Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Dispatch from the Kids' Section

Today's post comes from Ashley, with some thoughts on young adult recommendations, the joy of discovery, and that of sharing in it.

so the other night it was a little on the quiet side in the bookstore, and i was merrily working on the mezzanine shelving and rearranging the kids and young adult book sections. there were two other people on the mezzanine with me, a woman with her middle-grade school age son. they were chatting about books that he has read, liked and disliked, and how his mother was willing to get him something new if he could find something that interested him. of course, i politely interjected that i could give some suggestions if they wanted. after all, i may be a bit older, but spending pretty much full-time elbows deep in that section i have a fairly good idea of what the kids these days are into. it’s like that saying: “never trust a skinny chef.” i also happen to have my master’s degree in children’s book illustration from a certain university in the city, so i like to think that helps a little bit as well. as we started chatting, he mentioned that he liked steampunk stories like Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, so i suggested Candleman by Glenn Dakin. when he brought up Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, i suggested he take a look at The Unwanteds by Lisa Mcmann. now, you may be thinking right now, “well, he was just being a bookseller that evening.” no, there was more to it than that. after they left i remembered when i was younger and how my mom would take me to the bookstore and offer to buy me whatever caught my eye. how she always payed close attention to my rambling accounts of the science fiction storylines. how she expressed genuine interest in the robot and alien characters that i was so absorbed with. and how i couldn’t get myself out to the car and buckle myself in fast enough when she asked if i wanted to go to the bookstore to get a new book. i will never be able to thank my mom for those special times that we had together, but watching those two leave the store, books in hand, excitedly reading the descriptions from the dust jackets, sharing a moment, however brief and seemingly inconsequential, just, you know, you don’t see that too often these days. but how those moments and memories stick with you after so many years.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Ugly Books

"An indescribable joy always rushes out of great books, even when they speak of ugly, hopeless, or terrifying things." -- Gilles Deleuze

I'm reading a book called Assisted Living. It was just published by the envelope-pushing Dalkey Archive (for example, see this and this and this), was written by a Swedish author using the pseudonym "Nikanor Teratologen", and, even in our age of gratuitous violence and unapologetic vileness, is proving itself to be full of outrageously cringe-inducing moments. Without ruining the plot--however tenuous it may be--it's fair to sum up the novel as being a parade of debauchery, rape, sacrilege, pedophilia, racism, murder, and more. Name the vice and you'll likely be able to open a page at random and find an instance of it.

It's an ugly book.

Appearances aside, Assisted Living may represent a subtle critique of liberal democracy and the free market; it may expose the lurking dangers of fascism; it may be an outlandish commentary on the perennial battle of the generations; its excesses may even prove to be so cartoonish as to be a lampoon of such writing. I'm certain arguments can and will be made for all of these interpretations and more, but in the moment of reading, I find myself wondering: Why?

Not so much why write an ugly book, but why read it? To modern ears, it may sound naive to speak of the redemptive qualities of art, but I wonder if we've really moved beyond thinking that a book (or any piece of art) should serve a purpose, whether moral, instructional, or purely aesthetic. (And, despite its vileness, Assisted Living does have its literary qualities.) If we accept this as a valid question, what are we to make of books like this? Why do we read them? More personally, why do I read them?

I read ugly books.

The cartoonish violence and excesses of Assisted Living may not be my typical fare, but the works of some of my favorite writers--Thomas Bernhard, Michel Houellebecq, and Angela Carter to name a few--can certainly be ugly other, possibly more damaging ways. After all, we're desensitized to violence pretty early on, whether through Tom & Jerry or Mortal Kombat, but the kind of bleakness in the work of these authors is altogether of a different, more corrosive variety. For instance, I've found that I need to allot myself several months between readings of Bernhard; otherwise I find myself on edge, depressive. I don't think this is an uncommon reaction to his work.

So why do I continue to read them? Because I prefer my humor black? Do I think that cruelty and violence are capable, in art, of shocking me into a more grounded awareness of the world? Or that works like this will rattle my complacency or awake me from my dogmatic slumber? A punch in the face does provide pretty indisputable evidence of being alive.

This raises the question, of course: do we need an occasional jolt of ugliness (in the form of a bludgeoning book like Assisted Living) to keep our desire for endless beauty in check? Is ugliness necessary?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Best Books We Read 2011...One Old, One New.

In my last post The Best Books We Read 2011 I mentioned a lot of books that could have been my favorite of the year. I decided that two deserved special mention. The Land Breakers, a novel written by John Ehle in 1964 that remains- sadly- fairly unknown and Wunderkind the first novel by Nikolai Grozni, a Bulgarian-born, child-prodigy pianist who earned his MFA at Brown.

If you have never heard of John Ehle I am not surprised. Most of his books are out of print and though his wife and daughter are both well known actresses, he seems to have slipped into a literary underground. So, when a couple of us were at the NCIBA to talk to Michael Ondaatje about his latest novel The Cat's Table, when he asked us what we were reading (I mentioned Wunderkind) and I told him I had been reading a lot of Southern literature that he told the Random House people there that he's been wanting Random to put out John Ehle's books for years; mentioning specifically The Land Breakers. So I tracked down the small press, Press 53 out of Winston-Salem, NC and got a copy, read it, and was floored by this huge novel that focus on the settling of the Appalachian mountains. The characters, the tragedies, and the hardships are captivating and beautifully written with a knowledge of this area that is second to none. Ondaatje also mentioned the Harper Lee quote, who rarely did any blurbs or reviews, "Exciting... masterful storytelling." And she is not wrong.

As for new, I read Wunderkind. I carried this book around for a couple of months before I actually delved into it. I loved the cover (I'm a sucker for a good cover) and had read the first few pages a few times and saw that it was going to be good. But I was reading Faulkner, and nothing short of Faulkner seemed to be what I wanted to read. Then one night I started Wunderkind. I did not stop from that point on. Reading Grozni's characters (specifically the protagonist, Konstantin the rebellious piano prodigy) and his insight into the world of private music school and classical music became obsessive reading for me. The were chapters that I reread before continuing on and then tracked down the classical pieces that were the titles of each chapter. This is a powerful and gripping novel that opened up my understanding of life behind the iron curtain, music and what it means to be music and not just love it.

These are two books I think everyone should read and most importantly tell others to read.