Sunday, May 31, 2009

Yo Ho for the Open Road

I ventured outside, but briefly, today. The weather has been and continues unseasonably, gorgeously warm. I am not for the heat. The sun burns more of me than it warms. I do not like bugs. I am not, in case you've missed this, outdoorsy.

This is not just a lazy man's argument against exercise, though I am that too, and averse to any activity that makes me sweat without ending either in orgasm or a paycheck. This is the peasant in me, and it is strong in me. A lady stopped by the desk the other day. It seems I had helped her to find the trail guides and hiking books she'd been in for some time before. In the course of our earlier conversation, she had mistaken my helpfulness for an interest in her hobby. Now hobbies, like exercise, are an affectation of the middle classes, and while it is true, Thanks Be, that I have managed to marry into the middle, I am not entirely of it and never will be. Leisure, which is the abiding preoccupation and dream of working people -- thus our tendency to drink and dance, even at funerals -- is something I've grown used to, thanks in no small part, again, to a loving husband with a pension. He keeps me too well fed, allows me hours to read, rents us movies, appreciates the power and pleasure of the afternoon nap. All of this has allowed me to grow fat in my lucky contentment. (This is what working stock does as it ages; Scots/Irish people either settle and expand, as I have, or dry into cartilaginous concatenations of ears and elbows, noses and Adam's apples. Alas, I shall never be rangy, doughy being my subset.) My leisure, already being greater than that of my elderly parents and more abundant than I ever presumed to think it might someday be, is spent with books and cigarettes, on my fat ass, eating. I am the peasant's dream made all too sadly real. I am a bookseller still, and a good one, and this means I am something of an actor and can summon a happy bonhomie in answer to almost any expressed interest, so long as I think the interaction might end in a sale -- avarice being another common trait of my kind. We can not, with rare exceptions, make ourselves rich -- we can not quite conceive of such a thing by any means other than lottery -- but dance happily to the dollar. I can discuss, with nicer people, even the most pointless of their activities, if I think I might sell them a book or two: knitting when one does not need socks, for instance, or gardening for pleasure rather than respectability or potatoes. I can even smile while chatting a customer up about walking great distances in the out of doors, not as sensible poor people do when hunting for food, but for pleasure. (I'm afraid I rather draw the line at rock and mountain climbing. Only idiots, goats and paid Sherpas do such things, and, as you might imagine, my sympathies extend no further than the goats and the native Tibetans. We live very much among the outdoorsy whites here in the Northwest, so our local news provides my husband and I with regular and infuriating reports of thousands of dollars being spent to pluck vacationing lawyers and stock-jobbers off the sides of slipped mountains. We would applaud the avalanche, if the local taxpayers were not equally obliged to "rescue" the corpses of these jackasses. This, by the way, is my answer to anyone who insists that by lighting a cigarette I am taking the bread from their children's mouths, sure as I am, if I do not stop smoking, of some day requiring the huge expense of treatment for any one of a number of cancers, the treatment of which I will doubtlessly be unable to afford without public assistance. I will refuse any public money for my treatment, go quietly into that good, and smoky night, when I am assured that everyone not on rented skies has been left to die as they should be, in the snow.) My hiking customer, (remember her?) stopped by the desk again to thank me for helping her find her required guidebooks, and to tell me that she has not been able to get out of her head something I said, evidently after she pressed me about my own hiking and camping experience.

"I haven't been able stop thinking about that thing you told me, that what middle class people call hiking, poor people call walking to work."

She was not upset by what I'd said. I was relieved to hear that. She was bemused, as I'd hoped, I think, she would be. But nevertheless, she'd been thinking about it for a week or more by the time she stopped back to see me. We talked a little more about this comment of mine, my little joke, and I suggested that perhaps the habit of hiking allows the bourgeoisie some primal pleasure, some reconnection to those upright ancestors who actually carried heavy things on their backs and walked miles on unpaved roads, not for the purposes of digital photography or to get away from their mortgages for a weekend, but because they had to clear a field for cultivation, or do as they were bid, or flee a pogrom with their few worldly goods, or perhaps mameh, strapped to their backs. Perhaps, I suggested, the actual, physical business of hiking had less to do with reaching a spectacular view, which might after all be had through a picture window -- as I myself can see both mountains and a large body of water from my own -- than with remembering what it was to run from Cossacks or drag a felled tree. Perhaps hiking puts one in touch again with family history, is in fact some sort of secular pilgrimage to appease the ghosts of our hoary-handed progenitors. She liked this idea less well. Many middle class Americans, not Mormon, are never the less weirdly preoccupied by that most astonishingly useless of all amateur research activities, genealogy. Never have so many wasted so much in pursuit of such pointless information. Aristocrats needed to find or invent ancestors who might bolster their own credentials for exploiting land and the poor people on it. It was understandable in societies based on pedagree, like kennels, that the bitch that bore you need be of a pure line. But in America?! Yet no middle class American person, two or three or more generations out from real manual labor, seems entirely immune from pretensions to previously undiscovered or long forgotten nobility. The Irish understand this of their American cousins and shamelessly exploit the weakness every time we happen to elect a man with so much as a drop of Irish blood to the Presidency. Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton were each assured, in turn, that they were in fact directly descended from Irish kings, of which, it is never pointed out, there were once entirely too many and none now for more generations almost than memory can conjure. I believe all three American Presidents mentioned, or at least their relations, received this glad news with undisguised pleasure, but then not one of them had worked for a living since Reagan was a lifeguard. Working people quite sensibly forget the names of even their great grandparents as soon as they decently can as the information is of utterly no use to them. One's share of food stamps or seniority at the plant are not boosted a bit by bragging on what one's great grandpa supposedly did at Antietam, which, after all, if he was a sensible little fellow, was probably run the hell away. My customer did not much cotton to the idea that she shared a common ancestor with the likes of me, at least, as she was clearly a sensible and well educated lady, no ancestor less remote than Lucy.

"I enjoy seeing the natural world for myself, by the power of my own two feet," she explained.

I told her I enjoy it more, sitting on my ass, though I delicately did not use that word, by the power of cable television. Just here, we reached an impasse.

What she had actually been thinking about since we last spoke, was more along the line of doing better herself by the underprivileged. To that I had nothing to say, beyond sincere thanks on behalf of all the folks I hopefully left well behind me when I hitched my wagon to my husband's star.

"Good for you!" I said, and meant it. "You know, if you're serious about this, we have some excellent books on how best to help those less fortunate than ourselves."

She had not the time, just then, to let me show her our selection as she had an appointment for lunch, but she was a nice lady and I enjoyed our little talk. When she comes back, I intend to sell her a book by Thoreau, or perhaps a small and portable anthology of pastoral poetry, at the very least a guide to birding.

Lovely woman.

Washingtonian Clerihew

WASHINGTON IRVING

Old Washington Irving
Thought well worth preserving
Every snowflake remembered of Valley Forge
In his hagiography of Washington, George.

Daily Dose

From Life of George Washington, by Washington Irving

WORTHY

"It is worthy to note, that the early popularity of Washington was not the result of brilliant achievement nor signal success; on the contrary, it rose among trials and reverses, and may almost be said to have been the fruit of defeat."

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Blue Rose

We have our first roses! After the lilac, now already faded, I live in anticipation of the first full rose coming into the house. This year the weather has surprises us by behaving as if it were already July in Seattle. In the unexpected warmth of this week, our little rose bushes have rushed up into the sun and now not one but two deep red and fragrant blooms sit before me on my desk!

The books on my shelves are littered with roses. It seems the world over there has hardly been pen put to paper that sooner or later did not end in a rose. Henri Matisse said something to the effect that anyone who would paint a rose had first to forget all the roses that were ever painted, and so too it would seem should the writer forget all the roses pressed in books. The idea that I should add here to the weight of the roses already memorialized with so light a thing even as I might write, does not much suit either me, my talents or my purpose.

I will just say, in my utter indifference to the horticultural terminology, I like my roses full, fat and fragrant. Pretty little flowers are all very well, but I like roses that strain their stems, that fill a bowl with just three flowers, that perfume the room from a single bloom. I like my roses red, yellow, white and pink, dark to light, even subtle in their shade, but abundant. Roses are summer to me, just as lilacs are spring, and like summer, I want them to last, to come back as soon as they can, and to riot with color and scent and profusion.

To celebrate the return of my roses, I sit tonight, the first night of a long weekend for me, in a light cotton nightshirt, not usually worn until July, my bare feet propped on the dictionary table, a tall glass of mostly orange juice, iced, at my elbow. The window is open to a very cool breeze and the lights are low. Upstairs my husband sleeps the sleep of the dead with two fans rotating all night, the television probably still on, all the lights still blazing. But I am in the mood for roses...

And so I listen to my favorite Rose. When Rosemary Clooney died a few years ago, I mourned her as I might a true friend, for so she has been and is to me. We all have favorites. If Dinah Washington had my favorite voice, and Anita O'Day my favorite swing, if Ella was, in my humble opinion, the greatest American singer, nonetheless, Rosie is and will always be my singer, my Rose. Her biography is harrowing, but that is not why. If she understood heartbreak and hard times, so has many another Lady standing by a piano. If she loved, as I love, the songbooks that collectively comprise the greatest music ever made in America, others have loved them, and understood them, and even sung them as well or better. Clooney's voice was once a pure and pretty thing and remarkably, it never left her, but it isn't quite the voice it was in the recordings I love the best. If Blue Rose, the perfect album she made with Ellington, is my favorite of her first and most lasting fame, it is not my favorite. I haven't one among the records I love best, the records she made with Concord Jazz for the last twenty fives years of her life. I like my Rose best when she was fat. I like her older, wiser, even a little breathless, her phrases maybe a little shorter, her notes held lower and not so long, when she seems happy of the breaks.

There are artists, and Matisse comes back to mind, for whom old age was not the curse it might have been, artists whose contentment in their work continues, whose work continues and adapts to change, simplifies but remains inspired, inventive, beautiful. Such a one was Rosemary. Cursed in her earlier recording career with many an awful song, some of them her biggest hits, and usually encumbered by overblown orchestrations, full, for instance, of mawkish strings on almost every ballad, her younger voice soared above the cacophony, full of light and sweetness and feeling. By the time she came to record for Concord Jazz, she was allowed to sing with superb ensembles, musicians and soloists of rank, and when she had the chance to swing a big orchestra, it was Basie's. John Oddo, her gifted and loyal accompanist and musical director, understood as well as she did both the limitations and satisfactions of a singer past her youth. Like her lost lover Nelson Riddle, the great arranger, her producers at Concord made for her the kind of comfortable, familiar atmosphere, all too rarely arranged for the great pop singers as they grow old, in which she could address her audience with all her heart, putting on tape much of the joy and humor, the simple pleasure of Clooney's singing in the kind of intimate spaces she preferred and mastered. She sang with orchestras a lot in her latter years, but she was able, as only the greatest popular singers can, to create an intimacy not dependent on setting.

That's why Rosie's still my girl. Listening tonight to the little laugh she brings to the bittersweet lines of a muted and smoky arrangement of "These Foolish Things," on her record, For the Duration, or to the pleasure she so obviously takes in upping the beat of "I'm Confessin' That I Love You" on Rosemary Clooney: The Last Concert, working with a full orchestra, I can only smile at the ease with which she makes every song both conversational and as amusingly memorable as a great anecdote. But it is Rosie singing me a ballad, which she did straighter and better than any other singer in American music, that makes me love the woman. She understood the power of narrative love, telling a lifetime in even the simplest lyric. When she sings "I Concentrate on You" on her Cole Porter album, she takes me from first love to last, singing, as it were, over her shoulder, but never losing the optimism with which she begins the song. So many songs...

If no other recording survived, I would listen to her sing Jimmy Van Heusen's "Imagination" and know, from just that one rueful tune, that no other singer ever spoke so directly to my heart. The woman understood sadness just as she knew joy, just as she sang, perfectly.

Tonight, I smell my new roses, and sip my drink, and just listen to my favorite singer. And when, on Mothers and Daughters, a tribute to her children, she sings with such slow poignancy, a song I know and otherwise love best when Alberta Hunter rocks it, Irving Berlin's "Always," I cry again to think she's gone, my Rose, but I have her voice here with me still, and, as she says in the song:

"Days may not be fair always,
Thats when I'll be there... always.
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
But always."

Missouri Clerihew

HARRY TRUMAN

Only human,
Harry Truman,
Felt powerless
Without his Bess.

Daily Dose

From Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910 - 1959

"Berlin
July 22, 1945

Dear Bess:

The letter came last night while I was at Joe's dinner. Was I glad to get it! No your taste in hats is not screwy. If you ever cultivate the same sort of yen for crazy hats that the two you gave those Paris ones to, have, I'll refuse to go to church with you. I'd say that is a dire threat."

Friday, May 29, 2009

Youth & Joy

I have a friend, also a bookseller, and a good one, who has worked in the same company now for almost forty years. Imagine that. While mine has been the more diverse, his experience has been, I'm sure, the more remarkable for the changes he has seen: in the bookstore, in bookselling, in publishing, in the fashions, fads, politics, geography and atmosphere. I've worked in half a dozen different stores, new and used, and I've seen all but one of the best of these go out of business, some shot from under me while I was still, if not confident, at least seated. Change, often as not abrupt and even shocking, has been a part almost of my daily working life in the business, and if I've resented and resisting much of it, I've understood almost from the beginning that its inevitability was as predictable as my future employment isn't. My friend, except in the darker moments of his advancing venerability, has not really experienced this variability of employer and job. He's seen managements and coworkers come and go. Like me, like all of us, he's had to adapt to a more digital environment, for good and ill. But what he does, and does so well, has not changed in either method or, substantially, materials for almost four decades. As he has himself repeatedly put it so well, his job has been and is, "to put the right books in the right people's hands."

My friend is a boy of sixty plus. A boy still, for never having lost his joy in what he does or in the books with which he does it.

My friend was present at the meeting today to which I was both looking forward and dreading. I worried more about his reaction than I did even of my own participation. "Backlist," for any who might not know the bookseller's jargon, is the term describing any book that is neither newly published or reprinted in a new edition. This is what has traditionally been the bread and butter of better bookstores. Anyone can sell the "bestsellers" -- as predetermined by the established popularity of a select, if by no means elect, group of writers anointed with large advances by large publishers in anticipation of wide readership. Drugstores and warehouse retailers and ruthlessly commercial websites have proven that with deep discounts, minimal promotion and no expertise in anything other than accounting, they can actually sell these books better than actual booksellers. All it takes, it seems, to sell trash, is an MBA, patient investors, and unlimited resources. But to sell the books likely to last has traditionally required some experience, considerable taste, and a fervent and friendly sense of mission, as perhaps best personified in the gabby enthusiasm of my friend, who has been successfully forcing the classics of world literature into the hands of students, faculty and staff at a northwestern University for ages. If my friend has made a fetish of discovery, running book clubs, writing recommendations and reviews promoting what he's felt were the very best of the new books he reads incessantly, he has earned his living from backlist. His home is a shrine to Signet Classics. On shelf after shelf, across nearly every wall, runs the whole history of western literature, from myth to the moderns, all read and preserved in pristine pocket paperbacks, a monument to his discrimination, memory and love. My friend is an author and playwright himself, but he has earned his living by enthusiasm.

Confronted, at last, with the undoing of the inventory of the little shop he's stocked for so many years, he amazed and moved me at the meeting today by embracing the changes proposed. His willingness to use used books, clearanced books, remainders and the like, as the new tools of his trade was unexpected and heartening to me, both professionally and personally. Here is a man whose habits are as long established almost as the store in which he works. There is nothing to say he need adapt himself to the times. He could as easily spend the remaining years of his secure employment with the bookstore comfortably and with company in the rearguard; covertly undermining the attempts being made to adjust the inventory to new economic and cultural realities by refusing to return his unsold favorites, or secretly reordering or retagging what hasn't sold, resisting necessity at every step, refusing any modification of his established responsibilities and selfishly, and self-defeatingly insisting that any change the times might necessitate be undertaken without his participation. Others in the bookstore have and will continue to do just this. "Not In My Back List" being a popular war-cry among the booksellers and buyers not just of his generation. But my friend is not just a man with a job, he is a man with a vocation, a mission, as he says, "to sell the best books." He proved to me, again today, that old eyes sometimes see things more clearly. My friend can see beyond the new proscriptions and shifting inventory to the new possibilities that change can bring. I ought to have anticipated this, knowing and admiring, standing as I do somewhat in awe of his capacity for optimism in the face of far worse than anything possibly considered at a conference table. My friend is not just a survivor, he is Peter Pan. He can never, really grow old. He believes with all the same excitement of his childhood in the wonder of books, in the necessity of stories in order to be human, and he will do what is necessary to see that books are read. I should no more have doubted him than I would the possibility of flight, the power of good faeries, or the loyalty of old friends.

"'Pan, who and what art thou?'"

"'I'm youth, I'm joy,' Peter answered..."

An Unauthorized Clerihew

MURIEL SPARK

Muriel Spark,
Alone, after dark,
Turned first to her God,
Which her girlfriend found odd.

Daily Dose

From Lettres Provinciales, by Blaise Pascal

BREVITY

"I have made this (letter) longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Rising Damp

I have a meeting to go to tomorrow morning. I admit, I am not much inclined to regret the meetings I've missed. There was a time, now far off, when, given the chance to sit for an hour at work, whatever the discussion carried on around me, I was thrilled by the novelty, but now I sit a good part of every day, a fact evidenced by my wide and warty squat. Given a choice nowadays, I would just as soon sit at the Used Books Desk, a toad content just to be out of the water and dry, and count on the regular and even sometimes welcome interruption of my meditations by sellers, coworkers, customers, and anxious seekers after the rest rooms. To retire to the comparative quiet of higher ground in the less public interior of the store, to sit at a conference table under threat of spreadsheets, agendas, flip-charts, and discussions of inventories, projected sales, alterations of the floor plan, and all such like weighty matters, puts me at risk. I do not begrudge the time. I'm not really bored by such talk. I actually enjoy meetings. I just wish my mouth wasn't so big.

I am not so shy of expressing an opinion, at a meeting or otherwise. Some wiser souls are. Bless them. They are content to sit. I never can tell if they listen, but they seem to. I never can seem to stay quiet, try as I might. Opinions I have, and so long as I need not substantiate them with numbers, I have all the confidence in my voice of the untrained but natural tenor at a baseball game. That is the problem. I can sing, but I'm unable to harmonize. I do not blend.

I am deeply envious of those that can. All of my working life, I have confidently answered when asked, contributed when called on, said my piece and then some. I do not brag of this. It is a fault that ought by now to have been corrected, if not by experience, from the supposedly edifying effects of which I would seem to be immune, then by the more than twenty years of gentle coaching by my dear A., himself not just the survivor of, but once, in his prime, the very master of the business meeting. A.'s storied career in, as he still describes it, "a government job," took him from the work-floor to the conference room well before we met. By the time I attached myself permanently, A. was already a man of some responsibility in The United States Postal Service. He is the veteran of many a "restructuring," lived through and even rose by means of many a committee, planning session and regional and or national conference. He learned from seminars and willingly undertook training. He has not only the intelligence and instinct for this sort of thing, he has also the endurance, good manners and tough-minded, thick-skinned, durability of the true manager and bureaucrat. I use that last noun advisedly and with genuine admiration, as his example has shown me that it is just such much maligned swimmers in the brackish waters of government who are most responsible for, in his case, the mail getting through, but also for keeping the lights on, the buses running and all the rest of what we call daily life in these United States. (When Rome fell, it was not the glory of Empire Romans missed, it was running water. "Remember who can get you what you need," A. tells me. )

As someone who understands the actual operations of business and bureaucracy, A. has tried to tutor me in not only the language of compromise, but also in the politic of meetings. Get yourself onto the agenda. Agree whenever and wherever possible, without concession, even or specially when not required to do so, as this shows you are listening and an encouraging sort. Phrase what you can as a question. Address individuals rather than the group. Some of this I've actually tried and A. is, as always, right.

"Be nice," he says to me.

And I have improved. It has been some time since I made anyone cry at a meeting. Some of what I hoped might be and thought ought to be done has happened, because I listened to my sage and savvy husband. So, come the morning, I will try.

Meanwhile, I ruminate.

The book business has changed radically while I've been in it, and is changing still, and at a rate of acceleration that has left most of us dizzy and fretful, some of us even frantic, myself sometimes included. This is not an atmosphere in which the bookish thrive. We tend to the contemplative and cozy. We are all about the slower pace of pages turned in reflection. We all of us, booksellers, at least at my rate of pay, keep a treasured fantasy; of reading for a living, or rather, making a living despite doing little else, a cat prowling somewhere nearby, like-minded souls begging our pardon for interrupting us to pay. I don't know anyone who does this. I know many booksellers, I've met many cats in many bookshops, but I can't imagine that even the cats nowadays don't worry now and then about their next meal. I think this dream of the quite little bookshop largely myth, or at the very least quaintly antique. My own hope is that bookselling may at least see me into my retirement, but I no longer have any illusions as to how hard we will all have to work to see the business last even so long as that.

In even my moments of darkest pessimism, I am convinced still of the value of what we do. I have never doubted the value of books. To books I owe not just my livelihood but my life. And I allow myself, most days, to think that what I know of books, and of readers, and of the business of selling books will be enough to see me out of this world if not rich, then certainly well fed. But I am increasingly convinced that the survival of the book business is dependent on our willingness to engage with this new culture, this supposedly "post literate" society that rises up around us like a flood, threatening if not to swamp independent bookstores like the one in which I work, then at least to erode and damage what is best in such places and make of them something unrecognizable, something ugly and empty, hollowed out but for the clutter of rescued treasures, irrelevant. I begin to believe that we must recognize the movement around us and find a way to accommodate it, rather than waste our resources in just resisting it. Time seems to be moving faster now than it did. Perhaps I'm just slower, but hopefully not so slow as to stand by dumb and watch what I love go under. Without losing sight, as booksellers, of our fundamentally retrograde belief in the ultimate superiority of the printed book, I think even we might still be brought to understand something of new technology and still recognize that any and all of what is new may just be, for us, the means of doing what we do in a different way. Books are our business. I think that is worth remembering. If we must print our own books, so be it. If the books we sell must be used as well as new, remainders and reprints, both high end and low, rather than "front-list" and "back-list" of yesteryear, then we are still booksellers, whatever the change in our stock, vocabulary and terms of business. Our business is to sell books. We are not antiquarians, warehousemen, librarians or "information providers," but neither are we in the business of selling just so much interchangeable, reducible "product." I think that is worth remembering too.

I feel powerfully that we must be willing to democratize not just our inventories, but our process, our promotion, and our priorities, utilizing the same flexibility and creativity now required of us all in our schedules, assignments and accommodation of the unfamiliar, and in a like spirit, adapt the business to new methods, nurture experimentation, exploit the eccentricities and weird specialization to which we booksellers seem, as a class, uniquely prone. We must, I think, accept change without insisting that it must be done without undue disquiet to ourselves, that it be entirely external to our habits, gentle to our vanity, respectful of position, custom and usage. I think the day is not far off when we must face the fact that we can not continue to sell books while still ordering new books as we always have done, answerable only to the taste and discretion of our buyers, shelving books just where they have always been, insisting on established practice as somehow being perfectly compatible with radical innovation, protecting not our traditions, but our individual bit of higher ground.

I think we'd better learn to swim.

Books are not at issue, much as we like to bemoan their fate in this new and supposedly "paperless" world -- a laughably savage joke when every computer comes with a printer -- but bookselling as a means of making one's living is increasingly precarious, and I can not see how we are to continue doing it without being willing to challenge not the value of books, of owning and selling books, but to challenge not just some, but all of the assumptions of how we do this. I think we must stop climbing over one another, stop grabbing hold of one another in blind desperation and pulling ourselves down rather than holding one another up, and concentrate our energies hereafter not so much on just staying afloat, but moving. I think this means we will have to worry less about the discipline of the crew and the chain of command, about the rules of salvage, the looming pirates and the circling sharks, and more about putting our energies to better use, staying close, relying on one another. I don't think we can afford anymore to spend quite so much time treading water while we argue about who is meant to be in charge of what, or who is responsible for our predicament, at least among ourselves, and that we must stop worrying quite so much as we do about just the exclusivity of our privileges, who has which responsibility, what qualifications or training, the right to claim a special expertise or be addressed by title.

But then, that is the kind of useless talk that makes me a pain-in-the-ass at most meetings and does no one, specially me, any good. So you see? See how easy that was, once I got started? And with no provocation, just a little nervous tension about what I understand will be tomorrow's agenda, and off I went as if I was rehearsing a sermon instead of trying to gather my thoughts for a potentially productive meeting with people I actually like and respect, a meeting moreover to which I am actually rather looking forward. Thank the Gods I have A.

"What could you possibly hope to accomplish by saying anything remotely like that?"

Right again.

AS he will remind me shortly, I'm damned lucky to have a job, and to have such an understanding and indulgent management, who, despite past experience, are still willing to try to get some kind of practical use out of me, and something other than opinions and metaphors high, wide and insufferable, in answer to the simplest question. Good people. Damned lucky I am to work with them. Lucky also to have so many good, less bellicose coworkers willing to give me warning looks, elbows and kicks when such grandiosity begins to cloud my arguments. People still willing to listen to me on the rare occasion when I do have something useful to contribute.

Okay. Enough. I think I'm ready to go to a meeting now. Kick me as needed. I'll be good with that. I've got something I want to say though, just here, while I can:

Beware the rising damp.

All I'm sayin'.

Romantic French Clerihew

Mme de Staël
Was rather vile
To each boy she chose
To add to her beaus.

Daily Dose

From Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

THE HORROR

"'The horror of that moment,' the King went on, 'I shall never, never forget!'

'You will, though,' the Queen said, 'if you don't make a memorandum of it.'"

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Summer Camp

I'm collecting my thoughts, and books, for June. Last year's display table was a celebration of our history, a collection of biography, a reclamation or bringing out, as it were, of our past. I made table signs, as I still was allowed, now and then, to do in those days, using photo upon photo of our famous, infamous and too little known faces. Those images provoked considerable curiosity and made a kind of a quiz: "Did you know? Does she belong in this gathering? Was he really?" I was glad of the chance to challenge my coworkers and our customers. I was glad of the sales.

This year, I've decided to go off in an altogether different direction. Our aspirations would seem to have settled very much to earth. Once, before the plague, we danced and marched to a revolutionary bacchanal and liberation meant, among other things, fucking, dancing, drag, fun, defiance. We forget this. Most that would remind us of it are dead. In their absence -- still so keenly felt -- we have drifted, or been led, off the streets and out of the bars and into the courts and legislatures, we've occupied the suburbs, had what's left of our hair trimmed, lost our mustaches, bought strollers, invested, conformed and advanced. We have lost more than most of our illegality. We've survived, some of us longer than anyone might have imagined even a decade ago, and many if not most of us, at least among the boys, have become established, even respectable to a degree that might astonish or even break the hearts of the best of us that came before.

There's nothing regrettable in this, so far as it's gone, which is far further than I myself might have dreamed. I am by no means nostalgic for a past, even my own, that was so hostile as to undo more of us than even disease and neglect did in the days only just going. The world, for us, is a better place in just my lifetime. But I do wonder sometimes that in our rush to better ourselves, we don't sometimes forget too much. Last year I made it my mission, in however small a way, to memorialize some of our own, to call fresh attention not just to the struggle and the sacrifice, but also to the individuals who brought us as far as we've come. The faces, the images of our past were easy enough to find. I could copy and download these. Our actual history, our books, the evidence of us that can still be owned and read, was harder to come by. So much is gone. So much, if available at all, is priced to be purchased now only institutionally or accessed digitally or preserved as artifact rather than fact -- a fact being, for most people, a tactile thing, requiring the reality of being seen, held, read. A book is a fact only so long as it is read. It is all well and good that our stories are now to be preserved, that our lives are no longer subject to editorial apology and justification, to bowdlerization and emendation, that discretion has progressed to it's proper, other meaning and that rather than being hidden, the value of our history and herstory, of our lives and the lives that came before and contributed to the making of ours, are now to be understood, interpreted and remembered at our discretion, and with a discrimination not external to ourselves but arising from our liberation. I worry though that the democratic nature of liberation is not lost when the only record and memory of it is left to historians, librarians and archivists. Revolutions die not when they end, but when they are left to the interpretation of specialists. Even so, I gathered what I could to sell, and sold what I could.

This year, I want something more of the dance than the march. The signs for my annual table display I've reluctantly had to request from the professionals -- so as to keep to the generally dull standard of professional presentation of which I've already grown painfully weary -- rather than make the signs myself. (From such small concessions to "standard" and uniformity is the creativity and autonomy of each of us eventually wasted, but leave that for another day.) This year's signs will, hopefully, read:

"Summer Camp"

And on the table will be books by Patrick Dennis and Quentin Crisp, Joe Keenan and Brian Bouldrey, Gertrude Stein, Florence King, Jane Rule. There will be glossy biographies of movie goddesses and DVDs of "Mommie Dearest" and "Butterfield 8," of old musicals and melodramas. I've been hunting up paper dolls and hilarious old pulp paperbacks with titles like The Man from Auntie and Strange Sisters. I've asked for the biggest, ugliest costume jewelry the Gifts Department can find, and false eyelashes and fire-engine-red lipsticks from the Cosmetics Counter -- yes, the bookstore actually has a cosmetics counter. I've squirrelled away a copy or two of The Case of the Not So Nice Nurse and a few other treasures I could not reorder new. Ronald Firbank will not be represented. It seems there are now no immediate plans to reprint. Other equally disastrous gaps too sad to enumerate will probably be noticed by no one but me.

Watching "Make Me A Supermodel: Season Two," I was shaken from my usual contentment and filthy-mindedness, when a beautiful girl, already weak from not eating, was made to weep for not entirely losing the shape of a healthy woman. A fat old modeling agency queen with a tape-measure and the soulless wet eyes of a rabid bulldog did this, made this girl cry, for not conforming to the diseased standard of gay misogyny! On an earlier episode, I watched a whole pansexual panel of equally soulless monsters euphemise their homophobia as they snidely humiliated and dismissed from the competition -- with, we were assured, the kindest of intentions -- a beautiful, blond androgyn for being "unmarketable" and "too specialized," his looks "too strange" and "too refined," his walk insufficiently "strong." I burned with shame to think such creatures as were perched on that judges' panel could still exist, that we could still produce such deformities of sensibility and give them power over the fate of such exquisite youngsters. It was like watching angels in Hell.

I thought to write to the producers of the show, to organize some kind of protest. My instincts were old. Then I mentioned something of what I'd seen to a young, straight, female coworker.

"I pity everyone involved" she sighed, and I had to laugh. She was absolutely right, of course. Last bark from a dying breed, was what I saw. The end can't come too soon.

Meanwhile, it still seems worthwhile, at least to me, for a month, on a display table in an independent bookstore, to remember when summer camp wasn't left entirely to the bullies.

Radical Anglican Clerihew

JOSEPH PRIESTLEY

Joseph Priestley
Thought it beastly
To be driven from Britian
For the books he'd written.

Daily Dose

From Silas Marner, by George Eliot

OCD

"Do we not wile away moments of inanity or fatigued waiting by repeating some trivial movement or sound, until the repition has bred a want, which is incipient habit?"

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lives Made Various By Learning

I don't much mind working at the cash register. In olden days at the bookstore, the cash registers were in the entry way to what was then called "General Books." They were staffed by a separate crew of cashiers and supervised by my late friend Jennifer Kuhn. Now there are no more cashiers, or rather the cashiers that there are are also booksellers. This is a good thing. It means though that any and everyone in the department is scheduled, sooner or later to a shift at the registers. I am lucky that my responsibilities elsewhere tend to keep me from this particular assignment. I can not buy books if I can not leave the cash registers on the other side of the room from the Used Books Desk. This doesn't mean that I do not ring up purchases almost every day. I do. I can cover breaks and answer the bell and do as others have to do most of the day, but to be trapped for an hour there is only possible on the night I close. As I said, I do not mind it. I have no problem ringing up sales, when there are sales to be rung up so late in the store's open hours, but the design of the counter is such that to step away from the registers to do anything at all on a computer means turning one's back to customers which ought not to be done. Yet short of pricing and entering stock into inventory, there are few tasks, and few customers, to occupy one's time by seven or eight in the evening. He may well serve who but stands and waits, but I find it maddening. When I am scheduled, I bring work with me, and then spend the hour darting abruptly between tasks. Most people, when ready to check out and leave, will do something to draw attention to their presence at the counter If I am otherwise occupied, but many simply stand politely and wait to be noticed. I feel a perfect fool, looking up from data entry to see some nice person, often as not cash or credit card in hand, smiling patiently at me. Who knows how long?

Tonight I determined not to repeat this dumb show. I decided instead to bring a book with me, almost any book, and stand, facing front, at my post, ready for the customers that might come up. I thought that if I at least had a little paperback there at the registers I need not go insane watching the clock expectantly. Nor would I mess up, as I tend to do when trying to do something more useful between purchases, and enter the same title three times and then spend fifteen minutes when my shift was over, undoing all the entry I'd done incorrectly. Anyway, that was my thought.

One of the few serious novels we read in my backward little high school was Silas Marner, by George Eliot. It is not a happy memory for me, few are from that period of my education, but Eliot's novel I remember as being torture. The class in which we read that book was taught by an elderly stump of a teacher, from notes older than my parents, and with all the enthusiasm and interest of a shop teacher supervising the annual construction of birdhouses. I remember the droning recitation of contextual background on "cottage labor" and "dissenting religion," the agonizingly slow reading out of long windy passages, followed by questions long since made rhetorical by the teacher's untroubled failure to illicit a single response from the bored and bewildered class. I remember the long, cold silences, interrupted only by the dead question marks left hanging after we drowsily realized that the teacher had, briefly, stopped talking*:

"Anyone?"

"Anyone?"

And his habit of assuming a response after the tense, if predictable interval:

"That's right, isolation. The author is describing isolation."

I shudder to think but that somewhere, in some home for the impossibly aged, that wreck of an instructor, if miraculously still among the living, to the extent he was even when I sat in his class, is even now, from no prompting but habit, addressing the silence of the day-room:

"Anyone?"

"Anyone?"

"That's right. Wool production."

So why then, facing an all but uninterrupted hour stationed at the cash registers would I take a little signet paperback of Silas Marner, by George Eliot, to keep me company? Of all the unread and or unfinished classics that litter my reading life, this is not even the most regrettable of Eliot's novels. That would have to be Middlemarch, unfinished after how many attempts? Well, Middlemarch was not to hand, and Silas Marner was. But why take an Eliot at all? My only answer to that is, I suppose, in some dark corner of my Protestant past and there I have no desire to go tonight.

This particular printing of the book features what was at the time of the reprint, a "new" introduction by Frederick R. Karl, a respected biographer and scholar, most famously of Conrad, of whom he found enough to say to fill three enormous volumes. He also edited a collection of Conrad's letters so exhaustive as to defy lifting them from the shelf. Very much of the breakfast menu school of academic investigation, Karl, in his own books seems never to have made a note he didn't think worthy of print. I was not aware until tonight that in 1995, he also produced, George Eliot: Voice of a Century: A Biography, capping a long and extremely productive career no doubt. He's dead now.

As I really had arranged things so as to have nothing better to do, I read Karl's introduction. It was surprising short. And yet, in only six pages, Professor Karl does not hesitate to assume the book already read; revealing nearly every major turn of plot, offering at least a couple truly uninspired parallels between Eliot and her central character, and concluding on a note of almost comical indifference as to if, when or how the reader may turn the page and begin reading.

If no other work by Frederick R. Karl should survive his untimely death, I suggest that this short introduction should preserve something of his magic, in however regrettably abbreviated a spell, for generations to come. I should think it would suffice at least to recreate what must have been the almost unbearably familiar atmosphere of his many classrooms, though I sadly never had the honor to sit before him at the lectern. I tell you, I could smell the chalk rising off the page.

"Anyone?"

"Anyone?"

What is it that attracts these men to Eliot?! Perhaps the very mysterious power that seems to repel me. But I make too much of this. The truth is, interrupted by only a customer or two, I stood and leaned, and rested my ample ass on a broken stool for a solid hour after finishing the brief introduction and read the first few chapters of Silas Marner for the first time since high school, and I must confess, it wasn't bad! True, I did not read so far as to really test myself. I remember in high school wishing the child dead so as to make the book, and the class, end. I might yet relive that moment. But honestly, I really rather enjoyed what I read tonight. What's more, now that I'm home, fed on the last slice of yesterday's blackberry pie and in my nightshirt, and as soon as I'm done here, I actually intend to fetch my own copy from the set of Eliot I own and keep reading.

Best, I think, not to ask why.

*My work husband reminded me that this teacher of mine would seem to have been Ferris Beuller's Economics instructor, as played by Ben Stein. All I can say is that Ben Stein had a more vivacious personality.

A Socially Acceptable Clerihew

WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM

William Somerset Maugham,
Stuttered, but with great aplomb,
And with no little notoriety,
Still played bridge in high society.

Daily Dose

From Of Human Bondage, by William Somerset Maugham

DOING WITHOUT

"He had heard people speak contemptuously of money: he wondered if they had ever tried to do without it."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Gold Star

Memorial Day, for my father's family, has always been difficult. My father is a veteran of the Korean Conflict. His brother, Dale, served in the occupying force in Japan. Neither came away from their service the same. But far more even than what either saw abroad, it was an earlier loss that changed them, and their family most. My grandmother, Lella Belle Sopher Craft, was a Gold Star Mother. My father and his brother lost their elder brother in World War Two, my grandparents lost their eldest son, Richard Craft.

My Uncle Dick died in the Battle of the Bulge, though I don't know that he knew he was in any such thing. From what I've read of the battle, few of the Americans killed the day my uncle was knew what was happening. As I remember it, he was driving a jeep, the jeep was hit by a mortar and Dick was killed. I never knew him. My Uncle Dale, "Red," I knew well enough and liked as best I could. Before his death a few years ago, I listened to his stories of the war and after with a scandalized awe, as most involved fistfights, whores and shore-leave. Red was a sailor. My father, a quieter, more sensitive man than his brother Dale, has almost never told the stories of his war. Neither ever spoke of their brother Dick with anything other than respect and affection. The oldest boy, he was to them something of an ideal; handsome, gentle, strong and affectionate, riding horses with them, hunting, looking after his younger brothers. Red fought with everybody and bullied my father until my father finally hit him with a 2 by 4 one day and knocked him cold. Even Red admitted he probably deserved it. I don't know that I ever heard of my Uncle Dick fighting anyone but the Nazis.

I did not know my Grandpa Craft. He died when I was still a toddler. If the death of his son changed him, and how could it not have done? it seems to have only made him older, sadder and more fond of the sons that survived. My Grandma I knew and loved as well as I've ever known anyone. I can't say that I ever understood the woman, but knowing from an early age, the meaning of the Gold Star she permanently displayed in her home, I believe I always understood enough to find her forgivable, even when she wasn't.

Every Memorial Day in my childhood was marked by my Grandmother attending a service at which was displayed a portrait of her son Richard that used to be displayed at the American Legion Post in Blacktown, Pennsylvania. That Legion Hall is gone, as is the larger portrait, burned to the ground years ago, though, blessedly, not in my grandmother's lifetime. My father has the original photograph of his brother in uniform from which the portrait was made.

My father's loss is such that he can not contemplate Memorial Day without such a deep sadness, even now, as to make the whole of this day dark. It will be so for him so long as he lives.

For me, on this day, I will always think of the Gold Star in my Grandma Craft's parlor. Some well meaning soul, when I was a teenager, once pointed to the little banner by the grandfather clock and said to Grandma, "You must be very proud."

"I'd rather have had my son," she said.

Amen.

Daily Dose

From The Complete Poems of Thomas Moore

Memorial Day

"Peace to each manly soul that sleepeth;
Rest to each faithful eye that weepeth..."

From How Oft Has the Banshee Cried

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Murder Not Most Cozy

A couple of years ago, we had a whole collection of Agatha Christie come across the Used Books Desk. This was not of itself unusual. When one gets mysteries, and Christie books specially, they tend to come in bunches. This is how mysteries are read generally, at least by real fans and addicts. But the copies that excited my interest were not the usual mass market paperbacks, but rather a whole stack of Christie reissues for a mystery book club, in hardcovers, in handsome thin leather. The books themselves were hardly collectible or rare, most of the titles having been issued as premiums, i.e. the bonus books issued with membership in the book club. But they were attractive little things, and there were titles among them that I'd never read. I priced them quite cheaply and broke up the collection, sending some to every branch already selling used books, thinking someone in each store would thus find a pretty Christie or two. I read three of them myself before I sent them off.

Among the novels I read then for the first time, was the last adventure of Tommy & Tuppence, aka the Partners in Crime. Postern of Fate was the last book Christie wrote, and in it she chose to revisit the couple that had featured in a number of earlier books, a rather silly, glamorous pair that had started out in the twenties as Bright Young Things, solving murders between parties. They had grown up a bit through the years, even taking on espionage, and now here, in the last book, they were a retired couple, in their seventies, and at last moved to a typical Christie village. The crime plot wasn't very strong and resolved itself in the kind hysterical confession I'd tired of long before I'd stopped reading Christie, but I enjoyed that book the best of the three I read then because in it Christie wrote quite convincingly and charmingly of older people, not just her now gray, if still gay, in the older sense, detectives, but also of old people in general, in a home for the aged, not brilliant or self supporting old darlings, but rather more average people, quite real people in a realistic setting for the time. There was something quite moving in reading such a book, knowing that it was written when Christie herself was old.

Recently reading Laura Thompson's excellent biography, Agatha Christie: An English Mystery, was a treat because the biographer shared some of Christie's own sharp humor and her fundamental kindness, treating for instance the whole melodramatic story of Agatha Christie's "disappearance" as what it was; one rather strange and telling episode in a long life, rather than as a deep and mysterious scandal. The whole business was handled with an admirable seriousness, but not made too much of, much as Christie's Miss Marple might have dealt with it herself. The best of Thompson's very good biography though was, for me, her very fair estimation of Christie's gifts , which were considerable if limited, and the consistent sympathy with which Christie's accomplishments were celebrated and her personal life detailed with neither too little nor too much being made of where and how the author's life and work touched. The whole was a balanced, and often funny and touching life, very well told.

Dame Agatha Christie knew what she was about. She was an artist of a restricted range, but extremely clever within it. Rather than write what was not in her power, she practiced what she understood to be her craft, and ended up being better at it than anyone since Arthur Conan Doyle. The tendency now is rather to think that everything she ever wrote was as good as anything else, which isn't at all true, she wrote so much and some of it simply isn't very good, but she got better and better at it and in the process wrote some of the best genre fiction ever. Her books are consistently entertaining, constructed with an astonishing degree of precision and care, uniformly well observed and funny as well as exciting. If none of them is really any better than a thriller, some of them are among the best thrillers ever written.

But then, I'm either preaching to the choir here, or likely to be ignored. Christie, like all great genre writers, seems only to have fans and foes. A coworker who's taste in thrillers and popular fiction is far wider than my own, does not read "cozies." I understand. My own preference has always been for the tougher, American variety of mystery. But Christie, if the Grand Dame of what we now think of as typical English mystery, was not herself much enamored of silly books. Her silliest tend to consistently be her worst. Humor she had, and even wit, but she was not a humorist. She took crime quite seriously and in her best books, she is always respectful of the actual consequences of violence. Her curiosity about crime was seldom morbid, but it was real, and if her settings tended to alternate, with her detectives, between the impossibly self contained worlds of the upper classes and the cozy English village, she quite sensibly understood that neither was exempt from the uglier human emotions and thoughtlessness that lead to criminal actions. If criminality as a way of life did not much interest her, or at least seemed seldom to figure in her fiction, she quite sensibly recognized that she had little or no experience of it from which to draw. Life in a respectable English village she knew first hand, just as she came to know wealth, and academia and the foreign places where she occasionally sent her detectives. If she didn't know murder, she understood the murderous impulse, and being, largely, a rather predictably English lady of a certain class, she understood and wrote about the mysteries in just such people and places as she knew. There's nothing cozy in her evaluation of either humanity or our habit of ruining even the best of what we make. Her resolutions are not always happy, but they have always in them a rueful faith in the fundamental decency of most, if by no means all of us. She seems to have been just such a flawed but admirable person herself as the characters for which she is most justly famous.

I read one of her Poirots when I read those three books end to end. I found his English and his repetitious eccentricities more grating than I remembered. His extraordinary intelligence seems, with rare and wonderful exceptions,to never quite prevent one more corpse being added to the pyre just shy of his solution of the original crime. But still, I enjoyed it.

And now I'm rereading The Moving Finger, one of Christie's own favorites, and by general consensus, perhaps the best of her Miss Marple books. I only started it tonight, and Miss Marple herself has only just come on the scene, but I must say I'm having a wonderful time. A rather awful big girl named Megan said the most innocently wicked thing, for instance, on just page 35:

"I'm not wanted and I can't quite see why. Mummie doesn't like me a bit. I remind her, I think, of my father, who was cruel to her and pretty dreadful from all I can hear. Only mothers can't say they don't want their children and just go away. Or eat them. Cats eat the kittens they don't like. Awfully sensible I think. No waste or mess."

Christie, not a terribly successful parent herself, was clearly not afraid at least to say wickedly right things. Awfully sensible I think. And in this rather perfect little thriller, I have to say, no waste or mess.

Rivalrous Sibling Clerihew

EVELYN WAUGH

Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh,
Not the favorite of his Pa.
Dad preferred the more dashing brother,
And played them off, one 'gainst t'other.

Daily Dose

From The Harlot's Progress, by Honoré de Balzac

GENIUS

“How many poets occur in an age, who are either good prose writers, or as witty in the intercourse of daily life as Madame Cornuel? Buffon was dull company; Newton was never in love: Lord Byron loved nobody but himself; Rousseau was gloomy and half crazy; La Fontaine absent minded. Human energy, equally distributed, produces dolts, mediocrity in all; unequally bestowed it gives rise to those incongruities to whom the name of genius is given, and which, if we could only see them, would look like deformities.”

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pale Black

I've all but given up on mystery novels. Television does them so well, so much more economically, and frankly with greater depth; characters have faces and move, murders are resolved in a hour and a half, and the consequences of violence seem more real, the blood is red, the regret registers. Now and again though, I grow wistful and take a thriller home, remembering how I thrilled to every page of Sherlock Holmes, what a revelation it was to read my first Raymond Chandler or pick up Killer on the Road on the recommendation of a friend. True crime anthologies and the regular stories of the rich gone wrong in Vanity Fair Magazine tend nowadays to do for me, when it comes to written crime, but then the weekend looms and I think I might just want a fast, mean read.

There was a time when I would gather up four or five paperback mysteries and spend the whole of a weekend, specially a long weekend, ripping through thrillers, one after another. I read all of Conan Doyle when I was boy in a kind of frenzy, ignoring my school work, my chores, the television, my friends. For two or three weeks I could think of nothing else, regretted sleep, lived only for a new story from Doctor Watson. I still think that that was the best way, and absolutely the right time, at eleven or twelve, to read Holmes. I've reread some favorites in just the past year or so, and was amazed to find the stories funny as well as thrilling. I remembered all of Sherlock Holmes as being deadly earnest. I read nearly everything the same way when I was young; liking one novel or story, I would then need to read everything, end to end, that I could find by that author. Mysteries and thrillers lend themselves well to this kind of reading, but I did it with almost every author I read on my own, when I was young. I read Jerzy Kosinski with just such obsessive devotion one summer in high school. Even as a younger adult, I still kept the habit of reading mysteries, when I still read them at all, as a more occasional indulgence but one necessitating more than one or two books, and long, happily otherwise empty hours alone, without distraction. I read both volumes of the Library of America's noir anthologies just this way, but those were my last murderous, crowded, long weekends.

Noir, as a catch-all, would have to be the easiest way to categorize my preferred style of thriller. Chandler and Hammett and Cain, down to Jim Thompson, Ellroy and Jake Arnott, that last a gay Brit who might be said to have taken all that stylishly butch posturing to one of its two natural conclusions, overtly homo gangsters, the other postmodern road being Ellroy's, ending in vicious, semi-pornographic self parody. What I enjoyed in all the best of the form was the action; guns, gangsters and plots gone wrong, the cynical romanticism; of tough guys who read poetry, quote Homer, and lose their hearts in the gutter, and the insistent, twisted aestheticism, from which all the genre's practitioners seem to have derived both their dark philosophy of life and their now sometimes quaint pleasure in inventive and funny aphorism. Noir, at it's best, can be beautiful, bub.

I recently took home the new Denis Johnson novella, Nobody Move, just hoping for a quick fix of the remembered Adrenalin. It's on our bestseller list. Johnson won the National Book Award just last year for his Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke, which, I admit, I could not read, though because of its setting and subject, not because of any fault I found in the writing. I've read Johnson before, at least the better part of two earlier novels and all of his story collection, Jesus' Son. His new book is a well reviewed little noir, originally published serially in Playboy Magazine. I read it in a night, but it did not really satisfy.

What was best in Johnson's earlier stories -- the sense of comic instability, the marginality of the characters as junkies and petty thieves taken very much for granted, though obviously and accurately detailed, the Holy Idiot business played with tongue firmly pressed into cheek -- in a later novel, Already Dead: A California Gothic, went all flabby and maundering. It seems it is all but impossible to write about the business of drugs without ascribing their sale and use to either an almost supernatural evil, or lapsing, as Johnson seemed to, into a hazy, good natured mysticism. It's as if only cops and potheads ever write junky fiction. Johnson, of course, is not of the cop school.

And that may explain why his new short novel seemed more workmanlike but less satisfying even than the two earlier novels I'd never quite finished. Denis Johnson, like many a contemporary writer, is drawn to criminality, but does quite believe in crime. In his new book, crime happens. His leads are both quickly and amusingly sketched; the guy a singer of competitive barbershop and a degenerate gambler, the gal a blackmailing femme fatale, and the plot that brings them together is satisfyingly arbitrary. The writing is competent and even clever. I was reminded though of a quote from Agatha Christie:

"I don't think necessity is the mother of invention - invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble."

And that seems to have been the problem. Denis Johnson's noir seems idly done, invented, like a story told in a bar, to pass an amusing hour or two, as it did well enough for me, but without the angry necessity one feels from the best practitioners of the form. In short, I don't think Denis Johnson was serious. He needn't be, if what he'd written had been parody, but it's not. Instead it is something like the outline of, or a screenplay based upon, a better book than he wrote. There's no black heart in his little book, no sense of either the disappointed crusade or the survival of love's devastation. Those old boys may have been drunk or punchy when they wrote the sometimes truly ugly stories they did, and their plots could be a hot mess, but they were sincerely unhappy. Johnson isn't. He seems too good natured, perhaps too fundamentally cheerful, or if not that, then perhaps even -- dare I suggest such a thing -- happy? for this kind of thing. His cynicism seems borrowed, like a pinched fedora. I can't help but think he wanted to write a Jim Thompson novel, and ended up writing the pitch for an ersatz Elmore Leonard screenplay.

Another Clerihew Down Under


CHRISTINA STEAD

Christina Stead,
Though now long dead,
Drifts on still to glory
On an Ocean of Story.

Daily Dose

From Sydney Smith: His Wit and Wisdom

Poverty

"Poverty is no disgrace to a man, but it is confoundedly inconvenient."

Friday, May 22, 2009

It's the Dog

I heard a comment on The Ave. today that I hesitate to reproduce here for fear of the reaction I'm sure to get from at least my dear work-wife, T., and others of her tender nature. "The Ave.," I should explain for any who are not acquainted with the parlance of Seattle, is University Way, so not actually an avenue, but rather the street that runs the length of the neighborhood where I work. Now I happen to like this neighborhood much. Long before my time, this was just another working and middle class neighborhood, distinguished by the overwhelming presence of the University, but otherwise much like the rest of Seattle; white, tidy, and self contained. One could rent skis or get one's tennis racket restrung in the sports department of the bookstore, see a double features with cartoons at The Neptune or The Varsity, stroll about window-shopping at night, presumably with one's mother. Then the city happened. There are those who still regret the change, but as I never knew it other than it is now, and, as I rather prefer cities to towns, I rather like it as it is. There are still good merchants here, though now they might be foreign born and likelier to sell sandals, saris and bongs than school clothes for little Johnny. The movie houses are still here, considerably funkier than they used to be, and the only cartoons they show now tend to be Japanese. But there are still good eats, more various I should think than they used to be, and good people. There are wonderful green spaces, on the University's campus and elsewhere. For me and for many like me, there are very real, if distinctly down-market charms to the the place. However, the reputation of "The Ave." is such that for locals it is enough to use the nickname to conjure a not altogether happy impression of urban funk; the second hand shops selling clothes and boots and books, cheap ethnic eateries, college students, dive bars, and music. All good things, in their way. There are also problems: public intoxication, tagging, illegal and unregulated drug use, shoplifting, occasional violence, and a specific homelessness, hardly unique to this street, or neighborhood, or city, that has resulted in another nickname, less friendly, for the vagrants, buskers, beggars and junkies that drift up and down 'The Ave.," these are known locally as "Ave, Rats."

Every city has a homeless population, or "problem," depending on the politician speaking to if not necessarily addressing it. This is usually just another way of describing poverty. Poverty, of course, is universal. But homelessness, as a category of poverty, while it may be of more recent and American coinage, never the less describes a condition as old as the species. In contemporary America, this one word, homeless, is understood to not just describe those without shelter, by choice or misfortune, but any and all of the displaced poor without regular work, an established residence, respectability, security of their possessions or their person, access to treatment or a bath. Of our failures as a society, homelessness is taken to be the most visible sign; of unalleviated poverty, untreated and unsupervised mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, and among the young specifically, domestic and family violence, disaffection and exploitation. That poverty in America is as likely to not be seen begging on the streets is a truth more difficult to address, for being both less obvious and requiring a more fundamental admission of our collective failure to adequately care for the less fortunate. The tendency is to see the urban homeless not so much as representative, but rather as a discreet demographic, as if, could the beggars but be cleaned off the streets, our cities would be suitable for guests, our streets safe again for respectable people to window-shop after dark, our society again a shining city on the hill. This is false, but tempting. I understand the urge. Working where I do, I am not on the side of the shoplifter or the stray junky shooting up in our bathrooms or the drunk pissing in our doorway.

I would myself prefer to walk to lunch without being asked, every ten feet, for a cigarette or spare change, to not have to listen to wretched guitarists, their cases open on the sidewalk, to not need to walk in the gutter in order to avoid stepping into knots of soggy, belligerently drunken teenagers huddled in doorways, or to avoid their brutish dogs. It does seem a curious thing that so many of these black-clad punks should keep a pet, and that their preference tends to pit bulls.

Reading Orwell's first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, I am reminded that every human being I step around on the street, every one to whom I refuse a cigarette or the change in my pocket, need not be there, that each represents a choice, both individual and societal, and that I make a choice every day in avoiding these people. I first read Orwell's book when I was young and vaguely if earnestly radical. Then I was what might be called an easier touch. I was a boy up from the country and begging was new to me, part of my new urban atmosphere, and, if not romantic, if always sad, at least an opportunity, in a small way, to express my sympathies. I was shocked. I was outraged. I gave what I could when I could. I was gulled, more than once, into giving what I could ill afford. Every beggar had a biography, a fact I accepted from The Bible, and from reading books like that by Orwell, wherein he slummed righteously, and amusingly, among the poorest of the urban poor in two countries, only one his own, and I then felt obliged, if no longer as a Christian, then as something of an amateur socialist, to listen and to help.

I'm rereading Orwell not in a tattered paperback, but rather in a handsome, Folio Society reprint, and the irony of this does not entirely escape me. Just today, carrying Orwell's book with me to lunch, I felt something of my barely remembered fellow-feeling for the down and out and being solicited by a huddle of "Ave. Rats" for a cigarette or two, I stopped long enough to engage in the briefest of conversations with them, giving them each a cigarette and such loose change and small bills as I had in my pocket. These kids were typical; dressed in filthy black and camo, tattooed, sexless, intimidating, a brutal little dog on a string tugged away from eyeing my shin when I stopped and talked. Every one of them, as soon as I'd handed out cigarettes, apologizing that all I had was menthol, ceased to be frightening, except the dog, and smiled. As we chatted just for that minute, they all became so obviously, heartbreakingly young, their faces bright and friendly under the grime and tattoos. I was thoroughly ashamed to think how many times before I must have walked by them, refusing even eye-contact for fear of being intimidated or misused. I found myself more shy than I have been in years. I smiled back, and told them as I turned to go, to "try to stay dry." Their thanks came in a chorus and sounded touchingly sincere.

As I stepped away, feeling myself the better for having reclaimed something of my own youth and humanity, I heard the girl with the dog in her lap comment in a stage-whisper which may or may not have been used to include me, the fat, respectable little gent with extra cigarettes:

"I told you. It's the dog. The dog's a fucking gold-mine."

I did not turn around to see if she was being any kinder to the dog than she had been when I stopped.

Later, at lunch, I read of Orwell jeering down with his homeless fellows at the church workers who had just fed them. He writes, "They were afraid of us and we were frankly bullying them. It was our revenge upon them for having humiliated us by feeding us." I'd like to say I lost my appetite when I read that, but I didn't. I did cross the street early, coming back from my lunch, so as to avoid meeting the same beggars twice.

Impartial Clerihew

HENRY FIELDING

Judge Henry Fielding
Was quite unyielding
Sitting on the magistrate's bench
Condemning equally wag and wench.

Daily Dose

From Funny, But Not Vulgar, by George Orwell

UNTIL

"Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are."

From Confessions of a Book Reviewer

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Beware the Pine-Tree's Withered Branch

There is a pause, a strange, still quite between the flash and the boom. When I was a boy, I was taught to count the seconds between the two, each second, as I recall, was meant to tell how many miles away the lightening hit. Thunder storms are quite common where I grew up. Not so much here. Rain, oh yes, but thunder storms seem not to figure as they did back East. We used to watch the progress of summer rain, not just the clouds you understand but the actual rain and lightening, as it moved across fields and roads, as the storm fell like a curtain hiding first this farm then that house and on until it came up to where we were. It came up fast when it came, impossible to quite believe or anticipate. A storm back home seemed always to be moving slowly until it was on you and by then you were wet to the skin, running, always a minute too late if you were little to outrun the storm. Here, on Tuesday night, while I was working my late shift, I did not think to count the seconds after the flash. There was, so far as I saw, just the one but it was big and bright. I had time to comment to my coworker at the desk, "Was that lightening?" and be told it probably wasn't, before the boom rattled us both. The thunder-clap was stunningly loud.

Today, when I got home, there were more than eight packages waiting for me. I haven't opened them yet. All books, I know. It isn't as if getting free books in the mail isn't still exciting because it is and will be for as long as my time on the review committee lasts. I haven't opened the packages yet because I simply do not want to look at, let alone stack, let alone read these books. I may be wrong to think this way, but my experience last year taught me to not anticipate, at least not this early in the review process, that every book I get this early on will be a book I will remember, happily or no, come the first meeting of my committee in September. Moreover, I would be hard pressed now to tell you the names of more than three of the books I read before September last year. I know there were good books among those I'd read by June, but I don't remember a single title.

What happens is that the books start coming again almost as soon as the committee finishes its consideration for the year. The first books that come, come singly, or in bundles if the books are children's titles, from small presses and large, and as these come in, I read them. I may not have to read all of a book to know I will not be championing it when the committee finally meets. The rule, and it is not a bad one for the adult categories, is that picking up a book, of whatever description, means that I am willing to read at least the first thirty pages. I've stuck to the rule so far, even reading the kid's titles to date, despite making it a firm rule for myself that there will be others on the committee far more willing to read the children's books and all the YA (young adult, a category of book in which I adamantly disbelieve, ranking it somewhere below "National Buttermilk Week" and "Bring Your Turtle to Work Day" in the scheme of useless human commercial invention.)

But my commitment to duty, and my interest in even opening packages from publishers, begins to waver almost as soon as the first twelve to twenty books I've yet to read have started piling up under my desk. There is a growing resentment, come Spring, when I have to put down a book I'm actually reading, to try another dozen I've received for consideration by the committee. I was raised in such a way that not reading nearly everything that's arrived before the committee meets makes me hang my head in shame. My nature is such though that I can not do this without lengthy procrastination, if not the outright avoidance I'm practicing tonight in actually ignoring the books that came just today.

This, you see, is the first real flash of the coming storm. There must be more than a dozen, perhaps as many as two dozen books sitting, still wrapped, on my entry-way table. Having misunderstood the process last year, when I was serving for the first time, I actually began to wonder, just about this time in April, if I had somehow fallen off the mailing list, if only the smallest publishers of pointlessly uninspired memoir, self-indulgent first fiction and hideously illustrated if ponderously earnest picture books still had my name. Then one or two good books would come, in little bursts, and I would be reassured of my continued participation. Nothing life changing you understand, but something of which I would be inclined to read more than the first thirty to fifty pages. I remember vividly getting a book, fairly early on that I actually thought enough of to write a staff recommendation for the bookstore where I work. That was a happy moment. It passed. I was by no means prepared for the number of books that started coming come Spring. Flash.

Some time thereafter, I did not count the seconds or the days, the progress of the review copies to my doorstep became noticeably heavier, or at least more regular. And then the books seemed to fall from the sky all at once, catching me unprepared. Boom.

Not so suddenly or subtly reminded of my responsibilities, I then entered a period of serious, sustained reading for a purpose other than my own. I read book after book, more and more to the end. I read about building a boat, about sailing alone around the world, about forestry and ecology, about hunting buffalo, about fish. Some of the books I read last year, in fact a surprising number of them, were really quite good. A few were exceptionally good.

I don't regret for a minute the opportunity this committee has been for me, and how it has forced me to exercise interest in subjects, such as the brief list above, about which I have not the slightest curiosity. I will admit, I do resent, even now, the number of published writers producing books, good bad and indifferent books, every year, at least the books that meet the minimum requirements for consideration by the committee on which I now serve, but that is a selfish caveat, not a statement of any principle, ecological or cultural.

I don't even really regret the many bad books of which I read only the first thirty pages. These at least allowed me to feel I was doing a service, not only to the committee or to the organization that sponsors it, but to the English speaking world as a whole, every time I voted "No" in our preliminary discussions. That was almost always the easiest part of the task. The "Maybe" category was the most work, consisting as it did of books that weren't so unfortunate as to call up a righteous rejection after thirty pages, but were not so good after fifty or one hundred as to make me not resent having gone on to finish reading them. Now that felt very much like a waste of time.

The best books, as determined not by me but by the committee as a whole, were none of them books I was embarrassed by or less than enthusiastic to see on the final list -- though one made it onto the short list that made me wish I had the power to reverse time, go back and prevent its publication, let alone our consideration of the book -- and there were books, in the end, I was very proud to have personally championed.

But those are not the kind of books I'm anticipating in the unopened packages upstairs tonight. I may be wrong. Remains to be seen. For tonight though, I'm just going to read another Orwell essay from the Folio Society set I bought recently, and go to bed. My duty will not be assumed tonight. I've seen the flash. This year I may not wait for the boom. I suspect I probably will though. The clouds are gathering darkly, even as I retire.

One Mississippi.

Two Mississippi.

Three Mississippi...

Clerihew in Need of Reprinting

H. E. BATES

H. E. Bates
Sits and waits
To again be re-covered
And thus rediscovered.

Daily Dose

From Sugar for the Horse, by H. E. Bates

SOFT

"Everybody's stopped enjoyin' theirselves. Everybody's gittin' too 'umbuggin' soft by half."

From The Fire Eaters

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

This Tortured and Tormented Mask

There are writers who are impervious to biography. Criticism can undo them, temporarily or in small ways; exposing their repetitions, their infractions against taste, fashion or grammar, their philosophic or stylistic failings, but great writers, even or specially when considered by great critics, survive and even grown in reputation by being shaken about a bit, tossed against one wall after another, being shoved into new, even ridiculous categorical containers and then let loose, like a jack-in-the-box, on new readers or, in this way or that, made to startle even their established admirers. Biography is another matter entirely. There are biographers, however well intentioned, even worshipful, who have hung "A Life" 'round a writer's neck that could not help but sink their subject, revealing such abysmal character, violent prejudice and the like as to color any reading of the writer's work thereafter. Writers have done this to themselves, of course, in autobiography; Trollope showed himself something of a clerk in both his habits and his soul and ruined himself postmortem for a generation at least, Hemingway made himself a caricature by late middle age. Letters and journals, however carefully or judiciously edited, can likewise do damage, revealing the author's antisemitism, as with Larkin or Mencken. But biographers, without any of the restrictions or hesitations of the writers themselves, can do worse by finding worse and leaving none of it out. Perhaps the most famous modern American examples would be Marc Shorer's 1961 biography, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, in which the Nobel Prize winning novelist was exposed as a truly mean and selfishly awful drunk, and something of a hack as well, or poor Robert Frost, who's official biographer transformed him, possibly forever, from something like the 20th Century's Whitman into a miserably ambitious old bastard who only just stopped short of kicking dogs in the street. There are writers, like Byron, like Wilde, made up almost in equal measure by their lives and their work and who therefore absorb biography like so much sunshine, assimilating criticism into their legends. Finally, there are the greatest writers, like Dickens, like Tolstoy, who fall into the category first mentioned, for whom neither criticism nor biography can be said to so much as leave a mark on 'em. Say what you will, you can not quite touch them, for good or ill, however unpleasant they were to their wives, etc., nothing can unmake them.

There are writers, like Frederick Rolfe, aka Baron Corvo, for whom a great biography can be salvation, explaining, if with difficulty, and in Corvo's case, a painful discretion, something of why and how their books should be read at all. But there are also writers whose lives are almost entirely in their fiction, for whom the writing of novels and stories was not so much a profession, or even an avocation, but the means of a sometimes excruciating self revelation, writers who knowingly or not seem to have held back nothing, for whom life proved to be so painful as to be hard to accept, even in fiction, and for whom writing would seem to have done nothing to protect them. For such rare writers, biography can seem superfluous, if tantalizingly, distractingly, necessary if just for the purpose of corroboration. Was it as bad as that? Could this person really have been such a disaster and yet produce something so beautiful? Reading such a writer, one wants almost to protect them from biographers, which is to say, one wants rather to rescue them from their lives. Jean Rhys is one of these.

“Some people walked the tightrope so beautifully, not even knowing they were walking it," Rhys wrote in her novel Voyage in the Dark, and one has the sense, reading Jean Rhys, and reading about her, that that sentence, with its suggestion of artless admiration for all the ease Rhys never knew except as a writer, could almost serve as the whole of her aesthetic. It certainly goes a long way in explaining her failure at life as well as her success as a writer. She insists that grace requires an unconsciousness of which she clearly knew herself to be incapable. She can not help but envy it, even as the knowledge that, for her, oblivion proved repeatedly impossible; in love, in degradation, in drink, even in old age, when she struggled to write an autobiography, left unfinished at the time of her death, in which she sought to recreate the lost, and in fact never possessed, paradise of her childhood on the island of Dominica, seeking finally to escape into only those memories where some trace of innocence might still linger. If alcohol did wreck her, it never brought her release from the regrets and personal failures that haunted her, or from the selfishness, self-destructive anger and hyper-sensitivity that more often than not brought her into conflict with what she insisted was a bitter and bewildering Fate.

Again, she understood this even as she could not help herself. In a passage from Good Morning, Night, she describes the failure even to drink herself to death with such money as she had, in real life the money she accepted as a legacy from a former lover who offered it, and paid it for years, with the condition that she never contact him again.

"I did try it, too. I've had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I've had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whisky, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottle labelled 'Dum vivimus, vivamus...' Drink, drink, drink... As soon as I sober up I start again. I have to force it down sometimes. You'd think I'd get delirium tremems or something.

Nothing. I must be solid as an oak. Except when I cry."

This is all too easy to parody, or to pity. But she can not leave herself alone, even drunk, even in tears. She's ruthless,writing, going on to describe her face being wrecked by the drinking, "gradually breaking up," but then:

"Besides, it isn't really my face, this tortured and tormented mask. I can take it off whenever I like and hang it up on a nail. Or shall I place on it a tall hat with a green feather, hang a veil over the lot, and walk about the dark streets so merrily? Singing defiantly 'Don't like jam, ham or lamb, and I don't like you either. Singing 'One more river to cross, that's Jordan, Jordan...'"

There is so much in that that elevates it out of anything like self pity, so much that speaks to so much more than just a woman in a bottle; the perfectly pitched insistence of the drunk's choice, the refusal of consequences, the assumption of a heartbreaking and hilarious dignity in the formality of the line about the hat, then breaking down into a song that might come out of Beckett.

It was, I suspect, her anger that made her, both rather awful and a genius.

"You've told the truth, the stark truth -- or perhaps you gave it a fig-leaf so as not to harrow too much -- and everybody said: 'Come, come,' and 'Don't tell me,' and 'Do you think I was born yesterday?' You told lies and they said: 'Ah, the cri du coeur!'"

That from Quartet, expresses something of Rhys' frustration, her very real fury, that her writing, much like her love affairs and her boozing, did nothing really to save her.

Angry women are rare in our literature. The inclination is always to explain them and in so doing humble them, make them manageable, forgivable, political and or insane. Rhys last novel, a masterpiece, The Wide Sargasso Sea, re-imagines the first Mrs. Rochester. Rhys writes the creole madwoman Bronte kept locked up and loosed only as a force of insane destruction, not as the dark witch in the perfect white faerie tale, but as an actual, angry woman, from a place very much like the place from which Rhys herself came, as a woman very much as Rhys herself was; misused, volatile, exiled and or always escaping, frustrated by the misogyny and limitations of her time and place, painfully, tragically self aware but powerless, to control her own fate.

Rhys has already had a full length and exhaustively researched biography. In it are every knowable detail, of her unloving mother, of her island childhood, her failed marriages, failed love affairs, including a very influential time spent with the great novelist Ford Madox Ford, her abortions, the children she abandoned, prostitution, her wanderings from London to Paris,the lot. That biography was a good book. But in it there is always a sense of frustration, or better say, exasperation, that is hardly unique to the biographer, something very like having been expressed in every memoir or contemporary portrait of the woman ever written. She must have been something of a nightmare. It is perfectly understandable that Rhys' biographer should want to like and understand her better than the subject did herself.

Now there is another, new biography, in America titled, The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini. (The subtitle to the British edition is better, simply "A Portrait.") I took it to lunch with me today. Pizzichini is forthright in acknowledging her considerable debt to her predecessor. The new biographer's mission is different. She intends not to add to the facts, but to use them to a different interpretation, one I like better, that does not emphasise, or seek to excuse Rhys' deeply flawed character, but rather to portray her as an artist. Thumbing the book after the first three chapters though I was disturbed by how little direct quotation there was in it. Too often for my taste, this biographer tells us what "Jean thought" or "Jean felt," when there are ample opportunities, in the autobiography, the letters and the fiction, for us to have just what "Jean thought" and "Jean felt" without the gloss. While the new biography is as well written as the one that came before, there is something of a precis about it. This is a dangerous thing in nonfiction, the recreation of a personality without constant reference to the record. That Pizzichini does it well, doesn't, for me excuse the doing. I can agree at least with what I've understood so far of her conclusions, without much liking her method, or, more importantly, quite understanding the need for the book beyond redressing the attitude of the earlier one.

As I said, there are writers one might almost wish to protect from biography, and Jean Rhys is one. I don't yet dislike this new "Life," but it is not Rhys simply because Rhys is not reducible to the facts of her life, or her lies, or a point of view. I already have Jean Rhys, terrifying, entertaining and difficult, but also gloriously real, in her books on my shelf. If I continue to read this new biography, and I may yet, I can't imagine anything in it equalling in honesty, depth or artistry what Rhys wrote of herself, on every page.