Friday, February 28, 2014
"The mystery which the author will always associate with this story is how he got through the task of writing it."
From the author's Note
Thursday, February 27, 2014
"We should never feel offended when someone makes do with our company for lack of a better companion."
From page 152, this edition.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
"It was common for the poorest household to contain a large dictionary, for conversation was a popular Depression pastime and Americans were passionately interested in words."
From Chapter Ten
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Monday, February 24, 2014
Book sales are a ruthless business. Two, three, four times a year it happens, and frankly every time it is still a shock. I ought to be immune to it by now but I'm not. I still can't help but feel that every time some wonderful, old used book, a book I bought for the bookstore where I work and where I fully expected the book to sell at the price I gave it, every time such a book gets "clearanced," I've failed that book, it's destined reader, the bookstore. It's an irrational response to an inevitable consequence of buying and selling books. Books sell or they don't. We do our best for and by them, and our customers, but books, like everything else, aren't always worth what we might have hoped; some books are only worth half of that. Some, half of that again. Some will always prove themselves to have been not worth the time it took to print the tags we put on them.
There are of course truly worthless books, even destructive and dangerous ones -- Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures comes first to mind, dated computer manuals, filled crosswords, and the poems of William Topaz McGonagall, though even these will have their defenders. I am not here concerned with these.
There's nothing wrong with the books that go out in a clearance-sale, most of 'em, other than the sad fact that nobody bought them. Someone will, once they've been "marked down." Sure as every buyer loves a bargain and the true bibliophile needs strong arms and a stiff back, there will now be customers for the books no one bothered on our shelves.
The lobby of the bookstore is once again full from end to end and side to side with the accumulated, unsold stock inevitable to the enterprise: the new titles just that little bit too late or too expensive to be returned to their publishers, the last of the runs of bargain and remaindered books that have already had their day on the lobby tables, and the used books no one bought after a year, or two years, or three.
It's that last category that breaks my heart a little every time one of these big book sales goes up again. (After all, I didn't buy the other ones for the bookstore, did I? No.) It's depressing enough seeing some lovely, new book of just yesterday, already remaindered and returned to the bookstore as a bargain title in what feels like the blink of an eye. (Here I note some of the beautifully designed reissues of Penguin Classics in hardcovers that would seem to have had little more than time it took to launch them again on an indifferent public to be abandoned to the bargain warehouses.) To then see even these already reduced books devalued to the point of basically being given away, stings. Various theories might be advanced for the failure of this new title or that, and most of the new and newish books out in the sale aren't there because they sold not at all, but because the bookstore simply ended up with too many copies that couldn't be returned. But for the used books no one buys until their already low prices are halved, I resist the urge to rescue them and return them to the shelves, even at the lower price.
That's a fool's errand. I know. I've been that fool, more than once.
In truth, walking by these books every day is an exercise not so much in regret or self-recrimination, but rather in self-restraint. I remain convinced, you see, that I might still find a customer for that lovely old book on lovely old Queen Wilhelmina. I'm sure given just another brief stay of execution, I might yet sell someone on that handsome anthology of poets celebrating the joys of rural life -- with pretty pen and ink of cows and such throughout.
Who doesn't like a pretty picture of a healthy Guernsey to illustrate a pretty poem by John Clare?
Not that I liked the damned thing so well as to feel the need of it myself.
Books can break one's heart, even when they've never won it.
So I make myself keep walking right past the lot every day, now that they've been condemned. And may God have mercy...
Sunday, February 23, 2014
"So they left the subject and played croquet, which is a very good game for people who are annoyed with one another, giving many opportunities for venting rancour."
From Chapter 21
Saturday, February 22, 2014
"'Thirty guineas a week?' the husband queried.
'Three days' she answered. 'And how much in that time do you spend on gin?'
'Oh come, Diana darling, you like your glass as well.'
'I need it' she replied emphatically."
From page 91, this edition
Friday, February 21, 2014
"The concierge in our building often referred to my new partner Michael as my son ('Votre fiston est deja sorti'); older gay men called their companions their 'nephews.' One time I was with Bernard when he ran into a tante (queen) who said, 'Do you know my nephew?'
'Yes,' Bernard replied, 'he was my nephew last year.'"
From Chapter 9
Thursday, February 20, 2014
"What should I have known or written, had I been a quiet, mercantile politician, or a lord in waiting? A man must travel and turmoil or there is no existence."
From Letter 382, to Mr. Moore, Ravenna, August 31, 1820.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Angela: How purely fragrant!
Saphir: How earnestly precious!
Patience: Well, it seems to me to be nonsense.
Saphir: Nonsense, yes, perhaps -- but oh, what precious nonsense!
From Patience, Act One, Scene One
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
I was rather hoping that I had a three day weekend. I didn't. It happens. Instead, I worked my regular closing shift. It happens. Today was a little different though. Instead of the usual quiet Tuesday night, we had Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver, authors of the Here's Hank! books. We also had a huge crowd: kids, parents, teachers, fans. It was a lot. Everybody was excited. Everybody was awfully nice. Everybody was still there when I finally had to punch out and go at 8PM. (I've been slipping into a little overtime lately, just by inattention. Oops.)
It was the kind of event that makes me a little antsy anyway -- I'm not a great one for crowds and kids and crowds of kids -- but it was lovely seeing such a happy group, and two people who make kids' books that also do a great deal of good in the world. The hero of the books is Hank, a bright, funny little boy who happens, like Winkler, to be dyslexic. The message was a great one, the authors were gracious, it was all good.
And I was happy to get home.
Well done, everybody. Me? I had to come home, clean the kitchen and read a little Balzac before bed. Restores the equilibrium, does reading Balzac.
Monday, February 17, 2014
"Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn't she have workmen for friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these."
From The Garden Party
Sunday, February 16, 2014
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Here's the reason I still read graphic novels, Rutu Modan's The Property.
The term, "graphic novel" is evidently almost as old as I am. That half century however doesn't really describe much. I don't remember hearing the phrase until around the time of Art Spiegelman's Maus, or maybe when Alan Moore's The Watchmen appeared in hardcovers -- say, late Eighties, or early Nineties. Spiegelman's may have been the first graphic novel I remember being described as such by mainstream reviewers and the general public. It has really only been since the turn of this century that I've seen graphic novels become a category in general bookstores.
I dislike the term as it is now used; to mean any damned picture book presumably intended for adults. (There is of course now a sub-genre of kids' graphic novels, like Jeff Smith's Bone, but let that pass.) But what if not "graphic novel"? The recent reissue of Lynn Ward's wordless novels by The Library of America reminds us that, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. That's ancestry though, not a very useful name for the contemporary form, usually. Will Eisner's A Contract With God, from 1978 (and later reissued) is widely considered to be the first graphic novel of the modern era. I've read it, enjoyed it, but even here; it's a collection of short stories, not a novel. It isn't told in chapters but in "issues," originally each was presumably an individual comic book, and each is a discrete story -- related by setting and period, etc. but, still not a novel. It has the seriousness of theme, and the ambition in both the writing and the graphics, to deserve something better than the term "comic book," already a misnomer, but not perhaps this modern hippogriff, "graphic novel."
Seems we're stuck with it now, so graphic novel it is.
I've been reading this stuff for a long time now. I enjoy it, the best of it anyway. I must say, however that for every Fun Home or Louis Riel, there has been, a lot, and I do mean a lot, of just -- stuff. Not every story benefits from a pictorial telling. Not every literary classic requires a retelling in comics. Not every cartoonist is meant to take on a longer, narrative form. Not every sketchbook needs to be made into a book. That said, I also think we are lucky enough to be living in something of a golden age. So many really beautiful, and interesting graphic narratives! So many genuinely good books.
I don't mean to review the whole history of the form. Honestly I don't. The subject tends to get me a bit exercised, is all. As a fan, I do get frustrated by all the bad or indifferent stuff being published as graphic novels. More to the point just here, not in the whole length of my adult reading life have I seen a more consistently and absurdly inflated criticism than that with which graphic novels, and comics in general have increasingly come to be encumbered. What a lot of bullshit of late has been wrapped in the funny papers!
I hesitate to contribute to the pile.
And then, a graphic novel so superb appears unexpectedly among the new arrivals, and I forget my impatience with all the pretension and inanity on the subject now cluttering up scholarship and the Internet and the Arty Comics section at the bookstore where I work, and I just want to spread the good word.
Rutu Modan's first graphic novel, War Wounds, won the 2008 Eisner Award. (Joe Sacco was a big fan too.) It's the story of two unlikely allies: a Tel Aviv cabdriver and his father's Israeli army girlfriend, investigating the father's disappearance and possible death in a bombing at a train station. It deserved the award. The mystery was compelling, the characters and their relationship was believable and poignant, and both the narrative and setting were handled with a rich but beautifully restrained taste all too uncommon to the form. I loved it.
Other than a few things in anthologies, it was the only example of Modan's work I'd ever read, until the publication last year of The Property, by Drawn and Quarterly.
Modan's story this time also has a reassuring reality to it, as well as a central mystery, though this time the mood is more reflective and less frantic. A young woman accompanies her grandmother to Poland to reclaim the titular property the family lost in the War. Again, there is a love story here, two in fact, one clouded with both nostalgia and regret, the other also, in a complimentary way complicated by history.
History, in many senses being the inevitable preoccupation of both the characters and their author here, this book, even more than the last, has a richness of reference rare in graphic narratives. This is not an artist just writing about being an artist; this is not a woman who only looks up from her work to maybe glance out of a studio window. Place is real. Her characters travel, not just literally through her story, on foot or in a taxicab, a plane or a tour-bus, but across fully realized space, as well as through time and memory. These characters are not, as so many, less mature, more confessional graphic memoirs for instance can feel, immune to external realities like weather, money, a head-cold, but neither is this the kind of digressive meditation that justifies slack story-telling as more "real" for being all but incidental to the artistic enterprise.
Modan's graphic style can be incredibly detailed, particularly in grounding her scenes in what looks and feels like a very particular space and architecture, and she obviously understands how much can be communicated in framing the information and the emotion she wishes to convey. The effect is obviously cinematic, but nonetheless charmingly drawn for that.
The artist also understands, and quite impishly plays with the irrelevance of words to much of the story she's telling. The confusions of conducting a conversation for example, and a flirtation, however imperfectly in more than one language offers an opportunity to a certain wry comment on not just the events described, but also on the conventions of cartooning.
This is not only a visual narrative of a real sophistication, but also something far more rare in a graphic novel, genuine humanity and honest emotion.
What makes Rutu Modan's work so satisfying to a man who has spent a substantial part of his adult life reading serious literature -- a term that should not be translated to mean dull novels -- is that, like many of the best contemporary graphic novels, Rutu Modan's work is not yet another exercise in graphic reference. I am reminded of earlier comics artists, but this is not a comic book. In large part, this is because, unlike the great master, Herge, Modan's work is not of necessity confined to telling adventure stories for children. For all the astonishment and delight still to be discovered in the pages of Tin Tin, the adult reader, if he or she is being honest, must sooner or later admit to at least a grudging acknowledgement that as literature, and as humor Herge's books never grew up. There's a great charm to that, and a certain boredom as well. Clearly, here is a contemporary artist interested in more adult preoccupations, by which I obviously do not just mean sex and relationships. Modan's characters are presented in relation not just to one another, as I've already said, but to history, religion, politics, geography, and yes, the means and the need of storytelling.
I can't remember the last time I read a graphic novel this satisfying on so many levels, or one with page after page, panel after panel crowded with such depth of feeling, and such memorable, and artful poise.
"Obviously, there is no aristocracy here. One finds only one of the necessary elements, and that only in the plutocracy, to wit, a truculent egoism."
From The National Letters
Friday, February 14, 2014
This is the last day at the bookstore for yet another of my friends. His name is Matthew Simmons. He's been working there for more than a decade and we've been friends for at least that long. I will miss him.
When I met him, he was hosting events at the bookstore. Good looking boy, not yet thirty at the time, very attractive; bright, blushing and clever. One day he posted a note, a charming confession of certain deficiencies in his reading to date. He'd finally mastered Moby Dick, I think it was, and had determined to do more in that line; the great unread classics. In the note, he'd asked his coworkers, a fairly literate bunch as might be imagined, to provide him a list of the books he most needed to read. Delightful, and absolutely earnest. As I remember it, it came to quite a list and so far I can remember, he read every book on it. My nomination was Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters, or, Mr Salteena's Plan, easily the greatest novel ever written by a nine year old, but hardly required reading. It was a fatuous suggestion, a not entirely nice poke at a young writer's supposedly "late start." Matthew read the book. What's more, he enjoyed it. And he appreciated my joke more than it, or I, deserved. Makes my face burn now to think of it. Nonetheless we became fast friends.
Since then Matthew has become the company's copywriter, an editor and a published author of some reputation. I've had the privilege of reading what he's written as it's come. From the first story of his that I read down to his most recent published book, Happy Rock, I have been a fan. This is of itself odd, despite our now long-established friendship, as Matthew writes, and writes superbly well in a style so unlike anything I might otherwise read as to make my genuine appreciation of his work well neigh miraculous. The clear inference would be that either my judgement has been clouded by my affection for the writer, or that he is just that good at what he does. He is just that good at what he does.
What he does is write the most fantastical modern nonsense; witty, elliptical, loopy, but always grounded in an acutely concrete and recognizable, very American, reality. His is not the sort of thing I would normally read. Moreover, and most amazingly, in stories seemingly made up of nothing more than long car rides, dreadful metalhead music, dull suburban driveways and thwarted conversations, sometimes with the dead or just the dull-witted, stories with more than sufficient darkness in them, some of them, he manages an elegant play of serious ideas, good humor, and sincere emotion. No idea how he does it. None. He's never written an awkward sentence in his fiction. His essays and occasional pieces have never been less than delightful. He's never been cruel. He never fails to surprise me. There is just so much we do not have in common, generationally and personally, particularly when it comes to contemporary literature and music, and yet I can honestly say I have happily gone wherever he decided to take me. I look forward to where we'll go next, wherever that might be, god help me.
He has, as it turns out, an exceptional talent, a sound head, a great ear. He has a good heart.
And now he has a new job.
It isn't the writer I will miss. What he writes, I'll read. I will miss his dear face, his bright eyes and ready giggle. I will miss him popping up -- he does actually seem sometimes to pop -- at my desk on the sales floor, just to say "hello," or to bump me with his dear, shaggy head, like some affectionate cat. I will miss our conversations on the fly about this and that, about books and whatnot, our jokes and absurdities, our rare shared miseries. I'll miss the very sight of him.
I wish him of course nothing but good things. It's time he moved on, time other people and other places had the benefit of him, his talent, his good sense.
When he confided in me that he'd got this new gig and would be gone in a week, I was genuinely happy for him. I am still. But miss him I will. And proud of him I am as well. What a good writer he's become in just the time I've known him! What a good man, and a good friend.
(I'm reminded of yet another friend from work, himself now a published novelist, also moved on, largely, to other pursuits and about whom I was not even able at the time he left to write so much as this, as it was just too hard to think of the bookstore and my day without him. I regret that, though I tried to say something publicly thereafter. Still. I determined this time to be a bit less self-pitying and mark the day.)
I admit, I will probably get a bit misty when I see Matthew, later today, for his last day working at the bookstore. Ridiculous, really, more my sort of thing, I should think, than his, the Byron I'm reminded of. Such a drama queen, me. At it's full length it's far too much for the occasion -- nobody's died here, people -- and it is a bit silly, but the first stanza, at least, by way of farewell, then, to ward off some even more maudlin or worse, if sincere, demonstration: