can play with might be in order. Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure by Emma Campbell Webster is just such a book. Traipse through an 18th century British love triangle of your own, choose your destiny, and see where it leads you. If you don't like it you can always start at the beginning again and choose differently. Ah, the power of literature!

As I said before, schoolchildren have their ways of determining fate. That's where the human element of this blog comes in. For what is a tale of destiny without the destinies of some very real used book buyers weaved into this tapestry? So your humble used book buyers, Carl and myself, took up the threads of the Norns and played M.A.S.H. Do you remember it? The easiest way to find out your destiny with a paper and pencil. There are infinite variations, but in mine, I learned that I'd marry Jon Stewart, we'd live in Oslo with no children but a pet snow leopard instead, and that I'll be in a metal band called Nymeria. COPYRIGHTED. Carl, on the other hand, will be a gym teacher in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, married to Natalie Portman and they'll have an impressive brood of 99 children.

Your destiny probably holds something different. Maybe one of these books is in it? Or perhaps there's a different book waiting in the Cellar for you, and only YOU. Come check it out. Your destiny awaits...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Some Alternative Narratives to Chew On

We had a little store meeting last Sunday, just an hour or so, when most of the staff convened downstairs to put our huge collective brain power to the task of thinking up some new ways we can make ourselves available to the community and generate more buzz about books. Afterwards, the few of us that weren't still working or didn't have anywhere to be went to The Corrib, a little bar down the street that are very familiar with me. Anyway, as we intellectuals (as I type this I have a conical 'dunce' cap on and a finger lodged up my nose ALMOST to the knuckle) are want to do, we started talking about alternative forms of narrative and specifically, time in narrative. I'm taking a class right now based entirely on narrative in film and novels, and it is my very favourite class. So favourite in fact, that I am approximately 75% more likely to do the homework for it than that of my online biology class. I mean, go figure.

You may remember I posted about this book about a month ago. I said that I believed that I would enjoy this book, I had the strong sensation that it was going to drive me quite insane. It didn't, actually, although by reading the blurb and the quotes on the back of the book, the main reveal of the story was a bit ruined for me, but no matter. This story is the narrative of one mans' life, run entirely backward, beginning with his death and ending with his birth. Everything is backwards, for example, Tod T. Friendly would go take the food out of his fridge, take it to the grocery store, put it back in its appropriate spot, and then receive money from the staff. In the beginning it seems impossible that you'll ever acclimate to the description of doing things backwards, but halfway through the novel you do kind of get the hang of rearranging events in your mind.

"Memento" was paired with Time's Arrow in my class, and "Timecode" got brought up the other night at our MENSA: Beer Drinker's Club meeting. Both experiment with narrative, "Memento" not only runs backwards but also has forward-moving scenes spliced into its main events sequence. So that's fun. If you haven't seen it, it's based off the short story "Memento Mori" by Jonathon Nolan. In "Timecode", the screen is split into fourths and each square follows a character. So that's four different narratives, moving at once, that are drawn together by certain events that effect them all, for example, the movie takes place in LA and at one point, there is an earthquake. For a second, all four of the characters are experiencing the same thing. I haven't seen this movie since art school, but if you're interested in any kind of film stuff, I recommend it.

Jes brought up this music video by Cibo Matto for "Sugar Water", that bisects the screen, with each half following a different girl, one in forward motion, one in backwards. When the two girls meet, their trajectory changes. It's cool to look at, I'm not sure that it means. I only know Cibo Matto because they were one of the bands The Bronze featured in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" sometime in the 90's. If you need to know ANYTHING about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", now that, I can help you with.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The sound of the rain and wind and the general wet atmosphere is making me relax (yeah, I'm not from around here.  I come from places where seeing the sun is a true rarity).  What I really want to do right now is read Caroline Kennedy's new poetry collection, Poems to Learn by Heart, but alas, it is not due out until late March.  So, later, I may just settle for the companion Family of Poems -- this is one of the most beautiful collections of poetry I have ever come across. John Muth's illustrations are simply gorgeous. 

Unfortunetly, I can't  read Family either, as being on the clock means I can't curl up and read.  But I can demo games (if you ever want to see one of our games open and in action please don't hesitate to ask).  I decided to open up one of our brand new games: "Swish."

It's really hard!  And fun. The cards are transparent with various dots and hoops (together they are called swishes, though they look like eyes).  16 of these cards are laid out and you must match the hoops with the dots -- none can be left out.  The challenge is you aren't allowed to touch the cards until you see the "swishes."  It's a great solitaire and group game that can be tucked away in its carrying mesh case for travel.

Apparently this game is supposed to improve your spatial IQ, but I just think it's cool. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Destination: Elsewhere

Last week, I was chatting with a coworker as she prepared an after-shift smoke, carefully rolling the tobacco as we discussed the day and her present need, at the end of it, to be elsewhere. "I like to sprinkle a little dried lavender in," she said. "It has a nice effect."

I gasped and wouldn't let her go smoke the lavender-and-tobacco bundle until I had dragged her down to Destination Literature to show her the essay I had read the night before, entitled "Lavender."

The essay is the first in a new collection by Andre Aciman, Alibis: Essays from Elsewhere. The book begins with the scent of lavender, as vivid as if you had been smoking it yourself, emanating from Aciman's father's aftershave. In the next pages Aciman will be tracking the essence of this memory and the essence of the self, trying to determine what fragrance best expresses, epitomizes, and may one day, for his own son, immortalize, him.

The Proustian shadow is eminent in this as well as in the essays that follow. All the reader has to do is replace the scent of lavender with the taste of a tea-soaked madeleine to understand that Aciman is on his own hunt for lost time. Aciman acknowledges his emulation of Proust, accepts it as a part of the self he explores, as a Proust scholar and editor of The Proust Project. A Proust fanatic myself, I forgave any parasitic tendencies in these essays, as Aciman does not just evoke the style and philosophical musings of my favorite author, but continues Proust's exploration of the romantic relationship that our imaginations hold with alibis, elsewhere.

Aciman left Egypt with his family when still a young man, an exodus captured in his work Out of Egypt. In Alibis, Aciman returns to the streets of Rome, his first city of exile, to discover if anything of the past remains from his three years in the city. Instead of memories, however, he finds the streets paved with scenes from the literature he escaped into as a young man absented from any homeland outside of his imagination.

Aciman's tendency to read place through the literary imagination infuses his travel essays with beauty and nostalgia for places never to be returned to. Sometimes literature overrides his experience of reality, and the reader is left believing that the places she longs for can only be found within the confines of the self. But every once in a while the spell works in reverse, as art, such as a cherished Monet painting, leads Aciman on a pilgrimage to a place never before experienced in the immediacy of a present moment. Aciman's descriptive, winding prose captures such moments and tantalizes the reader in much the same way that scenes from literature and art inspired his own travels--to Rome, Venice, Tuscany, Barcelona, Paris, Alexandria, and New York.

The reward of reading these essays in getting to travel with Aciman, not only into new landscapes, but into the reflective depths of the self. After all, much of what the traveler sees in a city is simply a projection of the self. This is what Aciman calls "the miracle of intimacy with a place that may be more in us than it is ever out on the pavement."

Reading these essays is, in fact, not far from the experience of an after-shift smoke: breathing in a new atmosphere, a fresh scent, looking up from the page to letting the reflections swirl about, deep within the self, before exhaling the ephemeral language that inevitably leads your imagination back out into the surrounding streets of your city.
As I neared the end of Aciman's book, I went back to the initial essay, this time with a lavender-laced tobacco pipe in hand. The essay ends in a lavender field in Provence, where Aciman has traveled with his wife and sons. There is a sense of fulfillment in this ending, a comforting feeling that things have come full circle: here is the source of the scent, the thing itself, and, perhaps, a glimpse of the ever-elusive self, no longer dwelling in the past, no longer elsewhere, but finally, fully present, if only for a moment. As I read this passage, I exhaled and sniffed the air.

Like Aciman, and before him, Proust, I was remembering. I first read Proust while house-sitting in Seattle. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of house-sitting is getting to try out soaps, shampoos, and lotions other than your own. The lotion of that particular host, which I would lather on after a bath and before curling up with Proust, was scented with lavender.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Foreign Correspondent

From the trenches of the Used Book Cellar, the latest foreign delicacies imported for your perusal.

It's fun to occaisionally see foreign editions of beloved books come across our buying desk. We don't get too many, and unfortunately don't buy too many as only well-known titles or titles in specific languages (French and Spanish) tend to sell the most, but here are some super cool ones, with newly interpreted covers worth scoping out.

Morto Até O Anoitecer, or Dead Until Dark, the first in Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series, the inspiration for the HBO series True Blood, in BRAZILIAN PORTUGUESE! Check out this spooky cover!

Mesajci, or The Messenger, the third in Lois Lowry's Giver trilogy, in TURKISH!

And finally, three volumes of George R. R. Martin's fantasy epic "A Game of Thrones" in FRENCH! According to the list at the front of the book, each American version of the novel is broken up into 2-3 volumes in the French translation. But that's okay, because the covers feature amazing art, and the more the merrier. We currently have volumes 9-11, the end of Storm of Swords, and most of  Feast for Crows.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

You're Not the Boss of Me.

" 'I believe that within every great reader there are multitudes of people,' [Sarah McNally of Mcnally Jackson Books] said. 'And you have to open yourself to all of them. I love British chick lit and I love Proust. Don’t judge yourself! There are so many kinds of writing that are great but bear no relation to each other. ‘A Book of Memories’ by Peter Nadas is like climbing a mountain. ‘Cutting for Stone’ is like going down a waterslide.'

Book-buying is aspirational.' She added. 'They are deeply hopeful purchases.'

- Sarah McNally, McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince Street, NY NY. 

I read this quote in McNally's recent profile in The New York Times, and it resonated with me in a couple of ways. I don't know what our policy for mentioning other independent book stores on this blog, but I imagine it is inclusive and perhaps, even "psyched". I have included links to both the NY Times article and McNally's website, and if anybody is planning a trip to NYC any time soon, I recommend checking this store out. 

I believe, above all, in being oneself. I, myself, have a big personality that I frankly cannot hide, nor can I pretend I don't enjoy the past times that I enjoy. I've always been a nerd. Mostly about nerd things, like science fiction or zombies or tv shows about vampire slayers, what have you. I used to try and keep it on the down-low, like maybe it wouldn't come up, but it always does, ya'll. Somebody, off to my peripheral, will ask a question like "What, exactly, is Dr. Who?" or "What kind of spaceship are they on in 'Firefly'?" and I will be forced (forced!) to jump in. 

My goal for you guys, when you enter our store, is to not feel like you can't be 100% into whatever it is you're into. When Twilight came out, we got so many 20+ year old women (and some men), shame-facedly coming in and asking where the Stephanie Meyers books were, already planning how they were going to sneakily read it on the T on the way home without giving themselves away. To those ladies and gents, I said nay! You have but one life to live, and if you have a freak flag, by all means, let it fly. Don't be afraid to tell everyone that they're not the boss of you. I don't know when that happens, when we stop saying that, maybe its when we get actual bosses? And everyone just assumes they don't have to proclaim it anymore? I make it a point to say it at least once a day. You're not my mom! You're not the boss of me! DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!

Try it. It's awesome. I mean, don't get fired or anything, maybe just yell it at your roommate/dog/nanny, or what have you. You and your spouse can yell it at each other and then make out. I don't know, I can't make that decision for you. I would never. If someone tries to make you feel embarrassed about reading something silly, or that what you're reading isn't 'smart' enough or 'cool' enough, you can just tell them what's what. You know more than you think you know, and you are better equipped to handle life than society has led you to believe. Reflect this mantra in your every action. Read Twilight unabashedly on public transportation! Ask me where the Karma Sutra page-a-day calendars are!  Ask to exchange a political science tome for the new Jodi Picoult because the second you got it home you realized what your heart of hearts wanted was a satisfying novel. I dig you, customer. We all dig you, come on down. We're book people too, we understand these little heartbreaks of life.

 I couldn't finish The Corrections and I couldn't start Infinite Jest, because my big dumb soul is too full of a beautiful, terrible hope. I read The Room and A Stolen Life as my 'beach reads' this summer. I recommended a vampire novel (Let the Right One In) to co-workers that are almost incomprehensibly smarter than me, and I did it with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. And if you think that I'm naive, that maybe a fourth-year English major should be a little more selective in her literature and spend a little less time on the internet, shut her big mouth and treat this serious business we call life with a little more respect, then,well. That would be something I would definitely take into account.

If you were the boss of me. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Destination: Eastern Europe

A few years ago, I was traveling with my sister and her husband in Serbia. We spent a day visiting a cluster of monasteries situated at the heart of the Balkans and spent a night camping on top of a wind and rain swept mountain. We woke the following morning shivering and damp, and quickly drove down the mountain to a small village, in search of some hot coffee.

It was difficult to find. All that was served in the marketplace that morning was rakia, Serbia's famous plumb brandy. My brother-in-law laughed at my desperate expression in the rear view mirror. "It's like the Serbs are saying, 'To hell with the Turks and their coffee.'" The three of us downed the burning liquor without complaint and climbed back into the car. Sufficiently warmed, I curled up in the backseat and pulled out Ivo Andric's Bridge on the Drina. In its pages, I found our breakfast explained:

"It was a cold day in late autumn and there was no coffee maker on the kapia, nor had the town Turks come there to sit and drink coffee. Therefore the people of Okoliste sat down as if they were at home, opened their bags of food and began a fresh flask of plum brandy."

That brandy breakfast convinced me of the necessity of story in understanding cultural experiences other than my own. Andric's book is a marvelous introduction to the stories that shaped the cultures of Eastern Europe. As epic as the bridge itself in dimension, this book spans centuries, yet never looses the reader in time, encapsulating each era in unique story.

Andric spent his childhood in his mother's village of Visegrad, on the banks of the Drina. Growing up at play on the kapia of the bridge he made famous, the legends surrounding the bridge were imbedded in his memory. Bridge on the Drina begins with the children of Visegrad and the colorful myths they were told about the bridge's origins. Andric's book draws on such stories to paint a complex portrait of a region whose history remains an enigma to many of us in the West.

Not far from where Andric's book sits on the Eastern Europe shelf of our Destination Literature section, you will find several titles from writer Dubravka Ugresic. This week Ugresic will be reading from her new book Karaoke Culture on Friday at 7pm in our events space at Booksmith. Ugresic was born in Yugoslavia, but left Croatia in 1993 and often writes about the plight of Yugoslav exiles. This story is particularily well-told in her novel The Ministry of Pain, in which a professor of literature in Amsterdam encourages her students to write essays indulging their nostalgia for their homeland and exploring their experiences in exile.

I first came across Ugresic's work in her essay collection Thank You For Not Reading, in which she applies her sharp wit and critical eye to publishing and book culture around the world. It may be a bit of a stretch to apply the term "exile" to those of us who still cling to the book as a work of art, but I couldn't help thinking, while reading these essays, that Ugresic's ability to identify with a downtrodden or forgotten culture makes her the perfect champion for the cause of the book.

And what better way to preserve a culture than to keep its myths alive. Ugresic's novel Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, does just that, by transforming the ancient Slavic myth of Baba Yaga into a postmodern narrative that follows four contemporary women around Eastern Europe. While Baba Yaga is commonly thought of as an evil old crone, Ugresic's work goes back to earlier oral traditions in order to restore beauty and dignity to the modern women of Eastern Europe. Not unlike Andric's achievement, this tale captures readers of any culture, bringing a far off part of the world right to your breakfast table, whether you are serving coffee, or plum brandy.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tears of a Clown: How to be a 12 Year Old Girl

So first things first, Netflix uploaded "The Wonder Years" to Netflix streaming, and it might be the best thing to ever happen to my life. In addition to that, I received in the mail (yeah, I'm now paying the $20-odd dollars or whatever it is every month so I can have streaming AND discs sent to my house, because the third season of The Gilmore Girls isn't going to watch itself, internet) the movie "Now and Then", which is a 90's movie with baby-faced Christina Ricci, Gaby Hoffman, and Thora Birch, among others. I've seen it before but surely, something happened to me months ago that prompted me to add it to my Netflix cue and immediately forget it until it arrived a few nights ago.

As I watched the movie, I was struck by how closely some of the things had mirrored my preteen experience. I, too, had a very close-knit group consisting of four female friends, each with their own quirks and differences. I, too, had long, patternless summers where we ran wild and free. The movie is set in a suburb in the 70's, so while I couldn't empathize with being able to ride your bike everywhere and get black cows down at the local diner, I got the jist of what emotion was being prompted of me. My actual experience was closer to taking the red line to Harvard, getting burritos at Anna's, or walking into Allston, a place my mother warned me about the dangers of every single time we went there. The dingy little shops we used to wander around with wide-eyed amazement is now about a block away from my apartment.

There was one moment that truly got my attention though, besides the part where Gaby Hoffman is narrowly rescued from drowning in the sewer by the town tramp, a man the girls refer to as "Crazy Pete", was the fact that, several times during the movie, our heroines are playing truth or dare, and they always pick truth. This is an obvious move, you may think; dare is always embarrassing, always involves either getting naked or doing something you will regret later. My friends and I always used to choose truth, no matter what. I hadn't thought about it until that moment, but what if truth or dare is actually some epic catalyst of the Young Female Experience? Groups of girls, detached from time, joined together through a mundane exercise in sharing secrets? Nobody ever mentions it because it seems like something so minuscule; obviously, everybody plays truth or dare. But its not obvious, not to me. That means there is something inherent within truth or dare that fulfills some biological desire that we all have when we're about 11 years old. That's fascinating to me. Growing up in a world where things are obsolete easily within the year of their creation has instilled in me a fascination of things that don't seem to ever go out of date. Truth or dare has survived generations. When I was 11, truth or dare was part of life, along with a slew of other things that I doubt I would have made it out of adolescence without. The following is Zoe Hyde's "In it to Win It" emergency crash-landing kit of how to get through your preteen years with minimal scarring, maximum fun, and zero making out. Sorry ladies, I have many talents, but that was and is not one of them. You're on your own with that one.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is key. You are going to be attending all-girl sleepovers, and going on school trips, and eventually would-you-rather and gossiping is going to get old (I mean, it'll take a while, but it will get old). When this happens, the best thing to do is turn out all the lights, whip out a flashlight and pretend to be scared. I don't remember if Scary Stories actually frightened me as a child, or if we were just affecting it, but it doesn't matter. These books will serve you well after a horror movie marathon, or in any kind of camping situation you might find yourself in. If you can get your hands on them, I also recommend listening to the books on cassette, I know they used to have them in the children's section of the Brookline Public Library.  Caveat Emptor: Do not try and memorize these stories and pass them off as your own if you have a smarty mcsmartypants best friend named Gabrielle who is going to totally call you out on it in front of everyone.

You probably are going to have all sorts of questions about your budding womanhood that you would rather get hit by a full truck of hot garbage rather than ask your mother about. Not because she wouldn't give you specific, diagram-worthy answers about how your own lady parts work, but maybe because you'd rather not talk about about said lady parts for like an hour with your mom. Just a thought. This book, however, is part of The American Girl series, which, for the most part, I find genuinely capable of relating to normal girls without getting too saccharine, which was always a deal breaker for me. The drawings are helpful and accurate without being cold, and the advice is lighthearted while being serious an helpful. Definitely a must have for preteen and teenage ladies who are figuring out how to operate these crazy body machines they find themselves trapped in. Very specific illustrations on how tampons work. Because seriously. It's not intuitive.  

Alice in Wonderland is a classic I would recommend to any one of any age, but something about Alice's fearlessness makes me put it on this list. I've read this book time and time again but I can't help feeling that Alice's tenacity in the face of overwhelming bizarrity has had some hand in my making. Those formative years are tough, and when you're on the cusp of teenager hood, you're going to need the kind of role model who, when confronted with falling through the earth's core, for example, does not panic, but speculates where and when she is going to land. That's what growing up is like, like a crazy free fall through experience, and its good to know that Alice does land, the fall doesn't kill her, and is in fact actually the start of her story, not the end.

Okay, so not every 8th grader is going to be down for some Emily Dickinson, but for those of them that are, this one goes out to my homies. Yo, Emily Dickinson got me when I was 12. Emily didn't front; she knew all about the pain of being yourself, and her poetry spoke to me in a way that I think only dead authors from the 19th century can speak to little nerdy girls heading in what I call a "feelings" direction. Having this collection (or one like it, I've forgotten) was also helpful when I was going through my goth phase. Just saying.

There are other books worth mentioning here, ones that resonated with me or I was reading during a particularly tumultuous time in my life, but that list could go on forever. I think the topics I've covered here are as timeless as truth or dare, and its going to be necessary to pass these volumes down to the following generations, perhaps even more so as time goes by. What can we count on in this crazy world, for example, if not our own capacity for awkwardness? If not our questioning? If not our adolescent fear of everything and everything that could or couldn't even happen? The times are constantly a-changin', kids today have different worries and fears than the kids of yesterday, but that seems like all the more reason to address the ways in which we haven't changed, and maybe won't ever. Which is why, as a former adolescent queen of awkward now faking adulthood with an alarming alacrity and poise, I ask you, friends, Romans, countryman: truth or dare?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Vintage Spreads

Among the neatest finds in the UBC this previous week are the following treasures whose covers each highlight the epitome of haute couture for their respective epochs.

Exhibit A: Annette: Sierra Summer For the pink deer and scuba enthusiast in your life...this retro treasure features Annette Funicello engaged in all kind of adventures in the summer of 1950. The best part of this book is the illustrations; featuring her fancy dresses, a John Waters-look-alike, a Colonel Sanders-look-alike AND Scuba Steve:

Exhibit B: The Boy Scouts for Uncle Sam; this cover demonstrates the height of 1912 Boy Scout fashion, including whatever those thingies are that go over your boots to protect them from tree sap, bears, and given the political nature of this book, the sweat of Bolsheviks.

Exhibit C: Pine Man and Ax. This volume from a 1962 science series is an American history of man's utilization of timber resources. But mostly, I just can't get over this guy's rad beanie. Inside are all kinds of full-color illustrations of burly lumberjacks in plaid and suspenders. UNMISSABLE.

Exhibit D: And really, I have saved the best for last. J. Charles "Scotty" Thompson's treatise and cultural history on wearing a kilt, So You're Going to Wear the Kilt, is indispensible. This book delves into the history of all the elements of formal kilt attire for both men and women. It discusses tartans and plaid pattern distinctions. Even down to the engravings on dirks. It also describes the proper wearing and accessorizing of the kilt. A seriously fascinating and fun-to-read book on Scottish attire.

Thanks for reading, folks! Remember to bring your neato books to sell to us Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 AM to 4 PM.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

One poem you should read right now. Especially if this hasn't been your week.


aria from Giancarlo Cazetti's L'anima di Marina

Sad, you are sad, say the pitying ones.
I have consulted my wisest friends,
I have brought my troubles to the priest,
I have knelt till my knees are cold.

But in no place does the sorrow part,
this curtain that muffles me from light and warmth.
I stare into green leaves but they do not open for me.
I sit in the sun and the sun stays cold.

It is as if the world itself has said No.
It offers to me only a cold surface, dull
but slick, where I cannot grasp hold.
It tells me this is the bed I have made.

Inland, I long for the sea. It too
is cold, but with time the cold goes warm
and its roar is like a mother's heart
and its No becomes the one I speak.

This is from April Bernard's collection Romanticism. Buy it here. *Or *come on in, it's on the display shelf in poetry.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Destination: Trieste

"I'm leaving for (destination) tomorrow. Can you recommend a book set there?" This is a rather frequent inquiry that booksellers face, and one of my favorite. It is also fun ot listen to my coworkers attempting to describe the exact location of the Destination Literature section of our store, which is a little hard to define. "Go down aisle three about, let's see, three-fourths of the way toward the back of the store, and at the second intersection, take a left..."

While Lisa has described the unique location of the Destination Literature section as a winding "Venetian canal," now that I think about it, the section really more closely resembles another Italian city: neither here nor there, composed of diverse genres from a variety of nations, and, of course, populated with dozens of exciting literary names. You could find a similiar demographic if you were to travel to Trieste, Italy.

The Italian shelf of Destination Literature is crammed full of books guaranteed to guide your travels to the typical Italian destinations. Glimpse Florence through Forster's A Room With a View, take a gondola along the canals of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, wander through Tuscany with multiple writers. Yet a few lesser-known titles on that shelf can take you into a lesser-known place, a corner of the world just about as hard to define as the Destination Literature section itself: Trieste.

You can find a great introduction to this city in Jan Morris's Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, a title that comes as close to defining the place as any I've seen. Trieste is an elusive city, situated on the coast of the Adriatic, somewhat cut off from the rest of Italy by that sea, and directly across the border from Slovenia. Morris describes Trieste as a place that often gets lost in the folds of the map. Trieste only recently achieved its Italian identity in 1954, having been occupied over the years by Austria, the United Nations, the British, and even Yugoslavia. The resulting population is, of course, a diverse one. I was not surprised when I learned that James Joyce wrote much of Ulysses there. The multiplicity of national identities must have been the ideal setting for what he described as a "Greek mother--a sea of a book," in a letter to one of his English students in Trieste.

That student was none other than Italo Svevo, whose works can also be found on the shelves of Destination Literature, provided that you have located the shelves. I particularily recommend reading Zeno's Conscience, but As a Man Grows Older is also quite charming. If you like the wandering melancholy of Svevo's Triestian prose, try out the works of the city's poet, Umberto Saba, who ran a bookshop there.

Saba wasn't the only poet to frequent these shores. Rainer Maria Rilke resided for a time in the Duino Castle, located just up the coast from Trieste, where he composed his Duino Elegies. (Mark Twain also visited the Duino Castle, but I think he was everywhere.)

"La mia anima e a Trieste" Joyce wrote in a letter to his wife, Nora, "My soul is in Trieste." Even Proust's sickly narrator longs to go to Trieste, imagining the city as "a delicious place in which the people were pensive, the sunsets golden, the church bells melancholy." And Natasha has just informed me that Nietzche's doctor sent him there. What were all these literary folk doing in this obscure corner of the world?

It's a question worth exploring through the literature of these writers, who all tend to circle around the elusive identity of the place. You can find the sweet melancholy tones of the exile in all of them. Simply ask the nearest bookseller how to find the Destination Literature section. But be careful, you may never find your way back.

There is still one Triestian author I have yet to mention, Claudio Magris, whose travel narrative, The Danube, wil take you from the mouth of the Danube River, wading waist high and sometimes deeper through European history and literature, and into Eastern Europe.

Which is where I will pick up next week, exploring the literature just across the border from Trieste, in honor of our upcoming event with Dubravka Ugresic, whose brilliant essay, "The Writer in Exile," I have just finished.