Saturday, July 4, 2009
Friday, July 3, 2009
There used to be a beloved bar in the neighborhood, Pat O'Shea's Mad Hatter. They've been closed a few years now. The motto above their door was "We cheat tourists and drunks." Might scare some people off, but I think most folks understood it to mean they were entering an establishment with some character, one that wasn't afraid to have some personality.
One candidate for Green Apple store motto that I like was uttered unwittingly by one of our buyers in the act of being haggled with by a customer hoping to get more for the books they were selling: "We're not here to break even," he said.
But my candidate for store motto is "You can't step into the same Apple twice" (a nod to Heraclitus- Panta rei, ouden menei -- all things flow, nothing abides). Green Apple brings in literally hundreds, some days no doubt thousands, of books over the used book buy counter every day. One day we might buy someone's collection of crocheting books, and in one swoop go from not having much of a crochet section to having the best in California. Then those books will sell and over time we'll go back to having a crochet section like any other store.
Outside events also change the store. The 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror (or whatever it is being called) pumped our Middle Eastern history section from a handful of books to a full bookcase. The election of 2004 saw so many anti-Bush books published, they made their own section. The day after Bush beat John Kerry, they all got sent back. It wasn't funny anymore.
So for now, until I hear any better suggestions, the official Green Apple store motto is "You can't step into the same Apple twice." I'd love to hear some other ideas.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared. Turns out he’d been detained as a suspected terrorist, kept for 3 days in an open cage, then sent to a prison for two weeks without being charged.
In Eggers’ own words, this is a book about “the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants, a judicial system in need of repair, the problem of wrongful conviction, the paranoia wrought by the War on Terror, widespread Islamophobia . . .”
Eggers explores Zeitoun’s roots in Syria, his marriage to an American who converted to Islam, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Border Songs by Jim Lynch
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Our homage to Herzog's "obscene" jungle (see below)
The making of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, which tells the story of an opera lover obsessively intent on amassing a fortune in rubber in order to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle, has been documented in Les Blank’s documentary The Burden of Dreams. In that film, Fitzcarraldo’s quest is conflated with Herzog’s – using only primitive tools, both men attempt to haul a 360-ton ship over a steep slope from one river to another. After watching the documentary, the viewer is justified in wondering if the mad one is the fictional Fitzcarraldo or the implacable Herzog.
The shooting of Fitzcarraldo was plagued from its inception by a series of disasters – threats of war and rumors about Herzog’s true intentions in the jungle nearly stopped production before it even began. Plane crashes (yes, plural); attacks by hostile tribes; severe illnesses; deserting actors; financial difficulties; a malevolent, inhospitable jungle that seemed intent on eradicating all human life; and even death disrupted filming once underway. Through it all Herzog remained unshakable, certain that to abandon the project would be a “disgrace so great that sin itself wouldn’t be able to find a name for it”.
The Conquest of the Useless is composed of the diary Herzog kept during the making the film. He claims to have been unable to look at the diary for 25 years; such was the toll the process took. I don’t need to proselytize to a Herzog admirer (those who have watched him eat his shoe, or know the legendary story of how he pulled Joaquin Pheonix from a car wreck), but for those with little knowledge or only casual interest in the man or his films, I will make my pitch for why I believe this work should be read by more than film buffs (which I do not consider myself):
The Conquest of the Useless may not be a light read. It demands attention and possibly courage to read it. I will attest, however, that its riches are immeasurable. It lays bare the doubts, fears and psychological fortitude of one of the great artists and noble dreamers of our time. Herzog’s vivid descriptions of the jungle, its indigenous inhabitants and a rapidly vanishing world rival that of the best travel writer or journalist. His prose is clear and often downright funny. (The absurdity of his situation was not lost on Herzog.) It is in many respects a classic adventure story, complete with something resembling a happy ending….
Above all, it speaks to the conflicted dreamer in all of us that cries out for us to attempt our own impossible conquest, whatever the cost. It’s not every day that a book comes along that promises that. Especially not a book that is guaranteed.
Monday, June 29, 2009
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Open Letter Books is a new non-profit publisher of literature in translation affiliated with the University of Rochester. Headed by the seemingly indefatigable Chad Post, Open Letter publishes a modest, well-selected 12 books a year; each title is available in finer bookstores (ahem) as well as through Open Letter's subscription service.
In addition to the Press, Chad is the driving force behind the excellent literary blog, Three Percent, which focuses on works in translation, provides reviews, and hosts a "Translation Database" which aims to offer a complete inventory of all translated books published in the U.S. Finally, Open Letter hosts the "Best Translated Book Awards".
Chad was gracious enough to answer a few questions via email for the blog. We'd like to thank him for his time and insight into the nature of non-profit publishing.
Green Apple: First, can you explain what Open Letter is, how it came about and what your role with the press is?
Chad Post: Open Letter is a relatively new publishing house at the University of Rochester connected to the university’s literary translation programs. I was hired by the university (along with two other guys: E.J. Van Lanen and Nathan Furl) shortly after quitting Dalkey Archive Press to put together a publishing house that would focus on literature in translation. We took a few months to plan out what the Press would look like and all its different components, and then officially launched it in July of 2007 with the first title—Dubravka Ugresic’s NOBODY’S HOME—coming out in September of last year.
Over the past three years, the Press and UR programs have expanded and evolved in some very interesting, and somewhat unexpected, ways. The Press’s books are at the core of what we do, but Three Percent (which launched at the same time), has come to play an equally important role. The blog and reviews are the main attraction of the site, but the Translation Database (the only database of its sort, which explicitly demonstrates just how few works of fiction and poetry are published in translation every year) has become more and more important, and the Best Translated Book Award got a lot more attention last year than anyone could’ve predicted.
With the undergrad certificate & Masters program in literary translation, the Press, our Reading the World Reading and Conversation series, the website, the database, and the award, I think we’ve finally reached our first level of maturity as an organization—I can’t think of anything else we need to start . . . And most importantly, I feel like we’re accomplishing what I always dreamed of—publishing great books, and creating interesting outreach programs that help cultivate an audience for international literature.
CP: It sort of just felt right . . . And it fits nicely with our subscription series. Most importantly, this pace gives us enough time to do as much promotion as possible for each of our books. Nothing worse as a publisher than churning out a ton of books and watching each one pass by unnoticed . . .
GA: Why should we read literature in translation?
CP: Short answer: for the same reason that you read literature in general. That sounds a bit facetious, but what I mean is that there are reasons, pleasures one gets from reading literature. For me, the best reason is that novels (and stories) can do something no other art form is capable of, and that writers can present the world in very unique ways that are beautiful, and possibly can change the way you look at things. Any author could do that, but in America—maybe because of the proliferation of MFA programs, or the damaging impact of corporations on publishing—most writers (but definitely not all) aren’t that daring. There are a lot more authors being published in translation who are doing unique, boundary-pushing things. And that’s exciting! Why read the same old story presented in a way that feels familiar?
GA: It appears you are heavily involved in not only running the press, but in maintaining the Three Percent website and blog as well. How would you hook a reader into reading your daily blog?
CP: There are a lot of good book blogs and online magazines out there—Literary Saloon, Conversational Reading, Words Without Borders, Salonica, etc.—and I think the thing that Three Percent adds to the conversation is a behind-the-scenes look at the publishing industry. Most of the posts are about interesting books that may have falled through the mainstream media cracks (or gaping holes), but there are also a lot of posts about what e-books will do to stores and publishers, about ways in which indie presses try to connect with readers, about how/why a book is acquired, etc. We’re concerned with the literature first, but in my mind, that can’t be entirely separated from the business side of things.
GA: Finally, what are you reading now?
CP: Two of my favorite books of the year are THE ZAFARANI FILES by Gamal al-Ghitani (translated from the Arabic by Farouk Abdel Wahab and published by American University of Cairo Press) and REX by Jose Manuel Prieto. Both are brilliant, strange books. ZAFARANI is unlike any book I’ve read from that part of the world. Starts off with hints of Robbe-Grillet, but then develops into something much different—a weaving of stories that are funny, well textured, and very compelling, all centered around an alley where all the men suddenly become impotent . . . And REX is a very Nabokovian novel about fake diamonds and Proust—how can that go wrong? Well, yeah, it could, but in this case it totally doesn’t. Prieto is incredibly talented, and this is the sort of book you’ll feel like you have to read twice . . .