Monday, November 30, 2009

A Character Remembered

I was reminded yesterday, writing about the eccentricities of booksellers in general, and of those in the business of used books in particular, of one of the more unusual characters with whom I've ever worked.

It was in a little used bookshop, for example, other than the one I mentioned yesterday, that I worked with a man who was very proud of his family. This man -- call him "Z" -- had lost much by the time I knew him, but not his confidence in his own blood. No longer young, but not so old as he looked, he was nevertheless a person of unusual appearance. His standard costume was an undershirt and jeans, though like me, he wore every day an apron at work. His daily ablutions seemed always to have been accomplished but briefly before he came in, as his long thin hair looked perpetually wet, his chin imperfectly shaved, and his expression, harried. He had some excuse for this disinterest in appearances. He'd lost a part of his jaw to cancer, and his palate as well, and the treatment, he explained, had wrecked all his remaining teeth. His smile, though rare, was not then an easy thing to look at. He wore an elaborate bridge in his mouth, wired to some surviving tooth, and had a separate plate, screwed painfully in place, to compensate for his various disfigurements. But he was a proud man, for all that, and carried himself well; his chin high, his back straight, his stride long and rather elegant. Indeed, there was something rather aristocratic in his manner, almost a disdain of circumstances, a delicacy of gesture that was meant to, and did, suggest just how far down in the world he saw himself as having come. Curiously, ugliness of any kind, I suspect even his own, seemed to pain him, and so he shut his eyes to most things. As he traveled by bicycle, I always worried, watching him wobble off each day, that he might come to serious harm, twisting away from the sight of so much he found distasteful. We worked after all in a strip-mall, surrounded by strip-malls, none of them pretty, and there was little elsewhere in the local scenery to please a man inclined to aesthetics.

But for the exhaustion of his resources, he said, in reference to his illness, he might long since have recovered completely, but his "rightful inheritance" had been denied him, and his luck had been bad, so he was forced to work at "a menial job" and to carry on as best he could. This most obvious misfortune was by no means the only indignity he had suffered. His catalogue of vicissitudes was long. He often told me, but for "the best" flowing through his weary veins, he "probably would have succumbed years ago." This seemed entirely plausible to me. He looked to be always almost on the verge of dissolution, yet he maintained a rigid dignity, a kind of plausible denial of his place in the place he happened to be, recognizably superior to the trivialities of his tatty costume, banged-up bike, and broken smile. There was more than a little of "The Father of the Marshalsea" about his character, and that was perhaps what so intrigued me about him.

He did seem to be ill as often than he was well, and needed frequently to "rest," even in the middle of a short day. He went out often, on his old bike, to retrieve various "prescriptions" from a variety of sources, yet never seemed much better for any of them. "Doctors," he would explain, "never know quite what to do for me. I do not conform to their preconceptions."

He would explain, without prompting, that while he was in almost constant pain, he "never complained," as this was not in his nature, and frankly, not the way he had been raised. "My people," he would say, "do not complain." As for his frequent recourse to the bathroom, to take his "medication," I never questioned the need. He confided to me once that he had become seriously addicted to painkillers during the course of some particularly gruesome treatment, but insisted that he had overcome this addiction, "years ago, by force of willpower" and had resolutely avoided any long-term subsequent reliance on drugs, by means of "careful nutrition, meditation and an inherited strength of character." "Not just anyone could have survived, you know, all that I have," he said. And after the awful experience of dependence, he was always careful to "monitor everything that I put in my body." This last, I recall, he said with a mouthful of egg-salad only too obviously relished. (He could hardly have managed a steak.)

He had not always been as he was when I met him. Oh no. He had once been, by his own telling, something of a entrepreneur, claiming experience in any number of successful business ventures, though in each instance, he had been ruthlessly cheated by relations, business-partners, and the like. "I've made more money than you've probably ever seen," he would tell me, "and believe me," he would always say, "you're probably better just as you are."

"Z" was also very much a man of the world, and had met "nearly everyone." In his youth, he had been some kind of functionary for a once famous and later notorious guru of the seventies. "Z" claimed that he had been traveling with this charismatic preacher backwards and forwards, across the country and around the world. While "Z" disclaimed any belief in this swindler, or in the fatuous enlightenment that had made this man a rich man, I had occasion to note that my coworker's more intimate conversation still bore the mark of "the movement" at the center of which, at least so he claimed, he had once been. In any confrontation between third parties, however passing or immaterial, for example, "Z" would immediately interject himself, looking to help in resolving things quickly, by means of what I do not doubt, in former days, must have been an unnatural, almost mesmeric calm. Having popped up, unbidden, "Z" would stand by, intensely still, his eyes widening in a benevolent blaze, his smile stretching tight, his ravaged face coming uncomfortably close to first one then the other of the antagonists, his hands drifting to their elbows. He would then nod, sagely, first to one then the other, murmuring all the while, "Okay. He gets that. I get it. Do you get what she's saying? Okay. Now what?" and so on and so on. This was invariably met with an uncomfortable trailing off of conversation, followed often as not by an astonished, not to say stunned silence that "Z" proudly mistook for a solution to whatever the problem into which he had happened, uninvited. He did not do this often, as people seem seldom to find cause to fight in used bookstores, but when he did, if I was present, I would rush to cover the embarrassment of the moment and draw the parties off, apologetically, while poor benighted "Z" contentedly returned to his shelving.

Far from being his only eccentricity, this odd behavior, being rare, caused less comment than his appearance, which was not good most days, or his conversation, which in the best of times could be difficult to understand. When "Z" was hired to work in the bookstore, he was already fallen on very hard times. His guru, facing various indictments, had absconded with his loot to Switzerland, or South America, I forget which, and "Z" had been left behind. Thereafter "Z" had lost, in short order, whatever money the guru had not "invested" for him, as well as his much embarrassed younger wife, his home, and his beloved little daughter. Tainted by the scandal, "Z" found himself alone, broke, ill and profoundly disillusioned. He drifted, by his own admission, into something of a vagabond existence. He saw his daughter rarely, if at all, as much to spare her, I should think, as himself. More than anything else, I think this absence made his melancholy, and his snobbishness, forgivable. He could not have the girl doubting "the quality" from which she came. That was most sad. Yet every disappointment and disaster showed him resolute, though embittered, and determined to carry on. His was a strange confidence, as if but half-remembered, but it could and did resurface now and then, when needed, and kept him from homelessness or worse. The job at the bookstore was only part-time, paid badly and offered no benefits, otherwise I could not have imagined it being offered him, or "Z" accepting it. He was an intelligent, even articulate fellow, despite his disabilities, and could, when pulled seriously together, be almost charming, though admittedly in a weird, always slightly discomforting way. I admired him for his refusal to give way, was consistently amused by his pretensions -- so different from my own -- and liked him, frankly, for all his gloomy condescension. He was a fascinating set of contradictions, for he worked hard, when he could, never complained, as he said, except that he did, and he allowed as I was amusing company, if not a very serious person.

"You're kind," he told me once, "and that compensates for a lot."

We had a coworker at the store, himself a very kind, older man, a gentleman retired, a man I still think of very fondly, who could not stand "Z." He thought "Z" a fraud, and said so. So he likely was, to some degree. I do not say our coworker was wrong in this. The store's owners, one of them at least, found poor "Z" personally repugnant, and whenever her debts gave her some excuse, she would insist that "Z" be let go as he was unreliable, which was true, and untrustworthy, which I do not believe he was, at least in so far as the store and the till were concerned. As I was, after a fashion, managing the place, I kept him on, at least until I myself made my exit. He did not last long after that, I understand.

What particularly annoyed and offended the elderly friend who worked with us, was the bad habit "Z" had of claiming, even in the midst of his obvious ruin, that he was no less than "descended directly in the Stuart line." All of the rest of the nonsense "Z" said, all of his New Age vagaries, his pretensions to having been everywhere, met everyone, and read everything, would, I think, had been forgivable, or at least excusable by way of his obvious physical and psychic degeneration, had he not also insisted, as a direct descendant of kings, that the work he was now forced to do to earn his bread, and by implication the company he was forced now to keep, was so far beneath his "birth" as to be ironically amusing.

"Really, Brad, you know, by right, I should have been married to someone closer to me, in the European sense, by blood" he would confide, when reviewing the failure of his marriage. "you know, I let myself down, first." Then he would smile his ruined smile and sigh noisily through such of his false teeth as he happened to be wearing that day.

"Really, Brad, you know, if I could only get on my feet again, I wouldn't hesitate to get in touch with my family abroad, but as it is..." and here he would look wistfully across the mall parking lot, roughly in the direction of Pasadena, though I never doubted that in his mind he was seeing the lost castles of his patrimony, the smell of sweet heather drifting past the dry, ratty palms, though I remember now, he said he was no longer able to smell.

When he quarrelled with the other clerk, after asking yet again if a shift could be switched, or his hours covered so that he might keep "an appointment with a new specialist," if I did not hear the conversation and cut the discussion off in a timely way, "Z" would try to exercise his gifts for empathy and when this invariably failed, he would sniff loudly, clatter his plates with his tongue, and walk stiffly away, muttering about a lack of sympathy and refinement of feeling in "persons not bred to any better." I understand how infuriating this must have been.

When "Z" went on too long about his blue blood, I would try to joke him out of his aristocratic melancholy by making reference to my own lost genealogy, and the likelihood that, at some point in history, one of his ancestors may well have owned one of mine. "Entirely possible" he would admit, with some satisfaction.

Not surprisingly, genealogy was the one subject on which "Z" could be trusted to help any customer who made enquiries. He could be quite thrilling with the local hobbyists on this topic. Of history he knew more than enough, at least to hold his own with the buffs and duffers who made up a sizable lobby among our weekday afternoon trade, likewise on eastern religions, and esoterica of all sorts he could do more than I could, certainly, though he was not entirely to be trusted with the more vocal fundamentalist Christian home-schoolers who came in regularly, but then neither was I.

I can't think what else I had in common with the man, if anything at all. Yet I enjoyed him, enjoyed his company most times, and his rather bizarre conversation. I think he liked me well enough too, though he did find my commonness trying at times, and he did not, I should think, find me really very funny.

I've certainly never forgotten him. I still think him quite brave, in his way, and certainly a most unusual person, one of the more interesting characters I've met in the trade, or in life generally. There was something gallant about him, as there often is in a ruin, for such he was, and something more than funny, if less than easy.

After I'd left that bookstore and gone to work in another, I saw poor "Z" but once more. He rode his ancient bicycle up one day and asked me if my new employers were hiring. Sadly, I had to tell him, no. We lingered awhile on the sidewalk and he caught me up. He claimed that after my departure from the other bookstore, he'd found "the atmosphere unbearable" and quit. (I'd heard he was fired shortly after I left, but be that as it might.) His cancer had come back yet again, had in fact never really abated. He was quite gaunt, his greasy gray hair longer than I remembered, his skin a sallow, obviously unhealthy shade. His jaw was not working quite as it should anymore, and his rather wild expression and the awkward acceleration in both his speech and gestures told me he was losing his fight to "stay away from those damned pills." His desperation was unbearable, but he would accept nothing from me, even the price of a meal, turning away from the tactless suggestion that he might need me to buy him lunch, sniffing and clacking disapprovingly, embarrassed and clearly hurt. And yet, we parted friends of a sort. I excused myself by reminding him that I was not raised to be any better than I am, and this earned a quick, hideous smile. He allowed himself to be briefly embraced before getting back on his old bike, waving regally, and peddling away. I never saw him again.

Bookstores, as I've said elsewhere this week, are in some ways the best places for those who might otherwise be unequal to the battles of life, though I deny this to be the case in the majority, and one can and does meet with a sometimes surprising nobility there, and even, if old "Z" was to be believed, and I see no reason now to disbelieve him, "a descendent of kings."

Whatever his actual fate, I prefer to think he came into his "proper inheritance," at last, whatever that may or may not have been, or that he at least got to see his daughter again, or found some other peace. But as he said more than once, "the Stuarts have an unhappy history," and I suspect he no more escaped it than did the rest. If he did finally lose his fight, with that awful disease, and or with his various "medications," or indeed, his relentless quarrel with life, I can not now but think of him with a tempered fondness, and wish him, if no better, rest.

Daily Dose

From England Have My Bones, by T. H. White


"People, I felt, ought to pay more attention to the temperature of their baths, and the way they fill their pipes, and the birds who are squandering their song for a chance audience, and the spectacles of nature that give food for the pleasures of rumination, and the construction of fires, and the time to drink sherry, and the season at which a hot water bottle improves upon the comfort of warming one's own bed."

From the Preface

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Damaged Goods

The owner of a used bookshop where I once worked, remarked to me off-handedly one day that the business of selling books seemed to attract a disproportionate number of eccentrics. "Don't you find," she said, not much minding that she addressed someone in her employ, "most booksellers... odd?" I did not know if, in accepting this confidence, I was meant to be flattered and assume myself excluded from the observation, or if she meant to include herself as well as me. She said this, after all, in her own shop while a gray parrot named Emma waddled across her desk, eating pencils.

I don't know that we are all that odd, truly. Most of the booksellers I've known, and I've know many and met many hundreds more, were neither more nor less individual than bankers or bakers or bureaucrats. Most lead quiet lives, are productive within the scope of their duty, and go about their business just as other people do. The difference, even among these may be that they don't seem to mind so much as others might if the man in the next aisle over talks to himself, or the woman across the desk sings, quietly and to herself, as she types up an order or reads out an amusing passage without introduction from a book about reptiles. It is, I should think, then less a truism that booksellers are odd as a rule than that they are exceptional in accepting the eccentricities around them as unremarkable, and in finding more amusement than not in the unusual. As our jobs put us daily into conversation with interests not necessarily our own, and in contact with every conceivable kind of person, this seems not unnatural. How else should we be in work so crowded with the unexpected?

The best booksellers are adaptable; serving each customer according to his or her needs, more curious than most might be, of necessity, asking such questions as may help to sell a book. The larger the store and the more diverse the stock, the more necessary it becomes to have interests unlike one another, as a resource. Obviously, this uniformity of purpose, which might be found as easily among the clerks in a shoe shop or lawyers at a white-shoe-firm, requires, when it comes to books, more rather than less points of reference. That's all. I know nothing much of birds, for example, but work with people who know more. Likewise: sports, French critical theory, crochet, the baking of an apple or the making of a fishing-rod. The diversity of books would seem in the way of things to need a corresponding diversity of sellers. We may not meet every question with equal expertise -- though this is often surprisingly exactly what's expected, even by engineers and the like -- but we all of us are game for the chase.

But I am avoiding, I think, another point raised by the lady with the parrot. She not only asked me if I did not find most booksellers "odd" -- a point I think I've answered evenly enough above -- but she went on to say that she'd found most of those who worked in bookstores, at least in used books, as her own shop dealt all but exclusively in these, to be "damaged" in some way. She meant this kindly, I suppose, or at least without meanness, but it stung me a little on behalf of us all. I can see the sense in it now, as I only felt it then, and resented it. It was not nice to say so. It is an observation I might have made myself, looking in as from the outside, or in no further than from the proprietor's point of view; she had been raised in the trade, and married in it as well, but chose as much as was possible to raise her daughters away from it, hoping I should think that they might do better to project themselves into a less cluttered, dusty way of life, with a greater surety of happiness independent of auctions, estate sales and the sale and rescue of other people's discarded or bartered treasure. She dealt in damaged goods, as it were, and wanted new and "better" for her children. This was understandable, if a shallow reading of the worth of things, and of people. Her rather unfeeling characterization of the dealers in used books as themselves, in a parallel usually unmentioned even among ourselves, in some way likewise set aside, if only by ourselves, from the race for fortune and the kind of success best defined by a steady increase in income, was not wrong, I think. To appreciate that which has passed out of print, to pick up that which others have passed over, left behind or found they could do without, is an activity best suited perhaps to those who follow after rather than those that set trends, or value a thing for its freshness rather than its novelty, or admire most whatever is most admired at the moment. Ours is a backward trade. But "damaged" I think is the wrong word for those of us who slip out of the mainstream in this way. It suggests some failure to thrive in the wider, American culture, as opposed to the more mild movement away, and back, that is characteristic I think of the people who value used books. It is not some hurt that is to be healed in this way, some uncompensated failure that seeks consolation in older, now neglected ways or reading and being, but rather a persistence, admittedly conservative, in refusing to be bullied into unsuitable competition, a reflective, rather than propulsive character that is most often attracted to old books, quiet corners, and the reclamation of what would otherwise be lost.

As to the prevalence of crotchets and oddities of behavior among the few who would pursue a livelihood --admittedly a precarious one -- in this way, these I must concede as all too likely. I am myself no bad example. But damaged? I have no sense of that. I deny it. Battered, bumped, foxed, I will accept as evidenced by every mirror I pass. The appearance of anything, I would argue, does not always show its worth, and good booksellers, like good books, new and used, have more in them than might be best judged on first acquaintance.

I am not so pretty as the new books I sell, nor yet so loose in the hinges, hard to read and discolored as the used, but I am worth something more, I should think, for having acquired... character.

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Best American Essays,: 1997, edited by Ian Frazier


"I am grateful to the accidents of my displaced upbringing, which taught me several kinds of irony."

From Luc Sante's essay, Living in Tongues

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Selection from Clerihews Complete

Four clerihews, by their originator, E. Clerihew Bentley. The poet's middle name, by the way, came first, so to say, as the clerihew takes its name from him, not the other way 'round. But I'll let the Preface to his Clerihews Complete explain it better:

When first it dawned on mankind
"Biography for Beginners" was signed
(For reasons with which I will not weary you)
With the name E. Clerihew.

I am not without a claim
To the use of that honorable name,
Which those who happened to be listening
Heard bestowed on me at my christening.

But (for reasons which would only bore you)
The name on the collection before you
Has been changed -- I hope not detrimentally
-- To E. Clerihew Bentley.

There now, that's clear, isn't it?

Doodle Profile

Daily Dose

From Choice Selections from the Writings of John Ruskin


"Knowledge is the current coin. A man may have some right to be proud of possessing it, if he has worked for the gold of it, and assayed it, and stamped it, so that it may be received of all men as true; or earned it fairly, being already assayed: but if he has done none of these things, but only had it thrown in his face by a passer-by, what cause has he to be proud?"

From the section, "Ethical"

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hairdo Doodles #2

Hairdo Doodles #1

Daily Dose

From Madness: A Brief History, by Roy Porter


"Cezanne and the Cubists were suffering from neurological eye complaints, judged Theodore Hyslop, physician to Bethlem, no mean artist himself and author of The Great Abnormals (1925)."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Doodle

A Poem for Thanksgiving

For Thanksgiving, a very short poem, Psalm, by American poet, George Oppen, read however haltingly by me, in celebration of, and with gratitude for, the bounty and beauty of the earth.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Daily Dose

From The Poems of Walter de la Mare


"Oh, pity the poor glutton,
Whose appetite is such
That he can never, never, never
Eat too much!"

From the poem, The Glutton

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In the Right

The bookstore lost a friend today. I feel not the slightest embarrassment in describing her as such. She came every day to see us, when she could, and asked only the smallest recompense for this constancy: a bite to eat, a kind word, a bit of attention -- all gladly given and accepted, admittedly, as her due. She was, to the end, rather grand in a small way, without the slightest self consciousness or change. She knew her place in the scheme of things and expected to be received accordingly. Throughout the neighborhood, for what for her proved a lifetime, she made her rounds, a working aristocrat, if you will, come daily to see to her people, and the fuss that was made was somehow perfectly natural. How else should we, and all those round about who knew and felt much the same affection for her, how should we then have behaved but as we did? We no more questioned her right than she did to go largely where she wished, see whom she pleased and leave only when she felt the need to move on. Her days were crowded, in their way, but she kept to what I don't doubt she saw as her responsibilities right up to the end.

She was meant to be dead, frankly, long since. So we'd been told months ago. The diagnosis wasn't so much wrong as it was irrelevant to the patient. She failed, gradually, but then she was older than anyone might have guessed, looking at her, and if she walked a bit slower and limped a little lately, if she dozed between stops and stopped altogether more frequently than she had before, she nevertheless seemed unlikely to ever stop entirely. All but unimaginable somehow, the idea that she might.

And yet, just today, she did.

She came in today, in the arms of her friend, to say goodbye. This was difficult for us, as one might expect. She was perfectly alert, but she did not have it in her to do more than acknowledge us, one last time. It was all perfectly in keeping with her position, perfectly dignified, very sad, but not pitiable at all. I don't think I exaggerate if I describe her as serene. She may well have been confused, and I suspect she was in more pain than might have been guessed by any but her companion, who knew her after all in a rare way, but I did not sense anything but peace between them.

And that of course is what we've had from the pair of them all these days together, that would be the example set, finally, by this last visit to the bookstore. She expected and rewarded the affection she earned, even among those as unlikely as myself. (I am not one much for dogs, but then neither was she. She tolerated them, certainly, so long as they knew their place, as she knew hers, but then hers was superior, in some important ways, to theirs as she expected no less from the rest of us.)

To modify Cowley only slightly to better suit the occasion, her faith, perhaps, in some nice tenets might be wrong; her life, I'm sure, was in the right.

True aristocrats are rare nowadays, rarer still, with what used to be called, "the common touch."

Life for us, in the rounds she kept, will be a less recognizably as it has been and should be, without her in it. But no regrets, I should think, for her or her friend. There must be satisfaction in that.

Rest in peace then, Harris. Well done, old girl.

Doodle Profile

Daily Dose

From The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin


"I have sometimes thought it possible to advance a theory of settlement -- and therefore of civilization -- as 'the lean season capitalized.'"

From Chapter 29

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Lead on, Spirit."

In 1981, Anthony Hopkins played Othello for the BBC's production of the complete plays. All the BBC Shakespeare was thrilling to me then, as I'd never seen but one production, and that a sorry little college show of "The Scottish Play." (MacDuff's ghost was obviously done with a slide-projector. Oh dear.) I'd read the play of course, and seen production-photographs of the great Olivier in the role, likewise Paul Robeson, Orson Welles, but I'd never seen an actual performance. So Hopkin's Moor was to be my first. Even then, I could see Hopkins was a remarkable actor, that the cast was uniformly good, but it is the codpiece I remember.

In filming all the plays, the BBC had given over each in turn, as I remember it, to a director and or star, to make of them what they would, so long as the text was, if not complete, then authoritative. What happened thereafter was left to the artists. Brave decision. Uneven results. Some of the casting was less than stellar, even in major roles, some of the productions frankly stodgy. Didn't matter much to me at the time. Shakespeare! Right there on my wretched little "portable" TV! I watched every play, every broadcast. Then came this BBC, Elizabethan production, with Othello as a Welsh-creole pirate: Hopkins in a huge fluffy wig, and tan-face, with an earring, pumpkin-britches, and yes, a codpiece. And no tastefully suggestive silk jock, mind, but a ship's prow of a thing, that in profile looked to knock over candelabras or put out poor sleeping Desdemona's eye. I kept waiting for someone to set a tea service on it. It was distracting. That's how I remember it anyway. True, I was but a horny teenager, even then inclined to notice the details, shall we say, but still, it was an interesting choice.

I suppose I had certain expectations not met by that production. I had an Othello in my head, and he was taller than Anthony Hopkins, and, well, black. Besides the costuming, I don't think I could quite appreciate Hopkins playing then; I expected something grander, I guess, less human, less real? At any rate, not what I got.

Tonight I watched a few clips of Hopkins' Othello on Youtube. Quit wonderful, and not so much as a flash of crotch-padding, so far as I noticed. Since my first Othello, I've seen the recording of Olivier in the part, and the Orson Welles film, and at least three other Othellos. If Hopkins still doesn't quite look the part to me, now I can at least appreciate the subtle fury with which he played the handkerchief scene with Bob Hoskins' Iago, the bulldog physicality, the rough, conversational rhythms both actors used to break the verse into something like a real argument. It was fascinating and new to me this time.

And that is what I've learned from seeing Shakespeare played time and again: he works. Whatever the style or period of the production, indeed, whoever the lead actor, if he is good, Othello is a great part and a great play. Thinking back, Macbeth even managed to be interesting in that appalling amateur college show I saw as a boy. Shakespeare is indestructible.

Likewise, Dickens.

My friend and I went to see the new Disney movie of A Christmas Carol. This is the latest animated version, with Jim Carrey playing Scrooge. We saw it in 3D, my first such experience, wore the funny shades and everything. (It worked remarkably well.) When my friend C. visits, we always go to see animation. My beloved husband refuses, calls them all "cartoons," and so I wait until C. comes up from California for Thanksgiving, and then I get to catch up.

My two favorite screen Scrooges are still Alistair Sims and, from the television version of twenty years ago, George C. Scott. Malevolent delight in the early scenes with Sims, which still seems a perfect choice, and then, come redemption, the only genuinely delightful, and funny reading of Scrooge ever, really. Scott manages to be the only really frightening Scrooge, with that grand voice, and his repentance is both real and moving. Both magnificence performances.

Jim Carrey, trapped in a kind of puppet show, comes nowhere near the subtlety, and strangely, nowhere near the humor of Sims, and frankly his Scrooge is never frightening in the least. Yet, his isn't a bad performance, even in a less than fully acted film. (This "motion-capture" animation still looks dead, despite the technical innovations of recent years. It has neither the full plasticity of a drawn image, nor the humanity of simply a filmed action, somehow combining the worst rather than the best of either art; limiting the actors by taking their faces from them, without adding anything in the way of interesting visual comment. Static caricatures, with realistic skin-tones, are still neither fish nor fowl. Someday, maybe, just maybe, but for now? Still not a good idea.) Carrey's Scrooge, at least when he isn't being pointlessly shrunk to the size of a mouse and chased through a sewer-pipe, in the most egregious departure from the text, is a faithful portrayal, and for the most part this is a surprisingly faithful telling. It is odd though that Carrey's best moment comes as The Spirit of Christmas Past, here literalized as a flame-headed candle. Carrey affects a slightly distracting Irish accent in the part, but his voice is otherwise rather wonderfully other-worldly, and he gutters and sparks in a wonderfully weird way. In fact, again weirdly, Carrey is best when playing with himself so to say, as he also voices Christmas Present well, though with an equally distracting Yorkshire heartiness that takes a bit of getting used to. Worked though. Carrey's Scrooge is best when he's frightened; pettish and sulky, and genuinely funny as he makes quite asides in response to unlooked-for dangers. His is a little Scrooge, even when he's not being bounced around in miniature on an ice sickle, and that is a perfectly acceptable choice, if not a very moving or interesting one.

And that would seem to be the point. When we see Scrooge as a boy, left alone in an empty schoolroom at Christmas, or see the empty corner where Tiny Tim should be, Dickens' genius for pathos glows as bright as ever, whatever the production. And when Scrooge's own bitter words are used against him in the magnificent scene when Ignorance and Want are exposed to him, Dickens' righteous anger still moves us, whatever the silly special effects employed.

So, would I recommend this Carol? Certainly not in preference to either of the other two I mentioned. Not even, I think to Mr. Magoo. Yet it was grand seeing Charles Dickens' (not Disney's) A Christmas Carol again, and on a huge movie-screen, so yes, yes I would recommend it. Dickens' Carol is as indestructible as Shakespeare. Can't be seen without pleasure, even in a puppet show with Jim Carrey. See it, or better, read the book.

Seattle Headgear: Winter Edition (Doodles) #4

Daily Dose

From Einstein's Dreams: A Novel, by Alan Lightman


"Where every action must be verified one million times, life is tentative."

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Bookstore Doodle

Pulp Clerihew


Jive hustler,
Clive Cussler.
Still salvaging checks
From the same old wrecks.

Daily Dose

From The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie


"The fall of angels, Gibreel reflected, was not the same kettle as the Tumble of Woman and Man."

From Chapter V, A City Visible but Unseen

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Upcoming Events

Brad Craft reads Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory

University Book Store
990 102nd Ave NE Bellevue WA 98004
Friday, December 11 from 7:00 pm to 8:15 pm

University Book Store
4326 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105
Monday, December 14 from 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm

Dunshee House
303 17th Avenue East in Seattle, WA
Wednesday, December 16 from 6:00 pm to 7:15 pm


Not long ago, some haughty Dame, wearing just a wee bit too much jewelry for the early afternoon, came up to the bookstore's information counter and asked where she and her little party of overdressed white women might go in the neighborhood for "a decent, American meal." I wanted to say "Idaho?" -- but did not. Not good customer service, that. Instead I ran quickly through the list of ethnicities on The Ave.: Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Jamaican, Italian, two Greeks, Mexican, etc., just to make a none too subtle point, and then suggested a pub with good sandwiches and local brews. At least a couple of the ladies seemed to take my point, and one went so far as to say that she wouldn't mind "a nice glass of beer, if it wasn't so cold outside," proving that she at least was a game gal up for a good time, weather permitting. A poll being taken by nods, the ladies repaired to the pub, or back to the suburban safety of Bellevue and The Cheesecake Factory, for all I know. Not the first time I've had this conversation.

What troubles me -- a bit -- about reporting this exchange, and my response to it, is the assumption made that the round little pink fellow with the white beard will understand and sympathize with the local, Lutheran distrust of "ethnic" spices. At the bookstore, almost daily, I am confided in by elderly locals who've assumed from my appearance that I must be a native and that I too must look at the neighborhood changing around us with regret, that I too must be nostalgic for the working class respectability lost with the last department store, and the ethnic uniformity that went from The Ave. roughly with the Ford administration or thereabouts. How many times must I hear about the good ol' days, when grandma brought little Sven to rent his first skis from the bookstore -- it's true, we did that sort of thing once upon a time, -- when a hamburger and fountain-soda, served in a glass with a paper-straw no doubt, could be had for the price of a postage stamp, and ladies in gloves and costume-brooches felt "perfectly safe" window-shopping for little Trudi's first Communion dress at eight in the evening?

Here's the thing about this all this nostalgic head wagging: I wasn't here. I remember no such thing. I'm sure the neighborhood around the bookstore was once a perfect paradise of untroubled safety, inexpensive appliances, friendly little shop-keepers and polite teenagers. I accept as given that all this, and more, was once true. It is not the wistfulness engendered by the city's loss of innocence that rankles me, though I do wonder just how many of my interlocutors remember all of this as though it really was but yesterday true. Really? Only as long ago as that? And I do notice that none of my elderly neighbors wax sentimental, at least with me, about the jolly fun that was internment of local Japanese during "The War," or grow dewy-eyed for inflation, or Boeing lay-offs, or the like. And the only reason yesteryear ever seems to rise up is to show the contrast with The Ave. as it now is: dirty, diverse, funky, dangerous, dark and disgustingly unfamiliar. Well, well.

I don't say that I don't find the drunks that stagger the street disconcerting, or that the beggars and vagabonds seen beating their poor dogs on the sidewalk aren't a depressing reality, or that I might not like a friendlier tone after dark on a cold, wet, winter evening, but, damn it, I live in a city, a city mind you, and for me that means bookstores and bars and tacos and spring-rolls and theater and street musicians and street politics and, yes, street people, it means tolerance and cabs and galleries and museums and movies and concerts, and, yes, also the occasional flash of violence, god forbid, and a mugging now and again, it means crowded buses and shoplifters and corner poets and mad men and "loose joints?" on my way up the sidewalk, it means rudeness and noise and excitement and more than a little discomfort now and again before I'm snug once more at home.

The worst of the times for me now is not that this is not the little, white town I grew up in. I thank the stars above -- not that one ever sees them in Seattle -- that I do not live there anymore. No. The worst of the times for me is that someone, anyone, as a perfectly lovely little white lady did just yesterday, could still, when asking for a suggestion of a new novel, confide with a smile that what she did not want was "one of those awful (East) Indian things, with all that suffering and so on, you know" and go on to rule out fiction by a West African novelist, a Jamaican woman, and a suspicious sounding Turk. All the while, this old darling kept not quite saying just what she wanted, or what she meant not quite to say, even as she insisted she wanted "something new, something that I haven't read a hundred times before." Right. I wanted to accommodate her, and did, but I just could not escape that all too familiar nudge. I resented it, but it's not my place to ask her to stop it, not in so many words. It's retail, after all. Want to sell her a book. At last I found her a nice, safe, white Canadian. She seemed enormously relieved to learn there was no hint of sexual deviation, overt feminism, racial tension or prolonged suffering anywhere in the thing. I would have left her to it, and felt myself well done with her, had she not then had to ask:

"Know any place I can get a decent meal around here? And please God, not one of those awful Greek things! Know anyplace with just, you know, American food?"


Daily Dose

From The Apple Cart, by George Bernard Shaw


"Our country has produced millions of blameless green-grocers, but not one blameless monarch."

Magnus, from Act 1

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Masterpiece Comics

We don't see that many comics at the Used Books buying desk. There are two excellent, long established comic-book-stores in the neighborhood, and there are certainly many, many "fanboys" and comics readers through our doors at the bookstore regularly. Most of these seem to cross over into straight SF/Fantasy literature regularly, which might seem an obvious thing, as the superheroes and that sort of thing are kept upstairs with the science fiction and fantasy novels, but with the rise of graphic novels, "arty" comics and the like, comics no longer have just this exclusive audience. One would think then that, at least in a book-bound format, we would be seeing more of this sort of thing used than we do. We would welcome the best of these books, as we do the best books in general, but then, that may be the problem.

What constitutes a good book of "comix?" Hardly an area of expertise for me, or for my fellow buyers, though we've made an effort to learn, and we do have an excellent selection of front-list graphic novels and the like in our inventory against which we can measure what comes in used. This has proved the best way to judge most of the little we see, specially any titles that are not quite new: if our art-books buyer or our science fiction guru stock a particular series of Manga, or keep multiple copies of some Marvel anthology, or a graphic novel that is more than five years old, there is every chance that a clean used copy will sell.

And there have been titles, not so much rare in themselves, as they are rare in appealing to me. When such a book has made its way into inventory by my hand, with nothing to support it selection but my unexpected fancy for the style of the book, the quality of the drawing, or the unusual nature of the story, at least in graphic form, I've been as surprised as anybody. I've bought a graphic-history of the Acadians' diaspora, for instance, that finally sold a year or two after I bought it used, someone else finally finding it as interesting and well done as I did. Generally though, I've found my taste in the form, admittedly narrow, and even snobbish, is far from being the best guide to what will sell, and so I've kept largely to the criteria mentioned above.

It is a mistake of mine that I'm thinking about tonight. Not all that long ago, a large format, hardcover comic book came across the desk, in a whole box of similar stuff, and I passed on it without looking at the thing properly. It was a new release. We hadn't ordered it at the time, though new copies were subsequently ordered in and that is how I finally came to really look at the book, and regret my missed chance at a good, clean, used copy.

Masterpiece Comics, by R. Sikoryak, is a delightful collection of five comic books by this brilliant fellow. Let me see if I can, briefly describe the book. Actually, this is a bound collection of five separate comics, each a comic parody of a classic work of literature, each using a classic comic book to retell the story. For example, Crime and Punishment is here told over in the style of the original, boxy Bob Kane Batman. Or, to just to mention another favorite, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, in Sikoryak's version, features Little Lulu as Hester's love-child, Pearl!

Sikoryak's spoofs are letter perfect summaries then, of everything from Wuthering Heights (retold as one of the horror comics I loved as a boy,) to Waiting for Godot, as performed by Beavis & Butthead. And each comic book also parodies the visual style of the original comics artists with amazing fidelity. In fact, so perfect are Sikoryak's versions of even the old ads that appeared in the comic books of my youth, I nearly missed a couple of the best of these until I looked through the book a second time -- see the hilarious one suggesting that, "If You're 12 Years Old or Older, You Can Be a Thoughtful, Discerning LIT Salesman," done in exact imitation of the ad that nearly convinced me, when I was nearly that age, I could have a career selling comics one day. Delightful, as is every page of this brilliantly funny book. I grinned like an ape throughout.

And yet, I nearly missed seeing the book at all.

So to answer my earlier question, at least in part now, it seems that what constitutes a good, or even, as in this case, a great comic book, would be anything so good that even if I've missed it the first time, it can make me look a second and even a third time. Not that far from my definition of a favorite work of literature, really.

I may need to rethink, at least a little, my snobbishness about comix -- if not my seemingly inevitable disdain for those adults who read nothing else. What would the fanboys make of Sikoryak's "Little Dori in Pictureland?"

Daily Dose

From Selected Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier


"O playmate in the golden time!
Our mossy seat is green,
Its fringing violets blossom yet,
The old trees o'er it lean."

From My Playmate

Friday, November 20, 2009

"The Secret" Inspired Doodles

An Outlier Clerihew


Happy Malcolm Gladwell
Never had a bad spell,
Which just doesn't seem fair,
Considering that hair.

Daily Dose

From Herself Surprised, by Joyce Cary


"So it was every night. I even made it seem welcome to please the man, for I thought, if I must give him his pleasure, it was a waste not to give him all that I could."

From Chapter 36

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On the (Minor) Occasion of My One Hundredth Clerihew

Evidently, the only way to actually study the human brain properly is to have it out and then weigh, measure and pick at the thing, immediately postmortem. Seems a rather crude necessity, but for the time being, such is the state of science. As one might imagine, this seems to daunt most potential volunteers for study. I for one would be happy to know that my rather neglected skull-meat could at last be put to some worthy purpose, but even the logistics of such a donation make the likelihood that anyone will have much use for whatever is left up there after Elvis has left the building... slim. Many an organ, once "harvested" -- delightfully gruesome and apt verb, that -- can simply be pitched into an ice-bucket and then be all but mailed off in a shoe-box to new owners. But brains, at least in a fresh, uncooked and unpickled state, don't seem to travel at all well. (Thus perhaps the urgency with which zombies pursue a good meal, no?) So to really make a proper study of the damned things, --brains I mean, not zombies -- scientists require a stable population of willing donors, near to hand. Lucky for the rest of us, the good School Sisters of Notre Dame, bless 'em, in Ankato, Minnesota, a few years back, agreed to leave their brains to science, with the result that some genuinely important studies could finally be done. This research has been specially helpful in the study of Alzheimer's and aging generally, and while some of the preliminary conclusions would seem obvious, the Sisters are owed a novena or two for providing the raw material, for want of a less fun way to put it, for the serious study of the subject.

One such conclusion drawn from this research was, indeed, doing even such seemingly simple forms of mental exercise as the crossword helps to stave off senility. In fact, the more actively one stays engaged with language and the like, the likelier one is see out this life with more good brain than otherwise.

I bring this ghoulishness up because just today, I wrote my one hundredth clerihew here, an accomplishment so minor in the great scheme of things as to be well beneath the notice of even my dearest friends and supporters, were I not to point it out. I do so then simply as an example to others of how I hope even the most useless intellectual amusement, if practiced with happy regularity, may prove a benefit to the author, if nothing to speak of to literature. I was a great fan of the form, and of doggerel generally, well before I thought to attempt such a thing myself. Once in long-ago college, I wrote a limerick for each of the cast-members in a show that I worked on as the most humble, and useless of techs. Just my little tribute for opening night, as I could not then afford a single rose. Since then, I have now and again committed other offenses to the muse, to no higher purpose, though for poetry proper, I would be the first to admit, I have no gift. I took the clerihew up again, back in April, having quoted one or two by Auden, among others, with no thought but that it might be fun to try my hand. Rather like doing a crossword, I found the composition of these twee things addictive, and again without much forethought or any idea of doing good, I quickly found a genuine pleasure in the exercise before I quite realized that that was what it was.

As any regularly reader of my little squibs will recognize, the results have been uneven, largely forgettable, but at least occasionally, one hopes, amusing. Any road, I have amused myself with the doing. And that may well prove to be the only point, I realize now that I've reminded myself about the crossword-working-Sisters. (How else to justify the clerihew-habit, as it were?) Should I live then to what will be a surprising, and otherwise unearned ripeness of days, if I do not spend them vacantly fascinated by the motes in the middle distance, I may well have nuns and nonsense to thank for whatever mental acuity I manage to acquire or retain between now and the dark.

So you see? I am not so much wasting my time -- and yours if you've nothing better to read than this -- as extending the quality of at least my own life, and by the least taxing means imaginable! I've always been rather hopeless at crossword puzzles as I can not spell worth a tinker's damn, so it's a good thing I hit on writing pointless little poems, yes?

And let me close by suggesting that if I actually do hold off the all too probable ravages of dementia with a few scribbled rhymes, just imagine what a disciplined mind might do! Imagine a revival, to which I may have contributed here some small encouragement, of the dilettante tradition, stretching back even so far as the Roman Empire, populated as it was with poetasters even among its Emperors and least distinguished generals, and as far as the ancient samurai, of minor verse-making as a ladylike and gentlemanly hobby! (Bearing always in mind that the humble amateur, for such I am destined to always be no better than, should spare the world any but the simplest, and hopefully, forgivably light verse. No sagas please, or verse tragedies, or rap. History is already littered enough with such shavings and warped half-timbers from too many a hobbyist's work-bench. Better ships in a bottle, for this kind of thing, than something of noble intention that can only clutter the garage.)

As I've said, exercise, at least of the kind one can do without putting down one's cigarette or changing into embarrassingly brief costume, seems just the thing. Works for the nuns. Do try.

Daily Dose

From Doting, by Henry Green


"The whole party, on the night, settled down to their table in an establishment which had recently opened in the West End of London and where, whilst having dinner, you could watch all-in wrestlers, dancing or a floor show, at one and the same time."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Little Womanly Clerihew


Louisa May Alcott,
By some rationale, got
Paid less for the labor of her pen
Than any number of Little Men.

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Significance of the Frontier in American History, by Frederick Jackson Turner


"Mobility of population is death to localism..."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Brief History of Doodle Fights

Some years back, a member of the security staff at the bookstore found a doodle of mine at the information desk. A new pope had recently been elected and I found myself to be weirdly fascinated, not by the story, or by the fellow's new hat, but by his less than friendly mug. Deep dark little eyes he has, and a thin smile that suggests he may have just eaten a canary. I drew that man's face obsessively for a week or more; while on the phone, between customers at the desk, on any little scrap of paper. I was always careful though to toss these scraps of caricature away before I got myself into trouble with the faithful, or management. Just to be safe one day, while drawing the pope's wattle, I quickly transformed him into a turkey. The security guard found this most amusing, titled it "Turkey Pope," and taped it up on the private side of the information desk, next to another doodle by another's hand. In a moment of inspiration some days later, this same coworker then wrote out a third scrap of paper, with just "VS" on it, and taped this between the two drawings. Thus, as I remember it, were "Doodle Fights" born. Doodles came and went. The only rule being that some third party other than the persons posting a doodle, decided the contest. Eventually, a scorecard was kept, with the fights numbered and the winners in each "fight" highlighted. Doodles found on the sales floor had special value. Over the intervening years, there have been hundreds of Doodle Fights. I'm proud to count my own efforts as among the more popular -- though no one could defeat, for the longest time, dear K.'s purple dinosaur. I tried. K. is a graphic artist. Her dinosaur was quite beautiful and deserved it's laurels as the greatest Doodle Champion to date. Like most of the doodles posted, I've no idea what became of it. Shame, that. It deserved better.

Quite a few of my doodles were never intended to be entered in the Doodle Fights; these being all too recognizably likenesses of coworkers or regular customers who might take offense at my exaggerations. I do tend to leave little pictures regularly in my wake, and sometimes forget how unflattering my subjects may find them. I do try to be careful with such potentially insulting little sketches, usually offering a likeness to the subject, if familiar, first, and offering to destroy anything that is not found to be either flattering or amusing. The unfamiliar face, if interesting, may still be doodled, and even made to repeat outrageous things overheard, but this seems fairly harmless, so long as nothing offensive was intended. Still, caricature can be a dangerous hobby.

When I'd managed a bookstore, years before, I'd done large caricatures in pencil or ink of various authors and cycled these through poster-frames behind the cash registers. These proved to be quite popular with our regular customers, the few we had, and even with some visiting authors who happened by, though my drawings were not universally appreciated. (Amy Tan, squinting up at her likeness on the wall, asked, "Are my eyes that small?" and the late, and unlamented TV chef, Jeff Smith simply said, "Take that down.") Some of my pictures got me in trouble with The Powers That Be. A caricature of the then Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court rated a letter from an irate passerby to my boss suggesting the drawing was evidence of either A) a communist conspiracy and or B) "a deranged and encephalitic imagination." Never forgot that last. Had to look that word up. For the most part though, people seemed more amused by my pictures than not, and a few customers, and at least two authors, asked if they might buy a copy. I gave away the originals whenever I was asked, as they were too big to have copied, and of no real monetary value whatsoever. Once I even did a commission, of sorts. A local sports writer who frequented the bookstore asked me to draw a young baseball player named Barry Bonds, for gag presentation at a testimonial dinner. I found I couldn't quite draw a baseball bat -- an object almost entirely foreign to my experience -- and as a controversy was then raging daily over the Mapplethorpe exhibition at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., I instead drew Mr. Bonds holding a bunch of lilies, after one of the photographer's less explicit images, then being widely reproduced. Never did hear if Barry Bonds liked his picture.

A picture I drew, even earlier, never intending it for the general public, of Shirley Temple Black sitting in Richard Nixon's lap, was removed without comment from an employee-break-room and destroyed. Admittedly, this was about a week before America's Darling was scheduled for a book-signing at the store.

A number of kind admirers of my little pictures have suggested that I ought to keep a proper sketchbook, not draw as I usually do on bits of scratch-paper. Some have suggested I ought to make a little book of my sketches and grotesques. I've always been flattered by such attention, but I do these things first to amuse myself, and then to, hopefully, amuse a few others. I've never considered what I do with a pencil, most days, specially artful or deathless. Like my little bits of doggerel posted here, I'm happy if what I do produces a smile, and I feel quite triumphantly rewarded by any actual laughter I can elicit with just a doodle or a clerihew. They are equally minor amusements, I'd say.

Adding here some of my rare survivors from Doodle Fights and the mess of my desk, now that I have the means, seems a natural extension of my personal diversion. It's my sincere hope no one will think the worse of me for offering what are after all only rather harmless visual jokes. As I said, so I hope, anyway.

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Human Happiness, by Blaise Pascal


"The only religion which is against nature, against common sense and against our pleasures is the only one which has always existed."


Monday, November 16, 2009

A Brief Reading

This is my first attempt, on my own, to add a video to this blog. As I type, the machine tells me that the video is "loading." We shall see. If this works, I will do more. I hope everyone will bear in mind my utter lack of technological sophistication, and will forgive these first, crude efforts. With time and experience, I may become sufficiently accomplished as to actually make this a more regular feature here. I hope to. Wish me luck.

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Daughters and Rebels: The Autobiography of Jessica Mitford


"My mother was hard to pin down in theological discussions, 'Do you believe in Heaven and Hell?' I asked. 'Well, one always hopes there'll be some sort of afterlife. I'd like to see Uncle Clem again one day, and Cicely, she was such a good friend of mine...' She seemed to envisage the afterlife as a pleasant afternoon gathering where anyone might drop in."

Sunday, November 15, 2009